Friday, April 27, 2012

HARRIET CRAIG 1950

 “When she was good she was very very good, but when she was bad she was better.”

If ever there was an actress about whom the above quote applies (wholeheartedly and in all its transmutations) — it’s Joan Crawford: one of the few actresses I find equally fascinating whether she’s delivering a good performance or gnawing at the scenery. An actress capable of sometimes astonishing emotional subtlety, what with the quicksilver flashes of tenderness or wounded vulnerability those fabulously expressive eyes of hers could convey; she was equally enjoyable as an over-the-top, tough-as-nails, slightly mannish, bitch-goddesses. 
Harriet Craig, the story of a woman who takes the role of housewife to its literal and tragic extreme, is a film that had been on my “must see” list since the early '80s when someone informed me that Crawford’s daughter Christina (she of the incendiary Mommie Dearest) recommended it along with Queen Bee as the two films to see if you wanted to get a glimpse of what the real Joan Crawford was actually like. Already acquainted with the extravagant camp of Queen Bee, I finally got to see Harriet Craig back in 2007 when TCM hosted a Joan Crawford marathon.
The verdict? Well, as a representative page carved out of the post-Mommie Dearest Joan Crawford mythos, Harriet Craig doesn't disappoint. On the contrary. The film is full of so much melodrama and overheated emotion that for long stretches of time it feels as if you’re watching Joan Crawford as Faye Dunaway portraying Joan Crawford. Harriet Craig (the third screen incarnation of George Kelly’s 1925 Pulitzer Prize-winning play Craig’s Wife) is in many ways the quintessential Joan Crawford vehicle. Drawing upon little more than the same standard-issue icy imperiousness she brought to almost all of her post-MGM roles (regrettably, she doesn't slap anyone here, but that’s about the only thing missing from her usual arsenal), Joan Crawford and her grande dame of the screen image are so perfectly suited to Harriet Craig, it feels as though the role had been written expressly for her.
Joan Crawford as Harriet Craig
Wendell Corey as Walter Craig
K.T. Stevens as Clare Raymond
In all matters practical, Harriet Craig is the perfect wife. Beautiful and poised as a hostess, attentive and spuriously deferential to her adoring husband Walter; Harriet runs their tastefully elegant upper middle-class home with the efficiency and warmth of a science lab. In that curious definition of “housewife” indigenous to the moneyed set, Harriet neither cooks nor cleans, raises no children, and has no job. She merely spends every waking hour running roughshod over the harried staff of housekeepers (servants, as she likes to call them), even going so far as to engage Clare, her grateful, poor-relation cousin, as free labor. All in the service of creating the perfectly clean, perfectly orderly, perfectly loveless home. Trouble arises when Harriet, fearful that a job promotion for her husband might loosen the short tether she has kept him on for the entirety of their marriage, attempts to broaden the scope of her manipulation.
Harriet Craig's cousin Clare, pretty much where Harriet likes to keep her at all times

The possessive title of Craig’s Wife, which both the 1928 silent (now considered lost) and the 1936 Rosalind Russell film adaptations retained, hints not only at the original play’s dated mindset, but subtly of its narrative thrust. In both versions Harriet is obsessed with her image and social position and goes to extreme lengths to prevent her name (that of being Craig’s wife) from being involved in any scandal.
Much in the manner that the title of Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler suggests the emotional remove of its protagonist from her married identity of Hedda Tesman, the revamped Harriet Craig is less about a woman’s fear of losing her social status as it is about her full and complete fixation on the marriage state as a means of obtaining emotional and financial security for herself. The husband is merely a means to an end.
Craig's Law
"Marriage is a practical matter. A man wants a wife and a home, a woman wants security."

Updated for the '50s, Harriet Craig wisely jettisons a distracting murder/suicide subplot that figured significantly in Craig’s Wife and instead settles itself firmly in traditional Crawford territory: a domineering woman attempting to manipulate the lives of those around her. Though melodramatic in structure, this suburban domestic cautionary tale is directed with an appealingly light touch by Vincent Sherman (who also directed Crawford in The Damned Don’t Cry and Goodbye My Fancy), getting overall relaxed performances from the cast that contrast to good effect with Crawford’s appropriately starchy overemphasis.
Mr. Craig, feeling amorous; Mrs.Craig, sizing up the matrimonial checks and balances
  
WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
A common criticism leveled at the film adaptation of Mommie Dearest was that its screenplay appeared to have been cobbled together from old Joan Crawford movies. Looking at Harriet Craig it’s hard to argue that point. The fictional Harriet Craig is every bit the neat-freak obsessive that Crawford was made out to be in real life, complete with a poverty-motivated backstory not dissimilar to Crawford’s own. So closely does Harriet Craig hew to our common perception of Joan Crawford as an anal-compulsive nightmare, entire scenes of Harriet going ballistic over some housekeeping transgression could be excised, colorized, and inserted into Mommie Dearest with disconcerting ease.
The Help
Housekeepers Mrs. Harold (Viola Roche) and Lotite (Ellen Corby) in a rare moment of peace
Mrs. Harold- She is particular.
Lottie- Particular? She's peculiar! I bet if she had her way she'd wrap up this whole place in cellophane.

And therein lies one of the essential guilty pleasures of Harriet Craig (and to the same degree, Crawford’s Queen Bee): it’s like watching Mommie Dearest with the genuine article. I like Crawford very much when she’s good, but she is untouchable playing bad. She is such a raving monster in Harriet Craig that the DVD would not be out of place in a store's horror movie section.

