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

Screening History: “Ben-Hur” and the Tragedy of the Might-Have-Been

I went into Ben-Hur with the lowest possible expectations. Critics and audiences alike seemed to disdain the film, and its opening box office was truly abysmal. I was worried that somehow this box office and critical disaster would taint my love for the 1959 version.

As sometimes happens, however, the film actually exceeded all of my expectations. While it does not hit the same notes of operatic grandness achieved by its predecessors (including, it is worth noting, the 1925 version, which seems to have been largely forgotten in the discourse surrounding this one), it is nevertheless a competent and at times quite moving film.

The film basically follows the same trajectory as the previous versions, as Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston) and his boyhood friend and adopted brother Messala (Toby Kebbell) find themselves pulled apart by the historical times in which they live, in which the power of Rome continues to oppress the people of Judaea. Their own personal rivalry–which culminates in the famous chariot race–takes place at the same time as the ministry of Christ (Rodrigo Santoro) whose sacrifice and Crucifixion lead to the eventual reconciliation of Judah and Messala.

Though he lacks the larger-than-life monumentality that Heston brought to his interpretation of the role, the young Jack Huston brings something else equally valuable. He manages to bring both a measure of vulnerability and sensitivity to the role, neither of which are traits that Heston could ever have claimed to embody. For that reason, I actually found Huston’s lack of star power refreshing, in that it allowed me to put aside my preconceptions of what Judah should look like and instead appreciate what this relatively unknown star (who nevertheless hails from an illustrious Hollywood lineage) was able to bring to the role.

Indeed, I thought there was a great deal of chemistry between him and his fellow lead Toby Kebell. The latter brings a powerful, brooding energy to the character of Messala, a young man overshadowed by a tainted family legacy and his own desire to prove himself worthy of being a Roman. It’s hard not to find him compelling, in much the same way as it was difficult to not find oneself attracted to Stephen Boyd (who played the role in the 1959 version). However, I do think that Kebbell brings a softer, more vulnerable–and thus, ultimately, more redeemable–characterization to the role.

Of course, Morgan Freeman also deserves credit for the gravitas that he brings to the role of Sheik Ilderim. Whereas his earlier counterpart had been a rather egregious example of blackface, Freeman imbues his character with a powerful, brooding solemnity. We learn, for example, that his son had also been a zealous enemy of Rome, a position that earned him an ignominious and horrific death at the hands of the Roman state. One cannot help but feel the resonance with the ways in which black bodies are still rendered subject (and abject) to the violence of the state.

Of course, the two of the most affective and intense scenes were the scene in the galley and the chariot race. Both allowed for a feeling immersion, of being there and inhabiting two very different moments. While the galley sequence (as such sequences frequently do) forces us to inhabit a claustrophobic world of the abject, the chariot race represents a reclamation of embodied agency. In fact, I actually think the scene in the galleys is more terrifying and visceral than the 1959 version, in no small part because so many of the shots are from Judah’s hampered point of view. The race, for its part, is quite as stirring as the original, and seeing it on the big screen was absolutely a part of the phenomenologically powerful experience.

It’s a tad unfortunate that the Crucifixion scene–which should, one would think, land with the greatest possible emotional impact–comes off as so stilted and emotionless. Santoro, bless him, just doesn’t bring a great deal to the role of Christ. Not that this is entirely his fault; the script doesn’t really allow him to do anything other than utter a few incredibly flat-footed platitudes. In this instance, it seems that the practice of the earlier films, which resolutely kept Christ out of the frame, proved to be the better move.

That aside, I do think that the latter half of the film holds together much more effectively than the first. Part of this, I think, has to do with the gratuitous number of cuts throughout the first half of the film. One would think that the opposite would be the case; after all, these early scenes are designed to establish the personal level of the drama. Unfortunately, however, Bekmambetov is a bit too fond of the cut, and it becomes distracting more than it should be.

