Much like a glam rock star from the 70s, Hollywood is, if not dead, almost at death’s door, constantly churning out mediocre remakes of old films or relying on almost stale franchises.
The glorious days of Hollywood are now but a tale to be told. It is a tale of audacious beautiful women who make their own way in life. It is a tale of strong, bold, quick tempered men with questionable morals, bending the rules but having fun doing so. And they all enthral us with their magnetic screen personas: James Cagney, Joan Blondell, Barbara Stanwyck, Frederic March, Mae West and so many more.
The Pre-Code era of Hollywood holds the key to what makes cinema such an entertaining form of art. It was original, yet relatable, it offered escapism through its almost attainable glamour. All of the screen stars were gods and goddesses with human back stories, inviting the post October ’29 regular Joe to dare to dream.
Continuing in the Roaring Twenties fashion, the flapper girl gave way to the emancipated woman, who wasn’t afraid to break societal boundaries and be free in love and in life. The Pre-Code heroes and heroines are deeply flawed humans, but what they don’t lack in is zest for life. The passion showed on screen was so fierce that even today, both film lovers and history lovers look at the Pre-Code age of Hollywood as a well-documented study of man, a history lesson we can all learn from, especially our contemporary Hollywood studio executives.
The glamour on screen was equalled by a lot of drama off screen. The great studio system, most notably MGM, has a lot to answer for. They’ve established and run Hollywood like a star making machine. In exchange for fame, our beloved movie stars had to dispose of their own identity and be fitted with a new one, much like a see-through cocktail dress.
Perhaps this is where our fascination with movie stars comes from, especially those moving further and further away from our contemporary lifestyle, becoming effigies as well preserved and valued as museum pieces.
If you don’t know who William Wyler is, then cinema isn’t your passion. He is an artist, a captivating storyteller and such a good example against the auteur theory that I’m sure even Godard can agree with.
But I won’t attempt to delve deeper into Wyler’s career. That is too great a task, which will require years of research and perhaps the subject of a dissertation or two. I will only zoom in on one film directed by this master at work - The Desperate Hours, a film which caused stirrings of memories familiar and yet never experienced.
The Desperate Hours is the only film pairing, or setting against each other, two Hollywood heavy weights: Frederic March and Humphrey Bogart. And the sparks are for the ages. For those not in the know, Frederic March was a Broadway star as well as a matinee idol, who already had an Oscar (for Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde (1931)) in the bag by the time Humphrey Bogart was being pushed around and tried on for size on the Warner Brothers’ lot. But more on that on a later post. I feel Humphrey Bogart needs little introduction, other than to say that his short screen career (20 years) was perhaps richer, enviable and more intense than that of many of his peers.
In 1955 they were both veterans of the screen, wiser, wrinklier and more confident. And that’s where the charm of the whole picture lies. I use the term picture, because it has all the feels and depths of an old medium, rich in style, sentiment as well as action and plenty of suspense. I also always read the word ‘picture’ in Norma Desmond’s voice. And this one is not a small one either! It’s got faces, alright. The handsome, well-aged faces of March and Bogart shine dark and full of passion, anger, heroism and most of all humanity.
Frederic March plays the head of the Hilliard household, living a tranquil life in the suburbs until Bogart’s Glenn Griffin, an escaped convict, chooses his home as a temporary hideaway from the police, taking him, his wife and two children hostages. Griffin operates with his younger brother and another escaped convict, although the latter is merely a stereotype and only used to advance the plot. The main battle is between the Hilliards and the Griffins and is mostly a battle of wits and feelings. From the beginning the younger Griffin is having second thoughts about the life of crime his brother has led him on, when he expresses regret for not being able to have a family and a house in the suburbs like the Hilliards. One of the most memorable quotes from the film comes from the younger Griffin: “Yeah, you taught me everything. Except how to live in a house like this.”
Despite suffering from a rather predictable plot, the film is aided by astonishing close ups of both Bogart and March, impeccably edited and combined with astonishing ensemble compositions. Wyler seems to understand the character in both their faces, accumulated over the years. And he lets them both shine with the weariness of the passing years. Wyler’s collaboration with cinematographer extraordinaire Lee Garmes brings out the best in both – a film noir of both subtle and sublime beauty, equalled only by a superb and insidious darkness.
The Desperate Hours is a film noir which somehow transcends the genre, becoming as much a gangster film as a family melodrama, with some truly suspenseful moments added in for good measure, of which even Hitchcock might be proud.
One can easily forget that Miss Shelley Winters had once played, albeit briefly, the Hollywood youth game. She began her career with a vivacious and appealing vulgarity, playing fun loving secondary, yet memorable characters. A most notable mention is A Double Life (1947), directed by George Cukor, which can be credited to have helped launch Shelley’s career.
