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Portrait of a Troubled Star
Born into a repressive family in Connecticut, Gene Tierney achieved the impossible dream of most would-be performers when she landed a major Broadway role in THE MALE ANIMAL before her twentieth year had elapsed. Catching the attention of movie mogul Darryl F. Zanuck, she was rapidly signed to a long-term contract at Twentieth Century- Fox and rapidly ascended the ladder to stardom by the early Forties.
Highly attractive as a screen presence, with a desire to perpetually improve herself, Tierney shared the screen with most of Fox's leading males including Randolph Scott, Tyrone Power, and Henry Fonda. The world, it seemed, was her oyster.
In private, however, Tierney's life was far more complicated. She married the designer Oleg Cassini - who forged out a movie career in his own right as a costume designer - and together they produced their first child. What Tierney did not know is that during her pregnancy she had come into contact with a fan who had German measles, as a result, Tierney's daughter was born with mental issues, as well as being half-blind and deaf. The couple tried to look after her, but the task eventually proved too, and the daughter was eventually confined permanently to an institution.
The experience profoundly affected Tierney. Although she later produced another child with no problems, her mind became more and more disturbed. Things were not helped by Cassini's infidelities. By the end of the Forties Tierney was still a major star, but on the verge of cracking up mentally. In the middle of the next decade she was confined to a variety of sanatoriums, where she received electric shock therapy as well as less extreme forms of cure.
She managed to find another husband, the tycoon Howard Lee, and the two of them lived quietly in Houston, Texas - Tierney having given up her career by the mid-Sixties. She enjoyed living the quotidian life of a homemaker, an experience she had never previously savored. She died aged seventy in 1991 of emphysema.
With reminiscences from Cassini, her daughter, sister, and others (including Richard Widmark), this was an unusually intimate portrait of a screen legend, focusing more on her off-screen personality.
A Study in the Destructive Effects of Narcissism
Otto Preminger's classic film noir paints such a cynical portrait of mid-Forties New York that it's difficult to identify any redemptive points.
Living in a bubble-like world of parties, social rituals and other high-society occasions, the protagonists have little or no understanding either of themselves or their fellow human-beings. The tone is set in the initial encounter between Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb), and Laura Hunt (Gene Tierney) that takes place in New York's Algonquin Hotel, the site of the famed Round Table that flourished two decades prior to the film's release. The allusion is a suggestive one: Waldo displays all the cutting wit, narcissism and sheer cruelty associated with his illustrious contemporary Alexander Wollcott (who had passed away a year before the film's release). Both men reveled in their celebrity and made extensive use of it to manipulate others.
Walso treats Laura as a Pygmalion-like figure to be molded according to his whims. However things start to get rough when Laura displays a penchant for branching out on her own, most notably by planning to marry feckless socialite Shelby Carpenter (Vincent Price). The rivalry produced thereby provides the mainspring of the story. Add to that a vicious cameo by Judith Anderson as Ann Treadwell, Laura's supposed "confidante" who would drop her like a stone if necessary, and we have the ingredients for a murder mystery that twists and turns towards its unexpected denouement.
What perhaps renders this film so memorable is its use of symbolism. Waldo has a penchant for writing his articles in the bath; totally unfazed about his nakedness, he seems completely confident in himself. In public, however, he makes sure that every item of clothing is in place; the tie matters as much as anything else. Through such rituals Preminger suggests the importance of outward show; what matters is not what people think, but what they appear to think. All of the four protagonists - including Laura - resemble empty vessels, devoid of moral scruples and totally committed to maintaining their sophisticated facade in high society. If one of them should be accused of the murder, it doesn't really matter, as they would simply hire the best attorney to exonerate them.
Yet Preminger simultaneously suggests that their days are numbered, through the repeated use of ticking clocks on the soundtrack. A clock plays an important part in the denouement; but on other occasions we hear it as an accompaniment to the dialogue, suggesting some kind of impending doom. However badly the characters might behave, they have to face the day of reckoning at the end, and none of them are prepared to acknowledge this.
