Archive for Secret Ceremony

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

All About “Eve”

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC, Painting with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 20, 2008 by dcairns

“It’s Losey’s film maudit,” explained David Wingrove to a skeptic after the film fest screening of EVE (1962). “It’ll have to get in line!” I said. If I’d set it within an hour of David’s statement this might have qualified as repartee. Anyhow, I do think the film is probably more highly regarded than BOOM and SECRET CEREMONY, though both of those have devoted sexy weird admirers.

“A cheap, tawdry melodrama,” is how Jeanne Moreau described the producers’ cut, in which the notorious Hakim Brothers sheared about an hour off the film’s running time. Given that the film is adapted from a James Hadley Chase novel, I bet that’s exactly what they were hoping for. Given that the piece is replete with adultery, fraud, lavish parties, gambling, the movie biz, suicide, and Jeanne Moreau savaging Stanley Baker with a whip, if it attains the status of cheap, tawdry and melodramatic, shouldn’t we regard that as a sign of success?

“Not conceited, just accurate,” is how Stanley Baker assesses his high opinion of his ability to please women. It’s such a dazzling display of sexual arrogance that, coupled with his frequent appearances in a dinner jacket, I found myself imagining Baker as James Bond. Sex, crime, exotic locations, sadism, drinking and gambling, it’s all there. EVE’s wild Michel Legrand jazz score is even more dynamic than the Bond theme. With the scenes in Venice, the specific Bond story would be CASINO ROYALE, the one where 007 is bested by a woman.

“All women, six to sixty,”he remarks later, explaining to his rich wife-to-be (the beautiful Lisi) his tendency to stray. That seems like the kind of statement most of us would have to follow with “I mean, er, that didn’t come out right, uh…” but Baker lets it stand. It’s a movie that boldly jettisons conventional notions of audience sympathy — Baker and Moreau are both fascinating monsters, and while Lisi is theoretically sympathetic, there isn’t enough of her in the film for that to matter and anyway her character pales next to the arrogant yet insecure Baker and the heartless Moreau.

When James Villiers’ agent-turned-wife wonders about only getting ten per cent of a man, he retorts happily, “That’s all there is.” Certainly her gaydar must be faulty for her to have stumbled into such a love match. Everything that comes out of the great Villiers’ mouth in this film is pure gold. He’s the comedy relief amid the angst and humiliation, the one character who is never fazed by anything. But let’s get this straight — Stanley Baker has written a book about a lusty Welsh coal miner? And they got JAMES VILLIERS to write the screenplay? With a part for VIRNA LISI? I’m having trouble picturing the resulting movie, which wisely the filmmakers withhold from us. Although I guess the result might have looked a little like EVE.

“I wonder if they’ll bump into Marcello and Anita from LA DOLCE VITA,” whispered David, as Stanley and Jeanne roamed Rome after dark. Later, Stan rides a funeral barge on the Venetian Grand Canal and I wondered if he’d pass Julie Christie going the other way. Perhaps because the cities are so ancient, the film seems unusually haunted by other movies, past and present. Also by guest stars — Peggy Guggenheim, Vittorio De Sica and Losey himself waft by.

“Moreau at her most forcefully, ferally seductive — her frequent disrobings, dramatic departures and solitary sulks, all appropriately backed by a repeated Billie Holliday motif,” says Edinburgh Film Fest director Hannah McGill in the programme, and it’s true. We can tell she’s fickle because she has one cat for her Rome apartment and another in Venice. Shocking. Some — but certainly not all — of La Moreau’s unmotivated cruelty may be down to the film being so hacked about. This “definitive restoration” is still missing some scenes described by Losey, so it’s actually NOBODY’S preferred cut, just the longest version anybody’s been able to assemble, with occasional burnt-in subtitles in Swedish or Finnish attesting to the print’s scattered origins.

