Archive for Michael Jackson

Viz Liz

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 30, 2011 by dcairns

I have a consciously erratic approach to obituary notices at Shadowplay, posting on rare occasions when I feel I have something unique to say, or when I simply feel moved to say something less than unique. I didn’t feel I had anything significant to contribute to the Liz Taylor encomia, which doesn’t mean I wasn’t very sorry to see the Great Lady go. But regular Shadowplayer David Wingrove, who writes as David Melville, did, so here it is ~

There Is A Light That Never Goes Out – Elizabeth RIP

As all the world knows by now, Elizabeth Taylor – or, to give her full title, Dame Elizabeth Rosamund Taylor Hilton Wilding Todd Fisher Burton Burton Warner Fortensky – died in Los Angeles on Wednesday, 23 March. It had been almost 25 years since she starred in a major motion picture. No film of hers had enjoyed even a moderate critical or box-office success for two decades before that. Yet at the time of her death, La Liz was still arguably the biggest movie star in the world.

That may sound like a paradox, but only till you check out the competition. What woman on today’s radar has even a fraction of her power as a glamour icon, as a sex symbol, as a dramatic actress? Cher? A housewife! Madonna? A schoolgirl! Meryl Streep? A lightweight! On the younger Hollywood A-list, Angelina Jolie has maybe an inkling. Carla Bruni-Sarkozy and the late Diana, Princess of Wales, are icons in the parallel worlds of fashion and politics – but, crucially, never in film. In Asia, where stars are still indisputably stars, actresses like Gong Li and Maggie Cheung electrify the screen with the flicker of an eyelash. But for all their splendour, they inhabit a world that is not wholly our own.

Elizabeth Taylor was more than a film star. At once coarse and regal, earthy and ethereal, human and divine, she was the Great Democratic Goddess of the Modern Age. A sublimely mythical being that only Hollywood could produce. Born in London to American parents in 1932 – and proudly holding British nationality until her death – she landed up in Hollywood as a ten-year-old refugee from World War II. It was MGM that discovered her. An eerily beautiful raven-haired child, with the face of a grown woman.

Not just the face, but also the full-on sensual allure. Her first star vehicle, National Velvet (1945) is profoundly disturbing for viewers today. A ‘heart-warming’ tale of a girl and her horse, it is transformed – through Taylor’s unwittingly erotic presence – into a study of sexual awakening. No contemporary film would dare to show a 12-year-old girl in bed, fantasising about ‘riding’ her horse and ecstatically crying out his name. We are no longer innocent (or corrupt) enough for that.

In the ingenue years that followed, Taylor blossomed in a string of largely mediocre films – an extraordinary beauty but a far-too-ordinary actress. (She also clocked up her first two marriages, to hotel chain heir Nicky Hilton and actor Michael Wilding.) A Place in the Sun (1951) cast her as a spoiled rich girl, stealing Montgomery Clift away from his working-class sweetheart. Our outrage is tempered by the fact that she and Clift are easily the two most gorgeous beings on Planet Earth. The Last Time I Saw Paris (1954) gave her an eerily prophetic role as a fictionalised Zelda Fitzgerald. A warm, intelligent and compassionate woman, driven to breakdown by her hard-drinking party lifestyle.

Her great years began with Giant (1956), in which Taylor (who was still only 23 years old) aged from a blushing bride to a venerable, silver-haired matriarch in a Texas oil dynasty. She it was – far more than her co-stars, Rock Hudson and James Dean – who held this vast and contradictory epic together. (It is, like The Godfather (1972), both a critique and a celebration of the American Dream.) Next came her most exquisite performance, as a doomed and decadent Southern belle in the underrated Civil War epic Raintree County (1957).

Nominated for an Oscar (and, scandalously, losing out to Joanne Woodward), Liz must have felt that Tennessee Williams was the next logical step. She was blazingly erotic, and coolly ruthless, as Maggie in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958). As a mental patient in Suddenly, Last Summer (1959), she guided a shocked (or bewildered) audience through a climax that still ranks among the most terrifying in film history – the ritualised, cannibalistic murder of her homosexual cousin at a Spanish resort. She also pulled off the awesome feat of acting co-star Katharine Hepburn off the screen.

Meanwhile, she had married producer and wheeler-dealer Mike Todd, only to be left a widow when he crashed in his private plane. (Its name was, ironically, the Lucky Liz.) She then took up with singer Eddie Fisher, the husband of all-American sweetheart Debbie Reynolds. MGM’s ungallant response was to cast her as an out-and-out slut in Butterfield 8 (1960). Her role as a high-class call girl was one that Taylor hated, in a film she claimed never to have seen. But it finally won her that Oscar – not least because, on Oscar night, she was languishing in hospital with near-fatal pneumonia.