  
PERFORMANCES
The much-maligned Joan Crawford is one of my favorite actresses. Even taking into account her mannered acting style and the severe, exaggerated appearance she adopted as she matured, to me she remains the most consistently interesting of the classic leading ladies of the silver screen. Truth in fact, I think I like her to a great extent because of her stylistic excesses. It’s often said of Crawford that she was more a movie star than an actress, but I’ve never found her to be any more one-note than respected studio-system stars like Cary Grant, Katherine Hepburn or Humphrey Bogart. I just think it’s a matter of taste. Personally, I never had much of a stomach for Cary Grant and find him to be one of the more arch and artificial stars (to borrow a line from Singin’ in the Rain) in the Hollywood firmament. Crawford, for all her studied emoting is a fascinating screen presence, and while only occasionally genuine, is always interesting.
Harriet is made somewhat sympathetic by having the motives for her compulsions rooted in being abandoned by her father at a young age and seeing her mother (Virginia Brissac) deteriorate into dementia

Like most that have achieved and sustained movie star status, Crawford’s screen persona and perceived private personality were so intrinsically intertwined that, intentionally or not, her roles came to be imbued with a voyeuristically autobiographical essence. A phenomenon with Crawford’s work that has oddly increased, not lessened, over the years. There’s no way to watch Harriet Craig today without being continually hit in the face with the Crawford mystique. When scenes are not suggesting some passage from the Mommie Dearest canon of obsessive perfectionist, they’re recalling the haughty shrew characterization she fairly patented in the look-alike films that come under the heading “Joan Crawford vehicles.”
It must have been a Crawford contractual stipulation to have at least one shot where a band of light illuminates her eyes while the rest of her features remain in shadow. I seriously can't think of a Joan Crawford film I've seen without it.

THE STUFF OF FANTASY
Were I writing about Harriet Craig back in the '60s or '70s, I would be declaring the film outdated and its heroine hopelessly out of touch with the ways men and women interact. But here we are in 2012 and Harriet Craig’s rather cold-blooded philosophies seem to be depressingly right in step with the times. In a comment to my previous post on The Bad Seed, a reader observed how the confidence and sense of entitlement displayed by Patty McCormack’s Rhoda would likely make her a CEO in today’s world. Similarly, I think Harriet Craig’s calculating pragmatism when it comes to love and marriage would today land her a bestselling book deal and make her the darling of the misguided, post-feminist set drawn to reality-TV contests in which women strike bargains to be snapped up by so-called eligible bachelors, or read books that provide "rules" for getting a husband. Making the talk-show circuit, Harriet's 1920s philosophy would no-doubt be seen as "empowering." 
The Rules meet The Bachelor: 1950s style
Harriet- Oh, stop yelling! What are you complaining about? You've had your share of the bargain.
Walter- Bargain? I never thought of our marriage as a bargain.
Harriet- Every marriage is. You wanted a wife to run your house and make you comfortable. Well haven't I done that? Have I ever neglected you? I've kept myself attractive and seen to it that you were never bored. Whatever you wanted...no matter how foolish and inconvenient it was for me...I've always seen to it that you were satisfied. What more do you want?

THE STUFF OF DREAMS
In appraising Joan Crawford’s Harriet Craig side by side with Rosalind Russell’s Craig’s Wife, I’d say that Russell’s is unquestionably the better performance (Russell’s performance actually gave me waterworks at the end), but Harriet Craig is the better film. The changes made to the original plot result in a tighter narrative and clearer central focus: Harriet’s pledge to herself never to wind up like her mother. What it loses is largely due to the lack of depth in either Crawford's performance or the screenplay. Crawford's Harriet is perhaps too steely to inspire much in the way of empathy.

Still in all, the film is a fascinating look at the somewhat superhuman expectations placed upon women in the achievement of the suburban ideal (add a couple of kids, a nicer disposition, and some genuine feeling for her husband, and she’s basically the perfect wife), and in a way, shows what happened to the role of the film noir femme fatale after the war—she became queen of the house.
A House is Not a Home

Copyright © Ken Anderson

Saturday, April 21, 2012

THE BAD SEED 1956

For the most part, I don’t see anything inherently bad in a film morphing from one kind of entertainment into another over the course of its “screening life.” By this I mean, films - a populist entertainment/art form presumed of a certain marketable topicality at the time of their release, are, by nature, vulnerable to the vagaries of time. A movie can start out as one kind of entertainment—say, thoughtful social drama—but, due to changing public tastes, evolve over time into something that gives pleasure to countless hundreds in new, totally unexpected ways (e.g., high camp).

Some films, like John Huston’s The Treasure of Sierra Madre (1948) and George Stevens’ A Place in the Sun (1951), feel every bit as powerful and affecting today as I imagine they did to audiences some six decades ago. While other films, dismissed or misunderstood in their own time (Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter) benefit from revisionism and the kind of clear-eyed, contextual reassessment of art only possible with the distancing effect of time. But more often than not, older films just take their place in our collective consciousness as works superficially cloaked in the trappings of their time. Dated vehicles addressing otherwise timeless concerns of love, death, humanity, and hope. If the emotions are true and the stories compelling, we don’t necessarily care if the costumes are out-of-date, the dialog archaic, or style of filmmaking passé; the movie still works in the ways originally intended.

What seems to play havoc with a film’s continuing relevance is a non-scientific equation that takes over-emphatic, up-to-the-minute immediacy, multiplies it by sensationalism, and adds a dash of self-seriousness. The result is usually something so mired in a particular time, place, and mindset that they become near-impossible to enjoy or take seriously on any of the levels once deemed effective. We see it in highly-stylized dramatic films from the '30s and '40s; where stage-bound acting techniques (characters speaking into the distance rather than to one another, over-broad gestures and facial expressions) have a distancing effect on our ability to become involved in the narrative. In these instances, a film’s elder status becomes an intractable element contributing to how it is viewed by contemporary audiences. A variable which establishes the terms and boundaries of its broader acceptance.
When psychoanalysis was new, juvenile delinquency in its infancy, and post-war conformity at its height, Maxwell Anderson’s Broadway 1954 play The Bad Seed (adapted from the 1954 novel by William March) must have been quite the eye-opener. A thriller about a sociopathic 8-year-old serial killer sounds like a weed among the roses in a Broadway season that saw the premieres of Peter Pan and The Pajama Game, but the chillingly original premise and by-all-accounts remarkable performance of little 9-year-old, anti-Shirley Temple, Patty McCormack, made The Bad Seed into a solid hit. Co-star Nancy Kelly won the Tony Award for Best Actress that year, and in a rarity for Hollywood, virtually the entire principal cast was recruited to recreate their roles for the 1956 film adaptation.

