Friday, September 27, 2019

What Have We Inherited from “The Heiress”?

Does The Heiress, an oldie from 1949 based on a Henry James novel called Washington Square, have anything to say to us today? In this #MeToo era, we’re all aware of women who’ve been pressured by men into unwanted sexual activity. Being a woman now—at a time when sexual compliance is often expected as a quid pro quo for favors received--is hardly easy. Still, it’s got to be an improvement on the nineteenth century, when a woman’s entire life was based on the obligation to marry and produce heirs.

Catherine Sloper, who lives with her doctor-father in an elegant Greenwich Village mansion, has what may seem an easy life. Having no need to earn her living, she devotes her time to embroidery, pretty dresses, and making homelife comfortable for her widowed papa. He pays her back by comparing her—in strongly negative terms—to her dead mother, whose good looks and charm the shy Catherine can’t hope to approximate. It’s clear to her that he considers her an abject failure, because no eligible bachelor seems willing to look at her twice.

Everything changes when, at a posh neighborhood soiree, she is asked to dance by the handsome Morris Townsend, just back from a swing through Europe. Almost immediately he is courting her, and she is falling head over heels in love. Their quick engagement is applauded by her giddy aunt, who thrives on the romance of it, but Dr. Sloper is sure from the start that the attractive but impoverished Morris is a fortune-hunter. To the good doctor, it’s clear that Morris Townsend is attracted less by Catherine’s quiet charm than by her future financial expectations.

So sure is Catherine that her beloved wants her for herself alone that she chooses to face disinheritance by organizing a late-night elopement. She’s thrilled by the prospect of leaving the family home forever, and going off into a future where she and Morris will live on love.  Alas, we’re not surprised when her betrothed leaves her in the lurch, and all her romantic dreams turn to dust.  The true suspense in the story comes when—several years later—Morris returns from far-off California to resume his courtship. By this point, Dr. Sloper is dead, and Catherine is the mistress of both her house and her desires. From this position of power, how will she react to Morris’s pretty speeches about why he abandoned her (for her own good, of course) all those years ago?

Catherine Sloper was played by Olivia de Havilland, now still alive and feisty at 103. It was she who brought a successful Broadway play to the attention of William Wyler, insisting on playing the role that ultimately brought her an Oscar. Ironically, de Havilland is perhaps best known as the sweet, docile Melanie in 1939’s Gone With the Wind. Her petite prettiness was not ideally suited to the role of Catherine, despite the valiant attempts of the production staff. Yet in the latter sections of the film, the steel in her spine seems quite genuine. Britain’s Ralph Richardson was Oscar-nominated for playing her father, subtly conveying the sense of a man who doesn’t realize how hatefully he’s treating his only child. I also admired veteran charmer Miriam Hopkins as the flighty aunt. But Montgomery Clift, starting to get a reputation as sensitive leading man, somehow seems too modern for this very period piece. Kudos to William Wyler for his elegant direction (which makes vivid use of the house’s massive staircase), and to Aaron Copland, who won an Oscar for bringing his symphonic gifts to the film’s score.

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Gosford Park: Down the Road From Downton Abbey

While the residents of Downton Abbey await the arrival of the British royal family (and the producers wait for their box office returns to come rolling in), I’ve gone back to a Julian Fellowes-penned film that inspired the televised saga of the aristocratic Crawleys and their upstairs/downstairs world. Gosford Park, a feature film from 2001, boasts a starry British cast. It’s led by Helen Mirren, Clive Owen, Emily Watson, and Kelly Macdonald as below-the-stairs folk, as well as Michael Gambon and Kristin Scott Thomas as their social betters. Downton’s Maggie Smith is also present, stealing scenes as is her wont, as a stuffy but impoverished aristo who huffs that “there’s nothing more exhausting than breaking in a new lady’s maid.” 

It’s 1932, in that oblivious period between two World Wars. Everyone is gathered at Gosford Park because the McCordles are staging a shooting party, with the menfolk traipsing out to the fields to blast away at defenseless game birds. But many more games are afoot, involving sexual infidelities, desperate attempts to raise money, and long-simmering class resentment. Occupying a special niche are three interlopers from Hollywood. One is Ivor Novello, an actual British entertainer and matinee idol of the period, whose skill at tickling the ivories causes many hearts to flutter, both in the drawing room and in the servants’ quarters.  He’s good at hobnobbing with the wealthy, but hardly considers himself part of their world. (When someone asks how he puts up with  the snobbery of the ruling classes, he simply shrugs, “I make a living impersonating them.”)

