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BYE, BRITTANY

In Uncategorized on December 30, 2009 at 4:47 am

The untimely passing of 32-year-old Brittany Murphy reminded me of another diabolically talented actress who also burned out at an early age. Like Murphy, a victim of cardiac arrest, the legendary Jeanne Eagels, dropped dead in a doctor’s office at 39, as a probable result of intense alcohol and heroin abuse. And, like Murphy, Eagels was a petite, delicate beauty of part-Irish descent who threw herself into her roles with an electrifying intensity that could sear a hole into the screen. For proof, one has only to look at the 1929 early talkie version of W. Somerset Maugham’s THE LETTER, in which Eagels seethes with a barely contained fury that is absolutely riveting until her final volcanic explosion at her loathed cuckold of a husband, shrieking that his entire life was always all about “Rubber, rubber, RUBBAH!” Bette Davis won her first Oscar for DANGEROUS, in which she played a self-destructive actress obviously patterned on Eagels and, indeed, Davis’ trademark persona undoubtedly appropriated Eagels’ pop-eyed fervor, manically nervous gesticulations and arresting vocal delivery the younger actress must have witnessed onstage in Eagels’ epochal, long-running stint as Sadie Thompson in that other Maugham vehicle, RAIN. (That other screen original, Katharine Hepburn, also seems rather less than original, when you consider the fact that she was the Broadway understudy in HOLIDAY for Hope Williams, from whom she stole her patrician/butch forthright manner and movement.)


Jeanne Eagels, like Murphy, a woman whose life and art utterly consumed her, calling up moth to flame analogies and the poetry of Edna St. Vincent Millay

Murphy obviously lived hard and fast, as did Eagels, who, likewise, had a string of men in her life, the aforementioned addictions and professional lows, all copiously press-covered, like failing to appear on stage, which had Equity banning her from work for 18 months, walking out on the role of Roxie Hart in the original production of CHICAGO, after disagreements with her director, and being fired by MGM during the filming of MAN, WOMAN AND SIN for taking a vacation without informing her director. Modern professional gossip-mongers rather ghoulishly exulted in Murphy’s eccentric behavior on film sets, confidently, and, as it turned out, accurately predicting a sorry end for the actress. Eagels had her own share of oddball moments, once departing completely from the script of her play THE CARDBOARD LOVER while onstage, to the consternation of co-star Leslie Howard.


Jeanne Eagels in JEALOUSY, her final film, released in 1929, the year she died. Like THE LETTER, JEALOUSY was also remade as a film by Eagels imitator Bette Davis as DECEPTION in 1946

Murphy specialized in, and then became, typecast as wacky oddballs. There was her star-making appearance as Tai in CLUELESS (1995), which was a classic high school Ugly Duckling transformation turn, sweetened by the actress’ ingratiatingly innate innocence and given a suprising bite, as well, with her street-smart toughness. “You’re a virgin, and you can’t drive,” as delivered by her with funky directness to a startled Alicia Silverstone, became the ultimate putdown.

She was striking as a lesbian smack addict jailbird in the fascinating cult-ish FREEWAY (1996), which contains Reese Witherspoon’s most interesting performance as a piece of utter white trash, with no problem whatsoever in shrieking the N-word whenever it suits her, which is often. Murphy’s performance in GIRL, INTERRUPTED (1999) as Daisy, a victim of sexual abuse with an eating disorder and penchant for self-mutilation had a heartbreaking reality to it that felt far more authentic than Angela Jolie’s more showboating, if effective, performance as a resolute misfit.

Murphy’s full-bodied Everygirl physique soon gave way to that scary thinness so especially (and frighteningly) craved on the Left Coast. I never saw 8 MILE, as I usually avoid films starring known homophobes, and the Eminem hype was then so noxiously over the top that it had even an otherwise sensible, painfully p.c. Seattle friend of mine taking her pubescent daughter.


DON’T SAY A WORD

By the time of DON’T SAY A WORD (1991), in which Murphy played a disturbed sanatorium patient somehow implicated in a murder/theft/kidnapping plot, it seemed that the actress was beng woefully typecast and the ad campaign which had her writhing in a hospital bed, tauntingly crooning “I’ll never tell” seemed to predict an unhappy future for her as the Isabel Jewell of the Millennium. In Hollywood’s Golden Age, Jewell specialized in vividly offbeat roles which usually had one memorably hysterical scene, like her tubercular whore in LOST HORIZON, her gangster moll/whore in MARKED WOMAN, the waifish seamstress who goes to the guillotine in A TALE OF TWO CITIES, a rebellious member of a satanic cult in THE SEVENTH VICTIM, and that unforgettable piece of white trash, Emmy Slattery, in GONE WITH THE WIND.

