Tuesday, July 31, 2018


Spoiler Alert. This is a critical essay, not a review; plot points are referenced for analysis. 

"Have They forgotten what a star looks like?" - Norma Desmond Sunset Boulevard (1950)

The very same thought occurred to me while watching Billy Wilder's penultimate film Fedora. A they-don't-make-'em-like-they-used-to, post-Golden Age eulogy for the Hollywood of yesteryear. Set in such glamorous locales as France, Greece, and Los Angeles, Fedora nevertheless has the nondescript, pared-down, underpopulated look of a made-for-TV movie when what it cries out for the lacquered sheen and cast-of-thousands excess of the days of the big studios. Why? Because it's a heartfelt, elegiac rumination on the immortality of silver-screen legends and the myth-making magic of the Hollywood star system. One that's undermined at every turn by its obvious budget limitations and the conspicuously low-wattage luminance of its own "This will have to make do" compromise of a cast.
William Holden as Barry "Dutch" Detweiler
Marthe Keller as Fedora
Hildegard Knef as Countess Sobryanski
Jose Ferrer as Dr. Emmanuel Vando
Frances Sternhagen as Miss Balfour
In 1976, actor-turned-author Thomas Tryon (he wrote the bestseller The Other and was the wooden, lantern-jawed presence in The Cardinal and I Married a Monster from Outer Space) published Crowned Heads, a collection of four loosely-connected roman à clef novellas set in Hollywood. The screen rights were swiftly snapped up, and early reports suggested Tryon's gossipy interlinked tales of Tinseltown (the novel's four stories share common characters) were ideal material for a TV miniseries. Sometime later, trade papers announced that the most popular of the short stories, Fedora, about a Garbo-esque movie queen whose ageless beauty is the source of a bizarre mystery, was to be made into a feature film by multi-Academy Award-winning director/writer Billy Wilder (Double Indemnity, The Lost Weekend).

Tryon's mystery-shrouded Hollywood Gothic offered Wilder (whose most recent series of films had all been comedies) an opportunity to return to melodramatic form: à la Sunset Boulevard (1950). Fedora's industry-insider angle appeared to be an ideal match for the director's distinct brand of perceptive cynicism and dark wit. When it was further disclosed that Wilder was to reunite with longtime script collaborator I.A.L. Diamond (Some Like It Hot, The Apartment) and Sunset Boulevard star William Holden (in what would be their fourth picture together), the potential of the proposed film adaptation sounded even more promising.
Henry Fonda appears as himself in a cameo bit involving personally delivering an Honorary Oscar to Fedora on her remote island. Billed simply as President of the Academy (a position he never held in real life), Fonda was cast after Gregory Peck declined. 

But Hollywood, as we all know (ironically, via Wilder's own Sunset Boulevard), has a short memory. When it came to finding a studio willing to produce Fedora, the distinguished career and track record of the 70-something director mattered considerably less to industry higher-ups than the fact that Wilder's last three releases (The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes -1970, Avanti! -1972, and The Front Page-1974) had all tanked miserably at the box office.
Wilder and Diamond reworked Tryon's novella in ways that intentionally evoked and referenced Sunset Boulevard, so securing the services of William Holden as narrator and leading man was a major coup. But progress on the project was hampered considerably when Wilder hit a major snag in the casting of the all-important lead role of the elusive, eternally youthful Fedora, and her companion, the mysterious Countess Sobryanski. 
Fedora inquires of a young stagehand if he's gay (albeit, not so politely). The previous year,
Marthe Keller asked Al Pacino the same question--just as offensively--in Bobby Deerfield

Wilder's initial casting choices of Faye Dunaway and Marlene Dietrich, later Vanessa Redgrave and her mother, actress Rachel Kempson, all turned the film down due to concerns with the screenplay. These delays forced Fedora into development hell—the property being handed from one studio to the next, rewrite to rewrite—before all the major studios eventually bailed. This led Wilder to make his film overseas with French-German tax shelter money, casting Fedora with actors who, happily, didn't strain the film's budget, but neither did they generate much in the way of pre-release marquee enthusiasm.
In yet another second-choice slot, longtime TV game show panelist Arlene Francis
 stepped into the intended for Barbara Walters

