AKA “La La Land”….Upon the occasion of them screwing up the one thing everybody assumed they were still good at–patting themselves on the back:
Since Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty are going to represent the Oscar for best film this year, in honor of the 50th anniversary of Bonnie and Clyde failing to win any major Oscars, I thought I would celebrate this, nihilism’s most fabulous celebration of itself yet (those occasional Sex Pistols’ reunions, always being minus Sid Vicious, the only one stupid or committed enough to off himself, are bound to go on paling by comparison), by linking back to my 2014 mini-reviews of both Bonnie and Clyde and The Miracle Worker.
I don’t usually get this lazy. But the open war between Donald Trump and the Security State has left me exhausted from fiercely resisting the temptation to start a political blog (don’t worry, I’ll fight it off in the end…I know when it’s the Devil calling), and finding it a little hard to concentrate on my usual insistence on celebrating all that is Great and Good in the face of Imminent Doom.
One thing which came up in my modest research to assure myself that I had my facts straight on what exactly Beatty and Dunaway would be presenting, was the reminder that Dunaway’s performance-for-the-ages in Bonnie and Clyde lost Best Actress to Katherine Hepburn in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.
Dissing terrible Oscar choices is not something I usually go for and nothing against that fabulous Yankee-est-Yankee-Ever Miss Kate. But if anybody wants to suggest that might be the worst, most gutless snub of all time, they won’t get any argument from me.
The girl from Two Egg was robbed (as she would be again on Chinatown)!
And the one they threw at her for doing what any good actress could have done in Network ain’t no kind of makeup.
As we say in North Florida...That’s all’s I’m sayin’!
I have a thing for heist flicks. I have such a thing for heist flicks that I find it hard to believe I’ve operated this blog for four-and-a-half years without writing about at least one of them at length.
Today, I’ll fix that.
Heist flicks can be broadly defined: What’s a kidnapping movie but a heist flick about a stolen body? There must be some kind of horror film division where souls are filched eh? Westerns about land grabs? Yeah, I’ve heard of those.
You can stretch “heist” almost as far as you can stretch “noir.”
Forget all that. I’m sticking to the basics.
For the purposes of this little exercise, the heist flick concept will be limited to stories about some person or persons trying to steal some form of loot.
That ought to keep it simple.
And within that basic definition there are two fundamental approaches: Comedies and tragedies.
I’ll get to the tragedies later. Today I’ll stick to the comedies.
Better yet, I’ll stick to a period that stretches from the early sixties to the early seventies, when nearly all the best comedy heist flicks were made.
There were good ones before (Alfred Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief, from 1955, a likely model of inspiration, comes directly to mind).
And I’m sure there have been good ones since (can’t think of any off-hand but the world’s a big place and I don’t like to say never).
But the best were nearly all made in those golden years between 1963 and 1971, when so many other pleasant things were going on, most of which these films never acknowledge.
They did have certain themes in common beyond the obvious heist structure. They all kept a fine balance between real comedy and real suspense…something Hitchcock himself only managed a few times. They all had genuinely clever plots that bordered on the feasible without inviting too much realism in And they all had a developing love story at their center, which mirrored and enhanced both the comedy and the suspense.
My favorite is my favorite because it did the best job of balancing the love story with the rest. And considering who all and what all was involved in defining the genre, that’s saying something.
So….taking the best in chronological order (any other order would be an exercise in absurdity) and saving the very best for last:
Director: Stanley Donen
Love Story: Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn
Heist Object: A Stamp (sort of!)
Director: Jules Dassin
Love Story: Peter Ustinov and His Sorry Life
Heist Object: Emerald-encrusted Dagger
The Moon-Spinners (1964)
Director: James Neilsen
Love Story: Hayley Mills (not the character she played so much as the actress) and the Isle of Crete.
Heist Object: Pearls (which have already been stolen…is there such a thing as a Reverse Heist Flick?)
