Archive for George Cukor

The Late Show 2

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 1, 2011 by dcairns

It continues — here’s where I’ll post links to blog posts in The Late Show: The Late Films Blogathon. This post will stay at the top, if I can figure out how to do that, with my own entries appearing — slowly — down beneath it.

Late Losey — M KLEIN, today.

Diarmid Mogg, author of my favourite movie speciality blog, The Unsung Joe, weighs in on one of Hollywood’s forgotten men, John Ince (brother of the more famous Thomas and Ralph), here. It’s an eye-opener!

For Shadowplay, David Melville continues his alphabetical survey of Mexican melodrama with LA GENERALA, the last film of Maria Felix.

Ben Alpers on MOONRISE, my favourite late Borzage — maybe my favourite Borzage.

Gareth comes up trumps with another Melville piece — UN FLIC stars Delon and is cool as ice.

Late Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle? Are you sure? Wanna make something of it?

HUGO receives tender loving care from Farran Smith Nehme, the Self-Styled Siren, who suggested the idea of this blogathon over dinner in Brooklyn. And HUGO is not only the latest film from a senior film artist, but a film about the Autumn years of a great filmmaker. Go here, at once.

At the ever-excellent Gareth’s Movie Diary, LE CERCLE ROUGE is the topic of the day — late Melville, late Bourvil, and a terrific piece.

I try to tackle one of the trickiest entries in Richard Lester’s career, his last fiction feature, whose modest virtues are forever overshadowed by an on-set tragedy — THE RETURN OF THE MUSKETEERS.

Over at the excellent Robert Donat site, Gill Fraser Lee assesses THE INN OF THE SIXTH HAPPINESS, mid-period Mark Robson, but Donat’s last film, made when he was extremely ill. This is a thoughtful and deeply moving piece and I’m proud I nudged Gill towards writing it (but also a little guilty). Boy! This kind of piece makes this whole blogathon thing worthwhile.

It suddenly occurred to me, after watching and loving HUGO, to wonder about Georges Melies last film — the story of his career’s end was well known to me, but I hadn’t looked at anything from the very end of his career. So I did.

My own first entry approaches LOVE AMONG THE RUINS, a late-ish George Cukor I really enjoyed, with fine late-ish performances by Katherine Hepburn and Laurence Olivier. Here.

Guest Shadowplayer Judy Dean looks at The Great Mastroianni’s last bow, in Manoel de Oliveira’s VOYAGE TO THE BEGINNING OF THE WORLD (below).

David Ehrenstein proves that great minds think alike with THE BOY WHO TURNED YELLOW (above and here).

The ball got rolling with two late Ken Russells from the late Ken Russell, over at Brandon’s Movie Memory here and here.

The Sunday Intertitle: The Soul of Sugar

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , on January 9, 2011 by dcairns

As I was saying, last week

Maurice Tourneur’s 1918 film of Maurice Maeterlinck’s play, THE BLUEBIRD, is a cockeyed allegory featuring characters who are the literal embodiments of household objects and phenomena — there’s Bread, Sugar, Cat and Dog, as well as Light and Fire. The standard problem with allegory very much applies: it’s like poetry read with a codebook, where the work is done for you and deeper meanings need not be sought because it’s all laid out. But, being a silent film by a great filmmaker, THE BLUEBIRD escapes the worst problems associated with this form, partly because the visual action leaves us room to think for ourselves, and partly because the images are so beautiful and evocative.

My favourite of the film’s Platonic Ideals is Fire. You know those fake fires you get, made from translucent material, brightly underlit and blasted with air to make it flicker? That’s Fire’s costume, and he dances about in it, adding to the effect. But it’s useless showing you Fire in a still image, since his whole schtick is motion-based.

Instead, here are the Wan Illnesses which menace one of the young heroes –

Since all the supporting cast are somewhat archetypal figures, it helps that the two children at the centre of the action are wonderfully naturalistic. That’s something Tourneur père has in common with his son, along with expressive shadows: a fondness for low-key perfs amid the low-key lighting. There’s also a surprising focus on the unconscious sensuality of children’s bodies, which strikes me as quite innocent and proper, but alien to modern audiences, grown used to the idea of a naked child as a frightening, uncomfortable object.

In this early scene, the kids change for bed, and little Tula Belle flexes her biceps (you don’t associate child actors with names like Tula Belle with either naturalistic, un-cutesy performances, or the flexing of biceps, but thanks to Tourneur we get both). It’s a sweet and beautiful moment, all the nicer for being strange and surprising.

And in the Palace of Night, Night’s children can be seen sleeping. The Palace is full of draped nudes, actually, evidence that this movie was not thought of as specifically a kids’ film (Jan Svankmajer argues strongly against the principle that children’s movies should even exist, and he has a point, I think, but it’s utopian to imagine such categories being abandoned: too useful to parents and the market, although whether kids themselves benefit is debatable). Or else it argues that in 1918, artistic nudity in movies, like the nudity of classical paintings and sculpture, was considered child-safe.

