nohway

Archive for August, 2009|Monthly archive page

JULIE AND JULIA: DULL AND DULLER

In Uncategorized on August 8, 2009 at 7:43 pm

jchild

Someone has to say it, so it might as well be me.

Meryl Streep is not the greatest actress in film, nor is she the greatest actress alive, or even, as was adoringly posited in one way or another by nearly every speaker at the Film Society of Lincoln Center tribuite to her a few years ago, the greatest actress EVER.

What she is, besides being perfectly charming, down-to-earth and lovely off the screen, is a master technician, adept at mimicry and a welter of accents, who does all the work for anyone willing to be cowed into abject submission, as well as the confused apprehension that this is indeed genius emoting. Her performances are rife with physical gesture and aural detail, with every moment so strenuously underlined with acting that there is nothing left to discover in them, in the way one could be awed by the sheer gorgeous mystery of, say, Lillian Gish in THE SCARLET LETTER, Garbo in CAMILLE, Vivien Leigh in A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE, Simone Signoret in ROOM AT THE TOP, Jeanne Moreau in JULES AND JIM, Katharine Hepburn in her greatest moment, LONG DAY’S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT, Edith Evans in THE WHISPERERS, or Angelica Huston in THE GRIFTERS and THE DEAD.

It is telling that Turner Classic Movies has been endlessly running an old tribute to Bette Davis which Streep did years ago, for it is that actress whom she most resembles for sheer mannered density and indefatigable focus-pulling. When Davis did an accent, whether it be Southern (HUSH, HUSH SWEET CHARLOTTE), British (her two Queen Elizabeth outings), or Bronx (THE CATERED AFFAIR), her effortful efforts often resembled the torturous pedanticism of Streep’s Polish (SOPHIE’S CHOICE), Aussie (A CRY IN THE DARK), Danish (the endless OUT OF AFRICA), and, most egregious, Italian (BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY) linguistics.

When equitably guided by a strong, intelligent director like William Wyler in JEZEBEL and THE LETTER, Joseph Mankiewicz in ALL ABOUT EVE, or Edmund Goulding in DARK VICTORY, Davis could deliver the goods brilliantly. But, all too often, paired with easily dominated helmers like Irving Rapper (whose next to last credit was, somehow fittingly, 1970’S THE CHRISTINE JORGENSEN STORY), Davis was allowed to indulge herself in the kind of florid posturing, resembling nothing human, which made her such catnip to female impersonators.

bette as julisa 2

With her recent work in THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE, in which she was a terrifyingly steely version of Hilary Clinton, and THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA, in which she gave her best, most understatedly effective and funny performance yet (taking Mike Nichols as her character’s model), I finally succumbed to Streep’s talent, and was looking forward to the kind of new self-discovery and artistic breakthrough once enjoyed by Susan Sarandon and Barbara Hershey, who were mediocre bordering on inept before their respective work in ATLANTIC CITY and A WORLD APART.

meryl prada
Good Meryl (THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA)

meryl
Ham Meryl (THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY)

But then she did MOTHER COURAGE in Central Park wherein she groveled in the mud (on a rainy night’s performance) and practically impersonated all Three Stooges in her Brechtian exertions, and MAMMA MIA, in which, in an effort to act agelessly young and full of life, she made Betty Hutton at her most manic seem like Duse as her most reposed.

And, yes, in JULIE AND JULIA, she’s back to her old stuff. Many will see the film and, once more, positively kvell over her inevitable virtuosity but I found her Julia Child a shallow impersonation, lacking one single moment in which she relaxed that fulsome, plummy delivery and lungingly big body language – Child was a giantess who once drunkenly nearly knocked me down on a snowy street in Cambridge – to allow a single human emotion to glimmer through. Everything is a huge, ornate gesture again, whether cooking alone in her kitchen (well before any TV cameras appeared), such a whipping about in aprons and juggling of utensils, or even merely grabbing a canape off a water’s tray at a cocktail party (“Oh, look!”)

