Thursday, February 24, 2022

Parallel Stories in “Parallel Mothers”

What makes a Pedro Almadóvar film so exciting is that, while watching it, you don’t always know where it’s going. Not for him the tidy formulaic structure (set-up, complication, climax, resolution)  prescribed by screenwriting gurus. Instead, he deals in juxtapositions and surprises. But the biggest surprise generally comes at the end, where you suddenly realize what his intentions have been all along.

 His latest, Parallel Mothers (Madres paralelas), is succinctly described as “the story of two mothers who give birth the same day.” This focus on mothers and babies is accurate, as far as it goes. It also puts this film in line with others in which Almadóvar focuses his gaze almost exclusively on the female of the species. It’s hard to think of other male directors who’ve devoted themselves so intensely to exploring the lives of women, in all their complexity and beauty. See for instance All About My Mother (in which a trans woman is part of the cast of characters) and Volver. Both of these films feature an Almadóvar favorite, the luminous Penélope Cruz, who stars in Parallel Mothers as the mother of a newborn. For her vibrant performance as Janis (named after Janis Joplin by her hippie mom), she was recently nominated for a Best Actress Oscar.

 It's curious, come to think of it, that motherhood looms large in this year’s Best Actress category. In Being the Ricardos, Nicole Kidman plays Lucille Ball as the mother of a young child, one who is dealing with a second pregnancy while her career and her marriage hang in the balance.  (Alas, none of the material pertaining to the new pregnancy, is either accurate or convincing.) In Spencer, Kristen Stewart as Princess Diana survives a holiday weekend from hell partly because her young sons are nearby. Olivia Colman in The Lost Daughter can’t get past her own parental failures of many years before. By contrast, Cruz plays a new mom, older than most, who throws herself joyfully into the obligations and delights of tending an unplanned baby. It’s only several very unexpected twists of fate that turn her world upside down, leading her into a moral dilemma she (and we) didn’t see coming.

 But this is not only a film about motherhood. It’s also, though more subtly, about being a daughter: both Janis and the very young roommate with whom she bonds at the maternity hospital have reason to feel cheated out of a mother’s embraces. And there’s another key strand, one that begins the drama, then seems to disappear, before re-emerging powerfully at the end. The film kicks off with Janis persuading a noted forensic anthropologist to take an interest in her home village, where a clutch of husbands and fathers were massacred by Fascists, then dumped into an unmarked grave. The women of the village are desperate, after more than a half-century, to reclaim the bodies of their loved ones and given them a proper burial. Thanks to the efforts of Janis, the work is begun. Which leads to a conclusion that not only underscores what Franco’s goons has done to the people of today’s Spain but also drives home the underlying motif through which Almadóvar binds disparate plot strands together.  It’s a matter of family ties, of inheritance passed on from the old to the young, of the moral values as well as the genetic materials that connect generations. Strong stuff, this. The solemn but joyous uniting of all the film’s major characters in the film’s final scene suggests that Almadóvar, for all the gloom of his story’s details, is able to look forward with hope.


Tuesday, February 22, 2022

Oh, O'Henry!

They don’t make ‘em like that anymore:  compilation films based on sentimental stories from a single author. But in 1952, Twentieth-Century Fox assembled its most experienced directors and its brightest box-office stars to bring to the screen five stories by O’Henry, he of the famous twist endings. To give their film added cachet, Fox creatives chose as their narrator the great American novelist, John Steinbeck. Backed by a book-lined study, Steinbeck—in his sonorous baritone—praises William Sydney Porter’s literary skills, the ones that made his literary alter ego famous throughout the world, and sets the scene for each tale. The whole mishmash is given its own title: O’Henry’s Full House.

 Needless to say, the stories are a mixed bag, depending on the varied contributions of writers, directors, and actors.  Henry Koster may not have the best track record of the directors represented here, but since his “The Cop and the Anthem” stars the great Charles Laughton at his finest, the opening segment is definitely the best. Laughton plays Soapy, a jovial n’er-do-well with no visible means of support. His usual M.O., when the city is too cold for sleeping on park benches, is to break a few laws and  then enjoy three months in a comfortable jail cell. Only problem: though he steals an umbrella, throws a brick through a store window, and eats a sumptuous meal for which he has no money to pay, he can’t manage to get himself arrested. When he is at his lowest ebb, clutching at the hope of a better life . . . that’s when O’Henry’s brand of irony kicks in. (I’ve got to mention a small but memorable role by Marilyn Monroe, whose short scene with Laughton has a poignance that’s truly impressive.)