I remember being creeped out by the 1940 remake, an inoffensive film, you would think. But what got me was the scene in Heaven with all the little children waiting to be born. And they’re all white. Perhaps I was being oversensitive: the innocent explanation would be that this is the dream of a couple of European children from a certain period of history (this is also why we don’t see any Germans in the Heaven of A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH — David Niven wouldn’t have put them there). This is easier to support in the silent movie, where the kids are all draped in veils anyhow, and there could conceivably be some off-white tots lurking in the throng. But in the Shirley Temple movie, everybody has an American accent, so it feels more uncomfortable. Non-Aryan children either don’t have souls, or don’t actually exist at all in the 20th Century Fox universe.

The sick child, a neighbour who motivates the story’s quest, is modelled directly on Munch’s painting,The Sick Child. And why not?

I’ve only seen a fragment of George Cukor’s 1976 version, a Soviet production with a boggling cast. If you’re casting Platonic Ideals, and your aim is High Camp, how could you do better than Ava Gardner as Luxury, Liz Taylor as both Queen of Light AND Maternal Love… even further down the cast, Cicely Tyson as the Cat and George Cole as the Dog, and Robert Morley as Father Time and Harry Andrews as The Oak… was ever an actor more oaken? I would watch this in a nanosecond save for the fact that Patsy Kensit gives me diabetes.

The Tourneur version is available from Kino, and you should see it.

The Blue Bird

As the blurb says, it predates CALIGARI and yet cheerfully and unselfconsciously uses blatantly artificial sets — even more remarkably, it uses realistic ones for the framing narrative, so there’s no doubt that viewers were expected to notice the unreality and accept it.

Tourneur is truly the daddy.

Rich and Strange

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 17, 2010 by dcairns

Have yourselves a Jackie Bisset Christmas!

Fiona and I watched George Cukor’s last movie, RICH AND FAMOUS. Alas, it left us somewhere in that hinterland between aghast and agog, with a bunch of broiling reactions we couldn’t do much with. It was kind of interesting to see a more “out” Cukor, casting lots of untalented prettyboys, while indulging in sex and profanity through a tale of female friendship — despite being made in 1980 and taking advantage of the greater freedoms, there are still no gay characters, and everything is just as “coded” as in the ’40s. Admittedly, the fact that there was no longer a Production Code prohibition on mentioning homosexuality did not mean that Cukor could have made his film about two gay men, even if he’d wanted to — supposed commercial barriers would have prevented a Hollywood studio from embracing such an approach.

The real difficulties seemed to me inherent in the material and the period — I couldn’t believe Jackie Bisset as the author of an intellectual book, not because of the actress so much as because of the dialogue she’s given, which is mostly unbearable, and I couldn’t believe Candice Bergen as anything: what a collection of tics and tropes. Though not as bad as Miriam Hopkins in the original version of the source play, OLD ACQUAINTANCE. The only explanation for Hopkin’s performance in that movie is that she’s actually a life-sized automaton being operated from within by a miniaturized crew of psychotic cases, and some of the levers have jammed or broken off. Bergen is just tricksy and overemphatic, but that blows a hole in the entire relationship, the very subject of the film.

There’s also the problem of Cukor tackling a story which purports to follow two women through the social upheavals of American society from 1959 to 1980 — a rich field, except that an octogenarian gay male director might not be our ideal Virgil for that particular journey. I don’t get the impression that the social changes amused Cukor as much as the possibility of having Candice Bergen call Jackie Bisset a cunt while they wrestle over a teddy bear, a high-camp melo moment which may explain why Pedro Almodovar likes this film so much, but didn’t do much for character credibility.

Finally, there’s the opening credits, which distinctly contain the words “Meg Ryan”, which left Fiona and I with a sickly dread percolating through our beings for most of the movie, as we waited for the perky horror to make its appearance. Meg Ryan isn’t always wholly a bad thing, but if you’re going to have her in a film it makes sense to bring her in early, so we can get acclimatized. If somebody’s going to be perky in front of me, I’d rather they just got it over with. Making us wait an hour with the threat of her imminent appearance hanging over us accurately simulates the sensation of being strapped to a steel slab while a figure in surgical attire dances about with a bone saw to the accompaniment of Huey Lewis and the News.

BUT! Help is at hand, because here’s special guest Shadowplayer David Wingrove with his rather more sympathetic take on this neglected film ~

THE TRANSPARENT CLOSET

Rich and Famous (1981) was the swan song of director George Cukor (1899-1983) – an unassuming Old Hollywood craftsman who, in a career spanning over five decades, made his name as a ‘woman’s director’. Officially, he owed this label to his track record with some of Hollywood’s most formidable leading ladies. Greta Garbo in Camille (1936), Ingrid Bergman in Gaslight (1944), Judy Garland in A Star Is Born (1954), Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady (1964). And of course Katharine Hepburn in ten films, from A Bill of Divorcement (1932) all the way to The Corn Is Green (1979). Not forgetting the entire female payroll of MGM in the ‘all-girls’ catfight comedy The Women (1939).

