Archive for Stephen Fry

Gone Wilde

Posted in FILM, literature, Politics, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 3, 2020 by dcairns

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Gregory Ratoff’s OSCAR WILDE starts strikingly, as a documentary almost, with footage of Wilde’s grave in Pere Lachaise, but then we realise that Wilde himself (impersonated by Robert Morley) is providing the voice-over, which takes us out of standard docu terrain.

But things get troublesome fast — in the very first scene after the credits, the audience at the premiere of Lady Windermere’s Fan laugh at straight lines from Wilde’s speech, and worse, greet actual zingers with stony silence or, equally cluelessly, with appreciative applause. One starts to feel that if the filmmakers can’t tell when Wilde is being funny, this could be a bumpy 94 mins.

This confusion by the sound editor and/or director continues apace, and I rapidly surmised that Ratoff simply wasn’t paying attention. Morley delivers the carefully assembled bot mots with typical lipsmacking relish (he’s all swollen up with apothegms), but discusses an offscreen character’s appearance without so much as glancing at her, adding clairvoyance to Wilde’s many talents.

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Morley and John Neville not only lack chemistry, but biology and basic physics, and seem to be acting in different films even when united in the same frame — my eye started scanning for any tell-tale signs of split-screen photography. There’s no honest human interaction until a hysterical and fantastically repulsive-looking actor called Stephen Dartnell enters and he and Morley really tear up the room. It’s a miracle — dramatic life is zapped into the movie as if by defibrillation. A posthumous Shadowplay Award (a solid gold statuette of Perc Helton wearing Mickey Mouse’s shorts and gloves) to Dartnell, a true thespian Lazarus.

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Morley is also good in the quieter moments, whenever he’s not quoting Oscar Wilde. The error here has been to go hire a marvelous type — as with Stephen Fry’s later (mis)casting, whereas Peter Finch playing the same part is just a good actor, which is what’s needed. Morley is a good actor when he remembers his job and stops trying to be the type.

The script is by Jo Eisinger — yes, that one), though he’s adapting various sources including the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations. This is the love that dare not speak its name without inverted commas, and that VO comes oiling again to get us across the trickier scenes without making the mistake of letting anyone write or act them.

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Ken Hughes’ THE TRIALS OF OSCAR WILDE opens at the same moment as the Ratoff film, the first night of Lady Windermere, but correctly shows Wilde as already acquainted with Lord Alfred Douglas (the Ratoff film can be forgiven for dramatic compression, especially as it’s telling the exact same story with half an hour less running-time).

Hughes has the huge advantage of a sexy Wilde and a sexy Bosie (John Fraser), and an authentically swivel-eyed raving lunatic Marquess of Queensberry in the form of his favourite actor, Lionel Jeffries. The tragedy of Wilde required not only Wilde’s hubristic exhibitionism, but the opposition of an unhinged homophobe to break through the protective inhibitions of society. If Oscar’s enemies had been merely normal Victorians, they would have been too repressed to make a scene.

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The effect of Jeffries’ glowering, seething domestic despot intruding into scenes of London nightlife is rather as if a 2001 ape-man had shambled into a drawing room comedy, chewing raw capybara meat. What’s also good is that you feel, somehow, what a deeply UNHAPPY man this Marquess is. He’s in a hell created from his own twisted sense of values.

The world of the film is strikingly conjured by designer Ken Adam and cinematographer Ted Moore (with Nic Roeg as operator), at times a little studio-bound and lacking detail, it’s true, but spectacular in setpieces like the Cafe Royal ~

The bigger budget, Technicolor (for Wilde’s green carnation) and Technirama (for Finch’s portly bay window) give this one unfair advantages over the Ratoff, but it’s the performances that make the real difference. In particular, when Finch finishes a witticism and waits for the laugh, his face says, not “Aren’t I witty?” as Morley’s does, but “Aren’t I adorable?”

In other words, he’s not on the nose, and he’s playing chords rather than a single note.

(Ken Hughes fell prey to the Morley effect in his OF HUMAN BONDAGE, where he cast Fat Bob as the insensitive doctor who gets the hero to expose his club foot in class. Rather than play the thing drily, inhumanly, as in the 1934 version, Morley can’t resist going for gloating sadism. A great screen presence, but one who perhaps needed the guidance of a superior intelligence.)

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Hughes also has the advantage having amassed a bit of a stock company over the preceding few years, several of whom, like Jeffries, turn up here — James Booth is very good value as the blackmailer. The bitter irony is that Ratoff had worked frequently with an actor who would have been a quite incredible choice for Wilde if he’d lived, and if he’d had the nerve to do it: imagine Tyrone Power in the part!

