Ferdy on Films, etc.

Film reviews and commentary, random thoughts on the world around us, blatant promotion of favorite charities, and other ponderables.

Saturday, May 27, 2006

United 93 (2006)
Director: Paul Greengrass

Before it even hit theatres, United 93 was drawing strong reactions from moviegoers. Some stood up in theatres that played a trailer for the film and yelled “too soon!” Others attacked the film, sight unseen, as a possible incitement to renewed hatred of Arabs and almost certainly exploitative. I was one of those people. The deep, probably permanent trauma the events of 9/11 inflicted on the psyches of Americans who witnessed it on the ground and on TV set this film apart from other real-life docudramas, such as Wake Island (1942), that served almost as newsreels for the general public before televisions were in every household. Revisiting that day of devastation is not something most Americans are willing to do.

I already knew the work of Paul Greengrass. I watched Bloody Sunday (2002), his verite look at the 1972 British massacre of civil rights protesters in Northern Ireland, reduce an audience member to inconsolable weeping for half an hour. It was with great trepidation, therefore, that I sat down in the mostly empty theatre to watch his recreation of 9/11, with special focus on the United flight that ended in a Pennsylvania field.

The film starts by focusing on the terrorists who hijacked United 93. We hear prayers as the plain, white credits flash on a black screen. We see the man who is reading from the Koran sitting on a bed in a hotel room. His comrade is in the bathroom shaving his body. Why? Is it an Islamic ritual? Why becomes clear later. As they leave the room, one sticks a plastic knife into his belt.

We shift to the innocent events of what would become the end of innocence for a naive nation. People are standing in ticketing lines at the Newark airport. People are reporting for work at the FAA. The United 93 flight crew chitchat and get the airplane ready for takeoff.

Events build slowly. American Airlines 11 from Boston starts doing some strange things on radar. The air traffic controller at Boston Center repeatedly tries to hail the plane and watches as it changes direction and altitude, almost colliding with another commercial jet during one tense moment. Possible hijacking? One controller says they haven't had one in 30 years. That sounds like the FAA has really been doing its job, but we soon see that maybe it was just dumb luck for most of those years. The new head of the FAA's National Air Traffic Control Center in Herndon, Virginia, Ben Sliney (playing himself), follows the progress routinely, then with growing alarm as it appears that other planes have been hijacked.

A military exercise is to take place off of the eastern seaboard. When this real-world situation comes to their attention, Colonel Marr (Gregg Henry) requests permission to scramble his fighter planes from their practice exercise to track the rogue aircraft.

Then AA11 hits one of the World Trade Towers. We learn this first when the plane drops off radar. Then we see it on the TV at Herndon. Word is that it is a small craft. No one's really sure. Controllers in New York, however, stare in disbelief as a second plane hits the other tower in a spectacular jet fuel blaze. When news of this second strike reaches Military Command, Colonel Marr desperately tries to reach the President to get permission to shoot down any hijacked commercial plane. He learns that Air Force One has taken off and can't be reached. The whereabouts of the Vice President, who also could have given the go-ahead, are unknown.

Meanwhile, United 93 finally gets clearance to take off after a 30-minute delay. As the breakfast service gets underway, the four anxious hijackers prepare for their last act. The shaved hijacker takes his carry-on bag, goes into the lavatory, and assembles a bomb that he then tapes to his torso. Finally, the hijackers act. They rush the cockpit, stab and kill the pilot and co-pilot, and take over. The scuffle is heard on radio at Cleveland Center, which tracks the flight helplessly as the passengers on board slowly learn of the other hijackings and realize that their hijackers are on a suicide mission that will kill them all.

For the first 20 or so minutes, I was clenched inside. I knew what was to come. I also recognized the airport scene as something I've lived dozens of times in my life. A wash of fear visited me in much the same way it did after the events of 9/11 began to unfold. But this miraculously well-paced film drew me in and got me involved in these real events, some shown pretty much as they occurred, others a work of imagination that, nonetheless, were based on the best-available evidence (phone calls from the passengers of UA 93 to their loved ones) and shrewd common sense. It seems entirely plausible that fear of antagonizing the hijackers would give way to a last, desperate fight for survival, as the passengers hatch a plan to try to take back the plane.

