Archive for Franco Zeffirelli

Forbidden Divas RIP

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 19, 2020 by dcairns

Lucia Bosè’s death earlier this year wasn’t much publicised in the UK — David Melville Wingrove discovered it months later, and wrote this beautiful piece. Some more months later, I’m finally publishing it, with apologies.

Imitations of Lives

“There are many ways to commit suicide and still go on living.”

~ Lucia Bosè, Of Love and Other Solitudes

There are stars whose off-screen life is a thing entirely apart from their on-screen image. Then there are stars whose lives on and off the screen seem to intersect in uncannily intimate ways. The Italian (and later Spanish) actress Lucia Bosè was emphatically a star of the second type. In 1967, the whole of Spain was agog at the break-up of her marriage to Luis Miguel Dominguín, the country’s most illustrious matador. Two years later Bosè starred in Of Love and Other Solitudes (1969) – a bleak and anguished drama of marital dysfunction and break-up. This was not so much a case of Art Imitates Life as one of Life or Art, What’s The Difference?

For most of the 50s and 60s, Bosè and Dominguín had been the premier glamour couple of Franco’s Spain. They lived in a palatial villa, had three gorgeous children and their inner circle included Pablo Picasso, Ernest Hemingway, Jean Cocteau and, more ominously, the dictator General Franco himself. “I can’t say anything bad about Franco,” Bosè remarked years later. “To me he was just a normal man. But my husband was more franquista than Franco, in any case.” It is comments like that which reveal the marriage was not a happy one. There can be no doubt that Bosè married her bullfighter for love. But as the years wore on, she felt increasing dismay at his right-wing politics, his compulsive womanising and his stubborn refusal to allow his wife to work. It did not help that she hated bullfighting and nothing would induce her to attend a corrida.

Anyone could see the couple came from radically different worlds. Lucia Bosè had been born in great poverty on a farm outside Milan. She had little if any formal education and had to work from the age of twelve. As a teenage girl, she survived the Allied bombing and saw the corpses of Benito Mussolini and his mistress, Clara Petacci, hanging upside down in the main city’s square. “I learned that horrible things happen every day,” she said. “All you can do is pull yourself together and keep going.” By the age of sixteen, she landed a job behind the counter at Galli, the city’s most elegant patisserie. One day a dashing older man walked in, took one look at the girl and declared she ought to be in movies. The name of this man was Luchino Visconti. It appears he had no ulterior motives; he was gay and had eyes at the time for his young and handsome assistant, Franco Zeffirelli. But he took Bosè under his wing and groomed her systematically into a star.

At first, Visconti had plans to star her opposite Gérard Philipe in a film called A Tale of Poor Lovers. But the funding fell apart so he introduced his protégée instead to Michelangelo Antonioni. She became that director’s first muse and starred for him in Chronicle of a Love (1950) and The Lady without Camellias (1953). She went on to work for other European auteurs, notably Juan Antonio Bardem in Death of a Cyclist (1955) and Luis Buñuel in Cela S’Appelle L’Aurore (1956). This was the career she gave up in 1955 in order to marry Dominguín and lead, essentially, the life of an upper-class Spanish housewife. At the time, she assured the world’s press that her marriage was worth every sacrifice. (One can assume Dominguín was phenomenally good at something apart from killing bulls!) But after twelve years, Bosè decided enough was enough and made her break for freedom. She demanded – and won – sole custody of her children and became the first woman in Spain since the Civil War to be legally granted a divorce.

The events in Of Love and Other Solitudes are in no way as dramatic as these. María and her husband Alejandro (Carlos Estrada) are a well-heeled couple who live in a villa on the outskirts of Madrid. He is an economist and university professor; she is an artist who works in stained glass. Her job, of course, is symbolic. (Be warned this is one of those movies where literally everything is symbolic of something.)  The art of stained glass is not primarily the art of creating anything new or even of reshaping objects in a new way. It consists almost entirely of altering the light in which things appear, of making them look new when in fact they are not. The couple have a son and daughter and a sizable domestic staff. But their house, with its long wood-panelled corridors and walls of clear glass, looks more like an expensive hotel than a family home.

