Tuesday, June 29, 2010

DTs With Bats, Dances With Wolves

NICK: As I write this, I'm sorry to say it's been exactly five months since the last installment of Best Pictures from the Outside In, my regular series of rotating conversations with Mike and Nathaniel. The Lost Weekend turned into The Lost Winter and The Lost Spring. How did this happen? Well, I'll tell you. We each popped the full Director's Cut of Dances With Wolves into our respective DVD players on January 16, the morning after we published the last episode, and the movie wasn't over until yesterday. But we kid, Kevin, we kid, and if you really do have the technology that might help to clean up the Gulf, I'll never make a joke about you again. Anyway, if you're looking for the real culprits, check out this film festival, these 408 women, and the most joyous, indefatigably creative film blog on the web.

You need surfeits of joy to deal with The Lost Weekend, Billy Wilder's lugubrious drama about a writer's-blocked alcoholic named Don Birnam (Best Actor winner Ray Milland). You need just as many to hold up through Dances With Wolves, Kevin Costner's long, sobering chronicle of how the Lakota Sioux—depicted at first as the heirs of a hardy, reverent, and gallant way of life—are catastrophically displaced by the encroachments of post-bellum White America. Neither movie was a project that Hollywood studios were dying to make. In the final months of World War II, The Lost Weekend was trying to hawk a horrific story about an unsympathetic drunk that almost every major actor had declined to play. Dances With Wolves dropped the sexy, rising star of Bull Durham and No Way Out into an expensive three-hour epic that isolates him on an open plain for most of the first hour, then renders itself in large part in subtitled Lakota Sioux. And it sends people from the theater feeling sad and guilty. And did we mention the matinée idol in question had decided to direct it himself, despite no previous experience?

Milland's Don is a raving drunk. Costner's Dunbar is just... different.

With a lot of the movies we cover in this series, especially among the recent entries, I have a fairly strong idea of whether we'll gravitate toward enthusiasm or dismissal. Excitingly, though, I actually have no idea what either of you guys thinks about either film. Most reviewers at the time and more recent critics have identified some mixture of strong and weak elements in both movies, so before we each tip our hands as to our overall admiration for Weekend and Wolves, I want to ask: what, for both of you, is the single strongest element of each film? I'll answer, too, but it's my party to host this time, so I get to go last. And if only to teach Kevin a lesson about brevity, let's prove how much we can express in just a handful of sentences, maybe two or three per movie. Go!

NATHANIEL: We're rusty at this and you'd like us to start on a positive note and you'd like it to be brief? Quite the taskmaster! I'm afraid that when it comes to dishing out compliments to one Mister Costner the first description that came to mind was "neat." That's his own shallow compliment of choice to Madonna in Truth Or Dare, a compliment which she instantly gags on despite proving the lack of gag reflex later in her film.

You don't want me to start with the gagging so I'll say that I like that the look of the film isn't overly "neat". Despite the kind of duly saturated sunsets that win cinematography Oscars sometimes the film is content to look dusty and humble, particularly in regards to Costner's Little Hut on the Prairie. And I dig the wolf, an exquisite animal actor. I'd dance with it, too.

BOTTLE: They like me, they really like me!

As for The Lost Weekend, I keep thinking about that hidden bottle, hanging outside Don Birnam's (Ray Milland) window by a string. Few movies offer up an early image that beautifully concise and versatile: it's a plot device, it's a literal representation of alcoholism, and it's a visual metaphor for Don himself, hiding away in shame and hanging by a thread.

NICK: A haiku: Taskmaster I am, / But those are gorgeous answers. / Mike, your turn to Dance.

MIKE: Brief I can do. Positive... we'll see.

I'm going to Stand with a Fist and name Mr. Costner the Actor as the best thing about Dances With Wolves. His complete ordinariness fit the character perfectly, not adding much nuance but serving as a representation of an average but smart Indiana boy stuck by himself in a mud hut. It's not a great compliment that his artless "acting" won the prize here, but a compliment nonetheless.

For The Lost Weekend, Nathaniel already nailed the best single element of the film—that bottle on the string is such a perfect encapsulation. So I'll expand by praising its attention to Don's obsession with acquiring and concealing bottles, the hyper-detailed strategy of which ones to leave for his brother to find and how to use his good nature against him, the increasing lengths he'll go to get them. It's a nice, small attention to detail in a film that tends toward big speeches and arm-waving.

NICK: Big speeches and arm-waving indeed, which is why my favorite moment in The Lost Weekend is easily the most comical, when Don Birnam gets caught attempting to rob the woman next to him in a fine restaurant, and the whole place erupts into a loud chorus of "Somebody stole a purse, somebody stole a purse!" I love how they all know the song, and they sing it with such merry, mocking gusto.

My Wolves answer is also musical: I completely adore the score. I realize John Barry pilfers a bit from his own Out of Africa compositions, but I think the music has a genuine, dark majesty to it, and an epic scale of feeling that helps the film earn its sense of scope and energize its runtime.

Honestly, I think Dances With Wolves is, all in all, a pretty strong film: flawed in all kinds of moments, but technically very accomplished and engaging at the level of story. But am I sensing I'm alone in this?

Costner entices Oscar by stealing his favorite ensemble. Give or take the hair.

NATHANIEL: Well, I can't back you up there. I remember liking it well enough in 1990, though I never wanted it in the Best Picture race, and being vaguely irritated that Kevin Costner wasn't nominated for Best Actor. Twenty years later, I can't imagine what I was thinking in terms of the latter. Apologies to Mike but I think Costner is nearly disastrous in the lead role, especially in regards to the ever-present journal narration. We should be experiencing someone opening their soul up: new experiences, new cultures, new land, new language. That's a lot to take in. Dances needs a Lt. Dunbar with really expressive eyes and voice, capable of conveying inquisitive feeling and depth of conviction (though depth of intellect or feeling are not required). But there Kevin Costner always is, looking like he just stepped out of a late 80s hair salon and loosing all those flat bored Californian vowels on us. If the film hadn't been so famously his, I would have to assume it was a paycheck gig based on the evidence. Where is the passion? He's much better in the physical sequences, whether it's comedy (the naked discovery, his problems with low ceilings, or riding a horse in general) but for facility with a character arc this was a huge step down for him from Bull Durham and No Way Out.

It's the voice that I hate most. The hair is runner up. It only gets worse with the running time when he loses the only thing keeping him in period—the mustache—and meets that kindred spirit salon aficionado Stands With a Fist. I know this sounds incredibly facile but it's just so distracting to me... especially because the aesthetics of costume, set, and camerawork otherwise seem committed to time and place. The bored voice and the 80s hair just remind me that this was always a vanity project for a star at the peak of fame.

NICK: You might hate the performance so much, Nathaniel, that you're repressing the info that Kevin actually was nominated for Best Actor for this... though he was a sort of pioneer of the Blanchett-Tucci School of grimacing at one's own performance during the nomination reel. I like Mike's point about Costner's "average" quality desisting from making Lt. Dunbar some kind of saint or prodigy, but otherwise, I have to admit to subscribing to everything Nathaniel just said. His voice is the single thing I cannot stand about the movie, with or without a fist.

But the movie overall? Has it declined in other respects for you, Nathaniel? Mike, I take it you're also a detractor?

MIKE: I Stand With a Fist against the two of you. (How many times can we make that joke? as many times as we want to!) Maybe I'm letting my opinions about the film color my reception of Costner's performance, but pretty much everything Nathaniel said about him (aside from the 80s hair salon stuff—you got me there) makes me more convinced that he's perfect. The film is a fumbling, well-meaning attempt to show us Native American culture and the effects that whites had on it. It gets so much wrong, but its heart is in the right place, even if it is a little stupid sometimes. Costner's shallowness fits into that perfectly. And even though I, too, hate those godawful journal readings, his complete lack of inflection fits his very gradual change from his weird devotion to duty in the face of its pointlessness to his devotion to the culture that accepted him. If Hare Krishnas instead of Lakota Sioux had moved in next door, I think he would have joined them with just as much fervor.

As for the rest of the movie, I loved a lot of the acting around the edges, especially Graham Greene's befuddled nobility and Tantoo Cardinal's watchfulness. It tries mighty hard to avoid exoticizing the Lakota, which I appreciate, even though it's at heart about how much better the Exotic Other is than mainstream white culture. I'm torn. I genuinely liked it, but it's an embarrassed liking.

NATHANIEL: Allow me to elaborate on the nuances of my position—nuances, while discussing Dances With Wolves. I actually agree that the shallowness is not a problem. I like that he has such a facile understanding of the culture and that he's not a deep thinker. My problem with the film, I suppose, is that I don't really believe that it's aware of its shallowness. I think it believes in itself as a great social message movie and Dunbar as some great martyr/savior. Note that strange crucifixion pose in that early scene where he rides his horse into that sea of guns, certain of death but willing to sacrifice himself for the greater good. But what is he saving? The whole movie is a delay of the sad, inevitable crushing of the Native Americans.

