Archive for George Cukor

Kirby Dies Again

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 13, 2016 by dcairns


Filmhouse is showing George Cukor’s film of Garon Kanin & Ruth Gordon’s A DOUBLE LIFE, and I jumped the gun by watching my ancient off-air recording. Hadn’t seen this movie since I was a kid. (spoilers)

Not anybody’s strongest work, but it brings out an expressionist side in Cukor that he’s not supposed to have and which he basically denied having (“I’m interested in the actor’s faces.”) Some of that stuff is really interesting.

Ronald Colman plays a Broadway star who gets too wrapped up in his roles. When he stars in Othello he goes full deadly Moor and smothers a waitress. This is Shelley Winters, who is more used to watery death (NIGHT OF THE HUNTER, A PLACE IN THE SUN, THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE, even LOLITA in a way), but it turns out any form of suffocation is OK with Shelley.

MGM films are nearly always based on offensive assumptions, and in this case Shelley’s demise is merely a sideshow in the tragic fall of Colman’s English ham. Signe Hasso plays his Swedish wife, and I wondered if the role was intended for Ingrid Bergman. This made me glom onto the idea of the film as a remake of the same studio’s DR JEKYLL & MR HYDE (itself a remake of Paramount’s superior version). Both movies feature a hero with a double life and a woman in each. The poor working girl is a disposable unit who can be sacrificed allowing the posh bird to be spared.


Colman does do a fine death, letting the life fade from his face like Kevin Spacey in L.A. CONFIDENTIAL — subtractive acting at its best. Before he shuffles off, he monologues about an old ham who used to overdo his death scenes to the point where the audience would call for encores, and he’d rise from the dead and give them an action replay. Colman attributes this to a fictional old stager called Kirby, but the idea is pinched from Scotland’s own William McGonagall, poet and tragedian, whose repeat expiration was recreated in Joe McGrath and Spike Milligan’s film, THE GREAT MCGONAGALL ~

A Lawford Unto Himself

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , on August 9, 2016 by dcairns


IT SHOULD HAPPEN TO YOU is pretty damn good fun. If you watch it right after BORN YESTERDAY you might get slightly annoyed by the repeated trope of a smart male trying to educate Judy Holliday out of her false values, which is effective once but starts to seem a bit retrograde second time round. But watch them a few months apart and I think that won’t be a problem. And anyway it helps that William Holden plays it so well in the earlier film, without a hint of patronizing patriarchy, and Jack Lemmon is too light to come across like some kind of hectoring Glenn Ford figure also.

But my favourite bit in ISHTY (good acronym!) is when love rat Peter Lawford is pressing his luck with Judy. Several of her films make comedy out of the dubious situation of a guy refusing to take the hint — PHFFFT has an unpleasant moment when Jack Carson is coming on very strong and one feels that his agreeably oafish presence could swiftly become intolerable and downright sinister if they take this one hair further — but Judy is the great enabler for sexist comedy because she makes everything funny, and therefore inoffensive. If you’re laughing you are by definition not offended.

This sequence particularly illustrates George Cukor’s skill, which is generally an art which conceals its art — you know he’s good because the films FEEL good, but it’s hard to put your finger on his exact technique. But this one is a very artful use of the frame, creating a surprise out of repeated action — the performances enhance it immeasurably, not just Judy who can ring infinite changes on a recurring gag, but Lawford who is a pretty underrated light comedian, only lacking the authentic charm that would have pushed him into the major league. He’s ideally cast here, in other words.

Judy has bought a billboard to advertise her mere existence so she can be a celebrity (it’s a very modern, relevent story about being famous for no reason) and Peter Lawford needs the sign for his business so he’s going to wine and dine Judy and even romance her to get her to give up her sign.



Lawford drives Holliday back from their date. Cukor delivers a standard-issue establishing shot.

He cuts in closer as Judy exits the car, and Lawford disembarks offscreen (“Shoot the money!” as Cukor would say) and circles the vehicle to, apparently, say goodnight. Judy smiles and says “Well, good night,” and he goodnights her back, but then simply follows her as she turns to her apartment.




Same shot: Judy turns to wave goodbye but is surprised to find him right there, not back at the car where she assumed she’d left him. Priceless expression from JH. And the comedy of finding yourself waving at someone who’s about six inches from your face.