The most annoying thing about Alejandro is that he does not do any of the things that bad husbands in movies traditionally do. There is no reason to believe he is cheating on his wife. Apart from one feeble effort to chat up a girl at his office, he seems to lack the imagination or the energy an affair would require. This is not so much a bad marriage as one that has gone stale. The husband and the wife have simply run out of things to say to one another, assuming they said much in the first place. María consults a psychologist who tells her: “Everyone who gets married is convinced their marriage will be different from the others – and then it isn’t.” What is interesting in this film is not the drama (there is virtually none) but the arid bourgeois lifestyle it evokes. Alejandro and María lead superficially modern lives, but in a country where social and religious attitudes have changed hardly at all since the Middle Ages.

María is the one character who seems in any way aware of this disjunction. Her family background is that of the pro-Franco upper class. A full-size portrait of Franco hangs just inside the front door of her parents’ house. In the next room, in a glass display case, are her father’s medals from the Civil War. She has an obscure sense this is not the world she belongs in – and expresses it in odd and somewhat childish ways. On one wall in her studio hangs a poster of Theda Bara in Cleopatra. In World War I this star was Middle America’s image of the Vamp, the Temptress, the morally and sexually transgressive Apostle of Sin. But it now takes a great deal of naïveté to see Theda Bara as threatening or subversive in any way. She entirely lacks the sophistication and sexual autonomy of the silent Italian divas – most notably, that of Francesca Bertini whom Bosè oddly resembles.

With her vast and haunted dark eyes, her ivory skin and her lustrous torrent of black hair, Lucia Bosè has all the allure of the silent divas and then some. There are stray moments in Of Love and Other Solitudes where she suggests Leonardo da Vinci’s portrait of the Mona Lisa – who has casually stepped out of her frame and deigned to wander about among mere mortals. There are other moments where we notice her chunky and ungainly hands, her way of walking that is at once elegant and strangely awkward. Details like this do not destroy the illusion; they only make us like her more. This film proved a succès d’estime for Bosè and her writer-director Basilio Martin Patino. She followed it with a string of increasingly odd movies. In Arcana (1972) she plays a witch who spits live toads out of her mouth. In La Messe Dorée (1975) she is a socialite who hosts an orgy based on the Roman Catholic mass and winds up giving a blow-job to her son. Was it entirely an accident that her ex-husband’s friend General Franco dropped dead not long after?

She survived into old age as a truly glorious eccentric. At eighty she sported bright blue hair and a designer punk wardrobe and said she had every intention of living to 105. She appeared occasionally in movies but her true passion was a museum she opened to display her art collection, which was made up entirely of images of angels. Her closest companion was her son Miguel Bosé, Spain’s first out gay pop star and the transvestite Femme Letal in the Pedro Almodóvar film High Heels (1991). One almost wishes Almodóvar had starred his mother in a flashy, trashy remake of Travels with My Aunt or Auntie Mame. She could have played either or both roles to perfection and would, in fact, have barely needed to act.

Lucia Bosè passed away in March, 2020 due to complications arising from Covid-19. She was the first famous person in any country to fall ill and die in what would become a global pandemic. Her life was spent knowing that terrible things happen every day and the one choice we all have is to pull ourselves together and keep going. In the world as it is today, that stands as a legacy in itself.

IN MEMORIAM LUCIA BOSÈ (MILAN 1931-SEGOVIA 2020)

David Melville

Lucia Bosé dies at 89 from pneumonia | Spain's News

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

Dream Repairman

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 18, 2012 by dcairns

I’m a sucker for memoirs by cinematographers and editors — perhaps especially the latter. Sometimes these books can be frustrating because the authors are not experienced writers or may not understand what the reader would like to hear about — or maybe what I want to hear about is too arcane.

The best book by an editor I know is Ralph Rosenblum’s When the Shooting Stops… The Cutting Begins: A Film Editor’s Story, which covers work with Woody Allen, Mel Brooks, William Friedkin… all very interesting personalities, and a lot of films which required really inventive work in the cutting room.