Fedora, a film told in flashback spanning thirty years and set in exotic locales and meant to depict the opulent lifestyle of individuals whose money affords the luxury of running away from time, was originally budgeted at $4 million but shot to over $6 million due to production problems. Even with this spike in finances, Wilder knew, given the scope of the story, that his film had the budget of a B-picture. For a sense of 1977-1978 budget scale: an intimate movie like Annie Hall, shot on location with no (then) big names in the cast, cost $4 million. The average cost of major studio releases like The Boys From Brazil was $12 million, and the modestly-scaled Heaven Can Wait came in at $15 million.
Hindsight suggests that Wilder, unable to make Fedora the way it should have been made, would have been wise to let the project go. As it was, faced with compromise at every turn, Fedora proved to be an ill-fated production plagued with delays and setbacks from the start. 
Fear of going over budget prohibited Wilder from having rehearsals (worse, it shows). And at one point, he rather ungallantly referred to his leading lady as "Not much of an actress." Keller's inability to play the dual roles of Fedora and the Countess (ostensibly due to the old-age makeup proving too painful for the actress, insiders saying she wasn't up to the challenge) occasioned the casting of Hildegard Knef...her engagement putting a minor strain on the budget, but throwing one of the film's major plot concepts (duality) out the window. 
The original editor was fired after two months of shooting, the cast didn't get along, and the unintelligibly thick accents of both Keller and Knef necessitated the post-production looping of both voices. I'm not sure whom we're actually listening to on the current Blu-ray release, but the hollow disembodied voices–especially the dreadful one used for Fedora's little daughter–wreak havoc with the film's two pivotal performances.
Marthe Keller certainly has the beauty and regal cheekbones of a classic Hollywood star,
she simply lacked the effortless hauteur

When completed, Fedora started out well, what with a huge Cannes premiere and considerable press fanfare focusing on Billy Wilder's "comeback." But then advance buzz fizzled out rather swiftly. The film was besieged by such poor preview response and bad word-of-mouth that it sat on the shelf for a year while its producers searched for a distributor. Trying too hard to please too many potential buyers, Fedora was tinkered and fiddled with to the tune of losing some 12-minutes of its original footage and sizable chunks of its lush Miklos Rozsa score (Double Indemnity, The Lost Weekend, Madame Bovary).
With a high degree of anticipation (I loved the Thomas Tryon novel, was infatuated with Marthe Keller, and was a big fan of Billy Wilder), I finally saw Fedora when, after what felt like years of bad advance publicity, it played briefly in Westwood in the Spring of 1979…before disappearing without a trace. 
Cast as himself, the beauteous Michael York exudes so much macho mojo he literally drives Fedora to madness for want of him. It may seem like a stretch to accept that an actress who'd worked with the greats would be taken with so mild-mannered a leading man, but I recall in the '70s Bette Davis citing the transcendently bland Robert Wagner as one of her favorites.

The story: Desperate over being put out to pasture by New Hollywood's current breed of bearded young upstarts, 59-year-old movie producer Barry Detweiler (William Holden) hopes to resuscitate his flagging career by coaxing reclusive screen goddess Fedora (just one name, like Cher, Charo, or Dagmar) out of retirement to star in The Snows of Yesteryear, a film that would mark the 4th American adaptation of Tolstoy's Anna Karenina ("This time we can do it right!"). 
Star Search
Tracking Fedora (Marthe Keller) down to her island compound off the shore of Corfu, Detweiler finds the aged star just as beautiful as when they last worked together thirty years earlier (and shared a seaside tryst). But he grows concerned when the eccentrically vainglorious actress (forever in gloves, enormous shades, and wide-brimmed hat) appears to be both emotionally unstable and peculiarly cowed by her motley retinue: the autocratic, wheelchair-bound Polish Countess Sobryanski; starchy personal secretary Miss Balfour; and dipsomaniacal age-retardation gerontologist Dr. Vando.
Detweiler's fears are confirmed when Fedora confides to him that she is being held on the island against her will and is prevented from returning to films. But alas, his efforts to aid in her escape only set into motion a series of cataclysmic events leading to ultimate tragedy and the unearthing of a dark, fiercely-guarded secret.
The Countess, surrounded by her ever-present space heaters 

