Archive for Shelley Winters

Mambo Italiano

Posted in Dance, Fashion, FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , on January 17, 2020 by dcairns

David Melville Wingrove returns with another Forbidden Diva!

FORBIDDEN DIVAS 

Mambo Italiano! 

“She’s very young. All she wants is revenge on everything and everybody.”

–          Shelley Winters on Silvana Mangano, Mambo

 In the 1949 Neo-Realist melodrama Bitter Rice, an unknown Italian girl became a globally famous star by the simple expedient of standing in a paddy field and looking sultry. She had dark auburn hair, thick thighs and the lineaments of a Botticelli angel. Her name was Silvana Mangano and she was the protégée (and, eventually, the wife) of Italy’s most powerful film mogul Dino de Laurentiis. At no point in her first leading role did she make any discernible effort to act – but everything she did on screen seemed weirdly believable, even when the characters and situations were quite patently absurd. This was a skill that would serve her admirably in year after year of Dino de Laurentiis productions. Up until the advent of Silvana, the mass popular audience had tended to reject Neo-Realist movies because they were not sufficiently glamorous. This new star solved the problem single-handed and in one fell swoop. Silvana Mangano could look more glamorous draped in a dishcloth than your average Hollywood actress dressed in a wardrobe tailor-made by Edith Head.

Having triumphantly straddled the Italian box-office, de Laurentiis duly set about turning his lady into a bona fide International Movie Icon. This would obviously involve a complex network of co-productions employing foreign talent – but preference, invariably, was given to foreign talent that was available at a reduced price. By the early 50s, the American writer-director Robert Rossen – who had won the Best Picture Oscar for his political drama All the King’s Men (1949) – had been forced to flee to Europe after a perilous run-in with the House Un-American Activities Committee. Who better – in Dino’s mind – than a director famed for his rather dour engagement with serious social issues to helm a lush and lavish and insanely melodramatic musical epic called Mambo (1954)? Keen to surround his leading lady with the very finest support, de Laurentiis took a quick look at the gossip columns and saw that Hollywood star Shelley Winters had just dumped her (possibly platonic) boyfriend Farley Granger to marry the Italian actor Vittorio Gassman. He swiftly set about hiring all three actors to appear in his new film. Much to Dino’s chagrin, Granger declared the whole production a vulgar circus and refused to play any part in it. He was duly replaced by the British actor Michael Rennie. But as in any de Laurentiis extravaganza – from War and Peace (1956) to The Bible (1966) to Dune (1984) – it is the intention – and not the end result – that actually counts.

Mambo opens lavishly with a rousing Afro-Caribbean production number featuring the all-black Katherine Dunham Dance Company. Wooden shutters fly open and ladies in voluminous flouncy skirts gyrate to the clatter of steel drums, while somehow managing to balance large plates of tropical fruit. Then a door opens at the back of the stage and the lead dancer makes her entrance. She is none other than – wait for it! – Silvana. It appears that nobody involved in this production ever pondered the ethical or practical issues of turning a white actress into the star attraction of an all-black dance troupe. Mercifully, she is not done up in blackface like Monica Vitti in her ‘tribal’ dance number in L’Eclisse (1962). She wears a simple but elegant silk-and-sequin gown and does nothing that is embarrassing or untoward in itself. Her dancing is quite serviceable, if in no way on a par with any of the other dancers on the stage. Yet the overall effect is as awkward and uncomfortable as L’Eclisse. We can only conclude that Cultural Appropriation was scarcely a hot-button issue among Italian (or, indeed, Hollywood) film-makers of the 50s.

