Gentlemen Prefer Blondes

Jane Russell, I’m sorry that this is what we have to remember you by.

“Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is not a great film.  Marilyn Monroe is lovely.  Her performance of “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend” deserves to be remembered.  But we have to wait a very long time for that number, and after it’s over, the film might as well be over too.

From the flat opening song and dance routine, complete with silly hand movements and forgettable lyrics, through the cringe-inducing acrobatic number starring Jane and the Olympic team onboard the ocean liner, we keep hoping that the film will improve.  All those pointy breasts and awful hats.  Even in Paris their style doesn’t improve.  The nightclub where the two American girls perform is trashy, the whole Paris sequence with its leering Frenchmen and tarty showgirls is depressing.  Ugly Americans abroad might be a better title.

Marcel Dalio, what are you doing in this film?  Here’s the man who played in Renoir’s “Grand Illusion” and “Rules of the Game,” who played opposite Humphrey Bogart in “Casablanca” and “To Have and Have Not.”  In this film he plays a cartoonish magistrate in the scene where the Jane Russell character is pretending to be Marilyn Monroe’s character.  What a waste of talent!

(4 March 2011)

Singin’ in the Rain

Tell me you can watch Gene Kelly perform the title number of this film and not feel happy.  I don’t know anybody who isn’t instantly cheered up by “Singin’ in the Rain.”  It’s gotten me through many a dark night of the soul.

They pulled out all the stops for this one.  Harold Rosson was the cinematographer.  He shot “The Wizard of Oz” and the unforgettable burning of Atlanta sequence in “Gone With the Wind,” and was the most-sought-after cinematographer in Hollywood.  No wonder the film is such a pleasure to watch!

It’s also fun figuring out who’s being satirized in the silent movie bits.  There’s a femme fatale character said to be modeled on Gloria Swanson, and a flapper type (played by Rita Moreno) who brings to mind the “it” girl, Clara Bow.  In one scene, Kelly speaks the lines that John Gilbert spoke in a squeaky voice in his first talkie—effectively ending his career.

Granted, the story is negligible.  Even the romance is negligible.  Sure, it’s nice that Gene Kelly winds up with Debbie Reynolds.  Sure, Donald O’Connor is a swell guy.  And that vain idiot who plays the silent film star deserves to be out of the motion picture business, once and for all.  But if Kelly didn’t dance and O’Connor didn’t sing while making funny faces, with Reynolds piping in to make a delightful threesome, there’d be no movie.

“Singin’ in the Rain” (the song) has acquired a range of associations since Kelly’s tour-de-force performance.  Any number of actors have invoked it, including Cary Grant (in “North by Northewest), Peter Sellers (in “Revenge of the Pink Panther”), Robert Redford (in “Legal Eagles”) and even The Simpsons, with Malcolm McDowell’s rendition in “A Clockwork Orange” being the most notorious.  Cheered them up too, every last one of them.

A Star is Born

You can’t watch this picture without a tremendous sense of loss, knowing that it would be Judy Garland’s last great role. And then there’s the story. James Mason may be playing the part of the self-destructive actor on a downward spiral who is bowled over by Garland’s character’s talent, but his hard-won insights all apply to Judy. “You’re a great star.  Don’t let that change you too much,” he tells her. “Don’t let it take over your life.”

Too late, Mr. Mason. Judy was addicted to pills by the time she made “A Star is Born,” and was on her third troubled marriage. For all her talent, and despite her stunning success, beginning with “The Wizard of Oz,” she had no faith in herself. Years of being told she was too plump, that she lacked the right nose, the right eyebrows, years of being stuck in girl-next-door roles, took their toll on her psyche.

But in “A Star is Born,” Judy is allowed to grow up. She’s ready to give up her career for Mason’s character, but he drowns himself in the ocean rather than drag her down with him. She’s got no choice but to carry on, but you see the price she’s paid for her success.

Poor Judy. Watch how she handles the torch song that convinces Mason’s character that she’s a true star, “The Man That Got Away.”  It’s all there:  the talent, the passion, and the pain.  What a loss!