Despite the choppy and often gratuitous editing of those early scenes, however, the film does succeed in showing how much Messala and Judah care for one another, a crucial bit of backstory that we don’t really see in the 1959 version (though Gore Vidal’s juicy gossip suggests that his script had a homoerotic undercurrent). As a result, we get to know and care about these characters and their relationship. And you know what? That final reconnection between Messala and Judah actually brought tears to my eyes. Because, despite everything else, it felt earned. These two actors bring enough emotional resonance to their roles that we actually care about what happens to them. At a broader level, it also provides hope that, even in this time of historical conflict, that somehow solidarity can and will win out of hatred.

Is Ben-Hur a perfect, or even a great film? Absolutely not, and there are a number of reasons for this. At the risk of continuing to compare the film to its predecessor, I do think it’s noteworthy that this reboot did not have a major directorial name attached to it. While Timur Bekmambetov is no stranger to Hollywood, he doesn’t have the same sort of resumé as or cultural capital as a director like William Wyler, who had already established himself as a formidable artist director of stature. Bekmambetov, for better and worse, does not have quite that amount of presence to help lift Ben-Hur to the heights of true greatness to which it might otherwise have aspired.

In the end, I strongly suspect that the 2016 iteration of Ben-Hur will go down in history as a well-intentioned but ultimately unsuccessful reimagining of a cinematic and literary classic. Still, I do hope that those who watch it take it on its own terms, for it really is quite a good film in its own way. And that, perhaps, is its greatest tragedy.

 

Film Review: “Trumbo” (2015)

As a fledgling scholar working in classical Hollywood, I was very excited when I heard about Trumbo, the biopic about the famed member of the Hollywood Ten.  This group of screenwriters and directed would go down in history as a mostly principled group of men who refused to cave in to the anti-Communist paranoia that swept the nation in the wake of World War II.

The film essentially charts the process by which the Hollywood Ten is blacklisted by the industry due to their refusal to name names before HUAC.  After languishing at King Brothers Productions (during which he is also compelled by economic necessity to take on more and more projects), Trumbo at last begins to claw his way back into respectability with The Wild One.  However, it is not until a young actor and producer named Kirk Douglas (Dean O’Gorman) and a dour director named Otto Preminger (Christian Berkel) intercede that he finally breaks the blacklist, and Trumbo’s name is openly acknowledged in the credits of both Spartacus and Exodus.  The film ends with a vindicated Trumbo delivering a heartfelt and deeply philosophical address to gathered Hollywood dignitaries.

Like many recent dramas, Trumbo strikes a delicate balance between portraying the 1950s in exacting and delicate detail, while also excoriating the period for its hypocrisy and repressiveness.  The film does not allow for a great deal of ambiguity, and rightly so, as the fanatical overreach of HUAC destroyed the lives and careers of not just the Hollywood Ten, but also numerous other Hollywood professionals who saw their livelihoods demolished on even the faintest suspicion of Communist sympathies.

There are, fortunately, a few moments that undercut (or at least dilute) the more straightforwardly hagiographic tendencies.  As the third act progresses, it becomes clear that Trumbo is not quite the loving and affectionate family man that everyone has believed.  While the father/daughter film trope is a teensy bit on the lazy side, Cranston does a grand job bringing out the prickly and sometimes sanctimonious traits for which Trumbo became somewhat infamous.

While Trumbo is the driving narrative center of the film, a few other characters gain nuanced treatment.  Edward G. Robinson (Michael Stuhlbarg) emerges as a conflicted and somewhat tragic figure, an actor desperate to salvage his reputation and maintain his livelihood.  Though we are not invited to condone his betrayal of his friends (including Trumbo), the film clearly wants us to sympathize with him.  He makes the best decision in a terrible situation, and while the relationship between him and Trumbo never returns to its

While perhaps not nuanced, per se, Helen Mirren does an absolutely marvelous job bringing Hedda Hopper to life.  Mirren has always excelled at playing powerful women willing to do whatever it takes to defend their principles, and say what you will about Hopper’s red-baiting, she was a woman stalwart in her (misguided) principles.  While the film may give her too much credit for the imposition of the blacklist, she does have some memorable (and vicious) lines, as when she reveals her racism by reminding Louis B. Mayer of his scrupulously disguised Jewish identity, as a trait he shares with many of his fellow studio heads.

