Archive for James Ivory

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

Party Down

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , on May 5, 2014 by dcairns

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My impression of James Ivory was formed by the films I saw in the 90s, which seemed like the antithesis of cinema to me then but were often held up as embodying what our movies should be about. I didn’t enjoy A Room with a View when I was forced to read it at school — I found Ivory’s film slightly easier to take because it could be consumed more quickly, but really — he managed to get a bad performance from Denholm Elliott, which ought to be impossible, by miscasting him as a slightly vulgar lower-middle-class parvenu. It’s the only role in the book that doesn’t require a toff, and he cast a toff. I thought Daniel Day-Lewis was overdoing things too. What else did I see? THE REMAINS OF THE DAY, which was OK, but didn’t seem to know what to do with the book’s political dimension.

So THE WILD PARTY (1975) was something I entered into with middling expectations. It has an intriguing central duo: James Coco, who’s great, and Raquel Welch. at her loveliest — “THAT is a GODDESS,” declared Fiona — and giving probably her best performance, which is to say she’s OK, and she sings and dances real good. But here comes her director, cutting away from her big dance number in order to get back to his “plot” — unforgivable! Revenge for Raquel making him apologise to her in front of everyone after he criticised her performance a bit insensitively?

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Spirited rendition of “Singapore Sally,” sat in Buddha’s lap.

As is typical with Ivory, the costumes and art direction are a treat, and here the setting is one I like a lot more than the Edwardian era. And then there’s the movie’s strangest feature, the fact that it’s based, nominally at least, on a narrative poem by John Moncure March. Not many narrative poems get filmed. Dante’s Inferno, yes, but not so much Paradise Lost. In fact, Walter Marks’ script rewrites the story completely, upscales the social setting to suit Ivory’s poshlust, and makes it a kind of dream-amalgamation of the Arbuckle scandal and the Thomas Ince “shooting” — even the verse has to be substantially rewritten. Relatively small amounts of it are spoken in VO, but they’re my favourite parts of the film —

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Because, let’s face it, Ivory sucks at directing dramatic scenes. He can do homage to the decor, but his photographs of people talking are just that, and his scenes go so flat you could slide them under the door before they’re half over. Several times he actually keeps the film running as the actors walk off the set, as if what he really wanted was to film the empty room, all that scenic dressing at last unobstructed by the damn cast. The actors are all good — in medium shot and long shot. Everybody’s playing too big for close-up (except maybe Coco, sometimes), but they must have their close-ups.

I have to admit, though, the songs (by Marks again) are very enjoyable. The movie probably needed a Ken Russell to do full justice to them, but Ivory scrapes by.

Ultimately, the film stops an entire act too soon (but not soon enough). It mattered that Roscoe Arbuckle was a movie star accused of a crime because the press crucified him. It mattered that William Randolph Hearst was a press baron and his supposed victim a movie director because the press didn’t cover it at all. Why does it matter that “Jolly Grimm” is a famous comedian? After “fat guy goes nutzoid,” is he treated any differently than you or I would be? If not, why tell this story?

 

 

The Sunday Intertitle: Jolly Grimm

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on May 4, 2014 by dcairns

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A swellegant intertitle from THE WILD PARTY, which I haven’t seen but which looks rather gorgeous. But isn’t it a roman a clef on the Fatty Arbuckle case in which Arbuckle is presumed guilty? I’ll have to watch it to find out. It sort of fits into The Seventies Look Back, being an AIP picture set in the late jazz age, but James Ivory’s relationship to the New Hollywood is tenuous at best. (How weird to think of Merchant-Ivory working for AIP!) DAY OF THE LOCUST is a better match, since Schlesinger also made MIDNIGHT COWBOY, which is seminal pre-seventies New Hollywood, and his HONKY TONK FREEWAY is a good example of the way the era combusted.

Next week I suspect I’ll be shuffling between posts carrying on the 70s thing, with other more random stuff, and then on Wednesday I leave for The Toronto Jewish Film Festival. Canuck Shadowplayers are advised to meet me at the screenings of NATAN on the 8th and 11th.

On Tuesday I’m aiming to squeeze in my second video intro for a Masters of Cinema Blu-ray. I didn’t tell you about the first yet, did I? I will!