Monday, 27 February 2012

Magnificient, Marvellous Meryl

And at long last, she got her third Oscar, 29 years after the last... An excellent performance in a ok, occasionally mediocre, occasionally good film with too much kindness for its subject matter has finally given her her just reward. She's finally in the pantheon of actors with three or more awards(*) - a fair prize of one of the best living actresses.

Of course I could argue she should have won it before, particularly with "Out of Africa" (too soon after "Sophie's Choice", I know), "The Bridges of Madison County" and "The Hours" (she didn't even get a nomination and she was by far the best thing in the film). As a guilty pleasure, I would even add "The Devil Wears Prada" to that list. Now, can she do a play in London? Please, please, please...
My only regret? That Glenn Close couldn't get the Oscar she long deserves.

As for the rest? Well, I pass...

(*) - just in case you're wondering, they others are: Katharine Hepburn, Ingrid Bergman, Walter Brennan and Jack Nicholson. Hepburn had four, the others three. Brennan was a wonderful actor, but three Oscars in five years was a bit too much.

Thursday, 16 February 2012

Beauty and the Boss (1932)

Roy del Ruth’s “Beauty and the Boss” starts off as your usual Warren Williams WB fare: a powerful businessman seduces his secretary – or in this case, he is being seduced by her. And to be honest, that was what I was expecting: another Pre-code seedy office melodrama (nothing against those, as seen here and here). Instead, it suddenly turned lighter, and I was presented with quite a good comedy.

While this may not be Williams’ best performance (I would elect “Employees’ Entrance”), it is one of his best and allows him to show his talent for comedy, something you can also see in the much vilified “Satan met a Lady”. Here he is clearly a star on the ascent: he is the lead despite being third billed, after David Manners, who clearly has a supporting part. Later that year (1932), he would be top billed in “The Match King” and “Skyscraper Souls” and with that unique and still unmatched balance of sleaze and seduction, he would become the ultimate Pre-code leading man.

Also extremely good are the two actresses, Marian Marsh and Mary Doran, as Williams’ current and former secretary (and current something else). I don’t think I ever had come across either of them. Marsh in particular shows some promise that, as far as her filmography allows me to assess, she never delivered – there is only one film she did after this whose title I recognised, "Crime and Punishment" with Peter Lorre.

Finally, I would like to say that this should have belonged in the Forbidden Hollywood collection series (rather than the Warner Archives), possibly in a volume dedicated to Warren Williams along with other Roy del Ruth titles such as “Upperworld”, “Employees’ Entrance” and “The Mind Reader” (the one I haven’t seen and would like to). Or, let’s even be original and add "Blessed Event” and two Cagneys (“Taxi!” and “Blonde Crazy”) and have an del Ruth Collection. A boy can dream, no?

Monday, 6 February 2012

The Letter (1940)

More than any other, "The Letter" is the quintessential Bette Davis film. It is one of the best examples of the studio system's star vehicles, where an actor carried the weight of a film. Davis is (nearly) the whole film from the audience's point of view, and without her the whole thing would collapse. Of course, the play on which it was based was in itself a star vehicle (Maugham wrote it for Gladys Cooper, if I recall correctly) so the whole thing is already centred in the leading lady. Having seen it on stage a few years back, however, I recall it as a much more balanced affair.

In a plantation in Malaysia, Leslie (Davis) shoots a man outside her house. The man, was one of her neighbours, and when the police comes, she tells them that she killed him after he tried to rape her. All seems pretty clear until a letter surfaces. I have to be admit, this is one of my favourite Bette Davis' performances. She's perfectly glacial, composed and her eyes, often about to explode, are a focus point for the audience (I think William Wyler, the director, knew this). As I once said to a friend, you can't take your eyes off her. Her character's obsession with detail and self-imposed discipline, her efforts never to give away anything away, so cleverly represented by the lace, appeals to me to no end. However, having recently seen the film recently for the umpteenth time, some of the flaws are becoming more and more evident.

The first, and most obvious, is the most unfortunate casting of Herbert Marshall. In one sense, he is perfectly pathetic, and therefore should have been perfect as the husband. The problem is that he can't act. And this is a film where all the action occurs in the amazing opening sequence, so it would have helped to have an actor who could actually act.

The second fault is the opening-up of the source material. Maugham based his play on a short story (also by him). It is of the nature of theatre that all action is moved forward by words. In cinema, that is a disaster, so often writers open the play up, show different locations, add characters, etc., to make it feel less closed. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. I'm starting to think it doesn't always work here. By breaking the long scenes of the play into tiny bits, you also loose the effect. You loose tension and structure and adding or extending things like the sequence in Chinatown serve no purpose other than make the film longer. Although it also leads us to the next point: the portrait of the Asian characters, either as greasy, devious, over-polite plotters or as greasy, devious, opium addicts. Played for laughs and the security of the White audience of the period, they are a hindrance to modern audiences, add nothing, and to be frank, are quite distracting.

Finally, there's the ending (and yes, spoiler alert). The original, bitter ending of the play, with Leslie not only admitting that she still loves the man she killed, but also that she will have to live a long, boring life concious of it is gone. This, I am sure is what attracted Maugham. So why does it have to go? Well, the Hays Code. As a murderess, Leslie must be punished. But this empties the film of its impact. So, to be fair, every time I watch it, I pretend the last few minutes aren't really there - the film ends when she utters the infamous line, "with all my heart I still love the man I killed".

Having spent so much denigrating what is one of my favourite films, and clearly not expressing how big is my emotional reaction to this film, I will try to get back on track and focus on three of my favourite things. The first, is obviously Davis (yeah, sorry, couldn't help it). The scene in the prison is still my favourite of all her performances: trying unsuccessfully to keep cool as her perfectly composed starts crumbling and you can feel her trying (and failing) to hold on. She got an Oscar nomination, and I probably would have given it to her, had I had a chance... Another highlight are the final scenes, when safe and sound, all is revealed. I have mentioned above that you can't take your eyes off her. I really believe this. The second highlight is the underrated James Stephenson as the lawyer, a character actor who would die the following year, just as his career seemed to take a more promising turn (he got an Oscar nomination for this film). Here he is a fallen angel, truly broken down by his actions to protect the wife of a good friend (the stage production I saw suggested that his actions might be motivated by something more than friendship towards Leslie's husband). It's really a pity that they didn't keep the dynamics of the play, as he could have been an even better match to Davis. Finally, the gorgeous, at times almost noir-ish Oscar nominated cinematography by Tony Gaudio: Bette Davis never looked as beautiful as all covered in Orry-Kelly's virginal white lace.