Wednesday, May 19, 2021

The Devil Is In The Details

Based on the novel by Dennis Wheatley (The Devil Rides Out), the film version of To The Devil A Daughter (1976) bears little resemblance to its source material. It’s little more than a hodgepodge of supernatural claptrap, further hampered by a jumbled storyline, but it is entertaining nonetheless to die-hard classic horror fans like me. 

Here’s a thumbnail of the plot: An occult novelist is called upon by a desperate man to rescue his daughter who has been brainwashed in a Bavarian monastery by a pseudo-Catholic cult as part of a Faustian pact he now regrets. (That’s complicated enough, but there are about a dozen other subplots to contend with here as well.)  

Directly influenced by that bankable genre starting with Rosemary’s Baby and continuing through The Exorcist and The Omen, this contemporary rather than gothic Hammer Film borrows heavily from them all. Its overstuffed storyline is crammed full of black magic, voodoo and various and sundry occult mumbo jumbo, replete with an obligatory Black Mass/Hieros Gamos ritual sex scene.

The cast is first-rate, proving the old adage that even the greatest collection of actors can’t save a movie from a bad (or nonexistent) script.

A properly clothed Lee and Kinski

Hammer veteran Christopher Lee (Horror of Dracula, The Wicker Man, The Man With the Golden Gun) headlines the proceedings with a solid and dignified performance despite all the messy twists and turns of the story, sailing through with his signature unruffled panache. Though he had high hopes for this follow-up to his marvelous performance in the classic Devil Rides Out, this film can’t hold a candle to the previous Wheatley adaptation.

As the novelist, the legendary Richard Widmark (Kiss of Death, Judgment at Nuremberg, Coma) has little to do except spout pages of exposition to attempt to explain the incomprehensible and convoluted plot points that never quite come together. (Widmark was found to be difficult and uncooperative on the set, loudly cursing the quality of the script, which changed every day. Viewers will find he was displeased for good reason.)

Sister Nastassia and a peevish Richard Widmark

Widmark’s character does have one good line retained from the Wheatley novel when he explains the appeal of Satanism as an excuse for “dancing naked in churchyards and using the devil as an excuse to get sex.” 

Nastassia Kinski, daughter of German actor Klaus Kinski (who was originally cast in the Widmark role and got a better offer!), is the beleaguered heroine of the piece, the young virgin who must be consort to the demon her cult wishes to invoke. She spends most of her screen time either dressed in a nun’s habit or totally naked, surrounded by chanting devil-worshippers.  

(Incidentally, the film also distinguishes itself by giving us Sir Christopher Lee’s only cinematic nude scene, though reportedly some angles were filmed with a body double. He’s in great shape here, though, for a man of 54!)

Young Nastassia would soon become the protege of director Roman Polanski and star as Thomas Hardy’s ill-fated heroine in his film version of Tess, though she’s probably best remembered from that sex-charged, 1980s Cat People remake.

Denholm Elliott emotes as Honor Blackman models scarves

As Kinski’s tortured father, a wild-eyed Denholm Elliott (Maurice, Raiders of the Lost Ark) chews the scenery using the masterful RADA training that made him such a reliable and fine character actor in countless British films.

The talented Frances De La Tour has a small role as a toothsome Salvation Army worker who moves the plot forward an inch or two—presumably for comic relief, as she never appears again. Honor Blackman, forever known as Pussy Galore from Goldfinger, swans around in fashionable head scarves until she suffers a particularly gruesome death.

There are some effective horror set pieces— a ghost with a crescent shape amulet who is never explained, a terrifying tableau of of a man on fire—every horror trope but the metaphysical kitchen sink is thrown in for good or bad measure. If you don’t think and just watch, you might enjoy some of the spectacle!

The obligatory worship of golden idols

A demon named Astaroth is the idol of worship by the Bavarian cult, depicted as a spread-eagled figure on an upside down cross (the Hanged Man tarot symbol) in a vulgar parody of Christ's crucifixion.

The monstrous little demon baby evoked through a bloody birth ritual is reminiscent of both Lovecraft lore and a shocker made the previous year called It’s Alive. The scene with the bloody baby crawling between Kinski’s legs and salivating blood all over her unclad body is an image you can’t unsee.

This last Hammer horror film does pay homage to its colorful past with the liberal use of bright red blood so beloved to Hammer gore aficionados. In a few key scenes including the film’s climax, bowlsful of the signature fake blood are used, cartoonishly bright red “Kensington Gore” achieved with a mixture of corn syrup, paraben, food coloring and Kodak Photo-Flo fluid. 

If the film had built to a rousing climax and tied up some of its many loose ends, one may be able to forgive its transgressions, but apparently the production ran out of money and the producers were forced to fashion a hasty, tacked-on and underwhelming ending.