The tabloids and other media vultures had a field day with Murphy’s off-screen eccentricity, relegating her to something of a kooky caboose to their ultimate Spears-Lohan train wreckage, and Saturday Night Live even mocked her in a recent skit. Hollywood loves a success, but it loves an easy target to snicker about and poke fun at even more, and this singular talent unfortunately found herself too easy grist for this toxically vicious mill. Substance abuse as well as rumored anorexia may have been an all too understandable, if tragic, response to this media abuse.


The stuff actresses think they have to do these days

ABANDONED, a psychological thriller, will be released posthumously in 2010, and from the advance clips that have been released, it looks like yet another example of Brittany Murphy looking ravaged and being oh-so intense and on the edge. One thing’s for certain – it will be impossible to take your eyes off her, which was always the case with her every screen appearance. It’s a shame that we will never get to see her explore her undeniable range, with that gorgeously husky voice, as, say, Blanche DuBois, or in Shakespeare: what a Juliet she might have made and, of course, she could have played Ophelia in her sleep.

COPYRIGHT: davidnoh2009

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MALE WEEPIES

In Uncategorized on December 29, 2009 at 10:35 pm


Aye, Russell, ye made grown men weepe!

It’s been a while since the ultimate male weepie, GLADIATOR, that film which had even the most hardened Alpha dogs commiserating at the gym and over the water cooler, unashamedly admitting the tears they shed. Sure, there was 300 and last year’s update of THE CHAMP, THE WRESTLER, but few films have come as close to stirring the ever-submerged female side of jocks as the spectacle of the gorgeously stoic Russell Crowe (a far cry from his real life, hotel telephone-hurling rager personality) taking on the full unjust burden of the ancient Roman Empire. Female weepies usually concern love of the impossible kind, usually for someone married or otherwise inappropiate, if not downright insane. Sometimes the heroines even die for love, whether through suicide or some incredibly self-abnegating sacrifice. The formula for male weepies is even simpler: the staunch protagonist courageously going it alone in the face of insurmountable odds brought on by his more bloodthirsty, craven fellow man or extraterrestrial force. Almost always here, the hero dies.


Toby McGuire, electrifying in BROTHERS

This season brings an unusual number of manly tearjerkers. BROTHERS contains an unusually strong performance from the usually prettily bland Jake Gyllenhaal as Tommy Cahill, a ne’er-do-well misfit sibling, but is most remarkable for Toby McGuire who brings real intensity to Sam, a soldier just back from Afghanistan, and obviously changed by the experience to the consternation of his family. At first, when you see the actor cuddling his wife, Grace (Natalie Portman) and little daughters, calling them “my girls,” there’s a faint sense of displacement – he seems too young to be a daddy – but then you realize, indeed, how heartbreakingly young are so many of these soldier fathers. He skillfully sustains the tension with an admirable emotional authenticity, and the film seems a decent, near-Hallmark Hall of Fame soapera, with its mean militaristic martinet of a parriarch (Sam Shepard, aptly playing an archetype that is both infuriating and frightening) and the burgeoning love of Tommy for the suffering Grace. The little actresses who play their daughters are blessedly real and unaffected, and therefore touching, and Portman is good enough in a rather colorless role which only calls for her to be painfully bewildered by her spouse and renunciative, however moved, in the face of Tommy’s attentions. (Unfortunately, she is unable here to show anything like the power she displayed in THE OTHER BOLEYN GIRL, or the surprising versatility of her Jewish Orthodox diamond dealer in NEW YORK, I LOVE YOU.) Jim Sheridan’s clean, straightforward direction is a corn-avoiding asset, but the movie would be pretty unexciting were it not for Sam’s ultimate revelation of what happened to him in Afghanistan.

We have already seen the horrific fate of Sam’s fellow soldier in a flashback, but even that devastating sequence pales alongside McGuire’s electrifying, hysterical final recounting of it to Grace. With this scene, McGuire attains real, rare greatness as an actor and makes the film eminently worth catching.


CRAZY HEART: He’s good, but does she ever stop smirking?

Very WRESTLER-like, indeed, is CRAZY HEART, in which Jeff Bridges plays Bad Blake, a brilliant but bottom-scraping Country Western singer on the comeback road. He drinks too much, alienates those who want to help him, has an estranged kid who wants nada to do with him and, yes, is in precarious health. Bridges has, for years, been one of our best, most underrated film actors, and he brings a seasoned authenticity to the part, as well as some serious musical chops (although I wish he’d been allowed to do a complete song here more often.) But, as written and directed by young rookie Scott Cooper, it’s the slimmest sliver of a film, lacking a certain lived-in richness of material, all those drunken binges and remorseful hiospital scenes aside.