I won't lie and say I wasn't disappointed when Fedora's ended (the underwhelming effect of the entire film given the coup de grace stroke of having Michael York's name misspelled in the credits). I enjoyed it, for the film's central mystery is compellingly weird enough to sustain interest (although given the extreme lengths the bizarre characters go to protect their secret, the ultimate reveal can't help but have an air of "Is that all there is?" to it). Plus it was nice to see William Holden reprising his Joe Gillis bit again. But as movies go, Fedora struck me as a bit of a puzzler. 
I left the theater that day with the impression that Fedora was an admirably ambitious effort on Billy Wilder's part that somehow got away from him. Sunset Boulevard embraced its themes and delivered an outlandish tale shrouded in a baroque style that recalled the melodramatic excesses of the silent era. Fedora, a melancholy paean to the Hollywood of yesteryear and the days of the studio system, is strangely lacking in atmosphere for so macabre a story. The obvious budgetary restrictions and the flat, characterless cinematography, are visually at odds with the film's nostalgia-laced themes. 
Oscar Winners
Jose Ferrer for Cyrano de Bergerac (1950)
 William Holden (under Billy Wilder's direction) for Stalag 17 (1954)

Most damning of all is how disconcerting it is to watch an entire film devoted to heralding the magisterial splendor of the immortal goddesses of the silver screen, yet fails to generate much heat with its leading lady. Fedora cries out for a dynamic, larger-than-life screen presence...someone along the lines of Faye Dunaway (I can't think of another contemporary actress who better radiates classic movie star style). The conspicuous lack of a genuine star presence at the center of the film torpedoes the credibility of an already preposterous story that needs all the verisimilitude it can get. (And one can't really fault Ms. Keller's performance...what the movie cries out for is one of those things you've either got or haven't.) Wilder perhaps recognized this himself, given that he ends the film with two characters having this exchange:
- "This would have made a much better picture than the script I brought you"
  - "Yes, but who would you get to play it?"

 Fedora shoots a scene recalling Hedy Lamarr's scandalous nude swim in Ecstasy (1933)

Much in the way Alfred Hitchcock's lesser works have come to be reevaluated after his death, Fedora's longstanding unavailability combined with renewed cinephile appreciation for Billy Wilder has produced a sort of revisionist interest in the film. Though it's an independent film, Fedora feels like a product of the studio system, its old-school charms playing better as "pure cinema" in today's climate of CGI and comic book franchises than they did back in 1978. I wouldn't call Fedora an underappreciated masterpiece, but I do think it's Billy Wilder's best film since 1966's The Fortune Cookie, and superior to some of his more unwatchable fare like Kiss Me, Stupid (1964).
Because I hadn't remembered the film so fondly, revisiting Fedora via the pristine, restored Blu-ray, I'm able to enjoy it as a kind of extended The Twilight Zone episode. (In fact, it recalls a similar-themed 1964 Twilight Zone episode titled "Queen of the Nile," in which Ann Blyth starred as an ageless movie queen with a secret.)
I confess to not being able to take the film as seriously as some. Fedora's flaws are too elemental for them not to mar my overall experience. But the film is made with a sincere (if bitter) conviction, some style, and a great deal of wit ("Not there! That's the cat's chair!"). Which, when combined with the abundant unintentional humor, grants Fedora a kind of loopy, absurdist grace.
Mommie Dearest
Little Antonia (Christine Mueller) learns it's no picnic being the daughter of a movie star 