Greengrass was trodding on sacred ground by attempting to make a film of the 9/11 tragedy. Something inside the British producer/director/writer is drawn to atrocities, and that thing must be compassion. He reminds me of the subject of the excellent 2001 documentary War Photographer, James Nachtwey, who immerses himself in the suffering of his subjects to bear witness to their plight. Greengrass doesn't take the physical risks that Nachtwey does, yet he performs an enormously valuable service to humanity by questioning the official line (as he did in Bloody Sunday and in Omagh, about the 1998 bombing of the Northern Irish city of Omagh and its stalled investigation) and giving a human face to the "little people" who are damaged by politics and ideology in the course of just living their lives.

Each of his films has marked a step forward for Greengrass, as he has dropped some of the anger to allow all of the humanity to shine through. In United 93, Greengrass has produced a genuine masterpiece--sensitive to a still-traumatized public, reportorial when he could have been sensational, and sympathetic with the very real confusion such an unthinkable event causes its players. Although I couldn't have imagined it before seeing it, this film is a gift to a shattered nation, an important tool in the long process of healing. It gets my vote as the best picture of the year. l

Monday, May 22, 2006

"Our Backstreets" #9
Bored with the Boards

There was a time when the film industry looked to the theatre for inspiration, talent, and most important of all, material to fill movie screens. It's great for me, a lifelong theatregoer, to be able to see the works of some of my favorite playwrights captured on film for my whenever viewing pleasure. I'm ecstatic that Volker Schlöndorff's staged version of Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman starring Dustin Hoffman has been preserved, as well as Jason Robards' performance in Eugene O'Neill's heartbreaking one-act play Hughie. The list of excellent film adaptations of outstanding plays is far too numerous to catalog, but some standouts include The Children's Hour, Peter Pan, Oklahoma!, A Streetcar Named Desire, Hair, and Inherit the Wind.

Lately, however, the theatre seems to be threadbare of compelling original product with which to entertain and enlighten fans of live drama. There is always a large offering of revivals in smaller theatres, of course, waiting for new theatre hounds to discover. That kind of production gets a big nod of approval from me. But I expect more from Broadway and off-Broadway theatres and their regional counterparts. With occasional exceptions, the theatre I've seen lately has been reactionary, slight, and positively boring.

There's no lack of high production values, and topnotch acting, singing, and dancing on the boards. But where are the ideas? I saw The Clean House by Sarah Ruhl yesterday. It's quite funny, but it includes some serious subjects, such as infidelity, divorce, cancer, death, and alienation. In earlier days, a crack playwright would have turned this material into a tragicomic tour-de-force as Tony Kushner did with Angels in America. Instead, we get something a little above a wisecrack and as thin and insubstantial as a chiffon scarf--and it gets nominated for a Pulitzer Prize!

Perhaps most ironic of all, to fill the gaps in its creativity, Broadway is looking to the movies for material. I'm not sure when this trend started, but I think it was when Sunset Boulevard was made into a Broadway musical by the George Lucas of the theatre, Andrew Lloyd Webber. It even featured a movie star (Glenn Close) as Norma Desmond. Since then, we've been assaulted by The Producers, a vulgar, bigoted musical with second-rate songs dragging down the timeless ditties of the orginal film. Its un-PC characterizations of dumb Swedish blondes, old women dancing around on walkers, and mincing gay men should have made audiences squirm, but instead they seemed to love having permission to laugh the old-fashioned way.

It is one thing to watch a film made in the 1960s and appreciate it from its own historical vantage point; it is quite another to revive such offensive material as a brand-new, live experience for people to get off on. It's even more unsettling to take this new-old musical and make another film of The Producers of it. The science of cloning tells us that each successive generation of an original will be weaker than the last. The same is true of the endless tape loop that seems to be Hollywood/Broadway.

