Monthly Report: April 2020

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By Scott Ross

Oklahoma - Albert, Greenwood

Eddie Albert as the peddler, with the great Charlotte Greenwood as Aunt Eller.

Oklahoma! (1955) [Todd-AO version / CinemaScope version] The first film adaptation of a Rodgers and Hammerstein show, and the finest.


Doctor Dolittle (1967)

Doctor_Dolittle__Attenborough, Harrison

He’s never seen anything like it: A delightfully exuberant Richard Attenborough as Blossom, with Rex Harrison’s Dolittle and the Pushmi-Pullyu.

That Doctor Dolittle was the picture 20th Century-Fox pinned most of its hopes on in 1967 is difficult to fathom now as that same studio’s earlier devotion to the money-pit known as Cleopatra in 1962. That one nearly bankrupted them. Dolittle didn’t do as much damage but it didn’t bring much honor (let alone profits) either. I well remember the picture’s release; I was in precisely the age-group Fox was aiming it at. It was the first non-Disney movie I recall seeing so many commercial product tie-ins for — the sort of thing that we would, a decade later with George Lucas’ Star Wars merchandising, become blasé about was a big deal in ’67. There were children’s cereal tie-ins, toys, games, storybooks, paperback reprints of the Hugh Lofting originals bearing Rex Harrison’s likeness… and records. O, how they had records! The score existed as a soundtrack album, of course, but also in LPs by everyone from Anthony Newley and Sammy Davis, Jr. to Alvin and the Chipmunks. The only thing Doctor Dolittle didn’t get, surprisingly, was a Gold Key comic book. How did Arthur P. Jacobs miss that one?

I don’t think Richard Fleischer’s direction is more than merely competent, and the movie as a whole has more size than real charm. (The original Lofting books are, whatever their racial… “limitations,” shall we say?… entirely charming.) Perhaps if it had been conceived, not as a big, sprawling musical but as a smaller and more inventive non-musical fantasy Doctor Dolittle might have been a minor classic of its kind. And the presence of Harrison makes Dolittle rather too Henry Higgins-like for comfort. (Reportedly re-written that way at the star’s insistence… after he first insisted the character be as far from Higgins as possible. That’s what you get when you hire a megalomaniacal drunk as your star.) But if it hadn’t been a musical, Doctor Dolittle would have lost the one aspect that lifts it above the norm of original musical movies:  The Leslie Bricusse score.

If his screenplay is less sparkling — you can sense the prints of too many fingers on it, and the pushing of a once-sided romance that never takes flight feels weirdly like an exercise in masochism — Bricusse’s songs have a nearly unerring grasp of character, time and place that, combined with their melodiousness, their feeling for mood and their gentle humor, make them almost ideal musical-comedy numbers. Sadly, three of his prettiest ballads (“Beautiful Things,” “Where Are the Words?” and “Something in Your Smile”) were either cut after the premiere or, in the case of the first, trimmed. The footage apparently no longer exists, making the otherwise lovely Twilight Time Blu-ray a bit of a disappointment. I know there are those who hate these songs (when “Talk to the Animals” won the Oscar for Best Song cries of “Oh, no!” were heard in the auditorium) but as I have often said of the Sherman Brothers’ work, if you think it’s easy to compose a clutch of engaging and melodic songs with witty lyrics that can amuse an adult and that a child can also comprehend and appreciate, you write one.

This was the era of the big “road show” musical, and the second such movie my mother took my sister and me to (the first was The Sound of Music a year or so before) that had an Intermission; a big deal for a seven-year old in 1968. Is the movie any good? It seems to me better than its reputation would suggest, but I lack perspective on it: When a picture enchanted you as a child and holds up generally on adult re-viewing, who knows? It’s entirely possible that I feel about Doctor Dolittle the way younger people do about what I regard as the meretricious garbage they grew up with; Willow comes to mind, and The Goonies, and the movies of John Hughes. Before we trash the taste and pleasures of others’ youths, we would do well to examine our own.


The Lion in Winter (1968)
The Lion in Winter - cast

The movie adaptation by James Goldman of his 1966 play, one of those rare pictures whose wit, and spectacular performances, make it a pleasure no matter how many times you’ve seen it.


Julius Caesar (1953)

Deborah Kerr, John Gielgud, Louis Calhern, Marlon Brando, James Mason, Edmund O'Brien rehearsing JUL

Deborah Kerr, John Gielgud, Louis Calhern, Marlon Brando, James Mason, Edmund O’Brien rehearsing. (Everett Collection)

This moderately engaging Shakespeare adaptation benefits almost entirely from its actors, and from its typically expert Miklós Rózsa score. Certainly Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s direction is merely workmanlike, when it isn’t altogether poor, and its special effects would be inadequate in a high school production. (The storm sequence is almost hilariously bad; I pictured Tom Courtenay off-stage, frantically pounding on kettle-drums and sheet-metal.) James Mason makes a splendid Brutus, acting entirely on principal and haunted by his own deeds, and although she has one scene only, Deborah Kerr as Portia matches him, her warm voice and understated anguish the perfect compliment to his brooding. John Gielgud, long absent from the screen, made a superb return as Cassius, that mellifluous bassoon of a voice first seducing Brutus, then hectoring him and, finally, locating the character’s latent sense of honor. Best of all is Marlon Brando’s Anthony. Although the play is really Brutus’, to Anthony was given the great funeral oration, with which the character subtly alters the mood of the all-too-pliable mob through irony and rhetoric. (Brando creates a nice moment when, his back to the Roman crowd, he smiles briefly, knowing he has them. Mussolini would surely have approved.) Brando went to Gielgud for advice on diction and phrasing, but the approach is unmistakably his own. He makes each phrase sound natural, as if it just occurred to him. He’s not imitating Gielgud; he’s not imitating anyone.

On the far side of these splendid players is the gaseous Grande Dame posturings of the appalling Greer Garson. Her acting epitomizes what used to be meant by publicists and newspaper writers when they trotted out the word “distinguished.”


Demon Seed (1977)
Demon Seed-lg
An effective, although not exceptional, adaptation of Dean Knnotz’s creepy, truly disturbing cyber-horror novel, arguably more relevant now than it was in 1977. Fritz Weaver is an A.I. expert who has created a living computer, and Julie Christie is his estranged wife, who becomes its first victim. The picture suffers from its modest budget and the limitations of the 1970s special effects (about to be rendered altogether redundant by George Lucas) and from a lack of interior logic in its Robert Jaffe/Roger O. Hirson screenplay:  When Gerrit Graham as one of Weaver’s employees goes to check on Christie and is murdered by “Proteus IV,” his disappearance is ignored by everyone for the crucial month the computer requires for Christie to carry and give birth to its progeny. Donald Cammell directed competently, although with very little style; but for Bill Butler’s rich cinematography, Demon Seed could almost have been a made-for-TV movie. Jerry Fielding’s musique concrète score is effective in context, although I can’t imagine wanting to listen to it in isolation, although Butler, who two years earlier shot Jaws, brings warmth to a cold story with his supple lighting and color. Almost unreservedly grim, the picture has one good in-joke: The chilly, unemotional voice of Proteus IV was provided by the equally frigid Robert Vaughn.


The Mouse on the Moon (1962)
The Mouse on the Moon - Moody, Rutherford (resized)

A mildly amusing adaptation of Leonard Wibberly’s satirical novel, itself a sequel to his enormously popular The Mouse That Roared and its inevitable movie. As with the movie of that book, The Mouse on the Moon is more twee than funny, although it manages a few laughs. Margaret Rutherford is charming as the Grand Duchess, although her role is shorter than one would like, and she is, curiously, less sweetly moving than Peter Sellers was in the role! A lot of good farceurs are in this one, including Ron Moody as the corrupt Prime Minister, Bernard Cribbins as his earnest son, Terry-Thomas as a less than efficacious English spy, the Broadway actor Tom Aldredge (husband of the costume designer Theoni V.) as a hapless Pentagon assistant and David Kossoff as the preternaturally cheerful and unhurried scientist whose discovery that the tiny Duchy’s combustible wine can be used as fuel for a space capsule sets the plot in motion. Michael Pertwee (brother of Jon) wrote the script, and Richard Lester directed in a style that is rather sedate for him — but A Hard Day’s Night was just around the corner.


The Importance of Being Earnest (1952)

Importance of Being Earnest - Criterion

Only a true auteur (or anyway an auteurist home video company) could seriously attach a possessive credit to The Importance of Being Earnest other than Oscar Wilde. Yes, Anthony Asquith wrote the adaptation and directed it, but I suspect he would be appalled at being named, as Criterion does, the “creator” of this movie. Thus does the viral insanity of Andrew Sarris infect everything.

