THE LAST TEN MOVIES I WATCHED…AND WHY I WATCHED THEM (May/June, 2020)

Okay, once more not even close to the last ten I watched but I’m tryin’. really I am. On the upside, a lot more first and second viewings than usual. Here goes:

May 25-A Streetcar Named Desire (1951, d. Elia Kazan, 2nd Viewing)

Well, it had been twenty years, so it was time. Vivien Leigh still scared the bejesus out of me but at least I knew it was coming. Brando’s best performance by miles, though you can still see her cocking an eyebrow and hear her whispering sotto voce, “Yes, dear, but are you willing to tip yourself into madness?” And if you listen close you can still hear him saying…”Maybe?” The question was never asked again so he was never forced to resolve it before the short journey to self-parody was completed. Everyone else is terrific acting their little hearts out in the background. If you wonder whether he knew what happened, just study the sad arc of his life. One of the essential American movies, though not perhaps for the reasons most people seem to think.

May 26-Viva Zapata! (1952, d. Elia Kazan, 1st Viewing)

Okay, truth be told, I’ve had the Elia Kazan box sitting around for at least a decade, trying to watch them all in order and just waiting until I was up to Streetcar again. (I broke the sequence to re-watch Man on a Tightrope, about which more when I do my Handy Ten on Gloria Grahame). This was next in line and another chance to see early Brando. He only had to deal with Anthony Quinn and Dr. No in this one so he was, alas, in his comfort zone. Still pretty interesting, but given the talents involved, I couldn’t help thinking it might have been more. And frankly, the Great Actor of the Age wasn’t as convincing a Mexican as Chuck Heston in his much-derided Touch of Evil turn.

May 30-The Great Escape (1963, d. John Sturges, Umpteenth Viewing)

Well, for all the reasons I’ll always watch it, up to and including the moment when Virgil Hilts (not Steve McQueen, not his stunt man, Virgil Hilts, who by that point is no longer fictional or even a composite) make that leap. But the reaction shots alone are always worth the price of admission and time spent. Plus, it’s out in a great new eye-popping transfer from the Criterion Collection. Get it if you can!

June 2-The Man From U.N.C.L.E. (2015, d. Guy Ritchie, 1st Viewing)

I’m always looking for good popcorn in the bargain bins of America while they last. Took a chance on this one and I’ll say it’s…pretty good. Seemed like I was just catching hold of the odd rhythm when it ended so I’ll probably watch it again at some point. Given some of the things they’ve made franchises of, I’m surprised this hasn’t produced at least one sequel.

June 3-The Last of Sheila (1973, d. Herbert Ross, 3rd Viewing)

Because it had been a long time, I had it lying around, and somebody or other was lauding it on Twitter. Thought what I thought the other two times I watched it….Wanted James Coburn to have the last laugh and he doesn’t. Wish there was more Dyan Cannon…and there isn’t. Still, diverting, as, with that cast, it could hardly fail to be.

June 5-Dance, Girl, Dance (1940, d. Dorothy Arzner, 1st Viewing)

Out this summer on Criterion, (with notes from my blog-pal Sheila O’Malley, who also did the same for The Great Escape…the lady has range). This is a combo backstage musical/women’s picture from the only female director working under contract for a major Hollywood studio at the time and it’s a small gem. It’s odd, disorienting, feature is that a young Lucille Ball makes a young Maureen O’Hara look dowdy. Granted, the worldly, wise-cracking dame always has an advantage, but I guarantee that’s the last time that happened! A cracking good time for anyone who has the good taste to like this sort of thing.

June 6-The Wild and the Innocent (1959, d. Jack Sher, 1st Viewing)

This was the first film in a four-movie set of Audie Murphy westerns I scored cheap on Amazon. It was the weakest of the lot and, like most of Murphy’s lesser efforts, still pretty entertaining. Even the eternally baby-faced Audie was a little long in the tooth to be playing the teenage frontier hick who’s never been to town. But it works out over the long run, with Gilbert Roland giving a nice twist on a sympathetic villain and a genuinely touching performance from Sandra Dee that suggests there might have been a lot more to her than heaven, Bobby Darin, or Hollywood allowed.