I guess the self-importance and the obviousness of its message rub me the wrong way. Which is why I like it best when it's a little bit uncomfortable with itself. Like when Dunbar gets squeamish about the Sioux killing his fellow frontiersmen or when it allows you to sit in on the tribe meetings and everyone's opposing points seem valid in some way. I admire that the ending accepts defeat, even if it only does so in that familiar epilogue text-based way: "This is what happens after the movie ends," it says, in order to edify you. "In case you get your history from the movies!"

I'm feeling churlish now, because the movie does mean well. That's a prerequisite for winning Oscars, yes? If I rode into that village they'd rename me Bitches About Movie.

NICK: Agreed that the movie's heart is in the right place, but I also think it has enough strong scenes and a solid enough technical bedrock—sound, lighting, score, editing—that it roundly eclipses a lot movies with "heart in the right place." The heart is worn so close to Costner's own sleeve that I believe this film more than I do a lot of other movies with similarly naïve and exoticizing tendencies, whose politics often seem worked out by committee.

I do think Dunbar matures a bit over the course of the film. His early attempt at a cruciform suicide, brave but grandiloquent, doesn't seem to me to typify his more humble self-conception in the prairie scenes. Not that the earlier scene makes much sense, anyway. But I loved the shots of all the other soldiers' boots in that scene, so soon after we'd just gotten so down and dirty into the nasty truth of Dunbar's own injured foot. Little accents of montage and visual emphasis like that are gratifyingly frequent within the filmmaking; Costner seems legitimately to have thought in cinematic, image-based terms, even if they're awfully old-fashioned and sometimes ham-handed.

Are we required to address the buffalo hunt before getting drunk with Ray Milland? Mike, does the movie snag your attention in other respects than Costner's performance or its wobbly attempts at PC sincerity? Signed, Manages the Discussion.

And we'll be back, after this 60-hour buffalo hunt!

MIKE: I wish we could get drunk with Milland before addressing that buffalo hunt, which is, I think, the only time I was absolutely sure I was seeing footage from the extended edition. It went on FOR.EVER. And so extendedly brutal, too—even with the special film versions of arrows that drop buffalo instantly, instead of helping them bleed to death slowly. I don't know what the point was, actually, to how godawful long that sequence was. It reminded me of the five-minute "Yee-hah, get 'em going!" scene from the beginning of the cattle drive in Red River. OK, I get the point.

That said, you guys have covered most of what I like about DWW—the score, its willingness to be both gorgeous and ugly, the tribal meetings. I liked its only attempt to tie the first half of the film in with the ending, when Wind In His Hair reprises his "Can you see that I am not afraid of you?" in the shape of the more distant but more heartfelt "Can you see that I am your friend?" Actually, with a film that runs over three hours, I'm surprised there's not more back-and-forth referencing to create some kind of continuity. Aside from beautiful shots of waving grass, that is.

OK, I'm buying the first round, and it's good stuff, too: someone has to talk about Ray Milland. My mouth is full of whiskey and grandiloquence, so it's gotta be one of you two.

And we'll be back, after this 60-hour buzz hunt!

NICK: I sort of can't deal with Ray Milland in this movie. He has his moments, but the teeth-baring, wild-eyed approach to drunkenness feels more Reefer Madness to me than Academy Award. He does not seem comfortable conveying any emotional or psychological complexity, much less any charm or appeal to offset his obvious disastrousness as a romantic partner for the Jane Wyman character.

But then, I think Wyman and Phillip Terry are pretty woeful in the other lead roles, and the film keeps waffling between looking cheap and under-produced and looking gimmicky and over-worked. Wilder throws almost anything he can think of at this script, and some of it clicks okay, but a lot of it doesn't. The movie, like the lead performance, just seems so hysterical and cooked-up to me.

NATHANIEL: Hysterical and cooked-up? You mean you haven't hallucinated small animals devouring each other after a bender?

I can't really argue with this assessment—any of it—but in a way I liked the hysterical bits most. I know you're not exactly a fan of Requiem for a Dream, either, so maybe this is a personal thing? For myself, addiction stories work best onscreen when they're operating at opposite poles of stylization. They can be incredibly moving when they're dour and naturalistic (I think immediately of that 'let's get high one last time together' scene in High Art) but if I can't have them that way, I need them to be elaborately stylized like Requiem. I think that's the best way to get at the headspace of addiction, which isn't exactly rational or sane.

So, for me, the film worked best when it went a little off the rails. I'm not talking about the rather elaborate strategies for hidden bottles and cash grabs. Those scenes offered more rococo-cuckoo detailing than mere stylization. But I definitely liked the DT hospital trip and that overly sweaty walking tour of the city... on account of, 'What the hell?'

I hope I'm making sense. Basically I enjoyed the things that distracted or interrupted all the speechifying the most.

NICK: Requiem is an interesting comparison, and probably more apt than my own unexpected free-associations over to Precious. That movie's flourishes of fantasy and pure directorial conceit sometimes work and sometimes don't, and I can sympathize with the filmmakers' attempts to get "cinematic" mileage out of downward-spiral narratives (addiction, poverty, disease, what have you), which are so frequently inert on screen. But the reason I thought of Precious is that its swerves into fantasy almost always feel related in some way to the headspace of the character. Whereas, for example, the Dance of the Trenchcoats that suddenly overtakes the scene at the opera in The Lost Weekend just feels so arbitrary, and utterly unconnected to Don—although the initial conceit, that he's watching La Traviata and all he can "see" is the stage-drinking, plays pretty well. More importantly, where Precious, for me, earns its leaps into exaggeration or abstraction by handling the "straight" scenes and the performances with such force and insight, The Lost Weekend feels like it's on wobbly legs even when it's trying to be spare and candid, or to handle pretty basic three-character dialogue scenes.

I do agree, though, about the scenes in the DT ward, filmed in Bellevue Hospital. Those are pretty harrowing, and I like that Frank Faylen, as blond Nurse Bim, is the only actor who slyly insists on the homo-panic subtext that the screenplay basically excises from the novel, with its new emphasis on "writer's block."

MIKE: Weird, Nick, because I, too, thought of Precious during Milland's freakouts, but it was not a good thing. The flourishes in both films seem like just that—directorial flourishes, and completely unearned. The dead-serious straight scenes in Precious make the jumps to fantasy even more jarring (again, in a bad way), but oddly enough I don't think I minded the ones here as much because the general tone of The Lost Weekend is one of arm-waving and hand-wringing.

I, three, liked the DT ward scene in Weekend, and now that I think of it again, I think there's an interesting parallel between that scene and the one in DWW where the US Cavalry is holding Lt. Dumb-Bear in his mud hut, surrounded by grinning toothless chaps with southern accents (why, if they're Union troops? oh, never mind...) who are taking turns beating him. This is one spot where DWW veers a little away from realism, I think to emphasize the shock that Costner's feeling: "Is this what I was supposed to be loyal to?" And over in The Lost Weekend, Milland gets his strongest taste of the downside of binge drinking. Although, could this really have been his first case of the DTs?

That's all for me this round—I'm off to become Hobbles on One Leg—but I just noticed that you two actressexuals have neglected to mention Mary McDonnell (aside from her hair). What's up with that?

NICK: I can see that argument that The Lost Weekend's more florid conceits meld better in a movie that's generally pretty florid, whereas they stand at greater odds with a movie that elsewhere aspires to a kind of realism. Then again, The Lost Weekend was praised more than anything in 1945 for its gut-wrenching, unvarnished realism—it's all over the reviews of the time—so it just goes to show that one generation's "realism" is another's bag of splashy directorial flourishes. (Unsurprisingly, one of my favorite reviews from the film's initial release was this one by James Agee, who was unusually skeptical among his peer group in 1945.)

Jane Wyman co-stars as Accessorizes With Leopard.
Mary McDonnell co-stars as Stands With a What the F**k?

As for Mary McDonnell, she's at least a better target for idolators of actresses in Dances With Wolves than Jane Wyman or Doris Dowling is in The Lost Weekend, and I find her thoughtful and technically skilled, particularly with the Lakota Sioux dialogue. Still, it's clearly apprentice work from an actress who really started hitting her cinematic stride two years later in Passion Fish (a full generation, in entertainment years, before she assumed presidency of the galaxy, brilliantly). Still, the fact that neither author Michael Blake nor Costner could conceive of a Sioux love interest for Dunbar signals one of those important limits in Dances With Wolves's extravagant liberal piety.

Nathaniel, what are your closing thoughts?

