Forbidden Divas: Slave to the Rhythm

David Melville Wingrove returns with another Forbidden Diva ~


Slaves to the Rhythm

“Stop staring! This isn’t a wax museum!”

Elizabeth Taylor, Young Toscanini

Every now and then, you see a film that makes you wonder why it was a success. (My current object of curiosity is Moonlight.) More often, perhaps, you see a film that makes you wonder why it flopped. And on very rare occasions, you see a film so spectacularly deranged that you wonder why (and how) it was ever made at all. The most infamous flop in the career of Italian maestro Franco Zeffirelli, the 1988 epic Young Toscanini is part of this small and highly selective club. It also marked a doomed attempt at a comeback of that most legendary of stars, Elizabeth Taylor. She had not appeared in a major motion picture since the 1980 Agatha Christie thriller The Mirror Crack’d, where she played (convincingly) a washed-up film star attempting a comeback. Now her friend Zeffirelli cast her as a retired opera diva attempting a comeback. There is a fine line between typecasting and outright sadism. If nothing else, Young Toscanini makes you wonder where that line is.

You might call Young Toscanini a biopic, except it bears not the slightest resemblance to any person’s actual life. The minor 80s Brat Packer C Thomas Howell is cast, theoretically, as the ambitious boy conductor Arturo Toscanini. At the start of the film, we see him audition as a cellist for the orchestra at the La Scala opera house in Milan. “He looks too pretty to play the cello,” quips one of the judges. Indeed, the lovely Howell looks far too pretty to do most things, most notably act. His face frozen in a permanent pout, this young man flares his nostrils, clenches his jaw and sucks in his cheeks in ways that prophesy Ben Stiller’s performance as male model extraordinaire Derek Zoolander. When the judges at La Scala fail to respect his talent, this young upstart storms out and tells them to go to Hell. But a wily music promoter (John Rhys-Davies) hires him as accompanist for an operatic tour of South America.

The lad sets sail for the New World on a plush ocean liner. (The year is 1886, when folk travelled with a modicum of style.) The opera company and other first-class passengers lounge about the Grand Salon like a gaggle of refugees from Death in Venice (1971). Poverty-stricken emigrants suffer nobly below decks. Among them are a group of nuns, on their way to do God’s work in the slums of Rio de Janeiro. Their leader is the annoying and overbearing Mother Allegri (Pat Heywood – who still seems to be playing her Nurse role from Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet). Among them is a comely young novice named Sister Margherita (Sophie Ward), who has left her upper-class family in Milan to dedicate her life to the poor. Being the two prettiest and dullest people on board ship, she and Toscanini promptly fall in love. As in most Zeffirelli films, it is love of a frustrated and forbidden kind – because, you see, he belongs to Music while she belongs to God!

When it comes to photogenic but overpoweringly tedious young lovers, Franco Zeffirelli certainly does have form. Over the decades, he has given us Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey in Romeo and Juliet (1968), Graham Faulkner and Judi Bowker in Brother Sun, Sister Moon (1972), Martin Hewitt and Brooke Shields in Endless Love (1981), Jonathon Schaech and Angela Bettis in Sparrow (1993). That is a roster of non-talent of which few film-makers would dare to dream. Yet so far, Young Toscanini is not appreciably worse than James Cameron’s Titanic (1997). The ship is more lushly appointed, the extras are better-dressed and the romantic leads are slimmer and more attractive. Sensing that all is not as it should be, Zeffirelli stages his ‘King of the World’ moment with young Toscanini standing on deck in a raging storm, pretending to conduct Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. The music surges to orgasmic heights, as the waves crash over him and soak him to the skin. It is, beyond a doubt, the loudest and silliest wet dream ever depicted on screen.

Finally, we get to Rio de Janeiro and the young man’s long-promised encounter with La Liz. (She is, after all, the main reason we are watching this film in the first place.) Because the Rio of the 1980s looked not the least bit like the Rio of 100 years before, Zeffirelli shot in the picturesque Italian city of Bari. It is, predictably, a sunlit tropical paradise of lush green parks, sumptuous Art Nouveau villas and well-scrubbed favelas full of adorably smiling Negro children. There is also – to Toscanini’s unspeakable horror – slavery, the legal and licensed buying and selling of human beings. It is still a source of shame to Brazilians that theirs was the last country in the Western world to abolish slavery, which it did not do until 1888. Doubtless, there are films to be made on this topic. I would recommend they begin by not copying Young Toscanini.

