*Spoiler alert. This essay gives away key plot points
Much in the manner in which Warner Bros. cartoon character Elmer Fudd is compelled to use words teeming
with the very Ls and Rs he's unable to pronounce (his Owivia DeHaviwand
being a particular favorite); Hollywood during the Production Code era
(1934-1968) just couldn’t keep away from “adult”-themed projects it had no
reasonable hope of adequately interpreting.
Dramatist and screenwriter Lillian Hellman had her first
major theatrical success in 1934 with the banned-in-Boston stage hit The
Children’s Hour: a shocking-for-its-time play in which the two
headmistresses of a tony girls’ boarding school have their careers and lives
ruined by the spread of the malicious rumor that the pair are in fact illicit lovers in a lesbian relationship.
When William Wyler first adapted Hellman's play for the screen in 1936, the show's scandalous reputation was such that not only was a title change mandated
(The Children’s Hour became These Three), but "the lie with the ounce of truth" was changed from the whisper of lesbianism to the more socially palatable rumor of heteronormative
adultery. Instead of an accusation of being in love with each other, the two
women were now accused of (yawn) being in love with the same man. And lest one think this a Hollywood cop-out of the highest order, know that it was Lillian Hellman herself who approved and adapted the screenplay of the 1936 version for the screen.
Hellman's almost word-for-word-faithful adaptation of her play for Wyler confirmed her oft-repeated claim that The Children’s Hour was not really about lesbianism so much as the pernicious
power of a lie. "The bigger the lie, the better," Hellman affirmed. A point of view she would gain a great deal of first-hand experience with when, in 1952 she was blacklisted in Hollywood for refusing to name names to the House Un-American Activities Committee; and later in 1979, charged with falsifying the details of her memoir, Pentimento. (Author Mary McCarthy [The Group] on Hellman: "Every word she writes is a lie, including 'and' and 'the'!")
Mademoiselle de Maupin by Theophile Gautier
A salacious seed is planted in the minds of the girls when they read the scandalous 1834 French novel in which a woman disguises herself as a man and has affairs with both sexes
In 1960, in an effort to rectify the
compromises he felt imposed upon him by MGM and the Hays Code in 1936, William Wyler returned to The Children's Hour vowing to make a more faithful version of the play. Taking advantage of the permissive atmosphere of the times, Wyler even went so far as to say he’d be willing to release his film without the MPAA seal of
approval if need be. (Many newspapers at the time refused to carry ads for films lacking the Production Code seal. Similarly, many theaters wouldn’t exhibit non-approved films.)
Whether it was due to Wyler’s pronouncement that his remake was to be “A clean film with a highly moral story!”,or the casting of ladylike Audrey
Hepburn as the fem half of the whispered-about duo (Wyler:“We don’t want
bosoms in this!”), the studio heads ultimately relented and The Children’s Hour
was green-lit for production. Provided, of course, that the word “lesbian” never be uttered, and that there be no demonstrative sexual contact of any sort.
Yep, certainly sounds like those 1936 compromises were put to rest by 1961.
Audrey Hepburn as Karen Wright
Shirley MacLaine as Martha Dobie
James Garner as Joe Cardin
Fay Bainter as Amelia Tilford
Miriam Hopkins as Lily Mortar
Coy as it seems
today, The Children’s Hour was
written at a time when it was illegal to even make mention of homosexuality in
a Broadway play. The show’s ultimate success somehow surmounted public moral
outrage, allowing for it to become one of the first Broadway plays to feature a LGBTQ character. Similar honors went to Wyler’s 1961 film adaptation, with
Shirley MacLaine being one of the first major stars to play a gay character in
a motion picture; albeit just barely. Change was obviously in the air in the early '60s, as
several other gay-themed films arrived in theaters within months of The Children’s
Hour’s release: Dirk Bogarde’s Victim, Otto Preminger’s Advise
& Consent, and Tony Richardson's A Taste of Honey with Brit fave Murray Melvin making his film debut as a sympathetically portrayed gay teenager.
The Hateful Eight...er, 12-year-old
Making her film debut, Karen Balkin as Mary Tilford
Karen Wright (Hepburn) and Martha Dobie (MacLaine) are two
college chums now partnered in the ownership and operation of a girls’ boarding school. After years of struggle, the school, catering to the
adolescent daughters of well-to-do families, appears at last to be up on its
feet. So much so that Karen, engaged for the last two years to local doctor Joe
Cardin (Garner), at last feels free to marry. A decision which doesn’t set well
with Martha, who outwardly expresses her displeasure as simply the fear that marriage and motherhood will lead to
Karen’s abandonment of the school.