Wilde’s “Serious Comedy for Trivial People” is one of the great pleasures the English-speaking theatre affords, its torrent of polished witticisms and dizzying aperçus piling up in a manner so intoxicating that in addition to laughing, often, we sit in the theatre smiling in perfect bliss for the play’s three delirious acts. The 1952 movie is briefer than the play — it runs a fast 95 minutes — yet somehow we miss nothing. And if both Michael Redgrave (as Jack) and Michael Denison (Algernon) are a good decade older than their roles, Asquith’s framing device of a theatrical performance is superfluous and Denison’s perennial mode of expression is something between a smirk and a sneer, rendering him less impish than unpleasant, everything else is absolutely right. Asquith’s pitch and pacing are exactly correct, and his cast is nearly perfect. Redgrave, with his dashing mien and rich, plummy voice, is an ideal Jack Worthing, perfectly matched by the serene imbecility of Joan Greenwood’s Gwendolen and Dorothy Tutin’s Cecily. Margaret Rutherford and Miles Malleson are, as always with these two sublime comedians, oases of hilariously unflappable British reserve. And if it does nothing else, the movie preserves Edith Evans’ peerless Lady Bracknell. Her performance is so perfectly calibrated, her characterization so utterly certain of the rightness of its extreme rectitude and absurd traditions, her memory must present a formidable hurdle to any actor assaying the role. How do you make it your own when she got every line so magnificently right before you? And yes, everything you may have heard about her reading of the outraged line “A handbag?” is correct; no matter how many times I hear it, Evans’ exquisite comic phrasing always elicits from me a gale of explosive hilarity. As an added fillip, Desmond Dickinson’s rich photography, like the delicious British light music score by Benjamin Frankel, makes the thing like a colorful bonbon, as charming to look at as to digest.

John Simon always maintained that intelligent laughter was the very best sort. There are fewer pure fonts of it than this.


Satchmo (1988)
Satchmo - Giddins
The superb jazz (and, lately, movie) critic Gary Giddins’ heartfelt 1988 tribute to one of his idols, and mine. Written by Giddins and co-directed by him and Kendrick Simmons, Satchmo charts the astonishing youthful rise of one of the few undisputed musical geniuses of the 20th century, illustrating just why he, more than anyone of his time, defined the parameters of the form and the place of the great solo artist within it; his sometimes troubled middle-age; and his transcendent emeritus years, when the taint of Uncle Tomism, never fair, began to fall away and Armstrong’s importance could be more broadly understood. When his great Hot Fives and Hot Sevens recordings from the late 1920s were reissued on LP around the time Giddins’ documentary was airing on PBS, they were a revelation: While Armstrong was hardly the first jazz performer — the genre predated his arrival in it by decades — those records made it feel as if he was inventing jazz right on the spot. Next to an astonishment like “West End Blues,” almost everything that came before was literally marking time.

Despite Hattie Winston’s passionless and undistinguished narration, Satchmo does for Armstrong, in 90 minutes, what it takes Ken Burns, in Jazz, 10 episodes to do. The live footage of Armstrong in Copenhagen in 1933 alone justifies the entire event.


Divorce American Style (1967)

Divorce American Style - 1967

Dick Van Dyke has clearly had it up to here with Debbie Reynolds. Well, who wouldn’t?

Few things date faster than topical humor. Divorce American Style was old-hat two years after its release, when no-fault divorce became the law of the land in California, where the movie is set, and its then-scathing satire instantly devolved from amusingly au courant to hopelessly passé. So if you like the picture as I do and have since seeing it on television in the mid-‘70s, you have to approach it as a period-piece — even though its Norman Lear/Robert Kaufman screenplay has infinitely more bite to it than William Rose’s Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, the script that bested it at the 1967 Oscars. This was one of Dick Van Dyke’s few non-family friendly projects of the ‘60s, and one of his best. He’s the husband impoverished by his state’s punitive divorce laws, although I would think being married to Debbie Reynolds was punishment enough. While there is some sharp dialogue and several cleverly conceived and executed sequences, usually set to Dave Grusin’s inspired faux-Baroque music (the opening titles, in which the evening’s suburban arguments are orchestrated by a conductor; the scene in which each warring spouse attempts to thwart the other’s abilities to strip their join bank holdings; the Sunday-fathers’ gathering of the clans; and a prolonged silent fight between Reynolds and Van Dyke, punctuated entirely by slamming doors and sliding cabinets) much of the humor of the picture lies in its canny casting: Jason Robards, Jr. as the tragi-comic divorcée hoping to pair his ex (Jean Simmons) with Van Dyke, to get him off the financial hook that is literally destroying his heath; Shelley Berman and Richard Gautier as overly pally divorce lawyers; Joe Flynn as an ethical philandering husband; Martin Gabel as a humorless couples’ therapist; Lee Grant as an insulted call-girl; Tom Bosley as a divorced man explaining the intricacies of weekend fatherhood to a bewildered Van Dyke; Van Johnson as a square, mother-ridden car dealer; and in smaller roles, Emmaline Henry, the “hip hypnotist” Pat Collins (as herself), Shelley Morrison, Eileen Brennan as Robards’ girlfriend (this was her first movie) and, as Van Dyke and Reynolds’ knowing sons, Gary Goetzman and Tim Matheson, the once and future Jonny Quest. Conrad L. Hall’s muted color photography and Ferris Webster’s often effective editing make this one of the rare ‘60s comedies that has more in common with the kineticism of The Graduate than with the glorified Universal television look of a Doris Day vehicle. After a second bracing Van Dyke black comedy (Cold Turkey in 1971) and the 1973 Ryan O’Neal caper The Thief Who Came to Dinner the director Bud Yorkin and his writer and co-producer Norman Lear would develop All in the Family for television and pretty much turn their backs on the movies for good. Interesting too that the fruits of their TV empire, the aptly-named Tandem Productions, which encompassed All in the Family, Maude, Good Times and Sanford and Son, should now be referred to solely as Norman Lear’s. There’s nothing like having good P.R.


Lady and the Tramp (1955)

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The first Disney animated feature in widescreen and among the most charming of all full-length cartoons.


Hearts of the West (1975)
Hearts of the West - Bridges, Arkin

Hearts of the West is one of those puzzlers that occasionally crop up: A bright,  funny little movie about a hapless Candide in the early days of cheap talkie Westerns with a charming script and a wonderful cast that went by the wayside when it was released and, for reasons that absolutely defy logic, bombed at the box office. What were its “must-see” competitors in the marketplace in October, 1975? Tom Laughlin in The Master Gunfighter? Diana Ross in Mahogany? The “Blaxploitation” Western Take a Hard Ride? That last is not a slur, by the way; I like Take a Hard Ride enormously. I’m simply saying that Hearts of the West had very little real competition for moviegoers’ bucks, and none remotely as good.*

Sharply and wittily written by Rob Thompson and efficiently directed by Howard Zieff, it’s a breezy, quirky fable of a Western-obsessed youth (Jeff Bridges), determined to become a novelist, who after inadvertently foiling a pair of con artists (Richard B. Shull and Anthony James) and accidentally absconding with their loot, takes refuge with the cowboys at a Poverty Row studio. Thompson, who later wrote for Northern Exposure and Monk, has a gift for the unexpected; his characters don’t always act the way we think they will, and his narratives veer off into avenues that, while perhaps puzzling at first, eventually resolve themselves as, within the gentle madness of the conception, eminently reasonable. And, unlike with Richard Rush’s far more highly lauded The Stunt Man,  Thompson respects the physical realities of filmmaking. Everything about the picture works, from the soft, lovely cinematography by Mario Tosi and the sometimes hilariously accurate art direction by Robert Luthardt and set decoration by Charles B. Pierce to the cunning period costumes by Patrick Cummings and Ron Talsky. Zieff’s direction is clean and uncluttered, and he gets the most from Thompson’s script and from his actors, who aside from a typically wonderful Bridges include Alan Arkin as an excitable director, the sublime Blythe Danner as his practical assistant, and Andy Griffith as a Western gunfighter with a secret. It was the best screen role Griffith had lucked onto since the 1957 A Face in the Crowd, and you can well understand why he was still bitter about the movie’s financial failure a decade later.


The Mosquito Coast (1986)

The Mosquito Coast - Mirren, Ford, Phoenix

After the apocalypse: Helen Mirren and River Phoenix look to Harrison Ford for a sane reaction to their disaster. They won’t get it.

When I first saw The Mosquito Coast on its release in 1986, I clocked more walk-outs in the audience than for any picture of my experience since Looking for Mr. Goodbar in 1977. There were any number of reasons for audience discontent in the case of the latter. As to the former, I think there were two.

First, Harrison Ford’s previous picture, a year earlier, had been Witness, a huge hit in which he played an implacable cop and which built to a big, violent finish. Here he was a mercurial obsessive who blithely endangers his family by repeatedly trying to set up a kind of half-assed Utopia in Honduras, dragging them from one untenable encampment to another, and slowly going mad. This was not what an audience expected of Han Solo, much less of Indiana Jones.

Second (and worse) “Father,” as Ford’s character is usually called, does not grow and change for the better. A mass audience can take a character as weird and arrogant as this only when it receives assurance that he will see the error of his ways. Even Oedipus putting out his eyes is more acceptable to it than watching a beloved actor descend into madness and death assaying a character who (as the asparagus farmer played by Dick O’Neill notes of him) is “the worst kind of pain-in-the neck: A know-it-all who’s sometimes right.” If you’re open to the experience, however, and to its bitter vision, The Mosquito Coast is that rare thing: An American movie that does not compromise.

