TV Review: “Feud”–“Mommie Dearest” (S1, Ep. 3)

Just when I thought that Feud couldn’t get any better, it manages to continue to showcase the ability of Ryan Murphy to plumb the depths of despair and sadness in the human psyche. In particular, it shows his longstanding interest in the suffering that women endure in a patriarchal world that rarely, if ever, values them for themselves.

Overall, the episode offers a surprisingly nuanced and sympathetic portrait of the convoluted nature of motherhood in particular. As is well-known, both Bette and Joan had quite vexed relationships with their children. Overall in this episode Bette is the one who emerges as the most compassionate mother, in that she continues to try to support B.D., even though it’s obvious she’s a terrible actress. Further, she also continues working in order to pay the bills for her younger daughter’s schooling.

It is her relationship with Victor Buono, her effeminate and portly gay co-star, that really cements Bette’s inner core of maternal feeling. In Buono, she sees a companion spirit, a man who has suffered because of his sexuality (at one point he is arrested in a vice sting and she has to bail him out of jail), but in whom she sees a great deal of genuine talent. The scenes that show them together show a meeting of the minds, a young acolyte starstruck and determined to make the most out of this moment to costar with one of the greatest stars in Hollywood history (incidentally, Buono would also star with Davis in Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte).

Even Crawford, whose motherly reputation has long been overshadowed by her daughter’s tell-all memoir and its filmic adaptation, appears in this episode as a woman who genuinely wants to care for the children who come under her care. The episode makes it clear that she craves the affection that she was denied in her childhood (except from her stepfather), and that it is this desire for human connection that drives so much of what she does. The brutal irony, of course, is that she cannot see the truth that is right in front of her face. It is Davis, more than any other character, who actually understands Joan and what she suffers, yet she is the one person that she cannot quite bring herself to be friends with, no matter how much it might benefit the two of them.

This episode, as with the ones preceding it, continues to show the extent to which both Joan and Bette are being manipulated by those who have a vested interest in keeping them at one another’s throats. It’s particularly frustrating that it’s Hedda Hopper who continues to pull the strings on Crawford, for as a woman one would think that she would be more sensitive to the need for women in Hollywood to band together and support one another. But, like so many others in Hollywood, all she can see is her own aggrandizement, no matter the human costs.

Yet the episode also shows that, for all of their foibles and flaws, both Crawford and Davis are consummate masters of their craft. Even Crawford, acknowledged as somewhat less than an accomplished actress by subsequent filmgoers, manages to impress even Davis by her delivery of Blanche’s final, crushing revelation. All in all, the episode manages to do justice to both of these phenomenal women of old Hollywood.

However, I do have to express a small amount of concern over the future of the show. After all, we’re only in the third episode, and now, diegetically, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane has finished filming. Where will the show go from here? Presumably, it will stretch into the drama over the Oscars, and perhaps will even show the women as they pursue their careers in the aftermath of

TV Review: “Feud”–“The Other Woman” (S1, Ep. 2)

There’s nothing quite like settling in with your Boyfriend to catch up on last week’s episode of Ryan Murphy’s FX series Feud: Bette and Joan. In the episode, titled “The Other Woman,” the tensions between the two women continue to ratchet ever-upward, exacerbated by the machinations of the men running the show (Robert Aldrich and Jack Warner) and by the malevolent Heddy Hopper and other gossip columnists who are only too eager to exploit the escalating tensions between the two women for their own financial benefit.

The strongest part of the series continues to be the performance from Lange and Sarandon. While Lange manages to convey the bruised and aching heart of Crawford–battered by decades in Hollywood at the mercy of the men in charge–she also shows the inner core of iron that allowed this working-class girl to become one of the most prominent stars of classic Hollywood. For all of her vulnerability, there is still a harshness to her, one that only bursts out of her at moments of extreme stress and anger, as when she commands her current husband to leave.

For her part, Sarandon continues to bring a similar amalgam to her characterization of Bette Davis. Her voice has the same sort of tough hoarseness that was Davis’s trademark, and she also manages to convey a similar blend of steely strength and aching vulnerability. Sarandon’s Davis is a woman caught in an impossible position; her belligerent daughter has already begun to turn against her, reminding her in a fit of the fact that she is no longer young. Yet she also is a woman single-mindedly devoted to her craft. Unlike Joan, who seems to be more committed to her star status, Davis sees herself as an actress, a distinction that has, in the historiography of both stars, become the accepted wisdom.