Having come face to face with God, Art, Love and his own nascent revolutionary conscience, Toscanini is just about ready for his meeting with Elizabeth Taylor. Her character, Nadia Bulichova, is a Russian opera diva of legendary glamour and temperament. Now retired from the stage, she is comfortably ensconced as the mistress of Dom Pedro II, Emperor of Brazil (Philippe Noiret). She has agreed to a comeback in Aïda, the Verdi grand opera about a lovelorn Ethiopian slave in Ancient Egypt. (You see, there are parallels between Art and Life!) The young Arturo’s job is to persuade her to show up for rehearsals. Her villa is a luxuriant indoor jungle, complete with squawking parrots and chattering monkeys. From here on in, Young Toscanini threatens to become a deeply bizarre fusion of Black Orpheus (1959) and Sunset Boulevard (1950). Alas, it would take a more skilled cineaste than Zeffirelli to make that happen.

In her comeback role, Elizabeth Taylor looks more svelte and glamorous than she had at any time since before her Oscar-winning tour de force in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966) Her performance is everything the rest of the film is not. She is passionate, flamboyant, imposing, capricious and downright regal. Her voice is dubbed in Italian, so this is essentially silent-screen acting – yet it is up there with the very best. Her wardrobe (designed by Tom Rand) includes some rather odd fashion choices. One gown with a tight indigo bodice, deep crimson sleeves and gaudy scarlet train makes her look, momentarily, like a squat strutting peacock. But as anyone who has seen The Driver’s Seat (1974) will attest, La Liz triumphed over far worse sartorial disasters. Zeffirelli predicted she would win a third Oscar for this role. In fact, Young Toscanini was never released in the USA or most other countries.

At the film’s climax, Taylor (in full blackface and clanking ‘ethnic’ jewellery) interrupts the gala first night of Aïda during her own big solo – and makes an impassioned plea to the Emperor to free the slaves of Brazil! It is a moment of truly surpassing awfulness, one that transcends mere categories of Kitsch and Camp and goes straight to the heart of what Bad Movies are all about. The public applauds wildly apart from Noiret, who looks on with the air of a man (and an actor) impervious to all shame. Zeffirelli has said repeatedly in interviews that “I see my work as a lifetime crusade against bad taste.” Fortunately, only a few journalists have been cruel enough to ask him about Young Toscanini.

David Melville

26 Responses to “Forbidden Divas: Slave to the Rhythm”

  1. david wingrove Says:

    In that middle frame-grab, Liz looks as if she’s giving Zeffirelli the finger. Well, can you blame her?

  2. C. Thomas Howell is an ideal name for a gay S&M porn star. Zefferelli is a TERRIBLE director. He has the know-how to put his awful ideas across but they remain awful ideas. The exception is “Tea with Mussollini” in which he’s saved by Cher. I adore Elizabeth Taylor — but she was no Cher.

  3. I’ve been meaning totry another Zeffirelli — we saw Romeo & Juliet at skool and I have mainly stayed away since. He worked a lot with David Watkin, who was a genius, so I feel I ought to be able to extract some pleasure from his oeuvre, but what you say SOUNDS right — bad taste done with aplomb.

  4. david wingrove Says:

    I adore ROMEO AND JULIET but then I also love BROTHER SUN, SISTER MOON and SPARROW and CALLAS FOREVER. Apart from his ghastly right-wing politics, I am a hardcore Zeffirelli fan. Tell me, David Ehrenstein, do you not even like LA TRAVIATA? It is as close to perfection as any filmed opera has ever come!

  5. So in the course of my ongoing exploration of the Angela Bettis oeuvre I want to skip “Sparrow,” huh?

    Is it at least a horror movie??

  6. david wingrove Says:

    Not in the way you mean.

  7. Chereau’s “Ring” cycle and the Straub-Huillet “Moses and Aaron” are as close to perfection as any filmed opera has ever come.
    It’s a shame that Visconti was content to put the “Operatic” into his movies rather than make an opera film — though we do have the opening moments of “Senso”

  8. Regarding “La Traviata” I much prefer the bat-shit-crazy Teresa Stratas in “The Ghosts of Versaille” and HERE

  9. bensondonald Says:

    I just have to say “Young Toscanini” sounds like a parody title — especially after “Young Frankenstein”.

    I vaguely remember “Magic Fire”, a Richard Wagner biopic. As an arrogant young man he brushes off a dignified stranger. “Do you know who that was? That was Franz Liszt!” I also recall Wagner in jail, saying something like “It’s giving me time to work on a little notion I call ‘Der Meistersinger'”. There’s something delightful about not-quite-smooth historical namedrops.

