Thursday, April 29, 2010

Actress Files: Sarah Miles

Sarah Miles, Ryan's Daughter
★ ★ ★ ★
(lost the 1970 Best Actress Oscar to Glenda Jackson for Women in Love)

Why I Waited: Try as I might, I don't always have 206 free minutes in a row.

The Performance: I know David Lean took the public lambasting of Ryan's Daughter very hard and only barely got over it to make one more movie, 14 years later, before he died. I don't see any need to further pillory a movie that has already been so roundly rebuked, but then the bashful gentleness of a lot of the reviews that greeted the DVD release in 2006 don't seem like the right way to go, either. Let's just say that, give or take a few scenes of mutual but benign incomprehension between Sarah Miles as a young Irish lass and Robert Mitchum as the much older schoolteacher she convinces to marry her, and aside from about 10 or 15 scattered minutes of prickly character moments or atypically enigmatic montage, the rest of Ryan's Daughter's three and a half hours are just as preternaturally weightless as you've heard. Freddie Young has photographed the movie in super widescreen for postcard prettiness, disclosing a set of priorities that are about as wrong as they could be for the material, which itself requires an exceptionally nimble execution so as to dissipate the scent of very stale air. In short: a timid young wife seeks an older, unthreateningly asexual husband but later discovers the appetites of her body, very inconveniently whetted by a soldier of the British Army who's been called in to quell the Irish discontent.

Miles is the wife, and the reason I stress the tremendous shortcomings of the film is that, at the basic stylistic level, she's all but barred from making an impact. The opening movements of the film clearly mean to present her as a sort of blooming flower, but while I appreciate that a certain degree of clichéd dollishness is avoided, she's somehow done all her wardrobe shopping in Outer Dowdsville: beige sweater down past her butt, shapeless gray tent of an ankle-length skirt, wide-brimmed hat, and a wig that looks like horse-tail. Strolling alone on clifftop and seashore with her parasol, Miles might be registering any number of nuances on her face, but we'd never know, which is partly down to that hat, but more because Lean forfends our getting very close to her—not that the actress looks especially inspired in such close-ups and two-shots as are doled out to her.

I'd call it a fair expectation that, knowing you are starring for David Lean at the most aggressive stage of his encroaching ailment, Elephantiasis of the Travelogue, you might need to devise a more physical rendering of the character, to stand any chance against the Super Panavision vistas in which you are sunk. "But render what character?" Miles may surely have asked, and who could blame her? The script supplies so little, and an externalized portrait of her vague arc defies easy imagining. In direct proportion to his wider and wider shots, Lean seemed to grow more and more taken with the idea of opaque characterizations. If his Lawrence is at last a sphinx, his Rosy Ryan Shaughnessy wastes a great name on being, from the get-go, a lovin' cipher. Lots of dewy, tentative, or stupefied glances, a bit of trembling lip. But what's behind it all? As though to give Miles even less to play with, or against, Ryan's Daughter rather pointedly eschews any dialogue at all for long periods, and as her English innamorato, Lean cast sullen pretty boy Christopher Jones, so disastrous an actor that all of his dialogue required redubbing. These gratuitous ordeals come together in a long, wordless sequence of D.H. Lawrence-style seduction between Miles and Jones in a forest of heather and jade, and if the dewy, soft-focus longueurs of this interlude manage to be less entirely cheesy than they could be, they do so without aiding Miles in any real way. Nor does she offer any memorable stamp of her own.