As with the pilot, this episode of Feud continues to highlight its awareness the hypocrisy and cynicism that seethes beneath the glossy surface of Hollywood life. Hollywood cares for nothing more than the accumulation of further financial gain, and it is willing to destroy the lives of the women who, it must be admitted, are key to its very system. Even the redoubtable Hedda Hopper, along with her truly glorious hats, can’t seem to find in herself to have any innate compassion for her fellow women. It is only when Joan promises to let her in on some juicy gossip for her noxious columns that she agrees to be her ally, and it is her machinations that lead Aldrich to betray both women in his own relentless pursuit of career advancement.

While they only appear only briefly, both Kathy Bates and Catherine Zeta-Jones deliver strong, precise performances as Joan Blondell and Olivia De Havilland. Both of them act as a sort of Greek chorus, offering the audience a sense of the conflicted position women occupied (and continue to occupy) in the entertainment industry. They are the source of one another’s greatest strength and yet they are repeatedly encouraged by the industry to tear one another apart in the media and in the eyes of the public.

All in all, I found this to be an extremely compelling piece of television. Love him or hate him, but Murphy has a knack for churning out stories that help us to understand and empathize with powerful women who are punished by the societies in which they live. It remains to be seen, however, whether Feud can continue threading the precarious needle it has set itself. Is it possible to critique a system that encourages women to hate each other by providing a pleasurable drama about…women hating each other?

Only time will tell.

Review: “Feud”–“Pilot”

Let me begin by saying that I’ve been looking forward to Ryan Murphy’s new FX anthology drama Feud: Bette and Joan from the moment that it was announced. As a long-time lover of classical Hollywood, of Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, and of women’s pictures, this seemed like the perfect mix of everything I loved. And indeed, if the first episode is any indication, it will more than fulfill my expectations.

When it comes to playing abject (anti)-heroines, no one excels like Jessica Lange. Since her several-season run on Murphy’s other successful series American Horror Story, Lange has become acknowledged as one of the leading actresses of her generation, a woman able to not only inhabit her roles but to bring to her flawed characters a deep well of humanity. In Joan Crawford, that most contradictory of classic Hollywood actresses, she finds a character worthy of her tremendous abilities. Within a little more than an hour, Lange has managed to show us the dark depths of Crawford’s tortured soul.

While I personally strongly dislike Susan Sarandon, she does an extraordinary Bette Davis. This is the tough-as-nails actress who took no prisoners and drank and swore with the best of them. And as Joan Blondell says, she always puts the professional before the personal, and as a result she is able to attain heights of acting glory that remain the envy of her nemesis and co-star Crawford. There is no question that Davis was a better actress than Crawford, and in Sarandon she has found a fitting avatar, a woman unafraid of telling everyone in her path what she thinks of them.

Indeed, it seems to me that part of what makes Feud such a compelling show is the fact that a high-profile series has provided a vehicle for two aging actresses. And the series goes out of the way to show that Bette and Joan, for all of their acrimony, actually have far more in common than any other two women in their world. They are both vestiges of a Hollywood system that made use of their talents while caring little for their welfare (as evidenced by Stanley Tucci’s reprehensible Jack Warner). Yet, precisely because they are products of a system that sets women against one another and that has already left them behind, they also find that they can never express any true affection for one another.

Whatever his failings as an auteur, Murphy has a keen eye for a story about the relationships among women, and he knows how to make these stories truly emotionally resonant. One can’t help but be reminded of Billy Wilder’s extraordinary work in Sunset Boulevard, or the many women’s pictures produced during the height of classic Hollywood (the ones in which Crawford and Davis made their reputations). As with those other films of yore, Feud immerses us in a world of pathos, sadness, and delicious poison, so that we can’t help but take pleasure in the seething hatred that slowly re-emerges between these two powerful women.

Murphy also has a keen eye for colour and decor, which is readily apparent with his new outing. The hues seem to pop off the screen, sometimes a little too garish for comfort, a searing reminder of the larger-than-life personalities and heightened emotions these two women experience as they find themselves in a maelstrom of vitriol and ever-deepening and decidedly mutual loathing. They can’t seem to escape from their surroundings, bound together in a cycle of destruction that threatens to consume them both.

All in all, the pilot of this show hopefully bodes well for a thrilling and delicious season of venom and vitriol. Could you ask for more?

Film Review: Eros, the Bittersweet–“La La Land (2016)” and the Melancholy of What-Might-Have-Been

Warning: Spoilers follow.

