Archive for Henry James

FORBIDDEN DIVAS RIP

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 3, 2020 by dcairns

Certainly, what we’ve been missing here at Shadowplay is an Olivia de Havilland appreciation, and who better to provide it than David Melville Wingrove?

Who Killed the Black Widder?

“A halo can be a lovely thing – but you must be able to take it off now and again.”

  • Olivia De Havilland, My Cousin Rachel

In 1952, Olivia de Havilland stood at the pinnacle of everything an actress in Hollywood could reasonably hope to achieve. She had made her screen debut at eighteen in the classic Warner Bros extravaganza A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935) and was the one actress in it not to be upstaged by the costumes. In her eight films with Errol Flynn, she had formed half of the most enduringly popular on-screen couple of the 30s. She had played a leading role in Gone with the Wind (1939) – the most commercially successful film of all time – as the ‘good girl’ Melanie Hamilton to Vivien Leigh’s ‘bad girl’ Scarlett O’Hara. When Warner Bros tried to prolong her contract illegally, she had taken the studio to court and won her freedom. She had rounded out the 40s by winning two Oscars for Best Actress, one for To Each His Own (1946) and one for The Heiress (1949). She was not, to put it mildly, what anyone could ever call an underachiever.

On a personal level, de Havilland had grown out of the shadow of her loving but controlling mother and her jealously competitive sister Joan Fontaine. Having been linked romantically to James Stewart and Burgess Meredith, John Huston and Howard Hughes, she had finally got married at the age of thirty to the writer Marcus Goodrich. In 1949, she had given birth to her son Benjamin and taken three years off from movies. Not that she had stayed at home washing nappies. Instead she had fulfilled a lifelong ambition by appearing on Broadway in Romeo and Juliet, in a 1951 staging that can be described politely as a succès d’estime. Apart from her on-and-off feud with her sister, she had lived with consummate discretion and good taste. Unusually for a Hollywood star, there had been no sleaze, no scandal and no dirty rumours of any sort. At the age of 35, Olivia de Havilland was a woman who had very little left to win. Her only wild card was how much she might have to lose.

Whatever she might have chosen to do in the early 50s, it was bound to involve a high level of risk. She had famously turned down the role of Blanche du Bois in the film of A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) stating that “a lady doesn’t say or do those things on the screen.” Her dilemma, in that case, was how to remain a lady while expanding her range as an actress into a new decade. That may have been part of what drew her to My Cousin Rachel (1952). The heroine of Daphne du Maurier’s novel is neither a ‘good girl’ nor a ‘bad girl’ but a woman who may be an angel or a demon. She is a glamorous and sophisticated Anglo-Italian countess of the 1830s who finds herself widowed and penniless and burdened by debts. She marries a wealthy Cornish gentleman who dies of unexplained causes just a few months after the wedding. But his estate does not go to his widow. It passes instead to his callow and naive young cousin, Philip Ashley. It is not wholly a surprise when Rachel shows up on his doorstep – and the young man starts to fall irresistibly under her spell.

At no point in the novel do we get any clue as to what Rachel is thinking. As in du Maurier’s most famous book Rebecca – the Alfred Hitchcock film of which had made a star of Joan Fontaine in 1940 – we know the title heroine only through what the other characters say about her. The novel is narrated entirely by Philip, who falls obsessively in love with Rachel although he suspects – and with good cause – that she may have poisoned his cousin. Soon enough, she starts brewing Philip her special herbal tisanes and he has every reason to suspect she is trying to poison him. That does not dim his ardour one bit. Our hero falls in love with Rachel, not despite the fact she may be a murderess but, more likely, because of it. It is even possible that Rachel poisoned one or both of her previous husbands, but still feels genuine love for Philip. The depths of masochism in this story are profound; its central love affair makes any film noir of the 40s look like a model of domestic bliss.