Now we have a new theatrical ripoff of a movie for a younger generation--Spamalot, based on Monty Python and the Holy Grail. The material in this film is very funny, but the stage version does nothing to improve upon it. The script is repeated almost verbatim, which flattens the jokes for older fans, while reviving ideas that new audiences probably have never heard of, such as anarcho-syndicalism. The show is also full of foul language, which caused the father and son sitting in front of me to leave. This show pretends to be family fare, but it's not. What it is, much to Broadway's amazement, is a draw for males in their 30s and 40s who are Monty Python fans and apparently are so mind-numbed that they enjoy parroting the dialogue along with the actors on stage. Because of this new demographic surge, look for more of the same. Perhaps the inevitable stage version of Life of Brian won't hedge its bets for Broadway's traditional audience by putting in a lame musical number--no doubt bewildering to the male Python geeks--about Jews.

But really, who is to blame for the downward spiraling of our artistic life? Look at the people squealing in delight at the flaming fags in Broadway's The Producers, and the real producers in their counting houses counting up their money, and I think you'll have your answer. l

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Dancing at Lughnasa (1998)
Director: Pat O’Connor

Playwright Brian Friel is a delicate conjurer of Irish life and lore. His plays show a particular regard for language, the effects of emigration from Ireland, British colonization of the island, and memory as reflected through the prism of individuals who seem to be moved by forces beyond their control—especially love. Dancing at Lughnasa, a drama about the five unmarried Mundy sisters of County Donegal, is Friel’s most successful play. The movie that was made of it, starring Meryl Streep as Kate, the overbearing eldest sister, does not carry the patented Friel tone of rueful sweetness. Instead, it opts for a Brechtian distance that, while bearing its own rewards, seems misplaced in a country as deeply sentimental as Ireland.

The story is told in flashback (narrated Gerard McSorley) as Michael remembers the magical summer of 1937 when he was a boy (Darrell Johnston) awaiting the return of his uncle Jack (Michael Gambon), a priest who has spent 25 years in Uganda. Michael is the illegitimate son of youngest sister Christina (Catherine McCormack). That same summer, Michael's mostly absent father, a restless, attractive Welshman named Gerry Evans (Rhys Ifans), also returns to the Mundy household to say good-bye before he is off on his latest adventure fighting against Franco in Spain.

Michael recalls his aunts with shorthand description. Where Kate is all prim propriety and prohibition—the perfect spinster schoolteacher—Maggie (Kathy Burke) is lively, outspoken, and raffishly smokes cigarettes. Christina is a romantic, a beauty on the way to losing both her looks and her free spirit when she eventually succumbs to the drudgery of factory work. Agnes (Brid Brennan) is quiet; still waters run deep, says Michael. Rose (Sophie Thompson) is simple-minded and slow. That would imply that she is mildly retarded, but she doesn't really seem so. Each sister plays her role in maintaining the balance in the Mundy household, with Kate reigning supreme. But even her iron will cannot prevent the changes to come.

The sisters eke out a living through Kate's teaching and the glove knitting of Aggie and Maggie, with carefully saved pennies sent to Jack to support his missionary work. Jack's homecoming is a cause for great excitement among the women, and bewilderment for Jack. He is changed, utterly, having abandoning Christianity for the pagan beliefs of the tribes he was meant to convert. He seems mentally ill; he rushes out of the house one evening and starts banging on a bucket with two sticks for no apparent reason. Kate seems to take on the burden of caring for yet another hapless family member with something resembling smug resignation.

Kate's "charges" are troublesome. Rose insists that Danny Bradley (Lorcan Cranitch), whose wife has run off and left him bitter and despairing, wants to marry her. Christina runs back into the worthless Gerry's arms the minute he returns to their village. Even Aggie proposes that the sisters go to the harvest dance using money she has saved. Kate, though tempted, lowers the boom on that idea as being a waste of needed money and foolish for spinsters such as they. Surprisingly, none of the sisters challenges her decision. There seems to be a rhythm in this household of hopes being raised and excitement being built only to be cut down before real happiness can arrive.