In her remarkable book Eros: The Bittersweet, the classicist and poet Anne Carson eloquently argues that eros is fundamentally built on the power of lack, of the sweetness of being denied the very thing that we so desperately desire to possess. While this may seem antithetical to some–isn’t the whole point of erotic desire fulfillment?–I’ve always found this to be an extraordinarily apt way of describing the process by which we experience the ache of romantic desire, an ache that is all the more pleasurable and painful for its inability to ever truly be fulfilled.

The sense of love being something that is always tainted with the tang of bitterness is what, to me, makes La La Land, one of 2016’s most lauded films, such an extraordinary, and very timely, film. On the surface, it appears just another Hollywood product, something that is full of joy and exuberance and romance. Further, it is also one of those films that Hollywood loves to make, i.e. a film that is about (or at least seems to refer to) the history of Hollywood itself. Beneath the veneer of seeming happiness and saccharine satisfaction, however, there is something more profound at work, however, a painfully pleasurable awareness of the poignancy of thwarted love.

And indeed there is a great deal of exuberance and joy to be found in this film. Produced in CinemaScope–that venerable widescreen process that was such a godsend to the film industry in the 1950s–and shot in truly eye-popping colour, one gets the sense that this film expresses in a profound way the great pleasures that can be found in the transparent expression of feeling. Further, it appears to be a film that is in love with the practice of filmmaking. I don’t mean this to be dismissive, but instead to say that it recognizes both the rich and varied history of Hollywood filmmaking as well as the power of film to call to us and allow us to experience the world in all of its conflicted, contradictory joy and pleasure.

Yet it doesn’t take long for the reality of the world to begin to intrude into the utopian love story that burgeons between the two leads, Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) and Mia (Emma Stone). Each of them has their own career aspirations, he to be a successful jazz musician and to open his own club in order to revitalize the dying genre (this opens up a white savior storyline that is, to put it mildly, problematic). She, on the other hand, wants to become an actress. Gradually, they both move toward the fulfillment of their desires, but it sets them on a collision course so that, despite how much they love one another, they know that they cannot be together.

It’s rather hard for me to explain in words how heartrending this realization can be in real life. There’s something…sweetly, terribly pleasant about that moment when you recognize that no matter how much you love someone, you know that the external forces of your life–your career aspirations, your desire to be yourself–preclude you being able to fulfill a future with them. This is something that the film brings to the fore in an intensely visceral way, precisely because it flies in the face of everything we’ve been led to expect from the Hollywood ending.

Indeed, the film ultimately reveals that both characters have attained their professional goals. Sebastian has finally opened his club, and Mia has become a successful actress with a husband and small daughter. Yet, despite the fact that they both have attained everything they want, the film remains haunted by a sweet sense of melancholy, of a love that is true yet unfulfilled. It is precisely because the moments of joy and innocence have been so exuberantly conveyed and expressed that this final moment of renunciation is all the more poignant.

The final montage of the film is one of the most exquisitely, beautifully orchestrated pieces of sound design that I have ever seen. As Seb plays, the camera treats us to a vision of a world that might-have-been, if only things had turned out somewhat differently, if only they each of them had been able to do pursue their dreams while also allowing their love to flourish, if only…If only this were the world as we would like it to be rather than the world as it is. We see Sebastian make one crucially different decision, and we see what their lives would have been like together. We are invited to experience two alternative ideas of time, the what-might-have-been and the what-is, the latter always tinging and limning the former with a despairing awareness that we know, we know, that this joyful life can never be.

While we have come to associate the genres of the musical and the romantic comedy with the sort of happy endings so common in romantic films produced in Hollywood, La La Land denies that element of closure that we have come to expect. They part ways, sharing just one glance, a look far more meaningful than any words could ever be. Yet despite the fact that the two leads do not end up together–and despite the fact that Mia is seemingly happy married and has quietly settled down into her life of fame, fortune, and family, something doesn’t ring quite right. We wonder if she is really as happy as she appears, or whether she will always remain haunted by the question: what if? And for Sebastian, the question is even more acute, as we are led to believe that he is romantically unattached, his heart no doubt still yearning for a woman he cannot have.

If ever there were a film that spoke to the tortured and pained zeitgeist of 2016–a year that saw so many beloved figures and dreams fall into oblivion–a year that saw an eminently qualified woman and a progressive future go down in flames and in its place rise up a terrifying regime seemingly intent on rolling back the last 8 years as if they had never been. Though this is of course a romance, it is also a distillation of the political and cultural milieu in which it was released, a reminder that, though we would like to believe the world is a uncomplicated place where loves are fulfilled and the world becomes a better place, the truth is very much the opposite.

