Saturday, October 26, 2013

FIVE DESPERATE WOMEN 1971

This camp-tastic treasure from my culturally misspent youth is high on retro '70s fashions, bitchy dialog, and TV-movie grade thrills.

Imagine, if you will, Mary McCarthy’s sorority sister soaper The Group, crossed with Friday the 13th, add a bit of Charlie's Angels glamour (Aaron Spelling is also this film's producer), and toss a 1960s Ross Hunter "women in peril" melodrama into the mix, and you've got a pretty good idea of what’s in store for you with Five Desperate Women (who can resist that title?). A minor entry in the beloved ABC Movie of the Week anthology series of made-for-TV movies that proliferated during the 1970s. The series produced a slew of amazingly durable motion pictures over the course of its seven years on the air, among them: Trilogy of Terror, Duel, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, So Awful About Allan, Bad Ronald, and Reflections of Murder.
These 90-minute movies, especially the thrillers, were ALWAYS the talk of my junior-high schoolyard the following day, and I recall, at age 13, Five Desperate Women being a particular favorite – its high regard aided considerably by our being too young and lacking in life experience to take much notice of the film’s timeworn clichés and obvious plotting.
Joan Hackett as Dorian
Julie Sommars as Mary Grace
Denise Nicholas as Joy
Stefanie Powers as Gloria
Anjanette Comer as Lucy
Five school chums, all graduates of Brindley, a tony private women’s college in the East, gather for a five year reunion at a remote beach house on an island with no neighbors, no transportation and no phones. Armed only with their outsized hair, over-accessorized '70s fashions, and outré Samsonite® luggage (not a wheel or designer label in sight), the friends are a virtual Who's Who of 70's television. There's sweet and mousy Julie Sommars (The Governor and J.J.) suffering a bad case of the guilts about leaving her controlling, mentally ill mother behind; incessantly gum-chewing wallflower Joan Hackett (a '70s TV movie staple, treading water a bit, having made her 1966 film debut in The Group in a very similar role); self-reliant, black-power call girl Denise Nicholas (Room 222); big-haired, big city cynic, Stefanie Powers (The Girl from U.N.C.L.E.); and dipsomaniacal southern belle Anjanette Comer (who would work again with this film's director, Ted Post, in the 1973 cult oddity The Baby).
A weekend of rest, relaxation, and rehashing the past is on the agenda for the five diverse and high-strung women, whose only other companions on the island resort are the creepily geeky charter boat captain (Bradford Dillman), and the all-business, cloyingly sincere caretaker (Robert Conrad). Oh yes, and a homicidal maniac has recently escaped from a nearby mental institutionall secluded areas have nearby mental institutionsand is stalking the grounds.

Thus, the mystery is set. Or at least one of them. The biggest one being how these five women ever became friends in the first place. Once everybody starts airing their dirty laundry and copping to the fact that none of their lives has turned out the way they had planned, the women waste little time in spending the bulk of their reunion time bitchily sniping at each other. A condition only exacerbated by frayed nerves and zero survival skills once the presence (not the identity) of the killer becomes known and the women have to learn to rely upon one another.
"Special Guest Star" Robert Conrad as Michael Wylie
Bradford Dillman as Jim Meeker
The men don't behave much better. Short, stocky, Eveready Battery spokesman/Battle of the Network Stars beefcake Robert Conrad, can't stop playing "Knock it off...I dare you!" with tall and lanky Bradford Dillman long enough to be of much help to anyone, let alone a house full of defenseless women burdened with an overabundance of hair care products and a shortage of locks on the doors. The men don't trust one another, the women barely get along, and a killer is loose. How it all end?
Viewed today, Five Desperate Women incites so many giggles at its own expense that it challenges one to imagine how it was ever conceived as a serious thriller, but I must say, as an adolescent I found this movie to be VERY gripping and terrifically suspenseful. So much for the discerning tastes of youth.

The unintentional laughs start early with a scene in which put-upon rich girl Mary Grace is emotionally battered by the passive-aggressive ventriloquist act engaged in by her silent mother and loudmouthed nurse. Hot on the heels of this comes the dockside reunion of the giggly sorority sisters wherein they sing a school song and southern-fried sot Lucy, drops racist hints about affirmative-action charity case Joy, not really being “One of us….”
The Wild, Wild West's Robert Conrad, who previously appeared with co-star Stefanie Powers in the unforgettable Palm Springs Weekend (1963), gets chummy with sweet-natured Julie Sommars. Most people recall Sommars from the TV show, Matlock, but she first caught my attention in the terrific comedy, The Pad and How to Use It (1966)

