Monday, July 8, 2013

A WEDDING 1978

There are websites, documentaries, and touring museum exhibits paying deserved tribute to the legacy of the late, great Stanley Kubrick; a talented director the likes of which we're not apt to ever see again. But, as good as Kubrick was, no one could accuse the man of being a softie where mankind was concerned. In my film school, where every director was pigeonholed for convenience, Kubrick was dubbed "The Master of Misanthropy." The director I personally miss the most, one whose humanist contribution to cinema is most grievously felt due to its near-absence in the films of today, is Robert Altman. Altman was one of the directors I grew up on whose films I always respected even when I didn't always like them. In his dogged insistence on making the kind of movies he wanted to see (not what the market was buying), and branding each with a idiosyncratic stamp of personal integrity and artistic innovation, Altman was a reminder to me that not all mainstream directors gained success by underestimating the intelligence of their audience. Not feeling the need to spell everything out for us, Altman made movies that were smart and insightful, and, best of all, surprising!
Amy Stryker as bride, Muffin Brenner
Desi Arnaz, Jr. as groom, Dino Corelli
Never one to make films that fit into easy-to-label, marketable packages, Altman eschewed formulas and just told good stories. And when he didn't have stories to tell (something critics often accused him of) he had the audacity to think that there was something of value to be found in just training his lens on interesting and complex characters struggling to make some sense out of their existence. The entertaining uniqueness of Altman's work, for me, put an emphasis on the fact that a film’s performance at the boxoffice should be the last of a good director's concerns, not the primary. This is not to paint Robert Altman as a pure artiste who shunned wealth and fame in pursuit of his art. No, Robert Altman was an ambitious director who may have bristled at authority, but nevertheless actively sought success. It's just that his offbeat and iconoclastic resume of films proved that he cared about movies more.
Silent screen star Lillian Gish as Nettie Sloan, family matriarch and keeper of all secrets
Perhaps I’m just wallowing in idealized nostalgia here, but it says something about a director when even thier misfires (for me, they would be Beyond TherapyDr. T and the Women) are more interesting than most director's hits. In the economic landscape of today's film world, a world that demands movies appeal to the broadest audience possible, fewer films are being made that challenge, confront, or contradict the ways audiences already think. In that aspect alone, Robert Altman's sometimes-undisciplined, always-passionate style seems to be of another world. Were Altman around today, I could never imagine the independent-minded filmmaker to be one of these modern directors allowing themselves to be influenced and dictated to by the opinionated tweets and texts of preteen fanboys/fangirls.
Mia Farrow as Buffy Brenner, sister of  the bride with a doozy of a secret
Directors want their films to be successes because they wish to continue to making more films. Audiences, on the other hand, tend to want directors to keep revisiting the same success over and over again. Fans were disappointed when Robert Altman followed the success of M*A*S*H (1970) with the wildly dissimilar (not to mention unprofitable) Brewster McCloud (surreal comedy), McCabe & Mrs. Miller (revisionist western), and Images (psychological thriller). Likewise, after the critical triumph of Nashville (1975), audiences were thrown for a loop when Altman went all Ingmar Bergman on them with the enigmatic, 3 Women.
Thus, when in 1977 it was announced that Altman’s A Wedding was going to be a return to the all-star, multi-character, overlapping-dialog formula he had more or less patented with Nashville (but somehow failed to pull off with Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull’s History Lesson), expectations were understandably high. Alas, perhaps too high.
With a cast of characters double that of Nashville (48 to Nashville’s 24); stars as intriguingly diverse as Carol Burnett, Lillian Gish, Vittorio Gassman, Mia Farrow, Geraldine Chaplin, Dina Merrill, Howard Duff, Viveca Lindfors, and Lauren Hutton; all centered around an American ritual as ripe for satire as a society wedding…well, nothing could really live up to the potential of such an undertaking. And to many, that’s exactly what Robert Altman’s A Wedding proved.
Simply told, A Wedding is 24 hours of systematic disasters— familial, sexual, climatic, mortal, clinical, emotional, and physical— attendant a formal wedding uniting old-money society pariahs, the Sloan-Corelli clan, with the new-money, hayseed Brenner family. As poster ads for the film stated, “There is more than one secret at a wedding,” and Altman uses the socially-imposed falseness of a traditional wedding as an opportunity to give us a comedy of manners in which nothing is as it seems and everyone has something to hide.
Katherine "Tulip" Brenner (Carol Burnett) finds herself the object of in-law Mackenzie Goddard's (Pat McCormick) extravagant affections
Socialite Clarice Sloan (Virginia Vestoff) and Sloan household manager, Randolph (Cedric Scott) have been secretly involved for years
To wed wealthy Regina Sloan (Nina Van Pallandt) Italian waiter Luigi Corelli (Vittorio Gassman) has had to deny his past. Regina, following the difficult birth of their twins, has become a drug addict.
High-strung nurse Janet Shulman (Beverly Ross) tries unsuccessfully to keep Antionette Sloan-Goddard (Dina Merrill) in the dark about a death in the family.

