Archive for Jacqueline Bisset

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?

FORBIDDEN DIVAS

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

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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

Rich and Strange

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 17, 2010 by dcairns

Have yourselves a Jackie Bisset Christmas!

Fiona and I watched George Cukor’s last movie, RICH AND FAMOUS. Alas, it left us somewhere in that hinterland between aghast and agog, with a bunch of broiling reactions we couldn’t do much with. It was kind of interesting to see a more “out” Cukor, casting lots of untalented prettyboys, while indulging in sex and profanity through a tale of female friendship — despite being made in 1980 and taking advantage of the greater freedoms, there are still no gay characters, and everything is just as “coded” as in the ’40s. Admittedly, the fact that there was no longer a Production Code prohibition on mentioning homosexuality did not mean that Cukor could have made his film about two gay men, even if he’d wanted to — supposed commercial barriers would have prevented a Hollywood studio from embracing such an approach.

The real difficulties seemed to me inherent in the material and the period — I couldn’t believe Jackie Bisset as the author of an intellectual book, not because of the actress so much as because of the dialogue she’s given, which is mostly unbearable, and I couldn’t believe Candice Bergen as anything: what a collection of tics and tropes. Though not as bad as Miriam Hopkins in the original version of the source play, OLD ACQUAINTANCE. The only explanation for Hopkin’s performance in that movie is that she’s actually a life-sized automaton being operated from within by a miniaturized crew of psychotic cases, and some of the levers have jammed or broken off. Bergen is just tricksy and overemphatic, but that blows a hole in the entire relationship, the very subject of the film.

There’s also the problem of Cukor tackling a story which purports to follow two women through the social upheavals of American society from 1959 to 1980 — a rich field, except that an octogenarian gay male director might not be our ideal Virgil for that particular journey. I don’t get the impression that the social changes amused Cukor as much as the possibility of having Candice Bergen call Jackie Bisset a cunt while they wrestle over a teddy bear, a high-camp melo moment which may explain why Pedro Almodovar likes this film so much, but didn’t do much for character credibility.

Finally, there’s the opening credits, which distinctly contain the words “Meg Ryan”, which left Fiona and I with a sickly dread percolating through our beings for most of the movie, as we waited for the perky horror to make its appearance. Meg Ryan isn’t always wholly a bad thing, but if you’re going to have her in a film it makes sense to bring her in early, so we can get acclimatized. If somebody’s going to be perky in front of me, I’d rather they just got it over with. Making us wait an hour with the threat of her imminent appearance hanging over us accurately simulates the sensation of being strapped to a steel slab while a figure in surgical attire dances about with a bone saw to the accompaniment of Huey Lewis and the News.

BUT! Help is at hand, because here’s special guest Shadowplayer David Wingrove with his rather more sympathetic take on this neglected film ~

THE TRANSPARENT CLOSET

Rich and Famous (1981) was the swan song of director George Cukor (1899-1983) – an unassuming Old Hollywood craftsman who, in a career spanning over five decades, made his name as a ‘woman’s director’. Officially, he owed this label to his track record with some of Hollywood’s most formidable leading ladies. Greta Garbo in Camille (1936), Ingrid Bergman in Gaslight (1944), Judy Garland in A Star Is Born (1954), Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady (1964). And of course Katharine Hepburn in ten films, from A Bill of Divorcement (1932) all the way to The Corn Is Green (1979). Not forgetting the entire female payroll of MGM in the ‘all-girls’ catfight comedy The Women (1939).

Yet to Hollywood insiders, the term ‘woman’s director’ was code for the fact that Cukor was gay. No big thing in itself, only Cukor (unlike Vincente Minnelli, Mitchell Leisen and others) refused to mask his private life in the trappings of a heterosexual marriage. For a director whose visual style was discreet to the point of invisibility, Cukor was remarkably up front about his home life. On Saturday, he might host the cream of Hollywood at a lavish garden party. On Sunday, he would invite a motley crew of hustlers, male models and aspiring bit-part actors to eat up the scraps. George Cukor was that most fascinating and contradictory of beasts – an establishment rebel.