One of my favorite things about Fedora (which couldn't have been intentional and will sound like faint praise) is how its execution and construction seem designed to draw attention to the more far-fetched aspects of the plot rather than conceal them. Fedora begins on a note of implausibility and just keeps stacking the crazy from there. The first leap of faith we're asked to accept is that during the waning days of the '70s nostalgia craze—when real-life screen legends Mae West and Audrey Hepburn were appearing in embarrassments like Sextette (1978) and Sidney Sheldon's Bloodline (1978); when Golden Age stars were routinely trotted out like waxworks displays on TV shows like Fantasy Island and The Love Boat; and when movie theaters were showing Star Wars (1977), Saturday Night Fever (1977) and The Deer Hunter (1978)—that anyone in their right mind would think there was an audience clamoring for a remake of Anna Karenina starring a 67-year-old Anna.
Sunset Boulevard -1950
Fedora - 1978
There's fun to be had in catching all the Sunset Boulevard references. Just as it's enjoyably distracting to take note of all the mystery elements that don't quite make sense (Fedora goes around in gloves and dark glasses even when no one but her handlers are around). But it gets a little wearying hearing Wilder endlessly vent his spleen about Hollywood and the movie biz through Holden's character. Holden would follow Fedora up with another film in which he played a battle-scarred Hollywood veteran with an ax to grind: Blake Edward's S.O.B. (1980). It would be Holden's last film. 
Throughout Fedora, I kept wondering why no one commented on the fact that her servant Miss Balfour (she reminds me a bit of The Omen's Mrs. Baylock crossed with Mommie Dearest's Carol Ann) never ages. That's certainly true in real life for character actress Frances Sternhagen, who looks pretty much the same today as she always has.

Looking (refreshingly) every day of his 59 years, William Holden's un-nip-tucked appearance fits nicely in with the film's "youth at all costs" theme; the actor's solid likability grounding Fedora in a reality that little else in the film is tethered to. And while scenes of his running or kicking down doors had me more concerned with his health than the plot (and I could have gone to my grave without the sight of Holden's granddad bod in saggy jockey shorts), he nevertheless gives a solid performance and is a welcome presence in Wilder-land. 
In the nearly empty theater where I saw Fedora, this big dramatic scene revealing Fedora's
 hidden shrine to Michael York was greeted with giggles, not gasps 

Fedora came at the tail end of America's brief but high-profile love affair with Swiss/German actress Marthe Keller. After catching the attention of the studios with her performance in Claude Le Louche's And Now My Love (1974), America beckoned and cast her in a series of showy roles that only made clear they hadn't a clue as to how to use her. Her thick accent branding her as an "other" or "exotic," she was cast as a femme fatale in the films Marathon Man and Black Sunday, and the manic pixie dream girl to Al Pacino's morose race car driver in Bobby Deerfield.
I think Keller's beautiful, but largely at sea when it comes to conveying that old-Hollywood star quality that made even tiny actresses like Judy Garland and Tallulah Bankhead feel like they filled up a room when entering it. Also, the dubbing thing just does no one any favors. But with that being said, I still think Keller is quite good here. Willful yet fragile, she's the warm heart at the center of a cold Hollywood nightmare.
Of the cast members appearing to have the most fun in their serio-camp roles are Hildegard Knef and Jose Ferrer, which seems rather apt, as they play caricatures more than characters.

Fedora, long unavailable and rarely-seen, is definitely worth a look. As I've said, it plays much better now than in 1978. You won't find the same level of perceptive cynicism Billy Wilder brought to his far superior Sunset Boulevard, but there's still much to enjoy amongst the film's unrealized ideas. And if you're of a certain age, plenty of nostalgia.
Thomas Tryon is said to have based the character of Fedora on a number of Hollywood legends, but the one most often cited is the largely forgotten Corinne Griffith. At age 72, Griffith claimed not to be the real Corinne Griffith, but rather, the actress' 52-year-old sister. Her assertion being that, following the death of the original Corinne many years before, she assumed the identity of her older sister and carried on with both her life and career. 

Faye Dunaway was always the Fedora Billy Wilder needed. And by the looks of her at age 77 in this 2018 Gucci commercial (which captures more real movie star magic in 90 seconds than the entirety of Wilder's film), I'd say she IS Fedora.

Swan Song: The Story of Billy Wilder's Fedora
The European Blu-Ray release of Fedora contains many enviable extras not available here in the States. Among them is this documentary featuring deleted scenes and commentary by Marthe Keller, Michael York, and others involved in the making of the film. Alas, some of the interviews are in French & German, and the DVD offers no subtitles. It's available on YouTube HERE

For more on Fedora, check out the blog Angelman's Place 

Old-Fashioned, but not Old Hat

Copyright © Ken Anderson  2009 - 2018

Thursday, July 19, 2018


"One is lonely, and two is boring. Think what you can keep ignoring. Side by side by side."
Stephen Sondheim    Company - 1970