The question of Rachel’s innocence or guilt – which the book leaves unanswered – presents any film-maker with a dilemma. It is similar to the one faced by David Lean in Madeleine (1950) another film about a genteel Victorian lady who may or may not have poisoned her lover. “The public wants to know if she did it,” said Noël Coward bluntly, “and you don’t tell them.” There are levels of ambiguity we can accept more easily in a novel than in a big-budget movie. But these are the levels of ambiguity de Havilland serves up with such lethal but seductive expertise. She makes her entrance robed entirely in black and photographed from behind so we do not see her face. (She is bit like Count Dracula, fresh off the boat from Transylvania.) Once she lifts her veil, we are won over by her angelic expression and her mellifluous purr of a voice – but alarmed at the same time by her cold, hard, watchful eyes. It is obvious from the first that she is playing Philip (Richard Burton) the way a virtuoso pianist might play a baby grand. But that does not make her a killer. Or does it?

In her early scenes, her dark widow’s weeds are demure almost to the point of bring dowdy. But as she gains in her ascendancy over Philip, her gowns (although they are still black) become gradually more décolleté. Her most alluring dress is off-the-shoulder and topped with lace that suggests a black spider’s web. (The costumes by Dorothy Jeakins are a film unto themselves.) Before too many scenes have elapsed, My Cousin Rachel starts to revel in one of Hollywood’s most ill-kept secrets – namely that Olivia de Havilland, for all her gentility, was a stylish and extremely sexy woman. Her performance here owes mercifully little to Terry, the Psycho Bitch Sister from Hell in the ‘identical twins’ melodrama The Dark Mirror (1946). It is a fascinating foretaste of her role as Cousin Miriam in the campy Southern Gothic gore fest Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964). There is no way to separate the light and dark facets of either Miriam or Rachel. This woman is charming because she is deadly and deadly because she is charming. Her allure turns the entire audience into the hapless Philip. Had this film only been made in 3D, we too might be stretching out our hands and begging for a cup of tisane.

Nothing and nobody else in My Cousin Rachel ever rises to the level of its lead performance. Initially, de Havilland had hoped for either George Cukor or Mitchell Leisen to direct it. But Cukor decided ungraciously that she was “an actress without a secret” – and sought to cast Vivien Leigh or Greta Garbo instead. Leisen had directed her with triumph in Hold Back the Dawn (1941) and To Each His Own. Better still, he was a close friend who knew Olivia’s secrets as well as anyone in Hollywood ever could. Alas, he was under contract to another studio and 20th Century-Fox was unwilling to pay the money it would have cost to borrow him. Hence the director of My Cousin Rachel is the competent but wholly uninspired Henry Koster. Richard Burton – whom de Havilland described as “a rather coarse-grained gentleman with a rather coarse-grained talent” – does well by a role that consists of glowering and looking glum for the best part of two hours. In some shots, the backs of his hands are so hairy that we wonder if he will turn out to be the Wolf Man. His co-star cannot have been pleased when Burton got an Oscar nomination and she did not.

A good film that should have been a great one, My Cousin Rachel turned out to be Olivia de Havilland’s last role as a major Hollywood star. She divorced her husband, married again and moved to Paris. She played her last movie role in the schlock killer bees epic The Swarm (1978) but stayed active on TV for another decade. For years after she retired, there were rumours she was planning a comeback – most recently in a James Ivory film of the Henry James novella The Aspern Papers. But this and any number of other projects failed to happen and her status in later years was largely symbolic. The last surviving star of the pre-war studio era, she lived on as a gracious, witty and unfailingly articulate emissary of a bygone age. She became Hollywood’s own far more glamorous answer to the Queen Mother.

But no, she never did tell us if Rachel did it or not.

IN MEMORIAM DAME OLIVIA DE HAVILLND (TOKYO 1916-PARIS 2020)

David Melville

The Hands of Ingrid

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on November 2, 2015 by dcairns

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I know, I know, enough with the Halloween postings already! But this one isn’t that spooky. Curiosity prompted us to watch John Frankenheimer’s live TV version of The Turn of the Screw, a piece which only survives because Frankenheimer himself paid to kinescope his shows as they went out (a highly technical procedure which basically involves aiming a movie camera at a TV screen). This paid off, since the director was able to preserve his early work, and also refer back to it, which he found useful when making big movies. Our naive first efforts are often revealing to revisit.

The script for this adaptation of Henry James’ renowned novella is by James Costigan, with a heavy lit-crit emphasis on sexual hysteria as a cause of the ghostly manifestations: even more so than in Jack Clayton’s famous film version, THE INNOCENTS. Incidentally, both filmmakers rely on long lap dissolves for atmosphere, which makes one wonder if Clayton somehow caught the Frankenheimer airing (unlikely), or if something in James’ prose somehow suggests the idea (intriguing).