Despite being seemingly typecast early in her career, limited to playing secondary characters whose destinies were to be killed off in the second act, Shelley Winters soon understood the rules of the game in the biggest star factory in the world – Hollywood. Just like her old friend, Marilyn would say: “Hollywood is a place where they'll pay you a thousand dollars for a kiss and fifty cents for your soul.” Winters was not ready to sell, or event rent out her soul.
Therefore, if swimming against the current would get her noticed, Shelley was determined to take “swimming lessons”. Which she did, at the famous Actors Studio, in New York, alongside Monroe, James Dean and Montgomery Clift. Performing was in her blood. Shelley Winters was keen on a long career that would allow her to keep performing. Thus, she would have to pursue the more challenging roles and mould new Hollywood stereotypes, carve her own niche rather than try to fit in with any of the old and outdated ones.
Starting with the quiet-as-a-mouse blend-in-with-the-scenery character of Alice Tripp in A Place in the Sun, Winters grew from raw blonde sexpot to more well-rounded, flawed but deeply human characters. They still remained sometimes raw, sometimes bitter, but always relatable and always mesmerising to watch.
From then on, peer accolades started pouring in and the most coveted Oscar statuette was soon hers for the taking, for the great work in The Diary of Anne Frank (1959). The quality of her roles didn't deteriorate over the following decade, or the one after that. Or quite possibly, all her roles gained the "Winters" quality once the cameras started rolling. She was wonderfully vivacious, albeit slightly neurotic as Charlotte Haze in Lolita; she was "in great condition", albeit slightly naughty in Alfie (1966).
With her second Oscar win in 1972, for The Poseidon Adventure, her legacy as a great character actress was well established by now. Shelley Winters proved to the world and the entire film industry that she was more than a ditzy blonde and more than just a matronly figure too, paving the way for future versatile actresses to follow suit, such as Miriam Margolyes, Samantha Morton, Toni Collette, Viola Davis and Sally Hawkins.
Dystopian is an adjective I do not care for. It is a frightening word and I fear it goes hand in hand with the verb ‘manipulate’. The most frightening thing is that, in a world where fact checking is easier than it has ever been, words like ‘dystopian’ and ‘mass manipulation’ can find their way in our day to day vocabulary. How is it possible for a civilised society to have forgotten its history, ignore the red flags and buy into the lies and propaganda? Google, Twitter and Facebook can be useful tools, but they have become the spaces where the enemy resides and thrives.
We are a generation of keyboard warriors who refuse to vote when it’s most important. We are a generation of celebrity fact-checkers, but not fact fact-checkers. We don’t care about politics, because we don’t understand it. But it understands us. The political leaders know what to do to manipulate and confuse us, set us up against one another. We are isolated in our social media bubbles. Fact. We are divided and easier to conquer. Fact. Hatred is easier than love. It gives us adrenaline and power. Love makes us weak and vulnerable. Why should we love our neighbour when we can’t relate with them or even understand their language? The ‘us vs them’ propaganda has never failed yet. And here we are: the age of Brexit, the age of “lock them up!”, “send them home!” chants that will echo through the ages, if the ages will still be there 50 years from now.
But you’ll say: “the world is not that bleak! There is still good news in the world, don’t let the bad outweigh the good!” Unfortunately, the bad will always outweigh the good, just as the lies will prove to be more powerful and destructive than the truth. I hope I’m proven wrong, but the speed with which we live our lives has affected our thinking. We are too trigger-happy, ready to blurt out a half-formed opinion regardless of the damage it may cause.
In contrast with the UK political landscape of today, I feel I must quote from a transcript of a BBC lecture from 1949 I came upon, held by Robert Birley entitled Britain in Europe. Reflections on the development of a European society:
“We have a great deal to learn about Europe. In fact, we have little idea yet of the revolution in our ways of thinking that our decision to join Europe will involve. To prepare for this we may learn much from our past history, at times as an example to be followed, at times as a warning. But we must remember that our contribution towards creating a common tradition in the union cannot be made from our past, but only from our present, and anything we can offer will depend, first of all, on the vigour, the skill and the confidence we can muster to solve our own problems.”
The story goes that when Dr Strangelove was first conceived, it was conceived as a dramatic script. Somewhere during the writing process, a funny idea came to Kubrick’s mind. And then another, and another, until what emerged was one of the best political satires of the 20th century. Adam McKay, the writer-director of Vice is no Kubrick. He is by no means a bad director. He is probably an even better writer than a director.
However, the impression that Vice leaves with the viewer is that the idea of turning this political drama onto a satire seemed to have sprung up on him during post-production, leaving us confused as to what we were watching. He seems to have whipped up ideas as he went along while editing the picture and attempted to gloss over any inconsistencies through the use of fishing visual metaphors.
At times it felt like we were being privy to an avalanche of sensitive information regarding the way the free world is being run. This, I must confess, brought on a feeling of physical discomfort. It almost instinctively made me think that there are levels of corruption that we, as regular folk can only imagine. Either that or Adam McKay is very good at imagining and filling in the blanks left by the Bush administration by using private email servers.
