Archive for Deborah Kerr

The Kerrs of this world

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , on July 9, 2013 by dcairns

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TEA AND SYMPATHY — my goodness. I have so lightly sampled the works of Vincente Minnelli. This one is particularly handy because it ties the uniquely oppressive qualities of his comedies — domestic hells like FATHER OF THE BRIDE and THE LONG, LONG TRAILER, whose natural analog is nightmare (FOTB features a renowned expressionist nightmare scene whose image of Spencer Tracy’s feet mired in a floor swamp got quoted in the first NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET) — to the quieter parts of his melodramas. The movie resists exploding, and so winds its audience up into quite a state. “I’m starting to find this hypermasculine environment extremely claustrophobic,” observed Fiona.

At one point Kerr claims he’s reading “Candida.” “Does he mean Candide?” I ask. “Candida is a yeast infection,” says Fiona.

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Gay man or huge woman?

I recall an online discussion between two film-lovers, I think both gay, as to whether the first of this film’s Kerrs, John Kerr, was meant to be seen as gay. Although the whole story hinges on his being regarded as sexually suspect by his fellow collegians, until the second Kerr, teacher’s wife Deborah Kerr, sleeps with him, I honestly don’t feel it matters.

The script, adapted by Robert Anderson from his own play, is careful to make clear that for purposes of censorship, Kerr’s character is straight, but unconventional and therefore regarded with suspicion in the conformist campus where the story unfolds. Both script and direction are careful to keep their options open, however — we are free to assume that some light alibiing has been applied to the scenario and that if you strip this away, Kerr’s character is gay.

On the other hand, even at face value the lesson is progressive — as with DESIGNING WOMAN, Minnelli is able to present a gay-seeming man who is “really” (according to the dialogue, the element of a film which carries the least weight of conviction) straight. The lesson is that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, and by extension, you shouldn’t queer-bait and queer-bash because you don’t know. Society, and schools and other institutions, would get a lot more civilized by following such a suggestion, and the true elimination of prejudice might follow more easily.

I feel like Minnelli is also crying out in this film — “Don’t you see how crazy all this is?” The homosocial world of the film is deeply closeted and strange: one of the things that marks Kerr out as potentially deviant is that he enjoys the company of women. Male activities include sweaty contact sports, talking about sex, and a nocturnal, firelight ceremony in which boys tear off one another’s pajamas (an aggressive fire ballet to match those in numerous other Minnelli films).

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Part rites of passage, part Rites of Spring.vlcsnap-2013-07-09-08h51m55s181

Furthermore, the film’s two most vociferous spokesmen for manliness are Deborah Kerr’s husband and John Kerr’s father, both of whom are peculiar arguments for normalcy. Hubby Leif Erickson can’t bear to touch his beautiful wife, cannot discuss emotions with her, and responds to her friendship with young Kerr with hysterical jealousy, so that one comes to wonder who exactly he is jealous of? His hatred of the isolated young student who rooms in his house and whom he should be protecting seems pathological.

Edward Andrews as the dad is just odd.

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Right after this shot there’s a glaring continuity error as the door opens and he’s suddenly in a completely different position, as if the movie is screaming You Didn’t Just See That! That Never Happened!

Nervous, sweaty, prissy and eager-to-please, he comes across as frantically overcompensating and desperate to be one of the boys. One senses the other men regard him as less that 100% virile, but give him a pass because at least he’s trying. Really hard. One could simply argue that Minnelli’s vision of straight men is camp-inflected and inaccurate because of who he was, but I prefer to see this as barbed satire, and carried out in a visual language too subtle for the censors to grasp, to sly for them to comment on without feeling silly.

Kerr, so good in THE COBWEB, is excellent here — I wonder if he gave up acting because typecasting in the role of sensitive, vulnerable youth gave him few options in movies of the fifties. At any rate, he made a go of lawyering instead.

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The point in the movie where it has to furiously back-pedal is the ending — the movie can coat homosexuality in plausible deniability, but it has to cop to adultery. But this is handled graciously — we learn that the Kerr-Erickson marriage was destroyed by her infidelity, which is supposed to be a sop to morality, but I think most viewers would think GOOD — maybe Debs can find happiness elsewhere. There’s a line of VO about her husband’s life being ruined, but Minnelli cannily plays it over a shot of him working away, same as always, seemingly perfectly happy without the ball and chain. And we’re told that John Kerr now has a wife — yay, she straightened him out! — or, Yay, she cured him of his insecurity! — or Yay, he got himself a lavender marriage to pacify social expectations! I think it doesn’t matter. I think it’s fine. The movie does a marvelous job of telling a story it was absolutely forbidden from telling.