Confused punters who saw both these films when they opened in May 1960 perhaps wondered how it was that Wilde scares off a blackmailer by personating a Scotland Yard detective in one version, and pays off the chap and takes him to dinner in the other.

My late friend Lawrie insisted, obscurely, that Ken Hughes was “the filthiest man I ever met,” which might give him an edge with this material, but of course it’s 1960 and sexual intercourse, qua Larkin, has not yet begun. And the Great British Period movie, and the Hollywood form to which it’s beholden, are alike slaves to good taste. There is nothing so vulgar as good taste.

Both versions are quite happy to fold in apocrypha, though if you’re going to have Queensberry present his cabbage, you have no business correcting his spelling, as both movies do. The fact that he wrote “somdomite” is grimly funny and makes him an even more horrible clown. It also means that the fellow in the Ratoff who immediately reaches for his dictionary would have a lot of trouble finding what he’s looking for. (And he looks in the exact MIDDLE, where he’d be more like to find “marsupial” or “mudlark” — and the designer has seemingly pasted his definition right into the middle of the entry for “soft”. Most odd.)

In both films, the trials are salutary: “Everything gets better when the good actors come on,” as a friend puts it. Ratoff has Ralph Richardson, and Morley rises to meet him. Hughes brings in James Mason in the same role, and Mason plays it with a pretty good Irish accent, distinct from his one in the THE RECKLESS MOMENT — sheer bravura, since Finch isn’t bothering to sound Irish at all. Alexander Knox and Nigel Patrick take the less showy role of Wilde’s lawyer in the respective versions.

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Interesting to note that Richardson the stage actor plays it like a movie star would — he is utterly himself, bringing all his characteristics as an actor to bear on the part, whereas Mason, the movie star, gives a full-on character performance. Both are terrific value and seem very dangerous.

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In the trials, of course, there’s no reason to amplify the drama or shoehorn in epigrams because the actual situations and dialogue are so extraordinary.

The second trial doesn’t bother with guest stars but allows Finch to shine in his big moment, and Nigel Patrick gets a superb moment of acting when he rounds off his closing statement — and then looks in the jury’s eyes and he’s like oh fuck.

Ratoff just shoots coverage at the trial whereas Hughes has cinematic ideas. BUT when Wilde makes his fatal mistake (arguably ALL of his witticisms were mistakes — juries apparently don’t like clever witnesses) and says he didn’t kiss a young man because he was ugly, Ratoff’s actors and editor take off for the moon with an extraordinary bit of overlapping interrogation-and-fluster. Really remarkable. Puts me in mind of the blackmail scene in CROSS OF IRON. The trial transcript is presumably the source for this apparent improv, where it says The witness began several answers almost inarticulately, and none of them he finished. Carson’s repeated sharply: “Why? Why? Why did you add that?”

The emotional highlight might actually be this guy (below), Wilde’s butler (Ian Fleming, no, not that one), with the face of a boiled sheep, tearing up as Wilde is arrested. Everyone else is so stiffly upper-lipped, a burst of actual feeling is very effective. Give him an extra five quid. 

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Morley’s son Wilton (the one who’s not Sheridan) comes toddling in as one of Wilde’s sons (why not have both, since Morley had two? it can’t have been connected to acting talent). He’s an extraordinary-looking creature and his performance puts me in mind of the clockwork doll in DEEP RED. Hughes scores again with a scene of Finch reading The Happy Prince at bedtime — it’s very Hushabye Mountain.

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Again, on “the love that dare not speak its name,” the emotional high point of Wilde’s prosecution, Finch scores over Morley with a devastating performance. Morley feels like he’s been given a note by his director. Just when you need Ratoff to go back to sleep, he perks up and sticks his oar in.

Both versions omit any of the hard labour Wilde was sentenced to, which I think is leaving out something of significance, since it virtually killed the man. Hughes (and Ken Adam) does give us a hellish visiting room with the prisoners cruelly separated from their loved ones by barriers.

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There’s a good, simply-played sequence of Dennis Price (as Robbie) greeting Wilde at the prison gate, and another in Paris, which Ratoff and his script then stomp all over by having Wilde LAUGH INSANELY. But I dig the pull-back from Wilde followed by matching pull-back from his grave.