Screening Classic Hollywood: “All About Eve” (1950)

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This post is part of the “Try It, You’ll Like It!” Blogathon, hosted by Sister Celluloid and Movies Silently, where we write about “gateway films” that might bring non-classic-film lovers into the fold! For all the entries, click here!

All About Eve has long been one of my favourite films.  With its sharply written and snappy dialogue, its flawless casting, and its compelling and somewhat disturbing reflections on the nature of stardom and fandom in the Hollywood system, the film serves as a great entry point for those interested in classic Hollywood cinema (hence my focus on it for this blogathon).  If you are looking for a film that gives you insight into the workings of Hollywood in its golden age, look no further than All About Eve.

The film follows the fraught relationship between Margo Channing (Bette Davis), a strong-willed and successful Broadway actress and her protege and later replacement Eve (Anne Baxter).  While Eve begins the film as the starstruck fan of Margo, it becomes increasingly clear that she has designs on both the career of her idol and her husband.  While she ultimately succeeds in supplanting Margo in the eyes of the consuming public, she also becomes increasingly jaded and cynical, the victim of her own ambitions.  The film ends with Eve herself obtaining a young protege, one who might perpetuate the cycle.

The film, like others of the period (including Sunset Boulevard), remains interested in the contours and nature of female stardom.  Of course, given that this is 1950s Hollywood, it should come as no surprise that the thoroughly empowered and career-minded Margo eventually decides to largely withdraw from that aspect of her life in order to focus on her frayed marriage.  She realizes, as any “good” 1950s woman would, that she will gain much more satisfaction out of her domestic life than she will as an actress.   However, given that this is Bette Davis we’re talking about here, there is no small amount of ambiguity about how seriously we as viewers are supposed to take her supposed domestication (in my opinion, not very.  How can you domesticate Bette Davis, after all?)

In marked contrast, Eve is as rapacious as she is talented, striving to take everything that she wants, regardless of who she has to step on or who she has to hurt on her way to both career and sexual happiness.  What makes her sinister, of course, is that she appears to be so genuine.  Indeed, we are led to believe that, like so many fans in classical Hollywood films, she has allowed the boundary to dangerously blur between her own identity and that which she wants to become.

More insidiously, the film also seems to suggest that female friendship is either inherently toxic and catty or, alternatively, a slipper slope into the danger zone of desire.  It always remains slightly unclear whether Eve desires to be Margo, desires her (and thus attempts to to satisfy that desire by trying to seduce her husband), or some combination of the two.  And it is precisely this ambiguity that gives the film its bite.

Thus, the queer overtones in this film are hard to miss (see below for a couple of great books that discuss the film in some detail), and both Baxter and Sanders seem to relish their roles as the two devilishly queer characters.  Addison, not surprisingly, considers himself a Svengali and tries to mold Eve into the kind of woman that he wants to her to be and she, likewise, wants to do what she wants to do.  The ongoing tension between the two of them makes for one of the more compelling and deliciously corrupt parts of the entire story.

What really stands out, however, is the ending, in which a star-struck young fan manages to sneak into Eve’s room.  The last shot of the film is of this young woman, holding Eve’s trophy in front of a set of mirrors, her reflection stretching off infinitely into the future.  We are left in no doubt that the cycle of which Eve herself was a part will continue, that she will one day be replaced by a younger, more vivacious version of herself.  And unlike Margo, she probably will not have domestic bliss as a solace.

All About Eve is one of those splendid films that uses the conventions of classic Hollywood to cast a light on the ways in which the film industry is a cyclical monster, pulling in and spitting out its stars, particularly women.  However, it is also a relentlessly and bitingly enjoyable film, one of the great gems of old Hollywood.  Just as importantly, it highlights that one thing that makes the old films so much fun:  the dominance of women.  For all of its latent (and sometimes overt) misogyny, classical Hollywood was an industry and a system that relied on the glamour of its female stars.  And All About Eve shows why such a system worked so well for so long.

If you’d like to read more about queer readings of All About Eve, I recommend Robert Corber’s book Cold War Femme and Patricia White’s Uninvited as excellent starting points.

