Wednesday, August 22, 2007

MS. Leighton

In preparation for the upcoming Smackdown, Stinkylulu’s waxing eloquent this week on an especially worthy subject – Margaret Leighton’s complex and rewarding work in “The Go-Between”(1971). Reading Stinkylulu’s exploration of the performance is nearly as much fun as watching Leighton deliver it.

From this corner, I’d like to offer three resounding cheers to the actress for a trio of terrific supporting performances in the early 70’s. Thank God that, with the “Go-Between” nomination, the Academy recognized at least one of them. The other two were just as good, maybe better: “Lady Caroline Lamb” (1972) and “The Nelson Affair” (1973).

The latter’s not much of a movie – just another souvenir from the time when it was raining Glenda Jackson movies. Accolades for Jackson were coming fast and furious too. The Oscar for “Women in Love” was understandable. No real problem with the nod for “Sunday Bloody Sunday”, either. But eventually things got out of hand. Probably the only reason Jackson didn’t snag a nomination for “The Nelson Affair” (a reunion with “Sunday” co-star Peter Finch) was that the Academy was busy actually handing her a second Oscar that year for the utterly disposable “Touch of Class”. A clear case of carrying things too far. It reminds me of a friend’s description of Greer Garson during her early 40’s hey-day . Graciously negotiating her way through the war years , nominations sticking to her skirts like static cling. Jackson’s skirts may not have been quite so daintily hoisted. But they crackled, nevertheless, with Academy cling. Truth be told, it was Margaret Leighton (as Lord Nelson’s betrayed wife) who provided “The Nelson Affair” with its only real interest acting-wise. The performance, superlative by the way, went largely unnoticed. I suppose, by this time, people just expected great acting from Leighton, simply accepting it as a matter of course.

"Lady Caroline Lamb"'s a much more entertaining piece, with Sarah Miles sublimely cast as an impossible daughter-in-law and Leighton dizzyingly good as the mother-in-law who has to contend with her. The film was in and out of theatres in a heartbeat, had a brief video release years ago and is yet to see the light of day on DVD. So it’s not that familiar to most people. But fans of Miles and Leighton who haven’t caught up with it can certainly look forward to a treat. Physically Leighton was Vivien Leigh-ish. Not as heart-stoppingly beautiful in her youth. Not as sexy. But she developed into a character actress of infinitely greater versatility. I recently caught up with her largely unheralded film debut in “Bonnie Prince Charlie”(1948). She transforms what could’ve been just a conventional leading-lady-in-a-Technicolor-adventure-film assignment into something quite unique. Gentle. Wise. Strong. Melancholy. Endearing. Yet there’s never a hint of cliché. Handed a role that could have been as bland as Bo-Peep, she’s simply intriguing. And it’s pretty much down to her own special art. Her care with the Scottish accent. Her lovely engagement with the actors around her. Her unmistakable presence. All these things announce the arrival of a genuine artist.

Leighton’s glorious 1-2-3 punch in the early 70’s displays that artistry in full, rich bloom. There’s a moment early on in “The Go-Between” – certainly not the climax of her performance – but, like so many moments in Leighton’s career, treasurable. Wearing an imposing hat, elegantly pouring tea from a silver service, virtually orchestrating the scene around her, she still manages to make a delicious meal out of the monosyllable “why?”.

That’s entertainment!

Saturday, August 11, 2007


Sometimes the public gets it right. Witness its repudiation of Who is Harry Kellerman and Why is He Saying Those Terrible Things About Me, a notorious box-office flop from 1971. People just seemed to sense from the get-go that this was one to avoid. Because of Barbara Harris’ somewhat flukey Oscar nomination, the picture’s part of Stinkylulu’s upcoming Supporting Actress Smackdown (August 26). So moving into investigative mode, I decided to proceed where few have gone before and watch it.

If there are people out there who relish the thought of spending two hours trapped face to face in a straitjacket with Dustin Hoffman, this picture offers you your chance. All others proceed with caution – possibly in the opposite direction. This is a movie that sees itself as hip, funny and profound. All boxes remain resolutely unchecked. Hoffman is Georgie Soloway, neurotic, unpleasant, selfish Dylanesque music superstar, poring over the various ways he’s flushed his life down the toilet. We’re given to believe he’s his own worst enemy. Though I’d say several of the other characters seem to have pretty good reasons to jump the queue. Did I mention most of the music’s lousy, too? Hoffman brings along his usual numbing self-absorption and monotonous presence, frequently relying on one of his standard schticks – sort of yelling at people as he grins mirthlessly, smug and needy at the same time. And when Hoffman gets going in this mode he’s never gonna say “uncle”. Get used to it. Along the way, reputable talents like Jack Warden and Dom DeLuise are given drivel to work with. And you may feel sorry for them. Sorrier for yourself probably. At about the 70 minute mark, when you’re likely examining the video box (it’s not on DVD) saying “wait a minute, isn’t Barbara Harris supposed to be in this thing?”, she finally shows up (as auditioning actress/one night stand Allison). She’s “on"; she’s full of tricks and mannerisms.

But, let’s face it, she’s got her work cut out for her. Like a gift that has to fight its own way out of a box full of low-grade excelsior. Suddenly she starts to sing “Painting the Clouds with Sunshine” – sweet and slow – and all’s right with the world. Her singing voice is beautiful – and so much more. Almost everything in this movie goes on too long. So, wouldn’t you know, HER number’s cut short. Allison maintains she’s only got three good notes and hasn’t gotten to them yet. But, I’ll tell you, every note we do hear is sublime. The sheer beauty she creates just on the word “drown” is almost unbearable. Of course, this IS Barbara Harris, an artist so complete, so richly intuitive and generous with her talent that there’s naturally a lot more than just nice singing going on. Every word and gesture in the song make you feel you’re coming home safe after a long journey. Hoffman steps aside to let her take the spotlight for the next ten minutes or so and she almost rescues a movie that moments before had seemed irredeemable. Much of her subsequent dialogue is overly sentimental, second-rate. But she works it. The girl works it. And apparently enough monkeys WERE given enough typewriters because one brief snippet is actually quite lovely:

“Time… it’s not a thief like they say – it’s something much sneakier. It’s an embezzler, up nights juggling the books so you don’t know anything’s missing.”

In the circumstances, it can’t really be called Barbara Harris’ very best performance. But it’s still Barbara Harris. And the results are, as often happens with this actress, alchemical. Of course, when she’s gone, she’s missed – desperately. But a little later, 70-ish David Burns creates his own little island of truth and beauty with a nice vignette as Georgie’s father, a neighborhood restaurant owner, stoically revealing a terminal illness to his son. And Burns' quietly off-hand delivery makes the moment count.
“There’s no point expanding at this time”.
But Burns and Harris only occupy 15 minutes or so of Harry Kellerman. The rest is Flails of Hoffman, staggering – eventually - to a final “profound” “surprise’’ twist (which is neither). Then, finally, you’re free to go. Sorry, no refunds.