Peck’s Bad Boy

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 9, 2011 by dcairns

I have to say that Fred Zinnemann’s BEHOLD A PALE HORSE deserves its comparatively low status among his work, but it’s still full of interest. Based on a novel by the director’s old Berlin coffee house buddy Emeric Pressburger, it’s set in more or less contemporary Spain and across the border in France, where a die-hard rebel (Gregory Peck) is carrying on the Civil War as a personal feud with Guardia Civil chief Anthony Quinn.

At two hours, the film feels sluggish, in part because J.P. Miller’s script features minor characters not essential to the action — either they were in the book, or have been added to give Quinn’s character more “depth”. The effect is to further diffuse a movie which seems uncertain who its main character is. We’re introduced to the story through the eyes of a young boy (Marietto, a typically excellent Zinnemann juvenile), pick up Peck, follow Quinn for a while, and then bond with Omar Sharif (!) as a priest who gets mixed up in the action due to the dying wish of Peck’s mother.

Another reason for the prevailing inertia (apart from maybe a certain lack of energy in Zinnemann’s handling at times) is the story structure, in which Peck conceives of a daring mission in Act 1 — his mother is dying, under armed guard, and he wants to circumvent the Spanish authorities, break into the hospital, and see her — which is then endlessly deferred by a series of almost Bunuelian plot digressions. Some of the intervening action is exciting or compelling in its own right, but at the back of our mind is the knowledge that a gripping adventure awaits that we’re just not getting to, and that has the effect of making what’s currently onscreen seem less exciting.

There’s also the problem of casting. The first section of story has Marietto visiting Peck, a friend of his late father’s, to ask him to avenge dad’s death by killing Quinn — in other words, it’s TRUE GRIT before the fact. And, as in TG, the kid is severely disappointed by what he finds, at first wondering if the old guy slumped in the dingy hovel is the father of the man he’s looking for. The problem, of course, and it’s a fatal one for a movie about a man approaching old age and opting for a dramatic death, is that Peck looks remarkably healthy for his age. A certain tightness of the shirt about the belly does not serve to evoke advancing decrepitude (and we also have our outside knowledge that G.P. would last almost another forty years).

And of course Peck is his usual staunch, stolid self, with nothing of the bandit and less of the Spaniard about him. Did any actor of reasonable ability ever evoke so many recasting fantasies? Imagine Robert Ryan as Ahab in MOBY DICK, James Stewart as Sam Bowden in CAPE FEAR (in which Peck is good). Even in ROMAN HOLIDAY, which seems to work like a dream, I could be persuaded that William Holden might have raised it to an even higher level (there’s never any doubt that Peck will behave nobly, whereas with Holden, doubt is in his DNA).

The Brêche de Roland, 8,000 feet up in the Pyrenees. Such is my naivety, I assumed this HAD to be a matte shot. It’s real!

Zinnemann’s hand is otherwise quite sure, with some striking sequences and performances. Quinn doesn’t overact, and while it’s hard to figure out how Sharif wound up in a French monastery, he’s very soulful and effective. The movie’s not too strong on explaining the political background — Zinnemann worried that he was glorifying a terrorist, but a sterner eye on the Franco regime’s abuses might have alleviated his concerns.

And Peck gets one terrific scene, a classic of poetic understatement, excerpted for your pleasure here. He’s finally off on his mission, one of certain death. He pauses, and there’s an erotic distraction. But it’s too late for that kind of thing.

The cameo role of the girl is performed by Elizabeth Wiener! — Clouzot’s LA PRISONNIERE, Rivette’s DUELLE. And I can forgive both Peck and Maurice Jarre their many sins, looking at something like this.

As in the delightful, allusive moment in THE SUNDOWNERS where Deborah Kerr stares wistfully at a glamorous woman on a train, contrasting with her own sun-bleached, wind-blown appearance, nothing is spoken but everything gets said.

“Nothing is ever a lady’s fault.”

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 16, 2008 by dcairns

Our Losey Cluesies were from THE GO-BETWEEN.

Me Julie

(For some reason, Optimum Releasing’s DVD is in the old “postage-stamp ratio”. Not what *I* call Optimum.)