 “The Clarion Call,” about a crime reporter who meets up with a childhood-friend-turned-criminal, is most interesting for the outsized performance of Richard Widmark. As the maniacal crook with the bizarre laugh, Widmark was borrowing from his own Oscar-nominated performance in 1947’s noir classic, Kiss of Death, also directed by Henry Hathaway. I’m told that Widmark’s inspiration for both roles came from his love of the Joker character in Batman comics. And his portrayal, in turn, influenced Frank Gorshin’s Riddler and other screen Batman villains.

 O’Henry had a special sympathy for the joys and (particularly) the woes of common folk, especially those who led luckless lives in city tenements. “The Last Leaf” is a prime example of the author at his most sentimental. It’s the story of a young woman (Jean Peters) jilted by her wealthy lover, who returns to her humble flat and succumbs to pneumonia. Winter is coming on: as her sister (Anne Baxter) worries over her, she becomes obsessed with the idea that she’ll die when the last leaf falls from the vine she can see from her window. Gregory Ratoff plays a down-at-the-heels old artist who wants to help her regain her will to live.

 Two of O’Henry’s most famous stories come last. Writer Ben Hecht and director Howard Hawks were involved with the comic tale of “The Ransom of Red Chief,” with Fred Allen and Oscar Levant as two inept conmen who plan to kidnap a local boy and hold him for ransom. As a pop culture fan in the Fifties might have said, “Taint funny, McGee.”

 The schmaltz reaches its peak with “The Gift of the Magi,” in which Jeanne Crain and Farley Granger—impoverished young marrieds—sell their most prized possessions to buy one another the Christmas gifts of their dreams. We end with Christmas carols and happily-ever-after. Aw shucks! 

 Dedicated to Jack Neworth, fellow Laughton admirer, for introducing me to this obscure title.



Friday, February 18, 2022

By Way of Obit; Yvette Mimieux and Some Others

The recent death of Yvette Mimieux, once the radiant young blonde star of Sixties movies, has sent me back into my own past. I  remember her as beautiful and vulnerable in such hit teen movies as Where the Boys Are. I forgive her for kinky tripe like Three in the Attic, and acknowledge that she somehow kept her dignity in a low-budget Roger Corman crime thriller, Jackson County Jail. Her passing led me to watch her screen performance in perhaps her most ambitious role, in 1962’s Light in the Piazza.

 I’ve wondered about Light in the Piazza since I saw the Los Angeles production of the award-winning 2005 Broadway musical version. Though critics cheered, I found the play’s plot logic deeply troubling. The central characters are a mother and her young adult daughter, wealthy Americans leisurely enjoying Italy. To the mother’s dismay, the daughter quickly falls for a handsome young Italian, and he for her. As a wedding is being discussed, we discover a melodramatic complication: Clara once sustained a serious head injury, and she’s mentally and emotionally stunted. Her mother faces a serious dilemma: stop the wedding, or allow her daughter to find a happiness that may be temporary. It all seemed like hooey to me, and I was never convinced that the Clara I saw on stage had the emotional age of a ten-year-old.

 That’s why, in homage to Mimieux, I watched the film, which stars Olivia  de Havilland as a deeply troubled mother. It’s a bit sappy, though Florence and Rome look lovely. The time given to the strain of the relationship between de Havilland’s Meg and her no-nonsense husband (Barry Sullivan) helps explain the puzzling turnabout in Meg’s attitude toward the young lovers. And I saw something in Mimieux’s performance that confirms who Clara is—someone who, for all her charm, will never progress beyond being innocent and girlish. A belated brava to Mimieux.

 Somehow I’ve never had a moment to salute Betty White upon her passing at the age of almost-but-not-quite 100. It’s sad to lose her, but how wonderful that she enjoyed a long, long career, and a life that was happy and productive right up to the end. Some of those we’ve lost recently started out in showbiz at a much younger age than Betty White, but discovered what a mixed blessing child stardom can be. I grew up watching Tommy Kirk in a whole string of Disney hits, like Old Yeller and The Shaggy Dog. He later was a perennial in a series of teen beach movies in the Sixties. Who knew then that his parting from Disney had been abrupt and painful, caused at least in part by the homosexuality he couldn’t hide? Along the way he picked up a drug habit, and at one point (despite his substantial childhood earnings) was nearly broke. Somehow he got through all that, living out his days quietly, far from Hollywood.

 It was just last month that we lost Peter Robbins, not a household name but a voice to be reckoned with. From 9 to 16, he was the original voice of  Peanuts’ Charlie Brown on a number of major TV specials. Eventually mental illness kicked in; at age 65 he  died by suicide.

 Jane Powell, star of Golden Age musicals like Seven Brides for Seven Brothers started in the business at age 14. Unable to go to college because she was her alcoholic mother’s sole support, she continued performing, and married 5 times. Her last and most successful marriage was to Dickie Moore, who like her understood what child stardom was all about.