Once the women are ensconced on the island and the outbreaks of temperament erupt as regularly and abruptly as the outbreaks of violence, Five Desperate Women - clocking in at a brisk 75 minutes -  moves along so quickly one scarcely minds the minimal drama and by-the-numbers thriller plotting. What does catch the attention is the risible dialog (“I buried the dog.”  “[cheerily] Thank you!”); not-so-surprising personal revelations; and a screenplay (written by three men) which can’t think of a way to build tension without having five fully grown, college-educated women carry on like sheltered adolescents at a summer camp.
Perpetually helpless, scared, and often absurdly overdressed (for her "escape" Denise Nicholas' character chooses an ensemble that features a cloche hat, midi vest jacket, hoop earrings big enough to throw a grapefruit through, and knee-high boots), these women quiver and quake while waiting to be victimized. They do traditional horror movie "girly" things like trip over brambles while running for their lives, demonstrating remarkably bad aim while throwing objects to ward of an assailant, and wandering off to dark places alone. They all but run around in circles, shrieking and flapping their arms. Being terrified is one thing, but these women - surrounded by fireplace pokers and butcher knives – never once resort to grabbing some common household item for self-defense (OK, at one point one of them grabs a shoe...but you see what I mean).
Posing for a fashion shoot? No, in this shot Denise Nicholas and Stefanie Powers are reacting to a grisly murder
Five Desperate Women moves at breakneck speed toward its not-wholly-unforeseen conclusion and the reveal of the killer's identity… a finale that finds one of the women being strangled while her friends have hysterics from the sidelines screaming at the manic to “Stop!” (that always works) for a good 30 seconds before it occurs to any of them that it might be a good idea to come to her aid.

If what I've written thus far has given the impression that Five Desperate Women is a film to be avoided, let me correct that error now. With apologies to TCM, Five Desperate Women is one of The Essentials: one of those rare, miraculous little films that exists simultaneously within the realm of good and bad. A film that pays countless entertainment dividends whether taken seriously (for all it's faults, it's actually better than most of what is being released in the horror/suspense genre these days) or viewed as retro camp.


WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
As stated before, Five Desperate Women is basically your average woman-in-peril suspense thriller - only taken to the fifth power. There’s literally nothing here you haven’t seen a dozen times before in movies about a mad killer on the loose in an isolated setting, the only difference: instead of one hysterical would-be victim, you have five. One might imagine this would lead to five times the suspense, but mostly it just translates to five times the screaming hysterics. Which is fine by me.
I'm not exactly feelin' it from Ms. Powers in this shot

PERFORMANCES
The late Joan Hackett as the forlorn Dorian is my absolute favorite in the film, but if, like me, you're already a fan of her work, you'll note unfortunate echoes of similar roles she played in The Last of Shelia, The Group, Reflections of Murder, and another college reunion TV movie, Class of '63. It's not that Hackett isn't excellent, no, she always is; it's just that she was horribly typecast throughout most of her career and directors rarely could see her as anything but the mousy, retiring victim. She was Oscar-nominated and won a Golden Globe for one of my least favorite of her performances, the vainglorious socialite friend of Marsha Mason in Only When I Laugh (1981), but at least she was cast against type. Her rarely exploited gift for physical comedy can be seen to delightful effect in 1969's Support Your Local Sheriff , a film for which I really think she deserved a nomination.
What really saves Five Desperate Women from complete TV-movie mediocrity is the masterstroke casting of two of the most splendidly idiosyncratic actresses of the '70s together in the same film. Joan Hackett is sensational, but Anjanette Comer (so great in The Loved One and  The Appaloosa) almost steals the film as the skittish southern belle Lucy.


THE STUFF OF FANTASY
Five Desperate Women is a video catalog of all things '70s. You won't care a whit who the mad killer is because your eyes will be popping out of your head from the fashion parade of mod MOD MOD fashions and positively enormous hairdos. You'll see minis, midis, maxis, hot pants, knickers, boots, huge studded belts, chokers, fringe, and halter tops. And lest we forget the boys, we have Robert Conrad traipsing about in his by-now-trademark ridiculously tight, bun-hugging pants and overstretched, pec-tacular T-shirts.
Smokin' & Drinkin' and Everything but Thinkin'
One of the retro pleasures of this film is witnessing how much carefree smoking and drinking goes on

THE STUFF OF DREAMS
Two favorite films from my youth that are infinitely better than Five Desperate Women but nevertheless always remind me of this TV movie are: Five Gates to Hell (1959), a war film about of a group of army nurses having to fend off a hoard of Indochinese guerrillas; and John Ford's last film Seven Women (1966), about the female residents of a Chinese mission facing off Mongol bandits (featuring a kick-ass performance by Anne Bancroft). Although these "women banding together" movies  never developed into an actual action film sub-genre, they are both notable and enjoyable for providing narratives in which women not only propel the plot, but play characters whose actions are instrumental to their own survival.
Male-centric war movies and westerns always tend to bore me because of their reliance on archetypal macho posturing and one-note, stiff-jawed heroics. The need for male characters to always depict strength and assurance so as to perpetuate society's narrow definition of masculinity has resulted in one woefully monotonous, action-oriented thriller after another. Conversely, female characters are allowed (sometimes to a fault, as this film demonstrates) the dimensionality of being able to display the gamut of human emotions, from weakness to bravery, in the carrying out of heroic acts...something I always find more engrossing than stoic fearlessness in the face of all.
 Five Desperate Women goes overboard in having the women characters evince too much in the way of unfettered emotionalism (something I again must lay at the feet of the male screenwriters) , but at least it's a film in which the women eventually have to fend for themselves and are responsible for their own rescue. It looks awfully silly now, but back in 1971, the same year Helen Reddy's I Am Woman first came on the scene, Five Desperate Women (to a 13-year-old who hadn't yet discovered the self-sufficient tough cookies of '40s film noir) looked very much like a women's lib twist on the traditional suspense thriller.
Though we don't smoke and we don't drink
And though our hearts are pure
There's something about a rich man 
That's better than a poor
Rich fathers send your only sons
Rich mothers send us your pearls
Though he may be your joy
Still he's only a boy
'Til he's been with a Brindley girl


