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!

TEN FILMS YOU MIGHT WANT TO WATCH (OR REWATCH) BETWEEN NOW AND NOVEMBER…

(Well, I said I might be in a list-making mood. So, as the long, hot summer hits its stride, I introduce a new category I created because I couldn’t fit this post into any of my existing ones. Having stretched my brain to its limits, I’m calling it….Lists.)

High Noon (1952)
Director: Fred Zinneman

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A supposed Cold War metaphor that could be claimed by either side, according to virtue-seeking whim. But it’s deeper than that, almost pre-civilizational, and the thematic structure is as spare and unforgiving as the famous “real time”  trick of the plot.

“You’re a judge,” Gary Cooper’s Will Kane says to the first person who decides to run instead of fight, when it becomes known that a vengeful outlaw’s gang is now waiting for him at the station on the edge of town, where he’ll arrive on the noon train.

“I’ve been a judge many times in many towns,” is the sensible, world-weary reply. “I hope to live to be a judge again.”

Last I looked, his shades are splitting time between the Supreme Court and the Council of Ministers. They’re all wearing different names and faces, of course, while every Leader of the Free World pretends this is his favorite movie.

A good, swift reminder that the only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for enough good men to choose survival over honor…or let things come to such a pass that the only choices are laying down and dying or throwing up in your mouth.

The Last Hurrah (1958)
Director: John Ford

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High-middling by Ford’s standards, which means it still goes places worth going. Perhaps the first film to suggest that our politics had got beyond satirizing, a suggestion we’ve spent the years since proving beyond a shadow of a doubt. I thought it was a touch over the top the first time I saw it. Then, upon revisiting, I realized how much Frank Skeffington’s opponents reminded me of the Bush family, who had, in fact, emerged from this very Bostonian milieu.

Seen in one light, the film can be comforting: It’s all been round before.

Seen in another, it can send an entirely different message: We’re doomed.

Either way, the final scene is Spencer Tracy’s finest hour.

That Hamilton Woman (1941)
Director: Alexander Korda

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What? You mean England and “Europe” weren’t always chums? You mean England and America weren’t always chums? What gives?

This film, about England at high tide (and yes, about Horatio Nelson and his famous mistress, too), is a good reminder of how hard it is to have chums–or challenge social convention–when you’re intent on ruling an empire where, as some quipster once had it, “the sun never sets and the blood never dries.” That’s something Americans have been forced to learn a thing or two about in the world we’ve made since.

From Gone With the Wind onward, Vivien Leigh was always some measure of great, and never greater than here, which may be the role she was born to play. The final scene is all hers and a killer. But it’s not more poignant than the moment, mid-film, when Leigh’s Emma Hamilton sees Laurence Olivier’s Nelson, returning from his “triumphs,” emerging from the shadows a broken man only she can redeem.

Winston Churchill’s favorite movie, back when it was still possible to believe “there will always be an England” meant there would always be something more than a plot of ground with the name attached.

La Marseillaise (1938)
Director: Jean Renoir

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Renoir and Ford were two sides of a coin. Ford’s specialty was weaving the life-size concerns of ordinary people into the tangled fabric of larger-than life-historical tapestries. Renoir, being a “man of the Left”–and the thirties’ Left at that–was practically obligated to have a go at the same.

It was his bad luck to be utterly bad at it–every bit as bad as Ford was at portraying the New World’s moneyed aristocracy. In his greatest films (here, The Rules of the Game, The Grand Illusion) the representations of the proles, whether earnest or earthy (the default positions for any intellectual purporting to celebrate the Common Man), were always woodenly conceived and executed.

Our good luck is that this ended up being a minor problem. Whatever Renoir’s politics, he knew his own strengths (the same might be said of Ford, whose politics were much more complicated, though, not, I believe, the complete mystery some have made of them). Beyond society itself, the great, sensitive portraits in his films–the ones he and his actors lavished real care on–were of the aristocracy, the nobility, the landed classes, and, here, the King, Louis XVI (pictured above, among his legions, as played by Renoir’s brother, Pierre).

One of the many reasons Renoir is so revered today is that he saw the collapse of France coming. Deep down, he must have known what that collapse meant: In essence, that, despite its long arc, the French Revolution had failed, with reverberations that will be felt until France is no more.

That was worth noting on the eve of WWII. If this political year somehow ends up marking another break with the past, it will be worth remembering in the Age to come.

War and Peace (1966)
Director: Sergey Bondarchuk

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What? You mean Russia and “Europe” have never been chums? Ever?