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John Fraser, inappropriately quiffed, benefits from a more complex Bosie to play — he’s sympathetic in his dealings with his awful dad, and beastly in his bratty bullying of Wilde. And, while Hughes overstresses things in a very Hughesian way (which Ken Russell might have gotten away with) in the aftermath of the trial — Wilde’s grandson has ridiculed the idea of Constance Wilde presenting Oscar with his green carnation at the prison gates  — Hughes has had the sharp idea of excerpting The Ballad of Reading Gaol and applying the “each man kills the thing he loves” to Bosie at the film’s end, which, helped along by Ron Goodwin’s emotive score, ends the thing with some power.

Hughes 4 / Ratoff 2.

OSCAR WILDE stars Mycroft Holmes; Sherlock Holmes; the Supreme Being; Ann Pornick (as a woman); Hector Snipe; Woodrow Wilson; Mr. Grimsdale; Flimnap; George Barbor – Dentist; and Poseidon.

THE TRIALS OF OSCAR WILDE stars Howard Beale; the woman in a dressing gown; Captain Nemo; Professor Jerusalem Webster Stiles; Prof. Joseph Cavor; Prince Alfonso; Mrs. Baines; Julia Martineau; Pvt. Henry Hook; Ned Cotterill; Dr. Watson; Mr. Blunden; and David Livingston, I presume.

Spats

Posted in Fashion, FILM, literature, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 29, 2017 by dcairns

We had an inadvertent Sam Rockwell double feature the other week. First I stumbled upon a copy of the 2005 adaptation of PG Wodehouse’s PICCADILLY JIM, in which he plays the title character, sort of, and which I’d been curious about for some time. But you can’t buy the thing anywhere — this was a charity shop discovery. So I immediately satisfied my curiosity, and then we embarked to the Edinburgh International Film Festival’s festive mystery show, which turned out to be THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI, with Mr. Rockwell again.

Verdict: Sam Rockwell is a powerful force, if used responsibly. This piece is about the earlier film.

PICCADILLY JIM would make a fine film to test budding critics on. Make them read the book, then watch the 1936 film and the 2005, and attempt to say what’s wrong in each case. The novel isn’t actually prime Wodehouse, but it’s an early example of him starting to hit his stride. The budding critic might dispose of the MGM version swiftly: despite employing a lot of the right sort of people, it’s not funny and every change that’s been made to the original story, and there are many, makes it worse. Why didn’t they just film the book?

In the thirties, one feels, it might be possible to just film Wodehouse. Certainly the best Wodehouse movie by far, DAMSEL IN DISTRESS, was made then, and is fairly faithful. It’s biggest departure is the addition of Fred Astaire song-and-dance numbers, a wholly forgivable infidelity since Astaire hoofing is about the one thing as lighter-than-air as Wodehouse.

Post thirties, it’s become necessary to treat Wodehouse as a period piece, and this seems to add a heaviness that’s ruinous to all adaptations. A lot of people like the Fry & Laurie Jeeves & Wooster series, which was honestly faithful to the plots and characters, but I find its plodding pace, sludgy 16mm look, and respectful tracking across drawing rooms or bottles of bath essence, as if in awe of its own production design, so antithetical to the correct frolicsome spirit that I find myself doubting whether anyone who professes admiration for it actually appreciates Wodehouse at all. Which I realise is a bit extreme, harsh, judgemental.

Turgid though J&W is, it’s still miles closer to making a decent attempt at the job than most of the atrocities perpetrated, including the inane, cartoonish Blandings series shoveled out by the BBC. Again, I could defend that one in principle, because it may well have been made by parties who had noticed the problem of adaptation. But their solution — going BOING! a lot — was a dismayingly stupid one.

OK, this is quite a funny image.

Sticking a camera in front of unadorned Wodehouse seems to result in the flat champagne of the Fry-Laurie show. Some level of stylisation seems necessary. But so many attempts at this result in shrill, arch overacting, and distracting visuals. PICCADILLY JIM is almost entirely composed of these things. It’s the first Wodehouse made for the big screen since THE GIRL IN THE BOAT in 1962, which improbably starred Norman Wisdom. It’s written by arch-Tory posh boy Julian Fellowes, between his first big success with GOSFORD PARK and his second, Gosford Park Lite Downton Abbey. He ought to be a reasonable choice, being familiar with and not overawed by the ritzy milieu. And one assumes his enthusiasm for the original author is genuine. (I’d even say that a Wodehouse adaptation that played like GF without the darker notes would be about right — look at how a former Jeeves, Stephen Fry, playing the only broadly comic figure, fits right in and actually “works” better than he does in any other film.)

