Archive for David Wingrove

FORBIDDEN DIVAS: Kiss of the Super Woman

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , on November 3, 2022 by dcairns

At last! The return of David Melville Wingrove’s Forbidden Divas.

“I will do the impossible – and God will help me!”

  • Libertad Lamarque, End of the Night

In the classic Manuel Puig novel Kiss of the Spider Woman, a gay Argentine prisoner named Molina is obsessed with a fictitious Nazi musical set in Occupied Paris. Her Real Glory tells the story of a glamorous chanteuse called Leni Lamaison who falls in love with a dashing SS officer, flees the nefarious clutches of the French Resistance and dies heroically for the cause of the Master Race. So intense is Molina’s fixation on this movie that Puig includes page upon page of production notes – in bold defiance of the fact that no such film ever existed.

Of all the book’s multiple movie narratives, only Her Real Glory found its way into the 1985 film of Kiss of the Spider Woman. This film-within-a-film is floridly and flamboyantly over the top, but still several shades more believable than the po-faced political drama that surrounds it. An audience can leave the cinema not even knowing that people actually did make movies like this once upon a time – and not such a long time ago either. An Argentine musical melodrama from 1944, End of the Night is essentially the same movie as the one so vividly imagined by Puig. The main difference is that it is propaganda on the side of the angels.

Completed in 1943, End of the Night was initially banned by Argentina’s neutral but right-wing government – who feared offending their (unofficial) Nazi allies. Set in Occupied Paris, it tells the story of a glamorous chanteuse called Lola Morel who falls in love with a dashing Resistance leader, flees the nefarious clutches of the Nazi secret police and dies heroically in the cause of freedom. Its cast and crew include a number of high-profile refugees, with a score by the French Jewish composer Paul Misraki and a juicy supporting role for Florence Marly, a Czech actress who fled the Occupation with her Jewish husband Pierre Chenal. It was not released until late in 1944, once it was clear that Hitler’s Germany was losing the war in any case.

End of the Night opens with hordes of jack-booted Nazi soldiers stomping through the darkened streets of a lovingly studio-built Paris. Shutters close, doors lock, records playing French chansons are turned off in mid-play. Careworn elderly ladies cross themselves in sorrow; from a balcony, a patriotic youth lobs a grenade at the invaders. As his comrades make a last hopeless stand, a pitched battle breaks out in the street. A dark and broodingly handsome Resistance fighter (Juan José Miguez) suffers a flesh wound and staggers through the film noir-inflected shadows to the safety of the nearest house.

It turns out this is the home of Lola (Libertad Lamarque) a South American singer trapped in war-torn Europe with her small daughter. Like any halfway responsible parent, she wants only to flee the horrors of war to the neutral safety of her homeland. But that is harder than it sounds. Her daughter Jeanette was born to a French father and holds a French passport. She can leave France only with an exit visa issued by the occupying Germans. An odious Nazi agent named Herr Kleist (Alberto Bello) has offered to be helpful in this regard. But any fool can see that his offer comes with strings attached.

The last thing Lola wants (or needs) is a wounded Resistance hero hiding out in her basement. But she does the decent thing and gives him shelter anyway. Opening up his shirt to inspect his wound, she offers us a glimpse of his exquisitely sculpted neck muscles. This is not to say she wouldn’t risk her life for a man who was just plain ugly…but it does help to look like a hero if you are going to play one. The two fall in love, which makes things rather awkward when Lola gets sent on a secret mission by the Nazis in exchange for that elusive exit visa she needs to get her daughter out of France. Would you believe the man she adores is the top secret Resistance leader it becomes her job to betray?

To make this dilemma even faintly credible takes some high-wattage emoting indeed. But at this Libertad Lamarque is one of the all-time Olympic champions. An angular and rather gawky woman with a pronounced squint, Lamarque was nobody’s idea of a conventional screen beauty. But she sang tangos in a voice of near-operatic intensity and emoted with a melodramatic fervour that made Bette Davis and Joan Crawford look distinctly half-hearted. She would leave Argentina a year or so after End of the Night following a very public spat with Eva Peròn, an ambitious would-be actress whose husband had just become the dictator. She fled to Mexico and remained a huge star until her death in 2000.

