Archive for The Letter

Wests Sides Stories

Posted in Dance, FILM, literature, MUSIC, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 15, 2022 by dcairns

We watched the Wise/Robbins WEST SIDE STORY and the Spielberg together in one day, to see which is better — neither of us, disgracefully, had actually watched the original properly.

Verdict up front: the original is the better film, but the remake doesn’t disgrace it, and you can argue that it has a good reason to exist. It’s hard to imagine what it must have been like for Rita Moreno to act surrounded by white folks in shoe polish the first time. And Rachel Zegler is so adorable in the new one, it makes you think, There was a 1961 version of her out there, somewhere, who should have played that role but never had a shot at it.

On the other (west) hand… the play and the first film had an impeccably simple idea — Romeo and Juliet updated to NOW. Spielberg’s film has a weird idea — Romeo and Juliet updated to 1957. So he has to recreate, physically or digitally, all that stuff that was just THERE for Wise & co. And instead of making the story newly relevant to a contemporary audience, he’s SORT OF doing that, and sort of doing nostalgia? This slight confusion probably has more to do with the film’s failure to find a large theatrical audience than any issue of quality — it’s an enjoyable watch, probably more so if you haven’t been exposed to the original.

We definitely set Spielberg a difficult job, because the opening ten minutes + of the ’61 WSS are absolutely stunning. Impossible to top. Quite Spielbergian, in a way: high impact visual storytelling. A whole series of dramatic reveals done with the camera.

The bird’s-eye views of New York must have been staggeringly new at the time, but they’re still stunning, thanks to the sound/picture combo — whistling echoes from the shaded concrete canyons, impossibly clear and impossibly isolated from other city noise, but creating a thrilling sense of scale and mystery.

The film’s ONE zoom shot crashes in from a high angle and we IMMEDIATELY cut to a tight profile on Russ Tamblyn (the film’s real star — well, Mercutio is the most fun, or should be) and a series of jagged cuts that yank us back and make room for his finger-clicking cohort. The spatial jumps are so short it’s impressive that they work at all, without feeling ugly. It’s important to realise that Wise was an editor (KANE) and this is an editor’s film. Its best effects are all dependent on cutting.

But also framing, movement, and colour. Jerome Robbins may not fully deserve his co-director credit, except that the choreography is so crucial a part of the film that, yeah, he kind of does.

The opening is so good — a series of totally pre-planned in-frame DISCOVERIES, each one dazzling and exciting — that the rest of the film has a hard time living up to it. It’s very good, but only intermittently as EXTRAORDINARY as its start.

Spielberg starts with an aerial view also — if Wise’s film is a cutting film, Spielberg’s is all about crane shots. We’re closer to the ground — the echoing whistle is SUBTERRANEAN — and we’re looking at the ruined skeletons of fire escapes, a nice idea. Slum clearance — the Lincoln Center will rise here. Opening and closing the film in this locale (how much, if any, of this scenery is real?) is a neat idea — especially the ending. It feels post-apocalyptic by night, and it’s a shame Tony Kushner’s script has less talk of war.

I guess Spielberg HAD to change everything here — simply reproducing all the 1961 film’s choices would hardly have been respectable. But it inevitably means everything is either not quite as good or not nearly as good. Still good, I’d say. Just not at the sublime level of Version 0.1.

Even Wise can’t follow himself, so that as the films progress, Spielberg does gain ground. And I don’t fully understand the widespread negative reaction to Ansel Elgort. He’s not as pretty as Richard Beymer, it’s true, and maybe that’s mainly what we want from the part. But I found him in every other respect just as good. If the negative reaction was due to his alleged sexual misconduct, that’s entirely understandable, I too would rather Tony not be played by an alleged sex offender, but that’s not what people were saying was their reason.

The new movie is guilty of a heck of a lot of OPENING OUT, which should probably be a criminal offence. Hitchcock’s “do the play” approach may not be universally correct, but there are so many unintended consequences set off when you faithfully do a scene that was written to take place somewhere else. When “Gee, Officer Krupke” is relocated to a police station, Kushner has to contrive a situation where the kids can be alone to perform it, then has to contrive a situation where they all get released, and both solutions feel… contrived.

I’m prepared to admit that giving “Cool” to Elgort’s Tony actually makes the song more useful to the narrative — though it’s the original, with its fast low angle trackback, that made Fiona gasp.

But moving “I’m so Pretty” to late in the movie, after the deaths of two major characters, is a blunder. The song just washed over us, signifying nothing — our minds were literally elsewhere, on the drama now surging towards a climax while Maria is blissfully unaware. On paper that could be poignant. But the song wasn’t written with that in mind, and I think Bernstein & Sondheim were artful enough that they’d have written a different song for a different context.