Although I wanted to desperately, I didn’t see this American Film Theater production of Edward Albee’s A Delicate Balance when it was given its brief, subscription-only theatrical run in 1973. Then, as the third filmed play in AFT’s first season, it was screened a mere four times (twice on a Monday and Tuesday at select theaters) before being withdrawn from distribution. Forever! Even network television allowed for summer re-runs, but this elite series of high-culture film releases prided itself on its now-or-never exhibition platform. A Delicate Balance was released in December of 1973, when I was 16-years-old. And while I've no doubts that I would have enjoyed this film immensely had my parents allowed me to venture out to the movies on a school night; with almost equal certainty I can say that the chances of my actually understanding what I would be watching would be close to nil. 

One's impossible, two is dreary. Three is company safe and cheery: Every Seesaw Needs a Fulcrum

I'm likely to have had an adolescent's grasp of the play's most obvious, superficial themes, especially since Albee's A Delicate Balance (like his Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?) dabbles in familial discord and dysfunction, both of which I’d had plenty of up-close-and-personal experience of my own to draw upon. But the sum total of my then-accumulated life experience—a conservatively-raised teenager attending Catholic boys school—would in no way have been up to the task of navigating, let alone understanding, A Delicate Balance’s bitter dissection of the kind of angst, regret, and fear one is given to encounter in the dark corners of introspection during the waning stages of middle age. I simply wouldn’t have understood what they were talking about.

When the entire 14-title AFT collection was released on DVD in 2003 and I, at last, had the opportunity to feast my eyes on this superb production, I discovered about A Delicate Balance what I had learned in later years about the Broadway musicals Company and Follies—two Stephen Sondheim “The Road You Didn’t Take” Suburban Gothics I fell in love with while a freshman in high school: the more perceptive the entertainment, the more rewarding the experience it provides once one has lived long enough to have amassed a few disappointments, broken hearts, and evenings haunted by the ghosts of forgotten dreams.
Katharine Hepburn as Agnes
Paul Scofield as Tobias
Kate Reid as Claire
Lee Remick as Julia
Joseph Cotten as Harry
Betsy Blair as Edna

On a quiet Friday evening in October, Agnes and Tobias, a chic, elderly couple living a life of comfortable (calcified?) splendor in upper-class suburban Connecticut...He, a retired businessman, she, the lady of the house and mistress of the manor; find their spacious, well-appointed home under invasion. Not from outsiders, for the “servants”: the maid, cook, and gardener well understand the proprietorial codes of conduct in regard to the invisibility of the help, and, should it arise, the silence of their insurgency. No, the invasion is from within. From within a coterie of co-dependent and emotionally-entitled friends, relations, and hangers-on who seek to avail themselves of the pacts of obligation and loyalty forged between them all over the course of forty years of marriage, affiliation, and kinship.
Agnes ponders the delicate equilibrium between stability and insanity

There’s Claire, Agnes’ alcoholic younger sister and lingering live-in houseguest; their adult daughter Julia, returning home after the failure of her fourth marriage; and, most peculiarly, lifelong friends and neighbors Harry and Edna, who show up unexpectedly seeking refuge (or permanent exile) after having been suddenly gripped by an unspecified, unnameable terror while sitting alone in their home.

Hepburn's Agnes is another of Albee’s reluctantly strong women. A ruler of the roost and matriarchal martinet who runs her house with a staunch hand only because the circumspect Tobias has abdicated his masculine duties as husband and father...and perhaps has fallen out of love with her. Maybe even fallen out of love with his life. Claire, a figure who stands both in and outside of the family at once, uses the sloppiness of her drunkenness like a battering ram against the order Agnes seeks to impose on everyone and everything. Claire, who maybe has/has not had a long-ago affair with Tobias, possesses the soothsayer's gift of having a crystal clear perception of everything but herself. She and Agnes share a relationship whose passive-aggressive dynamics would not be unfamiliar to that other sister act of dysfunction, Blanche and Baby Jane.
The Souring Side of Love
The “melancholy Julia,” 36-years-old and averaging a new marriage every three years, returns home after each break-up. A return to the figurative womb that has remained ruefully barren since the death of her younger, rarely spoken of brother Teddy when he was two.
The balance of this trio (and triennial quartet) is sustained through routine and maintained by means of evasion, avoidance, and the expediently-believed lie. It sustains itself because it must (“Blood binds us. Blood holds us together when we’ve no more deep affection for ourselves than others”) and endures long after it has ceased to serve its uncertain purpose. 
But with the arrival of Harry and Edna, Agnes and Tobias' twin counterparts—angst and inertia personified—the unquestioned obligations of blood are provoked and challenged by the presumed responsibilities of friendship.
Agnes on Men:
"Their concerns are so simple: money and death--making ends meet until they meet the end."