Paul Schrader’s screenplay telescopes some of the narrative of the superb Paul Theroux novel (the Fox family’s miserable journey is more protracted in the book) and softens some of its nastier edges. I couldn’t understand, for example, why in Theroux the younger Fox children are so antagonistic toward Charley (River Phoenix) who is a nice, sensitive kid even if he only recognizes the full extent of his father’s endangering madness when it’s far too late — just as in the book Father’s bullying, while grounded in his determination to prepare his children for survival in a world he believes is reverting to savagery, ranges well beyond cruelty; Allie Fox is perhaps a minor-league sadist, but anyone who’s grown up with such a parent knows that even low-grade sadism is deeply wounding to the children who are its targets. As with all adaptations of fine literature, much is necessarily lost along the way, but on balance Schrader captures the tone of the book, especially in Charley’s narration, which carries over from the novel and allows the viewer, as it did the reader, some perspective on his Quixotic father.

The Mosquito Coast is one of those pictures that seems to benefit from its director not being an American. Perhaps, as an Australian, Peter Weir was able to look at Allie, and at the world he escapes from, plain. There’s a sense that the filmmakers admire Father’s vision, even as they look askance at how he achieves it. And when Allie inadvertently destroys and pollutes his manufactured Paradise, Ford gets Father’s response exactly, and staggeringly, right: Every set-back becomes a new beginning, and he claims he’s overjoyed at the prospect, utterly unable to see how each such fresh start in the face of failure is another slow death for his wife and children. I think his performance as Allie Fox is the finest Harrison Ford has ever given, and it’s garnered him scant honor. That audience indifference to artistic integrity, a collective shrug, says much about why we get the movies we do: We deserve them.


The Weavers: Wasn’t That a Time! (1982)
The Weavers - Wasn't That a Time!

Jim Brown’s absolutely wonderful documentary, ostensibly on the final Carnegie Hall reunion concert by The Weavers but really about American values in adversity and defiance in the face of repression is especially relevant now, as hundreds of millions behave like sheep over a winter influenza virus and gratefully permit their various versions of Big Brother to squeeze yet more liberty from their already diminished lives.


Far from the Madding Crowd (1967)
Far from the Madding Crowd - Christie, Bates
Whether or not one is an aficionado of Thomas Hardy’s, and despite the author’s occasional 19th century Chauvanism toward women, Far from the Madding Crowd is an easy book to love. Its four major characters are beautifully drawn, none of them shaded entirely one way or the other; as in life, they are neither heroic, nor villainous, although each is entirely human and therefore eminently capable of both heroism and villainy. The essential narrative is relatively simple: A single woman (Bathsheba Everdine) entrances three separate men (Shepherd Oaks, Farmer Boldwood and Sergeant Troy). The novel’s progress is over several years as each of the men pursues her, gives up (Oaks), temporarily wins her (Troy) or, unable to, is driven to a mad act of violence (Boldwood). That Batheheba is entirely to blame for Boldwood’s infatuation is not in question — indeed, she shoulders the blame willingly and repeatedly. But should anyone be forced to surrender all hope of future happiness over a youthful prank? Yet Boldwood is not an ogre, merely a man possessed; and if Troy is more than a bit of a cad, he too has his moment of reckoning, although he is unable to resist the temptation to return to the scene when fate has permitted him a handy escape. Of the three only Oaks is able to integrate his love for Bathsheba into his working life, and only he regards her on equal terms and not as a conquest or an ornament. And while it is clear that while Hardy too admires Bathsheba’s independence (she inherits a farm, and works it successfully) we can only assume at the end that, once Oaks’ own inheritance is merged with hers, it will be his farm entirely. Well,  one cannot undo the traditions and legalities of the past, although Christ alone knows today’s “woke” filmmakers seem to believe they can if they just ignore them hard enough.

I’m not sure why, since it hews very close to its source, this beautiful and intelligent adaptation by Frederic Raphael and John Schlesinger doesn’t work. Its nearly three-hour running time ensures that most of the central events of the novel are represented; the only major incident not included is Bathsheba’s early rescue of Oaks from suffocation. And the location shooting thoroughly captures the  atmosphere of Hardy’s “Wessex,” a geography of the mind not dissimilar to Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County. (The movie was shot around Dorset, where the author lived and wrote.) Yet despite its splendid cast and handsome photography — Nicholas Roeg was the cinematographer — the movie never quite catches fire. I think the lack has to do with an accumulation of little things; small details Schlesinger and Raphael either miss, or make too much of. I don’t mean the casting of the famously blond Julie Christie as the (equally famously) raven-haired Bathsheba. I’m referring to the overuse of rack-focus; the elongation of the sequence in which Troy shows off his swordsmanship for Bathsheba, which Schlesinger turns into something so over-the-top its erotic metaphor becomes nearly pornographic and his later appearance disguised as Dick Turpin is presented as part of a raucous slapstick circus; the loss of affecting detail in the novel, such as the way Hardy reveals after the murder that Boldwood had painstakingly assembled an entire new wardrobe for his hoped-for bride, or that his execution is stayed at the 11th hour, or even that he attempts suicide and is foiled; or, conversely, needless invention, such as the way, at the end, Oak and Bathsheba’s quiet wedding is turned by the filmmakers into a very public fête.

Far from the Madding Crowd - poster (resized)

What absolutely does work are the performances of the actors. Christie catches Bathsheba in all her moods and contradictions; Bates locates Oak’s stoicism as well as his  gentle yet dogged professionalism and determination; Stamp is both dashing and  mercurial — here coldly commanding, there over-brimming with passion; and Finch, who has the most difficult role in the picture, makes Boldwood dignified and tragic in equal measure. The production design (Richard Macdonald), art direction (Roy Smith), set decoration (Peter James) and costumes (Alan Barrett) are similarly fulsome and apt, and I cannot imagine how the glorious musical score by Richard Rodney Bennett, with its exquisite main theme, could be bettered.

Schlesinger and Roeg, highly proficient throughout even with my reservations about the totality of their work, handle some of the set-pieces splendidly, such as the terrible moment when the younger of Oaks’ two border terriers drives his flock over the cliffs, or the terrible final trek taken by poor Fanny Robin (Prunella Ransome) to the workhouse, or the sequence in which Oaks, finding all the men drunk on Troy’s brandy, undertakes the necessary covering of Bathsheba’s ricks of wheat in a punishing thunderstorm, joined in the endeavor by Bathsheba herself, perfectly illustrating how well they work together. But the movie’s failure boils down, ultimately, to a matter of its elements being simultaneously too much, and not enough: After Bathsheba leaves him following their first romantic encounter, Stamp’s Troy sits on the side of the hill in wide shot and the unseen sun above is repeatedly hidden by, and emerges from behind, the clouds, the darkness rolling over the land and being chased again by rays of light. It’s one of the loveliest effects in nature, especially when the field for viewing is vast enough. Here, you get the sense that Schlesinger and Roeg were so in love with it, and so lost in contemplation of its pictorial glory, that they lingered over the moment interminably. There’s a metaphor in that, and not the one they had in mind.


*It appears the Bill Cosby-Sidney Poitier comedy Let’s Do it Again was the big winner in October of 1975presumably on the strength of Jimmy “J.J.” Walker, then the inexplicably popular star of Good Times, in a co-starring rolealong with the Walter Hill period bare-knuckle boxing picture Hard Times and the belated True Grit sequel (and African Queen rip-off) Rooster Cogburn starring the unlikely duo of John Wayne and Katharine Hepburn.

Text copyright 2020 by Scott Ross

Janus or Pluto?: (Some) theatre on video and film

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By Scott Ross

Justin Kirk

The astonishing (and astonishingly beautiful) Justin Kirk in Angels in America.

Much of my home-video viewing of late has been either of plays transmitted for television or of movies adapted from the stage. Accepting as a given that what is designed for the live theatre can never be experienced in quite the same way through any other medium, the differences in approach and the limitations of form present some interesting contours for contemplation. Take, for example, two filmed stage plays of recent vintage, seen back-to-back, more through random choice than by design. (Or were they? The mind makes its patterns where, seemingly, only chance and whim prevail…)

love and human remains matthew ferguson thomas gibson

Matthew Ferguson and Thomas Gibson as an unlikely potential couple in Love and Human Remains.

First, Love and Human Remains, the 1993 movie of the Canadian dramatist Brad Fraser’s superb — and, given its unabashed gay perspective, astonishingly popular — 1989 play Unidentified Human Remains and the True Nature of Love. Fraser’s is one of the very few plays I have ever made a point of seeing more than once during its local run (at Raleigh Ensemble Players, in 1999.) And what with its author’s sharp, intelligent dialogue and compelling narrative, and the splendid Thomas Gibson in the lead, I had high expectations for the movie… though not, I should add, of its director, Denys Arcand, the onlie begettor of The Decline of the American Empire, arguably the most specious, pretentious, verbose, dishonest and generally stultifying “serious” movie of 1986. Arcand, as it turned out, acquitted himself well enough here. What didn’t work in the picture, however, was what did, so spectacularly, in the theatre: The playwright’s highly idiosyncratic dialogue. Somehow, between stage and screen, something got flattened. It did not seem the fault of the excellent cast, nor necessarily, of the filmmakers. So what, then?