Following this sensational success the company moves on to its next stop, Venice. This just happens to be Silvana’s home town and, as she sits on the train and reminisces, we find ourselves in the sort of plot that kept Joan Crawford in employment for most of the 30s. Her character is a poor-but-honest girl who lives in a seedy back alley with her drunken father and her brattish kid sister. (Her mother is long dead, most likely because her home life was frankly unbearable.) This girl supports her entire family by working in a Venetian glass shop and selling overpriced bibelots to tourists. But she nurtures dreams of one day running away to Rome to become a film star. Her boyfriend (Vittorio Gassman) is a croupier at a casino on the Lido; he is also, we soon gather, something of a shady operator. One day, a gaunt and poetically doomed Venetian prince (Michael Rennie) wanders into her shop, sporting the most lethal set of cheekbones since the heyday of Basil Rathbone. He takes a shine to the comely shop-girl and gives her a pair of tickets to a masked Carnival ball. Her boyfriend, spotting an opportunity, sells his ticket on the black market and unwisely allows Silvana to go with the Prince. This is not a decision we might expect from an insanely jealous and possessive Italian male…but hey, the plot of Mambo has to get moving somehow.

The ball is a quasi-Sternbergian fantasy of masked revellers, floating paper streamers and what looks like gallons of confetti pouring down from the ceiling. The evening’s entertainment is provided by the Katherine Dunham troupe, who come cascading down the grand staircase or, in some cases, leaping over banisters with all the savage aplomb of Attila the Hun moving in for his final sacking of the Roman Empire. All this excitement is just too much for Silvana, who has already been tippling on champagne and cannot resist her primal urge to join in with the dance. Soon she is cavorting face to face with a half-naked black male dancer, who is clad in the most obscenely tight pair of leopard-skin beeches this side of a Tarzan movie. This spectacle inflames the hapless Prince with a wave of simply uncontrollable lust. At the end of the dance, he drags Silvana up the staircase and has his way with her. Next morning, in the pale light of dawn, she is acutely aware of having become a Fallen Woman – and feels too ashamed even to go home. That is quite convenient, in fact, because she has caught the eye of Shelley Winters, who plays the (entirely fictitious) manager of the Katherine Dunham troupe. This lady has resolved, on the spot, to build the girl up into the company’s star attraction.

Not that her interest in the neophyte is purely artistic. Shelley Winters has been costumed and styled to look as much as possible like the 1950s stereotype of a Butch But Glamorous Lesbian. Just in case we miss the point, the dialogue drops heavy hints about the lonely and frustrated existence to which “a woman like that” must invariably be doomed. Tellingly, much of this dialogue was eliminated from the Italian release of Mambo and survives only in the international English-language print. As a 21st century audience, we are at once fascinated and appalled – but that is certainly nothing new in this movie. With her undeniable powers of persuasion, Shelley wrests Silvana away from Vittorio and moulds her tyrannically into a great dancer. At this point, Mambo threatens to become a sort of misbegotten remake of The Red Shoes (1948) only with a lesbian in the Anton Walbrook role and a sleazy petty criminal in the role played by Marius Goring. An honest-to-God analysis might well reveal that this film equates being a criminal with being a lesbian and also, indirectly, with being black. Hence it is best to avoid doing one if we are to go on enjoying the fun. Our heroine makes her triumphal return to Venice. She enters a nightclub looking simply sensational in a black beaded gown that looks as if it had been poured slowly, bead by glistening bead, over her curvaceous and near-naked form.

Perhaps it is inevitable that she meets the Prince again. But what we honestly did not see coming is the fact that the Prince turns out to be dying of hereditary haemophilia, as was the custom in all good aristocratic families. No sooner does Vittorio get wind of this than he cooks up a plot for Silvana to marry the dying man, so she can inherit his money and his crumbling ancestral palazzo and share her ill-gotten gains, naturally, with her true love. The plot now shifts abruptly to that of Henry James’ novel The Wings of the Dove, only with the sex roles neatly reversed. Silvana reacts with horror to the suggestion – and then goes ahead and marries the Prince. A rapist he may be, but he is still a more inviting marriage prospect than Vittorio. (Shelley Winters is not an option, partly for censorship reasons and partly because she has unaccountably been run over by a car.) Once she has married the Prince, Silvana comes to realise that he is in fact a decent, caring and thoroughly sensitive bloke. Is it his fault if he got a bit too carried away by the thrill of Carnival night? Mambo now looks set to be a touching tale of a woman who has been raped falling ever so tenderly in love with the man who raped her. We might like to believe this film could not possibly become any more outrageous than it already is. If so, we reckon without those unique talents that Dino de Laurentiis employed in the script department.