These individuals, each with their authentic claim on the illusory obligations of their interrelationships, converge one factious weekend under the precariously balanced roof of Agnes and Tobias. A refined, art-filled, alcohol saturated, separate-bedrooms for Mr. & Mrs. household that, while never appearing to have ever been a home, stands as such a bastion of constancy and predictability, it becomes something of a reassuring sanctuary for souls caught in the throes of existential panic.
"We haven't come to the wrong place, have we?"

My favorite kind of “action movie” tends to require no more than what a typical Eunice & Ed “The Family” sketch on the old The Carol Burnett Show comprises: a group of neurotics with interconnected relationships and barely-suppressed hostilities forced, by circumstance, to interact. Add to this the introduction of some form of unexpected, disruptive intrusion (say, becoming a contestant on The Gong Show) and before you know it, the resultant disequilibrium thrust upon them prompts the inevitably cathartic confrontation and reevaluation of all that had heretofore been strenuously avoided. The dramatization of the human condition—the struggles of ethics, identity, morality, compassion, and the need to communicate—has always been more thrilling to me than gunplay (although a handgun materializes here), car chases, and superheroes.
Those Carol Burnett skits (created by the comedy team of Dick Clair & Jenna McMahon, variety show staples during my youth) are but the comedic progeny of the dramatic Southern Gothic tradition of Tennessee Williams and William Inge. My personal predilection for these confrontational pressure-cooker confabs is evident in how often they serve as the structural basis for so many of my favorite films: Carnage, Autumn Sonata, Closer, Hot Spell, Hedda, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.

Practically percolating with pent-up familial tensions, A Delicate Balance is a drawing-room drama of domestic dysfunction with WASP world-weariness at its core. Indeed, watching these individuals who value order and civility above all, who treat emotions as so many dirty dishes that must be cleared away from the dinner table as quickly as possible, feels a bit like spending the weekend with the parents of Mary Tyler Moore’s character in Ordinary People.
This film adaptation of A Delicate Balance has been criticized for being visually stagnant, stagy, and talky. Perhaps, but in these inarticulate times, Albee's words serve a double purpose. They establish characters who prefer talking to actually feeling anything, and they illustrate how evocative language can be as a means of keeping intimacy at bay. From a purely personal perspective,  I relished the opportunity to see complete, unexpurgated Edward Albee performed masterfully by a brilliant cast, I can't say the film's clear theatrical origins bothered me in the least.

Theirs is a world where alcohol acts as a sort of truth serum, and chain-smoking is the means by which distress is conveyed. It’s a film bathed in the brown tones of the ‘70s, all kaftans and cocktails amidst the refined clutter of collected art. Within all this decorous emptiness are people fumbling around in search of something each is ultimately unable to give the other.
Tobias confronts the Three Tall Women

Though it lasted but a brief two years (1973-1975), Ely Landau’s American Film Theater experiment produced an enduring (if uneven) legacy of 14 book-faithful plays filmed by acclaimed directors with once-in-a-lifetime casts.
A Delicate Balance, Edward Albee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play first produced on Broadway in 1966, is every bit the witty and caustic commentary on domestic dysfunction as 1962’s infinitely more popular and widely-seen Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. But lacking that play’s cinema-compatible sound and fury (A Delicate Balance stylistic restraint is representative of the play’s repressed, emotionally reluctant characters), and possessive of a potentially alienating metaphysical twist at the end of the first act (the appearance of the terror-stricken Harry and Edna); made A Delicate Balance’s prospects for film adaptation less than guaranteed.
Albee chose Katherine Hepburn because he noticed how good she can be in roles that don't require her to move too far from her own personality. He's right. There's not a great deal of variance between Hepburn's Agnes and Hepburn's Eleanor of Aquitaine (The Lion in Winter) or Mrs. Venable (Suddenly, Last Summer), but within the narrow confines of these characters, Hepburn shines like no other. 

