Archive for Richard Burton

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

Objet D’Art

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on April 8, 2020 by dcairns

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Webp.net-resizeimage4These two frames from THESE ARE THE DAMNED and THE SERVANT made me chuckle.

You see it a little in Losey’s filming of the Bradbury building in his M, and the use of song in THE BIG NIGHT, but it’s in his British work that he starts to craft films, usually with designer Richard MacDonald, that work as beautiful objets d’art, or as audio-visual compilations of sculpture, interior design and music.

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The house in THE SERVANT is both character and battleground — Wendy Craig tries to stuff it full of flowers and spice racks, and Dirk Bogarde quietly moves, removes or bins them. Losey said the house is a spiral, circling round and round — each room has an entrance and exit so you can ascend through every room until you come to a dead stop in the maid’s room. He also said he recycled the cyclic style of EVE’s camera movements, knowing that nobody would spot it since so few people had seen or liked that film.

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A couple of times they choose to turn Bogarde into a stained-glass saint.

MacDonald does a terrific job of building an interior you really believe could be a real house. I knew it COULDN’T be real, but he made me accept it. Partly it’s because everything is gorgeous but nothing is ideal — the living room is this weird corridor. Everything is either very narrow or very tall.  It must have been hell to film in, especially with all those mirrors, mirrors reflecting mirrors, and that convex one that virtually shows the whole space. Yet the crew and the lights have to be somewhere. Losey said he was satisfied with EVE and it was hell to shoot, so that gave him the confidence to ask for the impossible from DoP Douglas Slocombe.

MacDonald’s designs even include the views out front and back, where James Fox’s Tony has installed a lump of abstract sculpture, and where a snow fall can be viewed at night.

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EVE had about twenty Billie Holliday songs in Losey’s cut, but the producers didn’t want to pay for them, so they were reduced to just a few. Here, there’s ONE song, music by Johnny Dankworth, lyrics by Harold Pinter, such by Cleo Laine (Dankworth’s partner — it’s a very close-knit film). One song, but treated in multiple ways, so it gets more distorted and atonal and creepy.

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Dankworth did great work for Losey, here and in MODESTY BLAISE. He also scored BOOM!, but when that film looked like being a disaster, it was decided to replace the score — blame the composer, it’s the cheapest option even if it’s wrong. So John Barry, who had ex-wives to support and carved out a niche for himself rescoring movies deemed to be in trouble, wrote quite a good score for it. I wish we could see the Dankworth version, though, I bet it’s even more of a hothouse/madhouse.

And, since Losey was starting another film, he asked his friend Richard Lester to supervise the dub. I guess he’d finished THE BED SITTING ROOM at this point and was at a loose end, but he took the gig expecting it to be a quick one. Thanks to Dick & Liz’s unpunctuality, it took MONTHS. He still sounds cross about it. He respected Burton’s talent but had no time for Liz, but was forced to have quite a lot of time for her.

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It’s impossible to imagine THE SERVANT or MODESTY BLAISE without Dankworth’s music, and so the fact that we have to watch a BOOM! that is robbed of that component is a drag.