But not everything that plays well across the footlights survives the magnification of the movie screen. Suffering from a perhaps too-faithful adaptation that had characters doing nothing but conversing for fitfully long stretches while engaged in a lot of theatrically fussy “stage  business,” the close-up lens trained on The Bad Seed seemed to amplify the dubious premise of the plot (hereditary homicidal tendencies) while doing nothing to add verisimilitude or spontaneity to the progressively melodramatic proceedings.
Nancy Kelly as Christine Penmark
Patty McCormack as Rhoda Penmark
Eileen Heckart as Hortense Daigle
Henry Jones as Leroy Jessup
Navy Colonel Kenneth Penmark and wife Christine seem to have the ideal child in their little Rhoda: an angelic, near-perfect package of pigtails and ruffles, adorned with girlish grace and good manners. When Kenneth is called away to Washington for business, Christine (who’s wound a little tight from the get-go) begins to suspect that Rhoda’s immaculate façade isn’t perhaps masking a more disturbed, darker personality dysfunction. The mysterious death of a local schoolboy and Christine’s own epiphanic discovery of her birth lineage lead her to believe that little Rhoda might be a budding serial killer: a possessor of a hereditary “bad seed” gene passed on to Rhoda by Christine herself. What to do? What to do? What to do?

Al Hirschfeld
I make light of the preposterous-sounding premise, but quite honestly, when removed from the gimmicky “serial killer gene” plotline, The Bad Seed is pretty solid thriller material and might have even tapped into the post-war/ McCarthy-era “banality of evil” zeitgeist of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (released the same year) had it managed to sidestep the theatrical histrionics and showed more faith in presenting a dark vision of idealized suburban perfection.
* Spoiler Alert! If you've never seen The Bad Seed, read no further. Run, don't walk, and get your hands on a copy of this film NOW! You're in for a treat. Come back later...we'll still be here.

I personally love the Hays Code-mandated, tacked-on ending  that has God’s retribution striking down little Rhoda in the middle of her most Godless act (in the play, Rhoda lives and it's the mother who dies), but feel it would have been even more powerful without the survival of the mother and her guilt-leaden hospital bed confession.
Thematically, The Bad Seed is ill-served by how deeply the plot (and seemingly interminable chunks of dialog) is mired in outmoded Freudian psychological theorems. Stylistically, its effectiveness as a suspense thriller is undermined by an overwrought theatricality that turns every scene that should be gripping melodrama into a satire of American suburban ideals.
Although not easy to make out, that little crinoline blur in the upper left-hand corner of this screencap is an airborne Rhoda, avoiding the passive-aggressive spray of  the garden hose Leroy (Henry Jones) is intent on training on her plot-significant Mary Jane shoes.

I couldn’t have been much older than Rhoda myself when I first saw The Bad Seed on TV (definitely the last time I ever took the film as seriously). I was raised in a middle-class neighborhood during a time when kids were brought up to be seen and not heard. To be obedient and polite, to say "Please" and "Thank you," and to never, but NEVER speak back to grownups. So it shocked the hell out of me to see a little girl who could have stepped out of an episode of Father Knows Best or Leave it to Beaver behaving so monstrously. The idea that a kid could exert any power over their own lives at all was alien enough, let alone plan and carry out vicious murders with nary a trace of remorse.

I certainly didn’t mind that the deaths of little Claude Daigle or handyman Leroy were never shown (something unthinkable today, especially if that talentless hack Eli Roth makes good on a long ago threat/promise to remake this film) because my fertile kid’s imagination furnished all the gory details. I remember being very torn up by the grief of Eileen Heckart’s Mrs. Daigle and the sound of the gunshot near the end nearly sent me flying off the sofa. The strongest memory I have is of Rhoda’s final trip to the boathouse. It was spooky enough that she was out by herself at night in a rainstorm, but I thought maybe her maddeningly clueless father was going to wake up and catch her red-handed with the medal. That bolt of lightning hit me like ...well, a bolt of lightning. OMG! I had NEVER seen a kid killed in a movie before and that image stayed with me for many a nightmare.
Evelyn Varden portrays annoying landlady and neighbor, Monica Breedlove. 
Naiveté definitely has its advantages with some films, so at least I get to say that I had one pure experience of The Bad Seed. Perhaps the closest one can get without time-traveling back to 1953.
Over the course of the next several years however, The Bad Seed, almost imperceptibly, went from serious to hilarious in my eyes. The pitch of the film had always been a little high, but with maturity, the passing of time, and changing tastes, The Bad Seed started to look as dated and reactionary as one of those “social guidance” films of the '50s and '60s. A turn of events that’s had the curious effect of making The Bad Seed more watchable, not less.


WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
Although I consider a great many real-life children to be monsters, I think it’s extremely difficult to make them look menacing on the screen. The 1976 film The Omen sidestepped the pitfall the wan 2006 remake fell into (headfirst) by framing the action in ways which left the child’s evil nature left ambiguous. In the 1976 film, the child merely behaves in a normal fashion and the audience is left to project whatever we wanted onto his angelic pan. In the remake, the child actor is directed to continually glower into the camera...the result: the surely-unwanted effect of a child suffering a tummy ache rather than the conveyance of a subterranean malevolence within the spawn of Satan. What makes Patty McCormack so memorably creepy in The Bad Seed is that she's like a schoolyard bully dreamt up by Murder, Inc.
"You better bring them back here! Right here to MEEEEEEE!"

