Monday, August 28, 2006

1962: The Overlooked

Jane Fonda in Walk on the Wild Side
Where "Sweet Bird of Youth" reeked of prestige, "Walk on the Wild Side" was pretty much written off as plain disreputable. But guess what! It's much more entertaining, with beautiful black & white photography, excellent use of locations and some really well-dressed intriguing sets. To say it lacks 30's flavour is unfair. No Hollywood film seriously attempted to do recent period till the late 60's.By that time fashion had finally become more diversely accomodating and film honchos were less terrified of having their stars look slightly out-of-date. At any rate, what's not to like about a film that offers us so many famous actresses all doing their thing - and doing it with relish. Anne Baxter blends her facility with accents (Mexican in this case) with her natural ability to be a Mensch. Capucine does a dialed-down Ingrid Bergman that's, well, restful. Joanna Moore's a memorable (memorably pretty and memorably touching) Miss Precious. And, of course, there's Stanwyck, all icy authority and frustration. But the should-have-been nominee is Jane Fonda. It's only, I think, her second film. And she's already miles ahead of her contemporaries in charisma, confidence and distinctive talent. And how about that dress she changes into at the gas station? She and that particular glad-rag are a match made in pulp heaven. As Kitty, the scrappy survivor who'll do whatever it takes and then some, Jane Fonda is pure snap, crackle and pop. The script asks a lot from Kitty - and Fonda doesn't back down an inch. The real surprise is that it took so long for the actress to consolidate her status in Hollywood. But that's undoubtedly down to her Euro-centric lifestyle, script and marriage choices. She got her first Oscar nomination in '69 as a feisty Depression dame in "They Shoot Horses". But her Kitty in "Walk on the Wild Side" is more than just a dress-rehearsal for that part. It's an impressive accomplishment all on its own.

Shelley Winters in Lolita

I'm tempted to say Shelley Winters' lack of a supporting nomination for the genuinely epic "Lolita" was because of her star billing. But I think the Oscar voters simply weren't impressed by the film. "Lolita" was years ahead of its time. And the Academy tended to be years behind. Whatever the case, this is a great performance, fully worthy of sharing the spotlight with Lansbury and Duke. There's a fine line between brilliant parody and overkill - and Winters successfully negotiated it more than once - but never quite so adroitly as here. She's hilarious and tragic, scary and pathetic. No one could have gotten more out of Charlotte's affectations ("Shall we have our coffee on the piazza?). Her looks, her movements (that deliciously lumbering cha cha cha),her total oneness with Charlotte's absurd wardrobe - all add flavour to an irresistible Shelley Winters sundae. Of course, she shares most of her scenes with James Mason in the performance that represents the single most outrageous omission in Academy history (others that come to mind - Charles Laughton in "The Hunchback of Notre Dame", Dennis Quaid in "Far From Heaven"). Their styles are radically different but when they're onscreen it's a duet made in heaven. Perhaps the picture reaches its giddiest climax when Humbert reads Charlotte's letter declaring her love. (Go! Scram! Departez!). Only Mason is physically there. But Winters has made such a vivid, lingering impression that one can simultaneously hear her voice in the words, all the while revelling in Mason's peerless delivery as he reads and reacts to her declaration. No Tuvan throat singer ever achieved such delicious duality of tone. Hats off to Shelley Winters. In almost any other year, I would have given her the trophy.


I made a point of revisiting 1962's"Tender is the Night." Joan Fontaine has fun as Baby, the hard-boiled heiress. She's chic, affably brittle and definitely one of several good things in this much-maligned Fitzgerald adaptation. I remember Gena Rowlands as being extra-special in John Cassavetes" "A Child is Waiting", but didn't get a chance to see it again. I did , however, manage to catch up with "Requiem for a Heavyweight" to reacquaint myself with Madame Spivy's butch gangster lady. She's still unsettling but not quite as startling as I remembered. But then I've had 44 years to compose myself.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Get ready for a long ramble through 1962 - supporting actress style...

Get ready for a long ramble through 1962 - supporting actress style.

