Archive for Romeo and Juliet

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

Forbidden Divas: Slave to the Rhythm

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , on May 10, 2017 by dcairns

David Melville Wingrove returns with another Forbidden Diva ~

FORBIDDEN DIVAS

Slaves to the Rhythm

“Stop staring! This isn’t a wax museum!”

Elizabeth Taylor, Young Toscanini

Every now and then, you see a film that makes you wonder why it was a success. (My current object of curiosity is Moonlight.) More often, perhaps, you see a film that makes you wonder why it flopped. And on very rare occasions, you see a film so spectacularly deranged that you wonder why (and how) it was ever made at all. The most infamous flop in the career of Italian maestro Franco Zeffirelli, the 1988 epic Young Toscanini is part of this small and highly selective club. It also marked a doomed attempt at a comeback of that most legendary of stars, Elizabeth Taylor. She had not appeared in a major motion picture since the 1980 Agatha Christie thriller The Mirror Crack’d, where she played (convincingly) a washed-up film star attempting a comeback. Now her friend Zeffirelli cast her as a retired opera diva attempting a comeback. There is a fine line between typecasting and outright sadism. If nothing else, Young Toscanini makes you wonder where that line is.

You might call Young Toscanini a biopic, except it bears not the slightest resemblance to any person’s actual life. The minor 80s Brat Packer C Thomas Howell is cast, theoretically, as the ambitious boy conductor Arturo Toscanini. At the start of the film, we see him audition as a cellist for the orchestra at the La Scala opera house in Milan. “He looks too pretty to play the cello,” quips one of the judges. Indeed, the lovely Howell looks far too pretty to do most things, most notably act. His face frozen in a permanent pout, this young man flares his nostrils, clenches his jaw and sucks in his cheeks in ways that prophesy Ben Stiller’s performance as male model extraordinaire Derek Zoolander. When the judges at La Scala fail to respect his talent, this young upstart storms out and tells them to go to Hell. But a wily music promoter (John Rhys-Davies) hires him as accompanist for an operatic tour of South America.

The lad sets sail for the New World on a plush ocean liner. (The year is 1886, when folk travelled with a modicum of style.) The opera company and other first-class passengers lounge about the Grand Salon like a gaggle of refugees from Death in Venice (1971). Poverty-stricken emigrants suffer nobly below decks. Among them are a group of nuns, on their way to do God’s work in the slums of Rio de Janeiro. Their leader is the annoying and overbearing Mother Allegri (Pat Heywood – who still seems to be playing her Nurse role from Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet). Among them is a comely young novice named Sister Margherita (Sophie Ward), who has left her upper-class family in Milan to dedicate her life to the poor. Being the two prettiest and dullest people on board ship, she and Toscanini promptly fall in love. As in most Zeffirelli films, it is love of a frustrated and forbidden kind – because, you see, he belongs to Music while she belongs to God!

When it comes to photogenic but overpoweringly tedious young lovers, Franco Zeffirelli certainly does have form. Over the decades, he has given us Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey in Romeo and Juliet (1968), Graham Faulkner and Judi Bowker in Brother Sun, Sister Moon (1972), Martin Hewitt and Brooke Shields in Endless Love (1981), Jonathon Schaech and Angela Bettis in Sparrow (1993). That is a roster of non-talent of which few film-makers would dare to dream. Yet so far, Young Toscanini is not appreciably worse than James Cameron’s Titanic (1997). The ship is more lushly appointed, the extras are better-dressed and the romantic leads are slimmer and more attractive. Sensing that all is not as it should be, Zeffirelli stages his ‘King of the World’ moment with young Toscanini standing on deck in a raging storm, pretending to conduct Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. The music surges to orgasmic heights, as the waves crash over him and soak him to the skin. It is, beyond a doubt, the loudest and silliest wet dream ever depicted on screen.

Finally, we get to Rio de Janeiro and the young man’s long-promised encounter with La Liz. (She is, after all, the main reason we are watching this film in the first place.) Because the Rio of the 1980s looked not the least bit like the Rio of 100 years before, Zeffirelli shot in the picturesque Italian city of Bari. It is, predictably, a sunlit tropical paradise of lush green parks, sumptuous Art Nouveau villas and well-scrubbed favelas full of adorably smiling Negro children. There is also – to Toscanini’s unspeakable horror – slavery, the legal and licensed buying and selling of human beings. It is still a source of shame to Brazilians that theirs was the last country in the Western world to abolish slavery, which it did not do until 1888. Doubtless, there are films to be made on this topic. I would recommend they begin by not copying Young Toscanini.