The only reason this scene gets laughs is because Patty McCormack is scarier than hell in it. You can't believe a little girl in pigtails and a pinafore can make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up.
These days, when the bratty behavior of children is business-as-usual in every sitcom and movie I see (seriously, the sociopath at the center of the 2011 thriller We Need to Talk About Kevin is indistinguishable from and no more horrific than today's average over-entitled teen ...which may be the point) little Rhoda Penmark comes off more like a miniature Alexis Carrington than homicidal maniac. Her outbursts and threats make us giggle certainly because of the incongruity presented by her size and appearance contrasted with her behavior; but also because she’s carrying on in a way we’ve long come to associate with grown-up entertainment industry brats and divas. Rhoda is rude, ruthless, selfish, self-involved, single-mindedly determined to get what she wants, and impervious to the suffering of others. Now, who doesn't think that sounds like Madonna or Elton John?
The Original Material Girl
PERFORMANCES
Nancy Kelly and Eileen Heckart give the kind of robust, herculean performances that garner Oscar nominations, and indeed both (along with McCormack) were in fact nominated for Academy Awards. Both are very good but neither actress lets up “acting” for even a second, making every ill-tempered intrusion by McCormack a welcome one. Kelly’s stylistic excesses and singsong way of conveying sincerity may induce laughter, but the anguish her character goes through is really rather affectingly played. Heckart has some great material and much of it she plays with real poignance, but a little too much theatrical “drunk” shtick creeps into the characterization for it to avoid the occasional lapse into overkill. The film’s true star and absolute marvel is 10-year-old Patty McCormack. Although her performance is over-rehearsed to within a hairsbreadth,  her Rhoda is a hilariously two-facedcreation an identifiable hyper-phony like Leave it to Beaver's Eddie Haskellwhose absolute refusal to behave in accordance to her appearance (and gender) feels like an act of guerrilla rebellion against the stuffy middle-class blandness surrounding her. Rhoda Penmark is one of my favorite movie villains. The film positively drags whenever she’s not onscreen.
Rhoda has intimacy issues
THE STUFF OF FANTASY
No longer a viable suspense thriller (not for me, anyway), The Bad Seed does work remarkably well as a satirical black comedy of American paranoia in the mid-'50s. McCarthyism took root when post-war America was just starting to look within its own backyard for threats to the so-called "American Way of Life." What did it find? Well, juvenile delinquency, for one. And what else is Rhoda but a steely-eyed juvenile delinquent in Mary Janes? (OK, a juvenile homicidal delinquent, but I’m trying to make a point.) As the perfect little angel who’ll stop at nothing to get that coveted Penmanship Medal, Rhoda is unassuming anarchy let loose on the stiff, airless “normalcy” of the falsely idealized world inhabited by the adults.
Like many a con man, crooked politician, and gangster throughout history, Rhoda manages to get away with murder (heh-heh) by presenting a false (but reassuring) front of conformity. Everyone is so slow to pick up on the rather obvious clues of Rhoda’s guilt because….well, little girls just don’t do that. If The Bad Seed were to be remade, possibly with Rhoda's guilt left ambiguous for much of the film, the drama would have to hinge on Rhoda making people uncomfortable by her too-perfect adherence to the image of the "good little girl", or by a reluctance to accept how she could ever be be anything other than what her image projects. (1985 saw a predictably unsubtle and over-obvious TV remake...a waste of time.)
Little Rhoda Penmark having one of her "moments"

THE STUFF OF DREAMS
In spite of its daringly original premise and first-class credentials, I’m afraid the movie that once promoted itself as “The most shocking motion picture ever made!” and containing “The most chilling moment the screen has ever unleashed!” is now an enduring camp staple, no more frightening and every bit as riotous as this scene of holy terror Jane Withers laying into Shirley Temple in 1934’s Bright Eyes (YouTube link). 
In her adult years, actress Patty McCormack has embraced the cult/camp status of The Bad Seed and frequently appears at screenings, judging Rhoda look-alike contests, and answering questions about the making of the film (her DVD commentary offers a wealth of behind-the-scenes info). Mining the camp-factor, the play version of The Bad Seed has become a favorite of 99-seat theater productions, often with an adult male cast as Rhoda. People seem to have a deep affection for The Bad Seed, either due to childhood exposure to the then-frightening film, or a later-in-life cult appreciation for the way the laughs come at the expense of the film’s sincere over-earnestness and '50s mind-set, not the performances.
In the Censorship Code sanctioned denouement, Rhoda goes back to the pier to retrieve the coveted Penmanship Medal and gets more than she bargained for. In the play Rhoda survives while her mother commits suicide.