Director/screenwriter Nora Ephron is her Irving Rapper here – along with all that haute cuisine, you can practically smell the worshipful incense being burned on the set, when she really should have told her actress, “Can we tone it down a little?”

adams

A scene in which the film’s other titular character, the struggling writer, Julie Powell (played by the blandly perky Amy Adams), who worships Child to the point of tackling and then blogging about every recipe in her famous cookbook, watches Dan Ackroyd’s old, bloody French Chef takeoff on SATURDAY NIGHT LIFE is telling in the extreme. For one thing, in a fraction of this movie’s running time, he not only nails Child’s every nuance, but is twice as funny as Streep’s baroque go at the character.

ackroyd_juliachild

Both Julia and Julie have been blessed with female wish-fulfillment dream men, respectively played by Stanley Tucci and Chris Messina, who are more like fan-waving eunuchs, ever indulgent and adoring of their more complex, demanding partners. They, of course, have little real lives of their own, with even the Messina character’s main problem being those times when Julie calls him too perfect and understanding. They’re like the stultifyingly dull good guys George Brent used to play in one Bette Davis film, after another: you could see why she liked to have them around, but they sure weren’t much fun from an audience standpoint.

The film has been gussied up glossily in true Ephron-fantasy world style, with modern day Queens coming off nearly as quaintly charming as post-WWII Paris. It’s diverting enough in the beginning but soon the cross-cutting between Streep’s floridness and Adams’ wan innocuousness begins to pall in this overlong film. Ephron’s presentation of the aspiring writers’ world represented by Julie has all the depth of a finger bowl, and Adams’ performance reminded me of Mary Tyler Moore in THE DICK VAN DYKE show, all ditsy, plate-dropping housewifery, lacking anything resembling the feisty spine it takes to make a go of it as a published scribbler. For all the puff pieces already media-splashed about the food, the food, here, Ephron’s gourmand propensities aren’t really conveyed. Delicious eats can be one of cinema’s most photogenic subjects, as in TOM JONES, BABETTE’S FEAST, EAT DRINK MAN WOMAN and BIG NIGHT, and the movie would have contained more soul-satisfying artistry with more focus on both characters’ work in the kitchen. What you mostly see is the orgasmically delighted consumption of it at the table, which attains a certain monotony if not downright resentment on the part of the viewer.

julie cake
Don’t you hate ’em all?

COPYRIGHT: davidnoh2009

Advertisements

MARION DAVIES’ GREATEST MOMENT

In Uncategorized on August 2, 2009 at 8:10 pm

BLONDIE 2
Marion Davies with BFF Billie Dove in BLONDIE OF THE FOLLIES

Turner Classic Movies is paying all-day tribute to the delicious Marion Davies on Monday, August 3, and are showing her best film , BLONDIE OF THE FOLLIES, from that greatest-of-Hollywood-film-years-to-me, 1932 (forget Hays Code-strapped 1939) at 1:45 PM. Critic Pauline Kael once described the movie as having an F. Scott Fitzgerald quality, and she was right. From a snappy, wondrously loose and keenly observed script by those pioneering movie women, Frances Marion and Anita Loos, that Renaissance Man, bisexual Director Edmund Goulding (who also wrote, composed songs and even did Garbo’s hair in LOVE) lavished considerable care, savviness and affection on this irresistible rags-to-riches compendium of backstage drama, romance, glamour, and heartbreak., which also happens to be one of the truest portraits of feminine friendship ever filmed.

In it, Davies plays Blondie McClune, a tenement girl forever fighting and then making up with her neighbor, Lottie Callahan (Billie Dove, at the time considered the most beautiful American woman), a BFF if e’er there was. The film is tastily autobiographical, as both of these actresses got their starts as Ziegfeld Follies beauties long before Hollywood, and their back-stories are shrewdly incorporated into the script.

BillieDoveMarionDavies

Lottie soon splits the slums, changes her name to Lurline Cavanaugh (!), and becomes a big Follies star with all the attendant affectations, jewels, furs, penthouse and admirers, dominated by feckless playboy Larry Belmont (Robert Montgomery), whom she chicly calls “Boy,” like a character out of Michael Arlen or Noel Coward. She returns to her old neighborhood – mostly to strut her new, glamorous stuff – and winds up taking Blondie under her wing, a good deed she soon learns to regret.

Blondie crashes into the Follies, becomes a star as well, and engages the very serious attention of Larry. Lottie does a slow burn, which turns into an eruption wherein she and Blondie revert to their hair-pulling, squabbling childhood ways. Blondie tries her best to be a true friend and resist Larry, but this proves unsuccessful, with disastrous and scandalous onstage results.