Sir Christopher going a little over the top

Ironically, Father Michael Raynor is one of Lee’s most subtle performances, though he does go over the top when called upon! He cuts a handsome figure in his long black cassock and white collar, his manner gentlemanly and enigmatic and understated. With his diabolically charming smile and famously smoldering eyes, Christopher Lee is here, as always, the personification of elegant evil. He emerges from this not-so-great picture completely unscathed.

To The Devil A Daughter is a little known horror curiosity, a campy exploitation film that has developed a cult following for many obvious reasons. Too much is thrown at the wall in the service of entertainment —though a few things stick. If you’re anything like me, you’ll buy the DVD so you’ll be able to fast-forward to “the good parts”—again and again! 

This is my entry in the Christopher Lee Blogathon hosted by Cinematic Catharsis and Realweegiemidget Reviews. I look forward to reading all about one of my all-time favorite and most prolific stars!

Saturday, March 06, 2021

The Backstory to 'Broads'

These Old Broads
is a 2001 TV movie written by Carrie Fisher (with Elaine Pope) and starring Debbie Reynolds, Shirley MacLaine, Joan Collins and Elizabeth Taylor. In it, Fisher set out to pen a campy romp that gay audiences would love, a valentine to lovers of Old Hollywood and the legendary ladies who twinkled in its firmanent. 

The premise is simple: A trio of has-been actresses who can’t stand each other team up for a tribute to the 60s beach movie that made them stars (think Where The Boys Are). But the plot of the movie is really beside the point. The real fun of These Old Broads is knowing the backstories of its superstar cast and connecting the dots.

Fisher found her movie title in an old Hollywood story that perfectly captured the attitude toward aging actresses in Hollywood.

In 1962, studio head Jack Warner told producer Robert Aldrich when he asked for financing on a picture starring aging divas Bette Davis and Joan Crawford: “No one’s going to give you a dime for these old broads.” (But Warner was wrong, of course, and Whatever Happened To Baby Jane went on to become the surprise hit of that year.)

Carrie Fisher with her mom Debbie Reynolds, circa 1970

Carrie Fisher herself was one complicated character. Space Princess. Hollywood Princess. And also Princess of Pain - obsessive, intense and bipolar, with a passionate and encyclopedic knowledge of Hollywood folklore. We are fortunate that she was such a prolific writer and chronicler of the many things going on inside that brilliant beautiful mind.

If you’re not familiar with Fisher’s history and Hollywood pedigree, I highly recommend watching her hilarious one-woman show Wishful Drinking (available on HBO) before seeing These Old Broads. In it, she gives an enlightening synopsis of her life in a lecture replete with a flow chart of her famous family tree—aptly titled Hollywood Inbreeding 101. 

Bottom line: it’s all connected—and many of the details must be understood to fully appreciate Broads

Back in 1957, singer Eddie Fisher and girl next door MGM star Debbie Reynolds (parents to Carrie and brother Todd) were America’s sweethearts, and best friends to impresario Mike Todd and his new wife Elizabeth Taylor. (Debbie had even served as Elizabeth’s matron of honor.) Tragically, Mike Todd suddenly died in a plane crash, leaving Elizabeth devastated. Debbie sent Eddie to help her friend in any way he possibly could. 

The Other Woman: Elizabeth Taylor with Eddie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds

Then, as Carrie tells it, “My father rushed to her side—and then made his way around to her front.” The despondent widowed Taylor needed comfort and consolation, and in Eddie’s daughter’s words, “She consoled herself with my father’s p****s.”

The scandal and feud that resulted played out in the tabloids for years to come. Elizabeth was branded an adulteress, and Eddie lost his lucrative TV show. Reynolds divorced Fisher. Fisher and Taylor would marry in 1959, but three years later Taylor would dump him as well for costar Richard Burton, igniting yet another Scandale.

In Broads, Debbie Reynolds plays a role very close to her real self, an unsinkable former movie star who owns a hotel and movie memorabilia museum.  

One key scene in These Old Broads capitalizes on the Debbie/Eddie/Liz scandal and is fascinating to watch, the square-off scene between Elizabeth Taylor and Debbie Reynolds. It’s full of fun, affection and nostalgia as Debbie playfully chastises her former friend for being a nymphomaniac and Elizabeth defends herself by calling Debbie a boring born-again virgin. Debbie forgives Elizabeth and together they tear Eddie to shreds for coming between them. In real life, Debbie and Elizabeth had buried the hatchet years before, but for a classic movie lover it’s a real treat to see an onscreen version of their reconciliation. (It’s the raison d’etre for the whole film, in my opinion!)

