Tuesday, March 04, 2014

Dance of the Duelling Divas

In every life, there comes a moment of decision, a crossroads. When that choice is made, there is no turning back. Life takes a different direction, and we must live with the consequences. This is The Turning Point (1977).

For his intimate look behind the scenes of the competitive world of professional ballet, director Herbert Ross assembled a stellar cast, headed by two of Hollywood’s biggest stars. Both Shirley MacLaine and Anne Bancroft were over the age of 40 and battling to secure leading roles in film as a new breed of stars began to dominate 1970s cinema. This wonderful film won both women enough accolades to bolster their superstar status and secure their career longevity.  

Shirley MacLaine as Deedee
Anne Bancroft as Emma

As DeeDee, Shirley MacLaine has one of her most memorable roles. Though many may prefer MacLaine’s more iconic performances in earlier films including The Apartment and Sweet Charity, or her later triumphs in Terms of Endearment and Postcards from the Edge, I find this mid-life MacLaine character full of touching vulnerability and sympathetic insecurity. DeeDee is filled with regret at dreams that never came true, a frazzled hausfrau with a house full of kids almost ready to leave the nest. She’s put on a few pounds since the days she studied to be a prima ballerina, and when the American Ballet Company comes to town, she finds herself face to face with her best friend and rival Emma, now a legendary star. When DeeDee’s talented daughter Amelia, a budding ballerina, is invited to join the company in New York, the two old friends have the opportunity to settle a few old scores.

Anne Bancroft is commanding as Emma, the aging superstar who must fight to keep her place in the company despite the newcomers who can now out-dance (and outshine) her. Slim, angular and elegant, Bancroft carries herself with a dancer’s grace and poise, but her lack of dance ability is obvious; we never get to see the great talent that has made Emma a legend. Bancroft’s brief “performances” in the dance sequences show the actress “acting up a storm,” but with cheated camera angles and nary a pirouette. Acting-wise, though, Bancroft is strong, and her scenes with MacLaine crackle with chemistry and excitement as a lifetime of regrets and recriminations mount, and the two vie for the affection of Amelia.

Leslie Browne as Amelia
Mikhail Baryshnikov as Yuri
Tom Skerritt as Wayne

Reminiscent of those old “women’s pictures” of the 1930s and ‘40s like Auld Acquaintance and In This Our Life, these two strong female characters carry the picture, assisted by dancer Leslie Browne in her film debut as Amelia. The male members of the cast--including Tom Skerritt (Alien) as DeeDee’s husband, another former dancer; James Mitchell (All My Children) as the company’s famed choreographer; and Mikhail Baryshnikov as Amelia’s dashing Russian dance partner and love interest--are all excellent but merely incidental to the proceedings. Together, MacLaine and Bancroft form the engine that makes the sparks fly.

Both MacLaine and Bancroft received Academy Award nominations that year in the Best Actress category, but as so often happens, neither won. (Diane Keaton beat them both, winning the award for Annie Hall.) Also nominated that year in the supporting categories were dancers Browne and Baryshnikov, more for their glorious dancing than for their acting prowess. (Vanessa Redgrave and Jason Robards won those awards, both for their performances in the film Julia.)

Director Ross skillfully avoids focusing on Emma's feet...

A passionate pas de deux for Leslie and Mischa

The raison d'etre for ballet - lots of skin and tights
What sets this film apart from mere well-acted soap opera is its loving spotlight on the art of the dance. Director Herbert Ross, ably assisted by then-wife Nora Kaye (he later married Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis’s sister Lee Radziwill), creates a visual valentine to the art of the ballet, capturing on film some of the most legendary talents in the field and sharing his passion for this somewhat elitist and recherche medium with a mass audience. Baryshnikov in particular has some astonishing moments. At the peak of his physical and technical talents, he is a passionate young god leaping divinely and defying gravity at every turn.

Herbert Ross, whose first big film assignment was choreographing the musical numbers for Funny Girl in 1968, apparently used some unorthodox means for creating dramatic tension between his two leading ladies in The Turning Point.  As a prelude to their famous hair-pullling, cat-scratching rooftop battle royale, MacLaine and Bancroft share a scene in a quiet bar and begin to verbally spar, culminating in Bancroft tossing a drink into MacLaine’s obviously startled face. MacLaine was indeed nonplussed, since it was a gesture that Ross had secretly worked on with Bancroft to elicit MacLaine’s raw and naked emotional response. She never quite trusted the director again after that scene, though they would work together again.