Copyright © Ken Anderson

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

"GATSBY? WHAT GATSBY?" : Notes on an Adaptation

When it Comes to Bringing F. Scott Fitzgerald's Jazz-Age Classic to the Big Screen, 70s Mediocrity Has the Advantage Over Modern Techno-Fetishism
After speculating in an earlier post on how Baz Luhrmann’s $127 million adaptation of The Great Gatsby would stack up next to Jack Clayton’s prosaic 1974 version (HERE); I finally got around to seeing the 2013 film (sans 3D) last night.

Well, my overall opinion is that Luhrmann’s is the better film, but then, so is the 8mm home movie I made of my first trip to Universal Studios in 1972. To say Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby is better than the Robert Redford/Mia Farrow starrer is not the same as saying it's a good film. It’s merely to note, comparatively speaking, that it is an improvement over the former. It wins by default.
Indeed, when taken as a stand-alone movie adaptation, I think the 2013 version of The Great Gatsby mostly proves that F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel is unfilmable and should hereafter be left alone. Unless, of course, Andrew Lloyd Webber has plans for turning it into a West End musical sometime soon.

What surprises me is that while Baz Luhrmann’s glittery Gatsby is more spirited, better acted (generally), and by and large a far more dramatic and romantically persuasive movie than Jack Clayton’s over-reverential take, I could pop the seriously flawed 1974 version into my DVD player and watch it in its entirety this very minute, but I really can’t imagine wanting to see the 2013 adaptation ever again.  
 Gatsby & Daisy - 1974
Why? Because for all the tin-eared, uber-devotional faithfulness of Francis Ford Coppola’s screenplay; the leaden portentousness of Jack Clayton’s direction; and the hermetic, airlessness of most of the performances; 1974s The Great Gatsby is at least populated with real human beings occupying a recognizably real world. And until I saw Baz Luhrmann’s version, I never really grasped the degree to which that little detail matters in a film that's not about Transformers or superheroes.

When I see live theater, there’s this unique energy and danger that comes from everything happening right before you in real time. It adds to the overall excitement of the experience and allows for the considerable suspension of disbelief required to allow entire worlds to exist within a proscenium arch. Movies operate on a different level. They create a hyper-reality once-removed. Any emotional distance created by the fact that I’m watching flickering images staged in the recent or distant past is mitigated by the intimacy of close-ups and how I find myself drawn in by the selective, directed gaze of the camera lens.
Daisy & Gatsby - 2013
Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby makes extensive use of computer-generated imagery, both realistic and stylized. Imagery whose sometimes flagrant artificiality gives one the impression of watching Jazz Age avatars populating the landscape of an art-deco video game. The camera swoops, dives, and darts about the action like a paper airplane hurled by a grade-schooler with lousy aim, and the 2D effect of the film’s 3D technology makes the actors appear to stand apart and separate from their surroundings...almost floating in front of the scenery - like those vinyl Colorforms cutouts I had as a kid. In short, the entire enterprise becomes a high-tech cartoon. And in cartoons there can be no human jeopardy. 

The fragility of humans, both physical and emotional, is the crux of all drama. In The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald emphasizes human vulnerability by contrasting and juxtaposing his weak characters against the illusory shelter afforded their materialism. No matter how big the house, powerful the car, or ornate the swimming pool – they all prove insufficient citadels against pain, death, and tragedy. But for this to hit home, the material world has to be made real for us, and the characters have to feel as if they are flesh and blood.
Jordan & Nick - 1974
The 1974 Gatsby buried its characters beneath millions of dollars’ worth of production values, but at least the quirky casting of 70s stalwarts Karen Black and Bruce Dern helped to imbue the film with brief flourishes of unmistakable humanity. Luhrmann’s Gatsby wants to dazzle us with spectacle, but at the cost of grounding anything in a recognizable reality. The actors, digitized to a glossy sheen that renders flesh the same waxy burnish of department store mannequins, are impossible to care for because they have been rendered as animatronic Gatsby dolls. They posture and pose, look terrific in their period duds, and all carry on as if they're in a college production of Private Lives; but they never feel like they have any life beyond what we're being shown. How could they? They exist on a computer graphics grid.