After wallowing a bit in some of Losey’s lesser works, it felt good to plunge into one of his most celebrated. THE GO-BETWEEN, his 1971 Palme D’Or winner, scripted by Harold Pinter, starring young Dominic Guard as a boy charged with delivering elicit messages from Julie Christie to her lover Alan Bates, under the nose of her mother, Margaret Leighton, and fiancé, Edward Fox.

I’m told that L.P. Hartley’s novel is even finer than Losey’s film, and has nothing to do with flash-forwards. Losey and Pinter’s contemporary scenes, with Michael Redgrave (returning to the Losey camp after TIME WITHOUT PITY) playing the protagonist as an older man, have always been a bit controversial. I liked the way they mixed things up, fracturing the narrative and injecting an otherness into the film whenever there’s a risk of Merchant-Ivoryitis setting in, but maybe they don’t pay off strongly enough. Some object to the spectacle of Julie Christie slathered in old age makeup like David Bowie in THE HUNGER, with an older woman’s voice (sounds like Leighton again) dubbed in. I thought that was GREAT. I can’t explain why, exactly, but I suppose the bizarreness of it worked for me. Losey hated naturalism, which seems the default mode for British period cinema (if we define naturalism as style-less, life-less and flat, which seems to be what’s generally aimed for) and an odd sight like Julie C with latex all over her boat is as good a way as any of rupturing that “aesthetic”.

Old Boiler

(Alexander Korda initially optioned the novel, but later the author discovered that Korda “never intended to make a film of the book … I was so annoyed when I discovered this that I put a curse on him, and he died, almost the next morning.” I love that “almost”. There is much talk of magical cursing in the movie, also.)

Curse of the Demon

But the film is pretty cinematically exciting even without that. The development of the story is slow but assured, and has the authentic feel of endless childhood summers. Stuff is happening but our hero isn’t aware of its significance, and sometimes neither are we, so there’s a sense of drifting aimlessly like a Pooh-stick along the story’s banks, occasionally grazing a knee on a sharp surface. All his helped hugely by Gerry Fisher’s sun-drenched photography and a marvellous score by Michel Legrand. Pinter says the book made him cry numerous times, and the music made me feel like I was going to, constantly. But being a Scotsman, I kept it in.

There’s a very enjoyable weirdness to the talk in this film, which goes well beyond Pinter’s usual elliptical doubletalk. The younger actors are quite strange, and the manners and customs of these Norfolk gentry are alien to modern viewers (I’ve never seen a film set in the relatively recent past that’s so clipped and foreign in its characters’ manners). Michael Gough is great value, sly and enigmatic (how come he never got typecast in all those horror movies he did, unlike Cushing and Lee and, to some extent, Pleasence?) and Leighton is frighteningly good. You don’t initially understand why an actress is playing the role at all, she has so little to do, but the part builds, from the odd highly significant glance, to a central role in the climax of the story. How different it might have been if Deborah Kerr had agreed to do it. I think Leighton is probably more worrying that Debs would have been.

After the Fox

Thrillingly, we also get the extraterrestrial Edward Fox, who gives my favourite performance in this film (though his best work is in THE CAT AND THE CANARY, where he invents an entirely new species of acting). We’re never certain how much he knows or suspects about what’s going on, or quite how he feels about it. There are plenty of hints of some kind of knowledge, but also the possibility that they’re imagined by the boy.

Rather than being a stiff piece of heritage cinema, THE GO-BETWEEN is an authentic “art film”, wrenched out of the British cinema with the greatest of difficulty. American finance had deserted the UK at the end of the ’60s, and Losey was fighting all sorts of entrenched attitudes. There were objections to the non-chronological structure from his editor and producers, objections to the score (too loud, insufficiently “period”) and insistence on casting stars regardless of whether they were appropriate, all of which Losey was able to work around to get the results he wanted. If his behaviour was often abrasive, I find that understandable. I’m just glad he was able to do what he did.

THE GO-BETWEEN got made, after many delays, in part thanks to the support of Bryan Forbes, who was in charge of production at ABC, the biggest film distributor in Britain. Forbes’ tenure is often written off as a disaster, but he commissioned THE RAILWAY CHILDREN and this, so I’m inclined to hand him some credit. He was certainly more of a risk-taker than John Davis, and is a fine film-maker himself. Losey complained that British cinema was full of people who didn’t care about films, but Forbes certainly wasn’t one of them.

Red, grave

Only fair to acknowledge that 90% of my Losey facts and figures come from David Caute’s fine biography Joseph Losey: A Revenge on Life.

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