Friday, April 27, 2012


 “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
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.

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.

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 matter how foolish and inconvenient it was for me...I've always seen to it that you were satisfied. What more do you want?

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


* Spoiler Alert! Major plot points are divulged for critical discussion and analysis.

For the most part, I don't see anything inherently wrong in a film morphing from one kind of entertainment into another over the course of its "screening life." By this, I mean movies—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 into something that gives pleasure to countless hundreds in new, totally unexpected ways (i.e., unintentional humor or high camp).
Rhoda Has Intimacy Issues
Some movies, like John Huston's The Treasure of Sierra Madre (1948) and George Stevens' A Place in the Sun (1951), feel as powerful today as I imagine when first released. Then there are those movies dismissed or misunderstood in their own time (Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo, Orson Welles' Citizen Kane, Charles Laughton's The Night of the Hunter) that receive the benefit of revisionist reassessment.  
But occasionally, a movie just seems to take its place in our collective consciousness as a work superficially cloaked in the trappings of its time. Though they may be about such timeless human issues as love, death, survival, and hope, the matter in which those issues are addressed can brand the film as hopelessly dated. 
For Adults Only - No One Will Be Seated During the Last 15 minutes
A "Catch Your Breath" Intermission at Each Screening!

One of the earliest legit films to actively advertise itself as suitable for "Adults Only," The Bad Seed was taken to task for what many perceived to be its sensationalist and misleading ad campaign. Criticism was leveled at the film's advertising copy and graphics that hinted at sexual impropriety being at the core of the film's big secret ("The most terrifying rock-bottom a woman ever hit for love!").

Not surprisingly, the type of movies most susceptible to becoming relics of their time are those most determined to be daringly up-to-date upon release. A surefire recipe for instant obsolescence is to take over-emphatic, up-to-the-minute immediacy, multiply it by sensationalism, and add a dash of self-seriousness. The result is usually something so mired in a particular time, place, and mindset that it becomes near-impossible to take seriously in any of the ways originally intended. 
The Bad Seed's roots in old-fashioned theater are reinforced by its often stagy blocking  

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 of the play was recruited to recreate their roles for the 1956 film adaptation.
Nancy Kelly as Christine Penmark
Patty McCormack as Rhoda Penmark
Eileen Heckart as Hortense Daigle
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 standing around talking for fitfully long stretches while engaged in a lot of theatrically fussy "stage business." The combination of the minimal action and close-up lens trained on The Bad Seed only served to amplify the dubious premise of its plot (hereditary homicidal tendencies) while failing to add much in the way of either verisimilitude or spontaneity to the progressively melodramatic proceedings.
Henry Jones as Leroy Jessup
Evelyn Varden as Monica Breedlove
William Hopper as Kenneth Penmark

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, blessed with girlish grace and good manners. But, when Kenneth is called away to Washington for business, Christine (who appears to be 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 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. It 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.

The Torment of Truth
Paul Fix as Christine's father, Richard Bravo
-telling her she might want to table those plans for a family reunion-

The Bad Seed was a sensation on stage, but almost too much for the screen. The play's original twist ending had to be retooled so that evil didn't prevail, plus a tacked-on coda was introduced that had the entire cast return (even those who didn't survive) to give the screen equivalent of a curtain call bow. When I was a kid and The Bad Seed scared me senseless, this "See, it's only make-believe!" addition did what it was supposed to do; save the film from being too disturbing and grim.  
As an adult, that silly roll call ending just feels like such an odd choice, the way it wrenches you out of the drama before you're even ready.
Topically The Bad Seed benefits from the uniqueness of its narrative perspective. Though horror movie screens overflow with little monsters now, I can't readily think of another film before this that dared deal with the topic of a child being capable of murder. Despite this novelty, The Bad Seed is ill-served by how deeply the plot (and far too much of its dialogue) is entrenched in then-novel, now-outmoded Freudian psychological theorems. As a result, a great deal of emotional drama gets submerged beneath reams of expository dialogue. And while the suspense and tension are generally well-handled, its overall effectiveness is undermined by some of the performances' overwrought and overrehearsed theatricality. 
Joan Croydon as Miss Claudia Fern 
Clearly, Miss Fern already harbors suspicions about Rhoda.
But isn't that always the way...the parents are
always the last to know their kid's a homicidal maniac

I couldn't have been much older than Rhoda when I first saw The Bad Seed on TV (which is also likely the last time I ever took the film seriously), and I recall it being quite the shake-up experience. I was raised in a middle-class neighborhood where 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.
Jess White as Emry Wages / Gage Clark as Reginald Tasker

Although I was a fan of horror movies as a kid and loved to be scared, I must say I didn't mind that the deaths of little Claude Daigle or handyman Leroy were never shown in The Bad Seed. My fertile 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. My strongest memory is of Rhoda's final trip to the boathouse. It was spooky enough that she was out alone at night in a rainstorm, but I thought maybe her maddeningly clueless father would 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.
Frank Cady as Henry Daigle 
A medal should be awarded to anyone who can see this actor and not think of General Store owner
Sam Drucker of Green Acres, The Beverly Hillbillies, and Petticoat Junction. I certainly can't.

Youth and naiveté definitely have their advantages with some movies, so at least I get to say that I had one pure, unironic experience of The Bad Seed before the unintentional laughs set in and The Bad Seed, almost imperceptibly, went from serious to hilarious in my eyes.

Granted, the film's pitch 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. 
The patent phoniness of Rhoda's "good little girl" act is so obvious it instantly brands the adults in the film as idiots. However, it also simultaneously turns Leroy into the film's clear-eyed hero and the collective voice of the viewing audience. Happily, the gradual inability to take The Bad Seed seriously only made the film more watchable, not less.
"Have you been naughty?"