It is no surprise that the action in End of the Night comes to a halt every twenty minutes or so to allow Libertad to sing. It happens first in Paris, when a patriotic French girl refuses to sing for a hall full of Nazis in uniform. Libertad goes on in her place and wows ’em. That is what gives the villainous Herr Kleist the idea of sending her on that secret mission. Her job is to infiltrate the Resistance by posing as a singer in the Unoccupied Zone. Her cover is nearly blown when an ex-boyfriend spots her and calls her by her real name. It does not help that the girl she is impersonating (Marly) is shadowing her incognito and plotting to expose her. One marvels that this should even be necessary; it is hard to think of two women who look less alike.

But it goes without saying that True Love and the collective fight for freedom will triumph in the end. End of the Night is as blatant a work of propaganda as Casablanca or Mrs Miniver. But given the historical moment, it is hard to fault a movie for that. The political climate of Argentina in the early 40s makes it an act of considerable heroism by all concerned. Puig in Kiss of the Spider Woman was keen to show how the kitsch magic of movies can coexist all too easily with the vilest of right-wing ideology. End of the Night is a reminder that it doesn’t have to be that way. It shows us that good guys can do kitsch with the best of them.

David Melville

Forbidden Divas: May I Use Your Ocean?

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , on July 10, 2019 by dcairns

David Melville Wingrove returns with another, and particularly extreme, shameful pleasure from the more disreputable vaults of film history…

FORBIDDEN DIVAS

May I Use Your Ocean?

“I’ve never had cheap sex before. I was sort of looking forward to it.”

–          Lily Tomlin to John Travolta, Moment by Moment

“We all have ideas,” says Lily Tomlin’s gal pal several aeons into the trash classic Moment by Moment (1978). “Sometimes the real talent is knowing not to do anything with them.” At some point in the late 70s, producer Robert Stigwood had the idea of casting his hot young discovery John Travolta in a steamy tale of intergenerational romance with the alternative comedienne and would-be film star Lily Tomlin. The movie was written and directed on a vast budget by Tomlin’s life and production partner Jane Wagner, who had never directed a movie before and has – oddly enough – never directed another movie since. The result was a critical and box-office bomb of apocalyptic proportions, one that almost ended the careers of everybody involved with it only a few years after they began. What is astonishing to realise today is that…yes, Moment by Moment actually is as bad as critics and audiences in the 70s thought it was. That being said, it is still a vastly more enjoyable movie than Saturday Night Fever or Grease.

In a truly inspired stroke of miscasting, the sassy and sparky Tomlin plays a bored and blasé Beverly Hills housewife who is starting to find her life a bit empty. OK, she drives a stylish silver-grey Mercedes and owns a palatial beach house in Malibu that is exquisitely decorated in stripped pine and muted tones of white and beige. (It boasts the single best fireplace I have ever seen in any film.) She has an adorable white Maltese dog called Scamp – who gives the most assured and convincing performance in the film by a long chalk – and spends her time shopping at Gucci and Hermès and other fancy stores along Rodeo Drive. But truly, what is life when one is lonely and neglected and unloved? Lily’s husband, a construction tycoon, is boffing a girl young enough to be their daughter. Her name is Stacy and she resembles a giant animatronic Barbie doll. Poor bereft Lily breaks down in tears every time she thinks about it; be warned that she appears to think of very little else. But it has never occurred to her (incredibly) that she might commit any sexual indiscretion of her own.

One afternoon, she goes into Schwab’s Drugstore to buy some sleeping pills. As she does not have a prescription, the pharmacist refuses to give her any. It seems she is the one person in the whole of Beverly Hills who cannot simply bribe a doctor and get an unlimited stash of pills on demand. Suddenly, a handsome young street hustler comes bounding up and offers her some. He follows her out to the beach house and they soon become lovers. He is played by John Travolta and his name is Strip. The name of Lily’s character, by the way, is Trish. All the characters in Moment by Moment have names so determinedly cool and casual that you long to meet somebody called Euphemia or Marmaduke, if only for the sake of a little diversity. But in fairness ‘Strip’ is an eminently sensible name for this young man; that is pretty much all he does for the length of the entire movie. Virtually every scene in Moment by Moment involves John Travolta stripping down to a pair of skimpy briefs. I can think of no other non-pornographic film in which the hero wears so little without also yodelling and swinging through the jungle on a vine.