Weak casting also takes away from the movie. Colin Farrell, although obviously a star, is precisely the wrong kind of star to play Blake’s nemesis, the younger, more popular, on top of his game singer Tommy Sweet. You really have to stretch to believe in this callow, brogue-supressing lad as an actual musical twanger here, and Robert Duvall as Blake’s old fishing crony is merely tiresome, a complacently phone-in codger performance. But it’s Maggie Gyllenhaal who presents the real problem. As Jean, a young single mother of a music journalist who wants to winnow her way into Blake’s life, she’s simply unbelievable, being too urban and innately sophisticated for the role. Her Southern accent feels very put on and she doesn’t do much except ply her usual panoply of flirty smirks and pained downward glances to express deep emotion with that veil of dark hair framing everything all too aptly. She’s neither womanly enough or intriguingly girlish to convince us of Blake’s great passion for her, instead coming off as, indeed, the last stop on his road.


A SINGLE MAN: No, it’s not a Milano runway, it’s a California high school campus, c. 1960

From the first moments of Tom Ford’s A SINGLE MAN – a nude guy floating slow-mo in the ocean, an auto accident composed as prettily as if it were a Bergdorf’s window display – you know you’re in for an arty-farty experience of the worst kind. Ford has taken Christopher Isherwood’s novel and literally fashioned it into something where an unimaginatively “tasteful” visual style takes precedence over everything – emotion, dramatic impetus, real human experience.

As George, a school teacher who is mourning the death (in that aforementioned car wreck) of his lover, Colin Firth is handsome and dignified, and also stoic, noble, with flashes of inner-directed humor ever so slightly quivering his stiff Brit upper lip. In short, he is exactly as he is in nearly everything else he’s done and completely unexciting. He’s a middle-aged poster child of a gay man, the kind of unflamboyant, solidly professional, quietly attractive type the more conservative members of the queer community – many of whom would die before ever marching in a Gay Pride event -always love to promote. (He probably would have made a good friend to those idealized, manly bores Tom Hanks and Antonio Banderas played in PHILADELPHIA.) There’s a moment in the film in which George considers suicide and we see his tortuous preparations, presented with all the accoutrements of black humor, but it isn’t at all funny, as Firth is so completely lacking in even a tinge of the outrageous which nearly every gay man I’ve ever known possesses to some degree. Unable to raise financial support for this film, Ford put his own money into it, and I just wish that, as a homosexual himself, he had been brave and fair (and smart) enough to cast a gay actor – even, God forbid, a “non-name” – as this character in a book which was Isherwood’s personal favorite of all his work, and raved over by such as Gore Vidal, to whom it was dedicated, and Edmund White. Besides bestowing this coveted role rightly on “one of our own,” a good gay actor would not have had to perform such a huge leap of faith as almost any straight actor must inevitably do to be George. Indeed, “perform” is the operative word here, instead of just “being” gay.

Whatever George may lack in personality or emotional depth (although he staunchly brushes back an ocean of tears), Ford has “made up for” in his exquisite haberdashery, which looks like it walked right off his last men’s collection runway. How a high school English teacher affords such glad rags – or his quite amazing style temple of a house – is never explained, but then everyone in the film is turned out with pallid exquisiteness. Ford also missed a cinematic opportunity to present early ’60s Los Angeles, the sybaritic sunniness of which so contrasts with George’s innate Englishness. Rather than presenting any kind of raffishly alluring Hockneyesque milieu, we get carefully placed movie posters of Hitchcock movies, as if to trumpet the director’s omniscient film savvy, but merely remind one that when the French Nouvelle Vague directors like Truffaut and Godard did this, it seemed like purely organic homages, with Ford, it’s just imitative.

Also looking runway “fierce,” as the fashion kids say today (probably not knowing that this word usage is as old as the hills, stemming from legendary, late ’70s black discos like Paradise Garage), are two other, achingly slim, achingly sweet would-be men in George’s life, a dark, Latino hustler (who probably wouldn’t have charged him a cent) and, an all-too neatly contrasting blonde student who stalks George right into his bedroom. George, as sufferingly devoted a widow(er) as Jackie Kennedy or Greer Garson and Irene Dunne in all their combined movies ever dreamt of being, grandly turns both of them down. (The more irreverent of you in the audience may just want to snicker, “Get her!”)