The pair’s heated discussions and platonic entreaties
of love and loyalty on the topic are overheard and misinterpreted by Mary Tilford
(Bakin), a troublemaking student whose compulsive lying and disobedience has made
her the frequent object of discipline. In spiteful retaliation for one such
upbraiding, Mary tells her grandmother (Bainter) that Miss Wright and Miss
Dobie are lovers, and that she has seen them kissing and engaging in all manner
of nocturnal hanky panky.
Before long, the lie concocted merely to avoid the consequences
of a rule infraction mushrooms into a scandal which closes the school and makes
a shamble of the lives of three innocent people.
Given the director, it comes as no surprise that The
Children’s Hour is a handsome, well-crafted, and finely-acted film of almost
irresistible watchability (like All About Eve, The Children’s Hour
is one of those movies impossible to channel surf past, no matter how far along
into the story I catch it). I don't know if there is such a thing as a "William Wyler movie," as he has always struck me as one of those industry professionals devoid of an identifiable style, but he is noted for producing consistent quality work. Auteur or not, I do know that William Wyler movies occupy a lot of space on my DVD shelves: Roman Holiday, The Heiress, The Little Foxes, Funny Girl, The Letter, and of course, The Children’s Hour; a film whose every frame supports his reputation for vivid storytelling and extracting superior performances from his cast. The Children's Hour was the no-win recipient of five Academy Award nominations (supporting actress, cinematography, costume, art direction, sound).
Children Will Listen
For all its technical distinction (the lighting, editing, and shot compositions are really something to be applauded) and the high-drama content of its plot (as stated, the film is compellingly watchable), it's still difficult for me not to feel as though The Children's Hour suffers a bit from Wyler's very obvious efforts to deliver a “clean” and “highly moral”
film about a subject that is a great deal more than mere sensation. In his well-intentioned desire to grant the story the solemnity and respect, I'm sure he felt was its due; Wyler falls prey to adopting a tone
of such unyielding good taste and decorum that it feels at times almost airless. The result is that The Children’s Hour vacillates
between stagy soap opera and overheated melodrama precisely at moments calling for the raw intimacy of emotional honesty.
It's during these moments when The Children’s Hour calls to mind for me the character Mary Tyler Moore played in Ordinary People - it becomes a film
determined not to draw attention to itself by making a scene.
Veronica Cartwright as Rosalie Wells
One of the best criers in the business
WHAT I LOVE ABOUT
“It is incredible that educated people living
in an urban American community today would react as violently and cruelly to a
questionable innuendo as they are made to do in this film.” - Bosley Crowther's New York Times review of The Children’s Hour March, 1962
critic Bosley Crowther needed to get out more. In the face of homophobia and bigotry,
incredulity like Crowther’s seems sophisticated and liberal in that it superficially gives people credit for being more civilized and intelligent than a film
like this suggests. But in reality, to ignore and deny that gay lives are ruined every
day in America by the very same rootless bigotry and baseless homophobia The
Children’s Hour dramatizes, is head-in-the-sand blindness. A subtle and privileged means of refuting and denying the suffering that is the day-to-day reality for many LGBTQ individuals even today.
Indeed, one of the
contributing factors to my not having even seen The Children’s Hour
until recently is due to almost everything I’d read previously about the film corroborating Mr. Crowther’s position. I
avoided The Children’s Hour because I assumed it was going to be another
dated Hollywood exercise in homosexual self-loathing masked as liberal
When I finally did
see the film, I was happily surprised that, regardless of how dated the surface trappings were, the message of the film felt timeless. Remove the old-fashioned acting, starchy
language, and that '60s censorship straitjacket (à la Cat on a Hot Tin Roof)
necessitating characters verbally dance all around an issue without ever saying
it plainly, and you’ve got a story that plays out in all corners of our country today. Set Hellman's story in the present, trade a girls' boarding school for a Boy Scout troop...would anything play any differently? America harbors such strange delusions about itself. I don't know how anyone could look at this film and say with a straight face "This could never happen today!" No, the themes Lillian Hellman sought to address (how truth and facts are often no match for willful ignorance) remain contemporary and unchanged.