Director: Jack Smight
Love Story: Warren Beatty and Oh! Susannah York
Heist Object: Casino Cash
How to Steal a Million (1966)
Director: William Wyler
Love Story: Audrey Hepburn and Peter O’Toole (she made a romantic lead out of him…no small feat)
Heist Object: Paintings
Waterhole #3 (1967)
Director: William Graham
Love Story: James Coburn and Margaret Blye’s Daddy (played by Caroll O’Connor…it’s complicated…a horse named Blue also figures prominently)
Heist Object: Gov…ern…ment…Gold
Two Mules for Sister Sara (1969)
Director: Don Siegel
Love Story: Clint Eastwood and Shirley MacLaine (she made a romantic lead out of him…not even Audrey Hepburn could have managed that!)
Heist Object: Government Gold…it was a thing then.
The Italian Job (1969)
Director: Peter Collinson
Love Story: Michael Caine and Noel Coward (though Margaret Blye once again makes for a lovely distraction)
Heist Object: Mafia Gold…being protected by the Government (a nice twist)
Kelly’s Heroes (1970)
Director: Brian Hutton
Love Story: Telly Savalas and Donald Sutherland (No attempt to involve Clint in that end of it this time. Telly and Donald were wonderful actors…but they were no Shirley MacLaine).
Heist Object: Government Gold (though this time it’s the Nazi government)
Dollars (aka $) (1971)
Director: Richard Brooks
Love Story: Warren Beatty and Goldie Hawn (though a subplot involving Gert Frobe and a gold bar also works beautifully on many levels)
Heist Object: Safety Deposit Boxes….that belong to crooks..and a nice way to close down the concept’s golden age!
I’m sure there are one or two from the time period that I either haven’t seen or have forgotten.
Plus the one I won’t mention until I’m naming my favorite (though those who are sufficiently hip to the genre or the period can guess from that faux-noirish top photo, which I found myself unable to resist).
I’m sure there are other films in the same vein and of the same quality that were made outside this time period, but, again, laying aside Hitchcock in lighthearted mode as the obvious source for much of this, I either don’t know about them or haven’t seen them.
So I’ll stick to my premise.
There was a special hybrid of comedy/suspense heist films…and almost all the best ones were made in the space of a turbulent decade.
Few were made before, probably because whatever turbulence filmmakers felt the need to channel was then best channeled through the device of romantic comedy or some other form of farce. It’s no accident that most of the heist films I named above, and the favorite I’ll name below, were superb romantic comedies as well. And it’s no accident that the old forms of romantic comedy, including the screwball kind, were falling out of fashion, both critically and commercially, at the same time the heist comedy romances flourished.
Something had to plug the gap between marriage-as-the-object-of-desire and marriage-as-nothing-at-all.
What better than loot?
Later on (and by later, I mean a year or two), this whole approach became problematic because the gap closed and marriage was no longer even part of the gold standard. More to the point, the presumption that marriage itself was both the logical and desirable end of any love story–even one involving loot–simply became untenable as a cultural assumption.
And once a cultural assumption becomes untenable it loses its force as a narrative device. That might be why subsequent attempts to remake some of these films fell completely flat. (The Trouble With Charlie, Jonathan Demme’s reboot of Charade, may be the worst film ever made by a director of his talent. I do not say this lightly. The remake/sequel of The Italian Job is fun for about five minutes. That’s about the length of time it takes to transition from the end of the original to the sequel part. I haven’t seen the remake of my favorite, but the fact that it stayed in development hell for years hasn’t made me any way anxious to fill this little gap.)
The other thing that hasn’t made me anxious to see a remake of my favorite–not even when Jennifer Aniston was attached to it for a while–is that my favorite is perfect.
There is never a reason to remake anything that’s perfect.
Director: Ronald Neame
Love Story: Shirley MacLaine and Michael Caine (who, in the romantic lead department, needed less help than any man not named Cary Grant, meaning, for once, Shirley didn’t have to work at being anything but Shirley).
Heist Object: The Bust of the Li Szu…or is it?