Personalizing stamps are a recurring problem for this actress: I have seen her now in Antonioni's Blowup; John Boorman's Hope and Glory, a generous Best Picture nominee in 1987; and Ryan's Daughter. In the former, I recall her peering silently at David Hemmings from her kitchen floor while she's in the midst of a serene rut with another man, and that's it. From the Boorman, nothing. None of these pictures have styled themselves as showcases for their casts, and if Miles doesn't seize the camera of her own electric accord the way Vanessa Redgrave does in Blowup, she cannot quite be blamed for that, or for the fact that two of her better-regarded performances, in Lady Caroline Lamb and the Palme-winning The Hireling, are more or less elusive these days. I hear that she achieves a carnal vitality in Joseph Losey's The Servant, and though Ryan's Daughter is too roseate in conception to profit from such a knack, it's true that when you do see Miles elevating her scenes, they tend to be ones where some force of sexuality is privileged. Rosy giggles, wonderfully, upon being told that virginal men fear the prospect of initiation and of their own potential failings as much as women do. (I also like her short, sincere, but meaningful laugh near the end—the end!—of the movie when her father promises to write letters to her; the plain fact that he won't, even if he momentarily intends to, amuses her.) Rosy doesn't set out to hurt anyone, and if Mitchum's humble, almost diffident schoolteacher showed any erotic confidence, or any interest in her libido, she'd never have strayed. As it is, she enjoys watching him work in the yard without his shirt, and looks surprised but unembarrassed at such enjoyment. When she asks him to keep the shirt off inside, he huffily demurs, obviously if implicitly chiding her for her nascent lustiness, and Miles shows us well that Rosy is genuinely flustered and confused.

She isn't failing, then, to make studied decisions about her character, and she appears to intend a welcome liveliness for Rosy, inward and outward, that never resolves itself. The thinness of the plotting and the pristine, listless emptiness of the lensing are barely superable hurdles... but why do four hours pass without her sticking much to the screen, and why did three such different directors all fail to get any charge from her? Lean and Antonioni treat hers as the kind of spectacular face that rewards any peer of the camera, but that confidence seems misplaced. She has the open, curving face and the aqua gaze of Samantha Morton, but she lacks Morton's moonglow quality; Miles doesn't seem to have any pores, much less an inner radiance, and she gives rather frozen poses of thought rather than, as Morton does, fine-grained transmissions of how thought fluctuates and questions itself. There's also a bit of Susannah York in Miles, but she's less striking, and minus the perverse charge. I await screening the picture that really makes the case for her. In the meantime, it's a pity to see her nominated for a picture that starts her so far behind that it's no mystery when she never fully catches up. For visible signs of effort, she might deserve a second star, but the lasting impression is just too close to zero.

The Best Actress Project: 1 More Down, 34 to Go

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Blogger Sam Brooks said...

Great write-up of one of the strange coaster nominations in this category. And one of the least supportable.

A little piece of semi-related Ryan's Daughter trivia that only the five people who have watched the Elizabeth: The Golden Age audio commentary will know; Shekhar Kapur simply used shots from this film as the water crashing against the rocks in his film.

Anyway! Great write-up, and my anticipation runs high as you get ever closer to 1 down, 0 to go.

12:40 AM, April 29, 2010  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

If one's going to be a burglar, one may as well steal what no one will recognize, or notice missing. Though it's hilarious that Shekhar Kapur can't organize things well enough to get his own B-roll footage of crashing waves.

Sounds like you're a vet of these 206 minutes as well?

12:54 AM, April 29, 2010  
Blogger Sam Brooks said...

I am! I'm usually quite a fan of losing myself in epics like these. The most recent of them has been the Japanese flick Love Exposure which has to be the shortest 4 hours I've ever sat through.

However, I've spent 412 minutes with this movie. Once for serious, once for the irony with friends to prove to them how banal and hilarious it is. I'm a fan of Lean, but not like this.

3:02 AM, April 29, 2010  
Blogger Fritz said...

I really liked the movie (but I just love these types of epics).

I'm surprised that so many people dislike Christopher Jones, I thought the was fantastic (but maybe I was paying more attention to his looks than his performance...)

5:17 AM, April 29, 2010  
Blogger James T said...

So, Miles is less interesting than anyone she is similar to in some way. :p

And I really feel like reprimanding you for not stating loud and clear that when a movie is bad, a hunk's presence is always welcome, regardless of his acting :)

By the way, I decided against quitting smoking for the time being since I'm going to need some help during your dry period, blog-wise. Don't feel bad, I probably only needed an excuse :p

5:59 AM, April 29, 2010  
Blogger Andrew K. said...