Screening Classic Hollywood: “Sudden Fear” (1952)

Say what you will, but no one could play a victimized, melodramatic heroine like Joan Crawford.  Her talents in this area are certainly on conspicuous display in the 1952 film Sudden Fear, in which she plays a popular and successful playwright Myra, who falls for a moderately talented actor Lester (Jack Palance), only to discover that he, along with his former lover Irene (Gloria Grahame) have hatched a plot to kill her.  Fortunately, she’s quite a bit brighter than they are, and so she manages to escape from them.  In the end, Lester runs over Irene in the mistaken belief that she is Myra (they are wearing a similar scarf), killing both himself and her.

One of the most compelling things about this film is the way in which it plays with voice.  It is due to the inadvertent recording of his plot by a dictaphone that Lester and Irene utilize to hatch their scheme.  The disembodied voice continues haunts Myra, an ethereal reminder of the fact that the man she has (admittedly foolishly) fallen in love with has decided that she is to be dispensed with in favor of his own desire for wealth.

There is something intensely, almost viscerally satisfying, about the fact that Lester, in his desire to kill his well-meaning and benevolent wife, ends up killing both himself and his conspirator.  Myra may be somewhat of a foolish and impulsive heroine, falling in love with a man that she barely knows and rendering herself vulnerable by attempting to leave her money and wealth to him.  However, it is precisely her generousness of spirit that makes Lester’s betrayal of her all the more despicable.  What’s more, he is absolutely ruthless in his attempts to kill her, chasing her relentlessly through the streets of San Francisco, his face and eyes becoming increasingly crazed as she continues to elude him.  Not surprisingly, we in the audience continue to cheer her on, and we feel vindicated at the poetic justice of his own destruction.

Crawford and Palance make for a compelling and somewhat unusual screen couple.  Palance was not the most handsome of movie stars, and his near-skeletal features always rendered him more appropriate for villainous roles.  He manages here to tap into a powerful male rage, one engendered in both the film’s diegesis and the broader culture by the ever-present male fear of not being able to provide or earn a living on his own.  You can practically see it seething beneath the surface, those deep-set eyes betraying the fury ever-ready to burst into the world.  Crawford offers a nice balance to him, a woman who has built her own successful career as a writer and who possesses a fundamental strength of character that allows her to survive the attempts to kill her.  However, she also exudes a certain measure of vulnerability, a willingness to believe, however foolishly, that she can also have love and completion with the man (seemingly) of her dreams.

In many ways, this film feels a bit out of its time, combining as it does the heightened emotions and victimized womanhood of the women’s films of the 1930s and the darkness of the film noirs of the 1940s.  Somehow, though, it manages to bring all of these elements together into a compelling film, and that final image of Myra/Crawford striding into the camera, head flung back in triumph, really brings it all together.  It is a stunning and uplifting reminder of the power of the Crawford star persona.  Even decades after her death, this persona manages to combine female strength and vulnerability in one indelible image that retains its power.

Score:  9/10

Screening Classic Hollywood: “Ivanhoe” (1952)

Based on the famous novel by Sir Walter Scott, MGM’s film Ivanhoe is something of a generic hybrid, combining the boom and bluster of the traditional epic (the same studio had produced the Roman epic Quo Vadis the year before) and the swashbucklers that were such a notable part of studio production during the 1930s (such as The Adventures of Robin Hood and Captain Blood, both starring Errol Flynn).  However, the film is worth watching, as much for the beautiful production values (what film produced by MGM wasn’t exquisite?) as for the plot.

Set during the reign of King Richard, the film depicts the struggles within his kingdom between the native Saxons such as Cedric (Finlay Currie) and his disinherited son Ivanhoe (Robert Taylor) and the Normans, especially the knight De Blois-Guilbert (George Sanders).  Caught up in the conflict are the Jews of England, notably Isaac of York (Felix Aylmer) and his beautiful daughter Rebecca (Elizabeth Taylor),  the latter of whom finds herself pursued by De Blois-Guilbert, who falls desperately and somewhat hopelessly in love with her.  The cunning Prince John, however, attempts to thwart their union and puts Rebecca on trial for witchcraft.  The brave Ivanhoe enters a joust to save her, defeats and kills De Bois-Guilbert, and the film ends with the triumphant return of King Richard and the deposing of Prince John.