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM:
I saw A Wedding on opening day in 1978. In a nearly empty theater in Hollywood I sat through A Wedding two times in a row, obviously in the minority in finding it to be a delightfully funny film that was even a little touching. (Note: Given the sheer number of characters and stories one has to keep straight, A Wedding is a film that actually plays out better and feels less frenetic with repeat viewings.) As satire, A Wedding is too superficial and broadly farcical to compete with Nashville’s more thoughtful and expansive delineation of America's politics as show business lunacy; but its ensemble comedy-of-humiliation predates the family dysfunction of television’s Arrested Development (including that program’s non-stop, full-frame activity that demands your constant attention), just as the camera’s penchant for capturing characters in moments of unobserved vulnerability anticipates today’s reality TV craze and the mockumentary style of Christopher Guest & Co. (Waiting for Guffman, Best in Show, For Your Consideration).
Former supermodel Lauren Hutton plays the head of a quarrelsome film crew enlisted to capture the events of  the wedding. Her cameraman is Allan Nicholls, co-screenwriter of A Wedding who also composed songs for and appeared in Nashville and many other Altman features. On sound is Maysie Hoy,  assistant editor on Nashville and 3 Women who appeared as an actress in several Altman films as well.

PERFORMANCES:
Altman’s movies tend to be exceptionally well-cast. I’m not sure how he did it, but he seemed to be capable of casting “to type” and “against type” simultaneously. In this chaotic, culture clash merging of the working-class millionaire Brenner family of Kentucky with the inherited-wealth Sloans of Illinois society, Altman makes things infinitely easier for us viewers by having the Brenner’s somewhat anemic-looking strawberry blonde and redhead family contrasted sharply with the reedy platinum and gold cool of the Sloans. Wittily, all the actors are cast in groups that believably look as if they could actually be related (Carol Burnett, Dennis Christopher, Mia Farrow, and the wonderful Amy Stryker are a particularly inspired example).
The actors all “look” like the types they’re supposed to embody, but Altman’s well-chronicled technique of getting actors to develop their own characterizations through improvisation and experimentation result in many amusing and surprising twists.
Geraldine Chaplin is superb as Rita Billingsly, the stressed out wedding planner
My personal favorite performances in A Wedding belong to Paul Dooley and Carol Burnett as "Snooks" and "Tulip" Brenner, the parents of the bride. Each realizes their characters so completely that one can effortlessly envision their lives beyond the parameters of the film

THE STUFF OF FANTASY:
A Wedding has been criticized by some for being plotless, but to my eye, contriving a situation wherein a wildly divergent group of people are forced to interact in ways both formally ritualized and circumstantially familiar, is very nearly an irresistible recipe for all manner of human drama. Plot structure can impose a sort of order to the messy business of life that may well be comforting to audiences, but isn't always necessary.  Sometimes a free-form film that exposes human foibles and follies without attempting to ascribe to such behavior meanings or patterns beyond those interpreted by the viewer, can in many instances provide a far more rewarding experience.
Ladies in Waiting
Mona Abboud, Marta Heflin, and Lesley Rogers check out the males 
Society doctor, Howard Duff, casually dispenses "feel good" drugs to ailing wedding caterer,Viveca Lindfors
Pam Dawber (here with Gavan O'Herlihy) made her film debut in A Wedding, playing a character 360 degrees away from her Mork & Mindy TV persona. Two years later, Mork himself (Robin Williams) would make his film debut in Altman's Popeye.    