It was only when I moved on to the next item that a possibility, however vague, began to suggest itself. If any play of the past 25 years can be said to be theatrical, surely it would be Tony Kushner’s epic Angels in America. In a reverse of my experience with Love and Human Remains, I approached Angels with more than a little trepidation: Even if HBO and Mike Nichols were scrupulously true to Kushner’s proudly un-closeted dialogue and characters, his searing intelligence and his soaring stagecraft, how could this stunningly expansive “Gay Fantasia on National Themes” possibly work in the unforgiving medium of film, whose very realism must necessarily militate against so defiantly un-realistic a project? Yet, as mysteriously as the failure of Fraser’s dialogue to fully correspond with the medium, in Angels, Kushner’s lines, so alternately poetic and rhetorical on the stage, virtually sing on film.

Again, why? The only sliver of an answer that presents itself to me after lengthy consideration is that Angels is effective precisely because of its fantastic nature, not in spite of it. Although Nichols and Stephen Goldblatt, his brilliant director of photography, are at pains to present a New York as visceral and de-glamorized as possible, the fantasy elements do not sit uneasily in their frame, rendering the movie neither the fish of theatre nor the fowl of the moving picture; rather, as the Angel America herself, they burst the skin of reality. As the pieces fall, a hybrid is born: theatrically-charged, bordered on one side by the fantastic and the other by the actual, yet through some curious alchemy not schizoid but whole. Intact. The elements, shattered, re-form. Which seems somehow perfectly in keeping with Kushner’s keenly bifurcated yet intensely unified pair of plays.

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Al Pacino (as Roy Cohn) and Meryl Streep (as the spirit of Ethel Rosenberg): Can the conscience-less ever really be haunted?

It hardly hurts that Angels is cast, from top to bottom, with magnificent actors, some of them (Patrick Wilson, Ben Shenkman, the phenomenal Justin Kirk) new to me, others (Mary-Louise Parker, Emma Thompson, Jeffrey Wright, James Cromwell) more established, and two whose presence alone, I suppose, would justify the phrase “event casting”: Al Pacino and Meryl Streep. Pacino, who so often revels in outsized characters, has a field-day blasting all and sundry with the sociopathic arrogance of Roy Cohn’s self-aggrandizement, undone only in this case (the inhuman original being hardly more timorous) by his close-cropped hair for the famously bald Cohn. Was make-up tried, and discarded? Did Pacino balk at shaving his head? The question becomes almost more compelling than Cohn’s race to die before disbarment.

Streep has been a conundrum since I first saw her in 1977, in a small role in Julia. One cannot help admiring the seriousness of purpose, the manifold wigs and accents,* each applied with rigorous determination, and the sheer technique — not to mention that sharp-nosed, ovoid face and those eyes that bespeak an intelligence that itself renders her impossible to accept as a bubble-head (and how that must have limited her Hollywood chances!) But often, the technique itself has carried the day, at least for me. The sense of Streep’s characters as lived-in, even grubby, was rare: Her radiant, troubled Karen Silkwood; her cool, unyielding and ultimately heartbreaking Lindy Chamberlin in A Cry in the Dark, which Jodie Foster once correctly described as “beyond acting”; her extraordinarily plangent Lee in Marvin’s Room; and her magnificent Clarissa Vaughan in the film of The Hours. Who can forget her, collapsed on the kitchen floor, her back to the oven, devastated by grief and trying desperately not to let her capacious heart overflow with it? In Angels, Streep gets to show off her versatility (and her facility for accents) as a sly nonagenarian Rabbi, a wry Ethel Rosenberg and a complacent, angry Salt Lake City haufrau. It is that last role, interestingly, in which Streep really shines: Seemingly humorless, Hannah Pitt jousts with the best of them; stereotypically Mormon, yet she both bears her son’s sexual confusion and becomes surrogate mother to the suffering, frightened, maddened and defiant Prior. Everything Streep does as Hannah feels right, spontaneous. This, too, is beyond acting. “Being” might be a better term for it. That definition extends as well to Justin Kirk, whose Prior Walter seems to me (who admittedly missed Stephen Spinella’s original) just about definitive. Hurt, angry, buoyant, defiantly nellie, incalculably brave, Kirk personifies every young gay man in America who woke one day in the 1980s to find himself condemned, betrayed, marginalized, but, through his wit and fervor for life, never wholly defeated.

Without recourse to keeping the plays open on my lap as I watched, and bearing in mind their sheer volubility and expanse, I cannot be sure precisely how close the HBO-produced movie is to the original plays. But it seems to me a textbook case of getting the transition correctly. Nichols is a variable movie talent, as apt to go crushingly wrong as he is to go triumphantly right. But Angels in America makes a fitting bookend to a film career that began with another adaptation of an epoch-shattering, transitional stage work — also by a young gay playwright — Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?


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Michael Redgrave as Uncle Vanya. (Chichester Festival, UK, 1962; Photo by Angus McBean / Mander and Mitchenson Theatre Collection)

The last item on the video menu, if I may be permitted the oxymoron, was likewise deeply satisfying, although on a different level: A 1963 British television transmission of Uncle Vanya in Laurence Olivier’s acclaimed Chichester Festival production. I’m not sure just when, or why, Vanya became (along with Lanford Wilson’s The 5th of July, with which it shares a number of features) one of my two favorite plays. My teenaged affection likely began with the farcical appearance of a gun in Act Three but the fullness of my response to this most plangent of Chekhov’s chamber pieces can be accounted elsewhere, and with age. As that is too private for this public space, I’ll note only how beautifully both the playwright, and this stunning cast (with one rather glaring exception) convey ennui, and its natural handmaiden, desperation, most notably in Michael Redgrave’s magisterial performance in the eponymous role… although “magisterial” in this context too seems oxymoronic, since what Redgrave anatomizes is hopelessness itself, unrelieved by the occasional revelry which, we assume, must be the only thing that holds the man together. Interestingly, while both Sonia and Dr. Astrov confess (the latter frequently) to having no hope, Vanya never does. He lives, in fact, on it… at least until its last shreds are stripped from him, first by the hated brother-in-law, later by that insufferable academic’s young wife, in whose wholly unresponsive person Vanya siphons all his non-material yearnings.

While the Kultur DVD itself is less than optimal — the original video tape has not aged well in its reproduction of light, which sometimes swallows up the actors, especially Rosemary Harris’ Helena — it is Harris herself who is the graver problem. Usually excellent, here she either settles for, as was directed by Olivier to embrace, melodramatic poses and airy line-readings, her eyes perpetually raised to some middle-distance beyond mere human ken, all of which make her both more ethereal than necessary and less condignly corporeal than required. I have no quarrel with any of the others, and indeed it is a positive benison to have in your living room so rich a set of voices, and faces, from the peerlessly flutey Max Adrian and the prototypically Nanny-esque Sybil Thorndyke to Joan Plowright’s quietly heart-rendering Sonia and the superlative Astrov of Olivier himself, all too clearly enjoying his own purported misery, yet agonizingly oblivious to Sonia’s infatuation.

But crowning the whole affair is Redgrave’s Vanya. Although his film career stretched from the late 1930s to the mid-’70s, Redgrave was almost criminally underutilized in that medium. Was he possibly, and in common with his protean contemporary Ralph Richardson, not conventionally handsome enough? Could his rich tenor/baritone have been a shade too tremulous, or imitable? Did he perhaps read too “queer”? Whatever the reasons, you have only to watch him at work as Vanya for two minutes to lament how little known he was (and is) to audiences outside of Britain and to appreciate with what fullness he dove into this quintessential Chekhovian “loser.” It’s a performance whose sound, thanks to the superb 1962 Philips LP set, I have long cherished; I’m delighted at last to see the action so beautifully suited to the word.

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*I cannot see Meryl Streep, especially under a new wig, without being reminded of something the late André Ernotte once said. When asked by a Middlebury College student his opinion of Streep as an actor he began his response with, “She’s a bundle of emotions in an English accent, she’s a bundle of emotions in a Polish accent…”


Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross

Fighting Gravity: Orson Welles at 100

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“… everything as I see it is against him before he starts, but his courage, like everything else about him, egotism, generosity, ruthlessness, forbearance, impatience, sensitivity, grossness and vision, is magnificently out of proportion.” — Micheál Mac Liammóir on Orson Welles, Put Money in Thy Purse: The Filming of Othello.


By Scott Ross

6 May 2015 marks the centenary of the birth of George Orson Welles. I doubt there’s much, if anything, I can add concerning this essential American figure that others have not already observed — those who knew him and those — the lists intermingle — who have illuminated Welles’ importance by examining the contours both of his existence and the many arts to which he gave life, and in the service of which he imbued so much and received so appallingly little.* But in this life, one has touchstones: Those figures who serve as inspirations, whose artistry touches one in ways that may defy cold analysis but whose lives and work simply matter. In my own case, there are three such artists. Tennessee Williams is one; Louis Armstrong another; and Orson Welles completes the trinity. What grips me about Welles, aside from his accomplishments, which are self-evident (or should be but all too often, to the ignorant, are not) is how deeply he strove; how much adversity he faced, and how often; how high — despite all odds, and systems, and limitations — he aspired; and what altitudes, with all possible decks stacked against him, he so often obtained.