The battle between Lansbury and Duke brings up the whole question of whether to honor the performer or the performance. What's onscreen (in both cases) is devastating. But longterm reactions to the two performances seem to be fuelled by a number of presumptions, generally flattering to Lansbury - to Duke, not so much. First of all Lansbury's career is studded with triumphs. Even in ‘62 she offered herself stiff competition. Her work in Frankenheimer's "All Fall Down" is arguably the second-best of her career. But the Academy's one performance rule meant that either it or "Manchurian Candidate" had to be sacrificed. On the other hand, artistically at least, Patty Duke's subsequent career was pretty much one long anti-climax. So there's a tendency to see her Helen Keller as something of a fluke. Lansbury was an adult - a seasoned pro whose performance might naturally be considered the result of talent, experience, creative choices and active, inspired collaboration with her director. Duke was a child. Yes, she tapped into something primal. But how much was her Helen Keller simply the result of a child's unquestioning obedience to Arthur Penn? Even among admirers of Patty Duke's performance some still see her more as a uniquely effective vessel than as an equal partner in its creation. Lansbury had a relatively short time to rehearse her Queen of Diamonds. Which makes her accomplishment all the more impressive. Duke, on the other hand, had ages to perfect her role. At the end of an extended Broadway run (with the same director and co-star), couldn't one reasonably expect a polished gem of a performance? Of course, this theory ignores the pitfalls of transferring stage successes to the screen, something that's defeated many fine actors over the years - but obviously didn't defeat Patty Duke. Finally, Duke actually won the Oscar. So dare I suggest that among smackdowners there may be an impulse to give Lansbury the laurel this time, thereby righting a (perceived) longstanding injustice? One way or another, posterity's scale seems weighted in Lansbury's favour. But then there's what's onscreen. And that's where Patty Duke gives no ground.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Patty Duke in The Miracle Worker (1962)

Other young actresses have taken on the Helen Keller role over the years. But none have come even remotely close to achieving Patty Duke's astonishing level of primitivism. The energy, the stillness, the sense of lightning-fast calculations and re-adjustments made in the profoundest of darkness - they're all something to behold. She pulls ugly/beautiful faces you're simply not going to see anywhere else - and the gamble, if that's what you call it - pays off, illuminating Helen's identity as a strange, fascinating exile. Duke nails Keller's tenacious will. She's simultaneously greedy tyrant and desperate cornered animal. "The Miracle Worker" never loses sight of the tragic waste that seems to be Helen's inevitable lot. And even Keller's ultimate triumph resonates with the tragedy of all the Helens who never found their Annie Sullivan. Has there ever been such a powerful and well-earned celebration of the teacher-student relationship? Anne Bancroft is luminous as education's standard-bearer. But it's Duke who movingly personifies its challenges and rewards. In her brave performance there's never any doubt that something -something enormous - is at stake. All you little Hallie Eisenbergs and Melissa Gilberts, not to mention all future portrayers of young Helen Keller. Be warned. Patty Duke owns this part - and I suspect always will. So in spite of all the qualifiers and asterisks, this performance - fearless and definitive - stands tall on its own incredible merits.

Angela Lansbury in The Manchurian Candidate (1962)

When Lansbury first barrels onto the tarmac in "Manchurian Candidate", one might think "Oh, no! Too broad! Too broad!". But the actress is in total control of her arsenal and very quickly it's obvious she's operating with hair-trigger precision. Her Bo-Peep scene with John McGiver is a stunner. Lansbury knows just when to lower the emotional drawbridge, then slam it shut again. And, of course, therre's the final extended scene with Raymond - an exponential explosion of dramatic complexity. It's here that an already mesmerizing performance lifts off and soars into the stratosphere. I can't even write about it without wanting to watch it again right away. In the DVD commentary, John Frankenheimer mentions that Sinatra was initially determined to cast Lucille Ball in the role. Hearing that, I suddenly felt that sometime in 1962, the planet had managed to dodge one hell of a killer asteroid. Thank God Lansbury got to play the role she was born for!