Fiona points out that Spielberg DOES steal from Wise, just not from WSS. This reflection is pulled from THE HAUNTING, another Spielberg favourite he’s previously remade (very badly indeed). In the Shirley Jackson adaptation, Fiona says, the shot has a very specific meaning — Eleanor is already being absorbed into Hill House. In the Spielberg, it’s just an attractive shot.

Time and again, the Spielberg movie weakens the show’s effects by overcomplicating things. Removing “America” from its rooftop is acceptable, I guess, though keeping it there and using the modern screen’s ability to show a digital cityscape ought to have been irresistible. But here come the extras — here’s a random woman driving past — there’s such an accumulation of unnecessary STUFF.

And you are?

Spielberg doesn’t steal from Wise much but he does steal from himself, particularly the dancehall rumpus from 1941. And here are the heavily backlit cloths for people to appear behind as pastel wraiths — this one goes back to LAWRENCE OF ARABIA I think but Spielberg has been mimicking it endlessly.

There are moments in the Wise where he approaches the splendour of his opening. In “Quintet” — often, in the movie, I found myself wishing for the camera to push in, only for it to remain obstinately static. Here, it pushes in, and the sequence is AMAZING. The cross-cutting becomes absolutely magical — it gives the dramatic connectedness of disparate scenes a significance that transcends narrative and really becomes magic, in the sense of numinous or supernatural. The Spielberg sequence is… good. Decent. It’s been… opened out. He never actually wrecks a song, and if you compare his work with overedited garbage like CHICAGO you can genuinely admire his skill and restraint.

(Actually, maybe “Quintet” should really be done splitscreen, it’d be the only way to get everyone who’s singing in their own scenes on screen at once along with their voices…)

The ending. This is Wise’s other best moment. I think you could copy the effect of the shock tragedy — he actually makes it a shock, even when it’s been heavily telegraphed and we know our Shakespeare — without copying any of his shots or his exact cutting pattern. Spielberg chooses to throw out the underlying IDEAS and his version strikes me as simply ineffective.

Natalie Wood was always your go-to girl if you wanted hysterics, photogenic yet credible, and in the final scene she does walk all over Rachel Zegler. Surely, Zegler has the right to be there, not only by dint of race but by voice. Maybe she needed a merciless number of takes, Robbins-style, to break her down, or maybe she needed Ernest Lehman’s screenplay adaptation of Arthur Laurents’ book, not Tony Kushner’s.

“They even flubbed the ending,” mourned Fiona. The sensation of being in the presence of greatness was very much with me when the Sharks stepped in to help lift the fallen Jet. You can mess with other stuff in that sequence — Lehman, Wise & Robbins evidently wanted to keep it exactly like the play, and it worked perfectly, but you could get away with tinkering. But not with that moment. That’s what the piece is ABOUT. And to add insult, Spielberg chooses to fade out on the cops coming to arrest Chino, who has more backstory here but is still a minor character. It’s like the Hays-mandated ending of THE LETTER. Justice must be served. Appalling.

I haven’t talked about Rita Moreno yet, and I must. She more than earned her Oscar first time out. And she’s excellent here, and she again has a right to be here. Her insertion as a new character does do some violence to the story, though. I liked the original’s Doc (Ned Glass), who I take to be Jewish, an emigre, a survivor of an actual war who can comment on the gang war with the advantage of experience. (IS experience an advantage, though? Experience HURTS.) Doc does get a cameo here, photoshopped in.

Still, I can see why they did it, and even giving Rita a song, purloined from the lovers, kind of works. It’s still a song for them even if she sings it (beautifully). It’s an issue, though. Friar Laurence in R&J is a neutral figure, ideally placed to help the star-cross’d lovers. It kind of doesn’t make sense for her to be Puerto Rican and for the Jets to like her. The Jets are racist — even more so in the remake. The script attempts to cover this, and it’s not wholly successful. It’s passable. But still a weak area. Maybe it’s worth it, to include Rita, and not just as a meaningless cameo.

The other character I’d like to talk about is Anybodys, the tomboy, coded queer, in the original, who is maybe kinda proto-trans in the remake. And apparently trans is a superpower because they can punch out a swarm of policemen. Unless I missed it, nobody calls them by name, and they’ve lost most of their dialogue, which is a shame. I know a character can make an impression without words, but I also know that Susan Oakes got to make more of an impression than Iris Menas in the new version. And Menas’ character being, essentially, unnamed is a shame. If you think about the nickname, implying promiscuity, you have to assume that Anybodys wanted so badly to be a Jet she went with more than one of them, and now they shame her for it. Heartbreaking. The Jets suck.

