Archive for The Bad and the Beautiful

Web of Love

Posted in FILM, Science with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 4, 2013 by dcairns

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Vincente Minnelli’s film THE COBWEB is the kind of thing we could only watch on one of Fiona’s good days. It’s too emotionally fraught to watch when you’re depressed, and even when viewed on a reasonably good evening (Fiona’s depression usually lifts slightly in the latter part of the day, a process known as diurnal variation) Fiona got a little cross with it — “Why is nobody in this hospital showing any signs of mental illness?”

(Still, Minnelli musicals and melodramas are fine to watch in a low mood. It’s the comedies you have to watch out for — the man had a genius for creating oppressive, nightmarish moods using humorous scenarios — the domestic sado-neurotic maelstrom that is THE LONG, LONG TRAILER could cause a vulnerable person to crawl out of their skin.)

Like most films set in psych wards, the cast is divided between picturesque extras who shuffle or stand frozen in corridors, suggesting complete mental alienation by means of pantomime, and characters who suffer life traumas and present symptoms of deep unhappiness and a tendency to fly off the handle, but nothing much in the way of mental illness.

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The main exception is the rather brilliant casting of Oscar Levant, a real-life neurotic (“There’s a fine line between genius and insanity. I have erased this line”) who movingly suggests the struggle of an intelligent man to comport himself with dignity while he feels himself disintegrating within. The character’s habit of offering cigarettes to head shrink Richard Widmark is a pathetic and touching sign of his need to appear in control and useful. He’ll break your heart.

THE COBWEB shares a star (Charles Boyer) and a message with Gregory La Cava’s PRIVATE WORLDS — a rather commendable view that sanity and insanity are points on a spectrum rather than polar opposites. In both films the staff of a psychiatric hospital and their spouses are shown as being just about as unstable and neurotic as the patients. La Cava had been treated for alcoholism and Minnelli had until recently been married to Judy Garland, so both could claim some familiarity with troubled states of mind. But their movies ignore clinical reality, real-life methods of treatment, and mostly their characters suffer not from mental disease but from melodramatic versions of ordinary unhappiness.

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Chief among these is John Kerr, very effective in a low-charisma, understated way. His character is bright, discontented, and prone to flying off the handle — like a Nick Ray adolescent rather than a mental patient. He’s well-written enough and well-observed enough (screenplay by John Paxton with an assist by original novelist William Gibson — no, not that one) to tie the film’s various strands together. The all-star cast around him works well too. Lauren Bacall is particularly charming, even when hanging around in the far background of long takes (getting in shape for her Lars Von Trier movies) and Lillian Gish is particularly strong as an administrator who’s been in her job so long she’s forgotten what the hospital exists for. With the striking name of Vicky Inch, she’s a pugnacious little gnome dominating every frame she appears in. And making every frame she’s in more beautiful.

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Also, Gloria Grahame does a lot of good and important work with her breasts.

Minnelli’s framing and colour sense is so exquisite, and the script so satisfying (it’s kind of a network narrative like SOME CAME RUNNING, but so tightly knotted together you don’t notice), that the lack of a realistic story world doesn’t matter too much. There’s even room for a reading which sees the institution as a metaphor for America, which the movie endorses with a line about “giving it back to the Indians,” if self-governance among the patients doesn’t work. (SHOCK CORRIDOR would be a pathetic film if it were really about mental illness — instead it’s about political illness in the body politic, with America portrayed as a hospital that makes you crazy.) And in the plotline, which is mainly about (no kidding) the selection of drapes for the hospital library, it could stand as the middle film in Minnelli’s film-making series — THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL shows how neurotic film art is, feeding on the quirks and weaknesses of the cast and crew — the later TWO WEEKS IN ANOTHER TOWN begins with a movie star getting out of one asylum and plunging into the madhouse of the movie set — in THE COBWEB, a group of twisted, tortured and ill-matched people come together and try to create order, balance, beauty.

Buy: The Cobweb (Remaster)

Fortnight Elsewhere

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 22, 2013 by dcairns

I don’t know, I thought MISSION IMPOSSIBLE: GHOST PROTOCOL was pretty good for what it was.

The film is TWO WEEKS IN ANOTHER TOWN, in which Vincente Minnelli dives into la dolce vita with Kirk Douglas and Edward G Robinson shooting a euro-pudding super-film in Rome, 1959.

Here, they seem to have acquired the wallpaper from VERTIGO.

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Maybe it’s the fault of Irwin Shaw’s source novel, but the movie, often seen as a follow-up to the Minnelli-Douglas Hollywood melo THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL, sometimes seems to lack logic — characters do whatever is required to bring on the next emotional frenzy. One second Robinson is scorning his desperate wife’s suicidal tendencies, the next she’s sympathising with him about his creative crisis. Their joint betrayal of another character at the end seems under-motivated or under-explained, but is nevertheless powerful — it’s a movie where power, exemplified by the jutting, dimpled Easter Island chin of Mr Douglas, is more important than sense. Just like the industry it deals with, in fact.

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George Hamilton is quite good, stropping about pouting, Rosanna Schiaffino is sweet, Daliah Lavi is a lot of fun as a luscious but fiery diva. We get a few minutes of gorgeous George MacReady, and Erich Von Stroheim Jnr plays an assistant while simultaneously BEING the real-life assistant director on the picture. Douglas does his usual muscular angst, amped up to eleven.

