Archive for Elizabeth Taylor

Forbidden Divas: All That Glitters

Posted in Dance, Fashion, FILM, literature, MUSIC, Mythology, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 7, 2017 by dcairns

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David Melville (Wingrove) returns to our pages for the first of, hopefully, many posts this year ~

FORBIDDEN DIVAS

All That Glitters

In 1975, the veteran Hollywood director George Cukor flew to St Petersburg (or Leningrad, as it was then called) to start work on the first-ever coproduction between the United States of America and the Soviet Union. The Blue Bird (1976) was planned as a star-studded musical epic, adapted from Maurice Maeterlinck’s classic Symbolist fantasy of 1908. The cast included a roster of Hollywood legends (Elizabeth Taylor, Jane Fonda, Ava Gardner) as well as star performers from the Bolshoi Ballet. The aim was to usher in a bold new era of bilateral cooperation and cinematic détente. As he toured the Lenfilm studio, Cukor said how proud he was to be filming on the same spot where Sergei Eisenstein had shot The Battleship Potemkin in 1925. “Indeed, Mr. Cukor,” his interpreter replied, “and with the same equipment too!”

From that moment, The Blue Bird was set to be one of the most fabled fiascos in the history of world cinema. The schedule overran, the budget overflowed, the Soviet and Western crews fell out and Elizabeth Taylor shut the whole production down for two weeks – as she suffered one of her legendary illnesses and flew to London for treatment in a private clinic. On its premiere, The Blue Bird was slated by critics and shunned by the public. Shunned, at least, in the relatively few places where the public had a chance to see it. In fact, it was barely released in the UK and most other Western countries. Its reception worldwide was less a liberal 70s vision of détente than a Reagan 80s wet dream of Mutual Assured Destruction. In its own glitzy way, The Blue Bird helped to usher in a new and very nasty era in world politics.

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But forty years later – now that the nuclear fall-out has settled – perhaps it is time to sit down and watch the film itself. To the amazement of anyone who knows their film history, The Blue Bird is a delight. Less a conventional musical than a balletic fantasy in the style of late Michael Powell – Tales of Hoffman (1951), Oh… Rosalinda!! (1955) and Honeymoon (1959) all spring to mind – it stands poised precariously but irresistibly en pointe, in that limbo between High Camp and High Art. Its trio of Hollywood leading ladies – disarmingly but quite wisely, it turns out – make not the slightest effort to act. Instead, they parade about like Pantomime Dames in an array of sumptuous monstrosities designed by the legendary Edith Head. It was written on many a toilet cubicle wall that “Edith Head Gives Good Wardrobe.” I am still unsure how that would translate into Russian.

The story, if there is one, concerns two rather obnoxious children (Todd Lookinland and Patsy Kensit) on a quest of the mystical Blue Bird of Happiness. Given that they live in a remote hut in the depths of the Siberian taiga, one assumes that any place they look will be an improvement. Their guide on their journey is Light, embodied by Elizabeth Taylor in a series of sparkly chiffon gowns that seem to be borrowed from Billie Burke as Glinda, the Good Witch of the North in The Wizard of Oz (1939). Sadly, the role lacks the dramatic complexity of Glinda. It seems to consist of beaming angelically through as many layers of gauze as cameraman Freddie (Doctor Zhivago) Young chose to put over his lens, as well as warbling one or two less-than-memorable songs. Did you know that Liz Taylor could sing? No? Well, that is because she could not.

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Eager to stretch her thespian talents to the full, the enterprising Liz takes on three additional roles. The first is the children’s loving but sharp-tongued Mother, whom she plays a lot like Martha from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966) – only with a strictly sanitised vocabulary. Next and by far the liveliest is a terrifying Witch; in truth, Liz is barely recognisable and seems to be having the time of her life. Apart, perhaps, from the day she spent off-screen touring the Imperial Jewellery Collection at the Hermitage Museum. (“They say that if you admire something, the Russians give it to you,” recalled the star. “Well, I admired and admired the Crown Jewels and nothing happened!”) The last role, Maternal Love, is basically Mother with a better dress and more make-up. Indeed, Liz allegedly spent $8000 of her own money on bringing her costumes for The Blue Bird up to scratch.

