Archive for April, 2009

My 10 Favorite Film Characters

Posted in Dailies with tags on April 24, 2009 by leclisse

Just to mix things up a bit, I’ve decided to borrow this meme from Self-Styled Siren.  Picking my ten favorite movie characters was considerably more difficult than I anticipated.  I tried to pick ones that stood on their own, regardless of their film context.  I was surprised that most of my picks aren’t what I’d call “likeable,” but the performances  are merits in themselves.  So, here they are, in no particular order:

Tatum O'Neal as Addie Pray

Addie Loggins (Tatum O’Neal), Paper Moon

I usually find myself inexplicably irritated with child actors.  This is probably because their performance seldom seem natural.  It’s not their fault, of course, but I can’t help counting the minutes until they leave a scene.  That is, until I saw Paper Moon.  Addie Loggins is what I envision the ideal child to be — no nonsense, not taking shit from anyone.  It would do her a disservice to merely say she is wise beyond her years, because she is such a force unto herself.  She can wordsling with the best of them and outfox any slow-moving fogie she crosses:

Addie: I want my two hundred dollars. 
Moses Pray: I don’t have your two hundred dollars no more and you know it.
Addie: If you don’t give me my two hundred dollars I’m gonna tell a policeman how you got it and he’ll make you give it to me because it’s mine.
Moses Pray: But I don’t have it!
Addie: Then get it.

Rosalind Russell as Sylvia and Joan Crawford as Crystal

Sylvia Fowler (Rosalind Russell), The Women

I had such a time trying to decide between Sylvia Fowler and Crystal Allen (Joan Crawford) because they are both such tour de force performances.  I finally decided on The Women‘s tireless fount of gossip, Sylvia.  Sylvia is conniving and manipulative, but she knows she is (even if she won’t admit it) and her friends are never fooled.  Her oblivious snobbery imbues every scene with unintentional hilarity, and cracks me up every time I see this movie.  She never apologizes for her backstabbing, but her friends don’t seem to care.  They know what they’re getting into when they decide to add dear Sylvia to their guest list.

Audrey Hepburn as Holly Golightly

Holly Golightly (Audrey Hepburn), Breakfast At Tiffany’s

Playgirl Holly Golightly asks for nothing but a good time in the fast lane.  She wants to land handsome pot of money, but has none of the trashy sexuality of the typical gold digger.  She is naturally wistful, capricious, and rootless, and becomes the center of attention upon entering any room.  Carefree Holly is hiding a rather unglamourous past as a teenage bride to “Doc” (Buddy Epson) and trying to ignore the terrible loneliness she feels by remaining so impersonal with everyone she knows.  Only Cat and her penniless new neighbor, Paul (George Peppard), catch a glimpse of the real Lula Mae Barnes.  The film verson of Breakfast at Tiffany’s concludes with a rather tidy end to Holly’s story, but Truman Capote’s original is much more in keeping with Holly’s wild, careless ways.

Debbie Reynolds as Melba Robinson

Melba Robinson (Debbie Reynolds), Two Weeks With Love

Two Weeks With Love is one of my all-time favorite movies, and perhaps one of MGM’s most underrated musicals.  It’s not a great movie, but the story is relentlessly (but believably) cheerful.  Little sister Melba Robinson is a ball of energy and makes no secret of her crush on Billy Finley (Carleton Carpenter).  Melba’s character could have easy degenerated into a whiny, nagging pest to big sister Pattie (Jane Powell), but Debbie Reynolds gives her just the right amount of restraint while still in keeping with her pre-teen demeanor.  Melba is the sister I wish I had (if I had a sister, that is).

Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond

Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), Sunset Boulevard

Norma Desmond is the grande dame of fictional film stars.  Her insanity has shrouded her in a cloud of her former 1920’s clout.  She can’t imagine how Hollywood has gotten along without her, but why should she?  She’s a movie star in every sense of the word.  She’s got a mountain of money to throw at a would-be screen writer, Joe Gillis (William Holden), and then some.  She plays bridge with Buster Keaton, Anna Q. Nilsson, and H. B. Warner and throws a New Year’s Eve party as decadent as the gin-soaked all-nighters she undoubtedly basked in in her heyday.  Her house is a shrine to the past glories and triumphs she raked in during her tenure at Paramount Studios, and she’s plugging away at the script of Salome, her greatest role yet.  Too bad she had to go and kill that poor dope Gillis.

Myrna Loy as Nora Charles

Nora Charles (Myrna Loy), The Thin Man

Nora Charles is not your typical society wife.  Brilliant, perfectly poised, and always completely self-posessed, Nora is the perfect complement to the equally charming private eye, Nick Charles.  Cocktail for breakfast?  Sure, why not.  Nora can handle her liquor just as well as she can sleuth with the best of them.  The Charles’ relationship is most definitely one between equals, which was seldom seen among celluloid’s young marrieds.

Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates

Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins), Psycho

This boy has it all… mother complex, repressed sexuality, cross-dressing, compulsive lying, a penchant for killing attractive young girls, and I am sure the list goes on.  The most startling thing about dear Norman is that he remains just that — startling.  Every time I watch Psycho, I am chilled by his mania.  For better or worse, Tony Perkins has forever become identified with the character of Norman because his portrayal is absolutely brilliant.  No other character in cinema (at least in my opinion) has succeeded in shrouding himself in such an aura of horror.  And perhaps the most horrible thing about him is that he appears absolutely normal.  That is, until you get to know him.  And by then it’s too late.

Anne Brancroft as Mrs. Robinson

Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft), The Graduate

The Graduate could have easily been titled Mrs. Robinson, because this is just as much her story as it is Benjamin’s.  She is not even given a first name, but perhaps it’s better that way.  She’s a broken down alcoholic trapped in a dead marriage.  Who knows how many other young men she’s made a point of seducing?  The thing with Mrs. Robinson is, though, she is the tragedy of The Graduate.  When asked what happens to Benand Elaine after their wedding escape, director Mike Nichols replied, “They become their parents.”  Maybe they do.  Maybe in twenty years, Elaine will become aware of the fact that she is in a stale, acrid home of WASP-ish domesticity.  What next, Mrs. Braddock?

Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O'Hara

Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh), Gone With the Wind

“What a woman..” is how Rhett Butler summed up our dear Miss Scarlett O’Hara.  Scarlett is one of the most perfect examples of everything a girl is told not to be: selfish, headstrong, spiteful, flirtatious, manipulative, et cetera.  Scarlett knows what she wants and also how to get it.  She won’t let some little $300 Yankee tax on Tara ruffle her petticoats.  If Rhett won’t be a gentleman and give it to her, she’ll just go and marry that dashing Mr. Kennedy.  Fiddle-dee-dee.

Kip Dynamite

Kip Dynamite (Aaron Ruell), Napoleon Dynamite

Alright, this is my guilty entry.  I’m one of those people that loves Napoleon Dynamite.  It doesn’t matter how many times I’ve seen it — I still find the whole thing to be incredibly hilarious.  I usually gravitate toward supporting characters, which is why I picked Kip rather than the main event, Napoleon.  Kip is like the gawky white guy at work that you don’t really talk to.  “Hi” is more than enough for a day’s interaction.  But there’s so much more going on inside this guy.  He’s got a deep, deep love for his internet girlfriend, LaFawnduh, and even writes some free-form poetry for their wedding ceremony.  He’s got a business acumen that is out of this world.  Too bad his tupperware can’t withstand the weight of an ’82 RV.

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Bonjour Tristesse (1958)

Posted in Dailies with tags , , , on April 19, 2009 by leclisse

Artwork for Bonjour Tristesse (1958)I have only seen Jean Seberg in one other film, Breathless (1959), which ushered in the French New Wave and captured the imagination of more than a few filmmakers in Hollywood at that time.  Even more than the film itself, I was taken with the elfin style of Jean in the environs of Paris.  She seems to step out from the shadow of Audrey Hepburn’s pioneering adrogynous style in order to embody the look for a new generation of audiences.

Bonjour Tristesse (1958) is based on a novel of the same name, written by Francoise Sagan only a few years earlier.  The novel was an international bestseller but also a touch scandalous because it deals so openly with issues of teenage sexuality.  Otto Preminger took the reins of this film version, which was also the second time he and Seberg worked together.  As brilliant a director as Preminger was, he could also bully and intimidate many of the actors he worked with.  Jean was no exception.

Seberg emerged victorious from the competition to play Joan of Arc in Preminger’s controversial production of Saint Joan (1957).  The film was a critical failure at the time, but includes perhaps one of the most realistic and perverse death scenes on film.  As Preminger filmed Joan burning at the stake, Jean took a fireball square in the face.  This sort of behavior reminds me of Tippi Hedren’s near-blinding on the set of The Birds (1963).  In one of the final scenes, Alfred Hitchcock allowed Hedren to battle her own way out of a room full of violent birds, who almost pecked her eyes out.

Lobby card from Bonjour Tristesse (1958)Needless to say, Preminger did not improve his behavior toward Jean for the filming of Tristesse.  Despite this ugly little back story, the film is a beautiful production alternately shot in black and white and Technicolor.  Contrary to convention, Preminger utilizes color for the scenes during which Jean’s character, Cecile, remembers the carefree days on the French Riviera with her playboy father, Raymond, artlessly portrayed by David Niven.  Their aimless life of merry hedonism is disrupted with the arrival of Anne (Deborah Kerr), who was a friend of Cecile’s late mother.  Anne’s maturity could have been a wet blanket on Tristesse‘s party atmosphere, but Kerr manages to come across as someone who has been there but grew tired of the fruitless pursuit of pleasure.  As Anne, she provides an interesting contrast to the rootless Cecile and Raymond, who seem to find her stability to be something almost exotic.