NATHANIEL: I've liked Mary McDonnell better in just about everything else, which is why I was avoiding the topic. Even the following year in Grand Canyon, I was onboard. "What if these are miracles?" she asked her husband in that We're All Connected movie (speaking of liberal piety...). And she did so with all the directness and full-spectrum humanity I came to love so much in her work in Passion Fish and Donnie Darko and beyond.

If there's a miracle occurring anywhere in Dances With Wolves, it's that she's able to keep a straight face while trying to sell that character. I'd say it's a thankless role but an Oscar nomination is quite a lot of thanks for playing Stands With a Fist Token White Woman. She can bring all the technique she likes to it; I did like watching her struggling to make English words. It's very actorly but totally watchable. Still, it's just an impossible task. Especially since, as you insightfully note, the very presence of Stands With a Fist is a textbook example of the embedded racism in White Guilt movies.

I feel like I Lost a Weekend (hardy-har-har) watching Dances With Wolves, and what did I have to show for it? Epilogue text to tell me that the Native Americans were going to have it real hard after the movie? Thanks, Professor Costner. One sign of a movie's strength is how far it extends in your imagination beyond the last scene, or before the first. Do the characters live outside the frame? In that respect, I'm not sure I can fully get behind either film. The Lost Weekend doesn't offer much closure unless you buy Don Birnam's renewed "I'll beat it this time" vow. I'm not sure Billy Wilder is asking you to, given the final shot. So it's easy to feel those characters living on, but in a nightmare loop of the same movie you've just watched, complete with DTs, pawn shops, and broken promises. But I find it impossible to imagine a life for Stands With a Fist and Dances With Wolves beyond that slow ride into winter. Maybe that's the (elegiac) point... but I needed to feel something more than a history lesson as they faded out.

This Week: Nathaniel's post on the other Best Picture nominees from 1945 and 1990 and Mike's post at his newly reactivated blog!

Previously: ep.1: Wings & No Country; ep.2: Broadway Melody & Departed; ep.3: All Quiet & Crash; ep.4: Cimarron & Million Dollar Baby; ep.5: Grand Hotel & LOTR:ROTK; ep.6: Cavalcade & Chicago; ep.7: It Happened One Night & A Beautiful Mind; ep.8: Mutiny on the Bounty & Gladiator; ep.9: Ziegfeld & American Beauty; ep.10: Zola & Shakespeare; ep.11: You Can't Take It with You & Titanic; ep.12: Gone with the Wind & The English Patient; ep.13: Rebecca & Braveheart; ep.14: How Green Was My Valley & Forrest Gump; ep.15: Mrs. Miniver & Schindler's List; ep.16: Casablanca & Unforgiven; ep.17: Going My Way & The Silence of the Lambs

Compendium: My ongoing "Best Pictures" Special Section, with reviews, rankings, polls, and links to all of our discussions

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Friday, June 25, 2010

Happy 40th, Cornell Cinema

After yesterday's sad news, I'm all too happy to follow up with a celebration. I have loved and will continue to love plenty of campus cinemas in my time, but the dearest to my heart will always be Cornell Cinema, split between two generous-sized, single-screen facilities on Cornell University's campus in Ithaca, New York. Last December when I wrote my End of the 00s series commemorating my favorite filmgoing experiences of the decade, Cornell Cinema figured again and again, and I could hardly isolate a favorite. Getting knocked backward by Pola X? Finally "getting" Raging Bull? Xala? Absorbing the full, nine hours of Shoah in full, harrowing scale? The Scarlet Empress, looking infinitely better than even the subsequent Criterion DVD? demonlover? In This World? Howling at I'm the One that I Want? Going gaga over a brand-new and flawless print of Persona, maybe the best film ever made? Swooning over the final shot of The Green Ray, as is only possible in a celluloid projection? 11'09"01? Laura? The Cremaster Cycle? Meeting Tarkovsky and Herzog for the first time in the massive scopes they intended, and so miraculously achieved? The Corporation? Fanny and Alexander? Three out of four nights of Morvern Callar, my favorite film of the 00s? Grooving to Ghost Dog? Giggling like a kid at Bring It On? The traveling Dorothy Arzner retrospective? Marveling at El sol del membrillo, which would otherwise be impossible to see? Seeing Holiday for the first time, and having the luck to do so on a giant, shimmering screen? Having a second date with You Can Count on Me, months after the first one, and feeling like a much-beloved sibling had dropped back into town?

For six years in Ithaca, my movie madness and I could always count on Cornell Cinema and its tireless director, Mary Fessenden, and its managing director, Chris Riley. They were even nice enough to pay me small sums to write calendar blurbs, which I was so happy to do I held on for a year or so after I'd moved away and dropped off the payroll. Just about every year, they have to wheedle the student government and the Cornell administration for enough funding to barely scrape by. Imagine if the Angelika or the Film Forum had to grovel annually to every hipster in the Lower East Side, when the groveling clearly ought to go the other way. Once my ship finally comes in, Cornell Cinema is getting its own permanent berth, by which I mean, a check. The best incentive to get tenure and earn a raise is the prospect of giving back to all the people and organizations that taught me anything, and Cornell Cinema taught me a lot.

Happy 40th, Cornell Cinema, and good for you for throwing yourself a great party. Anyone in upstate New York should attend without a second thought. And if Cornell Cinema means nothing to you, but nonprofit movie theaters, repertory cinemas, campus film societies, revival houses, film archives, or university-based programs in film and media studies mean anything to you, then throw some love this weekend to the one you love the best. If love takes the form of some dinero on this occasion, all the better.

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Thursday, June 24, 2010

R.I.P. Marc McKerrow

The most searching and inspiring conversations I have ever enjoyed with a filmmaker I had with Kimberly Reed, the director of the extraordinary, autobiographical documentary Prodigal Sons. I still think that film is the best commercial release of 2010 so far, but coextensive with its narrative and aesthetic virtues is an extraordinary act of tricky, lucid, personal compassion from a sister to a brother. Marc McKerrow, Kimberly Reed's brother, never had an easy life. It only got harder, partly for reasons he might have tried harder to control, but largely for reasons exceeding his control, and which surely caused him more grief than they did anyone else.

Prodigal Sons was a watershed experience for me at last year's Nashville Film Festival and has moved audiences and impressed critics in Canada, Greece, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Ireland, and so many other places, as well as the U.S. Long before I spent a weekend hosting Kim at Northwestern, I was already bewildered by the smattering of reviews that worried whether Prodigal Sons is over-crowded with subject matter, or whether it's ultimately exploitative in depicting Marc's struggles with mental illness, his consequent swings of temper, his longing for his birth parents whom he was never to meet, and his acute case of sibling rivalry. From where I was sitting, the beautifully judged density of the narrative is one of the movie's cardinal virtues, since too many films, fiction and nonfiction, seem so cowed into dulling the edges of difficult stories, or taking infinite snapshots of one side of a character while never taking the initiative to walk around for different angles, or to think, hard, about to whom and to what that character relates. And the danger of exploitation strikes me as precisely what Prodigal Sons avoids through such a rounded, principled, but compassionate vantage on Marc—a vantage, moreover, that puts the filmmaker up for review as fully as it does her struggling brother.

When Kim visited Northwestern last winter, she said that no one was a bigger fan of Prodigal Sons than Marc. For anyone to whom this reads like a typical sound-bite of promotional cant, I watched her fulfilling Marc's standing request that she call him before or after and sometimes during every single festival screening of Prodigal Sons she attended—and she attended a lot. Marc's former wife, whom you meet in the film, attended a recent screening at the Spokane International Film Festival, near the home she shared with Marc: as apt a tribute as I can imagine to the fullness and fairness of the characterization, short of her own continued, private support of Marc through his ordeals. If you have seen the film, which has begun airing on the Sundance Channel and will appear on DVD this month, or if you saw Kim's hour-long interview with Oprah Winfrey in February, you know that behind this meditative, deft, free-thinking, and full-hearted movie is a family of unusual resilience and attachment, even or especially in the face of unusual tests.

Motivating all of these words is the news that Marc passed away unexpectedly on Friday. Only three days later, Prodigal Sons screened for the first time on Sundance, thereby reaching what is certain to be its largest, least predictable audience. The film is suddenly his legacy in a poignantly literal way, which I expect will only make it a more wrenching but also a more stirring and memorable viewing experience. Tributes to Marc and condolences to the family have already begun proliferating on the film's Facebook page; a new foundation in his name, to raise awareness and funding related to brain injury and mental illness, will soon go online here and here. I encourage you to donate what you can, even if it's just a few moments of your time to read and learn, or a private thought for the McKerrows and for other people who negotiate these sorts of challenges.