Only rarely did the public and the private Cukor meet on screen. Early in his career, he made the picaresque comedy Sylvia Scarlett (1935). Here Katharine Hepburn spends most of the film masquerading as a boy, and a lovelorn Brian Aherne confesses to having “a queer feeling when I look at you.” But that film was a resounding flop, which both director and star chose to forget. Not one of Cukor’s films over the next 45 years would ever dare so much.

Until, oddly enough, Rich and Famous – a project that did not even originate with Cukor. He stepped in as a last-minute replacement for Robert Mulligan, at the behest of producer and star Jacqueline Bisset. While it falls far short of being a masterpiece – or even, let it be said, a conventionally good film – Rich and Famous is as close to a ‘personal statement’ as the notoriously self-effacing Cukor ever made.

Based on a play by John van Druten (filmed in 1943 under its original title, Old Acquaintance, with Bette Davis and Miriam Hopkins) it concerns the lifelong friendship of two writers. Liz Hamilton (a nervy performance by Bisset) is an intense, driven and hard-drinking New York feminist intellectual. Merry Noel Blake (a triumphant self-parody by Candice Bergen) is a ditzy Malibu housewife who writes bonk-busting best sellers on the side. Bisset wears sharply tailored suits in dark, muted tones; Bergen flounces about in prismatic kaftans and pink baby-doll pyjamas. Bisset holes up in the hallowed literary confines of the Algonquin Hotel; Bergen holds court in a resplendently vulgar suite at the Waldorf Astoria. It’s as if Susan Sontag had somehow become best pals with Jackie Collins.

The ups and downs of their friendship are the stuff of melodramatic ‘women’s pictures’ since the silent days. Bergen’s husband (David Selby) secretly carries a torch for Bisset, whose much younger lover (Hart Bochner) dumps her to have a fling with Bergen’s daughter (Meg Ryan, in a toe-curling early role). The two divas battle out each crisis in a succession of slanging matches – punctuated by some fabulously bitchy one-liners, and clad in a series of ever-more flamboyant gowns. A sample of the dialogue:

Bisset: I am so sick and fucking tired of you trying to live your life through my skin.

Bergen: If I had your skin I’d take better care of it.

They end in a tête-à-tête by the fireplace on New Year’s Eve, embracing and drinking a toast to friendship – a scene copied almost verbatim in The Flower of My Secret (1995) by Pedro Almodóvar, one of whose favourite films this is.

On the surface, Rich and Famous is a ludicrously old-fashioned movie for 1981. Worse, Cukor’s style lacks the flamboyance that might allow an audience to wallow in it as kitsch or ‘retro chic’. What makes it all so fascinating is the sheer transparency of the ‘women’s picture’ clichés – which have now worn so thin they can no longer hide the truth. Rich and Famous, like so many classics of Old Hollywood, tells an essentially homosexual story in straight drag.

Strictly speaking, there is nothing at all new about this. Back in 1942, Bette Davis could play a repressed spinster in Now, Voyager! She could suffer a nervous collapse, escape a devouring mother and indulge in a doomed love for a married man – and fans of a certain persuasion could ‘read’ it as a coded allegory for coming out. In the decades that followed, Vivien Leigh in A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) or Marilyn Monroe in Bus Stop (1956) or Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) could all be seen as cross-dressing avatars for gay male authors. But such interpretations were not essential to an understanding of the film. Each of these films is an ‘ink-blot’, allowing its audience to read whatever story it wants to project.

By the time we get to Rich and Famous, the ‘women’s picture’ alibis have run out. Bisset, frustrated in her love life and her career, consoles herself with anonymous sex in a toilet on an airplane. Later she hits the streets of New York, picks up an 18-year-old hustler and takes him back to her hotel. Cukor’s camera fondles his nude body in rapt adoration – blithely ignoring the semi-clad Bisset, who had become a pin-up for horny teenage boys with her role in The Deep (1977).

Baffling to a mainstream heterosexual audience, moments like these may explain the film’s critical and commercial failure. As Pauline Kael wrote at the time: “Rich and Famous isn’t camp, exactly; it’s more like a homosexual fantasy. Bisset’s affairs, with their masochistic overtones, are creepy, because they don’t seem like what a woman would get into.” (1) A textbook example of Kael’s ability to tell the truth, but wholly miss the point.

