Archive for Stephen Sondheim

Clues/Things I Read Off the Screen in The Last of Sheila

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , on November 4, 2014 by dcairns

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Whodunnits tend to be more like parlour games than dramas — the intellectual exercise MUST triumph over the demands of character insight, emotional investment, moral message or thematic exploration. The best mysteries often embrace this and make a virtue of it, as in Mankiewicz’s THE HONEY POT and THE LAST OF SHEILA, brilliantly scripted by Anthony Perkins & Stephen Sondheim (!) and very decently directed by Harold Ross (I mainly dislike his Neil Simon things but admired PENNIES FROM HEAVEN — would sooner watch the movie than the respected TV series original because, well, I’m shallow and I like glitz).

Lots of funny lines — a trenchant Hollywood satire is the nominal underlying purpose but the writers love bitchery too much to truly condemn the coldbloodedness they portray. The biggest laugh for Fiona was a shot of James Coburn, being winched from his yacht to his launch, grinning madly as he descends out of frame, like a radiant ivory sunset.

The cast is incredible, but if I was drawn in by the prospect of Mason and Coburn, paired in a more gentile setting than the later CROSS OF IRON, I stayed for Dyan Cannon, who gets most of the best lines but imbues even the nastiest of them with a knowing/innocent naughtiness that animates the character in a whole new way, impossible to imagine from the lines on the page (impossible for me: not for Dyan, apparently). So what if her backstory as a McCarthy-era snitch implies that she must have been working as a Hollywood secretary aged three? She gets a brilliant hysteria scene too — Cannon has a gift for that — she used to do it on chat shows too.

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There’s a central conceit that I guessed at once, because I do tend to take note of the things a whodunnit DOESN’T show — if there’s no corpse, the victim is still alive, for instance. Arguably Ross played a little too fair in his staging rather than covering things up perfectly. But I didn’t guess the killer OR half of the twists, so I was still satisfactorily bamboozled, which is what I pays my money for with this kind of thing. If I guess it — as I do when Peter Ackroyd or Michael Dibdin attempt big twists — I feel smug but basically disappointed.

A vicious yet deeply civilised entertainment. There: my first blurb!

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Mommie Fear Fest

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 16, 2009 by dcairns

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Occasional guest writer David Melville contributes a piece on Mervyn LeRoy’s GYPSY, screened recently at Edinburgh Filmhouse.

A year or so back, some callow critics dubbed Sweeney Todd “the first horror movie musical.” Understandable – given its lusty cannibalism and torrents of blood gushing from slashed throats – but not strictly true. Stephen Sondheim, the composer/lyricist of Todd, helped to create the genre as far back as 1962 (or 1960, if you count the Broadway original) with the profoundly terrifying Gypsy.

A musical biopic of strip-tease artiste Gypsy Rose Lee, the film was directed by Mervyn Leroy from a stage show with lyrics by Sondheim, music by Jule Styne (Funny Girl) and book by Arthur Laurents (The Way We Were). Rather than focus on the star herself – who, played by Natalie Wood, is surely the most winsome and genteel stripper in history, on screen or off – Gypsy is built around Rosalind Russell as her maniacally overbearing stage mother, Mama Rose. Here’s one lady who will do anything – and I mean anything – to see her little girl’s name in lights.

For much of the film, Mama Rose drags her two daughters (Louise, the future Gypsy Rose Lee, and her allegedly more ‘talented’ sister, Baby June) around the dustbowls of Depression-era America, performing in a vaudeville act of unique and awe-inspiring ghastliness. A platoon of chorus boys prance about inanely; there’s a dancing cow; it all ends in a rousing stars-and-stripes finale. Had it only been shown to Malcolm McDowell in A Clockwork Orange, those scientists might truly have shocked him into submission

Whenever the act starts to pall, Mama Rose rallies her troops with one of those show-stopping songs that Broadway divas so relish – if only to wake up punters who are snoring in the back row. Rosalind Russell, who cannot actually sing, transforms her hit numbers – “Some People” and “Comin’ Up Roses” – into dramatic monologues. Think of Clytemnestra, about to be slaughtered by her children to avenge her murder of their father, only a bit more bone-chilling. (Ethel Merman, who created the role on stage, reprised “Comin’ Up Roses” for the 1981 inaugural gala for President Ronald Reagan…and fear took on a whole new meaning.)

At last, down on its luck, the troupe is reduced to performing in a sleazy strip joint. Horrified at first, Mama Rose nonetheless volunteers her daughter as a stand-in when the star stripper winds up in jail. It says a lot for the creepiness of Russell’s performance that this moment plays like a sordid and horrifying act of betrayal. (Just compare her to Susan Sarandon in Pretty Baby, who initiates her 12-year-old daughter into prostitution, but seems just a likeable good-time gal.) The little minx takes up the challenge and the rest is history – or, at any rate, camp showbiz history…which will do just as nicely, thank you, in a movie of this ilk.