Several crises hit the Mundys. Rose runs off to meet Danny, but finds him menacing when she wants to leave him to go home. An all-night search for her ends when Jack finds her with Danny at a pagan ritual in the back hills, where revelers are celebrating the harvest in tribute to the goddess Lughnasa by dancing, drinking heavily, and jumping over a blazing fire. The relief of Rose's return is short-lived. Kate receives a letter dismissing her from her teaching post, and Aggie and Maggie find that their cottage business will be wiped out when a woollen goods factory opens its doors in their village. Perhaps in a final moment of "abandon all hope ye who enter here," the sisters dance furiously to some traditional Irish music issuing from the radio. In a postscript, narrator Michael informs us that Agnes and Rose left home together and lived out their days miserably in London, Christina worked bitterly at the woollen goods factory, Jack "hung on as long as he could," and Kate and Maggie, well, I can't seem to remember what happened to them, but I'm sure it wasn't good. In other words, the story had a typical Irish ending.

This film is episodic and does not build much momentum. The male characters are little more than sketches. The women are the heart of the film, of course, but they don't really seem like a family and their interactions are strangely lifeless. The problem with the script is that symbolism took over from character. We can look at each person as a facet in the emerald that is Ireland: the romanticism of Christina, the ribaldry of Maggie, the stern authoritarianism of Kate, the repressed and released paganism of Jack, the careless, manipulative British presence represented by Gerry. The story is about Ireland itself, but the film plays more like an Irish literature class than a drama. The actors are fine, the setting is evocative, but the humanity is dead. We are treated to ghosts, which may seem on paper to be a good way to tell a memory story, but it doesn't work in practice.

There is also a disconnect between the device of flashing back and including scenes that Michael could not have witnessed and probably was not told about. Indeed, young Michael doesn't make many appearances in the film. His memories should have put him at the center of far more scenes than he is.

Nonetheless, I found the film, if not terribly involving, at least intriguing. Ireland does seem to have a strange hold on its people and a fascination for people of other ethnicities. The characters in Dancing at Lughnasa are moved by the country's invisible hands, fated to be miserable because they are not free. While this film is a lesser work in the chronicles of Ireland's sad history, it still manages to create some sense of engagement while it makes its point. l

Friday, May 12, 2006

Border Café (Café Transit, 2005)
Director: Kambuzia Partovi

Ever since the success of the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979, women living in the country's legally mandated Islamic society have had to walk a tightrope. Forced out of their western attire and under the veil and the thumbs of the men in their lives, Iranian women have labored to find some measure of independence and identity. Their painful struggle has been captured in best-selling books, such as Reading Lolita in Tehran by English literature professor and author Azar Nafisi, and in films such as The Day I Became a Woman (Roozi ke zan shodam, 2000), the debut film of Marzieh Meshkini, wife of renowned Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf.

One angry, feminist film that affected me deeply was The Circle (Dayereh, 2000) directed by Jafar Panahi and written by Kambuzia Partovi. Now we have Border Café, Partovi’s ninth outing in the director’s chair and his first for adult audiences. It’s an assured, well-observed film that avoids agitprop overtones while nonetheless showing clearly the obstacles Iranian women must navigate just to find some breathing room.

The structure of the story is slightly confusing. It uses reminiscences of people who have beeen touched by Reyhan (Fereshteh Sadr Orfani, Partovi’s wife), the main character, to suggest what a remarkable women she is. It almost sounds as though Reyhan has died. Whatever has happened, these people feel sure they will never see her again. Slowly, her story unfolds.

Reyhan is a recent widow with two children who is urged by her brother-in-law Nasser (Parviz Parastui) to become his second wife. He wants to take care of her and her children in an honorable fashion, and her lengthy mourning is starting to embarrass the family. Reyhan is not interested in Nasser or remarriage. She came to Iran to marry her now-dead husband, and feels no regard for the villagers or their opinions. Instead, she decides to reopen her husband’s roadside café, employing his former staff and doing the cooking herself.

