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?
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 —
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?