So I was excited to find a copy of Jim Clark’s memoir (written with John H Myers), Dream Repairman, Adventures in Film Editing. Like Rosenblum’s book, this covers its author and subject’s entire career up until retirement, only Clark is a Brit who has worked in America and Europe, his career only ending relatively recently due to health troubles (he was to have cut Rob Marshall’s Nine).

By his own account, Clark is quite an outspoken man (at one point he describes meeting Sean Penn, who asks him what he thought of INTO THE WILD. “It’s too long,” says Clark) so the fact that I don’t like a lot of the films he cut isn’t a problem. He doesn’t like them either. But he did cut a slew of films for John Schlesinger, some of which I like a lot, plus a few for Stanley Donen and a couple for Jack Clayton. His portrait of Clayton’s temperament enhances my understanding of this complex and not always pleasant man, adding to the raging furies I already knew about (you can’t really resent a man for throwing a chair through Barry Diller’s office window) a prodigious appetite for brandy and sodas and a penchant for sadistic practical jokes perhaps inherited from his time with John Huston.

Schlesinger could be equally explosive, but emerges as a lot more lovable (and one waits in vain for thunderbolts to strike down Madonna and Rupert Everett for humiliating him and practically killing him while making the wretched THE NEXT BEST THING. It’s very silly, but I do like Schlesinger’s nickname for his over-budget comedy disaster HONKY TONK FREEWAY, which he only ever referred to as WANKY WANK BUMHOLE.

(The book abounds in nicknames: we learn that Zeffirelli called C. Thomas Howell “Tea Towel” and Liz Taylor “thee beetch,” [which is, in fact, his name for all women], while the labs referred to Martha Fienne’s ONEGIN as “ONE GIN,” and Schlesinger’s affectionate/elitist name for the general public: “the sillies.”)

There’s not a huge amount about the craft of editing, which is admittedly difficult to illustrate on the page, though we do learn a lot about how at least a few of Robert DeNiro’s performances have been hewn together out of miles of wildly uneven material, since the actor often doesn’t learn his lines and feels his way through his scenes trying a wide variety of approaches, so that the editor makes most of the choices for him.

But Clark is an amiable host, and fabulously indiscrete: he prints a full-frontal picture of Marty Feldman, something I didn’t expect to see as I turned the page, lists the guests at a Hollywood party and then remarks that he was the only straight man present (the company included at least one major producer who has been known to get shirty when his personal life comes under the spotlight), and carelessly tosses off the following —

“It was known that Jimmy Woolf was homosexual, though just how active he was I never knew. He had a long liason with Laurence Harvey, now married, and was currently escorting Terence Stamp who was also in TERM OF TRIAL.”

I *think* the story is that Woolf liked nothing more than a handsome young man who would treat him very badly, so I don’t think this necessarily means what it seems to mean. But who knows? the charm of Clark’s book is that he’s out of that world now so he can more or less say anything he likes. Though increasingly tetchy about the levels of productorial interference in modern filmmaking, made possible by digital editing, he’s generally fair and affectionate to nearly all his collaborators, even when he’s mercilessly rubbishing the end product of some of these jobs.

Clark’s short stint as director is also covered — he did well to concentrate on editing, as these include the lamentable RENTADICK, which he still thinks is funny, and MADHOUSE, which was butchered by Milton Subotsky but is actually a bit better than he gives it credit for. It did result in a lifelong friendship with star Vincent Price, and through him to Coral Browne, who provides some good vulgar fun. I’ve long admired the anecdote about her rehearsing a play wearing a huge fur hat. When the director asked her if she was uncomfortable, she said “Yes, I feel as though I’m looking out of a yak’s arsehole.”

But Clark provides a story that’s positively heroic in its use of bawdiness in the face of death. Browne is dying of cancer and on a morphine drip. She’s asked if she’s hungry.

“Yes.”

“What would you like to eat.”

“A big cock.”

It’s not witty, exactly. But it somehow strikes me as encapsulating humanity at its finest.

Dream Repairman: Adventures in Film Editing