THE STUFF OF DREAMS: 
A Wedding is a consummate example of Robert Altman's "comedy of proximity." He starts with a wide-angle view of some slice of Americana...a view glimpsed just far enough away so that we can comfortably impose upon these familiar people and situations, our preconceived notions about them. 
As Altman systematically draws us into closer proximity to the people (individuals we thought we "knew" by way of cultural stereotyping), we are forced to confront the fact that few of the people and almost none of the events are as we assumed them to be. The beautiful turn out to be pretty monstrous; the self-satisfied, the most delusional; the ones least suspected of having any value are in fact the most authentic. As layers of pretense and self-concealing  facades are eroded away (through comedy that often strips characters of their thin veneer of dignity) it becomes obvious that after being made to confront all we thought we knew about these people at the start of the film, we're left being made more keenly aware than ever, that in the end they are all just human. Not in any way different from us and the people we know. No better, no worse.
Robert Altman's biggest joke is how easily the bride and groom turn out to be the least important people at A Wedding
A Wedding ranks high on my list of favorite Robert Altman films. Its humor and take-no-prisoners view of humanity an acquired taste, to be sure. But it shows off Altman in particularly fine form, and it's a film that can still make me laugh out loud just as sure as its melancholy conclusion never fails to touch me. It's not Nashville, and it's not Gosford Park...but it's a worthy saga that falls (pratfalls, would be more like it) somewhere blissfully in between.

THE AUTOGRAPH FILES:
Pam Dawber
Carol Burnett dwarfed by the statuesque Ann Ryerson (as Victoria, a member of the Sloan family who wears a Greek toga and inexplicably addresses everyone in terrible French), and the lovesick Pat McCormick
Pat McCormick
Ann Ryerson - 1978
Inscription: "I'm more excited than you that you recognized me! I'm happy to sign this!"
Pam Dawber - 1980

Copyright © Ken Anderson

15 comments:

  1. I forgot all about this film! Will have to watch it again. Great post, as always!

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    1. Thanks, Thom! I think in 1978, people were so eager for Altman to deliver another "Nashville" that most reviews couldn't look past their expectations for what they hoped "A Wedding" would be enough to appreciate what it was. Definitely worth a second look, I think.

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  2. Oh, this is absolutely one of my favorite Altman films, so incredibly zany, both comic and tragic, full of richly detailed characters. I must have seen this one at least 12 times...as I write this, I am reminded of so many unforgettable moments...from the perfectly off-key rendition of Love is a Many Splendored Thing you used to hear at every wedding, to Howard Duff copping a feel of every female under 50 ("You had some ashes on your chest"), to Desi Arnaz's best man being a real friend by showering with him to sober him up...indelible movie memories!

    This is my favorite Geraldine Chaplin role...her wedding planner role has so many unexpected layers. And Nina Van Pallandt was never better than as the hophead mother, so reminiscent of O'Neill's Long Day's Journey into Night. Viveca Lindfors....neurotic and drunk....

    Thank you Ken, for bringing me this dose of "heavenly sunlight, heavenly sunlight, flooding my soul with glory divine!"

    -Chris

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    1. Hi Chris!
      Your post made me smile. Just in recounting these moments (all brilliant), I'm reminded of the wealth of memorable comic bits of "business" Altman was able to cram into this very funny, frenetic film. There are, indeed, so manY!
      You sound like a devoted fan and the examples you site are among my favorites, too. Especially enjoyed your observation (a very well taken one)likening Nina Van Pallandt's glassy-eyed mother to the mom in the O'Neill drama. I'd never thought of that, but it's perfect!
      And, thanks for getting that "heavenly sunlight" ditty caught in my head again. Every time I watch "A Wedding" it takes about two days for me to forget that song! :-)
      Thanks for sharing your favorite comic memories of this terrific film.

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  3. Argyle, here. Been trying to get my thoughts together on this one (unsuccessfully) so just wanted to agree that this is a fantastic film. Saw it on release and it went over my head, but ran into it not too long ago on TV and was mesmerized. The photography is so beautiful; as your screen caps attest, the women in particular all look amazing. Lauren Hutton, Dina Merrill and even Mia with her strange "Meet Me in St. Louis" hair. And Nina Van Pallandt, oh boy! Love her in "The Long Goodbye" too. If you take suggestions... Even Pam Dawber is interesting - amazing. And the Armour mansion is like another character. Do I remember a strange sequence where someone is hiding in one of the ivy-covered niches out front, their eyes or cigarette glowing in the dark? Altman can create such odd, funny moments that contribute so much to mood and atmosphere sort of subliminally. And Viveca Lindfors, so cool. I was obsessed (in a good way, I think) with Dennis Christopher in "Fade to Black" a few years later. Had forgotten that he was in this. That family! Thank you, Ken!