To liven things up, Ford brings in Julianne Moore as Charlie, a former lover from his straight past. If there was a cartoon version of Webster’s, and you looked up “fag hag,” a photo of Moore could easily pop up alongside the definition, so strenuously does the actress play this role. She works hard with her dippy Mayfair accent to convey a modish swinging sense of fun and savoir-faire, but her conceptual heaviness somehow only adds to the story’s depressive weight, much as Susan Sarandon’s similar turn does in THE LOVELY BONES.

The sheer airless pretentiousness of the whole effort has an inescapable grimness to it, not to mention a whiff of vanity project, like the lavish number of credits producer/director/writer Ford has afforded himself (although he co-wrote the script with David Scearce, God forbid he should share that credit on the screen, instead giving himself a completely separate, unnecessary, and rather ridiculous-looking title). Then there’s Abel Korzeniowksi’s droning music slathered over the whole damn thing, like some slavishly copycat Philip Plastic, er, I mean Glass.

When I met Isherwood’s surviving partner, artist Don Bachardy, at the Santa Monica house they shared a few years ago, he told me that Ford had just been to visit him, inquiring about the rights to A SINGLE MAN. “I had no idea who he was,” Bachardy told me. “But he was very well-dressed.”

Which rather says it all.


Julianne Moore in A SINGLE MAN is part of a long, mostly honorable, tradition of cinematic fag hags

There was also


Mary-Louise Parker in LONGTIME COMPANION


Jennifer Aniston in THE OBJECT OF MY AFFECTION


Sasha Alexander in ALL OVER THE GUY, best gay romanic comedy ever


Kathy Kinney in PARTING GLANCES (seen at 2007 cast reunion)


Jeanne Moreau (with Brad Davis) in QUERELLE


Tori Spelling in TRICK


Mara Hobell in BROADWAY DAMAGE


Katharine Hepburn and Elizabeth Taylor in SUDDENLY LAST SUMMER


Ilka Chase and Claudette Colbert in NO TIME FOR LOVE


Rosalind Rusell in AUNTIE MAME


Greta Garbo and Rex O’Malley in CAMILLE


Vanessa Redgrave in PRICK UP YOUR EARS


Rita Tushingham in A TASTE OF HONEY


Meredith Scott Lynn, BILLY’S HOLLYWOOD SCREEN KISS


Mai Chin in THE WEDDING BANQUET


Linda Hunt in PRET-A-PORTER


Miriam Hopkins, with Fredric March and Gary Cooper in DESIGN FOR LIVING


Liza Minnelli in CABARET

and, OF COURSE, those who made a full-time career of fag-haggery

COPYRIGHT: davidnoh2009

A WHALE OF A ROMANCE

In Uncategorized on December 6, 2009 at 8:37 pm


Elissa Landi, star of BY CANDLELIGHT

There’s not a more elegant film playing in Manhattan than James Whale’s BY CANDLELIGHT, at Film Forum on December 7. With this splendidly frothy Continental boudoir farce, Whale proves indubitably that he was a master of all movie genres, not just the FRANKENSTEIN-engendered horror for which he is best remembered. Whale did war movies (JOURNEY’S END, THE ROAD BACK), murder mysteries (A KISS BEFORE THE MIRROR), swashbucklers (THE MAN IN THE IRON MASK) and musicals (SHOW BOAT), everything but Westerns, which I am willing to bet would have been bang-up, maybe some kind of MCCABE AND MRS. MILLER before its time. Although BY CANDLELIGHT’s spirit and pacing is somewhat brisker, more British-clipped than Lubitsch’s, one could almost mistake this for the work of the German master of romantic farce.


James Whale

Being an unabashed lover of romantic comedy, I had long wanted to see this film, if only for Whale, its swoony, evocative title, intriguing cast and release year, that all-triumphant pre-Code annum, 1932. Based on a play by Siegfried Geyer, which Gertrude Lawrence and Leslie Howard brought to Broadway in 1929, the premise is that chestnut of a maid and butler, Marie (Elissa Landi) and Josef (Paul Lukas), who fall in love while impersonating their aristocratic employers. In Josef’s case, Prince Alfred von Rommer (Nils Asther) is not only his boss but his absolute role model, being the most devastatingly suave of ladykillers. Josef commits to memory the Prince’s every gesture and epigram – “Women are like cigars – once they go out, they’re never as good,” “A woman’s smile is like a bath tap: turn it on and you’re in hot water” – and uses them to entrance Marie when he encounters her on a train en route from Vienna to Monte Carlo. The sexy ruse plays itself out in various luxurious hotel rooms and casinos, until the truth comes out, with comic results as well for Marie’s swanky employers, Count and Countess von Rischenheim (amusingly blustery Lawrence Grant and luscious, blonde Dorothy Revier).