(22 June 2011)

Lady Sings the Blues

lady posterI don’t know what put this movie in my head again. It’s such a mishmash, a gorgeous mess of a picture that gets most of Billie Holiday wrong but did inspire my life-long passion for her singing. Maybe that’s all we should expect from a biopic, that we’re left wanting to learn more about the subject’s life.

First problem:  Diana Ross is Diana Ross.  If you’re old enough to remember her as a Supreme, you’ll never buy her as Billie.  She lacks gravitas.  Sure, the film makes you feel sorry for her, especially when she’s tricked into becoming a junkie by the white preppie bandleader (who looks like Robert Redford’s evil twin) while touring the south.

Which brings me to the second problem:  Billie’s attitude, or lack thereof.  Watch the real Lady Day sing “Strange Fruit.” The bitter howl against injustice was based on a poem that describes a lynching.  The movie has Diana Ross witnessing a lynching, and she is the victim of much racist humiliation and even some violence as her tour bus is somehow caught up in a KKK rally.  But when we get Ross doing the song, it comes out empty.

She looks kind of alienated on the bus, but what’s she emoting about on stage with the double gardenias in her hair?  You don’t get the feeling that she understands the lyrics; it’s all she can do to hit the notes.

One New York Post critic described Holiday’s 1939 performance of “Strange Fruit” as follows:  “If the anger of the exploited ever mounts high enough in the South, it now has its ‘Marseillaise’.”  Ross turns it into the kind of advertising jingle they used back in the day to sell liquor or cigarettes.

Okay, third problem:  Billie’s boyfriend, Louis McKay.  Billy Dee Williams isn’t the problem.  He’s quite nice to look at, an all-around nice guy who does his best to keep Billie off drugs.  You wish she’d had somebody like him in real life, somebody who loved her like that, but it doesn’t ring true.  The real-life Louis was some kind of Mafia enforcer, and he beat Billie and tried to exploit her talent.

But there’s one surprise here, a real bright spot.  Richard Pryor’s performance as Piano Man, her one true friend, is just perfect.

The Wizard of Oz

Growing up in the sixties, the once-a-year broadcast of “The Wizard of Oz” was a big event, a sacred ritual in our family. I must have watched it a dozen times, but I saw that movie through the eyes of a child. Captivated by the story, terrified by the flying monkeys, wowed by the extravagance of the big numbers, I took the supporting characters for granted.

Only Dorothy mattered. Sure, the Cowardly Lion was good for a few laughs, but who cared about his dilemma? Ditto the Scarecrow and the Tin Man. Courage, brains, a heart:  well, okay, they obviously needed reasons of their own to accompany Dorothy to Oz. You couldn’t have her skipping alone down the yellow brick road, or fretting about lions and tigers and bears (oh, my!) if there was nobody to fret with; sidekicks have their uses.

So it came as a surprise, this time around, to realize that it’s the sidekicks who carry the picture. Auntie Em and Uncle Henry were preoccupied with their own worries. Farming’s tough—I get that—but couldn’t they have fought a bit harder to keep Toto out of the clutches of Miss Gulch? As for the Wizard, I’m sure he meant well, but his wisdom consisted largely of smoke and lights, as he was the first to admit. And Glinda the Good Witch of the North was pretty patronizing, don’t you think, floating around in that bubble of hers? No wonder the Munchkins’ growth was stunted!

Only the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Cowardly Lion see Dorothy for who she is, and in their company she becomes her better self. Don’t get me wrong. Judy Garland holds a special place in my heart. There she was, achingly young, her yearning expressed with such fervor in “Over the Rainbow.” I wish I didn’t know how her life began to unravel from that point onwards.

If only she’d had her three companions to see her through, she’d have kept her wits about her, trusted her heart, and discovered her reservoir of strength. She’d have stood up to the studio bosses who put her on pills and micro-managed her life, stopped marrying the wrong men, treated Lorna and Liza like daughters instead of rivals. Oh, and she’d have kept those ruby slippers. With good friends and the right pair of shoes, a girl can do anything

(24 October 2011)