June 6-The Lincoln Lawyer (2011, d. Brad Furman, 2nd Viewing)

Now this is a popcorn movie, as good as it gets. So good, in fact, that it transcends the concept and has some insightful and occasionally moving things to say about this modern land that so many somebodies who weren’t paying attention during the whole Frozen Silence (1980-2016) or even the early Trump years, have suddenly awakened to find has turned into a crap-hole while they were busy staring at the disco ball. You want a sign of the Apocalypse: there’s been no sequel. What, are Matthew McConaughey and Marisa Tomei just too busy?

June 7-Liberty Heights (1999, d. Barry Levinson, 1st Viewing)

Another bargain bin pickup. I hadn’t seen any of Barry Levinson’s Baltimore movies except Diner, which is a big fave. This isn’t as good as Diner. Like all of Levinson’s movies, post Wag the Dog, it’s a little awkward, as if made by a man who is not sure he’s in the right profession any more. But it’s got a sweet spirit made melancholy by the distance the world has traveled in the wrong direction since its 50’s setting…or even since its 1999 release date. I could still swear the trailer had a scene that cut from a baseball crashing through a window, and kids scattering, to Joe Montegna saying (as only he could) “Put Joe DiMaggio on the phone.” In the movie that exists, it’s “Put the Fuhrer on the phone.” in response to the Jewish teenage protagonist dressing up as Hitler for Halloween. It was funnier in my head when it was Joe DiMaggio so if anybody knows where that movie went, let me know. I swear I didn’t dream it.

June 7-On the Waterfront (1954, d. Elia Kazan, 2nd Viewing)

I’m being a little hard on Brando, as happens from time to time, so let me just say that this is a great performance. I don’t think it’s anywhere near the greatest performance of all time–heck, I don’t even think it’s Brando’s greatest–see above), any more than I think Citizen Kane (a very great movie) is the greatest film of all time, but you can be pretty darn great and still not be the greatest ever. This was only the second time I watched it, and the first time I watched it without the baggage of unreasonable expectations. Now I just have to figure out why Noam Chomsky thought it was an anti-union, or even anti-Communist, film.

It could take a while.

Til then….

 

 

 

 

 

VIVIEN LEIGH…A Handy Ten

Tennessee Williams thought she was the finest dramatic actress of her day, Noel Coward the best comedienne (a side that was seen only in her very earliest films and on stage). I’ll have some educated guesses here about what Laurence Olivier or Marlon Brando really thought.

She was severely bi-polar in an age when that condition was, to put it mildly, not well understood. She spoke seven languages, had a reputation as a spectacular hostess, won two Oscars and a Tony, and I suspect would have traded every bit of it for a kind word from her peers (“Oh no, Vivien, you mustn’t do that,” John Gielgud once said, when she asked him to read lines with her while she was practicing for Juliet. “That requires a real actress.”).

And that was just her friends.

Like many geniuses who deliver a shock to the system, she got most of those kind words (including from Gielgud) after she was safely dead, at 53, of tuberculosis, having spent years receiving periodic electroshock treatments.

And, like many geniuses safely dead, she remains misunderstood by those who fawn and carp alike.

She is the only person who has ever truly frightened me while giving a performance on screen–and I confess I was frightened both for and of her.

I do not blame anyone for refusing to get her. For those who dare….

1)  Gone WIth the Wind (1939)
D: VIctor Fleming

It’s fascinating to see her screen tests which–despite an early childhood in Colonial India that I suspect gave her instinctive insights into the Plantation South her Hollywood competition couldn’t comprehend–barely hint she would take over the character of Scarlett O’Hara so fully that imagining anyone else in the part was soon rendered not only moot but ridiculous. It was an art-house performance, given not in a Euro-classic masterminded by some bleak or pointilist master like Dreyer or Bergman or Renoir, but in a (make that the) Hollywood blockbuster that stretched to nearly four hours, had at least three principal directors and was micro-managed by the definitive example of that dread antithesis of Art, the Super Producer. And it was a (make that the) star turn given by someone who was not yet a star. Her own screen time ran to nearly two-and-a-half hours. I once watched it without sound and then listened to it with my eyes closed, back-to-back, trying to catch a false note. No such luck. I also developed a habit over the years of counting how many times Scarlett physically assaults someone. It’s somewhere around a dozen but I’ve never managed to convince myself I didn’t miss one or two. In short, there’s nothing else like it. Whenever there is a list of greatest film performances and someone else is on top (there always is–and it’s never her Blanche DuBois, the only real competition), I laugh. People amuse me sometimes.