Gambit is the type of film that makes the crit-illuminati throw up their collective defenses. It’s always spoken of fondly but–horrors!–never taken seriously.
And since the job of the crit-illuminati is to shape the expectations of the rest of us–and I’m as susceptible as the next person (or was in youth anyway…I didn’t start out mistrusting everyone), I had to see it about ten times before I realized just how much better than really good such things can be.
Such things can tell us…things.
If we let them.
I’d never let that spoil the fun, though.
What makes this film good–really, really good–are the usual things that make movies really good. Great actors making difficult things look easy. (Watch the magnificent aplomb of the great Herbert Lom as he goes through a series of emotionally complicated shifts in character and perspective without making the least bit of fuss. You’ll have to make a point of watching because, even then, he’ll never let you catch him at it.) Real movie stars, Shirley MacLaine and Michael Caine in this case, in the glory of youth. Good tight writing and direction from established pros (Ronald Neame is a British version of Martin Ritt–all he ever seemed to do was make wonderful movies).
All that’s a given.
What gives the film force, though, a force that has carried through however many dozen viewings I’ve had a chance to give it, is that Caine’s Harry Tristan Dean and MacLaine’s Nicole Chang, spend the movie finding something that really is better than all the money in the world (and we know this because all the money in the world is what Lom, playing “the world’s richest man,” has). Namely, each other.
It really was acting, of course, and acting of the highest order. Neither Michael Caine or Shirley MacClaine were exactly known for being the monogamous type.
But they, and everyone involved in all of these films, came out of cultures that valued forms of permanence, including especially the form that starts with “til death do us part.” And, having mastered the one art every great actor has to master, that of observation, they play out Gambit‘s romantic implications with such natural ease that the deepest cynic would have no trouble believing their characters will make some form of “til death do us part,” work…or that it will leave a hole in the world if they do not.
Those kind of assumptions are all lost now and that’s the real reason nobody makes this kind of movie stick anymore. It’s certainly not for lack of trying and, amidst all the usual blogging/facebooking/tweeting/think-piecing laments about the absence of “basic story-telling” in modern narratives (be it film, stage or page) no one really wants to acknowledge the underlying reason, because it would mean admitting it as part of the price of “freedom,” in this case, the freedom to live in a world where “til death do us part,” and “well, as long as you won’t be here in the morning,” carry the same cultural weight.
It might or might not make for a better world. We’ll find out soon enough because right now we’re living in the afterglow of a cultural collapse which hasn’t made its own force felt as economic or military collapse. Here’s hoping we’ll be the first people to avoid facing the usual consequences.
But, however it works out in the “real” world, it sure makes for a hole in the world of narrative fiction the meantime. “Stories”–as opposed to the shiny-object distractions filmmakers (and novelists and playwrights), now strive to deliver across the board, often with an impenetrable layer of “seriousness” ladled on top–depend on cultural assumptions, the value of “til death do us part” being one of the principals that sustained basic narratives for about five thousand years, from the birth of narrative, until yesterday.
Right up to the moment Gambit was being made in fact.
Which is why a light entertainment from the mid-sixties carries more weight than we have any right expect, and not just because Shirley MacLaine, the actress of her age, gets to be as good as she was in any of her richly deserved Oscar-nominated performances.
Good and necessary as Caine is (as good and necessary as it gets), it’s her show, just the way the old screwballs were always the woman’s show.
For starters, she gets to use her dancer’s body more than most dancers do in actual musicals. From the tight little walk that the movie’s opening tracks through a crowded Hong Kong street, you could be forgiven for believing she’ll get right to it. Instead, she spends the next twenty minutes being the one thing you would bet Shirley MacLaine could never be, which is bo-r-r-r-ing, If you spend the whole time waiting for her to move a muscle in her face, don’t blink or you’ll miss it.
It might be the best pure acting job of her career, because the joy (as opposed to fun, which this movie always is) starts when she starts to talk and it turns out she’s a girl who really, really likes to talk. Shirley MacLaine on a movie screen could never be boring when she talked, because she never talked like anyone else. Here, once she starts, she talks a blue streak and even Michael Caine, completely in control to that point, has to run to keep up.