I’m afraid 1974’s The Great Gatsby (a film I harbored no great fondness for beyond a nagging nostalgia and the sight of Robert Redford’s thighs in a bathing suit) has become yet another mediocre film from my past that’s starting to look more like a classic in the wake of a middling remake (a la: The Poseidon Adventure, Fame, Rollerball, and Planet of the Apes).
Nick & Jordan - 2013
Of course, Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation of The Great Gatsby was a big hit at the boxoffice,  proving most emphatically that 3D, CGI, and anachronistic music scores by Jay Z are here to stay, and what the public wants.
To which I can only respond, in the words of one Miss Jean Brodie:
"For those who like that sort of thing, that is the sort of thing they like.”

A Few Random Observations:
1. In spite of forever looking like he's playing dress-up, Leonardo DiCaprio does a marvelous job as Gatsby. Infinitely more complex and sympathetic than Robert Redford’s Arrow Collar model interpretation, he's the major galvanizing force in the film for me.

2. I’m convinced it’s impossible to make a party on film look like any fun.

I'm absolutely crazy about Carey Mulligan, who makes a fabulous-looking Daisy Buchanan. But as her role is written, I'm not sure she fares much better than Mia Farrow

3. In an effort to try to capture the dizzying madness of the Jazz Age, by all appearances Luhrmann tied the camera to a rope and started swinging it over his head. Honestly, it's like a hummingbird was his cinematographer and cartoonist Tex Avery his editor.

4. Actress Elizabeth Debicki makes me think what a wonderful Jordan Baker Anjelica Houston would have made in the 1974 film.

5. Like the kind of digital manipulation that Vanity Fair shutterbug Annie Leibovitz passes off as photography these days, the images in The Great Gatsby, beautiful as they are, never once look organic. None of the actors appear to be in the same room together. Hell, none of the ROOMS seem to be in the same room.

6. Blending the music of Gershwin (the exquisite Rhapsody in Blue) with the compositions of contemporary pop stars only draws attention to how awful the music of contemporary pop stars is.

Isla Fisher's superficial performance as Myrtle Wilson (she plays her like Miss Hannigan in a touring company of Annie - or, more accurately, as Annie all grown up) achieved the impossible: It made me long for Karen Black's over-emotive histrionics in the 1974 film

7. There’s no denying that Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby is a beautiful-looking film, but when Baz Luhrmann tries for Ken Russell operatic bombast, his images, lacking in either context or passion, at best come off as the work of a very clever Los Angles event/party planner.

8. I thought so in 1974 and I think so now; Bruce Dern's Tom Buchanan is a brilliant piece of character work. Joel Edgerton comes off as a tad too callow and weightless.

9. I very much like the framing device employed in the new film that has Nick Carraway recounting his summer with Gatsby from inside the sanitarium he's committed himself to after becoming an alcoholic. It's an inspired touch that adds a bit of depth to a character so often on the periphery of the action.


When it comes to movies, I willingly confess to being as obsessed with the past as Gatsby. But I honestly would have welcomed an adaptation of The Great Gatsby that I didn't have to watch ironically.
Copyright © Ken Anderson

Friday, October 18, 2013

A TOUCH OF CLASS 1973

A Touch of Class is one of my favorite comedies. But like The Women, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Cactus Flower, or almost anything written by Neil Simon; it’s a comedy I’m only able to still enjoy if I disregard contemporary sensibilities (both comedic and social), and simply allow it to remain a time-piece firmly ensconced within the bubble of the era in which it was made.
Glenda Jackson as Vickie Allessio
George Segal as Steve Blackburn
Director/writer Melvin Frank’s A Touch of Class is a perfectly amiable, very watchable, and, upon occasion, absolutely hilarious, romantic comedy about adultery from the era of the sexual revolution. It boasts fine leading performances from then-darlings of the cinema Glenda Jackson and George Segal; a jaunty musical score; crisp, comedy-friendly photography; some nice views of scenic London and Spain; and quite a lot of funny bicker-banter, oil/vinegar chemistry between the two leads.
That being said, it is also a rather ordinary, schticky, sometimes broadly played, middle-brow comedy thoroughly lacking in the kind of wit or distinction that would justify its having won Glenda Jackson her second Best Actress Oscar (and a Golden Globe), or explain how it managed to snag four other Oscar nominations, including one for Best Picture, shutting out such (in my opinion, far worthier) possible contenders as: Last Tango in ParisPaper MoonThe Last Detail, The Way We Were, The Long Goodbye, Mean Streets, and Sleeper.
Get Out Your Handkerchiefs 
A Touch of Class makes explicit its intent to be a frankly comedic update of the coy adultery melodramas of the past by having Steve and Vickie fall to pieces watching David Lean's 1946 film, Brief Encounter on TV. Brief Encounter tells the story of two married people who embark upon an ill-fated love affair.