Several of the other players deserve accolades.  John Goodman is splendidly vulgar as Frank King, Trumbo’s employer (a role that Goodman has honed to perfection).  Diane Lane, while conveying the long-suffering yet fiercely independent Cleo Trumbo, is rather underused, while Elle Fanning hits an unfortunately strident note as Trumbo’s increasingly resentful daughter Nikola.  And poor Stephen Root is almost invisible as Frank’s brother Hymie, while Dean O’Gorman captures the look of Kirk Douglas, without quite mastering the older actor’s unique verbal mannerisms.

Trumbo is one of those films that the Hollywood film industry loves to periodically produce.  By granting Trumbo the last word, it allows the industry to atone for the sins of the past and to lionize those figures who it once did everything its power to destroy.  The film holds valuable lessons for us in the present, as we find ourselves as a nation confronted with a not-dissimilar atmosphere of paranoia.  Like Trumbo, we should all be very wary of those who would mobilize our fears and make us give up those things that we value most about America.

Queer Classics: “Gods and Monsters”

Warning:  Spoilers follow.

I’d been wanting to watch this film from beginning to end–I’d seen a few bits and pieces now and then throughout the years–for a long time.  Fortunately, it became available On Demand the other day, and so I decided to a look.

And I’m really glad I did.

I’ve always had a bit of a crush on both Ian McKellen and Brendan Fraser, and watching this film reminds me of why.  McKellen plays famed horror director James Whale, slowly fading into obscurity decades after his famous successes in the 1930s, while Fraser plays a gardener who gradually finds himself drawn into Whale’s world of old Hollywood memories and tortured reminiscences of World War I.  At first, the rather dim gardener (whose name is Clayton Boone), seems unsure how to respond, but gradually the two develop a strong bond that is increasingly tested by Whale’s failing mental and physical health and his eventual, final descent into madness and despair.

In many ways, this film feels like a romance that isn’t really a romance.  We’re never allowed to forget that Clayton is rigorously straight, but one can still detect a fair bit of on-screen chemistry between the two men, not least because it’s obvious that there is a great deal of chemistry between the two actors.  And of course there’s no denying that Whale obviously experiences some measure of attraction for his handsome gardener, though I would hesitate to say that it is erotic in the sense that we normally expect.  While that may be an element, he also seems to see in Boone a measure of the youth and vitality that he saw during his time in World War I, a reminder of the exquisite yet frail nature of young beauty.

Whale is also a man tormented by his past, both that in the trenches and his time as one of Hollywood’s most famous directors.  This past continues to intrude on the present.  Whale has begun to suffer from a series of strokes that keep his mind from being able to stay firmly in the present.  Visually, of course, the film allows us to see this through editing, and there are several moments where we are violently jarred into the past.  Through such editing, we come to understand the mental (and, increasingly, physical) agony that Whale feels as his body fails him and he yearns to recapture some measure of the success that and energy that he possessed in his youth.

This toggling between various times also explains one of the film’s most appealing aspects, i.e. the rumination on the nature of Hollywood.  As with the finest of films about the industry of the industry (I’m thinking here of ones like Sunset Boulevard), Gods and Monsters shows us that Hollywood is a fickle mistress, willing to abandon those who are no longer seen as lucrative investments.  As the film points out, at least two of Whale’s films, Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein have rightly become two of the most canonical films in the horror canon.  Fortunately, it also reminds us that Whale produced what is largely considered the best adaptation of the famous musical Showboat, before gradually fading into the obscurity from which he has yet to emerge.