2) Waterloo Bridge (1940)
D: Mervin LeRoy

A remake of a 1931 weeper, Leigh and co-star Robert Taylor both named it as the favorite of their own movies. Though she had been turned down for Rebecca (after a screen test that was no further from Joan Fontaine’s fine performance than Leigh’s GWTW test had been from her Scarlett) this was an interesting place to land. After Gone With the Wind, Leigh gravitated by hook or crook toward self-destructive characters who increasingly mirrored her own life and personality. This one is a gut-punch, to my mind more subtle and delicate than the fine earlier version, thanks mostly to Leigh’s ability to turn melodrama into the real thing, even if she had to live it. I won’t tell you how it ends, only that, like most of her post-Scarlett adventures, it is prescient and not an easy watch.

3) That Hamilton Woman (1941)
D: Alexander Korda

Does one really need to do more than look at those two shots and realize they are the same actress in the same movie? Or should I add that there is no hint of strain in the transition? She spent the rest of her marriage to co-star Laurence Olivier begging him to do another movie with her (especially Shakespeare, his specialty!). He refused….and kept the reputation as the Great Thespian of the two, which I suspect he knew he had not earned. Clever man.

“After? There is no after.”

I should mention before moving along, that if Hollywood had been serious about having Oscars match Art, she would have won for both of the preceding movies (she was nominated for neither). For better or worse she wouldn’t make another movie for nearly five years.

4) Caesar and Cleopatra (1945)
D: Gabriel Pascal

And a curious thing it was. She may have gone after it harder than she went after Gone With the Wind. The resulting film is–like just about every Shaw play that wasn’t based on Pygmaliion–about equal parts maddeningly entertaining and just maddening. (He’s my favorite playwright but his style rarely translated well to film.) The worst part was that Leigh suffered a miscarriage during the filming. It was one of several but this one seemed to cost her the best chance of having a child with Olivier. For someone who was already at least flirting with mental illness, it was bound to leave a scar. The movie reflects some of that. It’s still worth seeing, as a curio if nothing else (and for the impeccable Claude Rains as a definitively Shavian Julius Caesar). But nothing in it matches the photograph of Leigh with Shaw that Kendra Bean dug up for her excellent book of such photos (with insightful essay) dedicated to Leigh’s life and career (which I reviewed here). There are grainy reproductions on the net, but by all means find the book. The picture there of Leigh standing between Shaw and director Pascal contains multitudes. If the old man had still been on his game, he would have written a play about her pursuit of his approval–and I bet it would have made a better movie than Caesar and Cleopatra or perhaps even Pygmalion. Especially if he convinced her to play herself.

5) Anna Karenina (1948)
D: Julien Duvivier

By now the pattern was set. She was a complex narrative actress in a simple narrative medium…so the construction of the connective tissue required to drive home the telling details in stories that took place over years (and, here, miles) was generally left to her. Everyone else could do their thing, as she could play with or against anyone (Clark Gable, Leslie Howard,  Robert Taylor, Olivier, Claude Rains, here Ralph Richardson, all except Olivier just because she was asked–you try it some time). Anna’s not the plum part some make it out to be. I don’t quite buy Garbo in the role (I buy the movie, and Garbo, just not the part where we all know she’s going to kill herself–what you might call the Anna part–though I accept I am in the minority) and it left Keira Knightley lost and confused. How would Gielgud have put it? It requires a real actress. Someone who can make you feel the weight of going under that train that every English major in the world knows is coming for her from the beginning even if they’ve never been within ten miles of Tolstoy. She does that. Mostly, I think, by giving it just a touch of cold and allowing the passion underneath to show through only at the crucial moments. It didn’t win her any friends or awards, but you can start to see why she only made a movie every three years.

6) A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)
D: Elia Kazan

“Yes dear, you strike a lovely match. But will you burn down the cornfield?”

Which meant the next one was this, the truly frightening one. I watched it for the first (and so far only) time about fifteen years ago. My response to Brando was So this is where he got that reputation.