Excellent writeup, even if I always feel just a little sad to see Lean lambasted. I don't know why, I like him very much even though I only love a select few of his films. I think Ryan's Daughter is passable (at best), but just too tedious at times.

This may be cutting in on another post, but do you at least like what he did in Summertime...? I'm a fan of that but I rarely hear any effusive praise for it...but I always wonder if I like Summertime for its merits or for my nepotism.

8:50 AM, April 29, 2010  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

@Brook: Two passes through Ryan's Daughter - holy village idiot, Batman! That's dedication. You deserve a medal, or maybe John Mills's Oscar.

@Fritz: I couldn't get too worked up about Jones even on aesthetic grounds. Maybe it was the scar, or maybe it was that unbelievable flashback sequence where the tapping of Mills's foot "reminds" Jones of his experiences in trench warfare. But he'll concede that he has that Leonard Whiting handsomeness. I'm apparently still stuck back on Gregory Peck, and my quota for the month has been filled.

@James: See above. Also, keep not smoking! I actually can't believe the drought hasn't kicked in yet, but these write-ups have so far worked as great ways to get warmed up in the morning for doing all the writing I have to do at my job these days. We'll see how long it lasts, if only in the name of your lungs.

@Andrew: You know why May 12 is important, and I know why May 12 is important, and my plan, if things work out, is to seize that occasion to answer those very question. It's the rare Kate film I've only seen once, and forever ago. I fell somewhere in the middle at the time and have no idea what I'd think now. I certainly have a soft spot for Lean personally, based on his cameos in Me.

10:50 AM, April 29, 2010  
Blogger Michael Shetina said...

I love Lean's work up through Summertime, especially Brief Encounter. I can't wait to see your writeup of Kate's performance in Summertime. Love the play, love the movie and I'm one of the few who even love the musical. From Kwai onwards, it's a slog, although I do like (not love) Lawrence of Arabia.

12:52 PM, April 29, 2010  
Blogger CanadianKen said...

Nick: I'm staggering (in a good way) under the impact of your current avalanche of inspiration. What did we do to deserve all this good stuff? But I have to say that whenever you take one of my favorites to task, I always feel a little disloyal to them - if not downright unfaithful - for reading and enjoying the piece so much. I saw "Ryan's Daughter" several times when it was new. Must have had an infinite number of 206 minute stretches at my disposal then. Anyway, for me, it launched a feverish crush on Sarah Miles. Loved the way she looked; loved the way she sounded. And somehow those characters she specialized in - hell-bent on Romance with a capital R, all the while Bovary-ing the lives of everybody around her into disarray - were catnip to me. The one-two punch of Rosy Ryan and Caroline Lamb made me a lifetime club member, whatever the heck her club is. The good films pretty much dried up after "The Hireling". But though the pictures got dodgier,(White Mischief","Steambath"`), I can't say she ever disappointed me. She continued to look and sound just the way I wanted her to. Reports of eccentric off-screen behavior weren`t particularly at odds with the roles she played. So that certainly didn`t shake my affection for her. And doesn`t she have a reputation as a kind of latterday Paulette Goddard, fascinating brilliant older men with her novelties and her notions? Of course, she was married to Robert Bolt and it seems to me Bertrand Russell, who may have been a neighbor of theirs, had a very soft spot for her as well. At any rate I know I still do. I remember seeing "The French Lieutenant's Woman" in '81 and thinking how much better I'd have liked it with Sarah Miles instead of you-know-who.
And when "Gosford Park" appeared, I recall my instant reaction to Emily Watson - what a great combination of Sarah Miles and Jean Simmons! Two names (as I now know) unlikely to get YOUR pulse pounding.
Anyway,Nick, it's really quite unique, how you can make the most devastating observations about performances - and yet never sound anything but generous, good-natured (and, of course) brilliant. You have an edge, but
such a lovely one.

9:27 PM, May 01, 2010  

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