Mary Badham in To Kill A Mockingbird (1962)

I approached "To Kill a Mockingbird" with some reservations, remembering a certain self-congratulatory tone. And I'm no Peck fan. But the film stands up well. Beautifully photographed (talk about astute and creative use of the backlot!), with justly admired music, the film does capture a mood of nostalgic yearning and a real sense of the redemptive power of goodness. Mary Badham isn't as accomplished as her screen brother Philip Alford. But it's generally Badham who's remembered. Partly, of course, because the script favours Scout's viewpoint. As long as the actress playing her doesn't totally screw up, she's likely to be the focus of audience interest and sympathy. And Badham doesn't screw up. Not at all. She's natural, appealing and occasionally inspired (the scene with Atticus' watch). In terms of appearance and mannerisms, she's an amalgam of Daisy Clover and Tatum O'Neal in "Paper Moon". But it's important to note she predated both. I can easily imagine a 70's TV remake where Jodie Foster would have pushed too hard, been too butch and played with a calculated naturalness far less effective than Badham's authentic underplaying. I'm still no Peck fan. His performance is upright and sincere but insufficiently Southern. But the man's intrinsic goodness registers strongly and it's so appropriate for the piece that it simply outweighs his limitations. No reservations about Mary Badham though.She's an asset pure and simple,justifying her (very popular) nomination with an affecting performance that makes a good film even better.

Shirley Knight in Sweet Bird of Youth (1962)

"Sweet Bird of Youth" flew into theatres simultaneously shrieking "Art" and "Adults Only". I love Geraldine Page. And this is often regarded as her one unassailably great screen performance. I've never quite bought it. It has its moments - and it's never boring. But there's a glass ceiling here that she never quite breaks through. I think I blame it on Richard Brooks. Of course, the screenplay's shocking betrayal of the play's "adult" themes is legendary. The Hayes Office can take a bow here. But the decision to fiilm it in Metrocolor and Cinemascope on false looking studio sets sucks the life out of the picture at every turn. And don't get me started on the clumsy flashbacks or the endless ham-fisted reprises of "Ebb Tide"on the soundtrack. Let's just get to Shirley Knight. In a DVD interview, Knight credits her co-stars with teaching her the real meaning of acting. I don't dispute it. And Knight certainly became a great actor - formidable successor to Constance Ford and her monster mothers, but with a sideline in warmth and tenderness that was never part of the Ford playbook. I think it's safe to say that what she ostensibly learned on "Sweet Bird of Youth" bore fruit on later projects. But there's no greatness in her Heavenly Findley. The acting is perfectly okay. After all, we ARE dealing with someone who's gifted. But there's nothing here you couldn't see any night of the week on a TV drama. And she's physically wrong for the part. Heavenly's the only character in the piece with real wisdom. And wisdom's no problem for Knight. But she's also a symbol of unattainable beauty. And for me, here at least, Knight gives off a kind of albino-ish sexlessness that disqualifies her as a dream girl. Tuesday Weld is a name that comes to mind. But, like Page, she'd need a different director and a less tacky production. My lingering image of "Sweet Bird of Youth" is not of Page or Newman. It's of Shirley Knight propped up in a beach chair, then plunked down on a pile of soundstage sand next to a motionless studio pond that's supposed to be the Gulf of Mexico, all carefully arranged in front of a wrinkled indoor sky. It couldn't be phonier - and in this atmosphere, even an actress of Shirley Knight's calibre is just stymied.

Thelma Ritter in The Birdman of Alcatraz (1962)

I remember "Birdman of Alcatraz" as a particularly tedious experience. And I thought that this time I might just fast-forward to Thelma Ritter's scenes. But in the end I stuck with it. My opinion hasn't changed much. Burt Lancaster plays restraint in bold capital letters and aims it at the last row of the balcony for two hours plus. And the freshly scrubbed G-rated portrayal of prison life packs little punch these days. Thelma Ritter must have welcomed the chance to play a character with some trajectory for a change. Normally, she's presented as something of an eternal verity, an unchanging (albeit reassuring) given. Characters around her may (or may not) evolve but Ritter remains Ritter. As written, Mrs. Stroud goes from potentially endearing to baldly manipulative to selfishly vindictive. And Ritter hits all her chalk marks, but I expected more. She's definitely on the good side of okay (although in her final scenes her efforts are compromised by some really awful latex aging makeup). But a nomination? No. Unless I just accept it as the one she should have gotten for "The Misfits" the year before.