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Of the magic realms where the children seek the Blue Bird, the most ominous is the Castle of Night. This is presided over by Jane Fonda as Night herself – draped from head to foot in black satin, sporting a cartwheel hat that is the size of a small galaxy. Luckily, she does not sing but is content to purr menacingly, much in the manner of Anita Pallenberg as the Black Queen in Barbarella (1967) – the film that remains, to my mind, Jane’s greatest and most iconic role. (She went on, alas, to win two Oscars. This was proof that her great days of stardom were behind her.) Guiding the children through her castle, she opens multiple doors, behind one of which we glimpse the horrors of War. Cue for a cavalcade of Teutonic Knights, Napoleonic grenadiers, Nazi storm-troopers and all those who have mistakenly attempted to invade Mother Russia. One can only wonder if Cukor and his beleaguered Anglo-American crew took this warning to heart.

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Yet in the trinity of Hollywood divas, the briefest and most satisfying appearance comes from Ava Gardner. Her role is Luxury – an earthy but majestic good-time gal, seated on a white stallion and swathed in vibrant red. She takes an instant shine to the young boy and whisks him off to her palace, where a perpetual orgy is in full swing. Her guests include flamboyantly camp gay men, in suits of lilac and fuchsia silk. (In the dubbed Russian version, do they possibly translate her name as Western Decadence?) Once she gets home, Ava slips into a gown of scarlet and gold swirls, topped off with a spiky jewelled tiara. It bears an eerie resemblance to one of co-star Liz Taylor’s costumes from Boom! (1968). The boy gazes at her in rapt fascination and asks: “Which one of the luxuries are you?” With a splendidly lewd twinkle in her eye, Ava tells him: “That you’ll know once you grow a little bit older.” I take this as proof that he is destined to become a drag queen.

What an actual child might make of The Blue Bird is hard to say. It is by far the most outré piece of ‘family entertainment’ since The Wizard of Oz – but that film has been warping children’s minds for 75 years, until it has assumed the status of a classic. Is it not time we gave The Blue Bird a chance to do the same? It might even be advertised with an appropriate revolutionary slogan: “Camp film buffs of the world unite! You have nothing to lose but your taste!”

David Melville

Drear Window

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on December 29, 2015 by dcairns

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NIGHT WATCH (1973) with Liz Taylor — there’s no way to discuss the more interesting aspects of this one — and it has a couple — without spoilers, so I’m just going to wade in and give everything away.

The piece, adapted from a play, inverts the premise of LES DIABOLIQUES, so that our assumption of a conspiracy to gaslight Liz Taylor into madness, pointed to with heavy clues, turns out to be erroneous — Liz is actually setting up her own insanity defence, prior to murdering her unfaithful spouse (Laurence Harvey) and his mistress (Billie Whitelaw). By continually reporting corpses staring at her from the deserted house next door, Liz ensures that her final call will never be investigated — and now there ARE a couple of corpses sitting in the front room. The play with plot elements from Clouzot’s ground-breaking twist ending shocker continues with a coda in which Liz is caught bang to rights by a nosy neighbour — but instead of shopping her to the authorities, he lets her go in exchange for a generous consideration.