Careless Whisper In this, her last film, Fay Bainter garnered The Children's Hour's sole acting Oscar nomination, and deservedly so. She's a forceful and dynamic presence in every scene. In the role that won Bonita Granville an Oscar nomination in 1936's These Three, Karen Balkin (who sometimes bears an unfortunate resemblance to Charles Laughton) gives an outsized performance that wouldn't be out of place in a comedy like The Trouble With Angels. Still, I wouldn't say she's exactly ineffective in the role, as by the third act you're apt to find the character she plays loathsome in the extreme. She makes The Bad Seed's Rhoda Penmark look like Shirley Temple
If The Children’s Hour has a
credibility problem at all, it lies not in its depiction of the swiftness with which the community
condemns the women on baseless innuendo (these days, inciting the public to overreact to unsubstantiated hate-mongering has practically become an official GOP political platform); but in anybody not being able to see through little
Mary’s broad-as-a-barn-door lying and bullying tactics. Barring this, I
think The Children’s Hour presents one of the screen’s more accurate and cutting indictments of hysterical
The ever-likable James Garner is solid as always, but isn't called upon to do much more than stand around looking all hetero and stuff
I have no idea how 1961 audiences responded to Audrey
Hepburn and Shirley MacLaine appearing in this “daring” film, but these days when
a straight actor takes on a gay role, the public practically awards them a medal
of bravery. Everyone, gay and straight alike, carries on as though the actor had
just crawled through the foxholes of war-torn Iwo Jima with an orphan on their
Nevertheless, back in 1961, it was no doubt a big deal for
two such high-profile stars to appear in a film with a lesbian theme. But (not to diminish
the risk-taking of either actress), Hepburn had just played a prostitute--or
Hollywood’s idea of a prostitute--in Breakfast
at Tiffany’s and was eager to shed her ingénue image, while MacLaine had a
bohemian “kook” reputation (yes, even as far back as that) which lent itself to
character roles (aka, women outside the mainstream). And politically speaking, it certainly didn’t
hurt that both women were at the time married with children. One source I read speculated on the unlikely chance an unmarried actress would have taken on either role.
Audrey Hepburn, who got her start and an Academy Award in Wyler’s
Roman Holiday (1953), is an enduring favorite of mine and her performance here, while not particularly showy, is one of the strongest of her early career. Clearly cast (at least in part) for her lack of an overtly sexual screen persona and for having an image that adhered to traditional notions of femininity; one can only imagine how provocative The Children's Hour would have been (something Wyler wasn't interested in, it seems) had she been cast in MacLaine’s role.
Miriam Hopkins, who actually did play the MacLaine role in These Three opposite Merle Oberon and Joel McCrea, is a hammy delight as Martha's affected, self-dramatizing aunt.
Playing an overly-theatrical B-level stage actress, Miriam Hopkins is seen here clutching the mementos of her career. In this instance a glamour portrait that is actually a publicity pic of Hopkins from the 1936 film, Becky Sharp.
As someone once commented on this site in relation to an earlier post about the movie Hot Spell, Shirley MacLaine can come off
a little shrill in scenes requiring displays of anxiety or excitability. But
like many gifted comic actors, she can really deliver the dramatic goods when playing
hostility and pique. In a film that codifies lesbianism as simply an absence of glamour,
MacLaine is really very good (this is where the film in its own small way is rather progressive) and grants her sympathetic character a depth and humanity refreshingly devoid of caricature. She resorts to no gimmicks or tricks to signify Martha's latent homosexuality, playing the role honestly and without artifice. In recent interviews about The Children’s Hour, MacLaine likes to relate how Wyler got cold
feet during the making of the film, resulting in several non-explicit scenes of Martha showing her affection for Karen (brushing
Hepburn’s hair, ironing her clothes, and cooking) ending up on the cutting room floor.
I’m not altogether sure how the inclusion of those sequences
would have helped a film whose big dramatic payoff is an 11th-hour “self-realization”
scene (which for my money MacLaine pulls off very well in spite of it being a tad overwritten). Besides, such demonstrativeness to me would appear redundant given how well she already successfully conveys her deep love for Hepburn’s character through a dozen subtle
looks and gestures.
THE STUFF OF DREAMS
The Children’s Hour has
always been controversial for the part it played in kickstarting the tired
movie trope of the doomed/suicidal homosexual: an overworked cliché born of a warped
morality, homophobic societal norms, and the Hollywood Production Code.
For the most part, gay characters in films tended to be used for comic relief, easy sensationalism, or a glib, short-cut bid to signify sophistication or wanton liberalness. From the start, studios and censors gleaned that the death of a the gay character in the final reel not only satisfied the movie mandate requiring “sinners”
pay for their transgressions, but presented, at fadeout, a symbolic “return to
normalcy” for viewers, calculated to reassure and secure their faith in the enduring indomitability of heterosexuality and triumph of the status quo.
Problematic as the ending of The Children’s Hour is for many (MacLaine’s character hangs herself), anecdotally
I’ve always felt it presented a situation more complex for Martha than mere homophobic self-loathing. In the scene precipitating her suicide, Martha comes out to Karen at precisely the same moment she comes out to herself. She falls apart in a stream of consciousness monologue in which she tries to sort out her feelings about herself amidst paralyzing confusion and guilt over the role her lack of self-awareness may or may not have played in the destruction of so many lives. Including her own.