Friends forever: Elizabeth Taylor and Debbie Reynolds

With almost nothing to do or interesting to say, Shirley MacLaine fares less well than Debbie and Elizabeth in Broads. The character she plays would have benefited by a dash of the metaphysical/woowoo (some say kooky) spiritual persona that has helped make the name Shirley MacLaine iconic, but no one thought of that.

But of course, MacLaine has backstory that connects her directly to both Debbie Reynolds and Elizabeth Taylor in the Hollywood tapestry of myth. In Postcards from the Edge, Carrie Fisher’s thinly veiled account of her recovery from a drug overdose, MacLaine famously played the role of the mother fashioned after Debbie, opposite Meryl Streep in the Carrie role. 

And Liz Taylor once “stole” the Oscar that MacLaine believed was hers, back in 1961! 

Liz "stole" Shirley's Oscar in 1961, but Shirley got one too in 1984

Nominated for a Best Actress Oscar for her role of Miss Kubelik in Billy Wilder’s The Apartment,  MacLaine was the odds-on favorite to win. That is, until fellow nominee Elizabeth Taylor fell ill with pneumonia in London and was at death’s door. Only emergency surgery saved Elizabeth from drowning in her own lung fluids, along with the prayers of filmgoers worldwide who forgave her sinful past transgressions (specifically, stealing Debbie’s husband Eddie). “I prayed right along with them for Elizabeth’s recovery,” a saintly Debbie Reynolds was quoted as saying.

The Academy voters took pity on her as well and Taylor won, for her performance as a trampy call girl in the sleazy yet slick soap opera Butterfield 8, prompting Shirley MacLaine to retort cynically, “I lost to a tracheotomy.” (MacLaine would finally win the coveted gold statuette for Best Actress in 1984, for Terms of Endearment.)

Connecting the dots to…Joan Collins. When Elizabeth had fallen ill, it had been none other than Joan Collins who was tapped to replace Taylor as the Queen of the Nile in the big screen Fox epic Cleopatra. (But Taylor, of course, recovered!)

Joan Collins almost took over the role of Cleopatra from an ailing Taylor - but she recovered!

Collins, considered to be the poor man’s Elizabeth Taylor, had been a Hollywood glamour girl for half a decade but had never achieved the A-List status of a Taylor or a Monroe. The British beauty did some high profile parts (taking over the role Joan Crawford played in The Women for the color remake The Opposite Sex, for example) but her filmography also contained numerous lesser efforts such as the B sword-and-sandal epic Land of the Pharoahs.

Married to flamboyant songwriter and performer Anthony “What Kind of Fool Am I” Newley in the 1960s, Collins became more well known as an international jetsetter than as an actress, though she did take time out to raise a family. A ubiquitous presence on International Best Dressed Lists and in the tabloids, Collins was seen frugging at posh nightclubs in seqinned minidresses, glittering with diamonds, sporting her trademark false lashes and kohl-black eyeliner, high bouffant wigs and falls. Fabulous!

Building an icon: From 1950s glamour girl to 1960s fashionista to TV's top femme fatale

In the 1970s, Collins worked steadily, often in horror films (like Tales That Witness Madness and The Swarm) and titillating semi-sexploitation films like The Bitch (based on a book by her equally famous sister Jackie Collins, who exposed the seamier side of fame and fortune with her racy contemporary romance novels, most notably The Hollywood Wives.)

Then came the TV series Dynasty, in which her tour de force performance as the beautiful, villainous and flawlessly fashionable Alexis Morell Carrington Colby Dexter Dexter Rowan revitalized her career and propelled her to a richly deserved icon status of her own. 

In Broads, Joan looks spectacular - she was 67 at the time - but she seems miscast in her role of a gangster’s moll (shades of Lana Turner and Johnny Stompananato) and her American accent leaves something to be desired. 

Perhaps Elizabeth had been offered the Collins role first and turned it down (though it wouldn’t have been a good fit for her either) and then bade Fisher to create a role in which she could relax in bed most of the time. Taylor suffered from constant agonizing pain from back trouble and had difficulty walking, and indeed for the rest of her life conducted most of her business from her bedroom! 

Like Mae West, Elizabeth did some of her best work in bed

(For all her beauty, talent, fame and and money, Taylor’s life was indeed beset by crisis after crisis, tragedy after tragedy, dozens of health scares, operations and close calls. A long-running soap opera. But she still found the energy and time to create a billion-dollar perfume business and to establish, organize and promote the AIDS charity AMFAR.)

In her small role as a high-powered Hollywood agent, Elizabeth steals the film from her famous costars, a zoftig earth mother lounging in her caftan and barking orders in a thick New York accent.  (Taylor had converted to Judaism when she married Mike Todd and ever since, always referred to herself as a Jewish American Princess and a Jewish Mother, and she plays it to the hilt here.)