Happily, A Delicate Balance was taken up by the AFT before it had a chance to fall to TV and be given one of those PBS treatments with a cast of affordable actors with the appropriate TVQ (TV-Quotient = audience recognizability)—i.e., A Delicate Balance starring Hal Holbrook, Sada Thompson, and Lindsay Wagner as Julia.
Blacklisted actress Betsy Blair,  one-time Mrs. Gene Kelly and Oscar nominee for Marty (1955), gives an understated performance that has an undertone of chilling forcefulness. 

Ely Landau’s American Film Theater selected Albee’s play for its debut season and wooed Edward Albee by offering him cast and director approval, along with the assurance that it would be a faithful filmed “translation” of his play, not a film adaptation. The distinction being that there would be no attempt to edit or “open up” the play to superficially render it any more cinematic beyond the contributions of location shooting and the subjective eye of the camera.

Albee’s first choice for director was Ingmar Bergman, who'd directed a stage production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in Sweden, but he was unavailable. Academy-Award-winning director Tony Richardson (Tom Jones, A Taste of Honey) was the welcome second choice, he taking on the job chiefly to work with actress Kim Stanley (Seance on a Wet Afternoon) cast in the role of Claire. Unfortunately, Stanley was fired from the production due to her alcoholism and Method Acting eccentricities prompting a “She goes or I go!” ultimatum from Hepburn.
Edward Albee (who passed away in 2016) has cited this film as one of his favorites of the screen translations of his work. I've seen the film many times, and though I don't think it's for everyone, I consider it to be a masterwork. Despite these characters being people I really wouldn't want to spend any time around in real life, Albee's beautiful words and piercing insights connected with me on some level. In the end, I found Scofield and Hepburn to be quite moving.
Playing different ends of the provocateur spectrum, Lee Remick's displaced Julia and Kate Reid's dispossessed Claire are two of my favorite characters. Whether wallowing in self-pity or putting up a front of guarded cynicism, both actors give memorable performances.

As one of Edward Albee’s traditionally blistering looks at the institution of family, the film’s title suggests the delicate balance of pretense, obligations, self-deceptions, betrayals, and denial of feelings required to keep a dysfunctional family functioning. It also serves as an all-purpose metaphor for what has been called the fabric of life.
With each news day reminding us how easily toppled are those institutions and principles we once felt to be rock solid (democracy, the unequivocal nature of facts, the basic decency of human beings), Albee's bracing treatise on the fragility of life and the elusiveness of the human bonds we label love, friendship, and responsibility feels troublingly relevant. 
I've only seen the magnificent Paul Scofield in two films: 1990's Hamlet and his 1966 Best Actor Oscar-winning A Man For All Seasons. He is astoundingly good here. Especially in his bravura Act III scene with the always welcome (and solid) Joseph Cotten

I will soon pass the threshold of my sixth decade, and yet it never ceases to amaze me how closely insight and absolute terror co-exist. Fear becomes easier to handle as I grow older, for one does learn (intellectually if not always emotionally) that there is little worth being afraid of. But terror, which I define as a kind of unfocused dread, often comes out of nowhere and hits at unexpected times as one ages. Most powerfully in the form referenced frequently in the film: the terror that “time happens” while one is going about the meaningless business of self-distraction, self-medication, amassing material objects, and trying to avoid feeling too deeply about anything—seeking a life of no mountains or chasms; only to arrive at a moment when everything becomes “too late.”
Too late to read those books you always promised you'd make time for. Too late to learn that language. Too late to make amends. Too late to develop a soul after a lifetime of moral compromise. Too late to be loving after a lifetime of self-insulating. Too late to see that change is always a possibility with the acknowledgment that bravery, while always a necessity, doesn't come with a guarantee of a win. It merely keeps the doors open. And without those doors, there can be no sunlight, and without sunlight, there can be no new day or second chances. Only chaos and the dark side of reason.

Edward Albee interview on the making of A Delicate Balance HERE
Betsy Blair interview on the making of A Delicate Balance    HERE

Copyright © Ken Anderson  2009 - 2018