Reyhan cleans up the café and hangs out her shingle for business, hoping that some of her husband’s former clientele will be attracted back. They are. Reyhan is an excellent cook, and news that the café is back and better than ever spreads among the international community of truck drivers who pass through. One trucker, a Greek named Zakariyo (Nikos Papadopoulos), comes into the café for a table and tea, but always brings a can of food with him to eat. Reyhan, who must stay in the kitchen because the law forbids her to mix in public with men who are not of her family, watches him through the kitchen service window. She asks the waiter to bring his plate to her so she can see what he is eating. The next time Zakariyo comes to the café, she sends out a plate with her version of his food on it. It is delicious, and from that moment on Zakariyo becomes a frequent visitor and occasional companion.

Reyhan’s success not only humiliates Nasser because she is having too public a life, but also is hurting the business at his own café. He determines to close her down, and because he owns the building, he has his way. The family Reyhan had built in her café disperses, taking us back to the reminiscences that started the film. But Reyhan hasn't died. She buys the restaurant across the street from Nasser’s place. The worried look in his eyes tells us the rest of the story. Reyhan will endure.

Reyhan is a kind soul to whom people like Zakariyo respond. Moved by her attempts to make him feel a bit of home while on the road, Zakariyo tries to court Reyhan, in Greek. In another subplot, a Russian girl named Svieta (Svieta Mikalishina) washes up in the rain one night, and Reyhan takes her in on what becomes a permanent basis. A very moving scene has Reyhan and Svieta in the yard one day. Reyhan reveals her pain over the loss of her husband and her own homeland. Svieta does not understand a word. Svieta responses in Russian with her own pain. Although neither woman understands the other, both are in tears, communicating through the heart. These moments confirm what a waste it is to try to lock Reyhan away from the world and reveal what Islamic men fear so much—the allure of the female. Although Orfani plays Reyhan as a modest women who is constantly pulling her chador closer around her face, she won’t be held down.

With Border Café, Partovi gives us a rich look from the ground level at the lives of ordinary people in Iran and the way Islamic law plays out in everyday life. It’s not as ironclad as I had imagined, but nonetheless provides women with little wiggle room. I am grateful to Partovi for opening the doors wider on Iran and breaking new ground as the tradition of great Iranian filmmaking moves forward. l

Border Café is part of the 2006 Global Lens traveling series of the Global Film Initiative, whose mission is to promote cross-cultural understanding through film. The 2006 Global Lens series schedule of theatrical showings in the United States can be found at http://www.globalfilm.org/calendar.htm. Shadow Kill, reviewed elsewhere on this blog, also was issued by the Global Film Initiative.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

The Glass Slipper (1955)
Director: Charles Walters

In my review of I'll Cry Tomorrow, I mentioned that the 1950s were the heyday of classic women's films. The '50s were also the Golden Age of the musical. Gene Kelly was the reigning lord of the dance in these grand entertainments, and several female dancers fluttered around his flame, including Vera-Ellen, Ann Miller, Cyd Charisse, and a charming young ballet dancer named Leslie Caron, whose debut in films was starring opposite Kelly in the renowned An American in Paris (1951). Caron went on to star in the popular but tough-minded Lili (1953), her first collaboration with director/choreographer Charles Walters. When MGM decided to film another version of the story of Cinderella, it hoped to strike gold by again teaming Caron, Walters, and screenwriter Helen Deutsch.

I am a big, big fan of musicals, but some of the best ones of the '50s seemed to have vanished without a trace. Give a Girl a Break (1953), starring Marge and Gower Champion, is one such musical that I recently caught on Turner Classic Movies and have been praising ever since. Now (again courtesy of TCM) I add The Glass Slipper to the list of Golden Age musicals that the public should rediscover.