“I started at the top and worked down.”
— Orson Welles, F for Fake

I will not rehearse here the early triumphs, save to note that Welles started big; not merely in his theatre and radio successes, at an absurdly early age, but in the profession into which he stumbled, he said, out of necessity. Broke at 16, in Ireland where he’d gone to paint for the summer and desperate to avoid college in the United States, he presented himself at Dublin’s Gate Theatre as a noted American actor who, at liberty, would condescend to perform for these Hibernian provincials if they had any leading roles going begging. Micheál Mac Liammóir, who with his work (and life) partner Hilton Edwards founded and managed the Gate, later claims to have seen through this charade, but the young Welles must have had something aside from his youth, height, bass baritone and oddly comely features (the latter accentuated by a rather sensual lower lip) for engage him they did, giving Welles an entrée in American theatre, courtesy of his Irish clippings. (He was far from stumbling into acting, however, for the theatre had been an important part of his life since at least early adolescence.)

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At 24 he was on the cover of Time; at 25 the achiever of national — indeed, international — notoriety as the progenitor of a radio “hoax” that allegedly scared a chunk of a nation already made edgy by the rise of militant Fascism in Europe, nearly to death (see Brad A. Schwartz’s book Broadcast Hysteria for a through de-bunking of the myth); and at 26 in Hollywood, where, with much of his Mercury staff, he was about to make what for many years was called (by those who actually saw it) the greatest of all American movies.

By 27, he was, on the face of it, close to a has-been.

That, at least, is the legend — or part of it, anyway. “What has he done since Citizen Kane?” was the cry, one which, with a slight variation in tense, has been the cry ever since. That legend, of course, omits two very important factors, the first of which is that there even was a Kane against which to compare the remainder of Welles’ career. (And what did you do at 26?) The second is that he never stopped manufacturing wonders. Even if, as is my case, you don’t consider Kane the greatest of all movies — and I don’t know that anyone can make that distinction, for any picture — there is (if often in final forms that altered their maker’s vision, and even meaning) The Magnificent Ambersons, The Lady from Shanghai, Macbeth, Othello, Mr. Arkadin, Touch of Evil, Chimes at Midnight and F for Fake… not to mention his marvelously theatrical play Moby-Dick — Rehearsed, his fabled “home movie” The Other Side of the Wind, and all those acting jobs, some of them (The Long, Hot Summer; Compulsion, A Man for All Seasons) sublime, which he performed to keep the whole floating opera going. It was customary, during his later years, to chortle derisively, both at his commercial appearances for television and at the aging fat man himself, and that attitude, sadly, still obtains. Recently, in an online discussion of F for Fake, one especially pompous fool I knew slightly in college (and in which setting he was the same, merely younger) chimed in, snottily, with, “And then he sold no wine before its time.” And this man makes his living writing about movies.

And here, let us add a third factor (and perhaps a fourth), one carefully and, I am convinced, deliberately, omitted from the usual discussion of Orson Welles: He was among the most radical of all filmmakers, domestic or foreign; and the means by which he operated were no less radical. Oja Kodar, the woman with whom Welles collaborated in life and in art during the last two decades and more of his life — and who was often, and even as recently as last year, condescending described in the press with the demeaning epithet of “Welles’ girlfriend” — has often said that his life was a struggle against gravity. Gravity not merely as a force weighting down the spirit and the imagination, but keeping earth-bound too the available modes of expressing them. Film, for an artist, is the most unwieldy of canvasses, and the most expensive. Ironically, the collapse of the studios that could not contain, and did not care to employ, him, was a boon for just about every independent in the business except Welles. (Another fierce and iconoclastic independent, Samuel Fuller, had similar problems.)

As we are all either beneficiaries, or victims, of our times, so too was Welles. He was wed to film, to those costly spools of celluloid that had, first, to be purchased, then exposed, then developed, then edited, duplicated, dubbed and distributed. Were he operating now, with all the many and various available digital technologies at his command, half the battles he waged just in order to work would be virtually (no pun intended) eliminated. He would surely have been entranced by the freeing possibilities, and would, I have no doubt, have exploited them more ingeniously, and with greater wit and compassion, than anyone else around.

“I think I made essentially a mistake in staying in movies but it’s a mistake I can’t regret because it’s like saying I shouldn’t have stayed married to that woman but I did because I love her. I would have been more successful if I hadn’t been married to her, you know. I would have been more successful if I’d left movies immediately, stayed in the theatre, gone into politics, written, anything. I’ve wasted a greater part of my life looking for money and trying to get along, trying to make my work from this terribly expensive paintbox which is a movie. And I’ve spent too much energy on things that have nothing to do with making a movie. It’s about two percent movie-making and ninety-eight percent hustling. It’s no way to spend a life.” — Orson Welles, 1982

Those who know Welles’ work only casually often maintain that his later years were “sad.” For we measure the movie artist in those expensive reels of film, and after F for Fake — itself so misunderstood and under-appreciated that the critical fraternity of the time ought, by rights, be called to account — there were no more. That we saw. And there’s, as they say, the rub. What the tut-tutters, both in sorrow and in derision, never know nor understand about Orson Welles is that, while he was deeply frustrated, which is indeed sad, he never stopped working on his own projects, which is not. And that is a mark not only of Welles’ restless prodigiousness, and his seriousness of purpose, but of how much he accomplished. Whether the results of Welles’ efforts were exhibited, or even completed, is of less importance, ultimately, than the fact that they were — that they existed at all.

If we look at Citizen Kane, not as the greatest, or even Welles’ greatest, but simply in its historical context, and if we know anything at all about the techniques then in vogue — and in danger of becoming ossified — in talking pictures, we can appreciate it for what it was, and for what Welles brought to the medium: The exuberance of a young man who did not understand the established rules, and who questioned why this or that had to be done, and why might it might not be done differently, and for whom his RKO contract, the subject of much envious teeth-gnashing, permitted his innocent, and joyous, expansion of the existing vocabulary. For it is that giddy experimentation, augmented to the utmost by Welles having the great good fortune of a collaboration with its cinematographer Gregg Toland, which makes Kane such a pleasure to watch.

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Welles and Joseph Cotten in Kane. The shot was achieved, believe it or not, with split-screen.

But there is more to the movie than photographic innovation. There is, too, its aural perfection — its position as the first great feature by one of radio’s most significant practitioners. Pick almost any moment, at random, in Kane and recall what’s happening on the soundtrack; Welles not only affected the way talkies looked, but the way they could sound. Yet beyond that, too, is the screenplay, with its unusual, fragmented, structure, its use of the tropes of the medium (the March of Time newsreels in particular) and its lively admixture of history, comedy, melodrama and something dangerously close to real (and specifically American) tragedy. Pauline Kael called Kane “a shallow masterpiece,” and she had a point. Its swift (if not Swiftian) satire, its pell-mell early pace, its occasional caricature, all give the picture a certain insubstantial air. However, the dredged-up memories of its characters, which reveal, in the aggregate, a far more complex central figure that was the norm, add depth to the characterization of Charles Foster Kane, and to those who surround him. Welles’ original conception was, he said, more like the later Rashomon, in that Kane “would seem to be a very different character depending on who was talking,” whereas in the final version he was rendered less extreme, and more ambiguous. It is that very ambiguity which is a hallmark of Orson Welles’ cinema, observable in all of his best work, a fact that, along with a few other consistent themes and appurtenances, gives the lie to the old canard that Welles had no hand — or, if he did, a small, editorial one — in the crafting of Kane’s screenplay.

“I am a writer-director — with an emphasis on the former.”
— Orson Welles

Kael, of course, did more to roil those waters than anyone, and it must have galled Welles to see the Kane script in book form forever wedded to the essay in which Kael “proves” he didn’t write it. (Just as it would pain him, as it does many of us, to endure Time-Warner yoking all its home video editions of Kane with that spurious documentary The Battle Over “Citizen Kane.”) That Herman Mankiewicz had a hand in the picture’s creation is not debatable. And whether Welles wrote most of it, or only some of it, is less to the point than that he was — until his late collaborations with Oja Kodar, anyway — the sole author of every subsequent movie he directed, with the notable exception of The Stranger.† Do the anti-Wellesians think he somehow pulled it over on everyone (not least of all, himself) for the rest of his life, or that, as absurdly, he miraculously sprouted a scenarist’s gifts, but only after Mankiewicz “wrote” Kane? The thematic concerns in Kane — with loneliness, loss, old age, betrayal, corruption and political engagement — are manifest in nearly all of Welles’ subsequent endeavors; indeed, they run throughout his oeuvre as a writer-director, as keenly as deception runs through Billy Wilder’s pictures and group failures inform John Huston’s. Did Mankiewicz somehow magically implant Welles’ recurrent concerns as well?