If only the movie itself were as interesting as the stories behind it and the stars in it!  It’s a mess in many respects (a mix of slapstick farce and bitchy comedy of manners) but its heart is in the right place. Any movie that gives work to mature, powerful, accomplished women is all right in my book. When it’s on again, you can be sure I’ll be watching it! 

Thanks for the opportunity to add this entry to the Joan Collins Blogathon hosted by RealWeegieMidget Reviews and Taking Up Room! I look forward to exploring the glittering career of Dame Joan with my fellow bloggers! 

Wednesday, January 27, 2021

Selznick's Unconquerable Fortress

A world at war. An uncertain future, the loss of loved ones and the need to draw together for strength, comfort and joy. These are among the themes of David O. Selznick’s Since You Went Away (1944).

The effects of WW II on the collective psyche were not unlike the psychological impacts of our currently raging pandemic, an event that has beckoned us back to the cozy pleasures of hearth and home, a refuge from the dangers out there in the world.

Since You Went Away is a unique wartime tale, an intimate story with an epic sweep, its spectacle not depicting the hell of embattled war zone combat, but the quiet determination of those who kept the home fires burning. Its setting: An Unconquerable Fortress—The American Home 1943.

Episodic montages punctuate this intimate family drama to convey the toll of the war on all Americans – soldiers marching to war, bidding farewell to loved ones in crowded railway stations, dancing away their troubles at raucous USO gatherings. Church congregations seeking strength, overflowing hospital wards teeming with injured and limbless servicemen. But chiefly this is the story of the Hilton family.

For producer David O. Selznick (Dinner At Eight, David Copperfield, Rebecca), this film was a labor of love that obsessed him almost as much as his legendary Gone With The Wind a few years earlier. He adapted the film himself (“Screenplay by the Producer” reads his modest credit), and though the film’s director is credited as John Cromwell, it is Selznick who controlled every aspect of the storytelling in his inimitable, frenetic, famously megolomaniacal style.

Here, producer Selznick assembles a cast of both veteran actors and fresh faced newcomers to create a story that is as entertaining as it is thought provoking, and the principals in the all-star cast generate plenty of star power. 

The Hiltons: Claudette Colbert, Jennifer Jones and Shirley Temple

Claudette Colbert is Anne Hilton, whose husband has just gone off to war, leaving her with two teenage girls to raise alone. 

In her long career, Colbert transitioned gracefully from early talkie femme fatale (Sign of the Cross, Cleopatra) and madcap heroine (she won her Oscar for It Happened One Night) to the mature wise mother figure she portrays here. An unusual round-faced beauty with wide set eyes, Colbert was one of Hollywood’s most versatile actresses—equally at home wrapped in mink or luxuriating in a bath of asses' milk in Cecil Be DeMille’s ancient Rome and Egypt, or donning a helmet and combat boots as an Army nurse in 1943’s So Proudly We Hail (another essential for WWII aficionados).

David Selznick’s muse (and some say obsession) Jennifer Jones plays Anne’s eldest daughter Jane Hilton in her first starring role since her career-making, Oscar-winning turn in The Song of Bernadette

Star-crossed lovers: Robert Walker and Jennifer Jones 

Born Phyllis Isley and married young to fellow actor Robert Walker, Jones had been discovered, groomed for stardom and given the name Jennifer Jones by David Selznick. Selznick fell deeply and compulsively in love with her, though Jones was still married to husband Walker, the father of her two children.

And guess who plays Bill, Jones’s ill-fated love interest in Since You Went Away? None other than the cuckolded Walker. Despite the fact that they filed for divorce in mid-production of this film, Jones and her estranged husband display great screen chemistry and their romantic scenes sizzle, especially one taking place on a haymaker at a farm. It’s interesting to note that their onscreen lovemaking was being supervised by the very man who had engineered their impending divorce—and filming those scenes was reportedly tense, with Svengali overtones, no doubt.

 The boyishly handsome Walker would go on to star memorably opposite Judy Garland in Vincente Minnelli’s The Clock and Farley Granger in Strangers On A Train but suffered from mental illness, exacerbated by alcoholism - he died of an accidental overdose in 1951 just after completing the Hitchcock classic.

Jones was Selznick’s inspiration but many of the productions he mounted to showcase her were misfires, including the overheated Western Duel In The Sun and ill-advised remake of A Farewell To Arms with Rock Hudson. Selznick died in 1965. 

Shirley Temple as Brig (note the iconic child star in background!)