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    1. Hello Argyle
      I think I might know what you mean about A Wedding "going over your head" when you first saw it. On the heels of the rather thoughtful "Nashville" and "Three Women", I think audiences at the time were rather thrown by how silly and (deceptively) superficial "A Wedding" was, and didn't know what to make of it. Altman was being regarded as a serious director and this film to some was like a return to "Brewster McCloud" territory.
      It plays better with age, I think.
      And I agree that it's a beautifully shot with an amazing cast of beautiful women. I especially Viveca Lindfors (And until you mentioned it, I had never caught Farrow's hairstyle resemblance to Judy Garland's in "Meet Me...").
      I too adore "The Long Goodbye" and Van Pallandt is really gorgeous in it.
      I like how effectively Pam Dawber (who usually does absolutely nothing for me) comes across here. I always like it when directors tap into the dark side of celebrities with goody-goody images.
      Funny you should mention that sequence with the character with the glowing eyes, appearing as if out of nowhere from the ivy niche. It's actually an onyx statue with piercing white eyes, and when I saw this in the theater, the audience (small but attentive) gasped. It always stayed with me and is just a very minor camera trick that yielded a memorable effect. I even made a screen cap of it but had no place to use it in this post.
      Ah yes, and whatever happened to Dennis Christopher?
      Thanks, Argyle, for sharing with me the things about "A Wedding" you best remembered and those lost memories this post helped to jog!

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  4. I was up late last night re-watching Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean (probably not his best movie, but undeniably my favourite) and I woke up today craving some more Altman. I remember you writing about this movie on your blog so it felt like the perfect timing to watch it for the first time. I absolutely loved it. Never a dull moment to be found there's constantly a hilarious or intriguing moment happening on screen that one feels literally "glued to the screen". And I love that movies like this will be perfectly engaging on repeat viewings because with such a varied scope of characters and conflicts I'm sure there were plenty of wonderful moments I missed or were overshadowed. Robert Altman has more action going on than a Michael Bay movie.

    I feel like I should mention Marta Heflin, who turns in a heartbreaking supporting performance in Come Back to the Five and Dime, also appears in A Wedding but all too briefly. As a passionate actress-lover I admire and appreciate Altman's talent for casting unique actresses and utilizing their gifts. When watching his movies I'm always discovering new talent that I'm eager to see more of. I loved Geraldine Chaplin in A Wedding and as someone who’s been rather unknown to me I'm now curious to check out more of her work.

    All in all I just wanted to say thank you for introducing me to a new favourite and for writing so articulacy about it.

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    1. Thank you very much, Brad! So great to hear how much you enjoyed discovering "A Wedding"! All you say about the film is quite true in my opinion (I love the line about having more action going on than a Michael Bay movie) and I'm glad you gave a shout out to the wonderful Marta Heflin. If you haven't already seen it, i recommend you see her in Altman's "A Perfect Couple."
      And if you like Geraldine Chaplin, a serious must-see performance of hers is in the film "Remember My Name". That movie is just amazing.
      Thank you for your kind words!

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  5. p.s. Jennifer Jones had such nice teeth!

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    1. You get bonus points for remembering that line!

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  6. Hi again, Ken!

    I just wanna say, that this is probably the best theatrical film Carol Burnett's ever done (besides "Annie", natch ;P). Have you seen "HealtH", her other theatrical film with Altman? (He also directed her with Amy Madigan in the 1985 HBO film "The Laundromat ;P). In any case, here's a YouTube link :) youtube.com/watch?v=WbKa4r2Nm5o

    Thanks!

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    1. Yes! Being a big fan of both Carol Burnett & Glenda Jackson, I was so looking forward to "HealtH" when it was supposed to come out, then when it was shelved, I had to wait until the 90s to see it on cable or something.
      I know it's not a perfect film, but I really enjoy it (much more than Altman's big success MASH). What a cast! Thanks for the link in case some other Altman fans aren't aware it's on YouTube!

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    2. Couldn't think of another place to ask, but I think it would be super if you do a post on 1974's "The Front Page", not just because of Carol (natch), but also from it being a remake, a later Billy Wilder film, a slightly-lesser known Matthau/Lemmon pairing, not to mention it being yet another entry in the 70s nostalgia craze. It sure would connect to a lot of the other films profiled on here :)

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    3. Thanks for suggesting a very interesting idea. And especially for taking into consideration all the variables that would make it something of a natural for this site.
      You're right in that it's a slightly lesser-known Matthau/Lemmon pairing...no one ever seems to talk about it. Also, I'm notorious for seeing movies several times, but I haven't seen that one since 1974 when I saw it at the theater.
      You've sparked my interest in seeing it again. Thanks!

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