After that, it becomes a game of romantic yin-and-yang. Every time he gets dumber, she gets smarter and, when she finally gets dumber again, he gets smarter again just in the nick of time. And we realize that if he gets dumber a little more often than she does, it’s because she’s seen more of the world than he has…and maybe even more than he thinks he has.
So, yeah, for all those reasons and more, Gambit is my favorite comic heist flick. But it’s also my favorite because it’s a reminder that, when we bother to look back, the moment of our forgetting is tantalizingly near.
It’s as if we could still reach back and touch it, maybe even reclaim what we’ve forgotten if we wanted to. One moment, movies like this seemed simple, even inevitable. The next moment, what we call “now,” they seem impossible.
So, now, whenever Gambit nears its end, and the actress of the age just gone by starts once again talking about “all that Mongolian clay,” I’m no longer sure whether to laugh or cry.
…Not including Grease, which I wrote about here.
I’m not sure if I’m going to make this a regular feature or not, but some people liked the last one a while back so I thought I would look at my last ten every now and then and see if they made anything worth writing about.
Seemed to be the case this time. It wasn’t depressing at least. That must be worth something these days!
Anyway, here goes, again in reverse order (30 days, 10 movies):
(NOTE: “Umpteenth Viewing” means I’ve seen it more than five or six times and don’t feel like counting up exactly how many.)
August 29–Escape From Fort Bravo (1953, John Sturges, Umpteenth Viewing)
For the strongest evocation of cavalry life in the west outside of John Ford…and for going places Ford didn’t.
For William Holden, at his hard-bitten best, becoming humanized by love and death. For Eleanor Parker being lovely and unique, yet again. For the role of William Demarest’s lifetime, a lifetime in which he was never less than formidable and rarely less than perfect.
Also for John Sturges’ first foray as an action master. As iconography, that aspect of his career climaxed a decade later with Steve McQueen jumping a fence in The Great Escape. But, for pure mounting tension, he never bettered this. No one did. A good movie all around, especially for its rare look at Yankee/Confederate relations during (as opposed to after) the Civil War. In that, and most other respects, it’s about a thousand times better than Sam Peckinpah’s Major Dundee. But it’s most valuable, I think, for having what may be the best scenes ever filmed regarding the intricacies, terrors and pure hardships of actual Indian fighting.
So, at last: For its very Fordian reminder that the West was not won–or lost–easily. And that it was won–and lost–by people, not demography.
August 28–The Peacemaker (1997, Mimi Leder, Umpteenth Viewing)
For its clear-eyed look at the pulp future we are now living in. Forget the absence of chemistry between George Clooney and his leading lady (in this case a snappy Nicole Kidman). Except for Jennifer Lopez in Out of Sight (filmed in that serendipitous eye-blink when she could set a match on fire by looking at it), that’s been a given and here, for once, it doesn’t really matter. Just wait for the great action sequences (there are four of them–trains, cars, helicopters, a ticking bomb) and the burning climax, where this man…
…says “It is now.”
For that, I’ll watch it until “now” is no more…which I know won’t be in my lifetime.
August 24–Kaleidoscope (1966, Jack Smight, Umpteenth Viewing)
For Warren Beatty in a heist flick that’s almost as good as 1970’s Dollars (about which I’m sure I’ll have more to say some other time). For an impossibly daft and gorgeous Susannah York, saying, “Oh no. You came out of nowhere in a little red sports car and no mummy and no daddy. I’d hate to find out that you were real.” For Susannah York saying a lot of other things.
What else do you need? An ingenious and original plot? Scotland Yard mixing in? Jane Birkin trying on clothes? A crime lord who bonds with York over their shared Napoleon obsession?
Don’t worry. It’s got all that, too.