Like the best films, Gods and Monsters leaves you with a faint feeling of sadness and melancholy, of the a world that has vanished and that will never reappear.  One cannot help but feel at least a measure of nostalgia for the world of old Hollywood that the film presents to us, a world of larger-than-life figures that hold on to the last fading vestiges of their former glories.

At the dramatic level, the film features excellent performances, not just from McKellen and Fraser, but also from the late Lynn Redgrave as Whale’s caretaker Hanna.  Judgmental and harsh at times (she refers to Whale as a “bugger,”) she is equally devoted to him and is absolutely devastated by his suicide.  There is clearly a strong relationship between the two of them, one born of mutual affection and love.  But the dramatic heart of the film is the relationship between Whale and Boone, a touching if somewhat tragic bonding between the old world and the new.

Score:  10/10

Screening History: The Rise and Fall of the Biblical Epic Part One (1949-1955)

Welcome to the first of my three entries for the Classic Movie History Project Blogathon, focusing on the rise and fall of the biblical epic.  Today’s entry will focus on the rise of the genre’s popularity during the 1950s, beginning with Cecil B. DeMille’s Samson and Delilah and ending with the rather lackluster films that characterized the genre’s output in the middle of the decade.

When Cecil B. DeMille released Samson and Delilah in 1949, the film no doubt looked like something of a throwback to a much earlier period in classic Hollywood.  The biblical epic had, in the past, been quite popular, particularly in the silent era and in the 1930s, when DeMille made such films as The Sign of the Cross (1932) and Cleopatra (1934), both of which highlighted the director’s signature ability to blend a moral message with sin and sex.  And Samson and Delilah delivers more of the same, with the fleshly bulk of Victor Mature’s Samson easily seduced by the sumptuous and sensual Hedy Lamar’s Delilah.  The ancient world emerges in DeMille’s film as a site of terror and unbridled desires and while the film strenuously attempts to tame this world through its moralizing, it also acknowledges that the vagaries of the sexual unconscious are not so easily brought under control.

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The “voluptuous enslavement” of Victor Mature’s Samson to Hedy Lamarr’s sensuous Delilah (I borrow the phrase from the fine monograph, “Biblical Epics: Sacred Narrative in the Hollywood Cinema.”

DeMille’s film ignited something of a renaissance of the genre and the studios, still reeling from the Paramount Decrees (which mandated that they divest themselves of their theater chains, thus removing a crucial source of revenue), saw the epic as a chance to rejuvenate their lagging financial fortunes.  Both Fox and MGM released epics in 1951 (David and Bathsheba and Quo Vadis, respectively), which took on very different moments of antiquity, with the former focusing on the tumultuous and dangerous romance between the biblical King David and the latter narrating the love affair between a bellicose Roman soldier and a Christian maiden, all under the vindictive aegis of the mad emperor Nero.

The epic creates a particular vision of the world of antiquity as a world of fleshly and sexual excess and, while this might seem to be just another way in which mid-century America could excite itself while also taking comfort in the soothing balm of a moral message, I would argue that this emphasis on sex also serves a (perhaps unintentional) acknowledgment of the terrifying power of history to elude all our attempts to make sense of it.   These films betray a profound ambivalence about both sexuality (which, while pleasurable, also contains danger and the spectre of death) and about the thrust of history and the narrative drive toward containment.

Poppaea (Patricia Laffan), the emblem of the dangers and appeals of the Technicolor sex drive in MGM's "Quo Vadis" (1951).

Poppaea (Patricia Laffan), the emblem of the dangers and appeals of the Technicolor sex drive in MGM’s “Quo Vadis” (1951).

