The ’68 Comeback Special: Charlie Bubbles
Running a themed blogathon at the same time as two alternating columns (The Forgotten and this one, shared with Scout Tafoya who writes it every other week) presents the amusing challenge of coming up with a Thursday article which can fit both the theme of Thursday’s regular feature — the movies that were to have competed at the 1968 Cannes Film Festival — with the theme of the blogathon. In 1968, the hot directors were mostly young, so finding a last film from the line-up might seem a tricky task, but fortunately the Cannes selection committee have provided me with a choice of two — critic Michel Cournot’s LES GAULOISES BLEUE and Albert Finney’s CHARLIE BUBBLES. Both films are the first, last and only films directed by these luminaries, though both have substantial non-directing careers (and Finney co-directed a TV play in 1984).
I’ve plumped for Finney because it’s cheering to see another GOOD British film after GIRL ON A MOTORCYCLE and the nightmarish memory of HERE WE GO ROUND THE MULBERRY BUSH hanging like a miasma over my psyche. And besides, Cournot’s Godard-imitation doesn’t seem like my cup of tea. Hopefully Scout can cover that one…
I’m often skeptical of film stars becoming directors, simply because they can — they often do it on a whim, carried by their box office clout and the studios’ understandable desire to curry favour. But though Finney’s film didn’t win many passionate defenders at the time, and he seems to have slumped back into acting (albeit with less enthusiasm and care than before), I think the movie stands up remarkably well. It’s one of the least fashion-conscious films of the bunch, in no hurry to yell about how with-it the filmmakers are, and of course this works against it dating like the Cardiff and Donner films (though their cringe-making qualities are probably timeless and were apparent even to contemporary observers), but it’s still very much en courant in its subject.
Writer Charlie Bubbles is a northerner in London, a huge financial success with his novels and their various adaptations. We first meet him arriving at a swank restaurant for conference with various agents, publishers and accountants, all full of schemes to make and save him/them money. Charlie, who’s uncommunicative at the best of times, ditches these boring parasites in favour of a food-fight with fellow Northerner Colin Blakely (whose Yorkshire accent keeps veering into his native Ulster cadences, but whose crazily erratic timing with dialogue is as beautiful as ever).
Drunkenness ensues, then Charlie returns home for a cheese sandwich from his domineering housekeeper Mrs Noseworthy, a Danvers manqué (but he doesn’t eat it), then returns the soused Blakely to his forgiving wife and heads oop North in his Rolls to visit his ex-wife and son, taking with him American student and acting secretary Liza Minnelli, as “Eliza Heyho”, whose first movie this is (apart from guest spot as baby in her mom’s movie, a sort of carry-on role).
John Simon wrote “The supreme deadweight in the picture is Liza Minnelli, Judy Garland’s daughter, whose screen debut proves easily the most inauspicious since Turhan Bey’s. Miss Minnelli is so untalented and homely, and so blithely unaware of it all, that her performance must rate high on the list of any collector of unconscious camp.” Marginally witty, offensively sexist and mean, and of course deeply stupid, since how would Liza’s performance be improved by a knowledge of her supposed homeliness and lack of talent. We can easily compare Minnelli’s reception with that accorded Angelica Huston for her work in her dad’s rather lovely film maudit A WALK WITH LOVE AND DEATH. Simon wrote of her, “the face of a gnu and a body of no discernible shape,” and critics united in hostility at what they saw as an amateurish, flat performance lacking in the panache expected from a leading lady. Of course Huston is now universally admired, and it’s probably assumed by many that decades away from the screen studying her craft caused her to improve, but her amazing, fresh, unstudied, unshowy and touchingly believable perf in dad’s movie (which she didn’t really want to make) already demonstrates her abundant talent. The critics just didn’t see it because, like Minnelli, she was performing in a register of idiosyncratic naturalism unrecognizable to them. Once you get used to an unusual actor, you can usually tell they’re good, but at first it can be tricky. There was even a review of THE GRADUATE denouncing Dustin Hoffman as having “no acting ability whatever.” The mainstream critics have rarely embraced anything qualitatively new.