Recalling the way the BBC’s live Quatermass productions instill a kind of terror through the sheer flop-sweat of the cast struggling to make it through the broadcast without flubbing, corpsing, drying, breaking legs or dropping dead, I was anticipating some agreeable tension here, but Bergman is cool as ice, totally professional, and the kids are so eerily good they chill more for precocity as performers than as characters. Apart from one slight line-stumble early on (which feels quite natural), it’s amazingly slick, and somehow less scary for it.

I got distracted by technical considerations since the drama wasn’t fully engaging my mind. How did Frankenheimer manage scene changes in a narrative where the same character is in nearly every sequence? Here’s a doozy ~

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Dissolve from governess closing French windows to governess’s hands, pressed against the glass of the window as rain pours down outside. Cut to Ingrid at the window.

It seems so simple, yet it’s completely impossible to do live, since during that dissolve Ingrid is literally required to be in two places at one: standing outside in a medium shot, and standing inside at the window with her hands in ECU (plus it has to be simultaneously dry and rainy).

So, I’m thinking Frankenheimer must have had a hand double already in position for that close view. And while it was on air, Ingrid must have sprinted from her position outside to a different window, positioned her hands to match her double’s, and picked up the scene from there. The first televisual hand transplant has been carried out!

I mention this trick over coffee to my editor friend Stephen Horne, and he says, “Ah, kind of like the two Dorothies in WIZARD OF OZ.” Now, I’ve lived with/in OZ all my life, almost, and precisely for this reason, I guess, I’ve never fully unpicked what goes on when Dorothy crosses the threshold from sepia farmhouse to Technicolor Munchkinland. To begin with, she’s apparently sepia, but since this trip is accomplished with a moving camera, we can exclude matte shot trickery. So she’s not filmed in sepia, she actually IS sepia. Some poor stand-in has been spray-painted brown from head to toe, along with the farmhouse door (I wonder if she got sick like Buddy Ebsen, the original Tin Woodsman who was poisoned by his lead face-paint). There’s even a sepia Toto, created using the same technology as the horse of a different colour you’ve heard tell about. As we move through the doorway into the gaudy fantasy kingdom, the camera loses sight of the brown Dorothy, and when she re-enters frame she’s a full colour Judy Garland. The magic of movies!

I wonder who came up with this? Must check my Making Of book. Definitely not Victor Fleming, the credited director — I think we may have to chalk one up for the Genius of the System. It’s the kind of thing a bunch of heads of department spitballing and brainstorming, or brainballing and spitstorming, would come up with together.

I don’t know which is more amazing, the OZ substitution, which effects a change of film medium from b&w to colour, or Frankenheimer’s, which went out live to an unsuspecting nation.

Ribbeting

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , on January 11, 2012 by dcairns

Robert Enrico is best known, I guess, for his adaptation of Ambrose Bierce’s An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, entitled LA RIVIERE DU HIBOU — this was adopted by Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone and screened in a truly appalling copy, ruining some of the loveliest b&w cinematography you’ll ever see. It’s also part of a trilogy of adaptations of Bierce’s macabre Civil War stories by Enrico, otherwise comprising versions of The Mockingbird and the horrifying Chickamauga, equally fine.

LA REDEVANCE DU FANTOME is a TV episode by Enrico, based closely on Henry James’ A Ghostly Rental — Enrico evokes the “spiritual blight” hanging over an abandoned house by way of an electronically enhanced frogs’ chorus of ribbets and chirrups. Splendidly eerie. Presumably in an effort to fill a time slot, he drags every scene out to breaking point, alas, giving even the viewer unfamiliar with his source plenty of time to figure out the Scooby Doo twist, but there are splendid moments along the way, and Marie Laforet sings us out — here is your daily allotment of the sublime. Do not exceed the stated dose.

NB — this is, technically, a spoiler, I suppose, since it’s the end of the film. But it’s not a narrative spoiler, imho.

Marie Laforet — if you have enjoyed this, check out her version of Paint It Black on TousTube.

And buy her stuff — 1963-1969