I have found it difficult to pay tribute to Marc without sounding like I'm shilling for the movie. I don't know how to avoid that danger when I not only feel so strongly about Prodigal Sons, but after all, it's the aperture through which my life came to be changed by my exposure to Marc and to his whole family's story. From any proximity, intimate or distant, blood-tied or wholly anonymous, he comes across as not an easy person to get next to. At the same time, Prodigal Sons makes clear that Marc had an ability to be very open and kind, very big of heart, and that he believed in family in ways not everyone allows themselves to do anymore. In conversation, Kim amplified what is already evident in the movie: Prodigal Sons was her way of reaching out to a sibling who had always posed problems for her. Well before the seeds of the film were even planted, Marc had surprised Kim with a request that she help him write his autobiography. In many ways the film was his pet and his idea, despite a few viewers' misapprehensions that he is somehow secondary or precariously positioned with respect to Kim's own narrative. Though Marc's life only got tougher from where the movie leaves off, brother and sister only became more and more bonded.

Now, in the wake of his death, I am only more moved to see Prodigal Sons as a beautiful, sobering testimony—provoking of thought as well as feeling—that there are so many ways to reach out and mend fences where they are broken, or even to reiterate your love for people who are well aware of it. During what is surely a terrible time for the McKerrow family, I hope they find some solace in the fact that they collectively—Marc included—reached out to each other before it could easily have been too late. Clearly the story is more complicated than that, and it's important to recognize, even having spent time with Kim, that I have only an extremely mediated awareness of who the McKerrows are and what all they have been through together. But I'm keeping them even closer in my thoughts than I already have in the year and a half since I first saw Prodigal Sons, and I hope some of you might do the same.

Four days after Marc passed, and the morning after the movie's premiere to a nationwide audience on cable TV, this rare double rainbow appeared in the sky over the McKerrows' hometown of Helena, Montana. Interpret as you will. Poetic license can be a great ally in moments of introspection.

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Tuesday, June 22, 2010

My Lunch with the Boston Film Critics

Fourth only to the oil still geysering out of BP's well, the ongoing war in Afghanistan, and the retirement of Amanda Bynes, the ranking crisis in the world today is that the website for the Boston Society of Film Critics currently has "incomplete" winner information listed for both 1988 and 1989. Normally I would find a way to clench my jaw and power through this kind of setback, but as you know, I recently had the movies of these two particular years on the brain, and more than that, the BSFC is one of my absolute favorite film bodies anywhere.

Boston was the breeding ground for everything I came to know about cinema, during four collegiate years in which I haunted all the great theaters of that city: the Brattle, the Coolidge Corner, the Harvard Film Archive, the dearly departed Chéri with its huge single screen, and especially the Landmark Kendall Square, where I regularly stayed for longer spans of time than the paid workers did. During these years of discovering movies, the BSFC made gorgeously unexpected and catholic choices in their awards: they Best Picture'd Out of Sight before the NSFC thought of it, they thought gloriously outside the commercial box on Best Foreign Film selections like Taste of Cherry (which I had seen on the big screen at Coolidge Corner, and then again at the Harvard Film Archive), and showed great discernment and prescience in giving their 1998 Best Actress prize to then-unknown Samantha Morton for her lacerating work in Carine Adler's Under the Skin, also cited as the year's best debut feature. Nathaniel recently reminded us that 1998 wasn't the easiest year to find stellar Best Actress candidates, and the BSFC always came through in a clutch. The year before, Helena Bonham Carter very deservingly won for The Wings of the Dove, but even though runner-up information isn't as easy to find on the Web as it once was, I remember that she barely pipped Katrin Cartlidge in Career Girls and Tilda Swinton in my beloved Female Perversions (screened at the Landmark Kendall Square). Those are the sorts of gutsy choices that can win me over in perpetuity, and that's why the BSFC joins the New York, Los Angeles, and National Film Critics societies as the only film critics' organizations whose annual citations I archive on my website.

So, during my lunch break, since I was already in the library hunting down Levinas and the Cinema of Redemption, et al., I popped over to the microfiche room to get to the bottom of the missing BSFC winners' lists in 1988 and 1989. I realize that precisely no one is waiting for this info, but since IMDb currently isn't accepting updates to their Awards pages, I figure there is some sad Googler out there who will want this info, which I have already passed along to the BSFC itself. Maybe one of you kids can set the record straight over at Wikipedia. Forthwith:

Boston Society of Film Critics, 1988

Picture: Bull Durham
(see how smart they are?)

Director: Stephen Frears, Dangerous Liaisons
(snubbed by the Academy, but fêted here)

Actress: Melanie Griffith, Working Girl
(disappointing, since all sites erroneously list the superior Susan Sarandon in BD)

Actor: Daniel Day-Lewis, The Unbearable Lightness of Being
(extremely well-played, BSFC!)

Supporting Actress: Joan Cusack, Married to the Mob, Stars and Bars, and Working Girl
(just the kind of body of work one likes to see recognized)

Supporting Actor: Dean Stockwell, Married to the Mob and Tucker: The Man and His Dream
(lots of critics' prizes that year for Stockwell)

Screenplay: Ron Shelton, Bull Durham
(couldn't have done better than that)

Cinematography: Sven Nykvist, The Unbearable Lightness of Being
(again, well-played)

Foreign Film: Salaam Bombay!, Mira Nair
(an important film to recognize, and trounces Oscar's choice)

Documentary Feature: The Thin Blue Line, Errol Morris
(virtually everyone's choice, and understandably so)

Special Awards: Liane Brandon (Boston-based independent filmmaker) and Richard Williams (animation director, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?)

I love the BSFC for those kinds of broad-minded Special Awards. Even better, they honored five of the year's best revival series at Boston movie theaters, and the five best movies that were either unearthed, restored, or re-released during the calendar year, which in this case included the long-hidden Manchurian Candidate, the LGBT festival screening The Magic Garden of Stanley Sweetheart and Louis Malle's important film Lacombe, Lucien. Could a critics' body do more important work than shining a light on revivals and restorations, alongside the big-tent pictures?

Boston Society of Film Critics, 1989

Picture: Crimes and Misdemeanors
(sure knocks Oscar's choice into the shade)

Director: Woody Allen, Crimes and Misdemeanors
(at least he held on for an Oscar nod)

Actress: Jessica Tandy, Driving Miss Daisy
(uh-oh! breaks Pfeiffer's sweep of all the other critics' organizations)

Actor: Daniel Day-Lewis, My Left Foot
(a well-earned repeat for Daniel)

Supporting Actress: Brenda Fricker, My Left Foot
(did her awards heat begin here?)

Supporting Actor: Danny Aiello, Do the Right Thing
(confoundingly, one of very few critics' laurels for this film)

Screenplay: Woody Allen, Crimes and Misdemeanors
(they sure did love this one)

Cinematography: Michael Ballhaus, The Fabulous Baker Boys
(another unimpeachable choice)

Foreign Film: Story of Women, Claude Chabrol
(way tougher choice than Cinema Paradiso)

Documentary Feature: Let's Get Lost, Bruce Weber
(against the strong critical tide for Roger & Me)

Special Awards: To the Brattle Theatre, on its 100th anniversary, and to the restoration efforts of the Coolidge Corner Theater and the Somerville Theater

Again, the BSFC goes out of its way to honor local film culture, specifically on behalf of some of the very moviehouses that, less than a decade later, would be so central to my informal education. And again, five more film series were honored by the group, including a very important retrospective at Harvard of the work of John Cassavetes, and five more citations for major rediscoveries and restorations, including those for Carnival of Souls, Lawrence of Arabia, the controversial animated film Coonskin, and the Yiddish-language film The Dybbuk from 1937.

I hope everyone is now resting easier with this crucial information. But if you take a few rental suggestions away from this post, I assure you that you can hardly go wrong! And while you're at it, if this inspires you to keep up with the regular reviews filed by Wesley Morris and Ty Burr over at the Boston Globe—two of the country's best weekly reviewers, employed by a paper that is still supporting the role of the serious film critic—then I'll be even happier that I spent my lunch break on this. Carry on!

P.S. The BSFC winners from 1992 are not listed as "Incomplete," but I know there was no way that listing was a full one, so (I can't stop!):

Boston Society of Film Critics, 1992

Picture: Unforgiven
(no stunner)

Director: Robert Altman, The Player
(nice splitting of the prizes)

Actress: Emma Thompson, Howards End
(all of the extant sites erroneously promote Judy Davis to this category)

Actor: Denzel Washington, Malcolm X
(a consensus choice, but who could argue?)