Some time ago I had the chance to see a stage production of The Bad Seed and was surprised to discover that one of the big shocker set pieces of the play was a nocturnal walk through the house by a restless Christine after the death of Leroy. It’s a stormy night full of thunder and lightning, and as Christine moves to close an open window, a flash of lightning reveals the charred corpse of Leroy lunging out at her. It must have a been a big "gotcha" moment back in its day, but on the night I attended, the actress playing Christine had so much trouble lifting the window blind, she was ultimately obliged to politely hold the stubborn curtain aside to facilitate her own persecution. Matters weren't helped by Leroy missing his key light, leaving him thoroughly in the shadows, resulting in Christine appearing to be engaged in hand-to-hand combat with her living room curtains. 
More shocking than anything you'll see in the film itself is this bit of mind blowing behind-the-scenes cheesecake showing prim Nancy Kelly keeping the crew "entertained" between setups (more likely, giving her gams some air on the hot set). Meanwhile, Joan Croydon (Miss Fern) doesn't seem to be getting into the spirit of things.
Hard-to-argue-with logic
"But it was his fault. If he gave me the medal like I told him to, I wouldn't have hit  him!"
Copyright © Ken Anderson

Friday, April 13, 2012

DARLING 1965


I've a limited exposure to the British New Wave—that post-war cultural movement in theater, literature, and film which propelled the lives and concerns of working-class England to the forefront and ushered in the '60s vogue for socially conscious kitchen-sink dramas like Look Back in Anger (1956) and Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960)—but of the few films I have seen, most have been distinguished by their decidedly testosterone-laden, male-centric perspective. So much so that in a great many cases, the “Angry Young Man” genre description could just as well serve as a plot synopsis. 
In these films, the leading men are depicted as a rebellious, restless bunch, ofttimes violently chafing at the constraints of the British class system. Meanwhile, the the women are largely portrayed as either fun-killing domestic drudges standing as ball-and-chain obstacles to the hero’s independence, or sexually available conquests whose troublesome biology (they do get pregnant at the most inconvenient times!) brands them potentially dangerous anchors to a life of lower-class squalor.
The "Honeyglow" Girl
The ideal of the modern woman
Not to discount Look Back in Anger in its entirety, but I loathed the passive roles played by Mary Ure and Claire Bloom. Ure’s submissive doormat reminded me of nothing more than Wilma Flintstone as the browbeaten housewife in the teleplay, The Frogmouth. By contrast, I very much liked Simone Signoret’s worldly older woman in Room at the Top (1959) and Rachel Roberts’ complex widow in This Sporting Life (1963). But for all of their depth and dimensionality, neither character (tellingly, perhaps) came to a particularly good end. It ultimately took doe-eyed Rita Tushingham in Tony Richardson’s marvelous A Taste of Honey (1961) to provide a welcome change-of-pace from all this masculine disagreeableness shrouded in societal disillusionment. In my narrow experience, Tushingham’s spirited Manchester teen remained the lone feminine voice of the Brit-based genre until one day when I happened upon John Schlesinger’s Billy Liar (1963) and that force of nature known as Julie Christie.
Julie Christie’s entire role in Billy Liar can’t amount to more than ten minutes of screen time, but as the easygoing, independent-minded Liz (a girl so unlike the other clingy, provincial, ready-to-wed women in the film as to be another species of being), Christie emerged the only one I even remembered. The frank simplicity of her performance, coupled with her refreshingly open, guileless glamour, proved to be something of a bellwether moment in the British New Wave. A turning point of sorts, in the evolution of women in British cinema. Come the mid-'60s, the reversal of England’s post-war economic decline signaled a gradual abandonment of these sparse and spartan tales of social oppression. Instead, Northern England’s working-class suburbs were replaced by the burgeoning mod scene of swinging London, and the by-now familiar class rebellion commentary gave way to observant social satires taking pot shots at provincialism, consumerism, and the emergent dominance of youth culture.
Julie Christie as Diana Scott
Dirk Bogarde as Robert Gold
Laurence Harvey as Miles Brand
Roland Curram as Malcolm
Although the years have softened its bite somewhat, John Schlesinger’s Darling is a darkly comic, corrosive criticism of the swinging London jet set as embodied by its blithely self-centered, casually amoral, unrepentantly superficial heroine. Julie Christie’s Diana Scott is a London model possessing looks, self-confidence, charm, vivacity, ambition… in short, she personifies everything contemporary society deems worthwhile to possess. She’s everyone’s darling, and, as the pop lifestyle magazines are quick to point out, the world is hers for the asking. Unfortunately, Diana’s outwardly appealing free-spirit independence is born of a rootless, restless dissatisfaction; a nagging internal deficiency her beauty and instinct for opportunistic survival conspire to help her to ignore. As the film ends, Diana, who is always looking out for herself, is ultimately left with just herself.