In real life, it takes little effort for me to see most children as monsters. But making them look menacing on the screen is extremely difficult. The 1976 film The Omen neatly sidestepped the pitfall the wan 2006 remake fell into (headfirst) by framing the action in ways that left the child's evil nature ambiguous. In the original film, the child behaves normally, leaving the audience to project whatever it wanted onto his angelic, inexpressive pan. In the remake, someone got the bright idea to have the child actor perpetually scowl and glower into the camera...the result being the surely-unwanted effect of making it look like little Damien is perpetually suffering from a devil of a tummy ache. What makes Patty McCormack so memorably creepy in The Bad Seed is that she's like a schoolyard bully dreamt up by Murder, Inc.
The only reason this scene gets laughs is that Patty McCormack is scarier than hell in it. Who'd ever think a little girl in pigtails and a pinafore could make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up?

These days, when the bratty behavior of children is endorsed, encouraged, and regarded as business-as-usual in every sitcom and movie comedy, I wonder if a film like The Bad Seed would even work today. Indeed, the superb thriller We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011) is an excellent example of how a "bad seed" scenario can be handled in a serious and dramatically compelling way. 
But Rhoda Penmark is both a product of her time and a victim of it. 
The ladylike decorum expected of little girls in the '50s is so passe, everything about Rhoda comes across as anachronistically comic, severely undercutting her intended menace. In movies today, little girls who look like Rhoda Penmark are the victims of girls who look like Wednesday Addams. 
Monica Breedlove, the Freudian landlord, is a particular favorite of mine.

The gift that keeps on giving when I watch The Bad Seed now is that Rhoda's brattishness calls to mind so many pop-culture icons of bad Neely O'Hara and Alexis Carrington. Her outbursts and threats make me giggle, not just because one doesn't expect such malevolence coming out of a child kitted out to resemble a Chatty Cathy doll, 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. I'm thinkin' Madonna or Kanye West.
The Original Material Girl

Nancy Kelly and Eileen Heckart give the kind of robust, herculean performances that usually garner Oscar nominations, and indeed both (along with McCormack) were, in fact, nominated for Academy Awards. Both are really very good, though neither actress lets up "acting" for even a second. Kelly's stylistic excesses and singsong way of conveying sincerity may induce laughter, but her character's anguish is really affectingly played. Heckart has some great material to work with, 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 what an absolute marvel she 10-year-old Patty McCormack. Although her performance is over-rehearsed to within a hairsbreadth, her Rhoda is an alternatingly chilling and hilarious characterization that has deservedly become iconic. An audaciously dark depiction of youthful duplicity—imagine Leave it to Beaver's Judy Hensler as a serial killer—Rhoda absolutely refuses to listen to anyone's drummer but her own. The way she exploits and subverts the expectations of traditional gender roles to her personal advantage feels like an act of guerrilla rebellion against the impossible image of female perfection and passivity she only superficially embodies. Rhoda Penmark is one of cinema's classic villains.
Leroy, Sex Bomb
In much of The Bad Seed's intentionally misleading publicity campaign, Leroy, the maintenance man, was presented in the context of some kind of sexual indignity suffered by the heroine 

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 Jane shoes? (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 camouflaged anarchy let loose on idealized "normalcy." 
Like many a con man, crooked politician, or 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 sort of thing. The reliability of appearances and the rigid adherence to societal roles were very real in the '50s, making it easier to accept that everyone buys into Rhoda's too-good-to-be-true act. 
The screenplay of the wholly forgettable 1985 TV remake of The Bad Seed failed to consider how much society's perception of childhood had changed post-Rosemary's Baby, The Omen, and The Exorcist, making the updated version come across as more antiquated than the original. 
A better remake, in spirit, if not in actuality, is The Good Son, a 1993 against-type departure for the unaccountably popular Macaulay Culkin.
You Gon' Die

Despite 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!" containing "The most chilling moment the screen has ever unleashed!" is, for me, now mostly an enduring camp staple. And though I'm aware that The Bad Seed continues to freak out entirely new generations of first-time viewers fortunate enough to catch it while they're still of an impressionable age (before their cynic genes kick in), my joy comes from familiarity. Make that overfamiliarity.
I still watch The Bad Seed often, each viewing being a somewhat home-grown MST3K experience where my partner and I talk to the screen, recite lines of dialogue, and affectionately laugh at the self-seriousness of it all. 
In her adult years, actress Patty McCormack has embraced The Bad Seed's cult/camp statusShe frequently appears at screenings, judges Rhoda look-alike contests, and answers questions about making 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 mindset, not the performances.
In the Censorship Code-sanctioned denouement, Rhoda returns 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 saw 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 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. 
The Bad Seed opened on Broadway on December 8th, 1954

Popping up now and again on YouTube and definitely worth the watch is the fabulous 1963 Turkish remake of The Bad Seed titled Kötü Tohum. Starring real-life mother and daughter Lale Oraloğlu and Alev Oraloğlu, it's a very well-made adaptation that hews closely to Maxwell Anderson's play but deviates from it in the most compelling ways. 

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) fails to get into the spirit of things.

Possibly the most egregiously off-the-wall of the many misleading ads concocted to market what was apparently very a difficult-to-market movie. Seriously, what were they thinking when they dreamed this one up?

Copyright © Ken Anderson  2009 - 2012

Friday, April 13, 2012


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 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.

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
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." 

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 Curram) 

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 behind the scenes. 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"
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  2009 - 2012