Supporting Actress: Judy Davis, Husbands and Wives and Where Angels Fear to Tread
(I think this was the only group to list both of these turns)

Supporting Actor: Gene Hackman, Unforgiven
(again, not a surprise but you can't blame them)

Screenplay: Neil Jordan, The Crying Game

Cinematography: Jack Green, Unforgiven
(once again, a well-earned prize for an Academy runner-up)

Foreign Film: Raise the Red Lantern, Zhang Yimou
(eclipses his early 00s work, if that's all you know)

Documentary Feature: Brother's Keeper, Joe Berlinger & Bruce Sinofsky
(another personal favorite)

Special Awards: To David Kleiler for his comitment to diverse, alternative programming at the Coolidge Corner Theater, and to Frank Avruch of WCVB-TV for hosting The Great Entertainment for 18 years

Recognized film series included "Classic Arkoff: At the Drive-In with American International Pictures" and "Marvelous Méliès" at Harvard Film Archive; "The Films of Mike Leigh" at the Museum of Fine Arts; "The Films of Robert Altman" at the Brattle; and "Yiddish Film: Between Two Worlds," jointly screened at the MFA, Coolidge Corner, and Brandeis University. Discoveries and rediscoveries included De Palma's Blowout, Altman's California Split, Renoir's The Golden Coach, Leigh's Meantime, and Welles's Othello.

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Tuesday, June 15, 2010

PBK by way of AMPAS

It's not just post-Actress exhaustion that has kept me quiet on this blog for four days. We are in the middle of Graduation Week here at Northwestern, which is a surprisingly busy time for faculty even as, and rightly so, it's a fairly leisurely interlude for the students who are still hanging around campus, waiting to toss their caps. One of the coolest gigs I scored at work this year was being asked to be the speaker at the Phi Beta Kappa induction ceremony for our most accomplished seniors. Reading the unsolicited recommendation letters that these students prompted among their professors and mentors—students whom, I stress, didn't even know they were contending for this honor—cast a welcome, humbling light on a staggering series of undergraduate accomplishments. Maybe because I feel moved to celebrate these inspiring students as publicly as possible, maybe because I'm still not sure what to do with this blog post-Judy, maybe because I think you'll find it funny that I can't not talk about the Oscars, or maybe because I know I'm always interested when hobbyist bloggers reveal something about their "real" work lives, I am posting the text of my speech.

Enjoy, if you're so inclined ...or else, hang tight for something more closely resembling the usual programming. I might even catch a current release tomorrow. The possibilities are boundless, even if my energy at the moment is not!

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Friday, June 11, 2010

Actress Files: The Morning After

Who else woke up early and bleary-eyed? Hopefully not for the sole reason that the Garland piece was so long that it kept you up all night. Compared to several of the other pieces, and certainly to the performance, I admit to being disappointed in what I turned out in the time I had. Maybe, à la the film, I'll have to mercilessly chop big portions of unnecessary text and just replace them with still photos! When, one day in the future, it's possible to pick this project back up and revisit some of the performances I'd already seen a while ago, I'll wrestle with the problem of why it's so much harder to comment on the very best ones without just sinking into descriptive reverie. But Star Is Born fans everywhere can hopefully relate to that temptation. Now that I've fixed the initial snafu that was prohibiting comments on the Garland post, you can tell me so. Or, if you're finding that one of the pieces has especially lingered with you, I'd love to know which one.

Two more things: in the even more distant future, I'll probably develop some combo of the year profiles and these longer individual performance reviews as a proposal for a complete, printed book. Concrete evidence that an audience exists for that book would be a huge asset, so if you can imagine buying such a thing, and you're just dying to know what I've got to say about everything from Meryl Streep's Sophie to Ali MacGraw's "never having to say you're sorry," please leave a comment on this post or else e-mail me here. Meanwhile, Blogger has made their archiving protocols even less user-friendly than they formerly were, so this page is the easiest place to have a look back through where we've been since April, if you ever get the hankering.

I have wanted to see all of these performances since falling head over heels for the first two that ever crossed my path—Marlee Matlin in Children of a Lesser God and Sigourney Weaver in Aliens, both when I was in the fourth grade. So, I'm really excited to have capped off that recreational goal, and I definitely feel ready to move on to some other projects. You know how Faye looks in this famous, wonderful photo from the morning after she won her Oscar—like she finally got what she wanted, but a day later, she's already immersed in a strange combination of satisfaction, skepticism, and fatigue? I'm kind of in the same place. Derek and I decided to commemorate the moment—he is represented by the camera flash in the screen of my no-it's-not-a-flatscreen TV—and we hereby officially invite Faye to come have tea with us.

For now, thanks to everyone who has read so loyally and commented so generously on these Actress posts! Blogging definitely won't be daily for the rest of the summer, and posts will take some different turns when they do crop up. For one, I'm eager to talk up whole films and not just performances for a while—hopefully, some good ones will pop up that are worth the effort, but I won't be surprised, or sad, if I wind up diving into the vault to find some inspiration. Happy actressing, everyone!

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Thursday, June 10, 2010

Birthday Girls: Judy Garland

Judy Garland, A Star Is Born
★ ★ ★ ★ ★
(lost the 1954 Best Actress Oscar to Grace Kelly for The Country Girl)

Why I Waited: Some form of gay honor code, I suppose, though that could just as easily have been a reason to have screened this years ago. Some residual hope that the footage excised by studio birdbrains might one day be recovered, though it seems fairly clear this will never happen. A dream of being in the right place and time for an in-cinema projection, though none has ever come my way. But really, the real reason is that even by the time I had 100 performances left to screen, this was the one that attracted the most reverential praise from fans, and the most durable controversy about just how scandalous it was that Judy didn't win. Plus, she sings, she dances, she emotes, she acts with James Mason (always a plus), she keeps it going for several hours, and she revisits and expands upon the foundations laid by Janet Gaynor, who was the first Mrs. Norman Maine but also the first Best Actress. So doesn't this seem, at least in theory, like an ideal capper to my loving archaeology of this category?

The Performance: Vicki Lester (née Esther Blodgett), as exploded into life by Judy Garland (née Frances Gumm), turns out to be an even more fitting alpha and omega for this project than I had realized. Having seen the previous Star Is Born with Gaynor and Fredric March, I of course should have anticipated that the Academy Awards themselves would figure prominently in the plot of the 1954 version, offering a more than fortuitous leitmotif given the context in which I watched the movie. The scenes at the Oscar ceremony furnish a kind of full, blooming resolution to the central, crescendoing chord of my nutty enterprise, which has been building in slow steps for so many years. As many of you know, Vicki wins the Oscar in A Star Is Born and gives the beginning of a very touching speech before a sudden, scary, and very sad interruption. I would still find this episode heartbreaking, I'm sure, even if I weren't completely over-invested in precisely the sort of glorious moment Vicki is enjoying until, abruptly, she isn't. And of course it's no easier watching Vicki essentially get Kanye'd by her own husband if we're preoccupied, as I couldn't help being, with the knowledge that this is the closest Vicki/Judy is ever going to get to a competitive Oscar. By the end of 175 minutes, and frankly much earlier, a truth for the ages has emerged, and it runs thus: if you're going to charter a peer academy of filmmaking professionals in order to honor annual feats of excellence in popular cinema, and you're not going to bestow one of these laurels upon Judy Garland's exhilarating, athletic, funny, nuanced, and sublimely grief-stricken performance in A Star Is Born, then you can pour, blast, and gild as many of those statues as you want, but you may as well just smash them against a wall or hurl them down the stairs.

Garland is beyond being the best of her group, which is hardly a shabby one. She's one Blanche DuBois away from being the strongest nominee of her decade. (No, I'm not forgetting that miraculous 1950 constellation.) She achieves so exemplary a fulfillment of every formidable ambition ingrained within George Cukor's brilliant film—a supernova of electric pizazz, an acute melodrama that pulls no psychological punches, a fond time-capsule of multiple forms and techniques of entertainment, and a metafilm about the production, the aesthetics, and the semiotics of Hollywood studio movies—that she actually makes you see what's missing, by comparison, in comparable characterizations as stupendous as Barbra Streisand's Fanny Brice and Liza Minnelli's Sally Bowles and Francine Evans. Not that I spent a single one of those 175 minutes thinking about anyone or anything else besides Vicki, her husband Norman Maine (made indelible by an equally heart-stopping James Mason), the movie they're in, the movies they make, the people who employ and applaud and punish Vicki and Norman (three categories with multiple overlaps), the private relationship they continually fight to preserve, and the final, catastrophic implosion of at least one of them.

And yet, no Oscar: he's the real Man That Got Away. And while I'd rather sing Garland's praises than use them as a glittering cudgel by which to beat up on the champ in her race, the injustice of this result, even by AMPAS's dubious standards, is pretty overpowering. I know well the look in my partner's eyes that says, "So do you see, then, what a cruel and absurd competition this always turns out to be? Are we ready to move on now to something else?" Sometimes he makes it easier and just says it with his mouth. In the case of A Star Is Born, it isn't just the external voting outcome that engenders disillusion but a message within the story and the filmmaking, holding that the ways in which we revere our actors tend to have built-in expiration dates. And even when this isn't the case, our ardor can look an awful lot like merciless aggression.