Having come face to face with God, Art, Love and his own nascent revolutionary conscience, Toscanini is just about ready for his meeting with Elizabeth Taylor. Her character, Nadia Bulichova, is a Russian opera diva of legendary glamour and temperament. Now retired from the stage, she is comfortably ensconced as the mistress of Dom Pedro II, Emperor of Brazil (Philippe Noiret). She has agreed to a comeback in Aïda, the Verdi grand opera about a lovelorn Ethiopian slave in Ancient Egypt. (You see, there are parallels between Art and Life!) The young Arturo’s job is to persuade her to show up for rehearsals. Her villa is a luxuriant indoor jungle, complete with squawking parrots and chattering monkeys. From here on in, Young Toscanini threatens to become a deeply bizarre fusion of Black Orpheus (1959) and Sunset Boulevard (1950). Alas, it would take a more skilled cineaste than Zeffirelli to make that happen.

In her comeback role, Elizabeth Taylor looks more svelte and glamorous than she had at any time since before her Oscar-winning tour de force in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966) Her performance is everything the rest of the film is not. She is passionate, flamboyant, imposing, capricious and downright regal. Her voice is dubbed in Italian, so this is essentially silent-screen acting – yet it is up there with the very best. Her wardrobe (designed by Tom Rand) includes some rather odd fashion choices. One gown with a tight indigo bodice, deep crimson sleeves and gaudy scarlet train makes her look, momentarily, like a squat strutting peacock. But as anyone who has seen The Driver’s Seat (1974) will attest, La Liz triumphed over far worse sartorial disasters. Zeffirelli predicted she would win a third Oscar for this role. In fact, Young Toscanini was never released in the USA or most other countries.

At the film’s climax, Taylor (in full blackface and clanking ‘ethnic’ jewellery) interrupts the gala first night of Aïda during her own big solo – and makes an impassioned plea to the Emperor to free the slaves of Brazil! It is a moment of truly surpassing awfulness, one that transcends mere categories of Kitsch and Camp and goes straight to the heart of what Bad Movies are all about. The public applauds wildly apart from Noiret, who looks on with the air of a man (and an actor) impervious to all shame. Zeffirelli has said repeatedly in interviews that “I see my work as a lifetime crusade against bad taste.” Fortunately, only a few journalists have been cruel enough to ask him about Young Toscanini.

David Melville

Good Directors Made Small / Vox

Posted in FILM, Politics, Theatre with tags , , , , on April 28, 2010 by dcairns

Struggled with whether to call Franco Zeffirelli a Great Director, and decided I couldn’t. But I’ll allow “good.” Above is an eight-year-old Zeff in Pagliacci whiteface.

The image comes from FZ’s autobiography, imaginatively entitled Zeffirelli. Actually a pretty fun book, with the man’s pomposity amusing rather than hateful, and some interesting stories. Like how he visited Egypt in the 70s to prepare a film of AIDA. After touring the pyramids he stopped to buy some stamps for his postcards, and was struck by the large, colourful yet ominous images of Nasser in front of a burning city. “What is this?” he asked.

“Tel Aviv,” said the shopkeeper.

“Did all this happen while I was away looking at the pyramids?”

“Ah no, this is what’s going to happen.”

FZ, struck by what he viewed as a premonition (which I think is putting it too strongly), got on the next plane out, which turned out to be the last plane for some time, as the Six-Day War broke out, “though it was certainly not Tel Aviv that burned as a result of it.”

Also striking is a passage where Z manages to explain how he squares his Catholicism with his “sinful lifestyle,” which almost makes sense and goes some way to explaining how he can hold his homosexuality and his right-wing Catholicism in his head at the same time without the cognitive dissonance detonating inside his skull and blowing his chin off.

Most interesting to me is the but which intersects with my fascination with famous but anonymous voice artists, as detailed in The Vox Project. The scene is the post-production of his pretty good production of ROMEO AND JULIET (shown in UK schools during my youth, whereby Olivia Hussey became responsible for the first stirrings os sapphic passion in several women I know) ~

One by-product of the filming was my first chance to work with Laurence Olivier. While we were shooting, he was working on a neighbouring sound stage making THE SHOES OF THE FISHERMAN with Anthony Quinn as the Pope. Naturally he felt an almost proprietary interest in any film of a Shakespeare play. The contrast between the rather boring film on which he was working and the glorious text we had at our disposal obviously affected him. Eventually he asked me if there was any way he could join in, and I, delighted at the chance, asked him if he would voice the prologue.

‘Of course,’ he said, ‘But isn’t there anything else?’

I think he would have played Romeo if he’d thought there was half a chance. In the end I got him to dub Lord Montague, who’d been played by an Italian with a thick accent. By now unstoppable, Larry insisted on dubbing all sorts of small parts and crowd noises in a hilarious variety of assumed voices. The audiences never knew just how much of Laurence Olivier they were getting on the soundtrack of that film.

Really makes me want to see it again!

Buy here (US): Romeo & Juliet