Archive for George Cukor

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

Kirby Dies Again

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

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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.

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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

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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.

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CLOSE ANALYSIS TIME!

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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 —

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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.

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“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…

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.