Her transformation from Actress to Myth came in a single movie, Cleopatra (1963). Gaudy, ponderous, overwritten and at least an hour too long, this saga of the doomed Queen of Egypt is still fabulous entertainment. Gowned in her robes of solid gold (courtesy of Irene Sharaff) Liz sits enthroned atop a pyramid as it trundles through the streets of Ancient Rome. When the parade stops, she rises and descends slowly from on high. Majestic in her bearing, resplendent in her jewels, she is the very essence of Hollywood royalty. Suddenly, she pauses in radiant close-up – and winks slyly, mischievously, at us, the audience.

For one magical moment, Hollywood’s greatest diva might be a small-town girl sitting rapt in front row centre, munching on her popcorn and enjoying the show. And enjoy it Taylor most certainly did. Falling in love with her co-star Richard Burton, she married (and divorced) him twice. Their off-screen antics – boozing and brawling, champagne by the gallon and diamonds by the gross – were reflected in the more successful films they made together. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966) won Liz a second Oscar; The Taming of the Shrew (1967) was probably her last major hit.

Alas, so loud and garish did their jet-setting freak-show become, it soon began to upstage the films themselves. Seated on the Burton-Taylor yacht Kalizma, left-wing director Joseph Losey gaped in horror as Liz fed caviar to her poodles off plates of solid gold. As Liz remarked to one journalist: “I know I’m vulgar. But come on, be honest. Wouldn’t you be disappointed if I wasn’t?”

Still, it is a mistake to dismiss her later years as a sell-out to gross commercialism and artistic decline. Films like Reflections in Golden Eye (1967) and Boom! (1968) and Secret Ceremony (1968) and X, Y and Zee (1971) and The Driver’s Seat (1973) were all flawed but vastly ambitious projects, exploring sexual and psychological taboos with a boldness markedly ahead of their time. In each of these films, Taylor’s on-screen command is total, while her commitment off-screen was instrumental in getting them made.

It was weight, booze, pills and all-round ill-health that finally got the better of Liz. Not to mention two more disastrous marriages – to Republican senator John Warner, whose politics clashed wildly with her own liberal views, and to construction worker Larry Fortensky, whom she met in rehab at the Betty Ford Clinic. Yet she still looked stunning in the little-seen Young Toscanini (1988) as a Russian opera diva fighting to free the slaves of Brazil. Eager to work, she was written off as ‘uninsurable’ by an industry she had once made so rich.

Not that Liz ever had time for regrets. Much of her last 25 years was devoted to AIDS, the epidemic that claimed the life of her friend Rock Hudson. Speaking out about AIDS at a time when no other public figure was willing to do so, she helped to change it from a quasi-medieval plague to a modern-day illness demanding research and treatment, compassion and care. It is possible that thousands, perhaps millions, around the world owe their lives to her courage. She herself lived long enough to champion gay marriage, oppose the Iraq War and stay fiercely loyal to her friend Michael Jackson. Unlike so many in the movies, Elizabeth Taylor seemed to know instinctively that life was the greatest show of all.

David Melville

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Night Hair Alley

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on July 20, 2008 by dcairns

Possibly THE GREATEST MOMENT EVER CAPTURED ON CELLULOID.

12-year-old Mark “OLIVER!” Lester throwing rocks at a dead dog in a swimming pool.

It doesn’t get much better than this, people!

“Corrupt voyeuristic weirdie which has to be seen to be believed.” ~ Halliwell’s Film Guide.

It’s called NIGHT HAIR CHILD (wtf?) A.K.A. NIGHT CHILD (better, but still weird) A.K.A. CHILD OF THE NIGHT (this is starting to make sense) A.K.A. DIABOLICA MALICIA (nice!) A.K.A. DIABOLISCH (too much like DIABOLIK) A.K.A. LA TUA PRESENZA NUDA (sounds kinda smutty) A.K.A. WHAT THE PEEPER SAW (rather declassé, don’t you think?) A.K.A. DER ZEUGE HINTER DER WAND (don’t know). Whew!

I’m calling it NIGHT HAIR CHILD because that’s the (inscrutable) title I always heard, and it’s the name of the novelisation by Mai Zetterling (!) I once saw in a second-hand bookshop. It maybe “has to be seen to be believed” but it’s quite hard to see, mainly due, I suspect, to the skin-crawlingly uncomfortable pedophile leanings of the script.

A moment Britt probably doesn’t talk about much these days.