Same shot: Judy has to say something, so she says “Thank you very much,” obviously feeling this has an appropriate ring of finality to it. “Not at all,” replies Lawford earnestly, and then, as Judy starts up the stairs to her brownstone, he joins right alongside her. Second hilarious reaction from Judy as she glances over at him with a slight sense of one in a dream.



Same shot: she’s now at the front door. Nervous laugh. “I had a real good time.” The conversation seems to be extending itself like a ramp.


Same shot: up to the front door (the camera follows weightlessly). Judy opens one door, Peter opens the other. She nods to him slightly: it’s meant to mean GOODNIGHT but, fatally, she doesn’t actually say it. Or GOODBYE might be better.

They go in the first door. Cukor now cuts to inside and Judy comes in the second door and turns to head Peter off before he can follow. “Well… good night.” “Good night,” he replies, amiably. Judy turns, now confident that the correct message has now been delivered and understood.




But (same shot) she’s only climbed one step when her spider sense starts tingling, warning her of danger. Back hair rising. Like one that on a lonesome road doth walk in fear and dread / Because he knows that Peter Lawford doth close behind him tread.

Same shot: Judy turns and says “WELL” again, quite emphatically, and then “good night” as a whisper because they’re in the communal stair, and she wants him to realize that. Judy’s indefinable comic genius: she knows that the audience will laugh at the awkwardly repeated line anyway, but she can get two more distinct laughs out of it by saying the first bit surprisingly loud and the second bit surprisingly quiet. Comedy being this strange mix of anticipation and surprise.

Same shot: Peter whispers “Good night” back and Judy mounts the stairs, growing in confidence as she gets further up: halfway to the next landing her neck distinctly straightens up, with a sense of being home free and no longer under observation and feeling in might even be safe to make a sprint for it, possibly. Cukor is ascending right along with her by crane, not to be Ophulsian and elaborate — he’s planning to cut pretty soon anyway — but because this comic movement demands it.




Whoops! Same shot. Lawford accelerates into frame right on her ass. Judy immediately detects him (spider sense going like the clappers) and spins around as soon as she gains the landing. This should keep Lawford on the stairs, at a slight psychological disadvantage, but he just keeps on coming — the Sperminator — causing her to back away and get on an even footing with her. He’s playing it very louche — like the City Wolf in Tex Avery’s LITTLE RURAL RIDING HOOD, made some years before. Judy gives him a smile which gives every appearance of sincerity except when she drops it like a mask, and then gives him a brisk wave, practically semaphore for GO AWAY PETER LAWFORD.

Peter smiles indulgently: “Foolish child!” Judy bolts, and George cranes straight up, letting Judy leave shot screen left, her movement somehow driving the camera’s ascent even though she’s no longer even in view, then he reaches the next landing ahead of her and she, having rounded the corner, arrives from screen left and looks over the banister to make sure he’s not following her —


Puzzled expression, telling us that, like Michael Myers after going out the window at the end of HALLOWEEN, Lawford is not there where he should be.


“Whoops!” Peter glides into view right behind her. Judy bolts off, screen right.

Cut. Judy is now advancing at speed, sort of pretending he’s not there anymore in the hopes that he’ll get the message and start playing the role of a man that’s not there anymore. Maybe even method-acting the part. The other day upon the stair / I met a man who wasn’t there…



The apartment door is reached. A new strategy: “Well [slight laugh] this is it.” Regal, fluttering gesture at door. Awkward pause at realization that sentence with subtext “We have reached the end, beyond which nothing further can be expected,” might in fact be misread as “Here it is, big boy.”

Fanatical density being Peter’s main weapon, he replies “What?” “Where I live,” explains Judy, advancing to ever-higher levels of discomfiture (most actors probably only have about three, but Judy has one for every step of the way here). “Oh…good…” replies the wolf, sidling closer. “So… I guess I’d better go in.” “Very well,” he breathes. “Eh… because it’s pretty late?” says Judy, here enhancing a line by delivering it as a hopeful question rather than a statement.

“Yes it is,” murmurs Lawford, now pressing close as if in a rush hour subway. In a sexy scene, the camera would be equally intimate. By staying wide, Cukor maintains Judy’s interpretation of the scene: the absurd, unwanted closeness of this man in a spacious hallway.