The director, John McKay, ladles on the stylisation (archness, shouting, cartooniness, distracting visuals). but he has an interesting concept. Wodehouse started in the early 1900s, hit his stride in the 20s, peaked in the 30s and 40s, and kept merrily going until the 70s. The world of his stories changed very little. So what we casually visualise as some sort of vaguely thirties setting is a lot less concrete and specific than that. The PICCADILLY JIM film uses this as an excuse to go all MOULIN ROUGE! on Wodehouse’s ass. Mix up the fashions, turn everything up to eleven, and have someone perform a jazzy version of Soft Cell’s “Tainted Love.”

Baz Luhrmann’s MOULIN ROUGE! is, in my view, a very terrible thing, a cinematic Srebenica. But this approach, used consistently and moderately, need not have been fatal. Setting the film, like Gilliam’s BRAZIL, “Somewhere in the twentieth century,” makes it interesting to look at. McKay and his designers have the visual chops to produce imagery that’s amusing and pleasing, if you press mute on the sound. But let’s be clear: this is just a decorative layer laid over the story. Decoration doesn’t make things function better, and it can weigh them down.

McKay is less ADHD-chaotic than Luhrmann, but he’s aiming for frenetic from the off, and in search of the chimera of “intensity” he films things too close up and cuts too much. He and his team have noticed that Sam Rockwell moves beautifully, but they try to feature this virtue by cutting to wide shots but then jumping back in immediately. In-out, in-out, for little or sometimes no reason.

There’s some good actors in this. Tom Wilkinson, Hugh Bonneville, Tom Hollander especially (the only really funny one) and Nitin Ganatra seem able to do lightness. They’re not belabouring it. The women all go for Queen of Hearts type acting. Wodehouse does, admittedly, enjoy writing termagants, and the fear of powerful women motivates a lot of his plots. Brenda Blethyn and Alison Janney are just too much.

Frances O’Connor is a more interesting case. Most Wodehouse heroines could be seen as a little boring to play: the interesting girls are more likely to be secondary characters like Corky Pirbright, who can apply their eccentric determination to get the hero in trouble using charm and appeal rather than sheer domination. Ann Chester is a character of this variety, at least as portrayed here. O’Connor is very skilled and gets to do some surprising stuff, and she’s sexier than anyone in a Wodehouse piece has ever been, which isn’t very Wodehousian but is fine with me. But she’s playing it American, which is another level of archness and artifice, so that’s less welcome. Although a real American wouldn’t necessarily be better: Americans working in Britain sometimes manage to act like they’re American impersonators.

The exaggerated costumes by Ralph Holes are fun, but would be all wrong for a Wodehouse film that was actually working. As it is, they can certainly be enjoyed in their own right.

Which brings us at last to Rockwell, who applies tremendous energy to the part, and moves well, as noted. The fact that the film doesn’t work has something to do with him, but it’s not immediately obvious how, because he’s so GOOD, or at any rate fascinating to watch. Dynamic, inventive and kind of aggressive, but not frighteningly so. But Jim starts out as a philanderer (discovered unconscious with three girls at the outset, which isn’t very Wodehouse) and has to be converted by true love. Wodehouse always treats love with heartfelt sincerity: the storm clouds in his sunny stories are all to do with the threat of thwarted romance, and at the end romance is never actually thwarted. And we’re supposed to care.

This film never gives us a reason for Jim to fall in love with this girl after being around so many. Even though O’Connor is glamorous and dashing — the Wodehouse love at first sight never gets a moment to establish itself, and the entire edifice is meant to be built on it. Without that simple, hackneyed thing, all the clever touches and all the stupid touches (plenty of those) are meaningless, have nothing to cling to, and there’s no underlying anxiety to make the farce run — no negative outcome that matters to us is ever imminent. Fellowes even threatens to blow everyone up with a doomsday device, a rather outré development, and I wasn’t remotely worried. He’s found a whole new way to fail at adapting Wodehouse — by being TOO flip and throwaway. And of course, he combines this innovation with all the more typical ones.

Why is Wodehouse so hard to get right? True, his deathless prose can’t be transferred to the screen, but his plots are sound and hilariously complicated, his characters sweet and funny, his dialogue wonderful. But it seems the tone and style of the movie, which must substitute for Wodehouse’s writing, are maddeningly elusive. It’s not a tone anyone does naturally anymore, and the more you strain after it, the more it recedes, like a caffeinated vanishing point.

Nobody’s made a Wodehouse for the cinema since 2005, and it looks like the gap that yawned between Norman Wisdom’s attempt and the Fellowes-McKay stumble may well be repeated.