I guess in the end I’m not nice enough to agree that casting the right ethnicity, unquestionably a good thing to do per se, is enough of a reason to remake WEST SIDE STORY if you can’t make it otherwise better than the original. I’m not really in favour of remaking classics. Make a new film with Puerto Rican characters. Comparisons are odious, so don’t ask for them.

The Mummy’s Curse

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 14, 2008 by dcairns

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“Bloomin’ Ada!” as my Mum would say. I have been tagged with a meme, using the parlance of our times. Next thing you know I’ll be participating in flash mobs and Anne Summers parties and other symptoms of this age we live in. I have been tagged by the Self-Styled Siren, who runs my favourite blog on classical Hollywood cinema (and occasional other subjects too) so I guess that means I have to comply. The meme (I’m not explaining that one: go pound on Professor Richard Dawkins’s door) requires me to list twenty actresses, and originated here. The idea is that they should be your twenty favourites — the Siren wisely narrowed that to twenty actresses whose mere presence in a film would be enough to make her watch it, and she’s hinted that she expects “classic choices”, so I’m guessing that tends to eliminate Little Nell, Daisy and Violet Hilton, Buck Angel or even Maria Montez. As well as this woman.

But I still feel  the need to whittle further, both to avoid repeating the Siren’s excellent list (I’ve just started on the THIN MAN films, and Myrna Loy is much on my mind), and to impart a unique something-or-other to the proceedings. I note that most of the actresses being selected are extremely beautiful, and since if I were to choose twenty actors, they might include numerous fellows I don’t actually admire physically, I thought it would be interesting to choose twenty actresses who… how shall I put this? Must find a classy and gentlemanly way of saying it.

Twenty actresses whom I would always be glad to see in a film, although I have no real desire to “do” them.

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1) Margaret Rutherford. I’m appalled to realise that I’ve had THE BEST DAYS OF YOUR LIFE for over a month now without watching it, and after spending ages trying to source a copy. Rutherford, who George Harrison, back in his Beatles heyday, would choose if challenged to name a favourite actress, had a face rather like a very old man’s neck, but was both a dexterous eccentric comedian and a powerful tragedian, as witness her speech at the end of Orson Welles’s CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT. She exemplifies what I’m talking about here, since sexuality didn’t really play much of a role in her art or life: apparently she and her husband both referred to lists of instructions — crib sheets —  to see them through their honeymoon night, so ignorant were they of matters erotic.

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2) Agnes Moorehead. Not so sure here, since I never bought the idea that Agnes was ugly, and the warmth and admiration I feel for her is akin to romantic love, so maybe, under the right circumstances… but sexiness wasn’t part of her screen repertoire, which included all kinds of genius qualities, including the ability to throw hysterical attacks so convincing that terrified studio execs demanded retakes on both MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS and THE TRUE STORY OF JESSE JAMES, to make her less effective. (It might seem perverse for studios to demand such a thing, but I suspect studio interference is nearly ALWAYS based on a desire to make films less effective.)

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3) Margaret Hamilton. A very different actress, but with a parallel to Moorehead in that both were typecast as spinsters and crones at an age when they could have been playing ingenues, had nature arranged things differently. The Wicked Witch isn’t in enough films, but over the decades she did enough obscure work that her appearances are often a surprise, as in the Sean Connery heist film THE ANDERSON TAPES. I always get very excited whenever she turns up, like a small child experiencing his first mouthful of cocaine.

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4) Una O’Connor. Usually delivered in small doses, which was probably wise — her shrieking performances in BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN and THE INVISIBLE MAN might conceivably appear irritating if overextended. (You think?) But I just saw Renoir’s astounding THIS LAND IS MINE, where she keeps an impressive lid on it for most of the show, only allowing those deadly lungs free rein at one key moment.

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5) Spring Byington. Utterly fabulous actress, often excelling in warm-hearted, matronly roles, but check out her bone-chilling nastiness in DRAGONWYCK, which I maintain she steals from under everyone else’s noses. The point where her character is inexplicably forgotten about by the plot is the point where the movie loses interest for me, even as a tired rehash of REBECCA.

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6) Speaking of that film, Mrs. Danvers herself (strangely impossible to picture MR. Danvers, I find), Dame Judith Anderson, deserves a mention. Often called upon to inject menace or else matriarchal might, she turns her hand ably to comedy in René Clair’s AND THEN THERE WERE NONE.