As the eponymous heroine, Tierney might be considered an innocent victim of male machination, but as the action unfolds, we see that she is as manipulative as anyone else. She ends up falling in love with investigating officer Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews), but we have little faith in the relationship's future. She is as willing to sacrifice her loved ones as anyone else.
LAURA is a highly uncomfortable film in spite of its memorable theme (by David Raksin). We feel as if we have been unwillingly thrust into a nest of vipers and are mighty relieved to escape.
The Man Who Came to Dinner (1942)
Brilliant Evocation of the Brittle Artistic Contest of Mid-Twentieth Century Metropolitan America
Let's face it, if viewers are not at least acquainted in some way with the socio-historical context that inspired Hart and Kaufman's classic play (and William Keighley's film), they are going to find it slightly difficult to understand.
If we are not aware that Sheridan Whiteside (Monty Woolley) is an affectionate parody of Alexander Woollcott, at the time a national celebrity due to his radio program, then we will not really understand just what a monster he actually is; the former doyen of the Algonquin Round Table group who took malicious pleasure in insulting everyone just for the sake of it. George S. Kaufman, another member of that Round Table, uses Whiteside both to criticize yet celebrate Woolcott's monstrosity.
Likewise we need to understand how Reginald Gardiner's Beverley Carlton is a parody of Noel Coward: another member of the Round Table, he had become a star on both sides of the Atlantic, as well as the epitome of the rather effete English upper class twit. Gardiner is asked to play that role in Keighley's film, and very funny he is too.
Banjo (Jimmy Durante) was apparently baaed on Harpo Marx: not much of Harpo's qualities emerge in Durante's performance, but instead we see Schnozzle emoting at all throttle, having the chance to jingle away at the piano keys as well as providing one of the main means by which the complicated plot can be wrapped up.
There is a story of sorts, but in truth Keighley's film is something of a showcase for the talents of actors performing against type. Bette davis's Maggie Cutler is strangely muted, as she tries and mostly succeeds to put up with Sheridan's whims, while the grande dame role (that Davis customarily played) is here given to Ann Sheridan. Sheridan grasps the opportunity with both hands, offering a series of stylized cameo performances - appropriate to her belief in herself as a "great actress" - reminiscent of Margo Channing in ALL ABOUT EYE (1950).
Apparently Davis was not entirely satisfied with the casting of Woolley in the central role. Yet perhaps that latent antagonism helped the film rather than hindered it - although professing enduring respect for the celebrity, Maggie holds his whims in infinite contempt. As a former Yale University academic, Woolley approaches the role of Whiteside with the same kind of bravura energy that he might have done had he been lecturing first year undergrads. He is so firmly convinced of his own rightness that he remains utterly imperious to anyone else's feelings.
THE MAN WHO CAME TO DINNER might be a period-piece, but is nonetheless a very funny one.
Shall We Dance (1937)
Disappointing Musical Despite its Memorable Score
In theory SHALL WE DANCE? should have had everything going for it. Fred, Ginger, choreography by Hermes Pan, efficient direction by RKO stalwart Mark Sandrich and a gorgeous score by George and Ira Gershwin including standards such as "Slap that Bass," "They All Laughed," "Let's Call the Whole Thing off," "They Can't Take That Away from Me," and the title track. Add to the mix the brace of memorable comic characterizations by Edward Everett Horton and Eric Blore, and you'd think that the movie could not miss.
Yet strangely this is precisely what it does. It begins snappily enough, with enough one-lines from Astaire, Everett Horton and (latterly) Blore to keep everyone amused. We also enjoy the love- hate relationship between Astaire's Petrov (aka Pete Peters) and his manager Jeffrey Baird (Everett Horton), paralleled by that between Linda Keene (Rogers) and her handler Arthur Miller (Jerome Cowan). There are also some memorable set piece sequences, especially involving Linda's highly talented pet dog.