Moreover, the shape of many of the lines and speeches in Kane, the give and take of its arguments and colloquies, the wit and eloquence (even elegance) of the expression likewise reflect the writer Welles was as much as the look of Kane reflects his directorial flourishes, begun on the stage. One sees, and hears, their corollaries in The Lady from Shanghai, in Mr. Arkadin, in Touch of Evil, in F for Fake and, especially, in the un-filmed (by Welles) The Big Brass Ring. For Welles was a writer; he wrote a plethora of newspaper and magazine columns, radio (and later, television) broadcasts, and plays, in addition to his screenwriting forays, so to imagine him as somehow not responsible for a good portion of the writing of his single great critical success is patently absurd, if not downright invidious. Yet Simon Callow, Welles’ curiously — and in some respect, militantly — antipathetic biographer, baldy states, “Orson Welles did not write one word of Citizen Kane”… and ignoramus public radio interviewers in America let him get away with it.

Welles’ eloquence may owe something to his upbringing, particularly since he had no formal schooling after the age of 16. He was an aristocrat, and I think that shows in his movies as it did in the particulars of his life; for all the economic struggle that dogged his filmmaking, he clearly enjoyed a high standard of living. That background is evident too, I think, in some of his attitudes to others. Despite his leftist politics (and for all that Hearst papers and the FBI enjoyed labeling him a Communist) there was a streak of well-heeled moralism in him at times; I think I detect a little of Welles in Charles Foster Kane’s self-righteous riposte to his guardian, “If I don’t defend the interests of the underprivileged, somebody else will — maybe somebody without any money or property, and that would be too bad.” Certainly many of his attitudes were the furthest thing from enlightened; he expressed at times an appalling misogyny, in tandem with a fashionably sneering tone about homosexuals — coupled with a dismaying propensity for post-dubbing other actors with stereotyped “fag” voices. Perhaps it is those two, rather reactionary, strains that have in part led even some friendly commentators to detect a latency in Welles? Nothing, after all, succeeds like deflection.

His lack of formal education had its small defects, among them the propensity to mispronounce common terms: “Arch-type” for “archetype,” “antiquay” for “antique”… and Welles only knows why both Michael Redgrave and Robert Hardin pronounce the word telescope as “teleoscope” in Mr. Arkadin.

Welles’ mother died when he was 9, his father when the boy was 15, and a deep subsequent sense of loss seems to have followed him. Without doubt, that emotion is a primary concern in his movies. And too there was his tendency toward egocentric self-aggrandizement, but even Kael granted that, when an artist has had so much taken from him, such attitudes are explicable, if not altogether laudable. That she wrote this in an essay aimed at taking even more credit from Welles is an irony about which Kael herself was, presumably, not conscious.

“The absence of limitations is the enemy of art.”
— Orson Welles

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Agnes Moorehead as Aunt Fanny in the “hysterical” scene of The Magnificent Ambersons. Welles: “Why she never got an Academy Award for that performance I’ll never know.”

The ignorant are, perhaps naturally, all too ready to repeat mythology without bothering to learn anything about reality. And no one occasioned more speculation or accrued more ignoramuses to his legend than Welles — as many now as when he was alive, if not more. “Oh, yes — Welles. Made Citizen Kane. Never did anything after that.” That this ignores Ambersons is perhaps understandable, given that the movie was mutilated by RKO while Welles was in South America, barely released to theatres, and at that with some 50 minutes of shorn footage either incinerated or dumped into the Pacific Ocean — in any case, irrevocably destroyed, beyond the hope of restoration.‡ Welles himself wanted, in the ‘60s, to re-shoot the climax, with Joseph Cotton and Agnes Moorehead (their respective ages at the time would have fit with his original conception) but could not persuade the rights holders of the efficacy of the project. Had the movie been released in anything like Welles’ initial, 140-minute cut, it would have easily bested, if not eclipsed, Kane in conception and achievement. (Jonathan Rosenbaum’s inclusion of the scripts for the deleted sequences, along with some on-set stills, in This is Orson Welles, makes that case more than amply.) That it is still a great picture, a masterpiece even in its extremely bastardized form, and with a risible ending not shot by Welles, is a testament to how great a movie Ambersons is. Yet I become quite literally physically ill every time I think of that deliberately annihilated footage, particularly what was lost of Moorehead’s performance, which, even truncated, is among the finest ever committed to film.

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Welles (Othello) and Micheál Mac Liammóir (Iago) in the long dolly shot in which the ensign plants the seeds of doubts in the Moor’s ardor for Desdemona.

The “Nothing After Kane” school lives in willful ignorance of Welles’ other Hollywood projects of the time: Of The Stranger which, despite a somewhat perfunctory script (not by Welles, which makes the picture an anomaly in his filmography) contains some breathtaking sequences and, in the burlesque comic Billy House’s extended bit (and whose scenes Welles did write), one of the most delightful, if unheralded, supporting performances of the era; of Macbeth, made for pennies on Poverty Row, and on some occasionally cheesy sets yet despite this one of the richest of all Shakespearean transmigrations to film  — brooding, stark and even terrifying; and of The Lady from Shanghai, with its extraordinary gallery of grotesques, from Everett Sloane’s paraplegic cuckold to Glen Anders’ wild ersatz suicide (“I was just doin’ a little taaarget practice…”) and a climax which, although spoiled by some cutting of Welles’ more extensive funhouse sequence and the addition of a bloodcurdlingly dreadful musical score, does include the brilliant hall of mirrors shoot-out that ends the picture.

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“I know thee not, old man.” Falstaff is banished at the climax of Chimes at Midnight.

Not long after, in the late 1940s, Welles left America for Europe. I’ve long suspected he saw what was coming and beat it before he could be blacklisted, and in his essential What Ever Happened to Orson Welles? Joseph McBride reveals that Welles was indeed a target; his FBI file lists the usual “fellow traveler” stats. (He had also been subjected to one of those humiliating “unofficial clearance” interviews with the reactionary Hedda Hopper.) While his European budgets were curtailed — when not actually, as with Othello, nonexistent — and he was subject to terrible technical limitations, he still produced that ruminative, brief but sumptuous and disturbing tragedy, containing superb performances by himself as the Moor and by Mac Liammóir as Iago. Laurence Olivier’s Shakespeare movies got more press — and awards — than Welles’, and made more money, but I would argue that Orson’s Shakespeares are infinitely greater in the aggregate, even as they were far more limited in scope, and as their maker trimmed the texts to his own designs.§ Nothing Olivier did in that realm can touch, for instance, Welles’ Chimes at Midnight for breadth, visual poetry or sheer emotional heft.

The battle at Shrewsbury is unlike any such sequence I know in its uncompromisingly honest, even horrifying, depiction of mounted and hand-to-hand combat. And if it is hard to cotton on to Welles’ almost lovesick admiration for Falstaff (“Shakespeare’s good, pure man… the most completely good man in all drama”) it is equally difficult to suppress a shudder, and swallow past the lump in one’s throat, at Welles’ depiction of the old, fat knight’s banishment by Hal at the climax.

“A maverick may go his own way but he doesn’t think that it’s the only way, or ever claim that it’s the best one, except maybe for himself.”
— Orson Welles

The limitations imposed on Welles in his European exiles were two‑fold, and thorny. First, and partly due to the fact that he had, usually through lack of funds, to shoot in real locations, Welles had to forego the excellence of Hollywood sound recording, and often shot silently, dubbing in the voices later, during the editing stage. (A standard practice in European cinema, especially in Italy.) And while he maintained that he would rather have a great image than a great reading, post‑dubbing robbed this acutely sound‑conscious filmmaker of one of the hallmarks of his artistry. When the synchronization is good, one scarcely notices it. When it is not so felicitous, one is naggingly, sometimes maddeningly, aware of it, a flaw that detracts even from so manifestly great a movie as Chimes at Midnight. As if Welles needed another stumbling‑block in his way; Shakespeare limits one’s audience enough to begin with. Even those who admired the movie on its release, like Kael, felt that its technical flaws would likely sink its prospects. Worse, or at least more distractingly, Welles evinced a curiously self‑defeating tendency to dub other actors’ performances, and one is never not aware that, however disguised, it’s his famously distinctive timbre one is hearing. (That he so often dubbed these lines in lisping, deliberately — and, I think, rather maliciously — “faggy” tones, is an added hurdle to enjoyment.) Joseph McBride believes this aural lack forced Welles to be even more creative visually, but when you stack the sound of, say, Kane or Ambersons against that of Arkadin or Chimes at Midnight, the deficiencies are profound.

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Robert Hardin and the magisterial Michael Redgrave in the “teleoscope” scene of Arkadin. Ten of the most delightful minutes ever committed to celluloid.