Judy breaks free, which means leaving her doorway, and tries another strategy: “Besides, I don’t think your car’s safe down there.” “Oh?” breathes Lawford, attempting to be seductive about his parking. “You don’t know this neighbourhood!” exclaims Judy, in a thrill of panic, trying to imbue the neighbourhood with an outrageous amount of automotive peril, and holding her hat at pelvis level like a kind of tabard against the unwelcome waves of Lawford’s penile radiation.

Peter dangles his little car key smugly. “Locked.” The subtext reads: “I think of everything. Always prepared. Ever ready. you know what I mean, baby?” Judy laughs this off: it wouldn’t stop the really determined car thieves in HER neighbourhood. “I’m scared you’ll lose your car.” “I have another one,” he says, matter-of-factly, which makes the boast even worse, but he’s also paying a compliment by letting her know that the loss of an expensive sports car would be a small price to pay for a night of passion with Judy.


Judy has left her key in her front door so the masterful Peter now opens the door, inviting her into her own apartment — Cukor cutting to the view from inside. “Shall we?” Meanwhile, in the far background, neighbour and unofficial boyfriend Jack Lemmon bursts floundering from his own apartment to see what is up. Seeing what is up, and having no actual claim here, he beats a noisy retreat, but Judy uses the distraction to get inside and yelps “See that? Better go!” and Lawford finally gets the message but, departing, plants a big oily kiss on Judy. He is evidently a powerful kisser, for Judy goes into a swoony daze as if Christopher Lee’s Dracula were putting his mesmeric ‘fluence on her with both contact lenses.

But Judy, in this movie anyway, is no dope. She whispers, “But I don’t think I want to give up my sign.” Proving that, nice as the evening has been and nice as the loverboy power kiss felt, she is under no illusions about what it’s all about.


Defeated — for now — Lawford slopes off, already planning the next stage of his battle plan, while Judy closes the door backhanded with a huge erotic sigh. And CUT.


Forbidden Divas: Jacqueline Bisset in The Sunday Woman

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on April 18, 2016 by dcairns

David Melville Wingrove returns with another in his series, Forbidden Divas, about one of his very favourite stars — can you tell?


Always (and Ever So Discreetly) on a Sunday

“Your obsession with being witty at all costs…it just makes you a bitch.”

~ Marcello Mastroianni to Jacqueline Bisset, The Sunday Woman


For a few short summers in the late 70s, Jacqueline Bisset was the official Most Beautiful Woman in the World. Every hormonally challenged adolescent boy wanted either to sleep with her or to be her – and a few, perhaps, wanted to do both. Nobody even pretended her films were any good. The Deep (1977) was five minutes of La Jackie scuba-diving in a wet T-shirt followed by two hours of…does anyone remember or care? The Greek Tycoon (1978) was the ‘strictly fictional’ story of a US politician’s widow who marries a shipping magnate. It was about as interesting as reading HELLO! magazine with the names changed. Who Is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe? (1978) was a comedy-thriller that was devoid of laughs or thrills – but it did star Bisset as the skinniest dessert chef in the history of haute cuisine.

All these movies were wretched, but the public turned out because Jacqueline Bisset was in them. On a screen ruled by the woeful likes of Sally Field and Marsha Mason and Jill Clayburgh, audiences were starved for a glimpse of a proper old-fashioned star. You know, one with beauty and glamour, style and class. One who wore clothes well but refused – with a frosty ladylike hauteur – to take them off. (In 1978 when Bisset was at the height of her fame, some ungallant souls re-released a sleazy little item called Secrets (1971) where she did precisely that. They did not make as much money as they hoped, perhaps because most of Bisset’s fans were too young to get in to see it.) A star who could even act – when she had to – although that was one secret that Jacqueline Bisset kept largely to herself. Critics used to say she was better than her material. Well, it would take a truly Olympian lack of talent to be worse.


