Archive for Mae West

A Delicate Operation

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 26, 2018 by dcairns

I considered following up VISIT TO A SMALL PLANET with BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S, since Orangey the cat who plays Cat (typecasting) in that film has appeared in two of our sci-fi season (in the important roles of Butch and Josephine) but in the end I opted for a Gore Vidal farrago theme and we ran MYRA BRECKINRIDGE. This seemed apt as we had just watched THE DANISH GIRL. Of the two, MYRA BRECKINRIDGE probably is the more sensitive and accurate portrayal of the trans experience.

That’s not quite true or fair. THE DANISH GIRL has pretty design and is deadly dull as drama. We didn’t believe real people lived in these rooms and we didn’t meet any real people. Alicia Vikander comes closest to human life. Fiona had read both the novel and, not satisfied with that, the source memoir. I guess the movie wanted to tell an inspirational trans story, and so omitted the highly dysfunctional, dependant relationship Einar Wegener/Lili Elbe had with her surgeon (in reality, more than one doctor, combined into one characterless cypher in the film). We aren’t told that the doctor was attempting to implant ovaries and a uterus, something that could never have worked and wasn’t particularly sensible or necessary anyway. It WAS the first sex change op, so they didn’t know what they were doing. But had nobody already discovered that you couldn’t chop bits off one person and stick them on another and expect it to work?

The movie invents a scene where Lili is beaten up by transphobes, a desperate attempt to create some tension. That’s a terrible bit of writing, because it not only didn’t happen, it doesn’t lead anywhere. It’s just a cheap attempt to upset us. Fiona remembers a much stronger and more nuanced scene in the memoir where Lili meets a businesswoman who is horrified by her simpering mannerisms and scolds her for thinking this is how women are. The first TERF? Eddie Redmayne, accurately I suppose, IS really simpering, and such a scene would have been immensely liberating for those of us tired of his one-note performance.

MYRA BRECKINRIDGE is so farcical it mainly deserves a free pass on all its inaccuracies and insensitivities. It’s pretty far removed from reality and it’s being deliberately crass — a defense that might work for James Gunn — sick humour depends on our shared recognition that something is beyond the pale. If you accept that, where you draw the line becomes a very delicate operation, depending on what you take the joker’s attitude to be. Most of Gunn’s jokes were really unfunny, which doesn’t help his cause. But you can see he’s trying to shock, albeit for no particular reason. Contrast with the joke that sank, or more or less sank, Milo Iannopolis, which merely confirmed that he doesn’t care about anything he says. It probably offended the squarer part of his rightwing base, who had liked the idea of having a gay ally so they could claim they weren’t homophobic, just because it explicitly referred to same-sex sex acts. These guys do not like to think about those things. The fact that it was a joke about child abuse was more or less an alibi for their disgust.

MYRA’s big set-piece is the rape of a straight man, something I’m a bit uncomfortable with. It IS a reversal of the norm and it IS subverting patriarchal assumptions, but men getting raped has quite often been treated as comedic (can I back that up? WHERE’S POPPA? and TRADING PLACES, with its randy gorilla, come to mind) which is about men distancing themselves from it, “proving” it can’t happen to them because it only happens to ridiculous comedy men. That’s surely not what Gore Vidal had in mind, but I think Michael Sarne, the film’s adapter/director, did not have such a nuanced worldview.

Sarne, a decent actor, had made the appalling JOANNA in 1968, one of the worst things that ever happened, and then pitched MYRA to 20th Century Fox, claiming he’d had the perfect idea of how to film the unfilmable. This idea was, basically, It Was All A Dream. This plays out in a somewhat intriguing way in the movie, but is nevertheless pretty lame. I don’t blame Sarne, but I do blame Richard Zanuck for being impressed at all. This is 1970, where all the major studios knew was that they didn’t know what the young audience wanted. The same year they made BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS. One obvious connection being the involvement of film critics: Roger Ebert as co-writer on the Russ Meyer phantasmagoria, Rex Reed as co-star in MYRA.

The idea of Myra’s male self, Myron (Reed) following her around as a vision only she can see (like the faux-Bogart in PLAY IT AGAIN, SAM), sometimes taking her place for a moment (like Jason Miller in EXORCIST III) is quite a good and cinematic one — would that THE DANISH GIRL had a single narrative idea to lift it from the mundane. And Reed, though a little lacking in variety in his distant, acidulous manner, is fairly effective. The real stars are of course Raquel Welch, who has some stunning moments of campery; top-billed Mae West, who isn’t embarrassing at all (unlike in SEXTETTE), proving that there ARE third acts in American lives, and they’re like the first and second acts only dirtier and a little slower; and Calvin Lockhart, who’s swishy turn gets many of the best laughs in the first and best half, but who unaccountably vanishes from the story midway like King Lear’s Fool or VERTIGO’s Midge.