The famous cat-fight
MacLaine skewered Ross’s sadistic techniques for getting a performance out of his actresses, both on this film and in Steel Magnolias a dozen years later. In her memoirs, she wrote that he literally brought both Darryl Hannah and Dolly Parton to tears. Not Shirley, though. She was now wise to his flim-flam.
Director Ross, Nora Kaye and Shirley MacLaine
The Turning Point is a great opportunity to see two fine actresses at the top of their game, as well as an unparalleled look at the world of ballet, both on and off the stage.


Ken Anderson said...

Terrific write up about a film that's curiously rarely talked about or much remembered. I saw it several years before I ever entertained any desire to be a dancer, but I recall loving its depiction of the world of ballet and it harkening back to the "women's films" I grew up watching on TV.
I so much enjoyed seeing Bancroft and MacLaine I remember being fairly antsy when the film trained on Baryshnikov and Browne.
I remember reading about Ross' methods of eliciting performances out of his actors. Funny how frequently these little tricks seem to be used by male directors on actresses (I'm recalling Freidkin and Burstyn's relationship on "The Exorcist").

I love that you are covering this eclectic mix of films on your site. Always a joy to read, keep up the good work, Chris!

angelman66 said...

Hi Ken - so delighted you like this movie, too. I remember it seemed so groundbreaking at the time--two mature women as the leads in a major motion picture. This was a time when women of "a certain age" were now being relegated to supporting character status, while younger actresses like Ali MacGraw, Faye Dunaway and Jane Fonda were getting all the choice roles.

Yes, some of these patriarchal male directors did indeed treat their leading ladies like children, tricking or manipulating them into the desired emotion rather than working with and rehearsing with them.

When I was a kid, the dance sequences made me a little antsy, too, but they did help build in me an appreciation for the artistry of dance. I LOVE going to the ballet now...you dancers are all a marvel to me!!

Thanks as always for your kind support, and our shared taste in film!

rico said...

Haven't seen this movie in eons, but loved it when it came out.

And of course, Shirley and Anne are superb...

Here's a lil gossip I remember from way back when: some of the original names thrown around for the leads were Grace Kelly in the Bancroft role and Elizabeth Taylor in Shirley's role. Apparently Grace was keen to do it, especially hearing old MGM pal Liz' name mentioned, but once again, Prince Rainier nixed it. And apparently Liz was pretty ho hum about Hollywood and opted to try to be a good Republican wife instead...and we all know how that turned out!
I will have to catch this film again soon!
Cheers, Rico

angelman66 said...

Hi rico - WOW, what a different movie that would have been, with Liz and Grace in the leads...I do remember what a ballet fan Princess Grace was...she narrated a documentary about the children's ballet school called The Children of Theatre Street, didn't she? I totally never heard that she was considering doing the Turning Point.

Thanks for stopping by!!

rico said...

Shirley actually benefited getting a lot of roles her old pal Liz turned down.
Liz was slated to do Irma La Douce but was stuck on Cleo forever. Ever wonder why Shirley is wearing a black wig in it? Because the costume designs for Liz were already made...
Liz also turned down Two For The Seesaw and What a Way to Go.
Don't think The Turning Point ever got past the initial talking stages. But Liz definitely turned down Terms of Endearment to do Private Lives with Burton...which despite the debacle, I'm sure Liz would do it all the same, to be by Burton one last time.

Ever see Ash Wednesday? It's a Lifetime kinda movie, where ET plays a 60ish woman undergoing head to toe plastic surgery to save her marriage to sourpuss Henry Fonda. Elizabeth was 41 at the time and looks stunning. And the film shows her acting restrained and empathetic...which put her leagues above Lana Turner's posturing.

angelman66 said...

Yes, rico, I have seen Ash Wednesday and loved it...especially her transformation from old to young via the face lift...great makeup job! That film is very, very hard to find these days; it never shows up on TV. Last saw it when I was a teenager...

I had no idea about Liza and Irma La Douce, OR Terms of Endearment. I do know Shirley was pissed when she lost the 1960 Oscar (for The Apartment) to Liz in Butterfield 8, saying "I lost to a tracheotomy."

It was fun seeing them together (along with Debbie Reynolds) in These Old Broads (written by Carrie Fisher), where they make veiled references to their past feuds and squabbles...I'm SURE you have seen that one too!