The Glass Slipper is a fairytale film that, for the most part, provides everyday explanations for the magical occurrences with which we are all familiar. Its most radical departure from fairytale scripture is to make Cinderella a belligerent outcast in her small village rather than a beautiful flower cowering in a corner, waiting for a magical messenger to free her from bondage to her stepmother and stepsisters. When we first meet Ella, she is being taunted by villagers for her filthy appearance with their nickname for her--Cinder-Ella. She sticks her tongue out and in all other ways makes herself as unappealing as possible while proclaiming that it has been prophesied that she will live in the palace one day. She reserves her sweetness only for an organ grinder's monkey.

When Cinder-Ella returns to her home, she is beset by demands and insults from her stepmother (Elsa Lanchester) and stepsisters Birdena (Amanda Blake) and Serafina (Lisa Daniels). Again, contrary to fairytale convention, the vain stepsisters are beautiful on the outside. Director Walters has his fun, however, by showing a flawless Birdena look into her mirror and bear her teeth like an animal. It is in similarly understated visuals and clever scripting that we grasp the fuller stories of these characters and their potential fates. When Cinder-Ella runs off to be alone in her special place in the woods, narrator Walter Pigdeon cautions like a cousin of Dicken's Spirit of Christmas Present, how her rebellion will be silenced if she is subjected to a few more years of oppression by her stepfamily and eventually she will be turned to timid servitude for the rest of her unlovely, unloving life. This observation lets us know that we are living in a real world where a "happily ever after" may not be a slam-dunk.

Cinder-Ella meets an eccentric old woman, Mrs. Toquet (Estelle Winwood), at her secret place. Toquet has a reputation in the village as a lunatic who lives in the woods and only comes to the village at night to steal. Even Cinder-Ella has heard the rumors and is wary of her. But Mrs. Toquet offers her friendship and declares that she likes the sound of the word "Cinder-Ella" as much as she does "elbow" and "windowsill". Along with such nonsense, she offers wisdom to Cinder-Ella, and Cinder-Ella begins to feel less alone. She looks forward to the next day, when she will meet Mrs. Toquet again in the woods.

Prince Charles (Michael Wilding) has his own longing for the woods. He confides to his friend Kovin (Keenan Wynn) that he feels most alive in nature and further confesses a weakness for tragic, weeping women, developed when he saw a 5-year-old girl crying inconsolably in the village over the loss of her mother. Naturally, he meets that girl--Cinder-Ella--at her secret place, and pretends that he is the son of the palace cook to gain her confidence. She pushes him into the pond when she detects that he may be laughing at her. As they watch her run off, Charles tells Kovin that she has "a tender heart half afraid to love." Despite her fear, Cinder-Ella meets her young man again the next day. He apologizes and presents her with an invitation to the palace ball. When she protests that she doesn't know how to dance, he teaches her. The prince impulsively kisses Cinder-Ella. That's it. Cinder-Ella feels energized by what might be the beginnings of love.

Cinder-Ella's household is all aflutter when rich cousin Loulou comes to visit. Cousin Loulou came by her fortune by seduction, and, the narrator notes, Serafina and Birdena look forward to the day when they can be ruined in just such a profitable manner. Later that evening, Cinder-Ella dutifully helps her stepsisters get ready for the ball, though she is wracked with envy that she cannot go, too, because she lacks the proper attire. After her stepfamily leaves for the ball, she falls asleep, only to be awakened by Mrs. Toquet, who brings her into the garden to show her a wedding cake gown pilfered from cousin Loulou's house. She helps Cinder-Ella dress, doing her best with the short, jagged hair that Cinder-Ella was left with when she cut her hair in a fit of pique, and sending her into a carriage Mrs. Torquet has arranged for her. The carriage driver's real customer is attending a party of his own and must be picked up at 1 a.m. So Cinder-Ella must leave the prince's ball at midnight. This is a clever turn on the usual fairytale explanation for the curfew.