Playing Jane’s little sister Brig Hilton was a big comeback for Shirley Temple. Temple has David Selznick to thank for rescuing her from the career oblivion that most child stars experience when they reach puberty and adolescence. The top box office star of the 1930s, topping the Quigley Poll three years running, Temple was an icon of doll-like perfection, with her trademark sausage curls bouncing and tiny feet tap dancing beneath starched crinoline skirts. 

Dropped unceremoniously by her home studio 20th Century Fox at the ripe old age of 11 and briefly signed to MGM who had earlier hoped to star her in The Wizard of Oz, Temple made but one film there that flopped (Kathleen). She then retired to the fashionable Harvard Westlake prep school where for the first time, she lived life as a normal teenager until she was signed by Selznick. 

And that’s what she plays here, a typical WWII teenager who briskly runs the vacuum cleaner, fights with her sister for bathroom time and participates in wartime rubber and scrap drives with her shy friend Gladys. 

Shirley blossomed into a lovely young woman. Since You Went Away revitalized her career and she was featured in a number of “A” pictures throughout the 1940s including I’ll Be Seeing You, Fort Apache with John Wayne and first husband John Agar, one of Clifton Webb’s popular Sitting Pretty sequels and opposite Cary Grant in The Bachelor and the Bobbysoxer. She retired from the screen in 1950, marrying businessman Charles Black and becoming involved with Republican politics, serving most notably as a diplomat as Ambassador to Ghana and Czechoslovakia. 

Sparring partners: Agnes Moorehead and Joseph Cotten, refereed by Colbert

Joseph Cotten is charming as the handsome Navy lieutenant former boyfriend of Anne and her husband Tim’s best friend, deeply in love with her yet wanting only her happiness—the one that got away. He is particularly effective when sparring delightfully with Agnes Moorehead as a vain, narcissistic and holier-than-thou matron who hoards and judges and gossips her way through the war.  (Moorehead and Cotten, of course, were longtime colleagues as members of Orson Welles’s Mercury Theater repertory company and costars in the Welles classics Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons.)

This is the film that introduced the handsome Guy Madison to movie audiences. Here, as a sailor boy who meets Jane and Bill at a bowling alley, Madison is as sweet and wholesome and appealing as a vanilla ice cream soda (which the youngsters in the film long for but can never taste because of food rationing!) Soon, he’d star opposite Shirley Temple in Honeymoon.

Madison had been discovered by Selznick casting director and soon-to-be- Hollywood super agent Henry Willson. Madison became of one Willson’s first clients in the “stable of studs” he famously amassed and built into stars in the 1950s—along with Tab, Rock, Troy and other prime specimens of “beefcake”. 

Also memorably featured in the cast are Monty Woolley (The Man Who Came To Dinner) as the gruff, rigid, complicated Captain Smollett who is transformed by the loss of estranged grandson Bill in the war, and a short but powerful cameo by the legendary Lionel Barrymore as a minister who strengthens the spines of his church brethren with a rousing homily. 

Eye candy: Henry Willson discovery Guy Madison 

Oscar winner Hattie McDaniel is on hand to lend her inimitable warmth, humor and humanity to the proceedings as the aptly named Fidelia, the Hilton family housekeeper. Today, though, it’s impossible not to wince at the unmistakably racist overtones in how her character is drawn. Not only is McDaniel playing another domestic (as she did in just about every film and TV show in which she ever appeared), she’s forced to spout a stream of zany malapropisms, albeit amusingly and with perfect comic timing, that underscore her position in the world as an uneducated woman of color. As Fidelia, McDaniel rises far above her material, as all African-American performers of that era were forced to do. Dressed in contemporary stylish attire here, McDaniel exudes the same aura of fiercely protective love that she displayed in her Academy Award winning role as Mammy.  But the character sounds a truly jarring note.

Hattie McDaniel as Fidelia: Forced to rise above her material - again...

 Though Selznick does include a brief perfunctory glance at a black family as the father is sent off to war in one of his sweeping montages, the lack of representation is glaringly obvious when viewed today, in a film supposedly celebrating the American Way and costarring the first African-American Oscar recipient. 

At turns funny and touching and somber, Since You Went Away is engrossing film fare for a long, lazy afternoon (in or out of lockdown!). Selznick’s romantic sentimentalism reaches its apex in the iconic farewell scene, as Jane runs to follow serviceman Bill’s train as it pulls away, promising him eternal love with no guarantee she’ll ever see him again. It can still bring a few tears to the eyes if you’re in the mood!

Thanks for the opportunity to participate in the Home Sweet Home Blogathon, hosted by Realweegiemidget Reviews and Taking Up Room. I look forward to reading all the entries!