Yet to Hollywood insiders, the term ‘woman’s director’ was code for the fact that Cukor was gay. No big thing in itself, only Cukor (unlike Vincente Minnelli, Mitchell Leisen and others) refused to mask his private life in the trappings of a heterosexual marriage. For a director whose visual style was discreet to the point of invisibility, Cukor was remarkably up front about his home life. On Saturday, he might host the cream of Hollywood at a lavish garden party. On Sunday, he would invite a motley crew of hustlers, male models and aspiring bit-part actors to eat up the scraps. George Cukor was that most fascinating and contradictory of beasts – an establishment rebel.

Only rarely did the public and the private Cukor meet on screen. Early in his career, he made the picaresque comedy Sylvia Scarlett (1935). Here Katharine Hepburn spends most of the film masquerading as a boy, and a lovelorn Brian Aherne confesses to having “a queer feeling when I look at you.” But that film was a resounding flop, which both director and star chose to forget. Not one of Cukor’s films over the next 45 years would ever dare so much.

Until, oddly enough, Rich and Famous – a project that did not even originate with Cukor. He stepped in as a last-minute replacement for Robert Mulligan, at the behest of producer and star Jacqueline Bisset. While it falls far short of being a masterpiece – or even, let it be said, a conventionally good film – Rich and Famous is as close to a ‘personal statement’ as the notoriously self-effacing Cukor ever made.

Based on a play by John van Druten (filmed in 1943 under its original title, Old Acquaintance, with Bette Davis and Miriam Hopkins) it concerns the lifelong friendship of two writers. Liz Hamilton (a nervy performance by Bisset) is an intense, driven and hard-drinking New York feminist intellectual. Merry Noel Blake (a triumphant self-parody by Candice Bergen) is a ditzy Malibu housewife who writes bonk-busting best sellers on the side. Bisset wears sharply tailored suits in dark, muted tones; Bergen flounces about in prismatic kaftans and pink baby-doll pyjamas. Bisset holes up in the hallowed literary confines of the Algonquin Hotel; Bergen holds court in a resplendently vulgar suite at the Waldorf Astoria. It’s as if Susan Sontag had somehow become best pals with Jackie Collins.

The ups and downs of their friendship are the stuff of melodramatic ‘women’s pictures’ since the silent days. Bergen’s husband (David Selby) secretly carries a torch for Bisset, whose much younger lover (Hart Bochner) dumps her to have a fling with Bergen’s daughter (Meg Ryan, in a toe-curling early role). The two divas battle out each crisis in a succession of slanging matches – punctuated by some fabulously bitchy one-liners, and clad in a series of ever-more flamboyant gowns. A sample of the dialogue:

Bisset: I am so sick and fucking tired of you trying to live your life through my skin.

Bergen: If I had your skin I’d take better care of it.

They end in a tête-à-tête by the fireplace on New Year’s Eve, embracing and drinking a toast to friendship – a scene copied almost verbatim in The Flower of My Secret (1995) by Pedro Almodóvar, one of whose favourite films this is.

On the surface, Rich and Famous is a ludicrously old-fashioned movie for 1981. Worse, Cukor’s style lacks the flamboyance that might allow an audience to wallow in it as kitsch or ‘retro chic’. What makes it all so fascinating is the sheer transparency of the ‘women’s picture’ clichés – which have now worn so thin they can no longer hide the truth. Rich and Famous, like so many classics of Old Hollywood, tells an essentially homosexual story in straight drag.

Strictly speaking, there is nothing at all new about this. Back in 1942, Bette Davis could play a repressed spinster in Now, Voyager! She could suffer a nervous collapse, escape a devouring mother and indulge in a doomed love for a married man – and fans of a certain persuasion could ‘read’ it as a coded allegory for coming out. In the decades that followed, Vivien Leigh in A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) or Marilyn Monroe in Bus Stop (1956) or Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) could all be seen as cross-dressing avatars for gay male authors. But such interpretations were not essential to an understanding of the film. Each of these films is an ‘ink-blot’, allowing its audience to read whatever story it wants to project.

By the time we get to Rich and Famous, the ‘women’s picture’ alibis have run out. Bisset, frustrated in her love life and her career, consoles herself with anonymous sex in a toilet on an airplane. Later she hits the streets of New York, picks up an 18-year-old hustler and takes him back to her hotel. Cukor’s camera fondles his nude body in rapt adoration – blithely ignoring the semi-clad Bisset, who had become a pin-up for horny teenage boys with her role in The Deep (1977).

Baffling to a mainstream heterosexual audience, moments like these may explain the film’s critical and commercial failure. As Pauline Kael wrote at the time: “Rich and Famous isn’t camp, exactly; it’s more like a homosexual fantasy. Bisset’s affairs, with their masochistic overtones, are creepy, because they don’t seem like what a woman would get into.” (1) A textbook example of Kael’s ability to tell the truth, but wholly miss the point.

The last film of an enigmatic and widely misunderstood talent, Rich and Famous is a film both quaintly behind and radically ahead of its time. The missing link, perhaps, between a Warner Bros melodrama of the 40s and gay porn. Its failure might well have ended Cukor’s career, even had he not been 82 years old. Still, I can’t help but wonder what he might have done next…

David Melville

(1) Pauline Kael, Taking It All In, Arena, London, 1987, p. 248


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