As Nathaniel pointed out in the comments on yesterday's Country Girl post, one needn't work too hard to align that film with A Star Is Born in relation to a thematic dialectics of success and failure. In lots of ways, A Star Is Born could not be more literal in this respect, given its famous chiastic structure by which matinée idol Norman Maine (né Ernest Sidney Gubbins) sees the bottom drop out of his acting career just as his discovery and eventual wife Esther/Vicki gleams like an arcing comet in the Hollywood firmament. Compared, however, to The Country Girl and to Georgie's crabbed efforts to keep her husband's stage career afloat, A Star Is Born is even more skeptical that anyone's creativity can be nourished or abetted by anyone else. Norman gives Vicki her crucial breaks, yes, and as he singles her out for praise, reapplies her makeup, applauds her routines, and enjoys her success, Garland and Mason alike contribute some of the most sensitive, tender acting in the film. But for all that you can cunningly escort someone into a studio head's office, there is not a single scene in A Star Is Born that suggests that Norman is capable of making Esther/Vicki a greater talent than she is, or that her love can defibrillate his sagging artistic energies.

Still less can you reverse the equation and extend your own creative prowess as a permanent balm to someone else's breaking spirit. But you can sure as hell try, and Garland's Vicki gives this form of exuberant nursing the fullest, funniest, most fiery test-run that anyone ever has. She comes home to a depressed and under-stimulated husband and launches into an impromptu, improvisatory living-room version of the lavish production number she's apparently been practicing all day, as though her virtuosity can lift him up. Temporarily, it seems to work, and it certainly works on us. Norman is absolutely delighted by Vicki's ingenuity, counter to my fears that A Star Is Born would generically require him to sour on Vicki's singing, dancing, and acting abilities once her star began to shoot higher than his. In fact, I don't think I've ever seen an on-screen spouse of a hoofer and belter take such mood-lifting, joyous pleasure in his partner's talent, just as I'm not sure I've ever seen anyone conjure the feeling, range, and exactitude of a major production number with the kind of vividness Garland attains, nailing her steps and her notes but, more importantly, implying a luscious series of visual tableaus where only a living room exists. (Granted, it's quite a living room.) Still, her victory is pyrrhic and quick. His mirth evaporates. Her incandescence dims before our eyes, even as she sits there in a rosy flush.

So, she creates tremendous entertainment out of thin air, and then it disappears just as swiftly back from whence it came. It's not just that Garland stops wailing and twirling but that she has to project the strange aura of the superpowered medium who is suddenly, once again, a mortal. Her performance, like the film, thus circles back to some subtly handled questions. What is this strange thing, creative magic? Where does it come from? What can it accomplish? Where does it go as the creator himself or herself starts to dissipate, or when the creator is forced to draw on more practical, more domestic, more emergency energies on behalf of someone else? Even while the story of A Star Is Born preoccupies itself with the practical ups and downs of commodifying, sustaining, and regulating artistic labor, the filmmaking and the acting seem charged at all times with—forgive me—a metaphysical reckoning with the vivid, slashing, booming, scary fact of human expressivity. Norman sees it in Esther, immediately, just as quickly and certainly as she sees that it once persisted, even quite recently, in him. So Mason has got to seem credible as a storied actor in the twilight of an august career, even though his character never gets to do a bit of acting—and this Mason accomplishes, and much else, unimprovably, through manipulations of manner and voice. Garland, meanwhile, has got to seem possessed not just of talent but of phenomenal, turbo-powered self-transportations. If all you do is sing a song well in the company of your buddies, then you'll still seem like a foolish opportunist, and/or like a clichéd character from any number of Ruby Keeler movies, when you quit your band of friends on the eve of a big tour, in order to pursue the eager but soggy promises of a tottering lush with industry connections. But, if you power your way through "The Man That Got Away" the way Garland does here, swelling your voice to huge, muscular volume before your body even looks like it's woken up; and then you start arcing your back and extending your arm in ecstatic, passionate service of the song; and then you power down into a giddy but embarrassed satisfaction immediately after the final note, as though even you cannot believe you can be the conduit for such sonorous, extravagant forces; then the audience will believe that Esther has to take Norman's advice, that their story is about something so prodigious that nothing smaller than the elephantine Hollywood apparatus could ever properly feed it, or be fed on it.

For huge stretches of A Star Is Born, most famously the 20-minute portmanteau of nested numbers called "Born in a Trunk," narrative recedes entirely, and there are no book scenes. Consequently, Garland's notes, her rhythms, her dancing, and her gestures carry the whole burden of showing that Esther's abilities are further burgeoning before our eyes, even though we don't have a lot of preceding impressions to compare these to. These same exertions, though, must also prepare us to grasp the complex ambivalences that start clawing at Esther's life with Norman the moment she leaves the theater. And we have to believe Esther knows most of this, even while she's selling the hell out of her songs and dance routines.... even when the lyric through which Garland has to filter all of this is the astoundingly mundane refrain "Pocatello, Idaho." Try singing that with ecstatic and multi-layered feeling. A Star Is Born, then, and Garland's turn in particular, doubly obligate themselves to set new, enthralling standards in note-perfect, emotionally shaded musical performance while also portraying a woman who increasingly perceives that her mastery in these areas is failing to shield her husband from disaster, or herself from abject unhappiness, even though her talents are in no way causing the disaster or the unhappiness. Her virtuosity gratifies her husband, buoys him up, but it also ensconces her within a profession that is busy sloughing him off. And it puts her in touch with an almost uncanny, purgative, expressive power which is the same one he has lost—or is so widely perceived to have lost that it amounts to the same thing—so in some ways it widens the gulf between them, even though neither of them wants that to happen.

Garland's numbers and her deliveries of them are often required to dramatize this kind of crisis, most obviously on the occasions when Norman asks Esther to sing for him and she gently obliges while nonetheless looking scared to go all the way—an unexpected reluctance, maybe, from a woman who belted "The Man That Got Away" to kingdom come after no more than a glance at the sheet music, before an audience of zero. Garland's phrasings of the lyrics and her modulations of sound tell us all we need to know about when she's thinking of the number, or thinking of Norman, or thinking of herself, in more or less that order. Sometimes, she has to run through the same routine twice in this movie, giving her all in the way that is Vicki's job and Garland's job, but signaling different forms of effort or preoccupation each time. The exemplary case here, of course, is the "Lose That Long Face" number which Garland has to put over like gangbusters after arriving on the set looking glum and distracted. Then she has to duck out between camera setups so she can completely decompose herself in tears, panic, and choking helplessness on the semi-warm shoulder of studio-head Charles Bickford (and in very close to one long take, incidentally). Then, after drying her eyes and wiping her nose, she has to reprise the same number for an encore in close-up, cognizant that her audience knows what kind of effort it's requiring for Vicki to bear out the injunction of her own song, especially in the face of an even more intrusive camera. But Vicki has to do that, without seeming lost in her own despondent thoughts, because the whole point of A Star Is Born is that she's a trouper, in work as in love, before she is anything else.

What Garland ultimately presents is an astonishing synthesis of Gene Kelly's indefatigable physical energy and Bette Davis's dramatic intensity, including in moments where her acting stands wholly apart from musical performance. You have to have real mettle to survive the unexpectedly vicious tirade that a studio publicist unleashes on her when Vicki won't attend an Academy benefit in the final minutes of the film, for patently obvious reasons. Garland survives it, and then bellows back with her own redoubtable gust of jealous self-defense, even as the character's nerves are obviously, completely frayed. But not all of Garland's acting is scaled so high or so loud. She's much more simply compelling making an earnest plea to a disgusted judge, and showing up for her bewildering first few days of work at a movie studio. She exercises just the right amount of idolatry, attraction, lucidity, and bashfulness that we believe her love of Norman eclipses her gnawing concerns about his alcoholism and unreliability. It's obvious she's heading into this relationship with both eyes open—in some ways returning the favor of how he "saw something in me no one else ever did," and she refuses to act surprised or victimized when the going gets very, very tough, no matter how devastated she gets. More than once, Garland's odd penchant for reacting to ephemeral little stimuli that no one else even seems to register cuts the daringly high-pitched histrionics of A Star Is Born down to a smaller, more humorous, more offhandedly accessible size: i.e., the way she darts her eyes around now rooms when she enters them, often perplexed, or how she emits a girlish chuckle at the size of a very large sandwich that Norman hands to her.