BLONDIE 1

Loos, fresh from her GENTLEMAN PREFER BLONDES book success, provides the pungent wit with her gorgeously observed dialogue, from the down-to-earth tenement patter of Blondie’s family (“Stop crying into the stew, Ma,” warns her sister, played by the invaluable, wrist fluttering Zasu Pitts, “It’s thin enough already”) to Lottie’s hilarious, nouveau-riche swanning, which includes some high-falutin’ French phraseology (“Oh, Lottie, you’re a scream!” cries Blondie. ‘Lurline!’ her friend corrects her, for what must be the umpteenth time.).

davies<

The love triangle situation shouldn’t really be as affecting as it is here, but so strong is the chemistry between Montgomery (at his light comedic deftest, with that pursed lip canary-swallowing cat’s grin) and the ladies who love him that you’ll find yourself catching your breath at certain moments. Montgomery is fully aware of how irresistible he is, and has, in fact, already warned an unheeding Dove of the casualness of their affair. Dove, for her part, is simply dazzling (one can see why men like Howard Hughes went absolutely ape-shit over her): intense and overwrought, her lush, dark beauty a perfect foil to Davies’ blonde, cherubic sunniness. The women share a wrenchingly emotional scene in which Lottie forces a confession of love for Larry out of Blondie, a sequence which mounts with operatic power, culminating in Davies’ throbbingly hysterical admission with Dove keeping enflamed pace with her, both actresses’ finest onscreen moment.

dove

Goulding cannily showcasing the actresses’ particular talents. The voluptuous Dove, sexily draped by Adrian in swaths of strung pearls, strikes a haughty pose like a ship’s figurehead in one musical number, while riding a car onto the stage, while Davies’ famed talent for mimicry is showcased in her backstage introduction where she apes the baby-talk of some dimwitted showgirl (while campily greeting the entire chorus line with “See you later, queens!”). One of the numerous party scenes has her and and guest star Jimmy Durante hilariously parodying Garbo and John Barrymore in GRAND HOTEL. As with her impersonations of Lillian Gish, Pola Negri and Mae Murray in THE PATSY, Davies does not stint from going all the way into grotesqueness, and her dire eye-rollings and downturned M of a mouth (for “Morbid”) effectively send up the Lonely Swede for all time.

BlondieOfTheFolliesStill2

The supporting cast is unusually strong. Besides Pitts, James Gleason plays Davies’ disapproving father who throws her out when she doesn’t come home one night, and, later, has a heartbreaking scene with her when, cowed with worry, he comes to visit her in her swell new surroundings. Sarah Padden is convincingly careworn as his tearful wife, and Sidney Toler is amusing as Pitt’s husband who at one point wishes he were a girl so he could go into the Follies too, for an easy life. Douglas Dumbrille gives a wry performance as a monied stage door Johnny, with his mantra, “I like blondes.” Goulding himself even pops up in a cameo as the particularly dapper stage director who urges everyone to “Keep things moving!” when an onstage fiasco occurs.

edmund-goulding
Edmund Goulding

And there’s a fascinating appearance by the Rocky Twins, who back up Davies during a wacky pirate dance number (which fulfilled her sponsor/lover William Randolph Hearst’s fetishistic mandate of having her appear in boyish drag at least once in every film). The Rocky Twins were Norwegian brothers Leif and Paal Roschberg, who became famous onstage for their drag impersonation of the famous Dolly Sisters act, working at the Casino de Paris and with stars like Gina Palerme and Mistinguette, and being filmed by Marcel L’Herbier in L’ARGENT (1929). They made it to Hollywood, where at the Ship Café in Venice Beach they did their drag act and got hired by Goulding to appear in this film, the same year that the director would be involved in a scandal involving one of the wild parties (read: orgies) he customarily threw.

rocky twins 2

The Rocky Twins
and as the Dolly Sisters (below)

rocky twins 1

(Read more about them here:

Hearst’s stranglehold over Davies’ career, in which he preferred seeing her flouncing about in costumes “with dignity” and tried to secure dramatic roles for her like Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Marie Antoinette (both of which went to The Lady of MGM, Norma Shearer), makes it even more of a miracle that a good, individual vehicle like this one for her even made it to the screen intact. Well, “intact” is equivocal even here: so effective was Dove’s film-stealing performance that large portions of it were cut from the final edit. In every scene, Davies justifies the blind devotion he felt for her, with her fathomless radiance, humor and heart. No one ever had a bad word to say about the actress off-screen, either, apart from the indefatigably acerbic Dorothy Parker who, after a visit to the Hearst-Davies love nest, San Simeon, once wrote:

Upon my honor, I saw a Madonna,
Standing in a niche.
Above the door
Of a prominent whore
Of a prominent son of a bitch.

COPYRIGHT:davidnoh2009