As a study in deranged mother love, Gypsy is infinitely more horrific than Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho – which takes place in a far more sane and reassuring moral universe. We may intuit, from the tics and twitches of Anthony Perkins as Norman, what a devastatingly dysfunctional presence the deceased Mama Bates must have been. But we never see her alive on camera, as we do Russell – ranting and raging and looking, incidentally, far more like a Grand Guignol drag act than ever poor Tony does in his wig. Oh, that throaty drawl of a voice! Ah, those outsize mannish hands!

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That poor little Gypsy and her sister (who went to become the 40s starlet June Havoc) do not start disembowelling chorus boys in the shower, or finish the film in the confines of a padded cell, is a mystery to which they alone know the answer. The American critic Paul Roen is right, I believe, when he describes Gypsy as “a Technicolor prologue to the Crawford/Davis opus Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?” Released in the same year, the two films attracted – and continue to attract – a remarkably similar audience. One might say that Gypsy is scarier, while Baby Jane has better musical numbers.

In 1993, Gypsy was remade for TV starring Bette Midler. Although she is a vastly more accomplished musical performer than Rosalind Russell, the Divine Miss M falls flat as Mama Rose. Camp and cuddly and bursting with fun, her presence robs the story of its chilling emotional subtext. Simply put, she is just not scary. And fear, in its most primal and deep-rooted form, is what Gypsy is all about.

David Melville

With thanks to Nicola Hay.

Addendum — I just watched the film myself on the small screen. Mervyn LeRoy has certainly calcified a bit since his snappy days in the ’30s, but the widescreen filming of the stylised sets is pleasing, and everybody seems to be quite aware of the story they’re telling, in all its darkness. The “Hollywood ending” is cursory and deliberately unconvincing-as-hell. The screenplay adds an unnecessary voice-over from Russell that fragments things rather than holding them together, but whenever Laurents’ scenes are allowed to play out, they work as brilliant filmed theatre, and there’s not a weak song in it. The studio system may have been in decline, but this is one of its finer last gasps. DC.

Correspondence

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on November 15, 2008 by dcairns

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‘interesting fact: if you google “david cairns”, shadowplay comes out at the bottom of the page; if you google “christina alepi”, shadowplay is the first result. (!) Typing my own name is the quickest way to get to your blog (after bookmarking, but it can’t beat googling my OWN NAME!)’
~ Christina Alepi, via Facebook.

A few things happening with the old email and Facebook, which I just joined in a spirit of “Why not?” Maybe once I year I do something daft like that: about a year ago I started a blog. Yep, Shadowplay celebrates her birthday on December 1st. Will have to think of some special way to mark it. Suggestions welcome.

Some time back I got one of the few bits of negative commentary I’ve had here, after reviewing a depressing British horror “comedy” called THE COTTAGE. I’ve tended to avoid trashing stuff most of the time, since it’s nice to be nice and it seems more interesting to find the exciting or strange bits of films and pare away the dull stuff, but when it comes to modern British cinema I sometimes get a bit upset. Anyhow, the piece attracted an irked comment from someone pretty obviously connected with the movie, but I never knew who. But when I joined Facebook, it swept through my emails looking for contacts, and suddenly identified the commenter as actor Reece Shearsmith, one of the stars of the film. Mystery solved!

Not sure how I feel about this, since I’m a fan of the first two series of The League of Gentlemen, and would have said at least some nice things about THE LEAGUE OF GENTLEMEN’S APOCALYPSE, which seemed an honorable attempt to do something interesting in British cinema. So it’s not like Shearsmith was ever on my shitlist. (Do I have a shitlist? Note to self: compile shitlist.) I may have said something about his performance in THE COTTAGE not quite working, but that’s kind of the same as calling him a flawless genius, since the rest of the film doesn’t work the way a dead horse doesn’t work as an air freshener.

More pleasant correspondence: after the excellent Charles Drazin suggested I contact David Thomson and let him in on The Great Duvivier Giveaway, my scheme to reshape the movie canon, in hopes of getting him to change his mind about Julien Duvivier and maybe rewrite his rather critical piece in The Biographical Dictionary of Film, I wrote to Thomson with a disc of LA FIN DU JOUR, and received this very charming reply:

Dear Mr Cairns,

I was touched to receive your letter and the DVD of La Fin du Jour.  On the spot, I proposed you to the House of Edinburgh Saints (your only fellow there is Mark Cousins – maybe you know each other).

[We do.]

As it happens, yours is not the first plea on behalf of Duvivier. The other one came from no less than Stephen Sondheim (at the Telluride Film Festival). So I am re-examining the matter, and I am very grateful to you for the prompting.

More to come, I’m sure.

All good wishes

David Thomson

So I seem to be in good company. I wonder, if you’re David Thomson, if you’re constantly getting grabbed by bloggers and composers and bums off the street who want to convert you to the cause of John Ford or Tony Richardson or William Wyler?

Makes me think I’m lucky I only have the cast of THE COTTAGE to contend with.

In other news: I was vaguely thinking of starting Borzage Week in a week’s time, but since I have a number of pieces all ready and nothing else to post of any substance, I’m bringing it forward to Monday 17th. That’ll still give us time to invent something suitably exciting for December 1st.

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