My response to Leigh was You can’t do that.

Not because the part required a “real” actress (though it did), but because, when you are living in someone else’s skin, there are places you can’t go and expect to come all the way back–especially if the someone else is having a rape-induced mental breakdown. Leigh, alone among screen actors, went there. I wasn’t the only one who thought so. A few years later, on a visit to New York, I saw an Off-Broadway play called Orson’s Shadow (if it’s ever near you, see it) which is, among other things, about the last days of Leigh and Olivier’s marriage. In the lobby during intermission I wandered around, reading the play notices. One of them contained a quote with which I was previously unfamiliar (as I was with Leigh’s history of serious mental problems):

“She (Blanche) is a tragic figure and I understand her. But, playing her tipped me into madness.”

If you want to know what the affect on Brando was, read any story of his sad pathetic life. Like Olivier in That Hamilton Woman, he knew what had happened, even if (as with Olivier) there was an entire cottage industry devoted to insisting it wasn’t so.

He went on to be careful and mannered and lauded in On the Waterfront–prelude to a lifetime of being showered with accolades and represented as the epitome of approved good taste masquerading as revolution.

She was carried off her next film set in a strait-jacket.

One of these days. I’ll watch this one again.

7) The Deep Blue Sea (1955)
D: Anatole Litvak

(No box office you say? With advertising like that? Just one of life’s little mysteries.)

This has apparently never been available in any home video format. I’ve seen it only in a grainy bootleg version which is barely watchable. But there’s enough there to know she had, post Streetcar and post breakdown, mastered a certain kind of fragility which gave her characters a vulnerability everyone else has been forced, for their own protection, to play act. Again, not an easy watch.

8) The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone (1961)
D: Jose Quintero

A good double bill with The Deep Blue Sea. Same train, different time. Similar result. Tennessee Williams insisted she was the only one who could play the part on screen. He knew what he was about. Hell, he probably wrote it about her, even if only subconsciously. Not an easy watch…but you know that by now. Don’t let its fame (or infamy) or good-not-great reputation or Warren Beatty playing an Italian fool you. Beatty’s quite good, she knew how to make this stuff hurt all along–and she only got better at it. Everyone who has walked through the beauty-terrified-of-losing-her-looks narrative since has done so in her footsteps. Maybe someone has filled her shoes, but, if so, I haven’t seen it. Here, as elsewhere, when she destroys herself, you not only believe, you believe there was no other way.

9) Ship of Fools (1965)
D: Stanley Kramer

After? There is no after.

She was dead in two years.

10) Vivien Leigh with Kenneth Tynan, Sam Goldwyn and Edward R. Murrow.

Permit yourself to time travel. Their like, good and bad, are with us in every age. Her like, we won’t see again.

Except for Kazan, she worked with no director who could be mistaken for an auteur, though none were less than solid professionals.

John Gielgud was a fine actor, by many accounts a wonder of the stage. By every account superior to his dear friend Vivien.

Today, though, when we hear her name, we think of Scarlett O’Hara and Blanche Dubois, of Gone With the Wind and A Streetcar Named Desire.

When we hear his name, we think of Arthur, if not Arthur 2.

Talent abides.

Genius finds a way.

CIVILIZATION AND ITS DISCONTENTS (Found in the Connection: Rattling Loose Ends #115)

A painting by Winston Churchill….

Gifted to Vivien Leigh, the lead in his favorite film, That Hamilton Woman, in 1951, the year A Streetcar Named Desire was released…

…featuring the performance of which she later wrote, Blanche “is a tragic figure and I understand her. But, playing her tipped me into madness.”

I’ve always wondered if she tipped Brando as well. It couldn’t have been easy for the Method actor to watch someone demonstrate a level of commitment neither he nor anyone could match by breaking down mentally in front of him (and a  movie camera)…because the part demanded it.

In any case, she was sent home from her next film set in a strait jacket.

She kept Churchill’s painting by her bed for the rest of her life, so it would be the first thing she saw when she woke up.

She only made 53, but I’m inclined to believe the painting may have added a year or two.

The painting is being auctioned off by her grandchildren in September. One more thing I wish I hadn’t lived to see….

Though I’d probably feel different if I had the money to buy it!