When Cinder-Ella arrives at the palace, she tries repeatedly to escape to the kitchen where she thinks she will find her beloved slaving over a hot stove. Indeed, she has daydreamed him in the kitchen during one of the two ballet sequences in the film. Cinder-Ella becomes the most popular girl at the ball, but none of her ardent dance partners can get her to say a word. Finally, when Charles joins her on the ballroom floor, she is more bewildered and desperate to keep cousin Loulou and her stepfamily from seeing her than she is in rejoicing over her good fortune. At midnight, she flees.

Rumors circulate that the prince intends to marry the bewitching dark-haired girl at the ball, thought to be an Egyptian princess who doesn't speak the language. Despairing, Cinder-Ella runs away from home, back to her secret place, where Mrs. Toquet appears but fails to comfort her or, indeed, to make any sense at all. Perhaps she is just a daft old kleptomaniac. Cinder-Ella falls asleep, and awakens to Charles telling her he is looking for the foot that will fit the glass slipper left behind at the ball. She says, "I have the other!" It is tied inside her satchel. He fits the glass slipper onto her foot in full view of the villagers. We are told that Mrs. Toquet was indeed her fairy godmother and that they "lived happily ever after."

This film is wise about human motivation and compassion shown in easily recognizable ways. While we are made to loathe the stepmother and stepsisters, they are not made as ugly on the outside as they are on the inside. The attractive frequently get ahead regardless of their deservedness. Cinder-Ella was on her way to being a friendless freak beyond help, tracking much more closely with the idea that all human beings reach milestones of development that will determine their course in life forever. Even Prince Charles (Charming) falls for Cinder-Ella because he has a certain fetish that originated in his glimpse of her at the age of 5. As I finished watching this film, I thought that the marriage of Cinder-Ella and Charles may well be doomed. Once he gets over the fetish that attracted him, what will he have to say to a girl who is ignorant, probably illiterate, from a vastly different walk of life from his?

It is not inappropriate to ask these questions of a film that posits its fairytale characters as real people and its tricks not as enchantments but as business arrangements. Perhaps this a fatal flaw and one of the reasons this film has sunk below the horizon of the more famous canonical versions. Nonetheless, as an adult, I appreciated the cleverness of this story, its humanity, the artisty of its beautifully rendered sets and costumes, its sweet music and dancing, its strong supporting cast, and finally, the vulnerable, winning performances by Leslie Caron and Michael Wilding. This is one glass slipper that fits adults beautifully. l

Thursday, May 04, 2006

I'll Cry Tomorrow (1955)
Director: Daniel Mann

Lillian Roth was a professional entertainer who entered show business in 1916, at the age of five, appeared on stage billed as "Broadway's Youngest Star" and in silent films during the 1910s and 20s, and became popular for her bluesy singing voice and presence in talkies and on the stage during the 1930s. By 1934, Roth had become a raging alcoholic, and her career took a precipitous dive. She staged a comeback in the late 40s and 50s after she attained sobriety through Alcoholics Anonymous and published an autobiography in 1954 called I'll Cry Tomorrow. The popular book was quickly optioned by MGM and made into a film of the same name that earned Susan Hayward her fourth Academy Award nomination for her harrowing performance as Roth.

In many ways, I'll Cry Tomorrow was the most typical film of its time. The so-called women's films made by directors such as Mitchell Leisen, Douglas Sirk, Vincent Minnelli, and George Cukor, to which I'll Cry Tomorrow belongs, are solid melodramas that center on the life and loves of a woman. Some of these films can be sudsy, but more often they tend to deal with their heroine's dilemmas in a fairly straightforward way, giving women in the audience a fantasy that they can still identify with.

Another popular element in films of this time was Freudianism and other psychological theories. I'll Cry Tomorrow provides psychological reasons aplenty for Roth's descent into a bottle and abusive relationships, and extols the virtues of self-help remedies and support groups. In many ways, this film pioneered an approach so many modern women's films--and the general population--have adopted. And it certainly provided a successful template for the 1962 biopic Gypsy, starring Natalie Wood.