To all of this, Whale brings his formidable, omniscient sophistication and gay man’s laser-like attention to telling details of glamour and sensuality. The film must have ben an absolute joy to film, with everyone on the same wittily embossed page, and this joy positively spills out all over the screen. The comic pacing is impeccable, even when it veers into lower laugh effects, like the fluty sounds which accompany the delightfully numerous drinking scenes which often fuel the action. Which brings up W. Franke Harling’s quite astonishing through-composed music score, with its apropos echoes of Strauss’ DER ROSENKAVALIER. Nearly every moment of the film is musically underlines, but the work of Harling (British, like Whale, and a co-composer of the song “Beyond the Blue Horizon”) is a far, superior cry from the often bludgeoning scores of Max Steiner, music that enhances the romantic delirium, and subtly comments on the action rather than numbing you with obviousness. In perfect timing with Harling, the cinematography of John Mescall, Whale’s favored, superb cameraman fluidly tracks these lovers through Charles D. Hall’s splendid white-walled sets, which show that when called for, Universal Studio could easily rival the more prestigious Paramount for high style Euro environmental elan.


Paul Lukas

Lukas has an immensely likable underdog appeal as this servile but horny wannabe; Josef’s sensual opportunism and funny, avid obsequiousness in his scenes with the Prince, is a far cry from the noble, too-good-to-be-true characters he so often played, like his Oscar-winning WATCH ON THE RHINE. The knowing, very Hungarian humor he brings reminded me of his real-life comment about the Gabor sisters, whom he dubbed “the whores of Budapest.” In the Prince, he has an eminently worthy idol, as plummy-voiced Nils Asther, the most glamorous actor in movie history, plays him with unparalleled grace and savoire-faire. He has a dressing up to go out scene here which is an absolute manual for sartorial elegance and plies his patricianly seductive trade with an irresistible joie-de-vivre.


Nils Asther, most glamorous movie man ever

Elissa Landi, mostly known today for her thrown-to-the-lions Christian virgin Mercia in DeMille’s 1932 THE SIGN OF THE CROSS, has her best screen role. Born in Italy, raised in Vienna, with bloodlines rumored to be traceable to Empress Elisabeth of Austria, she had, of course, the perfect background for this, and, additionally, brings her angelic looks, cello voice and ravishing womanliness. She makes Marie an entrancing creature of impulse, whether stealing her mistress’ best gown (and it’s a beauty, designed by talented Vera West, who comitted suicide in 1947, a final note claiming she was the victim of some mysterious blackmailer) to go on a surreptitious rendezvous with Josef, or jumping like a kid at the sight of a country fair. Neither she nor Lukas were ever particularly noted for their sensuality, but, under Whale’s warmly attentive direction, given a good script (by no less than four screenwriters), and such infectiously seductive, brilliantly studio-created ambiance, the two of them strike some memorably sexy sparks.

Other Whale rarities in the Film Forum retrospective include IMPATIENT MAIDEN (1932), which features Mae Clarke, so poignant in his WATERLOO BRIDGE, wonderfully smart and unsentimental as a working girl secretary, cynical about the idea of marriage, who momentarily foresakes her struggling doctor boyfriend (Lew Ayres, attractive and youthfully upright) for the posh attentions of her oh-so wordly boss, John Halliday. The film proves that Whale, as British as he was, but such an inescapable humanist, could be just as attuned to the comic, claustrophobic rhythm and sassy slang of Manhattan life, especially in scenes revolving around Clarke’s humble, privacy-strapped apartment building, where her neighbors function as eternal Greek chorus for the comings and goings of any single white female. As the secondary romantic couple, Una Merkel and a very young but nonetheless rasp-voiced Andy Devine entertainingly provide savvy comic relief.

SINNERS IN PARADISE (1938) feels like a bread-and-butter contractual assignment, a GRAND HOTEL compendium of variegated souls stranded from a plane crash on a tropic isle, with certain, telling Whale touches of cynicism and sensuality.