Yet the dance sequences are often disappointing, apart from Astaire's "Slap that Bass," performed with a group of African American singers in the engine-room of an ocean-going liner. Fred 'n Ginger have there fair share of solo sequences, but their artistry seems strangely muted. And the lengthy sequence towards the end, where Pee/Fred performs with a corps de ballet all sporting Ginger masks seems especially labored.
Ginger also has her fair share of embarrassing moments, notably when she has to stare mutely at the camera while Fred sings "They Can't Take That Away from Me." Fred had a pleasant voice, to be sure, but it was hardly memorable: we wonder why it was not planned as a duet, at least. The number was reworked in the Astaire/Rogers film THE BARKLEYS OF Broadway (1945), suggesting that they might have been displeased themselves with the original staging.
SHALL WE DANCE? contains classic numbers, but lacks the sheer pizazz of the greatest Astaire musicals.
A Documentary Shot Through with Ambivalences
As an early example of the fandoc, TREKKIES tells a familiar tale of the extent to which fans of the long-running television series are prepared to go in pursuit of their obsessions. They might look and act grotesque on occasions, but we have to understand how their obsessions can have positive outcomes both personal as well as moral. Dressing up can help the discover hitherto buried aspects of their personalities, and thereby give them a more positive outlook on life, while the series' strongly moral constructing provides a role-model for anyone, whether viewer or fan.
Yet what Roger Nygard's film raises are some ambivalences about fandom that remain frustratingly unresolved. Trekkies all over the United States as well as other territories regularly assemble(d) at conventions where they would be addressed by cast members and have the opportunity to network with one another. Such gatherings would have psychological benefits. On the other hand they provided suitable merchandising outlets for manufacturers to sell every kind of knick-knack imaginable, as well as auction materials from the television series that drew high prices in charity's name. We wonder whether the fans' sensibilities are not being deliberately exploited by capitalist interests - make more money by offering the chance to possess some realia.
That impression is further compounded when individual fans show off their collections of Trekkie material, often stored in glass cases, cabinets or rooms set aside especially for that purpose. They might be quite happy spending money and thereby indulging their passion, but we wonder whether or not they would like being viewed as victims of a franchise determined to maximize its profits by sponsoring or licensing miscellaneous products.
That dilemma is one that dates back to the earliest days of the movies when studio publicity departments invited punters to dress up at specially-staged performances of particular films, preferably in period costumes. By offering prizes to the lucky winners, they could guarantee high box-office returns. The Trekkie phenomenon merely extends and updates that strategy. We would love to know what fans really thought about this issue, but such issues are far beyond this mostly celebratory piece.
Winnebago Man (2009)
Grotesque Documentary that Willfully Manipulates its Subject
In 1989 Jack Rebney made a series of videos promoting Winnebago products. The shoot was not a happy one, taking place in Iowa during midsummer, and Rebney became highly frustrated with his efforts. Unbeknownst to him the camera crew edited many of the outtakes together and released them on VHS; they showed Rebney cursing everything and everyone in the basest terms.
Due in no small part to the ease of copying tapes, the video became something of a cult with Rebney cast as "The Angriest Man in the World." With the advent of the internet its popularity soared - so much so, in fact, that filmmaker Ben Steinbauer was persuaded to search for Rebney's whereabouts and find out what he had been doing since the videos were made.
WINNEBAGO MAN follows a familiar thematic path with Steinbauer at first finding difficulties in his quest, then discovering Rebney; trying to establish a relationship with Rebney; and at the end persuading the reluctant ex-salesperson to appear at a fan convention in San Francisco dedicated to the original video. Steinbauer manufactures a happy ending in which the fans congratulate Rebney, and the old man returns home apparently touched by their affection for him.
But that is not how the documentary pans out. Throughout the action there remains the distasteful suspicion that Rebney's sensibilities are being willfully exploited by the filmmaker. Now in his mid-seventies with a glaucoma rendering him almost blind, Rebney uses aggression to compensate for his shortcomings, and by doing so conforms precisely to that sobriquet that has stuck to him ever since 1989. At one point he tries to act calm, but eventually admits that this was nothing more than a form of pretense.