Mae, who once dressed as the Statue of Liberty, here puts me in mind of the end of PLANET OF THE APES: a magnificent ruin. Her once-great blues voice is now a husky croak, but she can still sell a song by sheer force of personality. Cinematographer Richard Moore, acquired by Huston for a couple of late follies, is unable to get light into those lacquered eyes, so it’s not always clear if Mae is really in there or phoning it in from some spangly pre-code afterlife, but she still, on some level, has it.

All the casting is good, and all of it is almost cruelly apt. John Huston seems perfectly happy to emphasise his physical grotesquerie — his cowboy walk, as “Buck Loner,” is hilarious. As a silicone construct, Raquel is absurdly apt, and the Brad & Janet figures she corrupts, Roger Herren and Farah Fawcett, project precisely the required vapidity (Raquel’s regal delivery of “She is mentally retarded,” marks her as some kind of comedy genius). I’ll give Sarne credit for some of this because he’s an actor, though more of the kitchen sink school himself. The performances in JOANNA are appalling, and the better tha actor the worse they are, with Donald Sutherland soaring far, far beneath the rest.

Clearly somebody decided the film was in need of rescuing and editor Danford B. Greene, fresh from MASH, is the one who played Galahad, reshuffling scenes for pace rather than narrative logic and splicing in snippets from Fox’s back catalogue to rupture the flow with celebrity cameos and joke Freudian symbolism. Given Myra’s cinephilia, that may always have been part of Sarne’s scheme — it works like gangbusters, until you stop being surprised, and finds the only acceptable use for Laurel & Hardy’s dispiriting Fox features.

Also featuring Harry Mudd, Mr. Magoo, Og Oggilby, Baron Latos, Phoebe Dinsmore and Magnum, P.I.

And 36 views of the Chateau Marmont.

Sarne didn’t direct again for twenty-three years, and when he did, he adapted a punk novel, The Punk, written in 1977 by a fourteen-year-old. In 1993, this must have seemed not exactly up-to-the-minute stuff. Did Sarne realise he was making a period piece?

As for Vidal, he argued strongly that the writer is the true creative force on a film. When William Boyd made the same case, someone rather unkindly pointed out that with his credits, a safer argument would be that the writer was entirely blameless, a minor component in an infernal machine. But Vidal wasn’t in any sense in charge here, and his vision wasn’t being faithfully followed (though Sarne probably hewed closer to the trail than any Hollywood hack at the time would’ve).

What can we learn from MYRA? “Don’t try to be Fellini when you’re an idiot” seems like a good general principle. On the other hand, Sarne’s ludicrous ambition resulted in probably the best film he ever made, and it’s never not highly watchable. It’s the kind of farrago I’m glad exists, like the even more shapeless and obnoxious CANDY.

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Pancake Mix

Posted in FILM, literature, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 26, 2017 by dcairns

One of the best films at the 2016 Il Cinema Ritrovato was ONLY YESTERDAY, directed by John M. Stahl. A mental note was made to see more of his stuff, but it must have gotten misfiled because here I am just getting round to it. Fiona immediately got very enthused about seeing Fredi Washington in action: such a fascinating figure.

IMITATION OF LIFE — the original. Very good, and interesting to compare with the Sirk. Our friend Nicky Smith remarked that the original is stronger because it makes it obvious that the white heroine is robbing her “friend” — Claudette Colbert mass-produces Louise Beavers’ family recipe for pancake flour, and gives her 20% of the profits. 20%? I wonder if 1934 audiences were able to convince themselves this was a fair deal.

Beavers, accustomed to playing maid/stooge to Mae West and others, here gets to play at least a version of a human being, though there are still jokes about her character being naive or “dumb,” and she arrives at the door with a portentous track-in on her beaming face which seems to be setting her up as some kind of Magic Negress, a miraculous Mary Poppins sent by Fate to help the white folks out. No needs of her own. But this is not precisely what happens.

Basically, the film parallels three plots — first, the rise and rise of Colbert’s business, which is a straightforward American Dream success story with no twists, reversals or developments of any kind except the irresistible rise of the Pancake Queen. Then there’s Colbert and her daughter both falling for the same man, starving lion Warren William. It’s a Story as old as Time: the love of a Pancake Queen and a debonair ichthyologist. And then there’s the relationship of Beavers with her own daughter, who grows up to be Fredi Washington, who decides to pass as white. As Sirk rightly said, this is the only aspect if Fannie Hurst’s source novel that actually gives you any drama capable of supporting a film.

We won’t deal with the pancake business anymore except to say that the business with Claudette opening her own pancake shop and then franchising reminded me very much of MILDRED PIERCE, which also has mother and daughter fancying the same man. The James M. Cain book and Michael Curtiz movie (enjoyed in its new restoration very much at Il Cinema Ritrovato THIS year) takes the romantic triangle MUCH further, and I wondered if there was a direct influence from Hurst’s 1933 novel onto Cain’s 1941 one. And the fact that Cain had a book (Serenade) adapted by Stahl (as WHEN TOMORROW COMES) in 1939 seems to me to make this likelier. Cain, a master of the technique he called the “love rack”may have sensed that Hurst was letting her triangle fizzle out by shying away from the more awful possibilities, and felt he could get a lot more value out of it…

The race theme is the heart of the picture, and thanks to Beavers and especially Washington, is moving and insightful, even though the story keeps having to contrive ways for dark-skinned mother to embarrass fair-skinned daughter. Both characters’ arguments with regards to accepting the hand dealt you, or using subterfuge to improve it, are compelling, and though the film obviously favours Louise, it doesn’t push its viewpoint too hard.

