Archive for Elizabeth Taylor

Forbidden Divas: Slave to the Rhythm

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , on May 10, 2017 by dcairns

David Melville Wingrove returns with another Forbidden Diva ~

FORBIDDEN DIVAS

Slaves to the Rhythm

“Stop staring! This isn’t a wax museum!”

Elizabeth Taylor, Young Toscanini

Every now and then, you see a film that makes you wonder why it was a success. (My current object of curiosity is Moonlight.) More often, perhaps, you see a film that makes you wonder why it flopped. And on very rare occasions, you see a film so spectacularly deranged that you wonder why (and how) it was ever made at all. The most infamous flop in the career of Italian maestro Franco Zeffirelli, the 1988 epic Young Toscanini is part of this small and highly selective club. It also marked a doomed attempt at a comeback of that most legendary of stars, Elizabeth Taylor. She had not appeared in a major motion picture since the 1980 Agatha Christie thriller The Mirror Crack’d, where she played (convincingly) a washed-up film star attempting a comeback. Now her friend Zeffirelli cast her as a retired opera diva attempting a comeback. There is a fine line between typecasting and outright sadism. If nothing else, Young Toscanini makes you wonder where that line is.

You might call Young Toscanini a biopic, except it bears not the slightest resemblance to any person’s actual life. The minor 80s Brat Packer C Thomas Howell is cast, theoretically, as the ambitious boy conductor Arturo Toscanini. At the start of the film, we see him audition as a cellist for the orchestra at the La Scala opera house in Milan. “He looks too pretty to play the cello,” quips one of the judges. Indeed, the lovely Howell looks far too pretty to do most things, most notably act. His face frozen in a permanent pout, this young man flares his nostrils, clenches his jaw and sucks in his cheeks in ways that prophesy Ben Stiller’s performance as male model extraordinaire Derek Zoolander. When the judges at La Scala fail to respect his talent, this young upstart storms out and tells them to go to Hell. But a wily music promoter (John Rhys-Davies) hires him as accompanist for an operatic tour of South America.

The lad sets sail for the New World on a plush ocean liner. (The year is 1886, when folk travelled with a modicum of style.) The opera company and other first-class passengers lounge about the Grand Salon like a gaggle of refugees from Death in Venice (1971). Poverty-stricken emigrants suffer nobly below decks. Among them are a group of nuns, on their way to do God’s work in the slums of Rio de Janeiro. Their leader is the annoying and overbearing Mother Allegri (Pat Heywood – who still seems to be playing her Nurse role from Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet). Among them is a comely young novice named Sister Margherita (Sophie Ward), who has left her upper-class family in Milan to dedicate her life to the poor. Being the two prettiest and dullest people on board ship, she and Toscanini promptly fall in love. As in most Zeffirelli films, it is love of a frustrated and forbidden kind – because, you see, he belongs to Music while she belongs to God!

When it comes to photogenic but overpoweringly tedious young lovers, Franco Zeffirelli certainly does have form. Over the decades, he has given us Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey in Romeo and Juliet (1968), Graham Faulkner and Judi Bowker in Brother Sun, Sister Moon (1972), Martin Hewitt and Brooke Shields in Endless Love (1981), Jonathon Schaech and Angela Bettis in Sparrow (1993). That is a roster of non-talent of which few film-makers would dare to dream. Yet so far, Young Toscanini is not appreciably worse than James Cameron’s Titanic (1997). The ship is more lushly appointed, the extras are better-dressed and the romantic leads are slimmer and more attractive. Sensing that all is not as it should be, Zeffirelli stages his ‘King of the World’ moment with young Toscanini standing on deck in a raging storm, pretending to conduct Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. The music surges to orgasmic heights, as the waves crash over him and soak him to the skin. It is, beyond a doubt, the loudest and silliest wet dream ever depicted on screen.

Finally, we get to Rio de Janeiro and the young man’s long-promised encounter with La Liz. (She is, after all, the main reason we are watching this film in the first place.) Because the Rio of the 1980s looked not the least bit like the Rio of 100 years before, Zeffirelli shot in the picturesque Italian city of Bari. It is, predictably, a sunlit tropical paradise of lush green parks, sumptuous Art Nouveau villas and well-scrubbed favelas full of adorably smiling Negro children. There is also – to Toscanini’s unspeakable horror – slavery, the legal and licensed buying and selling of human beings. It is still a source of shame to Brazilians that theirs was the last country in the Western world to abolish slavery, which it did not do until 1888. Doubtless, there are films to be made on this topic. I would recommend they begin by not copying Young Toscanini.

Having come face to face with God, Art, Love and his own nascent revolutionary conscience, Toscanini is just about ready for his meeting with Elizabeth Taylor. Her character, Nadia Bulichova, is a Russian opera diva of legendary glamour and temperament. Now retired from the stage, she is comfortably ensconced as the mistress of Dom Pedro II, Emperor of Brazil (Philippe Noiret). She has agreed to a comeback in Aïda, the Verdi grand opera about a lovelorn Ethiopian slave in Ancient Egypt. (You see, there are parallels between Art and Life!) The young Arturo’s job is to persuade her to show up for rehearsals. Her villa is a luxuriant indoor jungle, complete with squawking parrots and chattering monkeys. From here on in, Young Toscanini threatens to become a deeply bizarre fusion of Black Orpheus (1959) and Sunset Boulevard (1950). Alas, it would take a more skilled cineaste than Zeffirelli to make that happen.

In her comeback role, Elizabeth Taylor looks more svelte and glamorous than she had at any time since before her Oscar-winning tour de force in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966) Her performance is everything the rest of the film is not. She is passionate, flamboyant, imposing, capricious and downright regal. Her voice is dubbed in Italian, so this is essentially silent-screen acting – yet it is up there with the very best. Her wardrobe (designed by Tom Rand) includes some rather odd fashion choices. One gown with a tight indigo bodice, deep crimson sleeves and gaudy scarlet train makes her look, momentarily, like a squat strutting peacock. But as anyone who has seen The Driver’s Seat (1974) will attest, La Liz triumphed over far worse sartorial disasters. Zeffirelli predicted she would win a third Oscar for this role. In fact, Young Toscanini was never released in the USA or most other countries.

At the film’s climax, Taylor (in full blackface and clanking ‘ethnic’ jewellery) interrupts the gala first night of Aïda during her own big solo – and makes an impassioned plea to the Emperor to free the slaves of Brazil! It is a moment of truly surpassing awfulness, one that transcends mere categories of Kitsch and Camp and goes straight to the heart of what Bad Movies are all about. The public applauds wildly apart from Noiret, who looks on with the air of a man (and an actor) impervious to all shame. Zeffirelli has said repeatedly in interviews that “I see my work as a lifetime crusade against bad taste.” Fortunately, only a few journalists have been cruel enough to ask him about Young Toscanini.

David Melville

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.