Wednesday, June 10, 2020

Worst Case Scenario

Imagine, if you can, a worldwide crisis that touches the lives of everyone on the planet, a time when “we will all entertain our deepest fears and concerns.” Sound familiar? Before the global pandemic of 2020, we needed to suspend our disbelief and use our imaginations to feel the Deep Impact (1998) of this prescient and intelligently produced disaster film. Now, a much smaller leap of faith is required to resonate with this gripping story.

The disruptive effects of an extinction level event (ELE) upon the collective psyche and societal structure as we know it are explored in director Mimi Leder’s exhilarating and thought-provoking  adventure.

Made the same year as the more action-heavy, cartoonlike Armegeddon starring Bruce Willis, Deep Impact delves beneath the surface details to explore the nuances of the human experience under the duress of a global catastrophe.

Tea Leoni as Jenny Lerner

Many of the storytelling devices here will be recycled in future disaster epics including The Day After Tomorrow and 2012, albeit with less thoughtful social commentary.

The gravitasse of legendary actors like Vanessa Redgrave (Camelot, Julia) Maximilian Schell (Judgment at Nuremberg) Robert Duvall (The Godfather), and Morgan Freeman (The Shawshank Redemption, Driving Miss Daisy) adds to the all-star epic feel that subtly evokes those old Irwin Allen classics like The Poseidon Adventure, Earthquake and The Towering Inferno.

Elijah Wood as Leo Biederman

But the story is largely propelled by a cast led by then-newcomers including Tea Leoni (Spanglish, Fun with Dick and Jane), Elijah Wood (Lord of the Rings), Lee Lee Sobieski (Eyes Wide Shut), Ron Eldard (E/R, Blackhawk Down), Blair Underwood (Quantico) and John Favreau (Swingers, Chef),  and ably supported by fine actors including Laura Innes (E/R), James Cromwell (Six Feet Under, Angels in America) and Dougray Scott (in a tiny early role as an MSNBC cameraman).

Ron Eldard as Oren Monash

Before the backdrop of impending calamity, we see our all-star cast go about their busy, fast-paced lives—teenagers come of age, ambitious go-getters try to get ahead in their careers, corporations attempt to conduct business as usual—as an omniscient media shapes the narrative for maximum dramatic effect.

Tea Leoni is Jenny Lerner, an ambitious MSNBC news employee who works under self-absorbed MSNBC anchor Beth Stanley (Innes) who fears Jenny is trying to usurp her position in front of the camera.  As Jenny, Leoni has some unforgettable moments, including the All About Eve-like tension with Innes; her terrified gulping of a martini right after she learns of the ELE; her shocked and numbed reaction at the suicide of her mother (Redgrave); her touching last reel reconciliation with her estranged father (Schell). It is Jenny who discovers the government coverup of the impending disaster and becomes an international news celebrity.

Robert Duvall as Spurgeon "Fish" Tanner

Freeman is iconically cast as President Tom Beck, our first African American commander in chief a decade before Obama, exuding cool, calm and compassionate leadership in the face of intense adversity. (Small wonder that Freeman, with his sonorous voice, soulful yet stalwart demeanor and imposing physicality, was also perfectly cast in the role of God Almighty. )

Laura Innes as Beth Stanley

When young high schooler Leo Biederman (Wood) and his classmate and girlfriend Sarah (Sobieski) discover a new celestial body in the night sky, Leo emails images and coordinates to the scientist who visited their astrononomy club, Dr. Wolf (an uncredited Charles Martin Smith) who confirms the unthinkable: The comet is a collision course with earth.

Morgan Freeman as President Tom Beck

The President, pressured by Jenny Lerner’s insistent probings, finally sounds the alarm and unveils a plan to deploy nuclear weapons on the face of the enormous meteor and introduces the team of astronauts who will undertake the task.

Ron Eldard is perfect as Oren Monash, the brash and arrogant young commander who feels that the veteran elder astronaut Spurgeon “Fish” Tanner (Robert Duvall), who walked on the moon decades ago, is stealing his thunder and undermining his authority.

Maximilian Schell as Jason Lerner

Vanessa Redgrave as Robin Lerner

Even in the midst of unimaginable events, the characters react as a generation raised by television, and the film contains wry observations and commentary about fame and success. “The best thing about being a celebrity is that you have a lot of sex,” Wood’s character is told, while the young and attractive group of astronauts chosen for the rescue effort (including Eldard, Favreau, Underwood, and Mary McCormack) are “not scared of dying; they’re scared of not looking good on TV.”

Leo and Sarah (Lee Lee Sobieski)

The media itself, represented here by real-life network MSNBC, is a pivotal character in the story as well. How the news business uses facts and figures to craft the story and shape the public narrative is vividly illustrated. Despite the threat of extinction itself, the relentless news machine focuses chiefly on ratings and marketing tactics. “I need graphics,” screams a producer, and the newly branded MSNBC  “Earth Rescue” news report soon features a digital rendering of the comet on a collision course with earth that will “scare the shit out of people.”