It's arguable and certainly up for debate whether Martha's self-disgust ("Oh I feel so damn sick and dirty I can't stand it anymore!")is wholly related to her discovery of her true sexual identity, and not, at least in part, also attributable to genuine guilt-based self-recrimination.
Martha's vocal and frequent emotional outbursts--ill-temper with Joe, her impatience with her silly Aunt--all brought on by her repressed feelings for Karen, are what the children overhear. What arouses their suspicions. For me, it makes both psychological and emotional sense for Martha to be just as wracked with guilt over bringing harm to the woman she loves as she is plagued by internalized homophobia and self-loathing.
It's not an either-or situation, it's a combination of complex, combatting emotions brought about by abrupt self-confrontation and self-realization. I think it trivializes the story and the character to reduce the cause of Martha's suicide to "Because she realized she's gay."
So, while there's no denying Martha's suicide is an extreme response to her suffering from a particularly acute case of "gaynst" (gay-angst); it can also be perceived to be the final, selfless act of love her character intends it to be. This is to say that within the confines of the narrative (the last we see of Martha alive, she's not brooding intently upon herself, she's looking lovingly at Karen from a window) Martha's love is such that she commits an act of martyrdom by killing herself, thereby freeing Karen.
Of course, Martha might have achieved the very same thing by merely hopping on a train (which Martha actually does at the end of These Three), but as I said earlier, this is Hollywood, and it would be several more years before the movies would grant any gay character a happy ending.
..and if you found a pun in that sentence, shame on you!
A production still of the libel suit courtroom sequence that was deleted from the final film.
The theatrical trailer for William Wyler's These Three (1936)
In this clip from the 1996 LGBTQ documentary, The Celluloid Closet, Shirley MacLaine talks about making The Children's Hour.
The Children's Hour had its title changed in the UK
I remember very well all the excitement surrounding the 1975
release of Barry Lyndon; director Stanley
Kubrick’s highly anticipated follow-up to A Clockwork Orange. Four years had elapsed since Kubrick’s
stylized vision of an all-too-imaginable future opened to controversy and equal
parts critical acclaim/antipathy, and Barry
Lyndon ‒ shrouded in secrecy, costing $11 million, two-years-in-the-making,
3-hours long, and starring the eyebrow-raising choice of actor Ryan O’Neal in
the lead ‒ augured no less.
Arriving on a wave of publicity crested by a lengthy Time magazine cover story declaring it “Kubrick’s
Grandest Gamble,” Barry Lyndon was hyped
as a painstakingly detailed 18th-century epic adapted from the
little-known 19th-century novel The
Luck of Barry Lyndon by William
Makepeace Thackeray (Vanity Fair).
Shot in Ireland, England, and Germany over the course of a 300-day shooting
schedule, next to nothing was known of the film’s storyline, save for it being
a kind of inverse Pilgrim’s Progress chronicling the rise and fall of a
handsome Irish rake. What was instead proffered at the forefront of all
publicity, eclipsing references to either the actors’ performances or the general
dramatic appeal of the story itself, was the fact that it was a Stanley Kubrick
Like Hitchcock, Kubrick and his reputation as an innovative
perfectionist were the real stars of the film. In fact, the single
most-discussed element about Barry Lyndon
beyond the cult of worship surrounding Kubrick himself was the film’s sumptuous
cinematography. Much was made of how Kubrick & Co. eschewed the traditional
use of artificial lighting to create a period-perfect look through the near-exclusive
application of candles and natural light. Advance word was that it was Kubrick’s
masterpiece; an epic historical spectacle with art house aesthetics.
Ryan O'Neal as Redmond Barry
Marisa Berenson as Lady Lyndon
Murray Melvin as Reverend Samuel Runt
Patrick Magee as The Chevalier du Balibari
Leon Vitali as Lord Bullingdon
Barry Lyndon opened
on Christmas Day at San Francisco’s
Northpoint Theater, advance buzz suggesting an event more than a motion
picture. With all this buildup, you’d think I’d be chomping at the bit to see Barry
Lyndon when it opened.
While I loved Barry
Lyndon’s Saul Bass-designed poster art (below) and was impressed by what little
I’d seen in the way of movie stills, none of that translated into an interest
in actually seeing the film itself.
Part of this is attributable to my not being much of a
Kubrick enthusiast at the time. As a film buff, I knew I was “supposed” to like
him, but being that in 1971 I was too young to see A Clockwork Orange, and only had an edited, commercial-interrupted TV
broadcast of Lolita and a scratchy college
campus print of 2001: A Space Odyssey
to base an opinion on; I can’t say Kubrick was a director who loomed very large
for me as a teen.