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
Perhaps because of all the macho bullying behind so much of it, I’ve never much warmed to the whole “Angry Young Man” genre. Angry Young Woman…now that’s another matter. Only two films come to mind: the above-mentioned A Taste of Honey; and the rarely-mentioned 1985 Meryl Streep drama, Plenty. A film that,  while not technically an example of the genre, is a wonderful female-centric perspective of post-war British disappointment.
There is no obvious Angry Young Woman in Darling, but there is something akin to rage at the center of what is eating at the never-satisfied-for-a-moment Diana. You see it in today’s films. Those romantic comedies where women are characterized by how much they shop and the label of the clothes on their backs. The films where the women are near perfect physical and intellectual specimens, yet their very "femaleness” is a weakness that dooms them to relationships with doofus schlubs like Seth Rogen. Those awful Sex and the City films where the over-privileged girlfriends can’t stop complaining or bemoaning their first-world problems for a minute and just count their blessings…it’s the same thing (Indeed, Diana Scott would fit right in with Carrie Bradshaw and her “I want it all, but I'm pretty sure I won't be fulfilled when I get it” tribeswomen).
Sexual liberation yields little more than serial dissatisfaction
I don’t know about you, but when I see compulsive consumerism of the sort engaged in by women in today’s films as some sort of empowering birthright, I can’t help but feel there are some real hostilities and angers being repressed and swallowed up in this obsession with fashion. I can’t believe the battlefield of women’s liberation has become the local outlet store. 
What I like about Darling is how relentlessly it lampoons this culture we have fashioned for ourselves that sells people ideas of "lifestyles" rather than encourages us to find an actual life. Like a similar character played by Jacqueline Bisset in the 1970 film The Grasshopper, Christie’s Diana Scott has been led to believe that “liberation” is a complete lack of ties to anything. Even herself. As she flits from one dissatisfying situation to another, it never dawns on her that she has been sold a prepackaged, consumerist bill of goods as to what real freedom and happiness is. The chic trappings of the swinging lifestyle promoted by mod London are chiefly beneficial to the shopkeepers, stores, and businesses. For Diana, climbing the ladder of upward mobility ultimately offers her nothing more than increasingly sumptuous surroundings to feel desperately lonely in.
Having it All
PERFORMANCES
I’m mad about everything in this film, but Darling is far from being the favorite film of many. Some find it dated, others complain of the satire being too heavy-handed; even the late john Schlesinger stated in later years “(Darling) seemed altogether too pleased with itself” and claimed his film was guilty of “epigrammatic dialog” that came off as self-consciously hip. Where all opinions converge and most everyone is in agreement (even Schlesinger) is on the topic of Julie Christie's star-making performance. So natural a presence that the film takes on the feel of documentary whenever she’s onscreen. You can't take your eyes off of her.
I've always wondered if the career of popular '60s British actress Judy Geeson (To Sir, With Love, Bersek) was either plagued or assisted by her more-than-passing resemblance to Julie Christie 
An entire generation fell in love with Christie because of this film and it’s not hard to see why. In this her Oscar-winning role, Christie exhibits that appealingly straightforward quality that would characterize her entire career. She displays an incredible range and finds the humanity and humor in a character not exactly likable. It’s always interesting when a smart actor plays a not-very-bright character. Christie doesn’t condescend in her portrayal of the shallow Diana. She conveys the character’s intellect in terms of a keen, almost animal awareness of knowing which way the wind is blowing and shifting her sights accordingly. Julie Christie is just a marvel here and endlessly resourceful in getting us to know more about a character who knows absolutely nothing about herself. 
It's difficult for me to think of Darling as being dated when Julie Christie's Diana Scott is just another talentless, self-promoting, arrogantly ignorant, opportunistic phony. You know,  like any one of a number of today's Kardashians, Lohans, Snookies, and regional "housewives." 

THE STUFF OF FANTASY
In films with lead actresses as talented and drop-dead gorgeous as Julie Christie, it's not uncommon for the male characters to fade into the background. Not so with Darling. In fact I can’t think of a film with a more solid, impressive, and eye-pleasing male cast. As a nice change of pace, the men in the cast are, by and large, more sensitive and emotionally needy than the heroine. Few actors have combined suave masculinity with vulnerable sensitivity as persuasively as Dirk Bogarde. As television reporter Robert Gold, Bogarde’s grounded sincerity (so easily read in his expressive eyes) casts a by-contrast harsh light on the frivolous affections of Christie’s Diana.
Diana (Christie) allows her vulnerabilities to show with her friend Malcolm (Roland Curran) 
Of course, the terrific Laurence Harvey (a delight in 1959s Expresso Bongo) makes for a rakishly reptilian—and surprisingly sexy—competitor for Diana’s affections, but Roland Curram in the role of Diana’s photographer friend, Malcolm, really made me sit up and take notice when I first saw Darling. For not only is the character of Malcolm funny, handsome, and a good friend, but Malcolm is that rare of rarities: a likable, non-tragic, non-campy, unapologetically sexual, gay character. In a film made in 1965, no less! As the only genuinely decent character in the film, his scenes with Christie are refreshingly convivial and the only times her character ever appears to relax into herself.
Diana and her Gays
Darling was one of the earliest films to depict gay characters in a sympathetic light
Strangely, for a film with such a progressive attitude towards homosexuality, it seems the closets were full to bursting on the set of Darling.  Matinee idol Dirk Bogarde was deeply closeted yet engaged in a brief fling with openly gay director John Schlesinger during the making of Darling (according to authorized Schlesinger biographer William J. Mann). Bogarde enjoyed a 40-year relationship with his agent, Tony Forwood, but invested considerable energy (throughout several autobiographies) in portraying himself publicly as a heterosexual. John Schlesinger harbored hopes that his friend, Roland Curram, might be inspired enough by his role in Darling to come out of the closet. Amused by his friend's presumption, Curram always insisted on his heterosexuality and went on to marry and later sire two children. In 1985, on the occasion of his divorce and ultimate coming out to his family and himself, Curram stated, “Of course, I told John later that he was right.”


Unfaithfully Yours - Diana's twin deceptions
Robert: "Your idea of fidelity is not having more than one man in bed at the same time"
  
THE STUFF OF DREAMS
I first saw Darling in 1980, by which time you’d think the film’s satirical slant would have lost its edge. That at least would be expected. The scary (and sad) thing is that while the jabs have lost their bite due to over-saturation, the chosen targets are nevertheless every bit as wanting of lampooning today as they were in 1965. I find it uncanny that the social absurdities Darling poked fun at 52- years ago (TV commercials, fame whores, liberal hypocrites, self-righteous homophobes, promiscuity for profit, the myth of “having it all”, etc.) are still a prominent part of our pop-culture landscape.
Darling is the film that made stars of both Julie Christie and John Schlesinger. Schlesinger's next film would be his last with Christie; the big-budget adaptation of the Thomas Hardy novel, Far From the Madding Crowd (1967). After which he would go on to make the classics: Midnight Cowboy, Sunday, Bloody Sunday, and The Day of the Locust. Schlesinger  passed away in 2003.

Julie Christie is a legend, of course, and the promise of Darling has been realized in film after film throughout her career. Few actresses get to become iconic stars; fewer still owe it all to introducing to the cinema a new image of womanhood. There are many remarkable actresses around, but there is only one Julie Christie...she is in a class by herself.

