Archive for Raintree County

B is for Bugambilia

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 17, 2011 by dcairns

Part two of David Melville’s occasional alphabet of golden-age Mexican melodrama!


The Golden Age of Mexican Melodrama

B is for Bugambilia

Fans of old Hollywood may remember Dolores del Rio as a ravishing beauty who couldn’t act. Moving from Mexico to the US in the late 20s, she played decorative roles in largely mediocre films. Even the classic South Seas romance Bird of Paradise (King Vidor, 1932) used her less as an actress than as a live Gauguin painting. The musical Wonder Bar (Lloyd Bacon, 1934) gave her little to do beyond a sadomasochist tango with whips. By the early 40s, not even her liaison with Orson Welles could get Dolores a role in a decent film.

So it was a shock all round when Dolores – who was just short of 40 – returned home to Mexico, and promptly became her country’s reigning dramatic star. Her role as a virginal peasant girl in María Candelaria (Emilio Fernandez, 1943) proved that yes, she could act after all. Just not in English (in which she never seemed at ease) and not in the frankly unactable roles that Hollywood chose to give her. At a time when the US industry, cut off from its European audience, was making half-hearted efforts to woo the Latin American market, the romantic melodramas of del Rio and Fernandez were proof – glorious proof – that latinos could go it alone.

The fourth and most lavish of these is Bugambilia (1945). (The title, and the heroine’s nickname, is a florid purple flower that runs wild on every available wall in hot climates.) In this one, Dolores (refreshingly) does not play a poor but virtuous peasant waif, albeit one who strays in photogenic and melodramatic ways. Her role here draws on her own upper-class background. (Her family, like that of her distant cousin Ramón Novarro, had lost much of their land and fortune to the Mexican Revolution.) Here she plays a spoiled and capricious 19th century coquette, flouncing about in crinolines and bathing in an Olympic-size marble bathtub, afloat with rose petals.

Her character, of course, is instantly recognisable as Bette Davis in Jezebel (William Wyler, 1938) or Vivien Leigh in Gone with the Wind (Victor Fleming, 1939) or even Elizabeth Taylor in Raintree County (Edward Dmytryk, 1957). Yet much of our pleasure in Mexican melodrama lies in the way it emulates Hollywood models – yet also transforms them in unexpected, often subversive ways. Her key relationship, for most of the film, is not with her love interest (Pedro Armendáriz) but with her fiercely possessive (indeed, borderline incestuous) father. A rich widower, he cherishes her as “something more than a daughter…more like a living copy of her mother.” A huge Gothic portrait hangs on the wall, Rebecca-style, as if to prove the point.

Into this menage comes Armendáriz – a swarthy, moustachioed peasant whose profession (in a stroke of none-too-subtle symbolism) is that of cock fighter. He drops in to introduce his prize cock to del Rio’s prize laying hen. In what is surely a first for a ‘family’ movie, the cock mounts the hen while Dolores – her eyes widening in her exquisitely sculpted face – does a creditable job of looking shocked. Later on, she attends a grand ball, where she knows her lover is watching from the street outside, and has an enormous sequinned cock (of the bird variety) spangled on her fan.

We know, of course, that the liaison is doomed. Class barriers normally prove to be insuperable in Mexican movies, with a cynicism (or, perhaps, an honesty) that is rare in films from north of the Río Grande. Still, the ball scene is the film’s lyrical highlight, an orgy of billowing gowns and sparkling chandeliers that’s easily comparable to Vincente Minnelli’s film of Madame Bovary (1949). Platoons of waltzing ladies spread across the floor, petal-like, in overhead shots that might have been engineered by Busby Berkeley’s long-lost Mexican cousin.

An obsessively literal-minded viewer might complain (as Michael Caine did after a trip to Mexico) that del Rio and Armendáriz always look like film stars and never look like anything else, and “that is what is wrong with Mexican films.” Such a complaint is only slightly more logical than watching a performance of Swan Lake and saying that Rudolf Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn always look like ballet dancers – as if that detracts, somehow, from their dancing. We are dealing, in both cases, with a stylised art form that appeals on a supra-literal level of archetype and myth. No sane person, least of all a working class Mexican viewer of the 40s, would take Bugambilia for an exercise in gritty realism.

In fact, the opening and closing scenes (the bulk of the film is a long flashback) move Bugambilia away from the genre we think we recognise and into the realm of a Gothic ghost story. The mise-en-scene shifts to that of Rebecca (Alfred Hitchcock, 1940) or Dragonwyck (Joseph L Mankiewicz, 1946) or Portrait of Jennie (William Dieterle, 1948). Our heroine, sobered by her inevitable defeat, walls herself up inside her crumbling ancestral mansion. The camera (directed by the legendary Gabriel Figueroa) pulls back in a spectacular crane shot; we sense the ghosts of Miss Havisham and Norma Desmond hovering just outside the frame. Dolores del Rio is easily their equal in the high melodrama stakes. A pity that nobody in Hollywood had the sense to see it.

David Melville

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