In truth it's not Rebney who pretends, but Steinbauer himself. Saddled with the responsibility of making an "hilarious" film for the fans, he willfully allows Rebney to give vent to his anger. The fact that he is now a frail old person seems irrelevant. When the two of them end up in San Francisco, the sight is grotesque: I was reminded of the most notorious sequences in Tod Browning's FREAKS (1932) in which the disadvantaged were presented for our entertainment.
The film reveals one of the seamier aspects of fan studies: whereas people of all classes, ages and ethnicities might be devoted to a particular text, their addiction can destroy as well as enhance. This is precisely what happens to Rebney. For all the director's attempts to manufacture a happy ending, the old man's melancholy expression (revealed in close-up at the end), denotes his true state of mind.
Steptoe and Son: A Winter's Tale (2016)
Another Example of Galton and Simpson's Scriptwriting Genius
Filmed once more in front of a live audience, this remake of an episode originally broadcast in 1970 told a familiar tale of Harold (Ed Coleman) trying to escape from urban squalor in Shepherd's Bush yet being frustrated by his scheming father (Jeff Rawle).
Wisely the two actors did not attempt to recreate the vocal and gestural nuances of Corbett and Brambell, but instead provided impersonations - the kind of approach where we could laugh with them, but at the same time realizing that the modern actors were very different. On the other hand we could revel in the sheer brilliance of the Galton and Simpson script - in case we did not already know it, Harold Steptoe is another version of Hancock, the man perpetually looking for something better yet unable to find it. Both men were equipped with the ability to vocalize their frustrations in sentences that were at once funny yet exceptionally sad. Try as they might, they would never escape. Albert Steptoe, for all his tendency to act pathetic, was actually a strong and manipulative personality, keeping his unfortunate son under a tight leash and thereby restricting Harold's prospects.
Producer Owen Bell was highly successful at communicating this relationship to viewers through a camera-style based on the close-up and the two-shot. This was perhaps the biggest advantage of the studio-based sitcom - it might have been visually stereotyped, but it gave an insight into what the characters thought and felt.
Sunday Sizzler with its Roots in the Dramas of the Seventies and Eighties
What can one say about Debbie Horsfield's rendering of Winston Graham's evergreen series of classics that has not been said before? Being old enough to remember the 1975 version when Robin Ellis strode through the West Country with his scanty undershirt revealing a hairy chest and equally distinguished sideburns, I was impressed with Aidan Turner's recreation of the same role. Turner has a wonderful gift for smoldering; his features do not change much, but his eyes flash and his lips purse in a way that brooks no resistance from anyone. George Warleggan (Jack Farthing) is an eminently hissable villain, his pasty face and arrogant mien contrasting with Robin Poldark's humanity. The facial and bodily contrasts between the two resembles that of any great melodrama. We know George will get his comeuppance in the end, but we marvel at the extent to which he is prepared to manipulate others in order to achieve his aims.
Filmed on the rolling Cornish coast, POLDARK knows how to make the best use of its locations, filming its protagonists against the setting sun or having them walk alone among deserted beaches or wading into the sea. There are also plenty of opportunities for Ross to be shown either shirtless or sweat-soaked down the mine, moving in close proximity to his fellow-workers in lurid orange light. We can understand from their expressions how committed they are to their futures, despite George's best efforts to impede them.
In truth the structure of each episode is a tad repetitive, with Ross and his wife (Eleanor Tomlinson) having to overcome a series of struggles both mental as well as professional: negotiating obstacles like Scylla and Charybdis so that they can arrive at a happy end. But the production, directed by a variety of artists, is constructed with such élan, with plenty of swash, buckle and romance that we are scarcely aware of its schematics. The BBC used to distinguish itself with these kind of dramas of a Sunday night - there was HOWARDS WAY set in the contemporary era that enjoyed a long run. How pleasant to see the new POLDARK perpetuating that tradition.
Murder Among the Underclasses
One of the difficulties of reviewing multiple episodes of the same series is the need to avoid repetition, or to take the easy way out and retell the plot.