The chap doing the asking is another Hollywood type, a hearty American named Morris Weissman, whom Novello has brought along because he’s researching his latest film.  Weissman, played by the diminutive Bob Balaban, is almost certainly Jewish, and it’s clear that his ethnicity as well as his nationality and his occupation taint him unforgivably in the eyes of his snooty hosts. (To make matters worse, both hosts and staff are appalled that he won’t eat meat.) Novello and Weissman are accompanied by an apparently Scottish valet (Ryan Phillipe) who seems to be up to no good.

In fact, someone in the household is definitely up to no good. Weissman explains that though his new film will be titled Charlie Chan in London, it’s mostly set in a stately country estate, where a shooting party ends in a murder, and everyone present becomes a suspect. Ironically, this is exactly what transpires, though the bumbling local constabulary is far less effective than Charlie Chan would be in tracking down the killer.

While playing a key role in the film, Balaban also served as one of its producers. Gosford Park came about when he and Robert Altman decided to work together. Director Altman, who’s more usually associated with All-American stories like Nashville and McCabe and Mrs. Miller, delighted in working with a British ensemble blessed with strong theatrical chops. Always experimental, he had two cameras going at once, and actors—never sure of when they’d appear on camera—were encouraged to improvise when they participated in the film’s many crowd scenes. The result is both fascinating and frustrating: there are times when so much is going on that it’s hard to follow the logic of basic plot lines. (And, dash it all, some of those well-coiffed lords and ladies do quickly start to look alike.) Still, this is an elegant treatise on class distinction. Who knew that in the very best houses the servants are expected to call each other by the names of their masters? 


Thursday, September 19, 2019

Toni Morrison: Not so Beloved by Hollywood

Since the death of Toni Morrison on August 5 of this year, I’ve been thinking about the great American novelists, and why the translation of their books into film is always so disappointing. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby has been filmed five times, but I don’t believe any of these versions truly captures what makes the novel so magical. Hemingway adaptations have their moments, but none of them is totally representative of what Hemingway brought to American fiction. John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath was indeed made by John Ford into a beloved film, with unforgettable performances by Henry Fonda as Tom Joad and Jane Darwell as his indomitable mother. Still, the film lacks those great lyric passages that lift Steinbeck’s novel into the realm of the universal. As for Faulkner, I had the misfortune to see in a theatre Hollywood’s attempt at filming The Sound and the Fury. The 1959 film starring Joanne Woodward and (oddly enough) Yul Brynner ditches any attempt at reproducing Faulkner’s experiments with point of view, merely concentrating on the plight of some sad Southern aristocrats. (I actually watched this fiasco as a kid, because it was a double-bill companion to Disney’s The Shaggy Dog. Go figure!)

Most of the authors I’ve mentioned above were winners of the Nobel Prize for literature. (Fitzgerald is the one exception.) Morrison was a Nobel-winner too, and to me there was no American novelist more deserving. Morrison’s range was wide: though she wrote exclusively about African-Americans, she covered many eras and perspectives, and also explored many styles. If one sign of mastery in a novelist is the ability to create and flesh out an entire universe, she achieved true greatness in her eleven full-length works. And then there’s her way with words. Praising  her astonishing third novel, Song of Solomon, the writer Reynolds Price declared that “Morrison’s gifts for observing and transforming a spacious visible world into its matching mirror-world of sound and rhythm had grown to the point of overflow; and Song of Solomon is the first display of a suddenly effortless power that can not only hold us but can promise to spread, not only in the reader’s memory but in the writer’s work to come.”

Price is right to focus on Morrison’s distinctive use of sound and rhythm, which shows up not just in her characters’ dialogue but in the ebb and  flow of the narrative voice. It is this voice – the distinctive use of words by a gifted author – that is so very hard to convey on screen. Which is one good reason why filmmakers have been reluctant to touch Morrison’s novels. The one big exception is the film version of Beloved, released to modest critical acclaim and poor box office in 1998. Morrison’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Beloved, which moves back and forth through time to tell a chilling tale of slavery and its aftermath, had the advantage of a strong commitment from Oprah Winfrey, who owned the screen rights for a decade before managing to pull together a film production with herself and Danny Glover in leading roles. Oprah’s all-in performance is admirably strong, and the film directed by Jonathan Demme is evocatively cast, filmed, and scored. Yet Morrison’s complex and convoluted narrative, with its mysterious supernatural elements, is not easy for a viewer to fathom. Beloved is in many respects a ghost story. But the film is less haunting than confusing, and even someone with Oprah’s gift for generating publicity couldn’t save it. Beloved is an honorable failure as a film. But I suspect there are some page-to-screen projects better left untouched.