Monday, September 30, 2013


The latest Supporting Actress Smackdown  is upon us. This time it's a 1980 party  that Nat and StinkyLulu
are co-hosting. Make sure you go there.
Meanwhile I've been doing my own poking and prodding through the 1980 field. And though I don't feel quite as at home as I did for the '52 festivities, there's still plenty of Supporting Actress sand to sift.

A sincere, affecting, although maybe overly comforting film, Resurrection”’s  expression of the spiritual/ paranormal still earns high marks. Much (but not all) of this due to the incandescent Ellen Burstyn, one of  the greats.  Here (as she often does) Burstyn permeates the atmosphere with a soft-spoken sensitivity, irresistible but always fully grounded. Perfect casting for a character who’s  meant to be both approachable and extraordinary.

The Film’s Supporting Actress Nominee: EVA LE GALLIENNE  ♥♥
Le Gallienne wears her assumed folksiness like ermine robes. You can almost see her brandishing orb and sceptre fashioned from carefully polished old theatre awards. “Helen Hayes has nothing on me! Watch and learn.” Grandly unaware that Burstyn, Shepard and Farnsworth are all knocking it out of the park around her in genuinely, thrillingly cinematic style.
Further observations:
Le Gallienne’s not what you’d call bad in this picture. She’s too canny an old theatre vet, mistress of a million tried and tested stage techniques. And certainly aware of the need to scale it down somewhat for the screen ; there’s no actual declaiming to the balcony here. But she’s never particularly believable as a wise old farmland bird. This woman’s spent too much time cultivating her diction instead of her crops. And there’s always an air of conferring a favor on the proceedings just by appearing. She tends to over embroider her reactions when other characters have center stage too, never quite willing to give up the spotlight.  Her voice is certainly a well-oiled instrument. But it sounds a bit like Jeanette Nolan’s  to  me. And I get the feeling that, like Nolan, she could only be fully believable playing nasty.  Kindliness  just doesn’t seem a natural fit. Certainly we never get that conspiratorial twinkle Ethel Barrymore was so good at –you know, where she’s implicitly telling us “this may be a tall tale, but don’t I make it fun?”

For twenty years or so after World War 2, color and black and white films co-existed happily on the world’s movie screens. Old-school color tended to be vivid, near- hallucinatory in its intensity. And was mainly used for musicals, spectacles, adventure films , big star romances and  glorified fashion shows.
With its lower costs, black and white was certainly , by necessity, the province of low budgeters – sci fi, horror, Abbott & Costello and  Bowery Boys comedies. But it was also the go-to choice in big budget dramas that were conceived or marketed as serious art.  Things like “On the Waterfront”, “From Here to Eternity”, “A Streetcar Named Desire” were all high pedigree “important” pictures and color was judged too frivolous for the occasion. By 1966, as color TV became ubiquitous, black and white films grew rarer and rarer. “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’, an immense success, was one of the last. After that, most films were shot in color. It was felt (maybe correctly) that the public at large could no longer accept black and white as realistic. As the 60’s turned into the 70’s, color itself changed. The sharp, vibrant hues of yore were replaced by a grainy blueish grey palette. I call it “French Connection” color. It may have captured a more realistic semi-documentary feel. But it was no pleasure to watch.  And, generally, even the fantasies relied more and more on these drab, dispiriting tones.  Of course I grew up (movie crazy)  in  the 50’s , so I’m hard-wired to like old Technicolor and to be completely comfortable with black and white drama.  By the end of the 70’s new black and white films had , oddly, become like oases of beauty. Remember how “Manhattan” felt like a celebration of something that had been lost? At any rate, “Inside Moves” styles itself as a gritty movie about urban down and outers – and it’s shot  in washed-out “French Connection” color. The picture’s no masterpiece. But I can’t help thinking it would’ve been more effective in monochrome.  The story’s  an uneasy blend of the hard-hitting and the flat-out mawkish. A kind of redemptive Skid Row fairytale  set in and around a neighborhood bar ,where a group of variously handicapped friends congregate nightly. John Savage, seriously damaged suicide survivor, gets a job as bartender there and becomes more and more involved in the lives of the regulars. Savage was an actor very much on the way up in 1980, super-gifted, good-looking and charismatic. “Inside Moves” ‘ failure to find an audience seems to have signalled a downturn in his prospects as a major star. Too bad.  Because he’s marvellously talented.  Loved him  in “The Deer Hunter” and “Hair”. Certainly he’s excellent in “Inside Moves” too. Carefully crafting the vocal and physical tics – and sustaining them beautifully, always using them to build rather than just accessorize his performance. Also terrific in the film is David Morse,another actor that deserved a bigger film career.  Although his character becomes less effective in the second half(due to the writing not the acting), in the early stages of the film, he’s  fascinating. An obsessively friendly optimist  whose can-do charisma is just the outer level of an epically complex character. The bar’s regulars are, for the most part, Archie Bunker level  cartoons. With one exception.  A guy named “Wings”, who’s lost both hands. He’s played with considerable skill and genuine likeability. The actor looked familiar to me but I couldn’t quite place him. I kept thinking, “Did Lawrence Tierney somehow learn how to be genial at this late date?” or at other times, “Could Scott Brady still have been making movies in 1980?”. When I finally checked  imdb I was startled to find that it was Harold Russell, the real-life amputee who won Supporting Actor in 1946 for “The Best Years of Our Lives”. He’d pretty much stayed away from movies since – but here he was in 1980 giving another display of top-calibre talent . 