While the film follows the plot of the novel in its broader contours, there are some notable excisions, most of which make the film stronger and more economical in its storytelling.  However, some of the novel’s original historical purposes have also been effaced, for while the novel remains steadfastly interested in the ways in which England became England as a result of the gradual melding of Anglo-Saxon and Norman identities, the film seems more interested in the various love triangles that exist at the dramatic heart of the film.  Furthermore, Scott’s original work places a great deal more attention on the plight of the Jews of medieval England, while the film seems to see their ethnic identity as incidental to the main aspects of the plot.

Furthermore, Ivanhoe in the film becomes a much more powerful and active figure than he is in the original novel (in which he is largely laid low for the course of the novel, often a man to whom things happen rather than one who effects change on his own account).  In the hands of the always-stalwart Robert Taylor, he becomes a more traditional swashbuckling/chivalric hero, a true knight determined to protect those weaker than he is and to see the return of true honor and chivalry in the person of the imprisoned King Richard.  While I am not Taylor’s biggest fan (he is serviceable but lacks, in my opinion, a certain charisma that I usually respond to), he does bring a certain measure of honorable gravitas to his interpretation of Ivanhoe.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the film is not terribly interested in the roles of trials of women (this is in marked contrast to the novel, which consistently points out the ways in which women occupy a marginal and often exploited status within medieval culture).  However, Joan Fontaine delivers a creditable performance as the Saxon princess Rowena, bringing her usual grace to the role.  And while I often like Elizabeth Taylor, she doesn’t quite bring out the tragic pathos that is such a crucial part of Rebecca’s character in the novel (which may be due to the fact that she gets so much less narrative attention than her literary counterpart), and the script doesn’t quite seem to know what to do with her talents.  Quite a shame, really, as she could have really shined as Rowena.

One last note on casting.  I always love seeing Sanders in a film, largely because no other actor besides, perhaps Basil Rathbone and Vincent Price could so compellingly play a villain.  Somehow, though, Sanders manages to inflect De Bois-Guilbert with a greater complexity as a character than emerges in Scott’s novel, to such an extent that we almost feel sorry for him when he is eventually struck down.  It’s rare to see Sanders playing someone who actually has a sympathetic side, and so this film was refreshing in offering him a little more flexibility.

All in all, Ivanhoe is a fine film, with some compelling visuals and a strong score provided by the immensely talented Miklos Rozsa.  However, it doesn’t really ask the same sorts of historical questions as either the book upon which it is based, the other epics of the period, nor even other films set in a similar period.  This is not necessarily a bad thing all told, but as someone who really loves the novel, Scott’s original work casts a long shadow that the film does not (and possibly cannot) live up to.

Score:  7.5/10

Screening Classic Hollywood: “Kiss Me Kate” (1953)

As a queer, I’ve always had a great appreciation for the musical (I know, I know, what a stereotype, blah blah blah).  There’s just something glorious about the midcentury musical, in particular those produced by MGM, the grand dame of the studio system, the one studio that one could count on (in its heyday, anyway), to produce a glossy, shiny, fabulous film.   Thus, when I was cruising about on TCM and saw that Kiss Me Kate was showing, I knew I had to watch it.

Despite being divorced, Fred and Lilli (Howard Keel and Kathryn Grayson), find themselves starring in an adaptation of Shakespeare’s play The Taming of the Shrew).  The bulk of the film follows the performance of the play, with several Cole Porter songs thrown into the mix (this probably helps to explain the film’s undeniable queer appeal).  Just as the mains of the play find themselves irresistibly drawn to each other, so do Lilli and Fred also become increasingly convinced that they should get back together which, in true Hollywood musical fashion, they ultimately do.

In terms of cinematography, the color serves as important a function as anything that happens in the narrative.  Not surprisingly, the Technicolor is almost lurid in its intensity, speaks in a language in excess of what is happening between the characters.  Thus, while the two leads are constantly squabbling with one another and trying to avoid speaking the words that they know would allow them to say how they really feel for each other, the colors of their outfits grow increasingly saturated, until the redness of their respective costumes is so glaring that you can’t possibly ignore it.  It speaks in a language that exceeds that of the narrative, the tempestuous and unruly law of desire that always threatens to overcome even the most resistant of people.

Howard Keel has always done something for me.  While I often find the patriarchal characters he plays utterly repugnant at an ideological level, I often find that it is precisely because he is so transparently misogynist that he is so attractive (and I strong suspect this might be why so many people found him attractive in the times in which he appeared).  Whether starring as the hirsute eldest brother in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers or the bellicose Hannibal in the divinely awful Jupiter’s Darling, or even as Wild Bill in Calamity Jane (costarring Doris Day), there is always something tremendously sexy (yes, I said it), about this paragon of masculinity.  And there is no one in classic Hollywood, and very few since then, who have managed to inflect their voices with such booming power (I’m a sucker for a great male voice).

