Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Hollywood Eats the Soul

Marilyn Monroe described her hometown of Hollywood as “a place where they’ll pay you a thousand dollars for a kiss, but fifty cents for your soul.” This cutting melodrama from 1955 confirms the actress’s rueful analysis of the film industry.

Based on a play by Clifford Odets, obviously embittered by his own experience writing for the Dream Factory, The Big Knife gives viewers a lurid look behind the curtain at what life is really like for those in the movie business. Director Robert Aldrich, adept at revealing the seamy underside of show business’s squeaky clean veneer in films like Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, The Killing of Sister George and The Legend of Lylah Clare, is clearly in his element here.

A movie idol indulges his appetites
Here is a Hollywood where stars’ vices are indulged and whims acceded to--then their weaknesses and peccadilloes are carefully exploited for maximum benefit to the bottom line.
Gossip, innuendo and scandal are used strategically by studios to protect their investments,
and cover stories and disinformation are manufactured at a greater pace than the motion picture commodity itself. Illusion creates perception, and perception is reality in the hall of mirrors known as Hollywood.

Jack Palance as Charlie Castle

In The Big Knife, movie star Charlie Castle’s soul has been stained, his talent wasted and his marriage nearly destroyed under his seven-year slave contract at Hoff Federated Studios. When it comes time to sign on for another seven years of indentured servitude, he hesitates. But the industry’s well-oiled machine literally chews him up and tears him to shreds when he tries to buck the system.

With his unconventionally handsome features and tall, well-muscled physique, he-man Method actor Jack Palance is well cast as conflicted matinee idol Charlie Castle. Palance, usually most at home playing a menacing bad guy (Sudden Fear, Panic in the Streets), reveals raw and real vulnerability as the wounded idealist faced with a horrifying reality.

Ida Lupino as Marian Castle

Film noir heroine Ida Lupino (Out of the Fog), approaching the then-career-halting age of 40, enjoys one of her last roles as a leading lady (before enjoying a second career behind the camera as a film director), displaying a quiet strength as the dissolute movie hero’s long-suffering wife Marian.

A strong supporting cast brings to life a host of juicy archetypal roles. The great Rod Steiger is the personification of narcissistic evil as the domineering studio head Stanley Hoff. Wendell Corey (Harriet Craig) is perfect as the grim-faced studio henchman “Smiley” McCoy, as is Ilka Chase as a vicious and demanding gossip columnist, a la Hedda Hopper or Louella Parsons. Everett Sloane is effective as Castle’s sympathetic but ultimately impotent agent. The versatile Jean Hagen (in a 180º turn from dizzy Lina Lamont in Singin’ in the Rain) scores in her scenes as a slutty, amoral Beverly Hills housewife; her nymphomaniacal character might have been drawn by Harold Robbins, Joyce Haber or Jackie Collins.

Cuckold Buddy Bliss (Paul Langton) and wife Connie (Jean Hagen)

Rod Steiger as Stanley Shriner Hoff

Wendell Corey as Smiley McCoy
Charlie and Nat (Everett Sloane)

Shelley Winters (inexplicably billed as Miss Shelley Winters) makes the most of her one-scene cameo as Dixie Evans, a vengeful, addle-pated and overripe starlet who threatens to blow the lid off a scandalous Hoff Federated cover-up. Making Dixie the dumbest of dumb blondes, just a bit long in the tooth and a tad too voluptuous, seems to be a not-too-subtle poke at Winters’s real-life friend Marilyn Monroe, who was waging a battle royale with her own studio around this time.

(Miss) Shelley Winters as Dixie Evans

Though the Odets play has been opened up to include short scenes at Castle’s Malibu beach house, the Hoff Studio and a nearby Bel Air cocktail party, this is mostly a filmed stage play, but director Aldrich keeps the action moving with his talented cast and always-inventive camera work. Aldrich’s final tableau of Marian sobbing “Help” as the camera pulls up and back from the scene foreshadows the last shot of The Killing of Sister George a dozen years later.  

