Ottocracy in Action

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More Otto Preminger Week Revisited.

Otto is one of those filmmakers you just CANNOT watch in the wrong aspect ratio. I’ve seen TAXI DRIVER in 4:3 and it was OK, although that’s obviously a travesty of the filmmaker’s intentions. To see a widescreen Preminger reduced to 16:9, though, renders it meaningless. The drama is often a little elusive at times, and without the spaciousness of the compositions, it dissipates mysteriously into nothingness. Plus you miss the detail packed into the edges of the frame on the crowded shots.

Fiona was astonished by ADVISE AND CONSENT — she found it talkie and dull for the first half hour, and she has flu, and she didn’t feel like looking at this all-star fishtank of largely cold, dry characters conniving and backstabbing. But once the movie has set its narrative in motion, and in particular once Don Murray’s awful predicament as a blackmailed senator with a homosexual affair in his past becomes apparent, the thing grips.

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For once, Charles Laughton is upstaged — by time-traveling Hugo Weaving on the right. He Gets everywhere!

In The World and its Double, Chris Fujiwara notes that Preminger and screenwriter Wendell Mayes were adapting and subverting a right-wing novel, and the result is interesting — it has Henry Fonda lying under oath, for one thing. As in THE BEST MAN, Fonda plays an “egghead” — Henry Fonda is Hollywood’s idea of a dangerous intellectual? What’s interesting, though, is this major star playing a character reduced to a political football, kicked around by the real players, compromising his ideals, finally reduced to irrelevance in a plot that moves on elsewhere.

Charles Laughton, in his last role, is chief antagonist, right-wing spokesman for the blacklist set. Preminger, who helped break the blacklist, allows him some humanity. The secondary antagonist is uptight, neurotic peacemonger George Grizzard, a hopeless politician full of passion and, it turns out, evil. And even he is somewhat sympathetic.

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This is an amazing shot: the camera arching around dramatically in response to quite small head turns by Grizzard (left).

People Preminger was mean to on this one: Franchot Tone, who hadn’t been in a movie for years. Paul Ford, of Bilko fame (“You’re not funny!”). He didn’t mess with Laughton, and Don Murray betrayed no weakness.

Preminger, trying to help out Gene Tierney, who had been institutionalized after a mental collapse, cast her as a society hostess and apparently treated her with the greatest gentleness. She was terrified of him anyway. You can’t be the purple-faced tyrant and switch to being lovable Uncle Otto when it suits you. Fiona’s eyes nearly popped out when Tierney’s character playfully calls herself a bitch — the word had not been used in American movies, at least since the Production Code came in (one thinks of THE WOMEN’s artfully circumlocutory “There’s a name for you ladies…” — but I think British movies had not been so gentle).

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What really amazed Fiona was the gay bar scene. Preminger was sailing very close to the wind, relying on a change to the Code that had not been ratified as he neared production. SUDDENLY, LAST SUMMER had broken the taboo on cannibalism — I guess homosexuality was regarded as a degree worse than that. Preminger was warned not to feature makeup or effeminate types — he heeded the warnings but violated their spirit with physiognomy and performance. Seen through the tortured Don Murray character’s eyes, the place exerts both repulsion and attraction — some customers seem normal, appealing, others are George Grosz grotesques. Preminger’s innate streak of vulgarity can’t resist a good leer, but the approach makes sense and the scene hasn’t really dated. The senator’s religion isn’t mentioned, but he’s from Utah, making it highly likely that he’s a Mormon (I believe Bruce Dern’s grandfather was the only non-Mormon governor of Utah), making his inner conflict even more intense.

Preminger and Mayes plant just enough clues to indicate that the character’s marriage is, if not a sham, at least a deliberate construct, a life he’s been trying to lead, telling himself it’s right for him. He loves his wife and kid, but he’s straitjacketed himself into somebody else’s existence. It’s a rather sophisticated, nuanced piece of work, and Murray is excellent in the role: something about the tightness of his smile always suggests a man clinging on (he’s very fine in the underrated A HATFUL OF RAIN also).

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15 Responses to “Ottocracy in Action”

  1. Fiona here – Since Murray’s character’s first name is ‘Brigham’, I think we can be fairly sure he’s meant to be a Mormon.

  2. henryholland666 Says:

    I saw this a few months ago, the gay bay scene is interesting. Of course, public virtue is upheld as the man who probably had a single, war time affair with another man ends killing himself, so the Production Code still wins.

    Laughton looks horrible in this, his kidney cancer must have been in play, it’s painful to watch him.

