IF YOU CAN KEEP YOUR HEAD….(Dean Jones, R.I.P.)

The thing about Dean Jones was that you could throw anything at him. Anything at all.

A monkey?…Sure…

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A pirate?…Why not?

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Hayley Mills at her Hayleyist?…You bet.

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Anything at all and you still knew he would make it seem like something that could happen to your dad or your brother or the guy next door, and that it would all come right in the end.

It’s hard to really state how much that quality meant in the era of his greatest fame, when the world really was on fire. Like almost everyone who helped define Disney’s live action ethos, he was defined by it in turn. I’m sure he did fine work later on, but there was no way to really break free from those movies that meant so much to so many. More than most, he seemed to be at peace with that, which suggests what we saw on the screen came from the deepest part of him. If that’s the case then we knew him best for a quality that couldn’t be faked, even by such a fine actor.

I think I’m gonna go watch That Darn Cat! for the thousandth time and see if Elsa Lancaster or William Demarest or Neville Brand or Roddy McDowall or Frank Gorshin or any of those other charter members of the Scene-Stealing Hall of Fame can steal a scene from him this time.

Bet they don’t.

Because not even Hayley Mills could do that.

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WHAT IMPRESSED ME THIS WEEK (Hollywood Puts Old Wine In New Bottles…And Thereby Slightly Spoils It)

What Maisie Knew (2012)

This version of Henry James’ short novel (1897) has been lauded to the skies and, based only on the skill and fluidity with which it was made, that’s easily understandable.

But where the novel was haunting (James’ usual effect when he kept it brief), the movie is disturbing–and for all the wrong reasons.

Bad enough that Indy Hollywood can transform this story, in particular, into a happy ending and actually make it feel sort of earned. Evidently we’ve come to the place where even the cutting edge–and, yes, Henry James’ edges still cut–must come with the soothing balm wrapped right up next to the serrated knife. When Maisie is effectively claimed by her adoptive parents as her preferred substitutes for her biological ones at the end, it doesn’t so much feel liberating as chilling. What the six-year old wants, the six-year old gets because, well, she’s the one we’re rooting for…and this is still the movies.

Of course, it’s natural to root for her in the novel as well, but it’s also plainly evident we will have to risk going down with her when all is said and done. And if you’ve ever made it to the end of a Henry James novel, then you know going in just how great the risk of going down with her is–not just that the worst is coming but that he’ll make it hurt no matter how much your past experience with him has braced you for the fall.

This movie? Not so much.

The sense of risk that’s inherent in the setup is still there. I felt it throughout the movie. But the film makers pulled the punch at the end. Maisie’s not doomed to unhappiness here. And it turns out that a version of What Maisie Knew where the child isn’t doomed is basically a fairy tale.

And because the film makers made this very strange decision, it casts the brilliant performance by six-year old Onata Aprile into a different and highly unsettling light. The fact that she has more stylized close-ups than Garbo in Camille was merely cloying as I watched the film.

She’s gorgeous. I get it

She’s also six. Enough already with the “old soul” heartstrings.

Those lingering close-ups became more disturbing in retrospect, though.

When the end I was expecting didn’t quite come about–when the possibility of going down with her evaporated because, well, she seems to have put herself in a pretty good place–it made the whole thing seem as if the child gets her wish precisely because she’s gorgeous. As if no child who failed to inspire good old-fashioned Golden Age Hollywood camera lust could possibly expect the same.

The rules are different, it seems, if Maisie happens to look like Onata Aprile.

It’s probably not fair to allow this to undercut Aprile’s naturalistic performance, which, when the camera isn’t completely invested in making us fall in love with her–when she’s allowed to be six, in other words–is truly wondrous and makes every one of the highly skilled adults she’s working with seem forced and self-conscious by comparison.

On that level alone, it’s up there with Roddy McDowall in How Green Was My Valley or Tatum O’Neal in Paper Moon or Hayley Mills in Tiger Bay or Jackie Cooper in The Champ or whoever you think the benchmark for child performance in a movie should be.

And, yes, all the more amazing because she’s only six.

I only wish Indy Hollywood had found the nerve to do as much justice by her as Henry James did when he dreamed her up a century and more ago.