Garland can uncork a ferocious vibrato, and often does, but she also has the tender comic timing to gently chuckle at her husband when he asks her to perform in private, as though she knows it's an odd way to express love, as well as a stirring one and, for her, an easy one. She can look very moved and serious and only a little rattled during a dingy jailhouse wedding, despite having been pushed to the extremes of despair (and, it must be said, of regrettable overacting) after a similar scene in Vincente Minnelli's The Clock in 1945. She can get laughs singing a jingle about peanuts, accompanying herself on maracas, even while she sings it better than anyone else could. A cartoon drunk saunters by asking incongruously for "My Melancholy Baby" instead, and as it turns out she can also put over "My Melancholy Baby" with creamy, lavender ease. She can react to a horrifying smack as though she knows it's not deliberate and must immediately be covered over, for the benefit of an entire room, and to keep her intimate life sustainable; she can react to someone else's opinion of her husband as though this is the horrifying smack, while nevertheless implying that she cannot in every sense discount what this person is saying. She can charm as much as Irene Dunne ever did by just rattling off a list of hamburger options on a menu. She can look emptied out inside by a splotchy, sluttish makeover she didn't want. She can give three versions of the same dance in a subtly altered costume, in a line of nearly interchangeable and identically dressed women, playing up the ridiculousness of the routine while handily implying just how much time is probably passing between repetitions, and how much she's giving her best while wishing she were somewhere else. Outside a sidewalk box office, she can make the almost silently mouthed words "Thank you" ring just as powerfully as almost anything else in a film brimming with violent colors, bustling Cinemascope frames, tapping shoes, waves of song, lens flares, crane shots, and starkly lit chiaroscuro farewells.

What else could anyone want, AMPAS voter or otherwise? When Garland comes out to offer her final, notorious line reading, it would be specious to give her sole credit for all of the ironies that reverberate from this one sentence. The set, the lighting, the sensitive camera movements, judiciously spaced-out edits, and sublime direction from master George Cukor have all put Garland in a place from which her Vicki Lester, her Esther Blodgett—in many ways, this is a dual performance rolled into one ceaselessly renegotiated package—can saunter out as both the triumphant survivor and the foreclosed bride of death. She says, "I'm Mrs. Norman Maine," and we receive it as both a final tribute to her most voluminous love, spoken by a woman taking her first solo steps toward her own glorious horizon, and as a possible signal that every spark of vitality Vicki/Esther has emitted for 175 minutes is destined to be muffled. What if, from this moment on, she constrains her whole life into an extravagantly humbled memory of his? Is this what she has in mind? You can't, as an actor, read the words "I'm Mrs. Norman Maine" and pour all of that into it without a vivid, ambitious, multifaceted film behind you, one that's ceaselessly doing all kinds of work beneath, around, and in sync with your own performance. But you can give the kind of performance that inspires and grounds such a line, and such a film. If this is the last time Vicki Lester introduces herself as Mrs. Norman Maine, Garland has shown us a Vicki whose fluorescence and resilience we can capably project for years into the future, even as A Star Is Born fades to a close. If, however, this marks the first day of thirty or forty consecutive years of wearing her widowhood like a self-effacing shroud, notwithstanding the jewels and the spotlights in which she currently stands, Garland has shown us just how much the world will lose by losing Vicki, while also forcing us to appreciate her own devotion, edging us closer to accepting her sacrifice of herself. Either way, working in beautiful tandem with her co-stars and her off-screen colleagues, she has completed a detailed characterization in the combined mediums of movement, sound, and dramatic impersonation, and she has carried musical drama to the cathartic, precarious, philosophically provocative plane of opera. If that's not deserving of an award called "Best Actress," I'll never know what is.

The Best Actress Project: Completed!

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Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Actress Files: Grace Kelly

Grace Kelly, The Country Girl
★ ★ ★ ★ ★
(won the 1954 Best Actress Oscar)

Why I Waited: Kelly's trophy-copping performance has always intrigued me more in relation to her enduring cultural cachet and to the famous nominees she trumped than on its own terms. But she surpassed my expectations in Rear Window and Mogambo, so it was worth hoping she might do it again.

The Performance: It's entirely possible that at the tail end of 60 days and 44 performances, my head is starting to swim from so much actressing. But I hope there are more case-specific reasons why I find Grace Kelly's Oscar-snagging performance in The Country Girl so tricky to write about, or even to form a stable opinion about. It's one thing to be of two minds about a performance, even for the full length of a film. In Kelly's case, though, I was of different minds for different reasons depending on which sequence I was watching, and in shifting relations to a problematic film which itself deserves credit in lots of respects and yet feels over-strained and over-confident in lots of others.

I find this much solid ground to stand on vis-à-vis The Country Girl: Bing Crosby gives an exemplary turn as worn-out and drink-ridden stage actor Frank Elgin. The first half of his performance highlights Frank's broken self-confidence, his fear of failing in a performance that's meant to resuscitate his career and his spirit, and which he can't afford to say No to. We hear rumors of pronounced alcoholism in the past, and both Broadway and Hollywood have generically prompted us to expect some vivid backsliding, but the performance doesn't feel immediately centered on those questions. The second half of the film, though, does feature many more scenes where Frank's sharp, sweaty need for a drink is front and center, taking on a focalized life of its own, in some ways superseding the questions of professional ability and confidence. One of many rare feats that Crosby achieves is that his incarnations of the pitiable, aging veteran and the soaked, volatile lush are equally powerful and specific, and they persuasively add up to the same person. Many a performer would struggle through one of these facets of Frank while thriving with the other, but Crosby offers a detailed, integrated, poignant articulation of both. Moreover, as The Country Girl makes its climactic moves to wrestle specifically with the chicken-egg question of whether Frank drinks because he fails or fails because he drinks—framing these riddles in the dueling contexts of an unsilenceable grief (the heavy past) and of Frank's potential "comeback" show, lumbering toward its Broadway opening (the portentous future)—Crosby pulls all these threads of Frank's suffering into a sad, eloquent synthesis. Through him, The Country Girl puts forward a haunting essay, a kind of didactic parable but also very lived-in, about the problems of success and failure. Why does success in one part of life seem to engender so much resistance from other people or invite bitter cosmic setbacks in other arenas? And why does failure, by contrast, seem to have such an easier time of spreading virally from one realm of experience until it infectiously grips all the others? Once you're living in that grip, how and with whose help can you ever get out?

I don't mean to build up Crosby just to say that Kelly acts less convincingly than he does, but to suggest some of the themes and stakes that become important in The Country Girl through the clarity and force of his performance, and as another way of indicating that success in their two roles involves the agile negotiating of major balancing acts. The characters are highly ambivalent, the script underscores different dimensions of the drama at different times, and it has that heightened, even awkward transparency of theme and language that are typical of Clifford Odets's writing—all while nonetheless requiring that the actors sell that language as "real" in order for the film to work. Plus, the way Kelly's Georgie is structured into the story, she is both a co-lead alongside Crosby and William Holden (in the somewhat simpler role of the writer-director who hires Frank for his play), and a reactor/enabler of Crosby's Frank, to a degree unusual even by the standards of screen wives. When he's in a play, she has to get him through it, as agent, dresser, and morale booster, though the last bit is the hardest. When he wants a drink, she has to try to get him over it. When he inevitably does drink, she has to pull him out of trouble. And all of this upkeep doubles as triage on their marriage, additionally beset as it is by an age difference that has never become easy and a catastrophe in their past to which they will never stop responding. I said before that this battle with grief aligns with the production of Holden's play as two arenas in which Frank's capacity for success—for survival, really—will finally be measured. I add now that the sustainability of the marriage is a third, parallel framework in which Frank and Georgie stand to rise and fall, which is not made any easier when Bernie Dodd, the Holden character, draws the quick, hard conclusion that it's Georgie who most undermines Frank's competence and self-belief, and that she must be exported at all costs.

That's an incredible lot to manage in one part, particularly for such an inexperienced actress. And notwithstanding a few key speeches, Georgie doesn't get the kinds of big, blustery, emotional climaxes that are the frequent payoff of having so much to handle. There's barely even anything in the script that encourages the audience to relate to Georgie. We suspect that Bernie is wrong in his estimation of her, if only because his misogyny is so astonishing and unrelenting ("Did it ever occur to you that you and your strength might be the reason he IS weak?... To be frank, I find you slightly grotesque, Mrs. Elgin"), but the point of The Country Girl is never to bring us around to Georgie's side. Maybe the most admirable commitment made manifest in Kelly's performance is that she respects this vinegary dynamic and never asks the audience to applaud her, feel sorry for her, or even get very close to her. That's not to say that I don't wish Kelly were a bit more permeable and much more flexible in the part. But she takes the role and the script seriously, very much the young actress who expects to improve by working on "good material" written by and starring more estimable talents, even if it means jumping in way over the head of her nascent sense of technique.