Richard Cromwell

THE ROAD BACK (1937) is a seminal film for its disastrous effect, as a critical and commercial failure, on his subsequent career, which never regained the eminence it had previously enjoyed. The film was recut and reshot from Whale’s original conception and it is, indeed, a rocky affair, veering from stark anti-war drama to disconcerting buffa comedy and a wavering moral thrust, resulting in an obviously diluted, would-be powerful vision. After such a low point, it probably was more than easy for Hollywood to turn its back on this talented but resolutely independent soul who refused to kowtow to the prevailing, conventional status quo, living his life openly and courageously as a completely out homosexual. This film, which plays like a civilian sequel to ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT, although undeniably disjointed, like all Whale films has its fascinations, particularly its casting of young male beauties like Maurice Murphy, a cherubic George Cukor favorite, and Richard Cromwell, a popular 1930s juvenile who would later marry a young Angela Lansbury who would later confess that she was practically the only one in Hollywood who didn’t know he was gay. Apart from acting, Cromwell was into decorative arts, designing architectural tiles and masks like those of George Benda or Oliver Messel. He was rumored to have been involved with Howard Hughes and the late costume designer Earl Luick told me that he and Gary Cooper had definitely had an affair on location while filming LIVES OF A BENGAL LANCER (1935).

For show times and location, click here

COPYRIGHT: davidnoh2009

SERIOUS SWAN SONG

In Uncategorized on December 4, 2009 at 6:42 pm


Meg Ryan and Timothy Hutton share the Ninth Circle of romantic hell in SERIOUS MOONLIGHT

“I’m not going to die. Nobody’s going to die.” These words, rather innocuous in themselves, take on a chilling effect in SERIOUS MOONLIGHT, as they were written by Adrienne Shelley, the actress who was murdered in 2006. The film is one hard-core chick flick, which had more than one guy – more used to stomaching the violence of, say, HOSTEL or SAW, than the investigation of a woman’s refusal to end a relationship -getting up and walking out of the press screening I attended.

Ian (Timothy Hutton) definitely wants out of his relationship with his high-powered, self-absorbed lawyer wife Louise (Meg Ryan) and, in a typical, cowardly fashion that may strike a chord with anyone who has ever been unceremoniously dumped by a man, he pens her a note which will be read by her only after he has split for Paris with his new girlfriend. At least that’s what he thinks, but Louise makes a surprise one-day early appearance at their country house where he has arranged a bon voyage romantic night with said new squeeze. Louise sees the rose petals scattered about which are not for her, reads the note and simply refuses to go quietly into that good night of resigned, deserted partners. She’s a screwball comic version of Glenn Close in FATAL ATTRACTION but, instead of threatening, “I’m not going to be ignored,” she says, “I refuse to go to movies by myself, develop a chocolate addiction or deepen my friendships with women in similar situations!” before rendering Ian unconscious and binding him to a chair.

Completely under her control, Ian must submit to every guy’s nightmare: a total rehash of a dead relationship, as Louise drags out old reminscences and snapshots of their lives together, and bakes his erstwhile favorite chocolate chip cookies in a misguided effort to win him back. He seethes and oozes pure hatred for this corporate maenad, but I think some survivors of love’s warfare – especially women – will derive much guilty pleasure from this spectacle. I mean, who hasn’t wanted to just hang the fuck on to a special someone, even after they’ve somehow (and always unaccountably) lost interest? Remember Woody Allen’s famous mea culpa, “The heart wants what it wants?”

Meg Ryan has maybe the juiciest role of her career and she carnivorously sinks her teeth into it, nearly effacing all memory of the time when she rivalled Julia Roberts as “America’s Sweetheart.” Adriennle Shelley may no longer be of this earth, yet she is very much alive through the blistering, mordantly funny lines Ryan delivers with such spirit. Louise is, indeed, one pretty sick ticket, yet she evokes an undeniable empathy, even as nearly every man in the audience (if there will be any) recoils from her and hastily retreats. Yes, the actress’ face is somewhat surgically frozen, but this actually works for the part, especially when she is confronted by her romantic rival, Sara (Kristen Bell, tiny and amusingly staunch, and also refusing to take second place), who is, of course, a younger, fresher, sweeter version of herself.

Sara finds herself imprisoned in the same bathroom as Ian and Louise, thanks to Todd (Justin Long), a local thug who shows up to rob the house and makes fast work on them with the same duct tape Louise used on Ian. The room becomes every man’s idea of the ninth circle of hell as the ladies have at each other like rabid canines with Ian their very raggedy love object. It’s pure comedy of cruelty and, as scripted by Shelley and attentively directed for every comic possibility by Cheryl Hines, that rare example of the form which entertains and enlightens rather than benumbs and grows tiresome.

I just wish Hutton were stronger in his part. He shouts away and struggles manfully in his synthetic shackles, but the performance is one, monotonous note of anger without any illuminating colors. He’s weathered looking now and a long way from the cherubic, troubled lad he was in TERMS OF ENDEARMENT, but his emotional range seems stunted. Long has a sexy slyness and convincingly scary streak of violence which adds necessary flavor and texture to this cinematic chamber piece. And Shelley, as if winking at us from beyond, adds one final scripted fillip which sends you out in a happily quizzical frame of mind.