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7) I’m on shaky ground again with Ethel Waters, because I do think she’s beautiful, and always appealing, warm and engaging (in contrast to her knife-wielding offscreen behaviour!), and I wouldn’t like to think I’m shoving her into some character actor Siberia just because she’s heavy. But CABIN IN THE SKY allows ample opportunity to compare and contrast her with Lena Horne, and then certain subjective truths become inescapable. My love of Ethel is entirely platonic. My love of Lena is entirely otherwise.

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8) Irene Handl. When you have a figure as beloved in old age as Irene Handl, once in a while you get the urge to see what she was like when young. But with Irene Handle, youth appears to have been a condition she never experienced. A brilliant eccentric player, she forged an unlikely career, given her unusual appearance, but she always made an impression, even in the smallest role, because she was incapable of leaving a part without fully investing it with life. So she could quite often make more impact in thirty seconds than the stars did with the rest of the film.

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9) Kathleen Freeman. You know this one? Always saying “He’s such a nice boy,” in Jerry Lewis movies. Lewis is generally brilliant at casting his supporting players, and he knew he was onto a great thing with Freeman.

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10) Dandy Nichols. Able to effortlessly take the manners and mores of social realism, 1960s style, and flip them into farce. Has a great moment in THE BED-SITTING ROOM, looking uncomfortable on a horse. That should be enough for anyone.

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11) Katie Johnson. She’s in other films, but it’s for THE LADYKILLERS she’s remembered. So old and frail at the time that she failed the insurance exam and had to be replaced with a younger actress, who promptly dropped dead, so Katie got the part in the end, and a good thing too. Her combination of physical fragility and steely moral certainty is exactly what the film needs.

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12) Flora Robson. I saw her interviewed on TV when I was a kid and she was pretty old, and the interviewer kindly said that she had grown more beautiful with age, while the glamour girls could only fade. It’s kind of true, but what an amazing career she had with her big Rondo Hatton face — it no doubt kept her from many parts, but she was able to command some corkers. And actually, her flirtation with Errol Flynn in THE SEA HAWK is entirely charming and credible.

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13) Marie Dressler. DINNER AT EIGHT is actually kind of a yawn for me, but I do love her spectacular double-take when Jean Harlow says she’s been reading a book. Anybody who does a gigantic double take is tops with me.

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14) Thelma Ritter. Her presence here at number 14 makes it VERY clear, I hope, that this list is in no particular order.

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15) Esther Howard. A little obscure here? But SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS fans will know her as the randy widow Joel McCrea flees, jumping out the widow’s window rather that submitting to her wiles. Which is to say, sexuality is a part of the Howard repertoire, but it’s a comedy version, and what’s most important about her is her overbearing “charm”, deployed to very funny effect in HAIL THE CONQUERING HERO and about a hundred and fifty other films and TV shows. I’ll even add one not listed among her credits on the IMDb: WHAT A WAY TO GO!

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16) Megs Jenkins. One of my favourite larger ladies in British films, as seen in GREEN FOR DANGER and THE INNOCENTS. Her appearance is sort of Kathy Bates-like, but she has an incredibly beautiful and unusual voice, and I feel all warm and snuggly whenever I hear it. I would probably trade one of my less necessary limbs in exchange for about 1000 hours of Megs reading audio-books.

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17) Renee Houston. Had to have one Great Scot on the list. Renee was very pretty in the ’30s, but wasn’t making any films I’ve seen, so I know her from her later roles as battle-axes, drunken baggages and generally rambunctious females. She generally inspires a loud cheer in my household when her name appears in the credits, as it does in TIME WITHOUT PITY.

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18) The alarming Gail Sondergaard. I have no excuse for it, but I actually like her dragon lady yellowface stereotype turn in THE LETTER. And she’s terrifying in CHRISTMAS HOLIDAY, without seeming to try.

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19) Patricia Collinge. Cinema’s greatest mum, apart from mine, that is, who can be seen briefly from the back in extreme longshot in my short film CRY FOR BOBO, and who recently complained that I’d made her look dumpy or something.

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20) Aline McMahon, but then actually I do think she’s extremely beautiful and under the right circumstances, if I were a younger man, etc…

And twenty who do fill me with indecent cravings:

Louise Brooks, Clara Bow, Annabella, Joan Blondell, Myrna Loy, Olivia DeHavilland, Paulette Goddard, Veronica Lake, Ava Gardner, Joan Greenwood, Gene Tierney, Natalie Wood, Claudia Cardinale, Shirley MacLaine as Fran Kubelik, Britt Ekland if I’m honest, Susannah York (I’m coming to believe she makes an even better Julie Christie than Julie Christie), Jeanne Moreau, Genevieve Bujold, Maggie Cheung, Charlize Theron… I could go on…