It is clear from the outset that Trish and Strip are made for each other. The two lovers sport an identical unisex haircut and you keep expecting them to remark that they both go to the same stylist, so how is it they have never met before? That would be a considerable improvement on anything they do say. The dialogue in Moment by Moment does not seem to have been written so much as improvised by members of the Andy Warhol Factory on a day when the drugs were running low. Whole stretches go by in which one lover utters a non sequitur and the other repeats it back dumbly. “Do you belong to the Automobile Club?” asks Trish when Strip’s car breaks down. In a flash of rapier wit, he answers: “Do I look like I belong to the Automobile Club?” When the lovers eat lunch on the veranda of the beach house, Strip asks Trish meaningfully: “Is that tuna?” Overpowered by his romantic badinage, she replies: “Yes, it’s tuna.” It might be amusing to stretch out a conversation like this for an hour or even a whole day. But midway through Moment by Moment, you feel as if you already have.

Nothing in the film can compete, for sheer hilarity, with the scene where Strip shows up at the beach house and asks Trish if he can use her ocean. She loves him, of course. But she feels self-conscious about him too. Not about the gaping gulf between his and her socio-economic status, but about the wide gap in their ages. One afternoon, a friend drops by for a visit and Strip comes in with some groceries. Trish is abashed and pretends he is the delivery boy. In another cringe-making scene, she takes Strip as her date to an exhibition of ‘Footography’ that consists of a gallery lined with photos of people’s feet. To be honest, I can think of far worse artistic concepts and at least a dozen of them seem to be in this movie. Trish is mortified when he takes two glasses of champagne off a tray at the same time. When the glitterati start to stare, he ditches her and storms off into the night. We pass the time by wondering exactly who Moment by Moment was ever made for? I can think of no audience for it apart from adolescent girls and middle-aged gay men. At no point does it seem like the brainchild of a high-powered lesbian couple.

The critic Boyd McDonald wrote of Robert Ryan that he was one of the few actors who could convincingly play a heterosexual. On the basis of their work in Moment by Moment, neither Tomlin nor Travolta is in any danger of challenging him for the title. Moaning about the woodwork in her home, Trish’s pal remarks: “Cedar always looks like a big empty closet.” Dare I say the closet in this movie appears to be bursting at the seams?

David Melville

Forbidden Divas: A Lousy Kind of Love

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 25, 2019 by dcairns

I’ve been blessed with a trio of great guest-Shadowplayers this week — third up is regular contributor David Wingrove, celebrating the divine Kim N. ~

FORBIDDEN DIVAS

A Lousy Kind of Love

“Everybody was always sleeping at my house. That’s the one thing I’ll always remember. Everybody was always sleeping.”

–         Kim Novak, Middle of the Night

At a booze-fuelled New Year’s Eve shindig somewhere in upstate New York, one overdressed matron turns to Kim Novak and says: “You’re a very attractive young woman.” The understatement is so glaring that it provides a rare moment of hilarity in Middle of the Night (1959) a film that is otherwise quite relentlessly glum. Here as in most of her films, Kim Novak has a quality that is almost translucent – like a Classical Grecian head carved exquisitely on a priceless antique cameo. If she has a limitation as an actress, it is that she is just too luminously beautiful to play a woman who is in any way plain or ordinary or dull. It is no accident that her most successful roles – and the ones audiences remember – show her as haunted by some queer and otherworldly presence. The witch who longs to be a mortal in Bell, Book and Candle (1958) or the girl who may be a ghost in Vertigo (1958) or the starlet possessed by a dead movie queen in The Legend of Lylah Clare (1968).

The whole point of Kim Novak is that she is not quite real. Yet there she is on a screen just in front of us. It is enough to make you believe dreams do come true, after all. So whose idea was it to cast her as a dowdy secretary – lonely, divorced and embittered – suffering through a May-December romance with her much-older boss (Fredric March)? The script delineates him repeatedly as 56 (!) but he and the other characters carry on as if he were well into his eighties and reliant on life support. Kim gives the role her considerable all and turns in a jittery, nervy and overemphatic performance. She suggests a Vogue cover girl who has been required, in the middle of a shoot, to play Nora in A Doll’s House. Her work is never embarrassing but, on a scale of conviction, it ranks somewhere between Michelle Pfeiffer as a frumpy greasy spoon waitress in Frankie and Johnny (1991) and Catherine Deneuve as a grimy Mid-Western factory worker in Dancer in the Dark (2000). An audience can only resent these women in their futile attempts to look ordinary. Most of us can do that more than adequately for ourselves.