Favreau, McCormack, Aleksandr Baluev, Eldard, Duvall and Underwood

To preserve “our way of life,” the existence of a vast underground bunker system (obviously having been constructed years before!) is now revealed to the public if, by some chance, the mission does not succeed.

Fame and privilege will enhance the odds of survival for notables are “preselected” for the underground caves, while the rest of the population are subjected to a nationwide lottery for those sought-after spaces in the “new Noah’s Ark.” But it’s survival of the fittest, as no one over the age of 50 will be eligible for the lottery, and millions must face the chilling realization that they will not survive the disaster.

"There will be no looting..."

"Our mission has failed...

Despite their valiant attempt to destroy the comet, the rescue mission fails, splitting the space rock into two projectiles still aimed at Earth. The astronauts decide to sacrifice their lives to save the planet by flying into the larger meteor and detonating the rest of their nukes. “Look at the the bright side,” comments McCormack matter-of-factly. “We’ll all have high schools named after us.”

As the smaller asteroid hits our planet, a tidal wave engulfs the New York skyline including the twin towers, a reminder that this is a pre 9/11 film. The special effects are quite impressive for the late 1990s (thank you, executive producer Steven Spielberg).

But it’s the characters we care about, and there are many touching and affecting moments as annihilation looms large.

Badly injured, blinded, and seeing things differently, Oren has a lovely and quiet scene with Fish where the two men bond in a moment of solidarity and friendship, as Tanner sits beside Monash reading Moby Dick aloud. Later, the astronauts bid tearful goodbyes to their loved ones via satellite before sacrificing themselves for the greater good.

Jenny gives up her chance at survival with an unselfish act, letting her coworker Beth and her young daughter board the helicopter to take her place in the Ark—and reunites with her estranged father (Schell) as the wall of water overcomes them both. Sarah’s parents entrust the care of their newborn baby to the teenagers and embrace as the flood waters overcome them.

The astronauts’ sacrifice turns out to be well worth it, as the larger asteroid is destroyed and humanity is given one more chance. The rebuilding begins…

The special effects were not bad for 1998!

Exploring some deeper undercurrents—from government secrecy, the role of the media, facing our own mortality and getting our personal priorities straight— beneath the obvious and superficial triumph-over-adversity disaster movie tropes, Deep Impact has always provided food for thought for viewers, and its message is as relevant today as when it was made more than two decades ago. Maybe even more so…

Thanks to Dubsism and my friend Quiggy at The Midnite Drive-In for hosting the Disaster Blogathon! I look forward to reading everyone’s posts and sharing ideas regarding one of my favorite film genres.

Saturday, April 25, 2020

Coming Out with Maurice

Boy meets boy in a world where their kind of love was an impossibility. This is E.M. Forster’s Maurice (1987).

Having already produced a critically acclaimed film version of Forster’s A Room with a View in 1985, producer Ismael Merchant and director James Ivory took the gamble of mounting Forster’s groundbreaking and explicitly homosexual love story with honesty and heart, in exquisite period detail.

As a gay man who came out in the 1980s, long before it was fashionable or even safe to do so (and as the AIDS crisis pushed an entire generation out of the closet to fight for their civil rights), Maurice was one of the first LGBT films I ever saw, and it remains one of my all-time favorites. I was dazzled by its romantic opulence, emotional honesty and intelligent treatment of previously verboten subject matter.

Hugh Grant as Clive Durham

The three British actors who form the forbidden love triangle in Maurice took the chance of being stereotyped forever and ruining their chances at stardom by playing gay characters. (A few years before in the USA, up and coming leading man Harry Hamlin had almost destroyed his burgeoning career by playing a homosexual in a controversial film called Making Love.)

James Wilby as Maurice Hall

Here you’ll see a young and handsome Hugh Grant, years before he leapt to fame in Four Weddings and a Funeral. The only member of the Maurice ensemble to make it to A-List megastardom, the charming Grant has since carved an indelible niche as a leading man in iconic light romantic comedies like Notting Hill and Love Actually. (But throughout his meteoric rise to fame in the 1990s, Grant never talked much about Maurice!)

Rupert Graves has continued to work steadily since he bared his soul (and much more than that!) in both Room with a View and Maurice, in dozens of films and TV series including V for Vendetta, the ABC series The Family and The White Queen for BBC.

Rupert Graves as Alec Scudder

In the film’s title role is the stalwart James Wilby, always at home in period drawing room settings in films including A Handful of Dust, Gosford Park and Merchant Ivory’s Howard's End. Wilby’s veneer of conservative Britishness makes him the perfect choice to play the role of a deeply conflicted man who makes the bold and daring, unexpected life choice of surrendering to his natural inclinations.