This would make an instructive double feature with another Rockwell — THE HITCHHIKER’S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY… in which again, transatlantic casting surprisingly isn’t a problem, but a shaky grasp of tone and story and uneven jokes certainly ARE.

 

Whoopee Cushing

Posted in FILM, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , on May 25, 2013 by dcairns

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Fun Fact: in 1940, during the brief stint as an up-and-coming Hollywood star, Peter Cushing (far left) made a skimpy appearance in the Laurel & Hardy feature A CHUMP AT OXFORD.

Less Fun Fact: Fiona is quite ill with depression at the moment. We’ve been concentrating our viewing on lighter fair, and Laurel & Hardy seemed a good fit. You often hear it said that such-and-such a comedian could cure depression, but usually this is not so. During her last major illness, eight years ago, Stephen Fry’s quiz show QI could sometimes make Fiona smile, or even reluctantly laugh, but it did not effect a cure. However, a good Laurel & Hardy film is about the most reliable comedy there is, if your funny bone happens to incline in that direction (some poor souls are not amused at the boys’ antics: we make no judgement on these unfortunates, but pass on in silence). Though not as big an L&H fan as I (Fiona really digs the Marx Brothers), Fiona was up for trying an experiment: Stan and Ollie Versus Clinical Depression.

Unfortunately, for our first try, choosing A CHUMP AT OXFORD was probably a mistake. The duo was usually better in shorts than features, and ACAO was originally a short feature which was then padded with a twenty-minute prologue having nothing to do with the rest of the picture. However, this sequence does feature “knobby Scot” James Finlayson, who provoked an involuntarily, slightly painful laugh, from my poor partner. Finlayson has only to appear and a smile can be sensed around the edges of the face.

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After the disjointed opening, the film repairs to the dreaming spires of Oxford, and Cushing appears as one of a gang of nasty students, ragging Stan & Ollie with prolonged practical jokes. More interestingly than amusingly, several of these have an element of the macabre. Mr Laurel and Mr Hardy are made to get lost in a maze that’s straight out of THE SHINING (and nothing much to do with Oxford), and then Cushing helps one of his chums dress up as a wraith and chivvy the boys about at midnight. It’s a sort of dress rehearsal for CAPTAIN CLEGG.

Fiona becomes fixated on the film’s title. “But there’s two of them,” she protests, in a low-affect deadpan that would be funny if deliberate. A depressed person taking issue with a Hal Roach film title sounds like a normal person delivering tragic news: “It’s metastasized,” “War is declared,” “Winterbottom’s done it again.”

All this stuff seems based on a poor understanding of the kind of situation Laurel & Hardy are funny in. They’re so dumb that practical jokes played against them strike the audience as unfair — too easy! It’s more amusing to see the boys creating their own problems, and also fun to see them creating problems for officious enemies or perfectly innocent bystanders, who can be relied upon to react angrily and thus bring more misfortune on themselves. All without any real malice from the boys, who are generally just screwing things up through sheer incompetence. Cushing and his gang with their studied malevolence don’t fit into this scenario at all.

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When Cushing next appears, he’s disguised in a voluminous false moustache. Oddly, when this is removed, he has a smaller, real moustache underneath, although his upper lip was quite nude when last we saw it. In the course of the night he’s somehow acquired this decoration. I wonder if the ‘tache might have been grown for THE MAN IN THE IRON MASK (by horror legend James Whale), released the previous year? In that film, Cushing has a small role, but originally had a much larger one. In the split-screen scenes where Louis Hayward, playing royal twins (one good, one evil!) acts with himself, Cushing played stand-in, appearing in the cast-off halves of the screen, while Hayward’s halves were retained. Alas, the Cushing offcuts have not survived so far as we know.

Towards the climax of ACAO, which involves some pretty funny knockabout stuff, Stan gets caught in a window, and THE SHINING is recalled once more. A blow on the head cures him of lifelong amnesia and he reverts to his true self, an English lord. This leads nowhere in particular, but we get to see Stan play an English lord, which is worth seeing. It made Fiona smile a bit.

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A trifle dissatisfied with ACAO, we looked at DO DETECTIVES THINK? a silent which isn’t that great either but has Finlayson again and some more examples of the Laurel & Hardy Uncanny —

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Incidentally, Cushing enjoyed quite a long collaboration with another much-loved comedy duo, Morecambe and Wise — beloved in the UK (and the favourite TV show of Cary Grant) but largely unknown elsewhere. Enjoy —

An entry for the Peter Cushing Centenary Blogathon.

sherlock