But the main reason for my disinterest was my (then) overall
aversion to epic costume dramas in general. Sure, the Julie Christie factor was
enough to entice me into seeing Far From The Madding Crowdand Doctor Zhivago,
but for the most part, I was of the opinion that any movie asking me to sit still
longer than two and a half hours had better be a musical. Barry Lyndon looked to me like it was either going to be a somber,
picturesque snooze like Lawrence of
Arabia, or (based on how often the words “scoundrel” and “rascal” popped up
in reviews) one of those tediously bawdy
romps like Tom Jones or Lock Up Your Daughters. No thanks.
Barry Lyndon's lush spectacle is the deceptively sentimental backdrop for a tale whose events and characters are themselves a subversive commentary on classic romantic tradition
So I didn’t see Barry
Lyndon when it premiered that December, and I’m not sure I’d have seen it
at all were not for my older sister who was attending an art school at the time where it was something of an art history mandate for students to check out Barry
Lyndon for its cinematography redolent of the paintings of 18th-century
artists like John Constable and Thomas Gainsborough.
Like everyone else, my sister raved about the film’s visual splendor, but her going back to see Barry
Lyndon two more times persuasively backed up her assertion of it being an irresistibly
entertaining film, as well; something I’d yet to come across in any of the reviews I’d
read. Hailing it as the perfect costume picture for people who didn’t like
costume pictures (that would be me), she sold me on the film by
alluding to Kubrick’s success - intentional or not - in fashioning an epic
heroic romantic drama devoid of either a hero or romance. A film whose lush
spectacle is the deceptively sentimental backdrop for a tale whose events and
characters are a subversive commentary on classic Romance tradition.
I saw Barry
Lyndon the next day.
That was 40 years ago. And since then I’ve seen all but
three of Stanley Kubrick’s movies (Fear & Desire, Killer’s Kiss, & Paths
of Glory), but my opinion of Barry Lyndon then hasn’t changed: it’s my absolute favorite
of all his films.
Nominated for 7 Oscars, Barry Lyndon won 4 Cinematography, Costume, Art Direction, and Musical Score
WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
Film critic Andrew Sarris once described the stylization in Stanley
Kubrick’s films as being a form of emotional evasion. I don’t think that was
meant as a compliment, but as it pertains to Barry Lyndon, it defines why this film strikes such a chord with
begins in 1750 and tells the episodic story of a young, naïve Irish lad (O’Neal)
of modest gentry status who aspires to aristocracy. As self-deluding as Flaubert’s
Emma Bovary, as social-climbing as Dreiser's Clyde Griffiths; Redmond fancies himself a
well-bred man of courage and honor out to claim his rightful position in the
world. That his quest calls upon him to summarily assume the roles of gambler, cheat, deserter, spy, and adulterer, proves of little consequence.
Attempting to live his life as though he were the hero of a
romantic novel, Redmond’s lack of self-awareness blinds him to the flaws in his
character which, while successful in getting him where he wants, unfailingly stand in the way of getting him what he wants.
The loss of father figures is a recurring motif in Barry Lyndon. Here, Redmond comforts longtime friend and protector, Captain Grogan (Godfrey Quigley)
The combined effect of Kubrick’s distancing camera and Michael
Hordern’s subjective, coolly disdainful narration is that the chronicling of Redmond
Barry’s ascendancy and decline becomes a doleful implosion of romantic myth. Dramatic
irony replaces clichéd sentimentality, and the result is a film both moving and reflective. What looks at first glance like emotional evasion might well be a director not finding it necessary to tell the viewer what they should be feeling.
Marie Kean as Barry's headstrong mother
I think Ryan O’Neal gives his best comedy performance in
Peter Bogdanovich’s Paper Moon(1973)
and the best dramatic performance of his career in Barry Lyndon. To my mind, he’s really quite marvelous and I can’t
imagine anyone else in the role. (Robert Redford was considered and turned it
down. Sparing us from having to put up with a Barry Lyndon sporting the same layered
Malibu beach boy shag haircut he’s had in every film he’s ever made.)
Barry Lyndon rests
on our being able to see both the good and bad in Redmond, never being sure
from scene to scene if he’s truly as dishonorable or as virtuous as he appears. I'm not sure how he pulled it off, but O’Neal captures Redmond’s idealism, cowardice,
cruelty, heart, with a depth that brings home the ultimate tragedy of the story.