August 20–Gone With the Wind (1939, Victor Fleming (and others), Umpteenth Viewing)
For the story of Scarlett O’Hara, which, believe it or not, is what the movie is about (I mention it because, the way the pearl-clutchers go on about all the “baggage,” you’d never know her story was worth telling). And for too many other reasons to count, the whole kit-and-caboodle deserving its own post some day.
For now, I’d just like to point out that Vivien Leigh’s Scarlett launches more assaults than Indiana Jones. I always start out promising myself I’ll keep count of how many times she punches or whips or dirt-clods or hair-pulls somebody. I always come up with some number between ten and fifteen. But, like the movie, and Leigh’s unmatchable performance, it never feels quite stable or exact.
August 13–Strangers on a Train (1951 Alfred Hitchcock, Umpteenth Viewing)
For the two truly great scenes that open the movie, the first played between Farley Granger’s chump and Robert Walker’s psychopath, the second between Granger and Laura Elliot, playing the chump’s hard-bitten, soon-to-be ex-wife.
After that I always slog on, hoping it won’t all fall apart again. But the psycho always ends up killing the wife and that jars because, as played by Elliot, she’s the kind of girl who, in real life, would eat him for lunch and have the chump for a side. You get plenty of Hitchcockian dream-scapes after that, but these haven’t stood up as well as his best. I’ll lay aside the “logic” of trying to win a life-or-death tennis match in a certain amount of time (which can never be guaranteed) instead of losing it in a certain amount of time (which can). But I keep hoping The Master at least won’t have a policeman shoot at a carousel full of children this time around and kill the operator by mistake, with no discernible consequence except putting all the kiddies in mortal danger.
Alas, it seems to happen every single time.
I’ve usually enjoyed this, and I’m sure it’s some sort of formal “masterpiece.” But I have to confess that, each time around, it’s putting me to sleep a little earlier.
August 7–White House Down, 2013, Roland Emmerich, First Viewing)
Caught it on TV and stuck with it to remind myself how worthless this world we made can be. I’m willing to bet Hollywood didn’t make a single major studio movie between 1930 and 1960 that was this bad. Today, I take its crappiness for granted and give it six out of ten stars or whatever. I mean, it didn’t make me kill myself. That’s something, right?
August 6–The Naked Prey (1965, Cornel Wilde, Third Viewing)
For the glorious African landscapes, never bettered, even in documentary footage. For its stark reminder that civilization is a very thin veneer. For its refusal to accept that barbarism is civilization’s antidote and its simultaneous admission (in its slave-raiding scenes) that “civilization” is not always easy to define.
For Ken Gampu’s watchful, burning eyes.
For the uninitiated, the story involves Director/Star Wilde transferring John Colter’s famous run from the Blackfeet to a white hunter’s escape from the Zulus. Not recommended for anyone sensitive to realistic scenes of animal slaughter, human torture or Man’s grasping nature.
August 6–Midnight Run (1988, Martin Brest, Fifth Viewing)
For its reminder that I like De Niro better as a comic actor than a dramatic one (and I’ll grant that he’s a fine dramatic actor even if I don’t think he’s quite what others make of him…and I’ll also grant that I’m not one who thinks comedy is harder…but he’s still a truly great comedian). For making me laugh harder than any other movie made in the eighties….or anything else that happened in the eighties. For Dennis Farina’s best role. And for its one scene of heartbreak, played with De Niro’s estranged daughter, where the weight of all those Scorcese pictures lands gently, gently, without smothering the scene or letting anyone off the hook.
August 3–The Major and the Minor (1942, Billy Wilder, Umpteenth Viewing)
For Ginger…at all ages. I especially like the way she swallows a cigarette.
Oh, and for Billy Wilder’s first Hollywood directorial effort. She got it for him. He thanked her the usual way. He didn’t.
August 2–5th Avenue Girl (193, Gregory La Cava, Third Viewing)
This one wobbles a bit.
Still: For Ginger. For the Straight-From-the-Depression lessons in the ethics and ethos of New Deal capitalism.
And for: “Oh why don’t you mind your own business!”