The Film’s Supporting Actress Nominee: DIANA SCARWID  ♥♥
Her rather indefinite introduction – or rather drift - into the film was, I’m sure, deliberate. But it reads like a miscalculation. At very least,  it’s poorly executed. She doesn’t really get any focus till about an hour in.   Then establishes a nice intimacy in her first fully realized interactions with Savage.  Later, they seem to be asked to  extemporize a little dialogue. And she definitely  can’t keep up with Savage here. Scarwid looks like a working class Lady Di and sounds like Shelley Fabares after an an Actors’ Studio intervention.  En route to a not quite palatable happy ending, though, her character’s given some moments of unexpected complexity motivation-wise  -  and the actress acquits herself effectively.
Further observations
Like John Savage, Diana Scarwid was on her way up in 1980. The Oscar nomination’s proof of that.
But unlike Savage, she’s not an especially riveting presence. Her career hit a brick wall a year later with “Mommie Dearest”, the same film that interred Faye Dunaway’s stardom.  Scarwid’s fine in that picture , by the way. Actually delivering more accomplished and sustained work than she manages  in “Inside Moves”. And, of course,  Dunaway is flabbergasting (and I mean that in a good way). But, somehow a lynch-mob mentality sprang up around the film. Faye Dunaway was effectively  sentenced to wear sackcloth and ashes from then on. And Scarwid’s chance at top-tier stardom disappeared in a wave of collateral damage.  

P.S. If I had to consider an “Inside Moves”   actress for a supporting nomination, it would definitely have been Amy Wright. She makes Morse’s hooker-junkie girl -friend  quite an experience. Sporting  the look and vibe of some sweet hostess on a Saturday morning kid’s show . With enough charm to be manipulative, (matching the personality she projects to her current audience) but with no long-term plan beyond follow the next high. She could be cuddling a puppy one moment, then skinning it alive and selling tickets.  She’s got the pared down, play-it-by-ear instincts of a panhandler.  And manages to make all these conflicting sides seem part of the same disturbingly convincing character. She’s even got the gift of gab. And the script wisely allows her to resist  - even scoff at – the film’s final tide-swell of redemption. Having her at the center, rather than the sidelines of the film, might have turned “Inside Moves” into a better – and tougher – movie.