Copyright © Ken Anderson

Friday, April 6, 2012

THE SHINING 1980

In 1980, if you were of R-rated moviegoing age and among those who first got a glimpse of that unforgettably chilling, minimalist classic of a theatrical teaser trailer for The Shining; there was no way in hell you weren't going to see the movie. (1980 Teaser Trailer for The Shining on YouTube)
If I remember correctly, I first saw the trailer at Hollywood’s Mann’s Chinese Theater as early as December of 1979 or January of 1980 (The Shining was released in May, 1980 to kick off the Memorial Day weekend). Then, as now, the average movie trailer hewed to the familiar pattern of sensory bombardment combined with the suspense-killing, full disclosure of each and every plot point that might  have rendered the film even remotely intriguing (the term,“spoilers” didn't exist). The trailer for The Shining deviated so significantly from the prevailing standard that when first appeared that famous static shot of the twin elevator doors, accompanied by that eerily intensifying discordant music, the theater became so still you could practically feel the collective pupils of the eyes in the audience dilate all at once.

In 1980 Stephen King was not the household name he is today so the floating title, “The Shining” drew little response. It was only when Stanley Kubrick’s name was revealed that the crowd joined together in what can best be described as an aggregate, apex-of-the-rollercoaster, intake of air. At the same time—as nothing had yet happened onscreen beyond the music growing increasingly agitated and ominous— a pervasive air of, WTF? mushroomed throughout the theater like a vapor.
And then, the slow-motion torrent of blood began to spew forth from the elevator shaft. Oh…My…God. All at once the thudding soundtrack was drowned out by a consolidated, rising-tide of “Whoooooa!” from the audience that lasted until the now-bloodstained screen once again displayed the film's title. A second or two of stunned silence was followed by applause, animated chatter, and delighted giggles of the sort usually associated with a children's birthday party after a magician has pulled off a particularly startling bit of trickery. On the strength of this one remarkably classy, 90-second trailer, coupled with the anomaly of an Oscar-nominated director of Kubrick’s stature venturing into the realm of horror, over the course of the next few months The Shining became the movie to see. 

When the Saul Bass-designed poster for The Shining began appearing all over Los Angeles, the film immediately jumped several points on my personal "Cool-o-meter" (I took this pic in April of 1980 on The Sunset Strip in front of the famous Whisky a Go Go during its short-lived punk phase)
I was especially hopeful about The Shining, inasmuch as I have always loved a good scare at the movies but had grown increasingly dismayed by 70s horror films’ over-reliance on gore and their tendency to think of shock cuts as viable substitutes for suspense and atmosphere. Considering both Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971) and Barry Lyndon (1975) to be, if not exactly masterpieces, then certainly masterful, I sincerely believed that Kubrick’s The Shining had the potential to be the Rosemary’s Baby or The Exorcist of the '80s.

Jack Nicholson as Jack Torrance
Shelley Duvall as Wendy Torrance
Danny Lloyd as Danny Torrance
Scatman Crothers as Dick Hallorann
Barry Nelson as Stuart Ullman

If ever you want to get both the best experience of a movie, yet at the same time the least reliable impression of how that film will actually perform at the boxoffice, go see it on opening day. I attended an evening show of The Shining when it opened on May 23, 1980 at Mann’s Chinese Theater in Hollywood.  The turnout was amazing. The crowds stretched around the block, past the parking lot, and into the nearby residential neighborhood. All of us waiting in line (some as long as three hours) were geared up for the scare of our lives, positive we were going to be among the first to see the big blockbuster hit of the summer. Fanning the flames was an enormous blow-up of Newsweek magazine’s rave review of The Shining (“The Ultimate Horror Movie!”) displayed in the theater’s forecourt. When the ushers came to release the velvet rope, I’m sure our faces had about them the look of vague genuflection, as though we were being granted a supreme privilege rather than just being allowed to see a movie we’d just paid for.

Original Ending
I was lucky enough to have seen The Shining before Kubrick mandated the excising of the scene that takes place after Jack freezes to death in the maze, but before the final shot of the photograph in the Overlook Hotel lobby. The deleted scene, which adds another layer of "What??!!?" onto an already maddeningly enigmatic conclusion, had a suspiciously solicitous Stuart Ullman (the hotel manager) visiting Wendy and Danny in a hospital where Wendy is recovering from shock. Wendy is interested in hearing if any evidence had been found at the hotel of all that she had recounted to the authorities. Ullman informs her that while the bodies of her husband and Hallorann had been recovered, there was no evidence in the hotel of any of what she had reported as having seen or occurred there. 
He insists that she must have suffered some kind of breakdown and that it was all in her mind. After this I seem to recall his making an offer for Wendy and Danny to move in with him, and (this was the kicker) before he leaves and out of Wendy's view, he hands Danny the yellow tennis ball that had earlier materialized out of that mysterious room 237.
Personally, I LOVED this ending and preferred it to the one which now stands, but I seem to be alone on that score. I went to see The Shining again the weekend after its opening and the scene had already been deleted.

There’s a point at which one’s expectations for a movie can be so high that, on first viewing, you’re not responding to the film so much as reacting to whether or not the film has met or dashed your hopes. Such was the case for me on first seeing The Shining. So keen was I on The Shining being the epic horror film the pedigree of its cast and director augured, that when it proved itself (only) to be an intelligent, superbly well-made, largely effective horror thriller, I was disappointed. 
And from the feel of things, so was the opening night audience. The electric tension that greeted the film’s early scenes over time gave way to a funny kind of mistrustful hesitancy in not knowing how to respond to the minimum horror and maximum attention to visual style. Let down by the film’s lack of cover-your-eyes scares, the eager-to-be-entertained audience instead zeroed in on the burlesque of Jack Nicholson’s performance. As Nicholson trotted out the entirety of his even-then overfamiliar arsenal of arched eyebrows, Cheshire cat grins, and baroque overplaying, the audience assuaged its sense of letdown by losing itself in the film's mood-killing,dubiously intentional black comedy.
It's very difficult for an actor to convincingly portray drunkenness or insanity without resorting to overacting and cliche. In The Shining, Jack Nicholson has the dual challenge of playing an alcoholic driven to madness (as Nicholson plays it, it's a pretty short trip). 