So what does this film have to offer that is peculiarly its own? I'll Cry Tomorrow has a feeling of truth about it, an attention to detail, even as it ranges over a very wide time span and life experience, that keeps it rooted in the central dilemma of its main character. It is suggested in a couple of very painfully rendered scenes that Roth's problems stemmed from a stage mother who refused to let Lillian plan her own life and filled her with feelings of worthlessness. The scenes between the young Lillian (Carole Anne Campbell) and mother Katie (Jo Van Fleet) are filled with desperation and longing. I felt genuinely touched when a neighbor boy named David (David Kasday) gets Lillian involved in a water fight, allowing her to behave like a child for a brief time. Of course, this brief respite is shattered when the two children skip up to Lillian's apartment to be greeted by an ecstatic Katie saying that Lillian has received a stage booking and will be leaving town in a couple of days.

Lillian does go on to fame and fortune. We catch up with Katie and the grown-up Lillian in Hollywood, where she is breaking into pictures under contract to Paramount. Her peformance of "Sing You Sinners" in Honey garners attention in Hollywood. She seems poised for a career build-up by Paramount. One day, she encounters a handsome man in a doctor's office who turns out to be her childhood friend David (Ray Danton). He has been trying to reach her for days, but her mother never passed on his messages. Lillian and David begin a romance that results in a confrontation with Katie. Lillian wishes to leave show business for a private life as David's wife. David provides the courage Lillian needs to try to have her own life, and Katie is visibly shaken and disappointed.

Alas, happiness is not to be. David was at the doctor's office for a serious reason he never disclosed to Lillian. He ends up in the hospital, growing weaker and weaker. A call comes to the theatre where Lillian is performing that David has died. Lillian sinks into a deep depression. Her mother hires a nurse companion for her (Virginia Gregg) who makes the fateful decision to give Lillian some scotch (you can practically hear a warning buzz of violin strings) to help her get some sleep. Lillian begins to use alcohol as a sedative every night. Soon it invades her entire life, creating problems for her performances on stage (she has to hold onto a chair at one point so she won't stumble around the stage or collapse) and eventually sending her penniless to Skid Row after she escapes the abusive clutches of her second husband Tony (Richard Conte, in a chilling performance).

The film has minimal voiceover narration by Hayward, mainly to let us know Lillian's state of mind. She tells us that a feeling of calm and confidence came over her when she first began to drink, providing us with a psychology for her continued drinking--an escape from her feelings of worthlessness. In fact, the real Lillian Roth's father was an alcoholic. Certainly the effects of living with an alcoholic parent and an anxious mother who used Lillian (and her sister, omitted from the movie) to provide the family with a livelihood must have taken its toll. It is very likely, however, that a genetic predisposition was the main culprit behind her severe alcoholism. But such ideas were unknown in 1955 and could not be a part of this movie of inspiration.

Lillian attempts to throw herself out of a window one day, but can't finish the task. She ends up at an AA meeting, where the man she will later marry, Burt McGuire (Eddie Albert), becomes her sponsor. The film ends with Lillian making an appearance on the TV tribute show, "This Is Your Life," where she becomes one of the first celebrities to go public with her story of addiction and recovery through AA. Again, Roth was a trendsetter for future generations of addicted celebrities.

Susan Hayward's performance is intense. While her fear of her mother in the early sequences doesn't really come across, she lets all of her hatred loose late in Lillian's addictive cycle, accusing her mother of living off her and ruining her chances for happiness. One feels sorry for Katie for taking the blame for all of Lillian's problems--also a common psychological theory of the time that this movie does not debunk but suggests is overstated. I was absolutely blown away by Hayward's singing style, which compares favorably with Sophie Tucker--correct for the period during which Roth was at her most popular and very, very good. The film does not pay much attention to period detail at first, but moves into its contemporary time frame coherently. The main focus is Lillian's alcoholism, which shortchanges her years as a performer a bit, but overall, I think an acceptable balance was reached.

I'll Cry Tomorrow has been called an unsubtle sudser by some, but I can't agree. I have a great fondness for the early women's films that are stylized in a way that speaks to women. This film is among the best of the bunch. l