The elements of Bonjour Tristesse’s plot could have easily dissipated into a soapy melodrama, but Preminger manages to turn it into complex characterizations that demand neither sympathy nor respect, but do allow some measure of understanding.  Seberg’s teenage Cecile is a completely spoiled (what teenager wouldn’t be spoiled with a father like Raymond?), but allows the audience to understand why she sets out to destroy her father’s betrothal to Anne.  She can’t help but behave this way, both out of a jealous possession of Raymond and for fear that their lives will irreparably become “normalized.”  It is only after Anne commits suicide after seeing Raymond’s infidelity (a scenario completely contrived by Cecile), that Cecile understands the monstrosity that is her behavior.  She has her father to herself again, but they both know that this sort of life will never make them happy.

Preminger’s use of black and white to portray the present is incredibly effective after the suicide of Anne.  Cecile and Raymond return to their former selves, but the fun has evaporated.  They are merely going through the motions of detachment, but derive no real pleasure from their lives among the international jetset.  Preminger ends the film rather ambiguously, but lends their mutual disillusionment (especially that of Cecile) an indisbutable clarity.

Clara Bow and The Wild Party (1929)

Posted in Books, Dailies with tags , , , on April 6, 2009 by leclisse

Today, I came to the end of David Stenn’s breezy volume on the inimitable “IT” Girl, Clara Bow. On the whole, I quiteFashion plate! enjoyed Stenn’s examination of one of the most “neglected and underrated of all film actresses” – a sentiment not to be taken lightly coming from the likes of Louise Brooks. Aside from the scandals and revelations that wracked Clara’s life, there were a few lighter details of note that I found quite interesting:

  1. While on a European tour to promote 1932’s Call Her Savage, Clara made a stop in Germany.  According to Stenn, in Berlin “a starstruck Adolf Hitler presented her with a signed copy of Mein Kampf. ‘For my most esteemed friend Clara,’ he wrote, ‘with the wish that she derives the same pleasure reading this book as I did writing it.  Adolf.'”  “Madness” was all Clara had to say.
  2. In an interesting twist on Clara’s hedonistic youth, 1964 saw her supporting arch-conservative Barry Goldwater in his bid for the presidency.  Clara wrote to fellow sexual rebel-turned-political reactionary Lina Basquette that “[o]ur dollar has shrunk to a dollarette and people run around seeking more pleasure, less work, more pay.  The Fabian Socialists are ruining us.”  In a letter to Hedda Hopper, she also accused choreographer Agnes DeMille of being a communist.

Despite the attention showered on Clara with the publication of Stenn’s biography, I was unable to find much else in the way of substantial critical analyses of Clara or her films.  Scholarly journal articles appear to be nil – I found one discussing the role of It within the context of rising female consumerism in the 1920’s, and second article looking at the flapper comedienne.  I suppose my expectations were somewhat inflated with the relative wealth of academic work on Louise Brooks that is readily available (not to mention her own scholarly work for the film journal Sight and Sound, among others).

Lobby card from THE WILD PARTYIn the wake of this Clara Bow high, I tried to find some of her other films through the Interlibrary Loan system, but was only able to get a hold of The Wild Party (1929).  Directed by Dorothy Arzner and co-starring Frederic March, The Wild Party sticks close to formula but is notable as Clara’s first talkie.  Clara plays Stella Ames, the party girl with a heart of gold at an all-girls college.  Stella falls for the handsome new anthropology professor, Dr. Gilmore (March), but their love is threatened by disciplinary expulsion from the college.  I think the film stands as an item of curiosity, mainly from the contributions of its star and director (Arzner was one of the few female directors in Hollywood at this time, and the first one to direct a talkie – 1928’s Manhattan Cocktail).  Other than that, however, the film creaks and clunks along due to the primitive state of sound technology in Hollywood at the time.  Come to think of it, I don’t think I have ever seen an early talkie that I would honestly call good.  It’s a wonder I was able to make it through Coquette (also 1929).

I feel like opening it up for general discussion – which early talkies would you consider to be good films?  By “early” I’m referring to the period from 1927 with Al Jolson’s The Jazz Singer to about 1930.  By 1931, sound films hit the ground running with the likes of The Public Enemy (which made a star out of Jean Harlow in a role that, incidentally, almost went to Louise Brooks), Dracula, Frankenstein, and M.