George Segal is an insurance adjuster, Glenda Jackson, a fashion designer (“stealer” as she calls it). Both reside in London, he: 11 years wed with two children, she: three years wed - now divorced, also with two children. After a “cute meet” and several coincidental run-ins, the two embark upon a no-strings-attached affair that gets off to a rocky start, grows passionate, then becomes complicated when lust turns into love. How funny you find Segal’s sitcom-y attempts to lead a double life depend a great deal on how amusing you find the script (serviceable), how charming you find the leads (considerable), or hilarious the concept of ceaseless lying and deception as the cornerstones of familial harmony (not very).
As Glenda Jackson's two children, Edward Kemp and Lisa Vanderpump appear onscreen for about as long as it took for you to read this. George Segal's children fare even worse. A Touch of Class wants us to believe the bond of family (held together by ceaseless lying) triumphs over homewrecking, but George Segal's Steve Blackburn is such an absentee dad, he makes Ryan O'Neal look like Father of the Year. 

The uninitiated, drawn to A Touch of Class by its Academy Award pedigree or Glenda Jackson’s reputation, are apt to come away from it entertained, but undoubtedly bewildered and scratching their heads, wondering what was being put in the water back in 1973 to result in a movie that plays out like an extended episode of Love, American Style being so widely lauded by critics (although Pauline Kael is said to have walked out on it). I confess, upon revisiting this film, it’s a question I even have to ask myself. And this from the guy who, when it was released, saw A Touch of Class more times than he can count, and considered it one of the funniest comedies he’d seen since What’s Up, Doc?.

Part of this may have to do with changing tastes in comedy. For reasons I’m at a loss to explain, some types of comedy are timeless, while others age rather badly. I saw A Touch of Class when I was 16 years old, and my only guess as to why I fell in love with its bed-hopping clichés is that they weren't yet clichés to me. Another explanation for the film’s success, one I fully recall, is that at the time, America was deep in the throes of a brief but passionate infatuation with Glenda Jackson.
Albeit by way of a terrible wig, audiences were pleased to see BBC's Elizabeth R let her hair down
After gaining the attention of American audiences with her Best Actress Oscar win for Women in Love (1969), Jackson was a prolific onscreen presence throughout the decade, going on to appear in many highly acclaimed films: The Music Lovers, Sunday Bloody Sunday, Hedda, The Maids, Mary Queen of Scots, The Romantic Englishwoman, and The Nelson Affair.

She was literally the Meryl Streep of her day. And, much in the way critics and audiences in the '80s longed to see Streep drop her accents and somber façade for lighter fare like Postcards from the Edge or Death Becomes Her; '70s audiences were thrilled to discover that Glenda Jackson, the intense, neurotic heroine of so many Ken Russell melodramas, possessed a real flair for comedy.
George Segal appeared in a staggering number of films, both comedic and dramatic, between 1970s Where's Poppa? and the flop 1979 re-teaming with Glenda Jackson, Lost & Found. Although he played essentially the exact same character in all of his comedies, nobody did bemused fluster better.

My rave recommendation of this film to my partner (followed by his subsequent, “Meh!” reaction) clarified for me that A Touch of Class has, for the first-timer, a couple of things working against it. And from highly unlikely sources, to boot. One is its title. A Touch of Class suggests a witty, sophisticated comedy of the sort that once starred Myrna Loy and William Powell. But as many critics couldn't resist noting at the time, a more apt title for A Touch of Class would be A Touch of Crass, what with the screenplay's over-reliance on profanity and smirky sex jokes for laughs.
Given  how Jackson's character makes reference at one point to author Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth, I'm rather inclined to think the film's title A Touch of Class, is used in irony; like Wharton's The Age of Innocence.

Secondly, and this is an odd one, I think it does A Touch of Class no favors that it’s a 1973 Best Picture nominee, and that it stars one of the preeminent actresses of her time in her Academy Award-winning role. Why is this problem? Principally, because it sets the viewer up for a film far superior to the one they’re ultimately given. I truly enjoy this movie a great deal, but even in all my rabid Glenda Jackson fandom there’s no way I consider hers an Oscar-worthy performance, nor this film Best Picture material. I'm convinced my partner's reaction to A Touch of Class would have been far more favorable had he come to it expecting an unexceptional, lightweight, early '70s comedy that's amusing if not laugh-out-loud funny. The latter being rare as hen's teeth today.
Any points A Touch of Class gains in giving Jackson's character a gay male secretary (Michael Elwin, r.), are soon lost by having his every appearance serve as some kind of sight gag. (Even Jayne Mansfield would say this apartment is too pink.)