While busying itself with painting a demonic picture of Dick Cheney, the film manages to dehumanise him, thus almost excusing him from all the machinations and Machiavellian dealings we see him carry out in the film. Christian Bale’s performance is an almost perfect representation of what Cheney looked like, spoke and acted in front of the cameras, but there is little depth to it. The monster is one-dimensional and thus less believable and less feared. At the beginning of the story we are told that it’s the quiet ones we should fear, the men in the shadow of those in power, thus giving Cheney an aura of insidiousness. However, there is nothing insidious about Bale’s performance as Dick Cheney. We get very little insight into what his driving force is, other than the all-encompassing American love for his family and his country. Protecting his family and his country gives Cheney carte-blanche to go off starting wars in the Middle-East. And yet, that motive isn’t as well defined as one might have hoped. There’s an indication at profit to be made from the oil in Irak, but that is also quickly swept under the carpet.
While the film is very rich in ideas as well as modes of execution, what it is lacking in is the consistency to present a story. It may even be accused of suffering from the ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ syndrome, which makes the subject matter alone deserving of respect, regardless of the way it is presented to the public. After all, a biopic about a hated man and a crucial part in American history should have the same gravitas as a biopic about what is arguably considered the best frontman that has ever graced the music stage, and thus get as many accolades. While neither film manages to truly earn its Oscar worthiness, the saving grace for Bohemian Rhapsody was Rami Malek’s astonishing performance. In the case of Vice, Christian Bale’s central performance might have driven the film too far into caricature territory had it not been for the supporting performances of Amy Adams, Eddie Marsan, Justin Kirk and Sam Rockwell, the latter’s portrayal of a buffoon president being welcome with a knowing grin. After all, it’s hard to imagine G W Bush depicted in any other way. Amy Adam’s Lynne Cheney almost succeeds to be a well-rounded character, despite a few far-right outbursts that come off as a bit too much for a 2019 audience.
All in all, Vice is a passable film that raises as many questions about American politics as it answers, and which could have probably been even more enjoyable had it fully embraced the Brechtian aesthetic it merely toyed with.
Was Bergman’s vision as a filmmaker translated into his theatre work with the same passion, complexity and zest for life? I would not know, for I would need a time portal to place me in 1906s Stockholm. Wouldn’t that be the dream?
But Bergman’s immense legacy is a fluid totem, an endless tapestry of colour and shadows upon which we can still, if our hands are able enough, weave intricate stories of life, death love, lust and loss.
Was Bergman’s spark of brilliance spotted in London’s West End last night? Perhaps so.
Stephen Beresford, the playwright certainly understands the material he adapted, the exquisite cinematic tour de force Fanny and Alexander. The 1982 film, which lives in two formats, theatrical release and TV has now spawn a third: a 3-act stage rendition, which has had its premiere last night at the Old Vic.
As an adoring fan of Bergman’s cinematic work, I stepped into the theatre with certain expectations. Knowing the material and Bergman’s recurrent themes and visual motifs, I had already imagined how the play would be acted out.
It was not as heavy as I had expected. The sacrosanct sanctuary of grandmother Ekdahl was somewhat missing, along with elements of Alexander’s imagination, which stood at the heart of the film version. The playfulness was beautifully captured, but Alexander’s rebellion seemed to fall flat, through no fault of Misha Handley, who played Alexander with the passion of a tried Hamlet.
When asked about the film, Bergman was quoted as saying that he found inspiration in Charles Dickens’ work for the execution and I almost wished director Max Webster had done the same. I found myself thinking of the marvellous production of A Christmas Carol, which coincidentally was performed over the Christmas period on the same stage, as envisaged by the brilliant Matthew Warchus.
Max Webster’s direction isn’t lacking in bergmanesque beauty. However, the silent wonder of witnessing the human condition unfolding before our very eyes in all its splendour is upstaged by something else. The seemingly endless red velvet curtains and mahogany furniture do give us a taste of a day in the life of the Ekdahl family. We are even invited at their Christmas table to enjoy a kinglike feast (the three Ekdahl brothers are all named after Swedish kings, after all).
But the whole setting fails to make us as nervous as it should. There is no complex tension in the performances, only a flat anxiety, perfectly embodied by Catherine Walker’s Emily Ekdahl, who seems to be staggering timidly through, asking the important questions but failing to believe the urgency. The mystique is too often replaced by an exaggerated humour, which Penelope Wilton excels at, as matron extraordinaire Helena Ekdahl. Only Kevin Doyle manages to chill the blood, especially in the whipping scene, the only time where Bergman’s darkness is truly rendered on stage.
Whilst still appreciating the difficulty of taking such a close-to-perfect piece of cinema and transposing it onto the stage, as a spectator I was left wanting more.