Second, Welles was hampered by the inavailability in Europe both of the crane that makes grand images possible, and the grips who operate it. While neither his visual acumen nor his innate ingenuity ever deserted him completely, and indeed, such sequences as Shrewsbury leave little to be further desired, one cannot but think how much richer his later pictures might have been had he been less technically hamstrung. “I didn’t have to know about cutting until I got to Europe,” Welles told Bogdanovich. He cut, sometimes too much, to compensate for his paucity of choices, and the rhythms, even in his best pictures of that period, are sometimes, unaccountably “off.” Of course, some of these movies (Arkadin, for instance) were taken out of Welles’ hands and re-cut, so it is entirely possible, if not probable, that what we perceive as faults in his editing may well be the work of other, less creditable, hands. Certainly this is the case with the Beatrice Welles-supervised “restoration” of Othello, which suffers both from a re-recorded music track that among other things reduces the scope and grandeur of the Francesco Lavagnino score, and from some infelicitous editorial second-guessing.

All that “Nothing”… Like Mr. Arkadin, a thin ghost of Kane, perhaps, in its complicated flashback structure and its interviews with the observers of a great man’s less-than-savory past but withal one of the most engaging of all Welles’ pictures, with superlative turns by Suzanne Flon, Katina Paxinou, Akim Tamiroff and, supremely, Michael Redgrave. (There are at least seven different versions of Arkadin extant, two of which plus a “comprehensive edition” are assembled in the 2006 “Complete” Criterion set, an essential item in the home of any self-respecting cineaste.) Another nothing: Touch of Evil, perhaps the most radical crime drama ever produced at a Hollywood studio, one which — now that Walter Murch has assembled a restoration that at least honors Welles’ innovative sound design — eschews the clichés even as it is constrained by genre, and offers for our consideration the most explicit rejection of investigative brutality between the onset of the Production Code and the relaxation of its strictures. As the nominal hero (played by Charlton Heston, no less) notes, “A policeman’s job is only easy in a police state.”

And here, another myth adored by the Ignorati, as exemplified by the cretinous Tim Burton, who in his execrable Ed Wood (written by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski) has Vincent D’Onofrio as Welles weeping into his beer over being “reduced” to employing Heston in his latest epic, when it is a well-established fact that Welles owed his directing of the movie to Heston. Admittedly a mistake on Heston’s part; when he was told, by a Universal suit, “We’ve got Orson Welles,” Heston replied that he would be happy to appear in anything Welles directed. (Welles had re-written the screenplay and was only, at the time, slated to play the heavy.) The actor’s misapprehension netted Welles the directing job, and Welles knew it. So the very idea of his pissing and moaning about being “stuck” with the likes of Heston is the rankest sort of historical revisionism, insulting to everyone concerned.

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Welles (heavily padded) and Akim Tamiroff (heavily bewigged) in Touch of Evil. Welles: “He looked at that gun like it was every cock in the world.”

“I have always been more interested in experiment, than in accomplishment.” — Orson Welles

More “Nothings”: The richly evocative, nightmarish (if not especially enjoyable) The Trial; Chimes at Midnight; F for Fake. How that blazingly original meditation on art, forgery, beauty, sex and the divine comedy of life could fail to find its audience is less surprising than the critical indifference it received in America. What Welles did with F for Fake, taking off from some standard, if lively, documentary footage by François Reichenbach of the enigmatic art forger Elmyr de Hory and his neighbor and biographer Clifford Irving, was nothing less than to bring into being a new form — the personal film essay, in its more modest way as playfully revolutionary as Kane. The picture is not-quite-documentary, not-quite-fiction, and wholly, idiosyncratically Welles: Alternately frisky and sober, filled with Welles’ witty, baroque observations and beautifully photographed by Gary Graver, Welles’ indispensable lighting director and cameraman during his final years. Like Billy Wilder, Welles disdained color, but when he chose to utilize it, he did so in a way that made the images shimmer. He did not, perhaps, help his own case by submitting to the distributor an 11-minute trailer, more a stand-alone short than a preview, which he should have known would be rejected. But can we call F for Fake a “failure” because it did not find its audience? Only if we also call Kane, Ambersons, Arkadin, Touch of Evil and Chimes at Midnight failures merely because they fared poorly in the marketplace — a bazaar always more enamored with fairy tales than with honest expression. F for Fake is a “failure” only if we can also include as failures Moby-Dick and Ulysses, or The Iceman Cometh, or Van Gogh’s art, or Sondheim’s Assassins and Bernstein’s Candide.

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Welles with Oja Kodar in the charming final third of F for Fake. His love for her is evident in the exquisite way he illuminated her face.

And it is here that we perhaps comprehend the ignorant (or maliciously mischievous?) mythmakers. Orson Welles had a few small box-offices successes as a filmmaker, but no “hits.” That is what his detractors are attuned to… plus the delicious frisson of being able to mock him for his Paul Masson commercials, his narration of bad movies and documentaries, his squabbles with producers over the inane copy of a frozen peas ad… and, of course, his expanding waistline. What they neither know nor care to know, is that he poured the revenues from these perhaps ignoble adventures into his work — and that the work was never-ending. Whether the public saw the fruits of those labors, whether he was able to finish them, or wanted to — was not the point; the objective was the labor itself. “He never finishes anything!” was (is?) the cry. Does every artist finish every canvas? Every novelist complete the manuscript? Every poet the stanza? Every composer the sonata? We know, by and large, only what was completed, not the pentimento of the artist’s work, those things he or she “repented” of, painted over, tossed away. Do we pillory Picasso for changing his mind?

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Who but Welles, faced with no money and no costumes for his Othello actors, would shoot two reels in a Turkish bath and then spend two years prostituting his thespic gifts in other people’s inferior movies in order to complete the picture? Who else, having been sent to Rio de Janero on a “goodwill” project for his government, would labor, with bad — when not non-existent — communications, to complete his edit of Ambersons while simultaneously capturing, in the Jangadero sequences (finally preserved in the documentary “It’s All True”: Based on an Unfinished Film by Orson Welles decades after his death) some of the most luminously beautiful cinematography ever filmed, even as his own studio was haphazardly mutilating his greatest creation back home? “Nobody gets justice,” Welles said. “People only get good luck or bad luck.” His associate Richard Wilson maintained that the South American fiasco was the “direct cause” of Welles’ troubles ever after, and Welles concurred. “No question about it,” he told Bogdanovich. “It all stems from that.” As do the frothing teem of legends about his alleged profligacy, and his irresponsibility with other peoples’ money. Again, who but Welles would struggle to film, and edit, a genuinely experimental movie like The Other Side of the Wind, partially financed (horribile dictu!) by the brother-in-law of the Shah of Iran, and spend the rest of his life trying to extricate his movie from the fangs of revolutionary history?

“Oh, Welles — he never completes anything.”

Sigh.

“God, how they’ll love me when I’m dead!”
— Orson Welles

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Welles with Peter Bogdanovich and Joseph McBride, at a rehearsal for The Other Side of the Wind.

As Welles’ centenary approached, much speculation was evoked concerning The Other Side of the Wind. Others, Bogdanovich included, are now reportedly toiling to complete something that might approximate Welles’ final vision, and to get it released. Many Welles aficionados are excited by this possibility, but some, even the keenest, are a bit ambivalent. The picture is so laden with personal history, so talked-about, so fabled but (with the exception of a few brief sequences) so largely unseen, that they may be excused from almost hoping it never sees the flickering light of exhibition. For, like the Criterion “Comprehensive Edition” of Arkadin, the final product will not be Welles’, but — also like the recent Touch of Evil restoration — only the best approximation of his work.

This is not, you understand, to pillory Bogdanovich, or Walter Murch, or Richard Wilson, or Criterion, for their efforts. Their collective devotion to Welles, like their desire to re-present his work, is sincere. Bogdanovich in particular seems to be doing for Welles what Jo Cotten’s Eugene does for the memory of Dolores Costello at the end of Ambersons: Bringing his mentor’s work “under shelter again.” Nor, if and when Wind is released — every deal up to now has fallen through in the end — will this ardent Wellesian fail to see it. But we do risk grave disappointment in an Other Side of the Wind that falls short of expectations. Some of us who love Welles, and respect him, who experience, even at this remove, so long after his death, real pangs of empathetic regret at his deep frustrations, and who have spent time in fantasizing about Wind, have an uneasy feeling that, if the completion lets him down — lets us down — Welles’ legacy may be further tarnished. In addition, the film‑within‑the‑film that the movie’s star, John Huston, is making in Wind was, by design, a deliberate comment on then-current, early ’70s “with‑it” indulgences of the young tyros being given their collective heads at the time Welles was filming his movie. Will everyone now get the joke, or will some merely, and erroneously, think it’s Welles himself, and not Huston’s “Jake Hannaford,” who is being pretentious and overly frenetic?

Yet even those negative possibilities are no reason to deny the thing itself. How often do we get a “new” Orson Welles? And too, there is the undeniably nostalgic prospect of seeing the movie’s star, John Huston, again; and the still young and not-yet-disgraced Bogdanovich; and the glorious Oja; and Lilli Palmer, standing in for Dietrich, and Edmond O’Brien, and Mercedes McCambridge; and Susan Strasberg as a version of Kael; and Cameron Mitchell, and Norman Foster, and Gregory Sierra, and Paul Mazursky; and the impossibly young Joseph McBride as the sycophantic Mister Pister. At least Welles’ daughter, the Dread Beatrice, who has fucked up everything of her father’s she’s ever touched (the “restored” Othello, Don Quixote) up to and including his funeral, is not, this time — and thanks to Oja — intimately involved. Joseph McBride, for one, believes ardently that the picture should be completed, and released, and he’s not only devoted decades of his life to splendid Welles scholarship, he’s actually in the movie.