There having been only three famous women who ever truly rocked it above and beyond the call of duty, I was just going to post some pictures of them. (I’m sure some of the many men who wore it, David Cassidy, Rod Stewart, et al, touched the souls of those of other persuasions, male and female. If so, peace be upon you. As for me, I am what I am and make no apologies.) But, in doing a little research, I found out my favorite haircut had a specific and pretty inspiring history.
To the extent such things can be spiritually copyrighted, it was invented by a Hollywood hairdresser named Paul McGregor for Jane Fonda’s character in 1971’s Klute. I encourage you to read the full story at the link, where, among other things, I learned that Warren Beatty, much to McGregor’s bemusement, claimed he modeled the lead character in Shampoo after him.
That might be another story for another day when I write about movies that defined the seventies. Klute and Shampoo will definitely be on the short list for consideration.
(And whether that was really where the shag began I don’t profess to know. Not my bailiwick. You got other ideas, feel free to share.)
For now, the part that interests me most is Fonda’s own reaction to the cut. Again, you can read the whole thing at the link, but basically, she saw it as a path to freedom, specifically freedom from her super-controlling husband/director Roger Vadim, who liked for her to wear hairstyles he approved.
I’ll buy that.
And, if so, it was not just mine and a lot of other people’s favorite haircut but maybe one of the more important cultural statements in modern history.
The Fonda who was perpetually cowed by men like Vadim could never have become Hanoi Jane. which, in itself, might have been a blessing. However pure her intentions, she did no worthy cause any favors in the role. And the less said about her eighties-era aerobics empire, the better. (Okay, I’ll say this much: those workout videos were as emblematic of Reagan-era ethics as visiting Hanoi was of counterculture ethics half a generation earlier–once unleashed, Jane got around.)
But she also never could have become, for a decade or so, starting with Klute itself, the bravest actress in Hollywood, a place where genuine bravery is always in short supply. She didn’t keep it up, but, while she was in flight, she went places nobody went before, at least not in big Hollywood productions that reached far outside the art-house circuit.
(For how far outside that circuit a Hollywood star can have an impact, I’ll just repeat something my mother told a woman on the phone who was going on about Jane’s political shortcomings right after we had seen 1978’s California Suite: “Well honey that may be true, but I’ll tell you one thing. She’s forty years old and she came out wearing a bikini and there was not one ounce of fat on her.” In our world, you always got credit for being a trouper. Next to that, being a commie didn’t seem so bad.)
For all the best and worst of it, out of Fonda’s own mouth, we can thank the shag.
Which leaves the real question hanging.
Did she who rocked it first rock it best?
Let me first say that, when it comes to haircuts, “shag” has developed a very fluid definition. So fluid it basically includes every shoulder length hairstyle you can think of, including the most famous post-shag hairstyle of ’em all “The Rachel.”
Nothing against the Rachel, but no matter how many millions donned it, it only ever really belonged to one person–and she hated it. Too much trouble. I’ve expressed my admiration for Jennifer Aniston plenty here before, but the Rachel is not a shag, let alone the shag.
The true shag, as befitting its source and inspiration, was both bold and democratic. If I’m giving it the strictest definition, I’m saying if I didn’t see it in the halls of my high school, circa 1974, it ain’t a shag.
Which brings me to Fonda’s competition.
Until recently (meaning this week) I always considered this competition to consist of one woman and one woman only–a woman who was really famous in England in 1974, but was completely unknown in my rural southern high school until she showed up on Happy Days a few years later.
That would be this woman:
..who did not even cause a buzz in my part of the world when she made the cover of Rolling Stone in January, 1975. Believe me, if anybody had seen this, word would have gotten all the way around:
So if nobody liked Jane, nobody had heard of Suzi, and nobody else wore the cut with sufficient flair to inspire imitation, why were so many girls sporting one? Utility maybe, but, in high school, that ain’t enough. In high school, at least for it to spread like that, somebody has to make it cool.
And, until this week, when I was searching around Pinterest on an unrelated topic, I had somehow completely forgotten who made the shag cool in my part of world in 1974. Then I happened across a few key photos that unlocked the memory gate.