COPYRIGHT: davidnoh2009

BLANCHETT DUBOIS

In Uncategorized on December 4, 2009 at 4:16 am

The title is not just an easy pun. “Blanchett” could be read as a diminutive of Blanche DuBois, the name of Tennessee Williams’ most famous character, in A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE – and this is exactly what this actress delivers, performance-wise: a lesser effort, especially when compared with Vivien Leigh’s definitive performance in the 1951 movie.

I would like say here and now that Liv Ullman, when I interviewed her some years back, was one of the most enchanting, intelligent and real women I have ever met. On film, she has sensitively portrayed every human emotion imaginable and I looked forward to what she would extract from the play, but here she proves herself utterly the wrong director for it. We have a Norwegian helming an all Australian cast, most of whom struggle with their Southern accents just as Ullman tries to convey a New Orleans milieu which makes one wonder if she had ever actually been there. The wrong notes commence at the very beginning, which has two women neighbors of Stanley and Stella Kowalski (Joel Edgerton and Robin McLeavy) being overtly loud and unconvincingly Southern on the fire escape while Blanchett sits, seemingly unseen, on the stage in a corner, depriving Blanche of making any kind of memorably disoriented, chaotic entrance. The second-floor apartment of the Kowalskis’ neighbors is visible, as well, throughout the play, a distraction from the main action, and a positive disaster when employed for drama, for example, with the shades down, the characters within in abysmal silhouette, when Stanley frantically calls upstairs to retrieve his battered Stella. The actors also operate as stage hands, visibly changing the set, which only breaks the concentration of the viewer – and, one would think, the actors – throwing you completely out of the established emotional moment, as they bustle about the stage, immediately after some histrionic revelation, straightening chairs and cleaning the floor. Ullman’s choice of music during these transitions is also a mistake – heavy and obvious, from all-too conventional, canned-sounding “blues” themes (hey, we’re in the South, remember?) to a jangly ragtime version of the Varsouviana polka theme which so haunts Blanche. Ullman has the peddler, who eerily sells her flowers for the dead, remain onstage after her last line, lounging on that infernal fire escape, making an entire, wordless and needless play of her own, while, inside Blanche rages at her hapless suitor, Mitch (Tim Richards, sexlessly playing it like Walter Brennan at his most superannuated and crotchety). The little exterior “porch” is also over-employed throughout, providing a rest stop for actors who should be offstage after delivering their scene’s final line, instead of visibly catching their breath, an effect which only adds enervation to an already dragging production. The Kowalski abode itself looks more like a flophouse, with a scarcity of seating that forces most of the action to take unseemly place on their bed. Obviously Ullman took its “Edgar Allan Poe” aspects beyond the literal to a near uninhabitable point, and Blanche’s supposed efforts to dainty the place up are ineffectually minimal. Intrusive, cornball expressionistic sound effects proliferate as well, as if the director did not trust her actors to convey the right moods.

Granted, any new interpreters of the roles of Blanche and her eternal nemesis, Stanley Kowalski, have the daunting prospect of being compared to the work of Leigh and Marlon Brando, forever preserved as two of the all-time greatest performances on film. The only reason to mount any revival of this play in particular is if the actors can possibly bring something fresh to these parts after such precedence. Blanchett works hard, but the effort is all too obvious in her inability to fluidly fuse the variegated elements of her interpretation. She dutifully does the fluttery, spinsterish mannerisms of the initial scenes (which Jessica Lange so overdid throughout her entire interpretation of the role) and then surprises you with a low, growling force often as not brought on by her liquor intake (this is the drinking-est Blanche ever). The problem is these different facets don’t seem to be emanating from the same woman, and Blanche comes off initially as more schizophrenic than mercurial, which is perhaps intentional, if wrongheaded. Her best moment comes when she excoriates Stanley to Stella. Describing him as an animal, Blanchett finally conveys some of the real humor so lacking in her overall performance (along with a requisite, devastating charm). Blanche with her artifice and intellectual pretensions needs to be captivating, something Leigh was easily able to achieve with her deft, butterfly-light touch (which later morphed into a tigrish ferocity). Any heavier approach, which has sadly been true of every other performance I have ever seen, including, besides Blanchett, Ann-Margret, Jessica Lange, Blythe Danner and Natasha Richardson, makes the woman a tiresome natterer, almost deserving of Stanley’s contempt. Those absurdly entertaining words about Edgar Allan Poe or the Pleiades being seven sisters, all of which contain steel nuggets of truth for all their filigree, cannot be delivered as punch lines lest they become near-vaudeville routines merely inviting low chortles.