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
What works best in A Touch of Class and what makes it a film I literally never tire of watching, is the marvelous “opposites attract” chemistry between Glenda Jackson and George Segal. And while they don't exactly make us forget Tracy & Hepburn, the two play delightfully antagonistic foils before their romance starts to gel. Jackson's slow, boiling rages so compliment Segal's edgy exasperation that their frequent sparring and bickering scenes crackle with the spark and energy of a well-matched tennis game. Jackson, with her crystal clear diction and mellifluous voice, has it all over Segal for hilariously sarcastic jeremiads, but she doesn't have Segal's gift for physical comedy. George Segal is a joy to watch, and he has the rubbery face (and enormous head) to pull off a veritable lexicon of comic double takes and reaction shots.
Jackson's flinty British calm contrasts amusingly with Segal's neurotic American excitability 

PERFORMANCES
A Touch of Class is essentially a two-character piece, so it’s great that Jackson and Segal are so enjoyable to watch. That is, inasmuch as Melvin Frank and Jack Rose’s farcical, gag-filled screenplay pauses long enough to give these talented actors enough breathing room to flesh out their characters (Frank and Rose, both in their 60s at the time, got their start writing Bob Hope movies). George Segal coasts a bit on charm alone (and if you don’t find him charming, the blithely immoral character he plays is sure to grate) but Jackson is a revelation. She does wonders with a character not given much more than “typically British” as a personality trait.
If my enjoyment of Breakfast at Tiffany's is ruined every time Mickey Rooney's Mr. Yunioshi shows up, so it is with A Touch of Class and the irksome and cloddish "ubiquitous best friend" character played by Paul Sorvino.  Each time he shows up I race for the fast-forward button on my remote.

It amuses me to have read several online reviews that state Glenda Jackson’s character is a feminist. She may very well be, but since no mention is made, expressly or covertly, of Jackson’s Vickie Allessio actually being a feminist, I can only take this to mean that young audiences raised on the female masochists typical of today’s rom-coms (Katherine Heigl, Jennifer Anniston, Drew Barrymore, Sarah Jessica Parker) can only envision smart, articulate women who speak up for themselves, know their own minds, and have their own opinions, as a feminists. Ah, were only more romantic comedies populated with feminists, then.


THE STUFF OF FANTASY
A Touch of Class is a deliberate throwback to the sex comedies of old with its updated gimmick being the ability to tell the story with the freedoms afforded by the “new permissiveness” of the '70s. While this certainly makes for raunchier language and a less coy approach to the adulterous couplings, it also affords a few awkward moments as the old clashes with the new in unexpected (and sometimes unintentionally funny) ways.
The effortless gravitas Glenda Jackson brings to A Touch of Class significantly compensates for the film's wobbly gender politics which include a rape joke; a homey, constantly cooking mistress; and several cheating husbands but not a single cheating wife.
European films have always been able to combine nudity and comedy, but here in the States, nudity tends to stifle laughter. So, as incongruous as it is for a pair of heated lovers off on an illicit tryst in the free-love '70s, out pop a pair of his and hers pajamas suitable to a Doris Day/ Rock Hudson movie.













Traditional gender roles are adhered to pretty stringently throughout, but every now and then an unexpected curve is thrown, such as in this scene where a squeamish Steve clings to Vickie at a bullfight

THE STUFF OF DREAMS
I began this post stating how much more I enjoy A Touch of Class when I don’t try to apply modern sensibilities to what is now a 40-year-old film. Not always an easy thing, but something classic film lovers frequently have to do when faced with outmoded attitudes about sex, race, and gender in otherwise terrific films. I'm not exactly captivated by the idea of a film that depicts serial adultery as just another charming personality quirk in boyish, middle-aged men (in fact, as a gay man denied marriage rights in many states, it galls a bit to think of how films like this tend to undervalue and take for granted such a gift...even if it's just for escapist laughs); but it speaks well of the overall tidy professionalism of A Touch of Class that none of these things really occur to you until after the film is over.
Of course, my chief fondness for this film lies with Glenda Jackson, one of the absolute best of the slew of intelligent, interesting actresses that seemed to flourish in the '70s, only to disappear come the blockbuster 80s. In this, her first motion picture comedy (if one doesn't count a priceless unbilled cameo in Ken Russell's The Boy Friend) she revealed a heretofore untapped comic gift later put to good use in several films, most notably, House Calls (1977), Nasty Habits (1977) and Robert Altman's little seen, H.E.A.L.T.H. (1980). There isn't a single moment in A Touch of Class where she doesn't dominate the screen with her lively, fully committed performance. And while it'll always be my personal belief that Ellen Burstyn should have won the Oscar that year for The Exorcist, in reality, could ANY acting award granted Glenda Jackson ever be considered undeserved?
Four-time Oscar nominee, two-time winner. When Jackson retired from acting in 1992 to become a Member of Parliament, film lost a true original. A versatile, intriguing, and very classy actress.

*Addendum - After 23-years in Parliament, Glenda Jackson returned to acting at age 79. In 2016 she enjoyed a triumphant return to the stage starring as King Lear at London's Old Vic Theater.