Everybody in my high school knew who this woman was. And everybody liked her. Girls especially. Working class girls most especially. There was a reason she was the Country Music Association’s Female Vocalist of the Year for 1974. Country girls were her first major audience. And they didn’t just like her music.
For the record: The girls in my part of the world kept on copying Olivia Newton-John’s hairstyles for the rest of the seventies.
Farrah Fawcett’s soon-to-be legendary do?
Never saw one anywhere but on television.
Now, as to who was the absolute best?
Come on. You think I’m gonna make that pick?
I’m country. Sort of.
I’m a lot of things. Sort of.
I ain’t stupid.
Kudos, though, to Suzi, for pretty much sticking with it, decade after decade.
And for always being a reminder that a thing of joy is beautiful forever.
NEXT UP: MY FAVORITE COMEDY HEIST FLICK
The Miracle Worker (Arhtur Penn, 1962)
BLFJ (Bright Lights Film Journal): Yes, and very unique, remarkable given where and when it was made. I also think that, to an extent, The Chase, which is the next film of yours I wanted to talk about, comes directly out of it. Both The Left-Handed Gun and Mickey One touch on this idea of there being a particular kind of violence lurking in American society, and that seems to come to the fore in The Chase.
Arthur Penn: Yes, I totally agree. What we’re doing however, is leaving out one other film, which is The Miracle Worker, which had its share of, how shall I say, positive violence, in the sense that Ann Sullivan [sic], in the film Anne Bancroft, was determined to penetrate the slowly dying intelligence of this child, and get through to her the concept that language was the symbol for idea. So they were a series of fairly vigorous films.
BLFJ: The Chase was set in a small Texas town….
(Source: Bright Lights Film Journal Interview with Arthur Penn (director of The Miracle Worker), in 2009….Note the difference in what the filmmaker wants to talk about and what the really important person in the conversation, the interviewer, wants to talk about.)
“I know people who re-view The Miracle Worker every year.”
(Source: David Thomson, Have You Seen….?, 2008)
Let me just say that people who “re-view” (I think that means “watch”) The Miracle Worker every year have a value system I don’t really comprehend.
I watch it every five or ten years depending–always with trepidation.
I’ve never been able to treat a visit with human pain after the manner of a holiday, like getting out a Sunday suit once a year for Easter.
It happened this week was the time for one of my very occasional visits with Arthur Penn’s 1962 film. The timing was due in part to just-because-it-had-been-a-sufficient-while-and-the-mood-arose, and in part because They Shoot Pictures Don’t They just released their annual, ever-fascinating compilation of all the critics’ lists that seek to name the very best films, which is by far the most thorough-going of its kind.
Once again, Penn was represented on a list of a thousand only by Bonnie and Clyde. That film is certainly worthy–and pretty well placed at #219 (up a not particularly meaningful two spots from last year). But it says quite a lot about the particular mindset that dominates arts criticism in general and film criticism in particular, that a film which mythologizes and heavily romanticizes two historical characters who, by star Warren Beatty’s own admission at the time, were in fact “a couple of thugs,” (an admission with which Penn, in an interview separate from the one quoted above, heartily concurred) can place so routinely high, while a film by the same director which, if anything, is even better-made, and celebrates two accurately portrayed historical characters, who, by their collective example as teacher and student, helped create hope out of the darkest despair for literally millions of people who might have otherwise been abandoned, gets no love at all, says….
I didn’t really watch the film in order to get at any new feelings about the crit-illuminati. Anybody who reads this blog with any regularity will have a pretty good idea of how I feel about that subject already.
However, I did want to watch it this time around with a specific eye toward its value as a film, which is another way of saying I wanted to view it as objectively as possible as a film that compares favorably–or unfavorably–to the sort of films that tend to excite critical passions.
I won’t lie. Pure objectivity isn’t something I generally strive for or even think is realistic. I certainly didn’t achieve it this time. Point of fact it was pretty well gone by the time the opening credits finished rolling.
