Archive for Shirley MacLaine

Neon Angel

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , on February 13, 2013 by dcairns

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Watched Vincente Minnelli’s CABIN IN THE SKY and SOME CAME RUNNING in quick succession and was surprised to see that in both films a gambler gets stabbed. Is this a Minnelli motif? Does AN AMERICAN IN PARIS have a deleted scene where Oscar Levant takes a scimitar thrust after buying a lottery ticket? Am I forgetting a moment in BRIGADOON involving Cyd Charisse, a straight flush and a decisive dirk-thrust?

I’d seen CABIN before but to my shame had somehow never got around to the other. My, it’s good. Shirley MacLaine may be the world’s most heartbreaking actress. My Dad doesn’t cry at films because he is a man, but TERMS OF ENDEARMENT reduced even him to salty face leakage. As Ginnie Moorehead in SCR she essays perhaps the screen’s most moving portrait of neediness and dumbness, making both qualities sympathetic rather than pitiable or pathetic. Partly she sneaks up on our emotions by playing it funny where she can, notably in a wonderful bit of business where she doggedly follows Frank Sinatra into his closet as he dresses. Twice.

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And then there’s her drunken singing scene, which is so funny it arguably blows a hole in the movie — very good catatonic work from Carmen Phillips… But the heartbreaking thing about Ginnie is that she’s not bright enough to know if she’s being insulted, and she usually is. But she gives everyone the benefit of the doubt because she can’t be sure they meant it. She’s really a saint.

Also there’s Dean Martin who manages to be a largely likable alcoholic layabout misogynist, which is quite a feat.

The film isn’t perfect, but as Pauline Kael may have remarked in a startling moment of lucidity, great films seldom are. In common with other James Jones adaptations, it has a whole heap of characters and could probably spare a couple. It’s set in a small town where we meet the same twelve people again and again and they meet each other wherever they go. And if two of them go to nearby Terre Haut, they’ll bump into each other. Which isn’t a particularly serious problem, but you do notice.

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There’s a scene where Martha Hyer has to tell disillusioned author Frank Sinatra that his unfinished story is really good (“The people are so real…”), and it’s probably the worst attempt at onscreen intellection ever written. Both actors are very good in the film, but they both look ridiculous here. Although I’m intrigued by an implication that Shirley’s faltering analysis of the story, which makes Sinatra angry because she likes it without understanding it, is basically the same as Hyer’s — she likes the people.

Minnelli, who has been doing quietly brilliant compositional work throughout, dividing the widescreen frame into subsections, isolating the dysfunctional characters from each other, lets rip with a climax that’s so luridly coloured and dynamically choreographed it does rather seem to have gatecrashed the movie by way of the Freed Unit. Brilliant, dazzling stuff, but is it too much? Possibly, but if it’s a stylistic error it’s one we can’t regret — a case of Minnelli getting it wrong with such panache that it’s better than if he’d got it right. Which makes no sense, but there it is.

Look!

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Thieves in the Night

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on January 4, 2013 by dcairns

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GAMBIT has just had a makeover via the Coen Bros (on screenwriting duties), who have an uneven track record with remakes. I liked TRUE GRIT a lot and thought THE LADYKILLERS sucked corpse.

We decided to check out the original, Ronald Neame at times being a rather charming filmmaker, the late Herbert Lom being always a worthy opponent, and 1966 being a very good year for both Michael Caine and Shirley MacLaine.

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The beginning of the film seemed a little flat — the design and photography are elegant (gowns by Jean-Louis!) but the action seemed rote, the only suspense coming from wondering when Shirley would speak. Or emote. Twenty minutes pass.

And then the film reveals you’ve been suckered and the heist you just watched was merely a mental rehearsal of the plan. As soon as Caine starts interacting with reality, things depart from his meticulous plan. It’s an excellent writer’s joke: the first act = the first draft, lifeless and predictable, since only the protagonist is thinking and everybody else simply behaves as he expects and allows him to get what he wants. The comedy of the rest of the film results partly from Caine struggling to keep his cool (and his posh ZULU accent) as the world, and his attractive partner, throw him curve-balls at every turn.

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It’s not perfect — everybody seems to be ethnically disguised in brownface or yellowface, turning close-ups into a pointillist nightmare of clogged pores. But the charm of the players is overpowering, and the script is worked out to a tee, so that annoying niggles — Lom seems really too nice to rob, and Caine’s scheme seems too ruthlessly exploitative — all resolve in the end to complete satisfaction.

Words with a “K” are funny

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on December 15, 2012 by dcairns

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The advice of a character in Neil Simon’s THE SUNSHINE BOYS may be genuine showbiz lore — it certainly seems to have informed Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond’s script for THE APARTMENT, which I showed to some of my students as a Christmas treat.

Jack Lemmon is C.C. “Buddy” Baxter, the “x” forming our first K sound. He works for Consolidated Insurance and his boss is Mr Sheldrake (Wilder’s lucky name, dropped into several scripts). In their first conversation, Sheldrake mentions both the Kentucky Derby (another Wilder favourite*) Where it tips over into the blatant is with Shirley MacLaine’s character, Fran Kubelik. Two Ks is definitely humorous.

One of Lemmon’s oppressors is Mr Kirkeby, which looks sensible written down but sounds kind or funny spoken aloud. Another is Eichelberger, which is comical either way. Kubelik’s brother-in-law is Carl Matuschka, and Hope Holiday is Margie MacDougall, wife of the unseen jockey Mickey MacDougall.

The film uses other kinds of alliteration, rhymes, assonance and echolalia. Objects travel through the film, changing their purpose and meaning with each appearance, taking their cue from the apartment door key which circulates from doormat to in tray, sometimes switching places with the key to the Executive Washroom (a place of hallowed splendour, as we know from WILL SUCCESS SPOIL ROCK HUNTER?) — a champagne bottle, a hand mirror, a gramophone record.

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In one scene, Lemmon twirls a piece of spaghetti (which should really be dry and rigid after a week stuck to his tennis racket) and Wilder dissolves to a New Year party where Shirley is toying with a string of pearls as streamers whorl downwards — a double echo. And a meme of drunkenly inaccurate raised fingers (“Three,” says MacLaine, holding up four fingers) is transmitted from scene to scene and person to person like the “Type O” blood in SOME LIKE IT HOT. Wilder probably never achieved a script as tightly constructed as this before or since — he’s using a kind of farce structure to tell a story that’s mainly serious, and a bitter and cynical attitude to disguise a story that’s ultimately sweet at the centre.

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*In one anecdote, Wilder pitches a life of Nijinsky to the bosses at Paramount. “What kind of story is this? A ballet dancer who goes crazy and thinks he’s a racehorse?” “Yeah, but in my version there’s a happy ending — he wins the Kentucky Derby.”)

PS — a Christmas limerick!