I'll say this for Kelly, too: the factors I most expected to interfere with her performance, the dowdying of her physical appearance and the improbability of being married to twice-as-old Bing Crosby, don't cause her any trouble. I almost wish Odets didn't include the line about young women trying to conceal themselves by looking like old ladies because, not unusually in his writing, it saps a visual and a behavioral signal into a coarsely literal assertion. The guarded way Kelly moves and wears her bulky sweaters and large spectacles all feel persuasively like the turtle-shell habits of several years, not like desperate lunges at "acting" through accessorizing. Her merry adoration of her husband in the flashback scene, where a younger, beautiful Georgie beams at a younger, golden-voiced Frank in a recording studio—even as it feels like a predictable producer's gambit to make sure we aren't hiding Grace under so much woolly cotton for the whole movie—handily communicates a real attraction to and enjoyment of each other. I suppose I was most impressed by how Kelly and Der Bingle communicate a long marriage of impatience, discontent, tiny budgets, and echoing tragedy without opting for the cliché of love that has curdled into hate, or even dislike. Kelly manages to seem ornery at almost all times with Frank's shortcomings and prevarications and she is sometimes very hard on him, but without suggesting she has foreclosed on some fundamental sympathy. I never asked myself, "Why are they still married?" and I had expected to ask that soon and often. Just the way Georgie surprises Bernie later in the film with the blunt admission that she has "twice left, twice returned" conveys a sense of beleaguered but genuine attachment. It's also the moment when we hear that Georgie, though less of a chronic or destructive self-berater than her husband, nonetheless has some aptitudes of her own in this area. When Bernie initially can't work out whether or not Georgie is encouraging Frank to take the role in Bernie's play, and he asks, "Are you for him or against him?" I admired the bullish, crabby way in which Kelly's Georgie responds, "I'm his wife," not quite clarifying whether it's to be assumed that she's "for" her spouse or whether wifedom, for her, has been accretively naturalized as a life-sentence of stalemate between being "for" and being "against."

Kelly never orchestrates anywhere near the same kind of "take" on her scenes with Holden, and unfortunately for her, these are lengthy, frequent, important, and prosy scenes. I don't envy her having to embody such an object of withering chauvinist contempt for such a long while, lobbed by an actor who radiates such a flat aggressivity that it's hard not to respond in kind (whereas Crosby's acting seems to engender in Kelly some of the sensitivity and sympathy that are characteristic of his own style). In these scenes with Holden, though not only with Holden, we catch Kelly too often playing not the character so much as some idea she associates with the part, the script, the playwright, the genre of serious drama. She looks off acridly into the distance. She jams her hands into her pockets while she quarrels or mourns. She settles again and again on a kind of hollow, superior-sounding cast to her voice, as though Georgie should be speaking from a perspective of profundity or complex thought, but without implying that Kelly has worked out just what it is that Georgie is thinking. The titular speech, when George describes herself as just "a girl from the country" who thus cannot fathom the foibles, machinations, and vicissitudes of theater people, seems totally opaque to Kelly. Again, the writing is so here rhetorical that I sympathize with its being difficult to play. But it's also a speech you know, as an actor, that the audience will be scrutinizing, and a perfect platform for making one's own decisions about why Georgie is saying this and what else it signifies for other facets of the characterization.

Kelly feels inert about making these sorts of decisions, sailing ahead in that low, etherized register of free-floating disillusion, or of introspection about nothing in particular. She makes the same choice while reciting a related but even more opaque soliloquy about the mysteries of the theater when she surprises Frank and Bernie with an after-hours visit to the rehearsal stage. Later, Georgie makes a morbid allusion to seemingly happy people who startle everyone when they wind up hanging themselves from their chandeliers. When Bernie, nonplussed, asks if she's insinuating something about Frank, Kelly looks off diagonally and says "Yes and no," but so stiffly that neither half of the answer really clarifies anything or leads anywhere. Her Georgie appears to have been doling out a speech, not working through a thought or a specific agenda; she isn't communicating anything through her "Yes and no" response except for Kelly's own seemingly vague sense of the preceding language, as though the overt ambivalence of the line has ratified her own perplexity about Georgie and mercifully absolved her of having to work it all out.

Rhythmically, formally, and narratively, The Country Girl suffers some costly lapses as it nears its conclusion, such that anything that has been frustrating about the film or its performances up to the final 20 minutes or so is only intensified as a question mark or a misgiving. Worst of all, we get a dramatic ellipsis of five weeks just where we wouldn't want one. Again, it's not just down to the actors that the characters' revised ways of relating to each other don't make as much sense, and rarely feel as though they've been plausibly signaled in any of the earlier scenes. But I wouldn't say this leap is insuperable. Particularly in Kelly's case, it seems rather too easy to reframe so much of the performance on so much new ground, under an umbrella alibi that "much has changed" since the preceding fadeout, and losing even the distinguishing marks of Georgie's glum carriage and stalwart physique. Of course, several of the old conflicts keep percolating, but the ways in which Kelly's Georgie relates to them seem superficial or sentimental—not just out of step with her earlier portraits of the character, but a direct antithesis to the woman Georgie is in her first long sequence, where "sentiment" is precisely the curse word she flings at empty praise, impractical assurances, conspicuous avoidances. Kelly and Crosby have to shoulder one pivotal scene of exchanging a long, meaningful look during the recital of a piece of music, and I'd have hoped the director George Seaton could have spatialized the scene in more complex terms than shot/reverse, or guided the performances in ways that had a chance of connecting these close-ups more fully to earlier notes. But here too, Crosby—who has never previously struck me as a born screen actor—looks as though he's trying to hold onto as much tension and emotional prehistory as possible while still managing a fairly direct expression, whereas Kelly looks as though she's favoring the most obvious affect suggested by the scene, and in an almost effusive, shining way that I have trouble squaring with the figure Georgie has elsewhere been cutting, even very recently in the film.

"Don't keep things from me" and "He's shunned any responsibility" are Georgie's two most frequent refrains in complaints to or about her husband. It's tempting, if a bit easy and twitty, to say that she keeps too many things from us that we need to know about Georgie, and she shuns too much responsibility for exploring, coming to grips with the character. Theater training is probably a crucial asset for essaying this character, even in a screen incarnation; I have my beefs with contemporaneous screen performances like Shirley Booth's in Come Back, Little Sheba or Julie Harris's in The Member of the Wedding, which seem too fully, even garishly conceived with only the stage in mind, but Kelly seems paradigmatic of an opposite awkwardness, applying a screen-specific conception of acting and a still nascent one at that to the realization of a very complicated, occasionally thankless part that can only subsist on lots of rehearsal, an ample bag of technical facilities, and lots of spontaneous interactions with co-stars, leading to well-judged and practiced takeaways from those in-the-moment experiences. It's not an all-or-nothing proposition. Kelly is effective and memorable plenty of times: glaring at Frank with empathy and annoyance as he awaits his first reviews, walking into an unwanted broadcast on the radio and dropping into an angry sorrow, catching Frank as he tries to abscond with a bottle of liquor-heavy cough syrup, without even raising her eyes from her knitting.

From moment to moment, the performance is very up and down, and on the whole, it's an unusually potent merging of the compulsively watchable with the plainly inadequate, in a way that has nothing to do with kitsch. Save the occasional jaw-clenching, eyes-widening, Mae Marsh look of furious panic, as in a scene where she has to slap Holden for one of his sexist vituperations, I never thought Kelly was remotely embarrassing herself or embarrassing the film, even though it's hard not to feel that major opportunities were missed by not casting someone with more chops, more life experience. Georgie is younger than her husband, but 25 is awfully young to have already been through all the stages she is reported to have been through, or to know how to express those ordeals and their legacies for a screen audience (even the ones that turn out not to be true). Having now seen all the performances that garnered a Best Actress Oscar, I'd have to categorize Kelly among the 20 or so that just don't make the case to me that they ought to have carried anyone near the Academy podium, even in a weak year or for heavily qualified reasons. But at the same time, of those same 20 performances, hers is the only one that specifically falls short by testing a very new actress against truly highwire dramatic material (perhaps more formidable than even she realized), and where the infelicitous match of performer to vehicle doesn't yield a flat, a dispiriting, or a mockable result but a compelling spectacle of an earnest performer who wins a couple of key rounds with the script. She goes down, ultimately, but never without a good, inspiring fight. If she were ever really electrifying in her peak scenes, as Halle Berry is in Monster's Ball—the only other winning performance that seems to marry palpable ambition, dubious technique, fitful insight, and impressive sincerity in something like the same way—I might be able to privilege the half-full glass in thinking about Kelly's work. That's what's happened over time for me with Berry, and I just saw The Country Girl yesterday. For now, her Georgie Elgin feels like a glass half-empty, but even if it therefore seems seriously undeserving of an Oscar, I do think it warrants our respect.

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

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