Middle of the Night is based on a Broadway play by Paddy Chayefsky – who was, in the 50s, a sort of Tennessee Williams for socially conscious New York Jewish heterosexuals. March plays a wealthy businessman in the Garment District who has recently lost his wife. He is bored by his domineering and over-protective sister and his materialistic, rather vulgar offspring. He is irritated beyond endurance by his business partner (Albert Dekker) who boasts relentlessly about his sexual exploits with “tootsies.” Of course, Dekker has a secret. (Is there anyone in a Chayefsky play who does not have a secret?) That secret is revealed portentously towards the end of the film. This self-styled ladies’ man is, in fact, impotent. This being the 50s, the dialogue puts it rather more coyly: “I haven’t been good for a woman for two years.” All this palpable middle-aged angst is used as ‘motivation’ for the fact that March feels irresistible attracted to his young secretary. Does a man actually require motivation to feel attracted to Kim Novak? Some might say that all he requires is a pulse. Failing that, an artificial pacemaker will do just as well.

As the secretary, Kim tries her damnedest to look like someone’s idea of an everyday working girl. The credits reveal that her plain and sensible wardrobe was specially designed for her by Jean Louis. That is an indication of just how well she succeeds. Being a Chayefsky character, she has had no end of pain in her own life. She is recovering from a disastrous three-year marriage to a jazz musician. Although the script is too decorous to say so, it is clear their mutual attraction was based entirely on Sex. (Tennessee Williams would have made him a truck-driver or a dock-worker and posed him provocatively in a tight-fitting string vest, but Chayefsky has no flair for eroticism of any sort. A dash of Raw Sex might actually stop his characters yacking for five minutes.) Having been so badly bruised emotionally, Kim is all too vulnerable to the attentions of this adoring older man. She enters into an affair with March – but more as a relief, it seems, than as any sort of erotic awakening. To his considerable amazement, she accepts his proposal of marriage.

Incredibly enough, Kim’s mother (Glenda Farrell) turns out to be the only working-class mother in captivity who objects to her daughter marrying a kindly and courteous older man with lots of money. She urges her to dump March and go back to her penniless, two-timing musician. Why? Chayefsky’s pretensions to gritty realism are hollow at the best of times – but this particular piece of dramaturgy reveals what a fundamentally absurd writer he is. Kim gets the same argument from her best friend, who is played by Lee Grant in one of her first movie roles. Lee Grant is by no means a more gifted screen actress than Kim Novak. She is simply more adept at playing Paddy Chayefsky’s brand of highly polished, impeccably crafted junk. Nobody could ever make a silent film out of a Chayefsky play. Like that of Neil Simon (his comedic alter ego) his work consists of dialogue and nothing but. Yet Novak, like Garbo, has the ability to convey more with a mute flicker of an eyebrow than most actors with a full-blown Shakespeare solo. She slogs her way dutifully through this thick verbal porridge, like Garbo in the film of Anna Christie (1930).

It is not entirely a surprise when Kim – assailed by self-doubts and brow-beating from her family circle – gives in to temptation and has a one-night stand with her no-good ex-husband. She makes the mistake of telling March (again, why?) and he takes the news rather badly.  He tells the poor girl that hers is “a lousy kind of love.” Having been adapted with painful fidelity by Chayefsky himself, the script splits their relationship into easily digestible dramatic chunks. The lovers go from fancying one another (Act One) to adoring one another madly (Act Two) to being unable to stand the sight one another (Act Three) with barely a hint of transition in between. That is the way plays work. Alas, it is the way films do not. The director Delbert Mann (who won an Oscar for his 1955 film of Chayefsky’s Marty) dishes it all up with stifling reverence – as if it were Strindberg, at the very least.  It takes an acute visual sense to make a successful film of a stage play, as David Lean did with Blithe Spirit (1945) or Alain Resnais did with Mélo (1986). Judging from his work here, Mann seems to lack any visual sense of any sort.

Alfred Hitchcock, who immortalised Kim Novak a year before in Vertigo, complained famously that most movies are just “photographs of people talking.” It’s too bad that Middle of the Night is barely even that.

David Melville