    Sometimes they’re inspired. Recall a college showing of “Jason and the Argonauts”, to an appreciative, in-the-mood audience. When Jason rescues a sex-bomb priestess, he asks her name. She smiles and says, simply, “Medea”. All the lit majors laugh and make various “Uh-oh” noises; the rest look around confused.

    The apocryphal classic: A failed play supposedly opened with a weary French doctor returning home after a long and difficult delivery. “It was worth it,” he tells his wife. “That baby was Victor Hugo.”

  10. david wingrove Says:

    I’ve seen MAGIC FIRE. Unlike YOUNG TOSCANINI, which is hilariously awful, that film is just bad.

  11. david wingrove Says:

    David Ehrenstein, I know I should see the Patrice Chereau RING cycle – but still haven’t got round to it. I dislike Wagner intensely and Chereau seems to oscillate between films I love (FLESH OF THE ORCHID, LA REINE MARGOT, GABRIELLE) and films I truly can’t stand (JUDITH THERPAUVE, L’HOMME BLESSE, INTIMACY). I do like the 1950 Spanish film of PARSIFAL with Ludmila Tcherina as Kundry, but that’s a camp peplum extravaganza that only uses Wagner as mood music.

    Other great filmed operas? The Powell/Pressburger TALES OF HOFFMAN, the Losey DON GIOVANNI, the Powell BLUEBEARD’S CASTLE, the Zulawski BORIS GODUNOV and (apart from a few slip-ups) the Benoit Jacquot TOSCA. And let’s not forget original opera films like Demy’s UNE CHAMBRE EN VILLE or Barney’s CREMASTER 5. But I would put the Zeffirelli TRAVIATA up there with any of them.

  12. I adore all Chereau. His masterpiece is “Those Who Love Me Can Take the Train.” One of the things that makes his “Ring” so marvelous is in “Die Walkure” you actually have on stage a Siegmund and Sieglinde you’d actually want to boink. As a result there’s sex onstage — and not just in the orchestra pit. Chereau himself was quite beautiful (see “Danton” and “Adieu Bonaparte”). he came to L.A. for the release of “Son Frere” and I spent a couple of hours interviewing him. He told me about all sorts of things, like the fact that his brother could never accept his gayness to his declaration that he and Pascale Greggory “got along a lot better after we broke up.”
    You’re right about the Powell-Pressburger’s they’re great too.

  13. A Wagner biopic OUGHT to be hilarious, given the maestro’s absurd temperament, but Dieterle’s Magic Fire is disappointingly anodyne.

    Not being an opera buff, it takes something as spectacular as Powell or Zulawski to make me see the light, but I should sample the Chereau.

  14. I can’t vouch for it’s faithfulness to Bartok’s opera, but Michael Powell’s Herzog Blaubarts Burg (1963) is quite striking.

  15. david wingrove Says:

    SON FRERE was another of his films that I liked. To be honest, I wasn’t sure what to make of THOSE WHO LOVE ME CAN TAKE THE TRAIN. The main thing I remember is that Vincent Perez made a lovely drag queen – a persona he ‘borrowed’ from his then-girlfriend and future French First Lady Carla Bruni. Nobody could ever make that up!

  16. I like that and his Sorceror’s Apprentice but I don’t think they reach the level of invention of Red Shoes and Hoffmann. But the design is fantastic.

  17. chris schneider Says:

    Re the young lovers in Zeffirelli films, let us quote Mazeppa: “To have no talent is not enough.” (Bravo DMW. Nice piece.)

  18. And Vincent Pere’s co-star in “Train” is Carla Bruni’s sister , Valerie Bruni-Tedeschi.

  19. “Those Who Love Me Can Take the Train” is my favorite movie in the entire history of the cinema. I saw it just before the turn of the century. The 90’s was a long series of funerals for me an Chereau captured it all, specifically what he called “the positive side of funerals.” it does that and more. The title BTW comes from Francois Reichenbach on his death-bed while planning his funeral.
    In the 1984 I saw his production of Genet’s “The Screens.” Utterly indelible.
    As for “L’Homme Besse” though it’s set in France it was inspired, he told me, by his adventures in New York’s West Village, especially the piers which he visited many times in the early 70s with his discovery Bernard-Marie Koltes.

  20. david wingrove Says:

    Let’s just say Valeria got the acting ability…but Carla definitely got the looks!

  21. Here’s Michael Powell’s film of Béla Bartok’s Bluebeard opera. Best quality I could find.

  22. david wingrove Says:

    Total masterpiece! I actually love it more than PEEPING TOM. But still have yet to see THE SORCEROR’S APPRENTICE.

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