Marisa Berenson, cast once again as a woman pursued by a fortune-hunter (Cabaret), has a role that's largely silent, yet her performance I find to be the film's most poignant. A former model, Berenson benefits from precisely the same subtle projection that makes models in fashion magazines appear to convey exactly what the observer seeks to find in their sphinxlike countenances. Certainly, I'm moved by the "corruption of beauty" nuances at the core of her character arc, but I think there's a great deal more to Berenson's performance than being heart-stoppingly beautiful in her period finery.
THE STUFF OF FANTASY
Certain critical buzzwords and phrases always raise red flags for me.
Whenever I read that a stage performer “puts on a good show,” I take that to
mean a meager talent is attempting to mask their shortcomings behind the bells
and whistles of production values. Any fashion trend signified as “fun!” is sure to be ghastly. So, similarly, whenever movie critics go on and
on about how beautifully a film is shot, I can’t help but assume there’s
precious little else about it to recommend.
In promoting Barry Lyndon stateside, Warner Bros, hamstrung
both by the film’s largely unknown (at least in the U.S.) cast of British character actors, and perhaps an inability to extol the acting virtues of Ryan O’Neal and
Marisa Berenson convincingly built its entire marketing around the beauty of film's cinematography and the technical artistry in its recreation of a bygone era.
Like many, I took this to suggest Barry
Lyndonhad nothing to offer beyond its visual grandeur, when in fact
it's merely an indication of the limitations inherent in marketing a film that fails to fit into a set genre category.
Barry Lyndon is
without a doubt one of the most beautiful films ever made, and in 1975 on the
big screen, it fairly took my breath away. But over the years I’ve come to better appreciate the film's visual magnificence as
something more than just ornamental show. Its images have a poetic quality
about them that has taken on a melancholy richness in this day of CGI
When I watch Barry Lyndon
today, I’m aware of witnessing the recreation of a time and era that couldn’t
be achieved today without digital manipulation. I actually respond emotionally
to the fact that what I’m seeing has been painstakingly rendered in the real
world. People, not computer-generated clones, occupy the crowded battle scenes;
the stately landscapes vistas are actual locations; the immense interiors are
Even Barry Lyndon’s deliberate pacing and long-held static shots, once a
source of much criticism, feel positively rapturous in today’s climate of I-don’t
know-what-the-hell-I’m-looking-at rapid-fire editing.
Better still, Barry Lyndon's beautiful facade masks many somber truths. There is nothing heroic in death; war is absurd; pain endures, and what happens to us can't help but change us. And not always for the better.
THE STUFF OF DREAMS Barry Lyndon didn't do very well during its initial release, but as so often happens when a talented director passes on and film fans are left to contemplate the meager talents still drawing breath; Barry Lyndon has been reappraised, reassessed, and hailed by many as an overlooked masterpiece.
When those who once dismissed it as boring and sluggish now sing its praises, I try not to look too smug while suppressing a desire to jog their memories with a well-timed, "I told you so!".
I won't say it's a romp, a crowd-pleaser, or a movie that'll tug at your heartstrings, but for those open to an epic scaled to human dimensions, Barry Lyndon contains a great deal of humor (mostly ironic), action, and compelling drama. I particularly like the cast of supporting players, some familiar, many more, less so, but even the briefest roles are brought to vivid, dimensional life. In many ways Barry Lyndon is like Ken Russell with self-control: a feast for the eyes, heaven to listen to (the classical music score is gorgeous), and a roster of brilliant supporting actors with fascinating faces.
I'd be reluctant to label Stanley Kubrick a genius, but there's no doubt in my mind he was a true artist.
Stanley Kubrick's long out of circulation first film, Fear & Desire (1953) is
What would Hollywood do without the South as the all-purpose, go-to
metaphor for all things hot, steamy, and neurotic during the sexually and emotionally repressed America of the 1950s?Hollywood, pandering to post-war
propaganda intended to reassure the nation of a return to prosperity and stability,
consistently promoted the image of the Midwest and middle-class suburbs as exemplars
of familial “normalcy.” To this end, metropolitan cities were represented as cold and impersonal
sin-bins, rife with crime and corruption; while the South – where mossy oak trees
and people’s accents drooped in languid surrender to the oppressive heat – was
a veritable pressure cooker of stifled passions. No wonder the Southern Gothic
(a film genre dear to my heart) came to embody the existential frustration,
spiritual discontent, and sexual dissatisfaction of an entire nation.
Between 1958 and 1959, Hollywood released no fewer than six southern-fried movie melodramas: Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, The Long Hot Summer, God’s
Little Acre, Suddenly Last Summer, The Sound and the Fury,
and the focus of this essay, Lonnie Coleman’s (Beulah Land) little-known
but no-less overheated domestic drama, Hot Spell.