This is certainly the case with the first post-Gunvald episode of BECK, where Beck's sidekick has been replaced by Norwegian-born Kristofer Hivju (Steinar Hovland), another thickset police officer with an expansive ginger beard and bushy hair. He comes across as both sympathetic yet efficient - less violent than Gunvald, but someone possessed of similar maverick tendencies. As if slightly unsure of where to go with the episode, director Mårten Klingberg introduces another familiar 'tec story cliché - the obstreperous boss (Jonas Karlsson) trying to take advantage of Hivju's introduction as an excuse to remove Beck, with whom he has a history of verbal conflict.
It's best to look instead at the framework of this episode rather than the story. Klingberg has a fine sense of place: setting much of the action in a derelict caravan park outside of Stockholm, he emphasizes just how desperate people's lives can be. Even those professing to help them through acts of Christian charity can turn out to be self-interested. Beck and his fellow-officers might sympathize but can do little to alleviate their plight; such people are doomed to inhabit the margins.
This episode also looks at the personal effect of Gunvald's passing on Beck and his team. Although repeatedly professing to be "OK" and able to pursue their work, it's evident that they have suffered a grievous emotional as well as a personal loss, emphasizing thereby just how dangerous police work can be.
National Treasure (2016)
A Profound and Brilliant Exploration of Narcissism and its Destructive Effects on People
Newspaper reviewers have predictably commented on the parallels between Jack Thorne's drama and the so-called "Operation Yewtree," in which major celebrities - the "national treasures" suggested by the title - were found to be serial abusers, or used their fame to exploit the vulnerable. The two central performances of Robbie Coltrane as Paul Finchley and Julie Walters as his wife have also received due recognition.
Yet Marc Munden's drama contains so many other brilliant aspects, that don't necessarily focus on the more salacious material but try to explore how and why Fınchley should behave as he did. What we understand from the celebrity and his wife is how narcissistic they are; despite their frequent protestations of love for one another, as well as for their daughter Dee (Andrea Riseborough), they are pathologically incapable of listening. Riseborough's characterization is profound; she does not speak much, but she has a way of looking at the ground, almost as if she cannot face the ordeal of communication, especially with her parents. There is one sequence in particular involving Marie and Dee that sums up the emotional disconnect between them; taking place in a bedroom during Dee's birthday party, Marie emphasizes quite vehemently that she wants her daughter to get better, without understanding in the least how she and her husband are the root cause of Dee's problems.
Munden's production is distinguished by memorable cinematography from Ole Bratt Birkeland. Birkeland is fond of long tracking shots, with the camera moving down lengthy corridors to discover the characters. As viewers, we feel we are eavesdropping on their private secrets - just like Peter and Marie, as they seek to find out what's "wrong" with Dee. Birkeland also uses lighting to reinforce the theme: during the birthday party Peter gives one of his windy speeches. As he does so, the camera tracks slowly to the left, revealing candles at the front of the frame, and after a few seconds settles on Dee, looking once again at the ground in embarrassment, her face obscured by yet more candled. Material things seem to matter more to Finchley - they can be easily controlled, and do not require him to empathize. The fact that Dee appears at the end of the shot emphasizes her insignificance.
Much of the action unfolds in a dream-like world of psychedelic greens, reds, and blues, drawing attention once more to the fantasy-world that Peter and Marie inhabit. Alternatively several sequences take place in darkened rooms, illumined by miserable spotlights; the perfect ambiance for anyone to behave inappropriately without fear of discovery.
Despite its pertinent subject-matter, NATIONAL TREASURE is not really about the abusive celebrity, but looks instead at the destructive ways in which parents - especially those who profess a blameless way of life - destroy their siblings, as well as others, through neglect, or by assuming that people will behave in certain preordained ways. The action unfolds slowly in a series of lengthy exchanges punctuated by occasional musical interludes (by Christobal Tapis de Veer, but remains compelling. This is one of the best dramas I have seen on any medium in the entire year.