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In fact, everybody’s playing it big, broad, and on the nose, including composer David Raksin, who seems to be competing with Claire Trevor for the Volume and Hysteria Prize (given out every year at Cinecitta). I didn’t mind, though — there are acerbic comments on life and movies which sometimes feel accurate or at least heartfelt, and Minnelli trumps up an incredible climax as Kirk falls off the wagon and endures a long night of the soul in a series of Felliniesque night spots. As with SOME CAME RUNNING, Minnelli has saved so many of his big guns for this sequence that it almost feels like another movie, that other movie being TOBY DAMMIT. If Fellini influenced Minnelli, it obviously worked the other way too, as Terence Stamp’s nocturnal Ferrari phantom ride seems very much influenced by the screeching rear projection ordeal Kirk puts Cyd Charisse and his Lambourgine through.

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E is for Estrella Vacia

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 14, 2011 by dcairns

CINE DORADO

Another installment of our alphabet of unruly passions down Mexico way, brought to you by regular guest Shadowplayer David Melville.

The Golden Age of Mexican Melodrama 

E is for La estrella vacía (The Empty Star) 

You get a lot by giving nothing. I have to give everything to get anything at all.

- Rita Macedo to María Félix

It’s no secret that Mexican cinema stole many of its best ideas from Hollywood or European models. A lavish 1958 production in colour and Mexiscope, La estrella vacía (The Empty Star) is superficially a rip-off of The Bad and the Beautiful (Vincente Minnelli, 1952) and The Barefoot Contessa (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1954), two gloriously lurid exposés of the dark side of Tinseltown. Its writer/director, Emilio Gómez Muriel, plunges us into the same piranha pool of glamorous egomaniac monsters – all ready to devour each other at a moment’s notice, if that’s what it takes to get ahead. He also borrows the complex multi-flashback structure, where a big star is remembered by everyone they used and abused on the way to the top.

Stars, of course, don’t come any bigger than María Félix – who here triumphs over her limited acting skills by essentially playing herself. Cast as a ferociously ambitious actress named Olga Lang, she seduces and discards a series of hapless men, only to wind up as a wretchedly unhappy prisoner in her own luxurious cage. Her dark beauty was never more bewitching than it is here. Her huge basilisk eyes glow, with an almost orgasmic thrill, when an obscenely rich sugar-daddy gifts her with a hideous pink Cadillac (approximately three city blocks long) or a camp fashion stylist wraps her up in a ludicrously opulent chinchilla coat.

As we can guess from María’s flamboyant performance, the term ‘too much’ is not part of this lady’s vocabulary. Just in case we miss the real-life connection, the soundtrack includes snatches of ‘María Bonita’ – a hit song composed by Agustín Lara (one of Maria’s many off-screen husbands) in honour of the star herself. This intense degree of self-revelation is what makes La estrella vacía so wildly compelling. It’s been rumoured that Rita Hayworth refused to play The Barefoot Contessa because it was modelled too closely on her own life, and that Gina Lollobrigida turned down The Lady without Camellias (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1953) for similar reasons.* María Félix clearly had no such qualms.

Not that the story is entirely true to life. The first flashback introduces María as a young wannabe from the sticks, newly arrived in Mexico City and hustling after her first job. The girl we see on screen looks a well-preserved 45 (María was born in 1914) and already boasts a fabulous wardrobe by Balenciaga and Jean Patou. Falling in love with a writer (Ignacio López Tarso) she gets pregnant but aborts his baby (two things Hollywood would not have allowed) and soon dumps him for a slick wheeler-dealer played by Tito Junco. Her new man catapults her to fame by a simple but effective trick. When a famous matador is fatally gored in the bullring, Maria pretends she was his fiancée and poses tearfully at his deathbed for a swarm of paparazzi.

There are, of course, whispered intimations of the casting couch. (As Maria’s alcoholic flatmate warns her: “Contracts don’t just get signed in offices!”) Still, the script asks us to believe that María never sleeps with Junco. She just graciously allows him to set her up in a lavish penthouse and star her in a string of prize-winning but money-losing motion pictures. (To be fair, many a Hollywood star’s memoir tells us much the same thing.) There are no such alibis when she hooks up with Mexico’s wealthiest tycoon. (“He owns the building you live in, the studio you work in, perhaps even the water you drink!”) He fires Junco, to whom María pledges her undying love and loyalty. She then promptly picks up the telephone and calls the tycoon.

María soon embezzles enough money to be comfortably set-up when said tycoon drops dead of a heart attack. She blows most of it, alas, on a new husband – a composer who takes a job with her company, and then uses it to screw all the available starlets. When María dares to complain, he beats her up and breaks her nose. It’s her gay stylist who helps her back from the brink, never mind that his loyalty strikes her as some sort of character defect. (“You know you don’t have anyone. That’s why you value friendship, because you have nothing else!”) He gets his due only after she dies in a plane crash. Moping around her mock-Beverly Hills mansion, one of the other men admits: “You are the only one who loved her without interest!”

Our own interest in La estrella vacía will hinge on an appetite for showbiz sleaze and gossip, and also a fascination with María Félix. That lady’s 30-year-reign as Queen of Mexican Cinema embodied a sort of Platonic Ideal of Motion Picture Stardom, one that was wholly divorced from minor technicalities like acting or talent. Unlike the heroines of The Barefoot Contessa or The Lady without Camellias, the tragic diva in La estrella vacía is not the hapless victim of a cruel and male-dominated industry. Whether we call her María Félix or Olga Lang, she is – gloriously and without apology – at once her own creator and her own myth. This woman has no need of a mere man to destroy her. Proudly, she is nobody’s victim but her own. 

David Melville

*Reri, star of Murnau’s TABU, sued the producers of BAREFOOT CONTESSA claiming the film’s plotline was plagiarized from her own life story. 

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