Hot Spell is based on Coleman’s unproduced play Next
of Kin, and was directed by Daniel Mann (Come Back, Little Sheba)
from a screenplay by James Poe (Summer & Smoke, Cat on a Hot Tin
Roof). Considering its cast and
pedigree, I’m surprised that I hadn’t heard of this film, let alone seen it, until relatively
Hot Spell’s theatrical roots are manifest in the size
of its cast (it’s basically a four-character story), the talkiness of its
script, and the simplicity of its plot. In the sweltering heat of the eternal summer that is the mainstay
of all good Southern Gothics (where a glass of sweet tea is never far from
reach), long-suppressed tensions threaten to rupture the gossamer-thin fabric
of delusion holding a small New Orleans family together. As frustrations rise
to the surface, carefully-constructed illusions begin to crack and blister like
paint in the scorching sun.
Shirley Booth as Alma Duval
Anthony Quinn as John Henry "Jack" Duval
Shirley MacLaine as Virginia Duval
Earl Holliman as John Henry "Buddy" Duval, Jr.
Clint Kimbrough as Billy Duval
When the film opens, matronly
housewife Alma Duval (Booth) is all aflutter over the 45thbirthday party she’s planning for
husband Jack (Quinn); a seductively "wild" Cajun whose restless
nature she's found – after 25 years of marriage – impossible
to fully domesticate. As we observe her nervous attempts to orchestrate
(manipulate?) every conceivable variable to assure a favorable outcome for her
efforts, Alma’s fervent preparations betray an air of desperation more than
Armed with the
birthday presents she herself purchased for her adult children to give to their
father, Alma visits each at their workplace, dispensing behavioral directives
and cheery dialogue prompts with every pre-wrapped gift. Perhaps too
metaphorically (not for a fan of heavy-handed '50s Freudianism like myself), each
child embodies contrasting, narratively-pertinent character traits, and have jobs reflective of their personalities.
Eldest son Buddy (Holliman), all self-seriousness and ambition,
works at the family employment agency. Recently out of the army, Buddy is headstrong
and restless to make a way for himself in the world. Daddy’s-girl and middle-child Virginia (MacLaine), works at the local 5¢ &10¢ and spends her time lost in
fanciful daydreams about her new summer suitor, a pragmatic pre-med student (Warren
Stevens). Surrounded all day by valentines, flowers, and perfumes, Virginia is
a dreamy romantic. Youngest son, Billy (Kimbrough), is a bookish, sensitive
type (coded: gay) who works in a library, and too-keenly feels the tension
behind all that remains unspoken in the Duval household. His survival tactic is
to escape; first into books, then by going so far as to enlist in the Air
Alma, who refuses to see her offspring as anything but
children, charges into these workplace sanctuaries, as heedless of their discomfort
as their in-vain efforts to dissuade her from making a big deal out of an event
they all know their vain father hardly looks upon as cause for celebration (no
one, least of all Jack himself, even remembers the birthday). It’s Alma’s wish (passive-aggressive insistence,
actually) that everyone live the same lie she clings to: to ignore the
open-secret of Jack’s mid-life crisis affair with a woman young enough to be
his daughter, and just carry on as if
they are still (if indeed they ever were) one big, happy family.
An absorbing drama that benefits significantly from the top-notch
performances of its cast, Hot Spell,
with its over-familiar central conflict, falls prey to a fate similar to that
which befell The Stripper(1963), the
screen adaptation of William Inge’s A
Loss of Roses; which is to say Hot
Spell,in lacking a certain psychological
profundity and depth of characterization, feels more like a Playhouse 90 television production than
a feature film. But in spite of much of it feeling as though it were culled
from earlier, similar sources (most in the Shirley Booth oeuvre) Hot Spell does provide a fairly moving examination
of the what the inexorable passing of time portends to a family fighting hard
to evade the inevitabilities of growing up, growing older, and growing apart.
WHAT I LOVE ABOUT
The fact that I come from a large Catholic family that never
spoke about our emotions (until the 70s when my mother went through EST, after
which we spoke of little else) is perhaps the main reasons I love movies like Hot
Spell. Call it fantasy projection, but domestic dramas wherein suppressed hostilities
and resentments erupt into biliously confrontational exchanges that ultimately
prove to be liberatingly cathartic are a favorite of mine. Double if it takes
place in the South of the '50s and '60s.
While no one in Hot Spell adopts a Southern accent, and
it doesn’t take place in Kansas,
the film nevertheless has the stamp of Tennessee Williams and William Inge all
The Two Shirleys
MacLaine and Booth appeared in The Matchmaker this same year
As is the custom of the genre, Hot Spell is centered around
a social event. An event or occasion necessitating the close-knit interaction of
characters (usually under circumstances forcing a display of false emotion or
sentiment). Hot Spell’s pivotal birthday party, the catalyst for the
film’s domestic upheaval, is largely ironic in function, being that a celebration
of growing older is particularly ill-suited for Jack and Alma Duval; a couple deeply
invested in living in the past.
