Monday, January 4, 2016

Female Friendship: Stage Door, The World of Henry Orient, Swing Shift, La Cérémonie

Tiffany Vazquez Hosting Turner Classic Movies
      Turner Classic Movies (yes, they show more excellent movies than any other channel) recently asked super fan Tiffany Vazquez to guest program works centering on female friendship.  If TCM gets really smart, Vazquez will remain in a long-term capacity with the network.  She’s young, smart, and offers some intriguing insights into the specific movies.  We checked out some of the selections:

     Stage Door (1937), one of those wise-cracking, heartfelt comedy-dramas that Hollywood produced like sliced bread during the zenith of the studio era – in this case, RKO – gave an opportunity for an extraordinary ensemble of young actresses to strut their stuff.  Not revived as much as The Women (1939), it’s far more positive about the support and genuine camaraderie that female friendship entails.  Competing in the alienating world of the Broadway theatre, the women share joy, hardships, personal hopes and dreams, and are there for each other in the best and toughest of times.

The Women of Stage Door
     Although RKO isn’t lauded now to the degree shown to other major studios, executives could assemble the following cast:  Katharine Hepburn, Ginger Rogers, Andrea Leeds, Ann Miller, Eve Arden, Lucille Ball, Constance Collier, Gail Patrick, Adolphe Menjou, Jack Carson, and many others.  Leeds married and retired soon after its release to breed racehorses, but she’s lovely as the young actress, who’s experienced success, but is already being overlooked for the next model.  If this doesn’t presage the current TV singing shows and the eagerness to find the next thirteen year old with a thirty year 
Ann Miller and Ginger Rogers
old’s voice, then I don’t know what does.  Ann Miller, incidentally, was fourteen during filming, but she looks at least five years older and more than holds her own in a nifty tap number with Rogers, set in a swanky nightclub where Patrick sneers at them while trying to capture producer Menjou’s long-term romantic attention.

     There’s nothing dated about the movie, except for how fast, funny, and sarcastic the characters are.  Oh yes, and they seem like grown-ups dealing with unemployment, sexual exploitation, aging, balancing work and love lives, depression, and suicide.  They get all of this across in ninety minutes without cursing or showing much skin, though everything is suggested.  If only Judd Apatow and Tina Fey could edit their genius to move at such a pace.

     The World of Henry Orient (1964), directed by George Roy Hill (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Sting), felt a little like a live action Disney movie from that period to Neil.  
Merrie Spaeth and Tippy Walker
That’s probably because it’s most focused on the two fourteen year old private school girls Val and Gil, played by Tippy Walker and Merrie Spaeth, and because New York City feels like a big playground, rather than the dangerous and alienated metropolis it had become – this was the same year as the murder of Kitty Genovese.  Hill was known as a ‘buddy’ director and that already shone forth in the uninhibited friendship of the two girls, who play make believe games and display a naturalness that seems unscripted.  Fortunately, this friendship doesn’t turn sinister as the similar one in Heavenly Creatures (1994) between the girls played by Kate Winslet and Melanie Lynskey.  Walker and Spaeth are the leads and they carry the production with their high spirits and honesty.

Spying on Peter Sellers (Henry Orient)
     Where Henry Orient went a little wrong initially on its release was in making a big deal of Peter Sellers playing Orient.  He’s a second-rate concert pianist trying to hide his Brooklyn background with what would later be termed a Eurotrash accent.  Sellers is very funny playing a two-faced jerk; where he’s not as successful is in tying his character’s paranoia about the affair he’s having with a young, wealthy married woman, played winningly by Paula Prentiss.  He believes the girls are stalking him.  At first, they’re not, but coincidence turns into a new game and they look at him as a new fad.  Sellers’ performance is not big enough or maybe the story of the girls is more compelling.  

Angela Lansbury
     Angela Lansbury, however, in a small role about halfway into the story, may be a revelation for those who only know her from Murder, She Wrote (1984 – 1996), her cozy amateur sleuth detective series on which she employed either has-beens from Hollywood’s Golden Age that older viewers may have thought were already dead and intriguing newcomers who got a solid TV start.  In 1963, she was sick of the harpy roles she’d played incredibly well from her teens and was disappointed that her great performance in The Manchurian Candidate (1962) was nominated for but didn’t win the Oscar.  Yeah, I know Patty Duke was convincing as Helen Keller in The Miracle Worker, but I’ve seen others also play the role as well.  However, Meryl Streep didn’t do as well in the Manchurian remake (2004).  It’s because Lansbury could play yakky and daffy before turning it around to show Mrs. Iselin’s evil genius, while in the vulnerable spot of having to answer to the Soviet Politburo.  Lansbury’s frustration comes across as the ice queen mother, who’s emotionally withholding, but quick to pursue a meaningless fling out of boredom and spite.  