Taking their cue from an actor who didn’t appear to be taking things seriously himself, the audience started to find everything Nicholson did funny. Even when he wasn’t trying to be. The Shining began to pick up and find its rhythm by the latter third, but by then the audience had already been lost. The crowd leaving the theater that night was a considerably more subdued and bewildered one than had entered. By the end of the 3-day Memorial Day Weekend, word of mouth had more or less undermined all the good the trailer and the film’s sizable advertising budget had done, and The Shining limped along for the rest of the summer, a modest success, eclipsed at the boxoffice—proportionately by budget—by that other summer horror film release of 1980 (God help us), Friday the 13th.
Ultimately, time, cable TV, home video, and the overall decline in the quality of horror films over the years, has allowed for a more clear-eyed, fair-handed assessment of The Shining’s virtues. Today it is widely regarded as a minor classic and one of the Kubrick's most highly regarded films. Me, I like it a little more every time I see it, finding it easier to appreciate what Kubrick was trying to do when I no longer filter it through what I wanted him to do.


WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
Stanley Kubrick is perhaps a little too removed a director to engage me emotionally in the way necessary for me to be made to feel real fear (the way Roman Polanski can), but there is something ideally chilling in the setup of a vaguely dysfunctional family holed up for an entire winter in an isolated hotel that may or may not be haunted. Where Kubrick really excels is in creating indelible images (the elevator scene alone qualifies the film for classic status), developing tension, and establishing a world wherein events proceed on a collision course of horror that feels devilishly preordained, yet the particulars of what is real and why it’s all happening are open to any number of interpretations. Letting his meticulously evoked intermingling of the paranormal and the supernatural propel the plot, The Shining is almost willful in its ambiguity. (And don’t let anyone convince you that there is a single “right” way to interpret The Shining. Part of the film's brilliance - and no small part of its frustration to many - is how well it supports many different, perfectly valid interpretations.)

The Torrances: One big, happy family.

PERFORMANCES
Jack Nicholson has been a star for so long that it’s easy to forget that in the years following his 1975 Oscar win for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, many thought that Nicholson had fallen victim to the dreaded “Oscar Curse” (later dubbed The F. Murray Abraham Syndrome)— a downward-trajectory jinx that befalls the careers of many Academy Award winners. Jack Nicholson’s hammy and/or ineffectual turns in the late 70s flops The Missouri Breaks, The Last Tycoon & Goin' South, played like dry-runs for his over-the-top performance in The Shining, and critics were less than kind. Until just recently, I’ve always felt that Nicholson single-handedly ruined The Shining and that Kubrick afforded him far too much leeway (as he did Peter Sellers in Lolita). Even today I can’t say that I’m fully persuaded by Nicholson in the role, but I’ve since warmed up to his particular acting “choices” for his portrayal of Jack Torrance. The common complaint that Nicholson's Jack Torrance looks plenty crazy before he's even driven insane in The Shining echo a similar grievance leveled at the choice of actor John Cassavetes for the husband in Rosemary's Baby. To critics in 1968, Cassavetes looked guilty of something before his character even did anything.
On the flip side of my feelings about Jack Nicholson is my affection for the popularly-unpopular choice of actress Shelley Duvall. I think she is terrific in The Shining and any emotional engagement I have in the film at all is attributable to her pitch-perfect performance. Perhaps I’m prejudiced, but I’ve liked Duvall in everything I’ve seen her in…especially her Oscar-worthy work in Robert Altman’s 3 Women (1977).  
The casting of actress Shelley Duvall in the role of Wendy Torrance rates high on the list of controversial Kubrick choices. Even her co-star weighed in on the decision: 
“I said, ‘Shelley Duvall?! What’s the idea, Stanley?’ And he says, ‘Well, you gotta have somebody in that part that maybe the audience would also like to kill a little bit!’”
Interview with Jack Nicholson by Nev Pierce for Empire Magazine 
If critics didn't appreciate Duvall in The Shining, they more than made up for it with the raves she garnered later that year playing the part she was born to play: Olive Oyl in Robert Altman's Popeye (1980)  

THE STUFF OF FANTASY
  The Overlook Hotel as envisioned by Kubrick and his team is one creepily spectacular location for a horror film.

THE STUFF OF DREAMS
As opposed to what I enjoy most about good horror films, The Shining never hits me where I live in terms of tapping into some deep-seated fear and giving it a face. The single scene that accomplishes this is the brilliant "All work and no play" reveal of Jack Torrance's insanity (which hit me with the same jolt  that the Scrabble anagram sequence in Rosemary's Baby did). What I think The Shining has that keeps me returning to it and what has caused it to consistently rise in my estimation, is that it's terribly smart and thoughtful in its construction. There are worse things you can say about a horror movie than that it is one of ideas. 
The Shining has perhaps more head than heart, but its predetermination has an intrigue and attraction all its own. Whether it feels like a treatise on the eternal nature of evil, a dramatization of domestic violence, or just a vision of a family going mad together, it makes me want to watch every corner of the frame, listen to every detail of dialog, literally scour the film from start to finish in hopes of uncovering the "key" to what it all signifies. In the end, The Shining may not have much to say about the many questions it proposes, but a movie that provokes thought, any kind of thought, is always a step in the right direction.
Promotional postcard for the truly atrocious 1997 TV miniseries -The Shining.
 The Stanley Kubrick film began to look a lot better in people's eyes after author Stephen King tried his hand at adapting his own novel. 

Copyright © Ken Anderson