The last film of an enigmatic and widely misunderstood talent, Rich and Famous is a film both quaintly behind and radically ahead of its time. The missing link, perhaps, between a Warner Bros melodrama of the 40s and gay porn. Its failure might well have ended Cukor’s career, even had he not been 82 years old. Still, I can’t help but wonder what he might have done next…

David Melville

(1) Pauline Kael, Taking It All In, Arena, London, 1987, p. 248


Spy Fight

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on June 11, 2010 by dcairns

I have a bit of a problem with Philippe de Broca. I keep going back to his films, drawn by their several significant virtues, and I keep getting kicked in the teeth by a sense of misogyny that doesn’t add anything in the way of complication or pleasurable malaise to what are generally intended, it seems, as light, frothy romps. It’s weird and discomfiting.

Those virtues:

[1] The films are generally dazzlingly pretty, to the point where one might say the achieve actual beauty were it not for a certain emptiness. But the colours and design and eye for feminine charm do a lot to make one abandon one’s curmudgeonly insistence on some form of overall purpose, some sense of a world-view to be communicated. Film as summer holiday.

[2] Since the movies are often pretty fantastical, and don’t inject any bracing social satire or anything like that to relieve the frothiness, they have a hard job being actually funny — there’s no grit to abrade the comedy neurons — but nevertheless, the movies are inventive as heck, so there’s plenty of delight even if there’s not so many laughs.

[3] The films all have generous budgets, so that Broca, with his great eye and restless imagination, can indulge his fancies to a high degree of professional polish. It may seem crass to praise movies for being big-budget, but considering how samey and repetitive and cinematically ugly most big films are these days (in modern spectaculars the photography is generally elegant but the wooden blocking and mixmaster editing makes a hash of that), it’s refreshing to find somebody who can spend large quantities of cash and wind up with something attractive for us to look at. If you’ve never seen any PDB but you’ve seen Tariq’s THE FALL then you can still picture the kind of high-gloss location-porn I’m talking about.

Given all that (and if it seems like faint praise, it isn’t meant to — when it comes to movies I’m as much a foppish aesthete as I am a slob when it comes to personal grooming), it’s odd that I usually find PDB’s movies rather unpleasant on some level.

In L’INCORRIGIBLE there are off-colour jokes about rape and domestic violence which are unpleasant not just in themselves (a film-maker with something to say might be able to use such subjects comedically without leaving a meaningless sour taste behind) but for the sense that Broca, inherently a jocular entertainer, regards these subjects as just as amusing as everything else.

THE MAN FROM RIO, which inaugurated the image of Jean-Paul Belmondo as a contemporary daredevil man of action, doing his own stunts in a manner evoking Douglas Fairbanks, Harold Lloyd and, on the French side, Roland Toutain, is far less obnoxious, but something about the slapstick tone doesn’t gel with the action movie high body count. For me, Spielberg, who was heavily inspired by this movie when he gave us INDIANA JONES, got the mix to work better.

KING OF HEARTS is pretty much devoid of unpleasantness, and I enjoyed Alan Bates’s Scottish accent. The killing of pigeons seemed out of keeping with the lightness elsewhere, and the background of war and madness was problematic because Borca of course has nothing to say about either. He  just about manages to be consistent with his dumb “war is bad, madness is quite nice” slant, but even that disintegrates amid the gags. The movie is “charming” if you can really turn your brain off.

LE MAGNIFIQUE might be the best and worst of the Broca movies I’ve seen. It starts as a James Bond spoof. A spy is abducted when the phone booth he’s in is yanked into the sky by a helicopter with a claw hanging from a cable. They drop him fifty feet into the ocean. He’s still alive! Waiting on the ocean floor is a shark in a cage. Evil frogment connect the cage to the phone booth and the man is eaten, his sunglasses floating comically above his nose as he vanishes in a cloud of red ink.