Of course no film can match the pure narrative depth and scope of Tolstoy’s mind-blowing novel, but this effort from the high tide of the Soviet Union’s crudely failed attempt to do what the super-sophisticated European Union is about to fail at as well, comes as close as anything can.

King Vidor’s 1956 Hollywood version has much to recommend it. Audrey Hepburn was a fine Natasha, Anita Ekberg a definitive Helene, Herbert Lom a Napoleon capable of making you feel for the man without quite forgiving him. The retreat from Moscow will never be done better. I’ve watched it a dozen times, but never without realizing that nothing can overcome whatever hallucination led someone to think Henry Fonda, great as he was, could make even a serviceable Pierre.

That’s well taken care of here, by Bondarchuk himself. He seems to be channeling Jean Renoir’s director/actor turn in The Rules of the Game, which was itself probably modeled on Tolstoy’s Pierre. Better than that, Bondarchuk found the definitive Natasha in Lyudmila Savaleya (Hepburn was great, but there’s an insurmountable advantage in being Russian when you’re playing the consummate Russian heroine).

The other big advantage in making a state-sponsored national epic? No time restraints. This runs north of seven hours, so you’ll either get lost or get bored (just like with the novel). But, just like the novel, if you stick with it, the rewards are enormous. And it’s worth remembering that Tolsoy’s various Russias–the one he lived in even more so than the one he remembered and imagined–were not far from collapse either.

Robin Hood (1991)
Director: John Irvin

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Talk about pre-civilizational. This deceptively modest rendering of the legend got swamped by the flashy Kevin Costner version that came out at the same time. Being ten times as good doesn’t always help.

Uma Thurman makes an odd, though not entirely ineffective, Maid Marion. (The role has been surprisingly hard to cast. Even Olivia De Havilland wasn’t quite right for it, she was just so luminous in Technicolor it didn’t matter. The definitive Marion was Glynis Johns, who, under the name of Henry VIII’s sister, Mary Tudor, in a story set at his court, played the type to sublime perfection in Disney’s The Sword and the Rose. She somehow missed getting the part under the right name, in the right setting, when, with much of the same cast and crew, the studio made its own excellent version of the Robin Hood story a year earlier. Sometimes, the gears of the Cosmos slip just that little tantalizing bit, leaving us with insoluble mysteries.) And, for some reason, Nottingham has been split into two men, one a touch sympathetic, the other nasty-to-the-bone, neither named Nottingham.

But forget all that. It’s glorious.

We’re spared the return of good King Richard (or much reference to him at all, though Edward Fox has a fine cameo as a querulous Prince John), and spun straight back into tribalist politics, twisting Norman round Saxon and vice versa. Bergin’s Robin isn’t standing for the rights of Englishman as much as his own pride. Unlike any other version I’ve seen, his self-knowledge isn’t complete from the get-go–he doesn’t know who he is until events force him to accept that, if he doesn’t bring an end to the misery, no one will.

And If “justice” results?

So be it!

The Long Good Friday (1980)
Director: John Mackenzie

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Meet Harold and his Maid Marion, Victoria. No last names. He’s a man of the people, straight up from the streets. She’s either slumming upper class, or playing at posh, up from the same streets. Hard to tell.

Together, they rule the London underworld, with their sights set on moving.up. Today London, tomorrow the world.

Then a bomb blows up in a car and their world starts spinning. By the time it stops, they’ve done Shakespearean melodrama (nobody has a last name) and the good old gangster film proud.

This was Bob Hoskins’ breakout film. I don’t know who won the lead Oscars for 1980 without looking it up, but, trust me, whoever they were, he and Helen Mirren wasted them.

All those are plenty good reasons to watch this any old time, but the lesson for the long, hot summer coming is just this: It can always be worse.

The Long Riders (1980)
Director: Walter Hill

THE LONG RIDERS, front from left: Amy Stryker, James keach as Jesse James, Savannah Smith, Stacy Keach as Frank James, Fran Ryan, 1980, © United Artists

The most nuanced and effective look at the American Robin Hood, Jesse James, brought too close to get off lightly under the guise of romantic legend. You want tribalist politics? Try Savannah Smith’s Zee James (Jesse’s wife) giving a deathly quiet reading of a line so primordial you can miss it’s import if you aren’t paying strict attention.

“You gonna make ’em pay Jesse?”

That’s after the Pinkertons, trying to stand for justice just this once, accidentally (or, perhaps, “accidentally”) have killed Jesse’s little brother with a firebomb.

You gonna make ’em pay Jesse?

On earth, in every Age of Disintegration, that is all ye know, and all ye need know.