The heaviness is only emphasized during the more dramatic, stripped-of-all illusion moments, with Blanchett delivering famous lines like “I don’t want realism. I want magic” like sepulchral pronouncements, annoyingly broken up. She does more floorwork than Jerome Robbins, often completely covering her head with fabric. In her final encounter with Stanley, she plays it as a low-down drunken bawd, a far cry from Leigh’s dainty tipsiness, which is a brave choice, emphasizing the raw sexuality he has always brought out in her. The attack and rape are forcefully done, with Ullman employing a full panoply of “cinematic” lighting and noisome sound effects (like that eponymous streetcar finally making an aural entrance after a seeming entire summer of silence), but then we are treated to an additional, unscripted scene in which a supine, sated and naked Stanley is seen, while Blanche, her back to us, sits on the bed, recovering. (I could hear a faint whirr of Tennessee spinning away somewhere here.)

The play’s climax, as staged by Ullman, is a disaster and an insult to Williams. The playwright painstakingly describes – in dialogue, no less – the final, exquisitely appointed outfit Blanche is to wear for her exit, but Blanchett never puts it on. A shawl stands in for her dress, so memorably described as “Della Robbia blue,” which Blanchett, fresh from her last bath, dons over her slip, and, with matted hair and bare feet, she goes to her destiny. So, Ullman and company effectively, callously deprive Blanche of her last vestige of dignity in a cheap, unnecessary attempt to further pathos, underlining their overall effect of Blanche being in the loony bin already, as she has been, in this particular conception, from the start.

It must also be said here that the production is pocked by unscripted addendums. Whether these are intentional or due to faulty text recall is up for grabs, but I did not appreciate Blanchett added an “Oh, God,” before delivering “Maybe we are long way from being made in God’s image, but Stella, my sister, there has been some progress since then!” Blanchett also misread the line to the young collection agent she nearly seduces, asking him if he stopped into “a soda shop – and had a soda?” The line should have been “in a drug store – and had a soda?” Such additions and errors wreak havoc with the scrupulously calibrated rhythm and surprise of Williams’ brilliant dialogue, not to mention your own memory of the actual lines. Even the play’s deathless line, “I have always relied on the kindness of strangers,” is mitigated by Stanley consoling his Stella (who, somehow, as upset as she is, had no problem sending her beloved sister out in her underwear) with a paltry, lame and all too audible “Now, now…”


Joel Edgerton, a yapping puppy of a Stanley, with Blanchett

As Stanley, Edgerton’s accent ranges from Noo Yawk to South End Boston and back to his native Aussie, giving the effect that he studied it from a variety of American TV shows. The source of his interpretation is easier to put a finger on – it’s a pure Brando derivative, but, to make it his own, he needlessly coarsens it further, groping his crotch and actually spitting food at Stella and Blanche during the disastrous birthday party scene, besides (all too carefully) hurling plates against the wall. He shouts nearly all of his lines, but hollowly comes off as more of a snarling puppy than pit bull. However disappointing Blanchett might be, she is at all times smoothly professional, yet having to contend with a rank amateur like this for a partner. The very callow McLeavy unfortunately makes a fit companion to him, with an equally lousy accent (in which “birthday” becomes “buthday”) and blowsy, common quality, legs forever akimbo to suggest her newfound marital physical satisfaction, which makes it difficult to believe she ever had aristocratic roots of any kind. When Stanley refers to the “loose woman” in his house, she seems to fit the description far more than Blanche.

The one spot of artistry in the show is Tess Schofield’s exquisite costume designs for Blanchett, which have all the care and sensitivity missing from everything else. Some day I would perhaps like to see Blanche played with more sensual wiliness and force (and I don’t mean the grim, facile sexiness Ann-Margret brought to the role on TV), and I would definitely like to see Stanley done, for once, with a Southern accent, instead of some faint imitation of Brando’s urbanized tones. God knows, Dixie has more than its own share of mesmerizingly sensual male animals, but you’d never know it from just about every “Streetcar” production imaginable.


Lee Radziwell, a theatergoer with rare taste

This review seems to be a minority report, as the critics are already falling all over themselves with praise for it, and the already sold-out run is causing high frustration among the ticketless. To those I say, take heart from the major celebrity sighting of the performance I attended: Lee Radziwell, flawlessly turned out in a New York High Society style that will soon be totally extinct – impeccably swirled bouffant and suavely tailored red jacket – elegantly carrying a leopardskin cushion to combat BAM’s rigorous seating. As the lights dimmed for the second act, I noticed her seat was empty and rather envied her.

COPYRIGHT: davidnoh2009