  3. He never looked exactly healthy — I didn’t interpret him as being seriously ill at this point. Afterwards, Billy Wilder planned to cast him in Irma La Douce, and kept visiting to update him on the script’s progress as Laughton was on his deathbed, maintaining the pleasant illusion that he would recover and continue to work…

    It’s always regrettable when suicide is used as a narrative out to deal with characters Hollywood finds troublesome, but Otto’s interpretation, that the character could have found happiness by embracing his sexuality, allows for an extraordinarily subversive (for the period) reading.

    Just watched Victim. It also has difficulties dealing with its subject while appeasing the censor, but is likewise very interesting.

  4. Alan Drury was a deeply closeted gay man and Advise and Consent is his apologia pro vita sua . In the United States TEH GHEY cuts two ways. It was until quite recently “against the law.” Of course if you ARE The Law you can do what you like. Right Roy?

  5. chris schneider Says:

    I always took the George Grizzard character to be a closet case.

  6. In The Celluloid Closet Vito Russo has quite a lot to say about the gay bar in Advice and Consent — which is three times the size of the average pre-“Stonewall” gay bar. Some vaguely sinister queens at the entrance, but Don Murray’s old boyfriend is not “stereotype.”

    World War II was of enormous importance to American gays and lesbians as men and women from small towns who thought “I’m the only one” discovered there were tons more out there. As everyone was risking their lives in the war nobody in command cared who slept with who. After the war things were very different. The early gay rights orgs began, the Mafia took over the bars and the police were paid off under the table. When the payoff money wasn’t sufficient the places were raided. Then came “Stonewall” where the customers fought back (there’s a major movie about it coming this Fall, tat’s already a source of controversy).

    Preminger loved pushing the sexual envelope. Consequently after The Moon in Blue and Anatomy of a Murder, Advise and Consent makes perfect sense. The casting is fascinating in that Don Murray’s tormentor is played by George Grizzard — who was gay (he “came out” a few years before he passed) And then there’s Laughton –whose magnificent swan song this is. He steals the damn picture.

  7. And fine work from Walter Pigeon, rumoured to have been gay also.

    No normal-sized gay bar would have satisfied Otto’s widescreen frame!

  8. More than “rumored” Read Scotty Bowers’ Full Service

  9. I don’t DISbelieve Bowers, but that’s still kind of rumoured. Or “claimed,” anyway.

  10. Not when he’s declaring he’d had sex with him. In the “rumored” or “claimed” department is a tale Scotty doesn’t tell — that Roddy McDowell was deflowered by Pidgeon. Most likely during production of Holiday in Mexico

  11. Well, Roddy would have been around 17, so that’s not too shocking. You had me worried until I checked the dates.

  12. “… and the scene hasn’t really dated.”
    Well, I feel ambivalent about that statement, part of me defensively wants to ask “Really? And how many gay bars have *you* been in this millennium?” And part of wants to agree; “Yes, you too have obviously been in some bars in Silverlake and West Hollywood quite recently.”

    Although may I add, as a 65 year-old gay man, I was forbidden to see A&C when it was first released in 1962, (although I remember in detail the tantalising trailer) because the BBFC had given it an X rating. I had to wait to see it until the early 1970s, when it first turned up on British TV. I’ve seen it several times since then, and on every viewing it intrigues and fascinates.

    I would add that Victim is more than simply interesting, it hastened UK society towards accepting (somewhat grudgingly) the Wolfenden Report. Apart from lovely shots of my old stamping grounds in St Martin’s Lane, the Salisbury and Cecil Court, Bogarde showed enormous courage in taking the role of Melville Farr, given his then-stature as an emphatically hetero Rank charm school heartthrob.

    “… but he’s straitjacketed himself into somebody else’s existence.”

    Thank you, a brilliant observation, and very familiar to we many gay men (and women) who grew up in the dreadful grey years of post-WWII Britain, constantly rained on from the low blankets of clouds which seemed perpetually to unload Atlantic damp and drizzle on all our heads, eating appalling food (fat-marbled meat things fried in lard, vegetables heavily over-salted and boiled to buggery) and choked by our own internalised homophobia. Hooray for the consolations of Forbidden Planet and Hercules Unchained. Even if young gay boys aspired to, and hoped for, Steve Reeves rather than Walter Pidgeon.

  13. I didn’t mean to suggest that A&C’s gay bar would still appear state-of-the-art, just that as a Hollywood creation of the early sixties, it doesn’t seem laughable today.

  14. Victim is indeed “more than simply interesting” both because of the Wolfenden Report and the spectacle of Dirk Bogarde being brave and closeted at the same time.

  15. Plus it slides into and wriggles out of every pitfall, alibi, cliche and cover-up available to it, ending up with its own peculiar integirty.

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