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This is clever enough as far as it goes, but it means one watches most of the film with impatience, convinced one has it all figured out. And indeed, as far as the extra-marital affair is concerned, one has. What keeps the attention, if anything, is the wacky dream sequence flashbacks, which feature the always-welcome Linda Hayden (Hayden and her hubbie Robin Askwith were the Burtons of bare-ass British exploitation cinema in the seventies, so it’s fitting she should be here). Oh, and the awful dialogue and bizarre performances, where a simple inquiry like “Why can’t you sleep?” is spoken by Harvey with completely inexplicable aggression. Just imagine what he can do with a line like “I can handle a dead body, but your dead husband Carl is too much!” (MODESTY BLAISE scribe Evan Jones is credited with additional dialogue, but God knows…)

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The visualisation of the scary empty house is extremely atmospheric (photography by Ken Russell collaborator Billy Williams), and at the climax, all of the film’s strong suits come together — the house, the nightmare imagery, and Linda Hayden, and the plot jumps the rails from Clouzot’s Boileau-Narcejac model, and it basically becomes a Brit giallo. Liz Taylor makes a fiendish stabber, as you’d expect. Short but vicious.

 

Things I read off the screen in Suddenly, Last Summer

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 30, 2013 by dcairns

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What can you see in the shadows?

There are spoilers in this…

Though Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s use of horror movie tropes to depict homosexuality in his adaptation (with Gore Vidal) of Tennessee Williams’ SUDDENLY, LAST SUMMER has drawn comment, I suspect in time we may come to be more alarmed by the film’s depiction of Mexican street boys as cannibals, and lunatic asylum inmates as zombies.

Of course, there is a certain amount of weaseling around the cannibalism thing — “It looked as if” Sebastian had been eaten alive, we are told. But the sequence as staged by Mankiewicz evokes Romero horror movies which had not yet been made, plus THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN and the climax of ISLAND OF LOST SOULS (two other movies with very queer gentlemen who play God), and it’s supposed to prove that Liz Taylor is NOT insane, so even if we don’t take it 100% literally, we have to take it as to some extent true.

(John Gielgud dubbed the play, “Please Don’t Eat the Pansies.”)

Williams’ evocation of the monstrous-feminine, ably embodied by Katherine Hepburn in Mrs Bates embalmed mode, might also raise eyebrows. Perhaps we need to just admit that the Gothic imagination is not inclined to be politically correct.

Poor Monty Clift is very good in a role (sympathetic lobotomist!) that basically involves looking quietly freaked at how goddamn WEIRD everybody is in this picture — a vital role to make the audience acclimatize.

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LOOK: Even when Hepburn casually picks up a magazine in the hospital sun room, it features swimsuit sexiness on the back cover and a devouring tropical beast on the front.

Occurred to me that Hepburn’s first scene, with the primeval garden (containing its own Audrey II flesheater in miniature greenhouse) is like the briefing of Humphrey Bogart in THE BIG SLEEP, and the movie is a Freudian detective story like SPELLBOUND or MARNIE, but even more investigative and Marlowesque than those. And did Bunuel clock Hepburn’s buzzing box and steal it for BELLE DE JOUR, perhaps thinking that, although the specially-imported Venus flytrap food was a good gag, it was a pity to introduce a mysterious buzzing box and ever explain what was up with that?

Jack Hildyard’s photography is incredible, well served by the DVD.  His career seems to have gone to shit after MODESTY BLAISE, but before that he shot BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI — he also did uncredited work for Mankiewicz on CLEOPATRA and much as I love Leon Shamroy (The King of Technicolor), I have a suspicion that the nocturnal throne-room stuff in that movie which is FAR handsomer than anything else in it, may conceivably be Hidlyard’s contribution. I’d love to know.

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What a weird film. Though Clift and Taylor have mucho chemistry in A PLACE IN THE SUN, here their love story is pretty flimsy, and the movie brushes aside any qualms about Clift falling for a patient (whom he also hypnotizes). The grotesque circus hangs together remarkably well, with all its brazenly unsubtle symbolism and incantatory, Salome-esque monologues, but the romance may be a beat too many. Whatever — just getting a freakshow like this made at MGM deserves some kind of chutzpah award.

Embarrassing note: I’d never seen it.

Fiona: “You have so seen it. I’ve seen it!”

Me: “But we have not seen all the same films, because we are two people.”

Though this at times seems decreasingly true.

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