Who knows? Maybe it’ll be wonderful.

But it won’t quite be Welles.

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John Huston in The Other Side of the Wind.

Just as the botched The Big Brass Ring, the real heartbreaker of Welles’ final years, was ultimately not Welles. The screenplay, by Welles and Kodar, is a thing of beauty; literate, witty, perceptive, politically astute, emotionally raw, with perhaps the most chillingly forlorn sequence of voyeurism in the American cinematic canon. In a highly personal touch, the movie’s central figure, the potential President William Blake Pellarin, desperately pursues a woman from his past, much as Welles did Kodar in the 1960s. When they finally come together, they are seen making love, through an open window, by Pellarin’s shady old political mentor, the aging Kim Minnaker, who has long been carrying his own torch for his protégé and who spies the pair while riding a Ferris wheel. In a moment as sexually charged as anything in American movies, Pellarin becomes aware of this scrutiny, and his eyes lock with Minnaker’s. The description of this emotionally naked encounter, in the published script, is among the most breathtaking I’ve ever encountered in dramatic literature; it should have burned holes in the screen.

As so often, the industry let Welles down on that one. His financing for this anguished political parable was contingent on his netting a Big Name for the lead (Welles himself would appear in the secondary role of Minnaker.) Where was the Charlton Heston of the 1980s? None of them — not Nicholson, nor Beatty, nor Redford, nor Eastwood nor Reynolds — would agree to lower his asking price, even for the privilege of working in an Orson Welles picture. And when it was done, in 1999, the director George Hickenlooper re-wrote, with F.X. Feeney, that exquisite screenplay… and dropped its finest scene — almost its entire raison d’être — that magnificent, appalling act of voyeurism.

“A film is a dream, but a dream is never an illusion.”
— Orson Welles

Welles was, like all important artists (and so many others) obsessed by certain themes: Old age, lost Edens, loneliness. The largest of these, I think, was betrayal. One sees it time and again in his work, and in his overmastering regard for Falstaff. He seemed, in some curious way, to expect to be betrayed, preferably by a younger man, and felt, finally, that he was, by Bogdanovich. Certainly Welles had been betrayed, and repeatedly — by studios, by collaborators, by financiers, by critics and other writers. And, just as certainly, the remarks he made about Bogdanovich to Henry Jaglom at their audiotaped luncheons are not those of a friend. In the transcripts of those tapes Jaglom, quite properly, and in what one senses is genuine disappointment and confusion, upbraids Welles more than once for his rudeness and bigotry. But blindness to the problems of others even as we ourselves struggle was not, is not, unique to Welles. At the risk of an unintended visual pun, he was large; he contained multitudes. So, too, should our response to Welles embrace catholicism: Let what is sad be sad, what is maddening be so too, and what is grand be, as it so often is, magnificent. Welles himself often said that he, an instinctive anti-auteurist, did not believe in creators, only in works. That is more than a fine distinction. It is, finally, an overarching philosophy.

And so let, on that note, the last words of this impassioned defense (and passionate appraisal) of Welles be his. In the deeply moving Chartres sequence of F for Fake, Welles, appearing to gaze at the Cathedral but, Gary Gravers informs us, actually at nothing, in the back yard of his own home (Orson: “Anybody can make movies with a pair of scissors and a two-inch lens.”) contemplates art, and the fate of the artist, in his own, exquisite, probing, style.

It’s not a bad epitaph, for him, or for anyone who strives, in a world always and eternally indifferent to artists, for expression.

“Our works in stone, in paint, in print, are spared, some of them, for a few decades or a millennium or two, but everything must finally fall in war, or wear away into the ultimate and universal ash — the triumphs, the frauds, the treasures and the fakes. A fact of life: we’re going to die. ‘Be of good heart,’ cry the dead artists out of the living past. ‘Our songs will all be silenced, but what of it? Go on singing.’ Maybe a man’s name doesn’t matter all that much.”

Orson_Welles_magician_in_F_for_Fake

* Among them, Richard France, Frank Brady, Micheál Mac Liammóir, André Bazin, Joseph McBride, Peter Bogdanovich, Oja Kodar, Gary Graver, Barbara Leaming, Jonathan Rosenbaum, James Naremore, Christopher Welles and Clinton Heylin.

† Touch of Evil was re-written by Welles, from two earlier drafts by Paul Monash and Franklin Coen, which he combined, edited and expanded upon.

‡ Another legend: The possible existence of Welles’ work-print, left behind in Rio — an almost unbearably tantalizing prospect which, to date, seems mere apocrypha.

§ Welles is also a far better Othello than Olivier, whose eye-rolling performance is perhaps the worst, and hammiest, ever given by an important actor in a major screen role.

All other text copyright 2015 by Scott Ross

Mr. Arkadin (1955) Aka, “Confidential Report”

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By Scott Ross

A tantalizing enigma, like its writer/director and star. Compromised as much as any Orson Welles production, by budget, sound problems — how that must have maddened him! — and lack of adequate post-production facilities, yet Mr. Arkadin is, with Citizen Kane, one of Welles’ two most perfectly entertaining movies. It was released in several versions, depending on the region, and Welles’ elaborate flashback structure was entirely absent in at least one of them. But if you’re a Welles aficionado, as I am, the recent, three-disc boxed set from Criterion provides a means of piecing it all (or mostly) together. If you watch the two, truncated, versions of the movie first and then the “comprehensive” edition stitched together by Criterion, you find each reflecting on, and enriching, the others. Although Criterion is, quite rightly, at pains to point out that there can be no definitive version without Welles, the final disc is probably as fine a representation of his intentions as we’re ever likely to get.

The narrative arc is a bit too close to that of Citizen Kane (third-party reporter investigating the life of the central figure) for true originality, and the budgetary poverty of the thing is written all over it. But it’s beautifully written — the “novelization” is included in the Criterion package, as signed by Welles, who always maintained “some hack” wrote it — with a superb gallery of rich characterizations buoying up the enterprise.

Chief among these pleasures is Michael Redgrave’s marvelous turn as the Polish antiques dealer, the splendidly named Burgomil Trebitsch. It’s a queen-y role — one Welles could not have gotten away with under prevailing American Production Code censorship — but not offensively so, either in its conception by Welles (himself recently the recipient of some, not unwarranted, sexual speculation) nor by the nominally bisexual Redgrave, who has a high time of it with his hair net and his oddly sweet, if seedy, charm.

The most moving of the vignettes is the one with Katina Paxinou as Sophie, as mysterious in her way as Arkadin himself, if more notably vulnerable.

Suzanne Flon is nearly as affecting, in a subtler and more cheerful manner, as the Baroness Nagel; even in her impoverished state, she has ethics. (Although it doesn’t matter; Arkadin gets from her exactly what he wants anyway.)

Mischa Auer shows up too, in a curious, and slightly gruesome, flea circus sequence. Oddly, his voice on the soundtrack (like that of the murder victim at the beginning of the movie) is clearly Welles’. I don’t know, or no longer remember, why Orson re-dubbed Auer’s lines here, as he did with Robert Coote’s Roderigo in his 1952 Othello, and Criterion offers no explanation.

Akim Tamiroff, who was to return to the Welles fold as the memorably comic villain Grandi in Orson’s 1958 Touch of Evil, gives a superb performance as the dying ex-con Zouk, the final piece of the Arkadin puzzle, and the last to be eliminated by the fiercely private multi-millionaire. Tamiroff is so good, especially when working with Welles, that one is constantly asking why he is not more widely known, and revered, as a character actor. Whinnying, screeching, conniving, less afraid of violent death than of missing his final Christmas goose, his is an unforgettable presence in the movie.

Arkadin himself is essentially a supporting role, even an extended cameo, played by Welles himself in his deliciously plummy style, but his presence hangs over the whole thing like a malevolent fog.

As to Arkadin’s famous toast “to character”: It has since become something of a by-word among Welles critics, who — fatuously — see in it a confession as revealing of the filmmaker as of the character he’s playing.

Do they also believe Welles thought he was Basil Zaharoff? It’s a fictional character, you clots!

“Now I’m going to tell you about a scorpion. This scorpion wanted to cross a river, so he asked a frog to carry him. ‘No,’ said the frog, ‘No thank you. If I let you on my back you may sting me, and the sting of the scorpion is death.’  ‘Now where,’ asked the scorpion, ‘is the logic of that?’ For scorpions would try to be logical. ‘If I sting you, you will die, I will drown.’ So the frog was convinced to allow the scorpion on his back. But, just in the middle of the river, he felt a terrible pain and realized that, after all, the scorpion had stung him. ‘Logic!’ cried the dying frog as he started under, taking the scorpion down with him. ‘There is no logic in this!’ ‘I know,’ said the scorpion, ‘but I can’t help it. It’s my character.’ Let’s drink to character.”

 

All other text copyright 2013 by Scott Ross