Our regular guest Shadowplayer David Melville returns with another in his series, Forbidden Divas.
A WOMAN OF HER IMPORTANCE
When I wanted your trust, I didn’t get it.
Now that I have your trust, I don’t want it!
Dolores del Río, Story of a Bad Woman
On the long list of places I’ve never been to, Argentina is the one that makes me most curious. I’ve heard that Eva Perón – a prostitute who married a dictator – is still revered by many as a saint. That the tango is popular only in the capital, Buenos Aires, and reviled elsewhere in the country as vulgar and salacious. That decades of conflict over las Islas Malvinas (known to imperialists as the Falklands) have done nothing to blunt a perverse but enduring fascination with all things British. According to one old saying: “An Argentine is an Italian who speaks Spanish, works like a German and tries but fails to dress like an Englishman.”
So perhaps it’s weirdly fitting that Argentina (not the UK) has produced the smartest and most elegant screen version of an Oscar Wilde comedy. Historia de una mala mujer (which translates literally as Story of a Bad Woman) is a liberal but pitch-perfect adaptation of Wilde’s 1892 play Lady Windermere’s Fan. Made in 1948 – when Argentina still rivalled Mexico as the leading film industry in the Spanish-speaking world – it’s the work of one Luis Saslavsky, a brilliant but little-known auteur who fled into exile in the 50s and spent the bulk of his career in Europe. Its star, Dolores del Río, was a legend in both Mexico and Hollywood. Here she pays a gracious goodwill visit to points further south.
Sinuous in its camerawork, eye-wateringly lavish in its costumes and sets, Story of a Bad Woman may be the best film ever made from an Oscar Wilde text. The other contender for me is Carmelo Bene’s 1972 version of Salome, with 60s supermodel Veruschka shedding a skin of jewels off her nude body while her director/co-star writhes in understandable lust. That film was an Italian avant-garde epic – so perhaps, in order to film Wilde successfully, you have to slice his text to ribbons and translate him into a foreign language. The one truly Wildean film in English, Robert Hamer’s 1949 black comedy Kind Hearts and Coronets, is not actually based on Wilde at all.
While British and American directors tend to preserve Wilde’s bonbons of wit in a glaze of stiff and flavourless aspic jelly, Saslavsky uses the text as a springboard and sets his camera free to do its job. He opens at the opera, at a gala performance of Verdi’s Il Trovatore. As in Luchino Visconti’s Senso (1954) – which opens at a performance of the same opera – there’s far more drama in the audience than on the stage. Every pair of opera-glasses in the house is trained on a single empty box, in which the scandalous femme fatale Mrs Erlynne is due to appear. Once the lady shows up, she does not disappoint. In a black velvet gown with a long trailing black-and-white cape, Dolores del Río is an Aubrey Beardsley illustration sprung to life.
Stalking the corridors at the interval, Dolores gives Saslavsky and his team a chance to show they have read other works by Oscar Wilde and not just the one they are adapting. She runs into an old admirer called Arthur Savile (Francisco de Paula) – who retrieves her glittering serpent bracelet when it falls off her wrist onto the floor. (The device used to entrap the villainous Mrs Cheveley in An Ideal Husband.) But her main purpose of the evening is blackmail. The world-weary husband (Alberto Closas) of an insufferably priggish young socialite (María Duval) has unaccountably started paying Mrs Erlynne’s bills. Given that this lady’s wardrobe alone could bankrupt a small South American nation, we know that ugly and long-buried skeletons are fairly beating on the closet door.
Or that, at any rate, is what the neighbours think. A bevy of gossipy old crones spy out through the windows of one house – and in through the windows of Mrs Erlynne’s house next door. At last, the camera seems to grow tired of their world and glides, seamlessly, through a pane of glass into the salon where Dolores sits at her piano. (For sheer bravura, this shot is easily a match for the famous glass ceiling shot in Citizen Kane (1941), whose director Orson Welles was a real-life admirer of Dolores.) Having found its way into her home, the camera now enters her mind. A flashback shows us how Dolores, once a dutiful wife and mother, lost custody of her child when her husband suspected her of an affair.
Apart from The Importance of Being Earnest, all Wilde’s comedies contain a strong dose of melodrama; Saslavsky is perhaps the one filmmaker to give this aspect its due. The flashback is staged and lit like a Gothic horror movie, all blazing candelabra, crashes of thunder and flashes of lightning outside the windows. He resurrects this Sturm und Drang later on in the movie, for a scene that reveals Dolores is actually the long-lost mother of the prissy Duval. (My God, does heredity count for nothing?) That, of course, is why the husband is paying her money. If not, she might reveal The Truth and destroy the family’s good name.
Not that Duval is any model of discretion. She flirts quite openly with a smarmily handsome dandy played by Fernando Lamas, a few years before his Hollywood career as a ‘Latin Lover’ to the likes of Esther Williams and Arlene Dahl. Lamas describes her as “a charming puritan” (well, he’s half right) and does his utmost to lure her away from her admittedly dull husband. In fact, nobody in this film has much appeal apart from Dolores – who grows only more radiantly beautiful (like some queer and monstrous orchid) the more other characters prattle on about how depraved she is.
One of those stars whose acting verges on the subliminal, del Río transforms herself from dewy-eyed victim to hardened adventuress with barely a trace of visible effort. She may rival Greta Garbo and Catherine Deneuve for the crown of Great Actress Who Is Most Unlike Meryl Streep. At the film’s climactic ball (which resembles a luxuriant dress rehearsal for Vincente Minnelli’s in his 1949 Madame Bovary) she makes her entrance in a gown of purest virginal white. Wielding an outsize bouquet of stainless white flowers, just in case we miss the point!
At the ball, her irritating simp of a long-lost daughter looks set to compromise herself (yet again) with the lusty Lamas. Without hesitating, Dolores sacrifices her own reputation to save her child – who is still unaware they are related. This new scandal costs her the love of her latest suitor, who offered her the fleeting prospect of respectability and marriage. (Yawn!) She stands without flinching as the man slaps her publicly across the face. The camera – taking its cue, perhaps, from Dolores – does not move either. We stay in a tight close-up as her face runs the gamut of shock, defiance, hope, anguish and despair. It’s not for nothing that Dolores del Río began in silent films.
Moments like this may make you prefer Story of a Bad Woman, not just to other Wilde adaptations, but perhaps even to Wilde’s original play. Lady Windermere’s Fan climaxes with a cloyingly sentimental mother-daughter reunion and ends with the ‘dangerous’ mother safely married off to a benign elder gent. In Luis Saslavsky’s version, mother keeps her identity to a secret to the end. She strides out of the movie – much as she strode into it – alone and resplendent. Immaculately styled and radiantly gowned, her head held high. “Wickedness is a myth invented by good people to account for the curious attractiveness of others.” Wilde must have had Dolores in mind when he wrote that.