Copyright © Ken Anderson

Saturday, October 12, 2013

A PLACE IN THE SUN 1951

“Life is never quite interesting enough, somehow. You people who come to the movies know that.”                                     Shirley Booth as Dolly Levi in The Matchmaker (1958)

No truer words were ever spoken on the topic of what movies mean to us “dreamers.” I, like a great many film buffs (and as the title of this blog reiterates), am a dyed-in-the-wool dreamer. And for as long as I can remember, the allure of motion pictures for me has been their intrinsic link to the fundamental human need to dream, to long for, to imagine, to aspire to, and to hope.

Because I’m essentially an impractical, head-in-the-clouds fantasist for whom dreams have often proved a contradictory source of my greatest joys and deepest sorrows; I've always been intrigued by the curiously dual nature of dreaming. Dreams are inarguably at the root of all human ambition and invention, possessing the power to ease spiritual pain by way of escapism, inciting creativity, and spurring on the imagination to all manner of human achievement. Yet at the same time, dreams are equally prone to sowing seeds of dissatisfaction...fostering discontent and delusion when they create a hunger and desire for things that can never be attained. When I think about it, a great many of my favorite novels seem to be about the pernicious nature of idealism and dreams: F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, Nathanael West’s The Day of the Locust, and, apropos of this post, Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie and An American Tragedy. Dreiser being specifically the author I find to be the most compelling purveyor of narratives sensitive to the healing/hurtful siren song that is the myth of The American Dream.
Montgomery Clift as George Eastman
Elizabeth Taylor as Angela Vickers
Shelley Winters as Alice Tripp
A Place in the Sun is the story of George Eastman (Clift), the poor-relation nephew of pillar-of-society industrialist Charles Eastman, who flees a dead-end bellhop job in Chicago to be taken on as a worker in his uncle’s bathing suit factory. George is haunted by his stiflingly poor, rigidly religious upbringing, and is drivento an almost pathological degreeto overcome the limitations of his meager education and humble origins. Applying considerable initiative toward his ambitions (evinced by his taking home-study courses and devising plans for factory efficiency in his spare time) George appears at first resigned, albeit restlessly, to work hard for his modest piece of the American Dream. But as bedeviled as George is about his impoverished past, it soon becomes clear that he is equally consumed with the desire for the kind of brass ring life his Eastman lineage dangles teasingly just beyond his grasp.
Locked Out
George Eastman stands dejectedly outside of the gate of the estate of his uncle, Charles Eastman. The large, ornamental "E" on the gate serving as a caustic reminder of a birthright denied

Ultimately, fate deals George an ironically cruel hand when the realization of all of his ambitions and dreams become certainties (his professional advancement and social acceptance coincides with a blossoming romance with the beautiful and glamorous socialite, Angela Vickers [Taylor]) at the very moment news of his impregnation of Alice, the plain-but-sweet factory co-worker (Winters) just as certainly signals the end to all he has ever hoped for.
While An American Tragedy (both the novel and the original 1931 film, which is said to be the most faithful adaptation) posit George’s dilemma within the parameters of a sociopath’s conundrum: George, not feeling much of anything for either girl, weighs the most selfishly advantageous outcome and plots to rid himself of the problematic pregnant girlfriend. A Place in the Sun’s intentionally romanticized construct encourages the viewer to sympathize/identify with George’s predicament. A device which ultimately (and provocatively) implicates us in the tragic turn of events as they play out.
"The reason they call it 'The American Dream' is that you have to be asleep to believe it."
George Carlin

Theodore Dreiser's pre-Depression era novel An American Tragedy sought to address the accepted American belief that hard work equaled affluence and advancement in a country where nepotism, bloodlines, and arbitrary class/social hierarchies impose distinct limitations. A Place in the Sun uses the false promise of post-war American prosperity as the bait that lures dreamers like George Eastman into believing "the good life" is his for the taking.
It always struck me as a little sad that George, so consumed with achieving his own dreams, never stopped to consider that a romance with a handsome Eastman (even a poor relation) might have felt like a dream realized to a plain factory-girl like Alice.

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
A common complaint leveled at A Place in the Sun is that the tension of the film’s central conflict is significantly weakened in having the drab and ultimately annoying Shelley Winters character rendered as such a blatantly unappealing option to the dream-girl perfection of Elizabeth Taylor. The implication being, I suppose, is that if given the opportunity, anyone in his right mind is going to try to drown the sympathetic but whiny Winters if it will help land them the exquisitely beautiful, sweet-natured (and let’s not forget, loaded) Elizabeth Taylor. If that’s true, what does that say about us?
The near-identical beauty of Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor emphasize their compatibility
Therein lies my fascination with A Place in the Sun. Instead of turning Dreiser’s novel into just another crime story with a social commentary overlay, George Stevensdrawing upon the entire arsenal of cinematic devices that helped give Hollywood its reputation as America’s “Dream Factory”idealizes the tale and subtly seduces, making us complicit allies in George’s social-climbing fantasies. He structures the film as an unabashedly romanticized, male Cinderella fairy tale about “fated to be mated” lovers threatened by the ugly specter of poverty and deprivation. The latter embodied by the likeable but difficult-to-root for Shelley Winters.

