Archive for Richard Burton

Holy Crap

Posted in Fashion, FILM, literature, MUSIC, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 3, 2021 by dcairns

Having watched QUO VADIS, like a bunch of 1AD flagellants we had to watch THE ROBE, just in time for Easter.

In the Nero Vs Caligula death match, I think Peter Ustinov’s Nero is a more human, interesting and vividly vile characterisation, but Jay Robinson’s Caligula is a more extreme, ballsy and uniquely preposterous screen performance.

Moving on from that, this should be the movie where Richard Burton solidifies his grasp of screen acting, but for whatever reason (film shot out of sequence, latter parts being more conducive to hamminess) he gets worse as it goes on. Once he gets religion he’s unbearable — as is often the way irl.

Jean Simmons is able to do less with her pagan Roman that Debs Kerr managed with her Christian. The bit-players (including Jay Novello, Percy Helton and Leon Askin) are encouraged to chew the scenery, which is fairly nutritious material — the quality may not always be great but the portions are enormous.

Burton claimed to have learned proper screen acting from Liz Taylor on CLEOPATRA. He should have learned it from Victor Mature here. The Big Victor is an underrated guy — he does lots of good, understated, simple work, and then when he’s called on to blow the roof off, boy, does he!

The Big Victor showing off all the junk in his neck that shouldn’t even be there in my opinion

Of course, he comes a cropper when he has to signify divine rapture, in a really weird scene where Vic and Dick appear to be trying to outdreadful one another.

As W.C. Fields was said to have read the Bible for loopholes, so do authors like Lloyd C. Douglas (who wrote the book QV comes from), and Lew “Ben-Hur” Wallace. They find ways to weave their fictitious characters through the New Testament without breaking it. It can be amusing to study. Demetrius (Big Victor) runs through the streets of Jerusalem trying to warn Jesus of his imminent arrest, but can’t find him. Early Christian Dean Jagger is felled with an arrow, which is fine, because the Good Book only mentions a guy named Justus in passing and doesn’t say he WASN’T shot with an arrow.

The Robe is a perfect biblical MacGuffin — the thing everybody wants but the audience doesn’t care. In fact, I didn’t care about anything much. Those who dismiss Wyler’s BEN-HUR as trash need to take a look at this. BEN-HUR is skilled trash.

I liked the music, which is full-on Alfred Newman, though the crashing stab accompanied by thunderclap which follows Judas (Michael Ansara) introducing himself was an eggy moment.

I think the indigo thunderclaps are a modern interpolation

I was reading somewheres — I think it was a Medium article — about how the Seventh Day Adventists evolved from a doomsday cult that had to rewrite its own mythos when the apocalypse failed to happen on the appointed day. And if you think about it, it’s fairly obvious that Christianity itself kind of did the same thing.

The appearance of a Messiah had been (fairly) long-prophesied. Jesus turned up, presenting himself as said figure, come to liberate the Jews from oppression. His followers were enthused.

Then: disaster! Jesus is crucified. Far from freeing the Jews from Roman rule, he is horribly executed by the Romans. The Christian sect looks sure to die out, it’s central premise having fallen apart in spectacular fashion.

But, asks somebody, What if he didn’t die? Also: What if dying was the whole point? It might work!

If the Bible was a modern screenplay, somebody would definitely have foreshadowed the crucifixion, put something in earlier to make it clear this was always the endgame. That’s what they do in THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST. As it is, the Bible has that first-draft quality. Jesus sacrificing himself to redeem humanity is kind of a deus ex machina.

Director Henry Koster demonstrates that the Holy Ghost is a less compelling off-screen presence than Harvey the invisible rabbit. Burton’s Damascene conversion isn’t as moving as Josephine Hull’s was in that other movie.

Image 1: the purplish Leon Shamroy wraith is Jesus, in horizontal and profile cruciform view. Image 2: an arm nailed to cross-beam, with lots of duplicate hands floating around just because

Pretty crazy dream sequence. Points awarded. “I didn’t know it had anything like this in it!” Fiona exclaimed, momentarily aroused from a pleasant bad-movie torpor.

THE ROBE stars MacPhisto; Young Estella; Tumak; Klaatu; Insane Actor; Rodion Pavlov; Sokurah the Magician; Robert Kraft; Exeter; Dr. Pretorius; Zeta One; Peripetchikoff; Angry Horse; ‘Scamper’ Joad; The Dear One; Massimo Morlacchi; Xandros the Greek Slave; Toothpick Charlie; and the voice of Ned Flanders (an early Christian).

The V.U.P.s

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 14, 2020 by dcairns

Anthony “Puffin” Asquith’s transmutation from the spectacular UFA-esque pure cinema of A COTTAGE ON DARTMOOR to the “well-made play” school of swank British tedium is likely to remain a headscratcher. Maybe he got all his excitement from the rumoured wild parties, leaving only a rather turgid display of craftsmanship for the movies.

Don’t give him Cinemascope, for God’s sake! Worst thing you could do.

So here’s THE V.I.P.S, with a Rattigan script, Burton & Taylor (and Louis Jourdan makes three), Orson Welles and Rod Taylor and Maggie Smith (probably the main draw, nowadays — well, she’s about the only survivor).

It did turn out to be an adequate afternoon timewaster — Orson, playing a caricature of Korda and looking like a boiled owl, is funny, as is Margaret Rutherford. The Burtons’ stuff is a drag. David Frost does a fun self-parody, though Peter Cook could have done it with more relish. He and Richard Wattis seem like the only ones really trying to be entertaining. Oh, and Elsa Martinelli is fun, and actually IS glamorous.

The conceit, that airports are glamorous and exciting, and tax problems and cash-flow problems and marital problems are glamorous and exciting when they afflict movie-star types, is hilariously dated.

It’s a PLAY. The compositions, admittedly, are pleasing. The camera pushes in occasionally. Otherwise, the cinema does not intrude — until the last reel, where Liz staggers across the concourse, searching, searching, searching for her Dick, and Puffin throws in some reasonably frantic POV shots scanning the throng.

Miklos Rosza insists it’s all very emotionally significant but he’s lied to us too often in the past.

Very good costumes — not for the glamour, for the CHARACTER. And we did get an emotional charge from the Rod Taylor/Maggie Smith romance, maybe because we like RT so much and Smith is so good at projecting silent adoration and concern (and anything else you ask her to project, of course). It tapped into our affection for the actors.

The V.I.P.s stars Gloria Wandrous; Thomas Becket; Stefan Brand; Anna Maria ‘Dallas’ D’Allesandro / Mama Tembo; Madame Arcati; Minerva McGonagall; Pongo (voice); Unicron (voice); Princess Panthea; Louis D’Ascoyne; Albert Prosser; Jock McTaggart; Bob Trubshaw; Miss Tonks; Frith (voice); Old Fred (voice); Wallace (voice); Mr. Stringer; Blackaver (voice); Mme. Dubonnet; Mr. Meek; Louis XIII (voice, uncredited); Violet Bradman; and Ives ‘the mole’.

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