(Best scene: A brutal frontier barroom knife fight between David Carradine’s Cole Younger and James Remar’s Sam Starr, the half-breed husband from whom the woman born Myra Maybelle Shirley, played wonderfully here by Pamela Reed, took the famous form of her name).

(Second best scene: Zee James and two other women daring the Pinkertons to shoot them on their porch.)

(Not quite fatal flaw: The Northfield Raid being drag-g-g-g-g-ed down by copious and pretentious use of the era’s Wild Bunch-style slo-mo.)

A Perfect Murder (1998)
Director: Andrew Davis

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A re-imagining of one of Hitchcock’s classy, entertainments, Dial M For Murder, which it bests by miles. Reduced to plot, it is, like its predecessor, a slick, satisfying, murder-for-hire tale with a twist (look at the picture above and guess who’s going to murder who–look again after you watch the movie).

Michael Douglas is the typecast Wall Street buccaneer, Gwyneth Paltrow the typecast debutante trophy wife with social justice tendencies (she’s a trust fund baby who works for the U.N., and she’s Gwyneth Paltrow, how typecast can you get?), and Viggo Mortensen the typecast low-life.

That’s on the surface.

Underneath, it’s a Death Cage match between a couple of born-to-be Manhattanites (who cares where they really came from), whose abiding concern for the social niceties they’ve mastered in order to run in place is subsumed by the more human emotions: lust, greed and revenge.

Make of that what you will in this election year.

The Conservation (1974)
Francis Ford Coppola

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Just remember. No matter who the president is or will be, they are still listening.

You didn’t think the cost of empire was gonna be nothing did you?

Happy Fourth of July!

A WORD ON CAMP (Found in the Connection: Rattling Loose End #73)

American actress Patty Duke taking a break from filming on the set of 'Valley of the Dolls', 24th April 1967. (Photo by Harry Benson/Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Camp: Something so outrageously artificial, affected, inappropriate, or out-of-date as to be considered amusing.

That’s the relevant Merriam-Webster definition. I have a couple of others.

One is the willingness (or compulsion) to laugh at other people’s misery and pass it off as the courage of cultural rebellion.

Another is the simple act of holding any woman who rejects likability at arm’s length. What better way, after all, to mock whatever said woman is trying to project in likability’s place (or, as seems to have been the case with the film version of Valley of the Dolls in general, and Patty Duke’s genuinely raw, abrasive performance in particular, a means for gay intellectuals to project a “sensibility” which, from the outside at least, seems at least as straitjacketed as the conformist culture it supposedly rejects).

Duke’s recent death led me to the movie, which I’ve been meaning to catch since it came out on Special Edition DVD a decade back.

I’m not sure I would call what Duke did here “acting” in any formal sense. Knowing what we know now about her life to that point and her then undiagnosed bipolarity, her performance–so often defined as “cringeworthy” that picture above should probably be co-opted by Merriam-Webster as shorthand –has the feel of a self-administered therapy session, edging toward primal scream. It is in no way fun or easy to watch.

That is probably why it has become perhaps the most mocked performance in the history of film. There’s always a special place in our culture for any performer–especially any female performer–who goes to a place where they simply don’t care what we think. This is supposed to be the very last word in “over the top,” but I found myself wondering just how subdued an actress is supposed to be playing a drug-addled, bed-hopping, emotionally crippled alcoholic whose life is falling apart?

Not very, I’d say, but I guess everyone’s mileage varies for this sort of thing.

Other actresses have certainly kept the world at bay more serenely (see Vera Miles, whose price is to be the forever unsung muse of both Alfred Hitchcock’s and John Ford’s late masterpieces) or more artfully (see Vivien Leigh, whose price is to seldom if ever be mentioned as the actress of the century, despite blowing Olivier off the screen in That Hamilton Woman,  the only occasion when he was fool enough to test himself against her, and scaring Brando into permanent retreat even while he was giving his own greatest performance). But in a movie that really is a narrative shambles and, for all that’s been projected onto it as a “trash” masterpiece that broke so many “taboos,” extremely tight-assed and pearl-clutching in every other respect, she alone is alive on the screen.

That picture above is from the set, not the movie itself. But the spirit of it is in almost every frame. After a while, it even pervades the legion of lifeless scenes that don’t feature “Neely O’Hara,” who everybody always knew was based on Judy Garland and who Patty Duke turned into a roman a clef of herself.

I’m not sure I would call the performance deep. Given the abilities Duke demonstrated so often elsewhere, when she wasn’t playing herself, I’m not even sure I would call it skillful. I get why people laugh.

In a dying culture, after all, nothing’s funnier than someone else’s pain and nothing’s more reassuring than the belief that, if we laugh hard enough, the mountain won’t fall on us.