With every lovingly-photographed close up of the impossibly beautiful couple…with every lushly orchestrated romantic idyll captured in passionate tableau…we’re not only encouraged to project our fantasies onto the idealized couple, but to see them as sympathetic individuals deserving of having their dreams come true. Something not possible without vilifying the story’s real victim (Winters) as the sole obstacle to their happiness. 
The genius of A Place in the Sun, and why I consider it to be a minor masterpiece, is how, through the juxtaposition of appealing images of wealth and dreary images of poverty, the audience, when faced with the issue of what to do about the blameless but problematic Shelly Winters character, are placed in the same morally ambiguous position as Montgomery Clift.

PERFORMANCES
Only two of the 9 Oscar nominations A Place in the Sun garnered  in 1951 were in the acting categories: Best Actor, Montgomery Clift and Best Actress Shelley Winters (it won a whopping 6 awards, including Best Director for Stevens). The always-impressive Clift brings a heartbreaking vulnerability to what I think is one of his best screen performances. At no moment do you ever feel he is being moved forward by the plot. You can see every thought and motivation play out on his face. 
On A Place in the Sun’s DVD commentary track, much is made of the fact that in taking on the role of the mousy Alice Tripp, blond bombshell Shelley Winters astounded audiences by so playing against type. Winters is, indeed, very good, but if you’re like me and largely unfamiliar with the work of Shelley the sexpot, her role feels right in step with characters she played in a great many of her latter films (1955s The Night of the Hunter comes to mind), and thus her performance doesn't feel like the huge departure it perhaps once did.

If your goal is to make plausible the notion that an otherwise sane man would resort to murder for love of a woman, you're definitely on the right track if that woman is then 17-year-old Elizabeth Taylor. What a knockout! Overlooked by the Academy, I personally think her performance in A Place in the Sun is rather remarkable. She gives a surprisingly mature performanceone of her best, in factproving to be particularly effective in her later scenes. Taylor would work again with director George Stevens in Giant (1956), and the truly bizarre misfire, The Only Game in Town (1970).


THE STUFF OF FANTASY
My deep affection for A Place in the Sun extends to the way it uses romantic imagery to convey the illusory allure of desire and longing. And by illusory allure, I mean that dreams are only pleasant when they hold out the possibility of coming true. To want for something you can't have tears you apart.
George is frequently photographed surrounded by idealized images of success and wealth
Like the beckoning light on Daisy's dock in The Great Gatsby
George studies high school classes under the flickering neon reminder of the Vickers family fortune
(Above) "Ophelia", John Everett Millais' mid-19th Century painting depicting the drowning death of Shakespeare's heroine, looms ominously over George's head (below) as he ponders: how do you solve a problem like Alice Tripp?


THE STUFF OF DREAMS
A Place in the Sun is one of those rare screen adaptations of a beloved book that captures the author's intent even though it plays fast and loose with the original text. Theodore Dreiser's 1925 novel was turned into a Broadway play in 1926, and a film by Josef von Sternberg in 1931 (for which it is said Dreiser didn't care for).  Screenwriters Michael Wilson and Harry Brown adapted the 1951 film, and while faithful adaptations are fine, I love when collaborators are able to stay true to the feel of an artist's work, even when its superficial form has been altered. George Stevens has created a forcefully cinematic film that tells its story with a language all its own. It's beautiful to look at, wonderful to listen to (the Franz Waxman score is a real highlight), and boasts a slew of first-rate performances. It's a near-perfect film.
Near perfect...
Although Raymond Burr, cast as the prosecuting attorney, is actually fine (I guess. It's the same performance he's given for decades), his close association to the Perry Mason character proves a big distraction to me. When he shows up, this absolutely breathtakingly engrossing romantic drama suddenly becomes a TV program.
Similarly, and due to no fault of the actor himself, the casting of Paul Frees as the priest during the film's pivotal final minutes just sticks in my craw. Why? Because as I child, I watched Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color on TV for years. Anyone familiar with the show will recognize Frees' distinctive voice as the narrator of a million Disney documentaries. And as he is also the voice of the Ghost Host at Disneyland's Haunted Mansion, every time he speaks I'm thrust out of the narrative. Frees' voice is waaaay too hardwired with Disney associations to work on any level for me. Given that he's also the voice of animated no-goodnick Boris Badenov (whom I adore), I suppose I should just be thankful Frees never resorts to speaking in a Pottsylvanian accent.

Watching A Place in the Sun is an immensely pleasurable experience that satisfies no matter what aspect of its story you choose to focus on: the romance, the social commentary, the crime drama, or, my personal preference, the melancholy discourse on the failings of the American Dream. If you haven't seen A Place in the Sun in a while, it's definitely worth another look. If you've never seen it before, well, prepare to be swept away. I am...every time I see it.
Copyright © Ken Anderson