The gore in this movie is startling — most of the spectacular gags dissolve in a welter of stage blood. It’s so excessive to the genre being parodied that it becomes a bizarre fascination on its own. Anyhow, we’re introduced to Bob Saint-Clair, secret agent, a man who vaults into sports cars in slow motion (for some reason this is always genuinely hilarious, the main funny gag in the movie, and I have no idea why it works so well). BSC is super-cool and infallible and accompanied by the gorgeous Tatiana, who’s played by Jacqueline Bisset. Wow.

After twenty minutes of this, we suddenly cut to an unshaven Belmondo slouched over a typewriter, and realize that he’s Francois Merlin, author of the Bob Saint-Clair series of pulp thrillers, and his lief is a dispiriting mess of unpaid bills, killer deadlines, faulty plumbing and electrics, and a variety of other ailments.  Coming so late in the film, this is pretty amazing stuff — the one thing you’d think was unworkable would be to extend the fantasy part of the film to fill most of the first act, leaving no time to introduce a compelling real-world plot. But this proves to be one of the film’s best ideas.

From here on, we intercut between Bob and Francois, as Francois meets Christine, a girl who’s just like Tatiana, only she’s a sociology student interested in the cultural-psychological meaning of his books. Francois tries to act like Bob to get the girl, with deplorable results, plus he has to compete with his sleazy publisher boss.  At one point, two keys on his typewriter start malfunctioning (shades of Stephen King’s Misery), causing everybody in his story to talk with a lisp. He finally takes to sabotaging his own work-in-progress, heaping indignities upon Bob Saint-Clair, upon the Albanian master-villain he’s based on his boss, and upon Tatiana. This stuff, with Bob suddenly turned into a Clouseau-esque nincompoop infected with mumps, is dumb yet still enjoyable.

Up until now, the movie’s malaise has been the inappropriate levels of graphic violence, presented in a slapstick style. At one point, Bob literally blows a bad guy’s brains out, and we get a brief shot of a fakey cardboard head exploding and then a shot of the severed brain landing plop on a plate on a restaurant table inexplicably adorning the bad guy’s lair (inside an Aztec pyramid, naturally). This is seriously disturbing in about eight different ways. I guess to a nation which regards sheep’s brains as something that actually belongs on a dinner plate, that particular shot is amusing rather than blindly horrific (as a Scot I only regard the contents of a sheep’s skull as edible if they’re mashed up with its other innards and boiled in the stomach lining. It’s called a haggis. Civilized values must prevail.) But the exploding cardboard head is disconcerting all by itself, actually reminding me of the head-splitting scenes in Riccardo Freda’s horror flicks HOMICIDE OBSESSION and TRAGIC CEREMONY. In fact, the violence is irrelevant to the freakish effect of the sudden false head. If Freda had wanted to truly disturb an audience, he could have dispensed with bloody setpieces altogether and just filmed 90 mins of elegant, Whit Stillman style chat, randomly cutting every few minutes to a cardboard face which has inexplicably replaced one of the characters. We’d all have nightmares for the rest of our lives.

So, I was sort of hoping Broca would settle for upsetting me with this stuff, and let the rest of the film be lightweight and appealing. But oh no. In the closing minutes, the Tatiana character is subject to a variety of unpleasant and unfunny abuses as Francois avenges himself upon Christine’s supposed infidelity. Now, Tatiana is a fictional character, even within the terms of the film. But it’s still unpleasant. This isn’t charming Gallic violence towards women, like an apache dance, or IRREVERSIBLE. It’s not shown graphically, but Tatiana is raped, whipped, gang-raped, thrown in the mud, and beaten with a crutch. It’s really, really not funny.

And yet, Broca doesn’t seem overall to hate women. He has superb taste in beautiful actresses, and clearly loves photographing them, dressed or otherwise (Jackie Bisset manages to stay mostly covered. The wonderful Genevieve Bujold and the very perky 21-yr-old Catherine Zeta-Jones both disrobed.) I’m not a good enough feminist to condemn him for his love of semi-gratuitous semi-nudity. But what is going on with this? Why does he want to spoil my enjoyment of his inappropriately blood-soaked self-referential Bond spoof with this offensive shit? It’s not like he’s Alain Robbe-Grillet! If he hadn’t died in 2004 I’d really want to slap him.

In fact, I might still do it.

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