This is not, I should stress, actual child porn. Really, it’s not. But this movie would certainly not be made in any English-speaking country today, not for reasons of legality but for reasons of taste. The tale of a perverted 12-year-old and his decidedly off-kilter family relations, it’s the kind of thing that could only happen in the ’70s, when the questioning of society’s traditional morals and mores had gone about as far as it was going to…

“Now, you’re going to be hearing a lot of talk about panties.”

Mark Lester, aged about twelve in real life and now no longer cute at all (“I always found Mark Lester creepy,” says my friend David Wingrove, and it’s like the scales have been lifted from my eyes) plays, ineptly, an eerie rich kid called Marcus who may have killed his mum and may be planning on killing his new stepmum, Britt Ekland, after he’s finished watching her bedroom “acrobatics” with Dad, Hardy Kruger. Britt finds her new charge somewhat alarming, especially when he grabs her britts as she’s on the phone to hubby. Investigating, she finds evidence of (1) his pathological lying (2) his thieving (3) his truancy (4) his peeping (5) his animal mutilation. To get him to tell her about his mother’s death, she agrees to strip for him. One has to question her parenting skills at this point.

The filmmakers appear to have stepped in here to protect their star’s innocence and replaced Mark Lester with either an older stand-in (a dwarf? Kenny Baker in a fright wig?) or possibly a mannequin.

This is all (1) strange (2) creepy, in a BAD way (3) somewhat badly put together, in a GOOD way. Since the dialogue is weak, and poor Britt is acting in a vacuum (Hardy is oddly disconnected, perhaps trying to mentally disassociate himself from the sleaze around him, Lester is simultaneously wooden and repellent, like a mahogany pustule), bizarre narrative leaps and ellipses and baffling unmotivated behaviour actually make it a lot more interesting to watch. At one point, the camera tilts up from Britt in bed and simply looks at the ceiling. Why? Cut to Britt going upstairs to the attic. “Ah, the camera was following her thoughts,” explained Fiona. “That seems a risky strategy, following Britt Ekland’s thoughts,” I mused. “I wonder how many cameras they lost.”

(But this is unfair as Britt is good in this film, with her odd Swedish line readings working quite well in the name of naturalism. For her more intimate scenes with Little Markie, she either deserves a medal for bravery or a short prison sentence.)

Even after it’s over, it’s not 100% clear what was going on some of the time, or why. The ending, a double-twist in the LES DIABOLIQUES tradition, is very nice, but that’s the only generic bit that works.

The other stuff is at its most effective when totally confusing, like the long psychiatric hospital sequence where Britt is trundled about in a wheelchair by a nurse who’s trying very hard not to look at the camera (Fiona says: “Yeah, she needs a wheelchair because when you’re mental you can’t walk, apparently.”) having visions — flashbacks? fantasies? delusions? — of attempted murder, attempted pedophilia, and attempted something-or-other involving a dog. I really wasn’t sure what I was seeing by now. She’s sent there, incidentally, by a very assured and well-preserved Lilli Palmer, one of those movie shrinks with an office full of primitive art. Or at least, I think that’s what the weird crash-test dummy in the corner must be. It’s giving a livelier performance than Mark Lester.

But one has to feel sorry for the lad. This is one disturbing film. Either it destroyed his career, or he made it because his career was already destroyed. Either way, what a horrible way to make a living. No wonder he’s now befriended Michael Jackson…

I suppose there’s nothing in this film as questionable as the child sexuality in THE TIN DRUM (which I doubt you could make nowadays, without changing a few scenes) but this seems much more upsetting and sleazy. It’s just a big, brimming flagon of wrong. While the filmmakers undoubtedly know that this stuff is taboo, and that it’ll make the audience uncomfortable, it’s not clear whether they’re aware HOW taboo it is, or why they’re even doing it. Just when things are getting TOO WEIRD TO LIVE, there’ll be some new piece of terrifying ’70s leisurewear modelled by Mr. Kruger, or some new lounge version of the (great) theme tune by Stelvio Cipriani, or Britt will disrobe again in a new and ever more uncomfortable scenario (she’s at her skinniest here, yet looking impossibly sexy when clothed) or there’ll be an abrupt scene change before we’ve worked out what the last scene was about, and somebody will be doing something unexplained.

Ah, the ’70s! Age of loud shirts and kiddie-fiddling.

Just about worth seeing, but be warned, there may be moments when your eyeballs start singing “La la la, I’m not looking!” and your brain tries to shut itself down by scraping itself raw against the inside of your skull. Other than that, it’s quite diverting.

Make it a Fever Dream Double Feature with: BABY LOVE, in which a fifteen-year-old Linda Hayden infiltrates and then shags her way through Keith Barron’s entire family.