Of course, I am also not blind to the almost toxic amount of patriarchy permeating this film.  I mean, it is based on one of Shakespeare’s most notoriously misogynistic plays, starring a man who almost inevitably performed in roles that required the subjugating (sometimes quite brutally and cruelly) of a woman who dared to resist his charms.  And, as in those other films, Keel’s hero remains largely unchanged by the end of the film and, I suspect, we are happy to see him so, for to tame him would be to remove those very aspects of his personality that make him so erotically appealing.  (As you can see, I like to think that my own queer readings of the film help to offset at least some of the more problematic and vexing aspects of its ideology).

All in all, Kiss Me Kate manages to combine the best of Shakespeare with the best of the midcentury MGM musical formula.  The Technicolor (not surprisingly) is as lurid as it is appealing, and the musical numbers are as spirited as one would expect from an MGM musical from the period of its greatest flowering.  As long as you’re able to bracket the gender problematics–and anyone who has learned to love classic Hollywood has probably developed that skill in ample measure), this is truly one musical you can sing along to.

If you want to read more about the MGM musical and the ways in which queer men in particular responded to them, I highly recommend the following books:

Cohan, Steven.  Incongruous Entertainment:  Camp, Cultural Value, and the MGM Musical.  Durham:  Duke University Press, 2005.

Farmer, Brett.  Spectacular Passions:  Cinema, Fantasy, Gay Male Spectatorships.  Durham:  Duke University Press, 2000.

Screening History: “The Bible: In the Beginning”

Today’s entry in “Screening History” is John Huston’s The Bible:  In the Beginning, the last of the truly-great biblical epics that were such a part of the midcentury film landscape.  It’s very easy to mock the historico-biblical epic. Often, even the most devout of epic films can slip easily into the ridiculous, but somehow this film manages to avoid that trap, deftly straddling the sacred and the savage, pointing out how our deepest myths also express our darkest fears and most destructive tendencies.

The film covers several of the most important moments in the book of Genesis:  the Creation and expulsion from Eden; Noah and the Great Flood; the construction of the Tower of Babel; the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah; and the saga of Abraham, Isaac, and Ishmael.  In fact, the film ends with this last, particularly God’s sparing of Isaac’s life on the altar.

The expulsion from Eden is a truly evocative moment in the film, one that brings out many of the apocalyptic undertones that seem to always hover at the edge of the biblical epic.  One can feel the terror pulsing through the veins of the first humans, as they face the rage of the God they have disobeyed.  The conflict between Cain and Abel is also suitably disconcerting, in large part because of Richard Harris’s strangled, inarticulate portrayal of the first murderer, who is ultimately branded for the slaying of his brother.

George C. Scott, scenery-chewer that he is, nevertheless conveys a great deal of the tortured and tormented patriarch that Abraham undoubtedly was, pulled in multiple directions by both the women in his life and by the many tasks and tribulations visited upon him by the God that has, allegedly, taken him under His wing.  We can also see the ways in which the years weigh heavenly upon him, until by the end of the film he appears as more of a skeleton than the proud and overbearing patriarch that we normally associate with his countenance in biblical illustration.  And his partner in crime, Ava Gardner, simmers as the embittered Sarai/Sarah, her faith tested just as much as her husband’s by God’s ongoing delay in providing them the son they so desperately need.

Abraham's wasted visage bears witness to the bodily consequence of serving his God.

Abraham’s wasted visage bears witness to the bodily consequence of serving his God.

The scenes involving Lot and the ultimate destruction of Sodom are shockingly visually compelling while also intensely problematic and repugnant.  Whereas the feature-length film Sodom and Gomorrah preferred to depict the sins of Sodom as being centered around the (admittedly rather generic) cruelty and sadism of the queen and her cronies, this film certainly buys into the idea that it was the sins of homosexuality and gender deviance that led to God’s wrath and the ultimate destruction upon the cities on the plain.

There are a few points of slight ridiculousness, particularly the part of the film dealing with Noah and the destruction of the world by water.  Surprisingly, this part is openly played for comedy, with Noah becoming more of a buffoon than an Old Testament patriarch.  There is also the unfortunate fact that Huston is also the voice of God and the narrator, which results in a doubling that it is sometimes difficult to take entirely seriously.  Equally silly is the portion dealing with the construction of the Tower of Babel, which features a heavily-made-up Stephen Boyd as the King Nimrod.  While visually intriguing, it remains something of a mystery why exactly this portion of the film appears as it does.