There are several twists left to go in the plot of Mambo, which is remarkable given that the film is only 90 minutes long. What is also remarkable is that Silvana Mangano looks serenely beautiful throughout and never once seems tainted by the sheer awe-inspiring bad taste of everybody and everything around her. One day in the late 60s she would wake up, walk out on her crass vulgarian of a husband and make a string of classic films with intellectual left-wing directors like Luchino Visconti and Pier Paolo Pasolini. (Her most famous film was Death in Venice (1971). It may have helped her exorcise some bad memories.) But Mambo, too, is an undeniable classic of a sort. It may just be wiser not to say what kind.

David Melville

filming and films

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 10, 2019 by dcairns

I admit it, Mark Cousins’ collection of films & filming is better than mine.

August, 1970, Charles Walters on shooting SUMMER STOCK with Judy Garland: “I remember, at one point, I was on the boom and we were moving in for a giant close-up. Judy looked up with those great liquid eyes of hers and it was the most fantastic shot in the world. ‘Cut,’ I yelled, “Will somebody please hand me a towel, I’ve just come.’ Now that might be thought indelicate, but Judy loved that sort of foolishness. It really turned her on.”

May, 1969, Francis Ford Coppola on co-writing IS PARIS BURNING? (before Gore Vidal’s involvement): “Ray Stark said I could go to Paris and have a vacation with my wife because the writer then working on it was a man who was very ill, dying in fact. And these are the honest-to-God words used, my job was to assist that man and ‘if the pencil fell out of his hand, I was to pick it up.'”

July 1959, Shelley Winters on George Stevens: “George photographs what goes on in the air between people.”

October 1964, Sidney Lumet: “But in the early television days we were doing cuts as fast as a finger could move. John Frankenheimer, who was my AD, can bear me out: there was one sequence on a live show where John had 64 cues to give in a one-minute period. It was 23 cuts in a one-minute period, which is just about as fast as a switcher’s fingers can move, and John had three cues for each camera cut.”

June, 1970: Costa-Gavras on Z, which has a score by Mikis Theodorakis: “Theodorakis was already in prison, but I had some records of his which we adapted for the film soundtrack. […] We have just one short piece of original music for the picture. It is the scene with Jacques Perrin and the guy at the restaurant, where he is giving him the passport and the addresses, you can hear Theodorakis singing in the background. This piece was recorded on a miniature tape-recorder and smuggled out with his instructions on using it in the film.”

April, 1979, Philip Kaufman on the Dolby sound mix of INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS: “And when we were doing the mix at Zoetrope, I just kept saying, ‘Pods eat birds. Just keep the birds down.’ I didn’t want the feeling that nature goes on while man is having his problems, because there is some suggestion in the film that everything is being transformed, that nothing is real anymore, that we are gradually going to lose. And that’s the sense of claustrophobia that I wanted to create. I mean the soundtrack is stylised and overdone and there are sounds that are bleeding in from the very beginning, that when you see it again you’ll recognize as either chimes or alien noises. […] Dolby was very excited by what we did with sound. Not just rolling stuff in its surroundings, but selectively beginning to creep sounds into the scenes. You know, we spent a lot of time determining what channel to place sounds. It’s a very expensive soundtrack, and Ben Burtt, who worked on STAR WARS did a lot of the sound effects and special sound effects.”

Nicholas Meyer: “They’re always looking for what is commercial, which I think proves how idiotic most people in the movie business are. Obviously there’s no such thing as commercial until something has made 50 million dollars. And since it is impossible to tell beforehand, it seems to me a waste of energy and you should concentrate on something which they never ask themselves, which is, ‘Do I like it?'”