This voyeuristic peek at Hollywood’s dark side is as sizzling and relevant today as it was 50 years ago. I don’t usually recommend remakes, but an updated version of this conspiracy-driven tale set in the present day and starring a Tom Cruise or even a Mel Gibson, would be fascinating to watch.  

Friday, March 14, 2014

Give Liz an A for Zee

I’ve always said that some great roles rub off on the actors who play them. Bette Davis stayed Margo Channing in just about every role after All About Eve. Yul Brynner remained the supercilious King of Siam for life, from the day he first originated the role onstage. Faye Dunaway has continued to channel Joan Crawford more than 30 years after Mommie Dearest. And Elizabeth Taylor’s post-1966 roles all contain echoes of her Oscar-winning turn as Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf...including this darkly comic, little-seen gem.

One of the great Taylor performances: Elizabeth as Zee Blakely

Zee (Elizabeth Taylor) and Robert (Michael Caine)

In fact,  X, Y and Zee (1972) is somewhat like a London mod version of Virginia Woolf in psychedelic technicolor, a portrait of a crumbling marriage, with the handsome and talented Michael Caine standing in for Richard Burton in the George-like role of Zee’s passive-aggressive husband. When Robert (Caine) begins a surreptitious affair with  Stella (Susannah York), you-know-who finds out and an ugly game of cat and mouse begins, culminating in hurt feelings, high drama and sweet revenge.

Stella (Susannah York) tolerates Zee's antics

York and Caine underplay admirably as the adulterous lovers. Caine’s qualms about abandoning his marriage foreshadow his comic Oscar-winning turn as the adulterer in Woody Allen’s Hannah and Her Sisters two decades later. And as the hard-to-read, sexually confused Stella, Susannah York pays homage to one of her own iconic roles, the lesbian love interest in The Killing of Sister George.

The charming and charismatic Caine, so adept in light comedy, reveals brilliant flashes of a menacing dark side as Robert, particularly while sparring with Taylor, who unrelentingly baits and taunts him until he explodes in moments of uncontrolled rage and fury.

Zee and Robert, or George and Martha? 
Robert loses his patience

But, of course, the film belongs to Elizabeth Taylor as Zee, a heightened version of a woman scorned. Zee is mean, nasty, vicious, domineering, childish--a replay of Martha but with an even greater measure of madness. No one plays bonkers like Taylor, as fans of films like Night Watch, Raintree County and Suddenly Last Summer can attest…and as Zee Blakely, she pulls out all the stops. Truly, as the aptly named title character, she runs the gamut of emotions from A to Zed. 

Here, La Liz is grotesque and flamboyant, as foul-mouthed as Martha but now glammed up in full-color splendor, flouncing about in jangling jewelry, powder blue eyeshadow and flowing caftans that barely disguise her ever-more-Rubenesque proportions. Camp yes; over-the-top, sometimes, but make no mistake: This is a bravura star performance by Taylor, a fine actress who redeems the villainy of her character with a generous dose of wry humor and a surprising vulnerability that ultimately leaves the audience on her side, despite Zee’s appalling behavior.

Zee makes some noise
Zee and Gordon (John Standing)

Stella, Robert and Gladys (Margaret Leighton–not Audra Lindley)
Obviously glorying in cinema’s newfound freedom since the abolition of the production code and establishment of a movie rating system, director Brian G. Hutton goes out of his way to make sure X, Y and Zee is hip and (to use the vernacular of the day) “with it”. The language is frank and salty. Hutton takes pains to capture the mood of the early 70s zeitgeist—the hedonistic fervor of the sexual revolution in full swing and burgeoning “Me” decade—particularly in the party scene at the beginning of the film hosted by an eccentric socialite (a marvelous cameo by English theater veteran Margaret Leighton) . This is also one of the first films to use the character of a flagrantly gay confidante (John Standing)  to move the plot forward and provide exposition. But alas, Zee, an equal opportunity psychotic, is as nasty to him as she is to everyone else she comes in contact with.

For Elizabeth Taylor fans, this is the perfect opportunity to enjoy the actress in one of her great unsung roles, ably assisted by great costars, in a campy, colorful, rousing rendition of love gone wrong. And the film’s startling conclusion features a neat twist that makes it all worthwhile.

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.