Archive for The Driver’s Seat

Taylor Made

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on May 3, 2012 by dcairns

David Ehrenstein’s been nudging me to write about IDENTIKIT, AKA THE DRIVER’S SEAT for almost as long as The Forgotten has been appearing. With the help of a fan-dub which grafted the English language soundtrack from the duff bargain-bin VHS onto the pristine image of the Italian DVD, I’ve finally been able to give the film the viewing it deserves. Result.

It occurs to me that a lovely Giuseppe Patroni Griffi box set would be a nice idea: GPG’s sexy, perverse and doom-laden cinema deserves a wider audience and greater ease of access. In the spirit of the heroic fandubber alluded to above, I’ve just used Google Translate to convert a French subtitle file for his LA DIVINA CREATURA to English — now I must see if the result makes the slightest bit of sense…

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

Hey Moondog

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 17, 2008 by dcairns

Secret Passage

SECRET CEREMONY is a film maudit if ever there was one. Even many hardcore Loseyites find it hard to defend.

“Anyway, to go back to SECRET CEREMONY, here is how it was finally set up. I was sitting in Rome; I had just been doing the dubbing of BOOM!, Burton was going off to do WHERE EAGLES DARE, or whatever they do — shit — WHERE EAGLES SHIT — and we were all in the Grand Hotel. Elizabeth said ‘Why don’t we do something again?’ I remembered this script and thought she would be ideal for it. I got her the script a few days later from London, and she said ‘I’ll do it’, and we did it, at once. Now, of course, I brought [writer George] Tabori back in and we did a great deal of re-working, mostly out of that particular house.”

~ from Conversations With Losey by Michel Ciment.

(I like Ciment, he has a particular enthusiasm for the mad and visionary strains of British cinema that are at least as big a part of our culture — the valuable part of it — as social observation and all that muck.)

Justify My Love

So, having finished Tennessee Williams’ BOOM! (which is John Waters’ favourite movie for reasons that are evident if you can manage to see it ), while Burton is off where the eagles shit, Liz Taylor is parading around in various Christian Dior outfits in this deeply weird art movie in this weird house in Addison Road, London. The house had been a rest home for the mentally ill, run by some kind of religious organisation who had fallen on hard times — Losey’s regular collaborator Richard MacDonald ran amok in it and created one of the very best London houses in cinema — it stands alongside Asshetton Gorton’s work in THE KNACK and BLOW-UP, and John Clark’s in PERFORMANCE. The great London house films of the period.

Sausage, M'lady?

Munch chomp gnosh

Early on Liz, grieving her lost child, is adopted as mother by orphaned loony Mia Farrow, who cooks her a splendid sausage breakfast. And the film slams on the brakes and simply observes, with Farrow, as Liz wolfs down the lot. A whole breakfast consumed, in silence… It seems like a dreadful mistake at screenplay stage: The script must have said, “She eats the sausages,” and nobody thought anything of it, but it’s one of those sentences, like “The Indians capture the fort,” that really entails much more than it seems to. Yet somehow the film knows we want this. We want to see Liz eat those sausages. All of them. It’s pornographic, but we can’t look away. The fact that Liz is carrying, shall we say, a few extra pounds and Farrow, who does not eat, still has the emaciated spidery limbs she sports in ROSEMARY’S BABY, adds to the pervasive and enticing wrongness of it all. This is a terrible thing we are witnessing.

Later, Liz will pat her jowls reflectively and complain, “Christ, I’m so f=a=t,” her voice rising to a hoarse beep on the final word.

My Last Breath

What’s going on? All the characters are insane, as Losey admitted. This makes things pretty alienating for any audience member with a grasp of reality. And while Losey announced that Farrow’s character was “in every detail thought out as a hysterical schizophrenic,” I get the impression that his sense of those words may be rather loose. Jean-Pierre Melville also described Delon’s character in LE SAMOURAI as schizophrenic, and I have no idea what he meant by that. Autistic might be closer in that case. I think Farrow’s schizophrenia, like protagonist George Harvey Bone’s in Hangover Square, may be a plot device as much as a condition.

Mia

(Damnit, I now have private information regarding Farrow’s mental state at the time, but I don’t think I can repeat it. Never mind, Losey loved her, and she’s very good in his film.)

I think that by making Liz’s character so nutty, the film kind of disables itself, since if she functioned as a vaguely reliable guide to the labyrinth, she could get away with being distraught, maybe a bit irrational, but not this totally random screwball she is.

Moon Age Day Dream

Screenwriter George Tabori, who is no Pinter, obviously has no shortage of ideas, but his organisation is lacking. David Caute’s Losey book criticises the dialogue for muddling American and British idioms, but I got the impression that’s Liz’s character — a yank who fakes a Brit accent when she’s pretending to be the mother. It’s just about the one thing I was clear on. But it’s a throw-away film full of throw-away notions, like Farrow’s fear of “Moondog”, the God figure in a William Blake illustration on the bedroom mantel. It probably relates to her incestuous stepfather, and maybe when Robert Mitchum turns up (“C’mon, you know I’m harmless before lunch!” with an Irish beard and a bunch of flowers, we’re meant to be reminded of the sinister figure. But why “Moondog”?

Calypso is... like so

ALTHOUGH — the environments of the film are beautiful and the various performers do fascinating things. Mia Farrow essays her note-perfect English accent, also displayed in Anthony Mann’s swan-song, A DANDY IN ASPIC, and her physical acting is likewise remarkable, all flailing arms and manic grin so wide it threatens to crack the outline of her face and break out on its own. Liz is just Liz, she stomps about, giving her all, seizing on anything she can emote at. Robert Mitchum turns up and shows his bravery again, playing loathsomeness without apology. Decorative eccentricity is provided by Peggy Ashcroft and Pamela Brown, who are always welcome round my place, but Losey’s use of the phrase “sort of comedy relief” in describing them is a clue to the fact that they’re not actually funny, just more neurotic whimsy.

Give it the grin

Richard Rodney Bennett did some fantastic music for Losey, and his stuff here is absolutely right for the film, a messed-up music box tinkle that helps make us feel as crazy as the characters. When Liz and Mia go to the seaside, a stunning resort filmed in Holland, the design and score lift us into a wonderful dream state. Then Mia Farrow shoves a stuffed frog up her dress and pretends she’s pregnant. Put this on a double bill with William Cameron Menzies’ THE MAZE, a 3D mystery in which the lord of a Scottish castle is secretly a giant frog, having never evolved out of the amphibian stage we all supposedly go through in the womb.

What makes you think I want a stain-proof dress?

Better yet, you know what this would make a great Fever Dream Double Featurewith? BOOM! is obviously a good choice, which might prove fatal if you didn’t have strong drink to hand, but try it with Giuseppe Patroni Griffi’s THE DRIVER’S SEAT, also known as IDENTIKIT, which has lots of equally barking mad Lizwork in it, and an even louder frock. Liz gets very irate at the suggestion that she might want a stain-proof dress, at one point: a fine Liz moment. It’s from a book by Muriel Spark, apparently reasonably faithful in its adaptation. Ian Bannen is around to supply, what? Himself, I suppose.

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