Of course, few filmmakers work alone, and Finney has the help of Peter Suschitzky on camera, Fergus McDonnell (ODD MAN OUT) as editor, and a lovely score by Misha Donat, who did THE WHITE BUS the same year and little else. And speaking of that Lindsay Anderson film, we must acknowledge that both it and BUBBLES were the work of author Shelagh Delaney, whose film career promptly ground to almost a complete standstill in wake of this double box office disappointment. At least she had literature.
But Delaney’s voice is definitely one I miss in cinema. She had a blithe way of combining fantasy and reality, and the realistic and the surrealistic, which emerges here in subtle, disconcerting ways. THE WHITE BUS has one of my favourite moments ever, when we see Patricia Healey at work in an office, then cut to her legs dangling lifelessly from top of frame as if she’s hanged herself, while an unconcerned cleaner vacuums in the background, then we cut back to her typing. A momentary fantasy.
Some of the cutting in CHARLIE BUBBLES makes me think of that moment, even when no fantasy is at play. By dropping in shots of unconcerned diners while Finney and Blakely are smearing fine foodstuffs all over each others’ kissers, McConnell’s cutting makes one wonder whether it’s really happening at all, but a breezy cut to the two soiled Mancunians parading down the street confirms the evidence of our eyes.
A film full of erratic elevators — the one in Charlie’s townhouse doesn’t work, and the one in the hi-rise hotel takes forever for the doors to close, as the operator fumbles diligently with the controls and the bellhop rolls his eyes heavenwards, before ascending. Is this an in-joke? Lindsay Anderson produced IF… using Finney’s offices, and lost several crewmembers on the way to a production meeting. “So this is how it ends… trapped in Albert Finney’s elevator… possibly forever.” I’m paraphrasing David Sherwin’s account but the world-weary comic despair is accurate.
A bold move for Finney to play a character so low-energy and indifferent to everybody around him. His lack of reaction to the offer of sex from Minnelli is hilarious, if cruel. Her baby-fat peachiness is incredibly alluring to me in CABARET, but without the dynamic poses it’s easy for them to make her look puddingy, which they proceed to do. But the joke isn’t on her, it’s about Finney/Bubbles disaffection and ennui. Each stage of her undressing seems to depress him more, but he carries on stripping her, with defeated dutifulness. Why can’t everybody just leave me alone?
Gratuitous Yootha Joyce. Which we like.
Billie Whitelaw, the pinnacle of just about everything. We have to wait an hour for her — she’s like the Colonel Kurtz at the end of this journey into the heart of British low-affect despond. And then there’s what feels to my inexpert eye like some really acute observation of the dynamics of the ex-marrieds with kid. Coming into the household from outside, Finney sees problems, but is perceived as having no moral right to intervene or voice an opinion. He abrogated that when he left home. Also, she’s the only one in the film he looks at with interest, longing, pain.
“Why don’t you go into the parlour and write a book,” she snaps. And her refrain, “There’s no need for that.”
This is what the film is interested in — allusiveness, the unspoken, strange moments. Not story and not even drama. The sharpness of the observation justifies everything. On first encountering his small son, Charlie happens to have been looking at Billie’s false eyelashes, so he immediately affixes them to the lad’s upper lip, fashioning a dapper moustache. Finney gets great stuff from little Timothy Garland — not so much performance as behaviour. Stuff of him laughing at a TV show that just isn’t acting, it’s real, but it’s blended into stuff where actors act.
The film’s theme, I guess, has something to do with the new classless hero of British culture, who comes from a proletarian background and achieves a dizzying success which completely cuts him off from the mainspring of his creativity. Did Delaney experience this herself (do novelists actually GET as successful as Bubbles?) or did she borrow it from Finney. I can well believe he experienced it. And it later affected his playing — had he carried on as a director he might have avoided such ennui. He might have at least avoided SCROOGE, LOOKER, ANNIE… But a movie star always has an escape hatch — a film director who can do something else probably will do it — he’s not going to starve if he doesn’t direct…
Charlie, incidentally, is offered food all through the movie, but only eats what Billie Whitelaw offers. And only a little of that. And then he catches a balloon and sails away. As Sydne Rome says in WHAT?, “It’s the only way we can end the movie!”