Forbidden Divas: An Orgy in an Angel’s Bed

David Wingrove returns with more forbidden divadom, and a late film to boot! We love late films here at Shadowplay

FORBIDDEN DIVAS

An Orgy in an Angel’s Bed

“Remember, darling, don’t be like me. Have the game – but avoid the name!”

–          Honor Blackman to Jean Seberg, Moment to Moment

It is midnight and a hot and wild mistral is rising on the Côte d’Azur. The twisted shadows of palm trees blow frantically, back and forth, on the white marble facade of the Casino. In the garden of a luxurious seaside villa, dead leaves drift across the courtyard, loose tiles rattle on the roof and the wind blows a shutter open and then shut, open and then shut…as we see, through the window, into a kitchen. The lights are on. The body of a young and handsome man in naval uniform is lying sprawled on the floor, with a gunshot wound in his chest. The front door to the house opens and an elegantly dressed woman runs out into the night. Just a moment later, another woman – younger and dressed in a red bathrobe, the colour of fresh blood – appears in the doorway and calls after her. “Daphne!” she cries. “You must help me!” She is a respectable American wife and mother and she has the dead body of a stranger in her house. Or does she? It seems as if nothing in Moment to Moment (1966) is ever exactly what it looks like.

A quite absurdly enjoyable slice of high-flown melodramatic tosh, Moment to Moment was the last film ever made by the Hollywood veteran Mervyn LeRoy. A director whose work ranged from the gangster machismo of Little Caesar (1930) to the sword-and-sandal religiosity of Quo Vadis (1951) and from the high-toned soap opera of Waterloo Bridge (1940) to the gaudy theatrical camp of Gypsy (1962) he was a man without pretension to artistry or art. At no point in his very long career did he appear to know anything except how to make a good movie. It is doubtful that he ever made a masterpiece, yet equally doubtful that he ever made a bore. The auteur critics at Cahiers du Cinéma may have thrived on pitting directors (yay!) against producers (boo!) but Mervyn LeRoy made nonsense of their whole theory by working just as happily as one or as the other. The most famous film produced by LeRoy, The Wizard of Oz (1939) is as watchable, as nonsensical and as devoid of anything resembling a personal style as any of the films he directed. Moment to Moment is recognisably his work in that it might have been made by damn near anyone. But it just so happens Mervyn LeRoy did it better.

That beautiful but overwrought lady with the corpse on her hands is played by the Hollywood starlet turned French New Wave icon Jean Seberg. She looks unfailingly exquisite in her Yves Saint-Laurent wardrobe – which bears a more than passing resemblance to the clothes he would design for Catherine Deneuve a year later in Belle de Jour (1967). Alas, she is never exquisite enough to mask the fact that she is simply the wrong kind of actress for this kind of film. A movie as florid and overblown as Moment to Moment calls for the sort of bravura emoting that Lana Turner or Susan Hayward could do in her sleep. Yet any good performance by Jean Seberg was very much the opposite, stripping away all hint of theatrical artifice to expose the raw and naked soul underneath. In films like Bonjour Tristesse(1958) or Lilith (1964) or Birds Come to Die in Peru (1968) her acting has an uncanny and almost feral quality. But in a conventional (albeit superbly staged) melodrama like Moment to Moment, she just looks awkward and confused. This is as dire a piece of miscasting as it might be to put Liv Ullmann on Dynasty. It makes an audience feel reluctant even to award points for effort.

Her co-star – that other woman Jean runs out of the house and shouts after – makes a far better show of herself. Cast as the flamboyant dipso nympho next door, Honor Blackman has the knack that only a very few actors have of making all her lines sound elegant, sophisticated and witty – even when most of them are actually quite plain. “I shall never look old bricks in the face again,” she purrs when someone suggests a jaunt to an archaeological site. “They are starting to look like mirrors!” It is the sort of line that Noël Coward might have pencilled out in a dress rehearsal, but Blackman plays it as though it were vintage Oscar Wilde. Her character is a divorcee whose parties are the scandal of the Riviera. But the name of her villa – ah, the irony! – is Le Lit de l’Ange, which translates as “the angel’s bed.” Yet neither she nor Jean seems to have much luck at luring angels into her bed. The best that poor Jean can do, while her achingly dull husband is flying all over Europe being important, is start a hesitant romance with a handsome but disturbed American sailor.

Do you remember that dead body I was telling you about? Well, that’s him. Or rather, that is a young actor named Sean Garrison whose first and only starring role this was. We can easily guess at his value to the United States Navy. He is so wooden there is no doubt he would stay afloat for hours, even if the rest of the fleet were to sink with all hands. He meets Jean while he is painting by the docks – a picture, not a flagpole – and promptly makes his move. She is feeling lonely and neglected with her husband out of town. She takes him to an outdoor restaurant called La Colombe d’Or, where white doves fly up into the sky and turn a bilious yellow in the setting sun. He says the sight is “breathtaking” but that is not quite the word I would use. They dance to what must be the fortieth (or fiftieth) rendering so far of the Henry Mancini-Johnny Mercer theme tune. Then they go back to her villa, where The Inevitable inevitably happens. It seems, alas, to be Inevitable only that once. Later Jean tells Sean she is a respectably married woman and how could he possibly, etc. He turns violent, she grabs a gun. In a twist of which M C Escher might be proud, Moment to Moment spirals neatly back to the place where it all started.

The plot grows seriously convoluted after that. The actors seem to understand it even less than the audience, which is saying a lot. In the interest of not spoiling the suspense, I will reveal only that Sean Garrison is meant to be alive in some scenes and dead in others. But I do hope nobody ever sits me down and asks me to point out which is which.

David Melville

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4 Responses to “Forbidden Divas: An Orgy in an Angel’s Bed”

  1. ehrenstein47 Says:

    Good work. The actor that today exemplifies the qualities you fin in Honor Blackman is Holland Taylor;

    I await your take on “Moment By Moment” starring that most forbidden of all divas , John Travolta (assisted by Lily Tomlin whose wife Jane Wagner wrote and directed the damned thing.)

  2. David Melville Wingrove Says:

    OK, David Ehrenstein. Confession time here. I adore MOMENT BY MOMENT. But I have always felt embarrassed (or even ashamed) to write about it. But now I see that I shall have to. Can I blame it on your bad influence?

    Bring on the next Forbidden Divas!

  3. ehrenstein47 Says:

    I await your comments with considerable antici-

    PATION!

    I recall that when my friends Meredith Brody and Jonathan Benair saw it they were especially taken wit the scene where Lily is driving all er L.A. looking for “Strip” (Travolta) and when her car passed the “Scientology Center” in Hollywood they yelled out “HE’S IN THERE!!!!”

  4. David Melville Wingrove Says:

    I’ll admit it is an appalling movie. But I still like it better than SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER or GREASE.

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