Objectivity. Distance. Whatever name you care to put on it. All that went right out the window in the first few minutes because I was immediately reminded of what is so easily forgotten when I let the film sit on the shelf for a decade or so. Before it is anything else, Penn’s take on The Miracle Worker is that of a Gothic horror story, straight out of Poe, Shelley (Mary, not Percy) and the Bronte Sisters and conceding nothing to any of them.
Because until Annie Sullivan comes to redeem her, Helen Keller is a monster–one who threatens not lives and limbs (after the manner of Frankenstein or the Terminator) but hearts and minds (after the manner of Heathcliff)–not least her own.
That she’s a monster–and that Penn, along with playwright and script-writer William Gibson, saw that side of her and tapped into it–is evident until almost the very end. The scenes where Helen–supposedly well on her way to being civilized–drops her napkin on the floor, capture the exact beats of a horror film. They also magnify those beats a thousand-fold because, by now, we know Patty Duke’s Helen Keller is not only a monster.
She’s also a terribly–and justifiably–frightened little girl.
In the review from which I quoted above, Thomson (normally wooden-headed even by crit-illuminati standards) contends that the fight over Helen folding her napkin is the most violent scene Penn ever filmed.
That’s a mouthful because Penn was basically responsible for breaking down the really significant barrier between abstract distance and in-your-face realism in American film. The bullet he put in the face of an innocent civilian in Bonnie and Clyde‘s first act of overt violence really was a watershed.
But it’s also true–if by “violence” we mean (as I’m not sure Thomson does, but go with me here) full exposure to fear.
During the famous nine-minute scene where Duke’s Helen is desperately trying to escape the room in which Anne Bancroft’s Sullivan is trying equally desperately to hold her, anyone who isn’t in denial about the film being after something far more than “uplift” has to know just how much is at stake.
Helen Keller in that moment clearly believes–has somehow intuited after the manner of gifted children everywhere, whether or not they can see, hear or speak–that her choices are stark. Escape that room or end up in the asylum where we know–and must believe that she somehow knows–her parents are already thinking of sending her.
Annie Sullivan in that moment clearly knows–as we know–that Helen’s escape from that room would actually lead to the end she dreads. That if she gets out of that door she’ll be confined to the very darkness she’s certain she’s trying to escape.
It’s the overt terror of a horror or suspense film turned inwards.
And, having played the scene together hundreds of times on Broadway (and done God knows how many re-takes on the film set), Bancroft and Duke don’t simply act like they’re doing it for the first time or making it anew. They act like they’ve been transported into the minds and bodies of Helen Keller and Annie Sullivan and taken to a room where much more than themselves are at stake–which I suppose is just a way of saying they transcend “acting”–as indeed they do throughout the film.
Sorry, but what is Bonnie and Clyde–or ninety percent of the other films on TSPDT’s list–next to that? What is it next to just that, which is by no means the whole–or nearly the whole–of what The Miracle Worker is about (one could write a nice, lengthy treatise on Annie Sullivan’s arrival at the train station as a version of the western stranger, coming to save the town…take a look at how it’s shot some time)? Certainly Sullivan herself–in this film and more than likely in life as well– is as convincing a version of the American obsessive as Ahab or Ethan Edwards. (If that quality is sometimes missed, it might be because her obsessive streak is moving her towards the light rather than the darkness–not a journey any modern intelligentsia is likely to be comfortable with, I’m afraid.)
The Miracle Worker was Penn’s second film. He ended up being a very fine–if not very prolific–filmmaker. I’d argue 1976’s Night Moves, at the very least, should be getting plenty of recognition on these lists (it doesn’t), and nearly all his films have more than a little to recommend them.
I’d certainly rank all I’ve seen ahead of The Blues Brothers, for instance (which checks in at 936 and, yes, which I like).
But he never had a subject to match this again.
Very few filmmakers have.
I’m sure I’ll have more to say in five or ten years when it’s time to approach it again.