And: “I came home one day and saw Martin Luther King standing on the balcony of the hotel and getting shot. I sat on my bed and was truly appalled by what I was seeing. And they took him to the hospital, and people were screaming, and there was blood, and suddenly all of this was interrupted by someone who says, ‘Miami for 25 dollars less.’ It’s preposterous, it’s George Orwell time. It scares the shit out of me. Television scares the shit out of me. […] It’s in your house. It’s this unblinking eye with its inexhaustible font of passivity, and it should be banned. No one should be allowed to have one. We should all go to the movies the way God intended.”

Spadework

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 23, 2019 by dcairns

Paul Newman’s two Lew Harper films — based on two of Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer novels — are kind of like the square old Hollywood movies celebrated, or at any rate documented — in ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD. Both have extremely gifted mod cinematographers, though: Conrad Hall shot HARPER in 1966 and Gordon “the Prince of Darkness” Willis shot its belated sequel THE DROWNING POOL in 1975. I double-billed them but I’ll mainly talk about the first one here.

Jack Smight, a truly square director but not untalented, allows or encourages or inspires Hall to pull off a few spectacular shots in HARPER (see top), perhaps aware that it’s just a reasonably good Raymond Chandler knock-off. As Donald Westlake complained, Ross MacDonald recycled the one about the rich, dysfunctional family until everyone was screaming at him to quit it for chrissakes — basically The Big Sleep ad nauseam, and here we have Lauren Bacall to remind us of past glories. So making the most of the widescreen and colour is essential to stop this from seeming like warmed-over stuff from an earlier decade — what’s harder is to stop it seeming like TV stuff. The down-at-heel, long-suffering private eye would be incarnated par excellence by James Garner in The Rockford Files who had a natural word-weariness Newman can’t match.

The first movie is quite diverting, with a spectacular comic turn from Shelley Winters (I felt bad about all the fat gibes in William Goldman’s script though) and very good work from Arthur Hill, Pamela Tiffin and a host of others. Strother Martin’s hillside cult temple is one of my favourite places I’ve ever seen in a movie. There’s a fight there between Newman and a hundred silent Mexicans (a short fight) which has a nice surreal vibe, like the multiple Agent Smiths in THE MATRIX.

Maybe the problem is that these stories never effect any change in the hero, making them more suited to series TV… though they used to work fine in the ‘forties. This one has too many corpses and complications, and Goldman’s misogyny gets grating, and I think sometimes Newman tries too hard to be “entertaining.” Here he is, reacting to the sight of Pamela Tiffin in a bikini:

Goldman writes about the film’s opening sequence in his book Adventures in the Screen Trade. He’d started his script, sensibly enough, with the private eye showing up to get briefed on his case. The studio called to say they needed some action to put under the credits. Well, what could he write that happens BEFORE the case?

In desperation, he scripted the early morning routine of his hero, and put in a gag about running out of coffee. Harper looks in his waste bin where there’s yesterday’s discarded coffee filter. Dare he recycle it?

He does. Closeup of Newman pulling disgusted face when he tastes the result. The audience laughs. It’s a nice gag — it humanizes the character, it’s gross but still relatable — it makes him a bit of an underdog. Down these mean streets a man must walk with a horrible taste of used coffee in his mouth.

What Goldman omits to mention is that, normally, opening a script with the hero getting up in the morning is a TERRIBLE idea, a huge cliche and a watse of the audience’s time. Don’t do it, he should be saying, especially as his book is a kind of screenwriting guide (written before there were a million of the things). It happens to work this one time.

The other bad thing is Newman thinking about whether to make terrible garbage coffee. It’s a classic Hitchcock set-up: show him looking, show what he’s looking at, and show him looking some more. We will do the thinking and project that onto the image. No acting required. You could remove the coffee grains and insert a shot of Pamela Tiffin or Robert Webber or the Serengeti plains and it would still work, if the angle was right.

But here’s what we get from Newman, the great method actor:

Boy, he’s thinking HARD, isn’t he? I bet if he thought that hard about the kidnapping case he has to solve the movie would only be twenty minutes long.

Newman is very affable generally and has that contradictory laid-back intensity that’s so useful in a star. It’s just that sometimes maybe somebody ought to sit on his head.