Beavers on the world’s largest pillow. I mean, that’s a seriously EDWARD SCISSORHANDS size pillow there.

Comparison with the Sirk: the idea of a remake was doubtless only embraced due to the salacious rumours circulating after the death of Lana Turner’s lover, gangster Johnny Stompanato (best gangster name ever? I mean, you don’t need to be called “Dutch” or “Bugsy” or Legs” or “Baby Face” if your surname is already Stompanato. Though J.S. did have a nickname, it wasn’t for himself, just his penis: he called it “the Oscar”). After Turner’s daughter, Cheryl Crane, stabbed Stompanato to death in the kitchen (or did Lana do it, really?) it was bandied about town that both Lana and Cheryl had been intimate with the Oscar.

(I’ve seen a short extract of Lana’s courtroom testimony. It’s a true Lana Turner performance: camo and artificial and soapy in the best way. The jury must have loved it. It suggests that either Lana is acting for her life, or that she’s sincere and so are all her weird, artificial performances. Strange.)

So producer Ross Hunter was hoping to titillate his audience by casting Lana in the remake. Her casting meant, for some reason, that the whole Pancake Queen thing had to go (and while we’re at it let’s have John Gavin NOT play an ichthyologist) which created some plausibility issues. In this version, widowed mother Lana becomes a star of stage and screen at 38. Hmm, could this be a roman a clef, closely based on the true life story of NO WOMAN EVER? Also, by cutting the pancake mix, Lana’s maid, Juanita Moore, isn’t trousering 20% of the profits from a flour empire, and so her colossal funeral at the end of the film doesn’t really make any naturalistic sense. I saw it with my late lamented friend Lawrie and he was in hysterics at the vast pomp of it all: “But she’s just a cleaning woman! A very good cleaning woman, but…” Not the intended reaction, and the original movie doesn’t have that problem (though it does have the unreal idea of Beavers having no interest in money — in my experience, most poor people would like to be rich).

(Getting distracted by petty realistic details is a vice. I showed ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST to a friend, who wanted to know, while Bronson’s brother was being hanged from an arch in the desert, “Where’s the ladder?” A foolish question anyway, since it could easily be the other side of the camera.)

The bigger problem in the remake is arguably the casting of Susan Kohner, of Jewish/Mexican decent, playing Moore’s daughter, the Fredi Washington part. We are less convinced by the genetics, and we also KNOW that there was someone out there of the correct racial background who could have played the part just as well. And though Kohner had done a few movies and was probably being built up by Universal, it’s not like the public really knew who she was. It would have made no big difference to the box office if the part had been played by a real pale-skinned African-American actress. And even if you’re willing to forgive the compromise, a bit more effort is require in the way of suspension of disbelief.

In many ways, the commercial cinema of 1959 was less liberated than that of 1934 — discuss.

Happy mistakes

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 29, 2017 by dcairns

A mismanaged day. but it resulted in some good things ~

The morning was easy — to Cinema Jolly for Dave Kehr’s retrospectives on Universal, the Laemmle years, and William K. Howard. LADIES MUST LOVE, an uncharacteristically zippy E.A. Dupont pre-code and the Sturges-scripted THE POWER AND THE GLORY. More on those another time.

In the afternoon I couldn’t make up my mind. I’d seen the silent THE INFORMER in Bo’ness. I opted for WRITTEN ON THE WIND — a Technicolor print from the camera negative, as it turned out. Scratchy in places, but breathtaking.

I had totally planned to see WISE BLOOD, introduced by producer Michael Fitzgerald and Queen of Continuity Angela Allen, but found myself switching to Iranian melodrama ZARBAT instead. It wasn’t as crazy as billed, so I bailed on it, only to learn that I left just as it was about to go nuts.

That brought me out into a thunderstorm so I sought shelter at Rupert Julian’s THE SAVAGE, which had Colleen Moore but was still a Rupert Julian film from 1917, and incomplete to boot. But where else am I going to see that? And then a Gregory La Cava cartoon, and then I skipped out during a documentary figuring to return for Mae West in SHE DONE HIM WRONG, only to find a massive queue for that and a further thunderstorm.

Enjoyed a big chat with David Bordwell and Dave Kehr and Jonathan Rosenbaum though, so that was fine. Had massive dinner. Assumed the open-air screening of King Vidor’s THE PATSY was off, so set my heart on ERASERHEAD. In fact, the rain had stopped, the forecasts were clear and THE PATSY went ahead.

ERASERHEAD was great, though. Spotted a picture of a mushroom cloud on Henry’s wall.