By George

“Disappointed romantic; one who dines alone in restaurants where music is played.”

Though I couldn’t quite get into RICH AND FAMOUS, I was able to respond favourably to George Cukor’s LOVE AMONG THE RUINS, a 1975 TV production starring Katherine Hepburn and Laurence Olivier. So nice that Kate and George were able to collaborate after she was elbowed out of TRAVELS WITH MY AUNT, which she helped script but wasn’t allowed to play in. And nice that Olivier and Hepburn, great friends, finally got to collaborate — it turns out they’re an excellent match.

Hepburn plays a rich widow being sued for breach of promise by her former young lover (Leigh Lawson) — she engages Olivier as barrister, apparently having forgotten their youthful fling 40 years earlier in Ottawa — sorry, Toronto.

What was this shot on? Douglas Slocombe was director of photography, and it’s aiming for a nice soft-focus look, but everything’s TOO soft, it’s positively mushy. But maybe that’s my copy. The trouble is, this film is something that doesn’t otherwise exist, the classically cinematic TV film of the 70s. That’s not a medium, or even a genre, it’s an aberration. If this TV, everybody’s too far away — the image is too diffuse for long shots, where actors’ faces turn to fuzz. If it’s film, the ten minute scenes are rather long and the action too stately. Something kind of rankles.

Cukor tries a few “cinematic flourishes” — apart from the ugly zooms, these consist of a nostalgic orange glow around Kate H that unfortunately suggests the landing of a CLOSE ENCOUNTERS UFO, and a soft white iris in on Larry when he starts to lose track of his surroundings as memories sweep over him. These bits are kind of eggy. But it’s hard to judge the correct style for this kind of thing — if it even is a kind of thing.

And yet, this is a terrific film. Olivier is excellent, and he’s really in tune with Hepburn: their timing together is wondrous. He’s funny, he’s moving, and he gets away with being big without seeming weird, apart from one scene. His summing-up at the end of the trial devolves into a crazy aerobatic display of random “dramatic” flourishes, and it becomes impossible to follow what he’s on about — Sir Larry is off in a world of his own, hearing only the adulation of some imaginary audience, calling out requests for new dramaturgical stunts — “Do the falling leaf!”

But it’s a solitary lapse. Elsewhere, he gets over his desire to be “the only one up there” (O. Welles) and riffs off Kate beautifully. They’re really good for each other. It’s not that they restrain one another — heaven forbid! — or push each other further — how could they? — but they focus each other wonderfully.

The supporting cast is a dream — Richard Pearson, as Olivier’s friend and Hepburn’s solicitor, is an enjoyable light comedian. Sadly, he died this year, a day after his 93 birthday. His only trouble is convincingly acting surprised by Olivier’s emotional revelations, since Larry projects said emotions with such seismic force even when he’s not discussing them. Then there’s Lawson as the infra dig golddigger, a nice study in venal hypocrisy — and Joan Sims as his mum! Her presence in the cast credits initially meant far more to me than the stars’, such is my love of her Carry On roles. She doesn’t need to adapt her comedic talents at all to fit in, though she’s playing a less ladylike figure than most of her Carry On caricatures (like Kenneth Williams, she specialized in a surface gentility which would drop like knickers in moments of high emotion. Given Joan’s rather hard life, I’m touched and pleased that she got to play a big scene with Olivier — surely that must have meant a lot to her. And then there’s Colin Blakely (Billy Wilder’s Dr Watson), affecting what I take to be a very subtle Edinburgh accent — Miss Jean Brodie dialled right down to subliminal level. The performance is huge and oily, but the accent is subtle as heck, a mere insinuation (unless it’s Blakely’s own Northern Irish, but I don’t think so — his character name, Devine, seems to have set off the notion of Scottishness, and a particular kind of prudish Calvinism at that.

Maybe this needs to be an annual tradition — I’ll watch a different late Cukor for each blogathon: I still need to see THE CORN IS GREEN and THE BLUE BIRD and TRAVELS WITH MY AUNT, which are all bona fide late curios, at the very least. In the meantime, I can’t sign off here without giving due credit to screenwriter James Costigan. Funny how he could write this solo and it’s excellent, but he apparently needed two collaborators to adapt Whitley Streiber’s book into THE HUNGER. Truly, the ways of cinema are mysterious…

6 Responses to “By George”

  1. Kate elbowed herself out of Travels with My Aunt thanks to her insistence that the young hippe girl be played by Joy Bang — a young actress with whom she’d become terribly superfond. (Cha-Cha-Cha.).)

    Mr. Cukor was more than a little put out by Kate’s shenanigans, but they made up — and made these last films together. Love Among the Ruins is elegant fun.

    Jackie Bissett tells me she was put off by Mr. Cukor’s insistence on playing Rich and Famous (which she co-produced) as an out-and-out comedy. She wanted an Autumn Sonata undertone to it. But as the years go on she says she sees why Mr. Cukor was right.

    And this gives me a chane to plug her great lead performance in The Sleepy-Time Girl and sterling supporting turn in Latter Days

  2. Poor Joy Bang! Still, it’s been proven again and again that NOBODY can play a young KH. If Blanchett can’t do it, nobody can (although David W points out that Marisa Berenson does OK in White Hunter Black Heart.

    Cukor’s 30s/40s background means he hits character points hard, very directly. I guess that’s one of the traits that made his generation seem alien to the kids in the 60s and 70s. But balancing that he had, of course, tremendous grace notes delivered with subtlety — it’s an odd mix, when you think about it.

  3. Well Joy (who quite the business in 1973 and went to work as a nurse in Minnesota) wasn’t up for a young Hepburn. The part was the young hippe girl the title character meets along the way. Cindy Williams got it.

    You’re right that Cukor hits points hard but he’s capable of prodcuing any number of subtle grace notes too. See Sylvia Scarlett, Bhowani Junction, Justine, Les Girls among others.

  4. Ah, I see. But Hepburn couldn’t have played the younger version of her character in the flashbacks, right? That’s where Maggie Smith comes in handy.

    Cukor’s lightness is very visible in his comedies too — of which Susan and God is a favourite.

  5. david wingrove Says:

    At the risk of sounding like a heretic, I think Maggie Smith is perfection incarnate in TRAVELS WITH MY AUNT. Frankly, I find it hard to imagine Hepburn in the role. She strikes me as too sensible to immerse herself in prostitution, smuggling and the rest of Aunt Augusta’s nefarious activities.

    David E – Jacqueline Bisset is indeed sublime in THE SLEEPY TIME GAL. She’s long been underrated as an actress, perhaps because she’s so stunningly beautiful that people just assume she’s been cast for her looks. Mind you, there are many worse problems to be had!

  6. Well, Bringing Up Baby does testify to Kate’s ability to play senseless. But I love Maggie Smith and would welcome her under about any circumstances.

    Yes, you can’t complain too much about being a beautiful actress: “Nobody feels sorry for a beautiful girl drinking champagne on a yacht.” As Helena Bonham Carter found out when she mused that her career would be livelier if she looked like Kathy Burke.

    “Stupid cunt,” was Burke’s response. Helena ruefully agreed about the first word and took it all back.

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