     Within two years, Lansbury became a major star while in Mame on Broadway.  Side note:  The Wiz!  Live on NBC a couple of weeks ago is the first of that annual series to work because they hired a cast that knew exactly how to perform.  We think Mame should be revived live and we nominate Anna Faris and Alison Janney as Mame and Vera Charles (Mayim Bialik would be a good Agnes Gooch too).  I don’t know if they can sing, but they can act, which is the most important element of performing in musicals, believe it or not.  Anyway, Mame features female friendships in a complex manner. 

     Swing Shift (1984), directed by Jonathan Demme, but produced by and starring Goldie Hawn, came out a couple of years after Connie Field’s Oscar-winning documentary The Life and Times of Rosie the Riveter (1980).  When you see the non-fiction, you can tell what Demme was going after and when you remember Private Benjamin (1980) and The Sugarland Express (1974), you can see what he hoped for and almost got from her.  Hawn has a sharp-eyed, cutting edge that can be a tonic for her commercial daffiness.  However, she wanted the movie to be a cute comedy set during World War II when women built the machinery that basically saved democracy.  

Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell
     Hawn does a funny bit with a tablecloth in one scene, which was probably where she wanted things to go tonally.  She looks great and could pass for late twenties, though she was ten years older.  The problem is that both she and Ed Harris as her husband, who goes off to war, look and seem more mature than the high school sweethearts that haven’t been married very long.  In trying to seem young in the early scenes, their acting ends up one note and shallow.  When things become more complicated in a friendship with a tough neighbor trying to make it as a singer, played with conviction and heart by Christine Lahti, Hawn is up for the challenge.  She also has real chemistry with Kurt Russell as her supervisor and also trying to make it as a musician; Russell looks like he could be the right age.

Christine Lahti
     The relationship between Lahti’s character and Fred Ward as a music impresario, who uses her, has more levels than the other romances.  The other problem is that most viewers will hope that Hawn and Russell’s characters will end up together because they bring out so much in each other.  The ending is more about bringing together Hawn and Lahti’s characters instead.  Because the movie doesn’t work, it’s sort of fascinating.  Lahti projects depth, but there are scenes where she looks like she’s in the mid-80s, rather than the ‘40s so no element works consistently.

     Claude Chabrol adapted Ruth Rendell’s A Judgement in Stone (1977) with Caroline Eliacheff for his La Cérémonie (1995).  Sandrine Bonnaire and Isabelle Huppert, both contemporary French cinema legends, give deeply unsettling performances, respectively, as a newly hired maid for a wealthy family and a small town’s bubbly and surly postmistress.  Huppert, especially, can do things with her eyes and mouth that work against the rest of her body language.  I’ve seen her in three or four films and she never moves, looks, or repeats her performances.  Only the tone of her voice – more patrician and elegant than expected – remains a common element.

Sandrine Bonnaire and Isabelle Huppert
     The major difference between the book and the movie is that Rendell tells what will happen in the first sentence and the suspense builds because the reader keeps putting the clues together towards what will be a tragic and shocking conclusion.  The key element is illiteracy.  Chabrol doesn’t do that.  He drops hints in the plot and Bonnaire masterfully shows that her character has no imagination and, more importantly, very little empathy.  Since Chabrol directs, the viewer probably expects that this will be a thriller of some kind and there seems to be an element of class struggle.  

     What Chabrol does instead and it’s chilling is to show the banality of evil and the curt, casual nature of murderous violence.  I wish he had used a flash-forward of the final image, which involves a tape recording that inadvertently picks up the killings, at the very beginning of the movie.  I think it would have intensified the viewer’s identification with the characters and the nature of the class conflict.

    Anyway, cheers to TCM and Tammy Vazquez for going off the main line to check out some lesser-known or overlooked works that aren’t perfect, but deserve attention.

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