Further, these early entries of the genre express a deep ambivalence about the period of antiquity, which emerges as both the place where the miraculous and timeless presence of Christ (and, in some films, God the Father), still seems possible, even as it remains steadfastly opposed to the secular presence of the human and the political.  Even Quo Vadis, which seems to be the most unambiguous in its celebration of the triumph of Christian morality over Roman licentiousness, ends with the legions of Galba marching into Rome, their phallic military glory and thorough secular worldliness a pointed counterpart to the otherwordly presence of such figures as the aged and beatific Peter and the other Christians who lose their lives in the course of the film.  Thus, while the converted Marcus hopes for a more permanent world and faith,  the chaotic elements of the film, ranging from the legions that open and close it to the riotous citizens that topple Nero from his throne, suggest that the world of the flesh will remain flawed and tainted by the corporeal bodies of secular history.

These films, perhaps inadvertently, acknowledge the contradictory temporality that Christ occupies.  Since, at this early stage in the genre’s resurgence, Christ does not yet make a physical appearance, he must remain instead at the edges of the frame and the narrative, a potent force for historical change yet also unrepresentable precisely because He also supposedly represents the timeless, that which exists beyond the borders of the film frame and the terrifying world of antiquity, whether that be the ancient Levant of Samson and Delilah and David and Bathsheba or the corrupt Rome of Quo Vadis.  

Given the enormous financial success of these outings, it should come as no surprise that the studios, in their usual rush to capitalize on trends, should want to go bigger and better.  Cue 1953’s The Robe, Fox’s chosen showcase for their widescreen technology of CinemaScope, which featured a curved screen that was wider than it was tall, all in an attempt to create a more profound sense of immersion and, according to the industry press at the time, participation on the part of the audience.  The film features Richard Burton as tribune Marcellus Gallio and Victor Mature as the Greek slave Demetrius as they both encounter the earth-shattering presence of Christ.  Marcellus is ultimately martyred by the mad emperor Caligula, while Demetrius survives to carry the Gospel forward.

Theatrical release poster for Fox's "The Robe" (1953).

Theatrical release poster for Fox’s “The Robe” (1953).

Following the release of The Robe, the genre continued to maintain its presence in many Hollywood studio production schedules, though the films released in the mid-1950s didn’t attain quite the heights of their predecessors.  Fox released Demetrius and the Gladiators, the sequel to The Robe, in 1954, while Warner Bros. released The Silver Chalice, based on the novel by Thomas B. Costain, in the same year, as well as Helen of Troy in 1956.  Even relatively minor studios got in on the action:  Columbia released Salome in 1953 (using it as a vehicle for star Rita Hayworth), Universal (recently elevated to the ranks of the majors due to the Paramount Decrees) released Douglas Sirk’s The Sign of the Pagan in 1954, and United Artists released Alexander the Great (starring the perennially tortured and histrionic Richard Burton) in 1956.

These various iterations of the genre can in some ways be seen as an attempt by mid-century American culture to come to terms with the terror of history (a term I borrow from both religious theorist Mircea Eliade and from historian Tefiolo F. Ruiz), represented most poignantly by the nuclear past and the threat of a nuclear future oblivion.  These films attempt to both contain the past and its terrors–the death and martyrdom that lie in the wake of the relentless march of Christian victory, or the unbridled desires that bring entire diegetic worlds to their knees–through narrative devices as well as through the promise, however illusory, of the ability to participate, to gain agency, in the workings of the great moments and individuals of history.  Further, these films also suggest that the ancient world, as dangerous and troubled as it is, in many ways offers a contradictory and perilous utopia, a place of plenitude, excess, and emotional transparency, even as it is also the a site of danger and punishment, where the divine will of God (itself often as inaccessible visually as the workings of history with which it is often conflated in these films) can demand the life of those chosen to reveal His will.

Stay tuned for Part Two, in which I explore the apogee of the genre, with such classic (one might even say iconic) films as The Ten Commandments (1956), Ben-Hur (1959), and Spartacus (1960), before we move into the genre’s fall in the mid-1960s.