“God made Adam from a woman’s rib,” sings Tony Middleton on the soundtrack, lyrics written by Losey with screenwriter Evan Jones (MODESTY BLAISE). This may just be Losey’s jazziest movie of all, what with the incessant Billie Holliday refrain (the people in this film may be rich, but they apparently only own the same two records each). I’m starting to wonder if a sloey movie can truly EXIST without jazz. It certainly seems like a factor whose importance has been underrated in his work.

“It’s a failed art movie,” says John Waters of BOOM, and when an art movie fails, it fails by failing to be art. Is EVE art? Is this shot art? –

It’s beautiful, it made me gasp and grin, and it’s also rather crude and vulgar, particularly in a film named after the lady in the Masaccio on the left. Can art be lurid and overripe? Can a cheap, tawdry melodrama be art? I sure hope so.

EVE was screened in Edinburgh International Film Festival’s Jeanne Moreau retrospective.

Boombastic

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , on May 19, 2008 by dcairns

So, Losey Week ends. I’ve touched on barely half of the Great Man’s work, and much of that fleetingly. KING AND COUNTRY, pretty near my favourite JL film, and the one that convinced me to stop worrying and love the blacklistee, hardly gets a mention. So there will be more, at a later date.

Weeping Sam at The Listening Ear very kindly called Joseph Losey Week a “one-man blogathon”, which pleased me very much, but it’s not 100% true — the contributors to the comments section have helped make this fun and illuminating for me and I’m sure for other readers.

David Ehrenstein and Chris Schneider both win MYSTERY PRIZES for their entries in our peculiar and ill-advised Joe Losey Songwriting Contest!

Pffft!

“Together they devour life.” I wonder if the tagline for SECRET CEREMONY was “Together they devour sausages?”

Here’s David E’s boombastic boom-along:

Boom!
The moment that I saw you — Boom!
There may not be much left here for you
Soon
I will be dead
Either I’ll fast expire or Sidney Poitier’s wife-to-be will desire
My head
Either way it’s curtains for me- Boom!
And not the chintz-fringe ones Wendy Graig had ordered — Boom!
Noel Coward’s no Cole Porter – Boom!
Oh sure I know you’ll say isn’t fair
to compare
the crawling technique of man with legs to one who really didn’t have them
Boom!
That dwarf is so annoying — Boom!
And so’s the dress I’m wearing — Zoom!
Let’s fly away
To London where
there’s a house that has the best bathroom Pauline Kael claims she’s ever seen and
–Boom!
Frank’s serving Mia the divorce papers –Boom!
Thank goodness Mitchum’s here and
Boom!
Oh Joe please see
to Tennessee
the poor dear’s so in need of tender loving care
But who will do my hair?
Oh– Boom!

Full marks for ENTERING THE MIND of Elizabeth Taylor and making it out alive.

Chris looks at a wide variety of Losey’s work, through the prism of that classic Sunday-in-the-country film, ACCIDENT.

LOSEY AFTERNOON

(A Pastorale To Be Sung
(To The Tune of “Lazy Afternoon”)

It’s a Losey Afternoon …
Stanley Baker grabs his eggs,
Jacqui Sassard shows her legs,
And Dirk Bogarde dines beyond the cafe glass
As we pass.

It’s a Losey Afternoon …
Jeanne Moreau is chic and grim,
Virna Lisi’s chance is slim,
And Venetian tchotchkes mix — with “Loveless Love”
Sung above.

A ‘copter tracks down mutant tots
As spivs in leather sigh;
If you’re still and tense,
Even Lindfors makes sense by and by …

It’s a Losey Afternoon …
John Drew’s dah-dah takes a beatin’,
Michael R. finds time is fleetin’,
And Rossella’s mime is meetin’ his fate.

So let’s stroll by as time and Trotsky wait …

*

Films Alluded To: “Accident” (1967), “Eva” (1962), “The Damned” (1963), “The Big Night” (1951), “Time Without Pity” (1957), “Modesty Blaise” (1966), “The Assassination of Trotsky” (1972).

These are the Damp

Movies all round!

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