The overwrought (and overly made-up) Stephen Boyd as Nimrod.

The overwrought (and overly made-up) Stephen Boyd as Nimrod.

For all that it is a “biblical” film and thus suspect to charges of ahistoricity, the film does seem to want to address, if in a metaphysical way, the beginnings of man and the questions and crises that continue to haunt us, even in our supposedly more rational and explicable world of modernity.  Why do men continue to seek out knowledge, with no thought to its brutal consequences?  Why do people suffer?  What is (or should be) the nature of our relationship to the animal world?  Why do humans continue to destroy one another, even though it will bring about his own destruction?  And why does he continue to hope, even in the face of all of this, for a world beyond his own temporal and embodied existence?

The film raises these questions, but ultimately it does not have the language to answer them, for the God of the Old Testament is a terrifying and capricious entity, raining down his wrath on the unsuspecting humans who serve him.  What’s more, the world that The Bible depicts is one full of brutality and human sacrifice, of animality and cruelty, and the God that reigns over it all does little to actually provide the answers that his human servants seek.  While the film ends optimistically with the binding and saving of Isaac, even this bears with it the inscrutability of God’s desire to see Abraham sacrifice the son for which he has hoped.  The film suggests that there might be an answer, somewhere in our collective psyche, but it’s a fool errand to attempt to find that answer in the book from which the film takes its name.

Although George Stevens’s The Greatest Story Ever Told is usually accorded the dubious honor of killing the biblical epic once and for all, and for being the last cinematic production of its kind until Gladiator reignited the genre for the new millennium, I actually think The Bible deserves the latter distinction (though not, I think, the former).  It is, all told, a quite uneven film, but it is not quite as ponderously reverent as The Greatest Story, and it seems that American audiences liked it well enough.  It is a truly haunting and in many ways bleak film, a sign perhaps of the growing sense that the old ways of making sense of the world, so proudly trumpeted by the earlier iterations of the genre, no longer held the same sort of authority.  For those interested in the ways in which the epic film responds to the pressures of its time, The Bible:  In the Beginning serves as a fascinating case study

Score:  8.5/10

In Memoriam: Maureen O’Hara

Today we learned of the sad passing of actress Maureen O’Hara, one of the finest of the blazing stars of classical Hollywood. Known for her portrayals of competent and fiercely independent women, she was also known for co-starring with John Wayne in a number of hilarious comedies, including McLintock! 

I’ve long had a deeply personal relationship with the O’Hara. Both my mother and grandmother have long been fans of hers, and I have spent many hours enjoying her finest films with two of the strongest and most amazing women I have been privileged to know. I can still remember watching Disney’sThe Parent Trap and finding Maureen utterly compelling, her independent spirit shining through in all of its radiant glory. Perhaps it was because Maureen reminded me so much of my mother and grandmother–they were both of Irish descent with red hair and independent spirits–that I felt such a strong connection to her.

While her work in classical Hollywood has certainly defined her legacy (and rightly so), I happen to be one of those people who also remembers one of O’Hara’s last films, the TV specialThe Christmas Box, in which she managed to convey that signature blend of steely toughness and caring gentleness, lending her powerful screen persona to a sweet little Christmas story.

Unfortunately, I have not been blind to this formidable actress’s struggles as she has grown older, including both her health struggles and squabbles among her various family members. However, I comfort myself with the knowledge that she carried on despite everything, a pillar of strength even during these incredibly trying times.

As I’ve grown older and my feminist reading skills have developed, I’ve come to both appreciate O’Hara’s feminist works and also to see the full range of the ways in which her star text embodied many of the tensions surrounding female stars. While she embodied everything that is best about female independence, the films she starred in often worked overtime to tame the very aspects of her star text that made her so compelling in the first place. There’s the infamous spanking in McLintock!, the taming of the shrew plot in The Parent Trap, and the softening efforts of Miracle on 34th Street. None, however, manage to fully tame that fiery Irish spirit. Perhaps my favorite role of hers is one I only recently discovered: that of Judy O’Brien in Dance, Girl, Dance, in which she castigates her burlesque show audience.

Maureen O’Hara was truly a magnificent talent, and the film world will certainly be a great deal poorer without her.