Party Down

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My impression of James Ivory was formed by the films I saw in the 90s, which seemed like the antithesis of cinema to me then but were often held up as embodying what our movies should be about. I didn’t enjoy A Room with a View when I was forced to read it at school — I found Ivory’s film slightly easier to take because it could be consumed more quickly, but really — he managed to get a bad performance from Denholm Elliott, which ought to be impossible, by miscasting him as a slightly vulgar lower-middle-class parvenu. It’s the only role in the book that doesn’t require a toff, and he cast a toff. I thought Daniel Day-Lewis was overdoing things too. What else did I see? THE REMAINS OF THE DAY, which was OK, but didn’t seem to know what to do with the book’s political dimension.

So THE WILD PARTY (1975) was something I entered into with middling expectations. It has an intriguing central duo: James Coco, who’s great, and Raquel Welch. at her loveliest — “THAT is a GODDESS,” declared Fiona — and giving probably her best performance, which is to say she’s OK, and she sings and dances real good. But here comes her director, cutting away from her big dance number in order to get back to his “plot” — unforgivable! Revenge for Raquel making him apologise to her in front of everyone after he criticised her performance a bit insensitively?

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Spirited rendition of “Singapore Sally,” sat in Buddha’s lap.

As is typical with Ivory, the costumes and art direction are a treat, and here the setting is one I like a lot more than the Edwardian era. And then there’s the movie’s strangest feature, the fact that it’s based, nominally at least, on a narrative poem by John Moncure March. Not many narrative poems get filmed. Dante’s Inferno, yes, but not so much Paradise Lost. In fact, Walter Marks’ script rewrites the story completely, upscales the social setting to suit Ivory’s poshlust, and makes it a kind of dream-amalgamation of the Arbuckle scandal and the Thomas Ince “shooting” — even the verse has to be substantially rewritten. Relatively small amounts of it are spoken in VO, but they’re my favourite parts of the film —

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Because, let’s face it, Ivory sucks at directing dramatic scenes. He can do homage to the decor, but his photographs of people talking are just that, and his scenes go so flat you could slide them under the door before they’re half over. Several times he actually keeps the film running as the actors walk off the set, as if what he really wanted was to film the empty room, all that scenic dressing at last unobstructed by the damn cast. The actors are all good — in medium shot and long shot. Everybody’s playing too big for close-up (except maybe Coco, sometimes), but they must have their close-ups.

I have to admit, though, the songs (by Marks again) are very enjoyable. The movie probably needed a Ken Russell to do full justice to them, but Ivory scrapes by.

Ultimately, the film stops an entire act too soon (but not soon enough). It mattered that Roscoe Arbuckle was a movie star accused of a crime because the press crucified him. It mattered that William Randolph Hearst was a press baron and his supposed victim a movie director because the press didn’t cover it at all. Why does it matter that “Jolly Grimm” is a famous comedian? After “fat guy goes nutzoid,” is he treated any differently than you or I would be? If not, why tell this story?

 

 

5 Responses to “Party Down”

  1. Well sir we are at loggerheads at last. “As is typical with Ivory, the costumes and art direction are a treat,” clearly indicates you feel he’s Vincente Minnelli 2.0 But nothing could be further from the truth IMO. Ivory has an impressive range and for all the “tastefulness” that supposedly his stock-in-trade, a very wild streak.

    I’m not sure if I mentioned it before but A Room With A View was a big hit in the American South as Lucy Honeychurch is the embodiment of the “Southern Belle” aching to “ring.” Andrew Haigh’s Weekend pays copious homage to Rupert Graves’ nude scene in it. And you can well imagine the feelings of a gay man of my generation regarding Mauice — a script Ruth didn’t write. Likewise “Ruth-less” is Savages, Ivory’s semi-surrealist collaboration with the redoubtable George W.S. Trow (whose “Within the Context of No Context” is required reading for one and all) with a title song by Bobby Short.

    Of his more recent works Le Divorce is an underrated delight. And then there’s the marvelous The City of Your Final Destination which may well be IT.

    Ismail is dead.
    Ruth is dead.
    James is very much alone, and my most tender thoughts are with him.

  2. I would be more in synch with Ivory if I saw him as a Minnelli.

    Actually, the polymorphous perversity on display in The Wild Party is quite brave and the film’s best point: it didn’t need to be there, and AIP would probably be happier if the montage of orgy activities were devoid of man-on-man.

    It could be that Ivory has been celebrated for the wrong films. I’m still kind of interested to see Savages and The Guru and Roseland. And I did quite like Heat and Dust.

  3. And don’t forget Mr. and Mrs. Bridge which is all about his midwestern upbringing and in which Joanne Woodward gives a spectacular performance as my mother.

  4. Unrelated to the above, but I saw Natan yesterday and jotted down my thoughts:

    http://garethsmovies.blogspot.com/2014/05/natan.html

    More related to the above, albeit anecdotally. I ended up chatting to James Ivory at an event hosted by our local rep theatre. He was the model guest, dealing with several hundred slightly tipsy people paying tribute and no doubt mangling his filmography rather badly as they strained to remember which of his films they’d seen.

  5. Thanks for the thoughtful and sympathetic review. We wish we could have developed some of those story strands further too. Natan remains an object for further research.

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