In truth, a number of films had proved that Bisset could act – but most of them were made in Europe and had titles the teenagers who flocked to The Deep could not even pronounce. La donna della domenica (1975) is a tongue-twister even for native Italian speakers but its literal English translation, The Sunday Woman, will do just as well. It was directed by Luigi Comencini, one of those mid-level Italian auteurs – neither an artist nor a hack – whose work is slick and watchable, but only rarely interesting. It takes place amid the upper bourgeoisie of Turin, a photogenic northern city that was the centre of the Italian film industry until World War I, but has been sadly neglected by movies ever since. You might call it a giallo but it is really too refined and elegant for that. This tale of skullduggery and murder never stoops to a display of severed limbs or spurting blood. There may be some erect penises on show – and impressively large ones, too – but these are sculpted in stone for use as decorative objets d’art. Mind you, they also come in handy as murder weapons…

The film opens with Bisset sitting in her stylish Futurist villa, pretending to listen as her industrialist husband drones on about his business. We hear an internal monologue inside her head, saying that “he only ever talks of the economic crisis and his liver.” He also spends most nights away from home with his mistress but Bisset – or her character, Anna Carla Dosio – seems to take that as a point in his favour. Her monologue is addressed, not to herself or to the audience, but to her best friend (Jean-Louis Trintignant) a patrician gay man who rejoices in the name of Massimo Campi. (Let it be said, in fairness, that Trintignant’s performance is remarkably subtle and restrained.) Bisset and her GBF form an exclusive and deeply snobbish clique à deux. They find the rest of Turin society unbearably vulgar and conduct endless debates on the socially acceptable way to pronounce certain words. Their current object of loathing is a fat, lecherous architect who wiggled his tongue at Bisset at an art opening. She is writing a letter to her friend, to decree this man must be eliminated. Things look rather awkward when he promptly turns up dead.


The problem is not that this letter exists, but that it finds its way into the hands of the police. The morning after the murder, Bisset dismisses her Sardinian houseboy for having the temerity to serve a drink without a tray. He pockets her letter (which she has carelessly left lying about) and takes it to one Inspector Santamaria (Marcello Mastroianni) a down-to-earth Roman poliziotto who finds Turin society too rarefied and snooty for words. The cop may not take the letter seriously as a clue – after all, it is a shade too obvious – but he is intrigued by the woman who wrote it. He tumbles quickly to the fact that she is beautiful and bored. Nor does Bisset entirely mind being dragged into a murder investigation. (Her husband, of course, is aghast.) “This is the most exciting thing that’s happened since I got a flat tyre four years ago,” she says at one point. Most exciting is the close proximity of Mastroianni, an actor known for making every woman in every movie he makes…

Most of The Sunday Woman is a stylish pas de deux of mutual attraction and resistance, between the haughty socialite and the earthy cop. It is one of a very few films that explore Bisset’s gift for high comedy in the manner of George Cukor or Mitchell Leisen. (At least Cukor lived long enough to direct her best Hollywood role in the 1981 Rich and Famous.) Learning that the victim was bludgeoned to death with a large stone phallus, she drives Mastroianni out into the country, to the factory that manufactures these objects in secret. Surrounded by a warehouse full of giant cocks, she must fight the temptation – as Lady Bracknell would say – to “look shocked, which is vulgar, or laugh, which is worse.” When the sculptor unveils his king-size model, her composure threatens to crack. She knows that Mastroianni has something quite similar on offer. How much longer can she pretend not to notice?


Her scenes with her gay pal Trintignant are played just as smoothly. It would be two decades before Hollywood dared show a similar friendship – between Julia Roberts and Rupert Everett in My Best Friend’s Wedding (1997) – and they did so with all the matter-of-fact sangfroid of Marie Curie discovering radium. The Sunday Woman takes their alliance as a given, as both characters are too intelligent and ultimately too vulnerable for the vacuous cocktail party world they are forced to inhabit. While Everett’s love life would be kept timidly off screen, Trintignant has a cute but far-too-clingy boyfriend (Aldo Reggiani) who wants to protect his lover and starts his own investigation into the murder. Let’s just say he lacks Bisset’s savoir faire and has no sexy police detective to look out for him…so he comes to a bad end. Our delight in The Sunday Woman is not in the plot but in the supreme elegance with which the characters pick it apart.


Every so often, one grows tired of films that beat the audience over the head with their sheer dogged determination to be Great Art. (The latest Paolo Sorrentino film Youth is an egregious case in point.) The Sunday Woman labours under no such delusions. It confines itself to being witty, sexy, literate, stylish, suspenseful and – once you realise just how arid its characters’ lives truly are – touching in an odd and wholly unexpected way. Jacqueline Bisset has never acted more elegantly or looked more exquisite. She reigns over it all serenely, like a queen to the manner born. Faced with two of Europe’s very greatest actors, she twines each of them neatly round one little finger and then looks about her for more amusement. Did nobody think to impound her passport before she caught that plane back to Hollywood?

David Melville