In a deluded effort to reclaim his lost, wild youth, Jack imbues
a thoroughly common extramarital physical attraction with all the romantic
gravitas of true love reborn. Alma,
no less delusional, lives in an aspic world frozen in time. Feeling acutely the
impending loss of her family, Alma
pins all her hopes on a longed-for return to the town of New Paris – a state of mind as much as
geographical location – idealized in her memory as the place where everyone was
Come Back, Little New Paris
Caught in the middle: the children (their main offense being
their failure to remain so), nurtured as infants to fill a void, weaned in
adulthood to be the guardians of their parent’s illusions. There’s more than
enough culpability, regret, and incriminations to go around as the Duvals of
New Orleans endeavor to weather their personal hot spell of discontent.
Running at a brisk 86 minutes, Hot Spell may be
Southern Gothic-lite, but it’s like a Greatest Hits collection of all I hold
near about that obsolete film genre.
Anthony Quinn was already a two-time Oscar winner when he appeared in Hot Spell.
Here with actress Valerie Allen as Ruby, Quinn's restless character longs for a new life in
Florida, "Land of Eternal Youth"
For those keeping score, this was Booth’s second onscreen
swipe at playing a dowdy, once-beautiful housewife delusionally fixated on the
past. Perhaps it was an intentional move on Booth’s part to revisit a character
almost identical to the one she played in 1952s Come Back, Little Sheba (and
won an Oscar for), but the effect created is déjà vu to distraction.
Shirley Booth is a remarkable actress and her performance
here ranks among her best. She IS the entire film, as far as I’m concerned, and
the nuances of vulnerability she brings to the role (along with a hint of the
subtle manipulative strength unique to the very weak) is a tour de force. She single-handedly
keeps the film from sinking into a mire of clichés. But I’d be lying if I said
that much of it feels like I’d seen it all before. It’s like later career
Maggie Smith; she’ always excellent, but she’s always the same.
Oscar-winner Eileen Heckart (The Bad Seed) steals every scene as Alma's best friend, Fan. The hilarious sequence where she gives Alma lessons in being a Modern Woman is a worth-the-price-of-admission classic.
Fan: "Well what's he gonna say the first time you fish out a cigarette and light up?" Alma; "He's gonna say, 'Alma, have you gone crazy?'" Fan: "Yeah, well when he does you just take a drag on the cigarette, blow the smoke in his face and say, 'What's it to ya, lover?'"
1958 was a banner year for Shirley MacLaine, appearing in Hot Spell, Some Came Running (for which she won an Oscar nomination), and the delightful
The Matchmaker. As the lovesick
daughter, MacLaine isn’t called upon to do anything here that Elinor Donahue didn’t
do on TV every week in Father Knows Best,
but her easygoing, natural appeal is a major asset to a film as dramatically stagy
as Hot Spell.
Things heat up between Virginia and Wyatt (Warren Stevens)
THE STUFF OF FANTASY
I’ve always been fascinated by the fact that the same breast-fixated/blonde
bombshell era that produced Marilyn Monroe and Jayne Mansfield, also found room
to appreciate the matronly charms of actresses like Shirley Booth and Geraldine
Page. These actresses may not have been the pin-up type, but they played middle-aged women who were still afforded passions, sex drives, and depth. While most of Hollywood was falling over itself looking for the next
fetishized male fantasy sex symbol, gay writers like Inge, Williams, and Coleman were creating dimensional roles for real women.
The often unglamorous women Shirley Booth portrayed were nevertheless granted a sexuality and impassioned emotional life
THE STUFF OF DREAMS
Wasn’t it Margo Channing who said, “I detest cheap sentiment”? Well, normally I do, too, but something about
Hot Spell always gets the waterworks
going come fade-out. That something is Shirley Booth and the breadth of emotions
she brings to her almost stock character. It’s a memorable (albeit familiar)
performance in a movie that’s far more enjoyable than it should be. A credit to
the cast, to be sure.
I don’t know if Hot
Spell is available on DVD yet, but it crops up on TCM from time to time and
is definitely worth a watch. It’s not likely to make anyone forget Come Back Little Sheba or invite
comparisons to O’Neill’s Long Day’s
Journey Into Night, but it is a fine example of a once-popular dramatic genre,
that (based on recent posts for The Stripper, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,
and Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean) I can’t seem to get enough of.
"I guess the hot spell's over."
Hot Spell: Margaret Whiting sings this promotional song for the film. Written by Burt Bacharach /Mack David.