The film opens at Cambridge in 1909, where suburban upper middle class youth Maurice Hall (Wilby) meets and falls in love with Clive Durham (Grant), the scion of an aristocratic family and young master of Pendersleigh Park (think Downton Abbey).

Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s screenplay touches upon the emotional, intellectual and socioeconomic aspects of E.M. Forster’s story. The richness of their liberal arts education at Cambridge is illustrated by readings from Plato’s Symposium on platonic male love (the professor warns his students to “omit the reference to the unspeakable vice of the Greeks”) and the society’s caste and class system where social roles are clearly delineated.

Mark Tandy as Viscount Risley

At Cambridge Maurice is drawn to Risley (Mark Tandy), a supercilious and cerebral upperclassman who has a “dangerous” interest in him. Through his attraction to Risley, Maurice meets the sweet and boyish Clive, and the pair immediately become intimate friends and soul mates.

At first it is Clive who is the iconoclast and sophisticate, determined to turn his back on the rigidly repressive stuffiness of Edwardian society—but eventually he succumbs to peer pressure and fulfills the role that society has laid out for him. Maurice is the uneducated, naive dolt who follows all the rules without question until his animal instincts lead him in the direction of freedom.

Clive resists Maurice's advances

The story is rife with reversals. Though it is Clive who first ardently proclaims his love, scandalizing Maurice, it is a newly lusty Maurice who pushes to consummate their relationship. But as the pair spoon and snuggle on a blanket during their romantic picnic, Clive fearfully recoils at Maurice’s physical advances.

Both characters grapple with their ideas of masculinity and respectability. When Maurice works as a London stockbroker, he dons a mustache that Clive finds “revolting,” yet for the second half of the picture (another reversal) it is Clive not Maurice who wears the mustache.

When Viscount Risley is arrested and “sent down” for dallying with a young soldier in a London pub as part of a sting operation — homosexuality is crime and major scandal — he is sentenced to 6 months hard labor but more importantly, by being branded a ‘twank’ (faggot), loses his reputation and his station in the social pecking order.

Distinctly middle class: Maurice's sister (Helena Michell) and mother (Billie Whitelaw)

Risley’s disgrace shakes Clive to the core and makes him determined to change, though Maurice wonders, “Can the leopard change his spots?” They both try. While Clive submits to a sexless marriage to the frigid Anne (Phoebe Nicholls), Maurice visits a hypnotist in the vain hopes that he can cure his condition ("I’m a degenerate of the Oscar Wilde sort”), to no avail.

Then Alec Scudder (Graves), the attractive but rough hewn under gamekeeper at Pendersleigh, makes a bold pass at Maurice, and the film erupts into the stuff of romance novels, culminating in rapturous male-male love scenes that might make Lady Chatterley herself start to blush. (Same sex love scenes may be commonplace today in mainstream entertainment, but the startling and unabashed full frontal male nudity of Maurice was still an uncommon sight in 1980s cinema.)

Caste and class system: The underkeeper and the gentleman

Maurice climaxes in a happy ending for Maurice and Alec (“Now we shant never be parted,” whispers Alec) and a resigned sadness for Clive who looks out the window longingly into his past, with wife Anne at his side.

The man that got away: Clive and Anne (Phoebe Nicholls)

The principals are ably supported by a cast that’s a virtual who’s who of accomplished British character actors, including Denholm Elliott, Ben Kingsley (sporting the oddest American accent you’ve ever heard) and Simon Callow (Bedrooms and Hallways). There’s also a tiny cameo by Helena Bonham Carter (if you blink, you’ll miss her).

The hip hypnotist: Ben Kingsley steals a scene

Billie Whitelaw, beloved to horror fans in films like The Omen and Night Watch, is delightfully dotty as Maurice’s dear mother, who witnesses an intimate moment between Maurice and Clive. The imperious Judy Parfitt (Wilde, Dolores Claiborne) is marvelous in her brief scenes as Clive’s terribly correct, upper-crust mother.

Maurice was something of a coming out statement for filmmakers and longtime life partners Ismael Merchant and James Ivory. (Merchant died in 2005; Ivory recently won a Best Screenplay Academy Award for his adaptation of Call Me By Your Name.) Though they never flaunted their 44-year collaboration and love affair (rarely ever speaking publicly about it at all, in fact), their shared love of the material is evident in their daring film treatment of E.M. Forster’s lost novel of same sex love in Edwardian England.

A labor of love: James Ivory and Ismael Merchant

Thanks to MovieRob for inviting me to participate in his Genre Guesstimation celebration of LGBTQ+ movies!