I went to the BAFTAs this week – yes, nice, thank you. Then I pathologically reviewed all of my other cultural endeavours. Here you go:
The Day of the Locust by Nathanael West (1939) – A nasty, nightmarish blast of Hollywood alienation, full of foreboding, about Tod Hackett, a hulking set-designer on the fringes of Tinseltown, who falls in love with cruel aspiring actress Faye Greener while fraternising with a panorama of grotesques: the detritus of tinseltown. Written in Hollywood’s greatest year, the near-mythical 1939, it’s an unremitting horror story in economic sentences: an acidic counterpoint to Steinbeck’s contemporaneous novels, depicting the unified masses not as a humane, nourishing whole, but as a blankly vicious mob, hooked on an unfulfilling dream, and chillingly ripe for fascism. The characters in the foreground all seem ripped from some forgotten B-movie, each one warped, pathetic or both. Most memorable of all is an ailing ex-accountant who moves to California for his health, and finds only emotional brutalism and unfulfilled longing. His name? Erm, Homer Simpson. (3.5)
West's other best-known book, Miss Lonelyhearts, was adapted twice for the screen. The first version gave its name to my blog (though I was also riffing on the fact that those smitten with Old Hollywood often find a solace in it that others find in love), though the film was a faithless cash-in looking to repeat the success of Lee Tracy's breakthrough vehicle, Blessed Event. The second version stars two of my favourites: a post-accident Monty Clift, and Myrna Loy in one of her sporadic character parts.
CINEMA: Fences (Denzel Washington, 2016) – An astonishing drama, based on August Wilson's Pulitzer Prize-winning play, which tells an archetypally American story in the manner of Eugene O'Neill or Arthur Miller, but does so to elucidate the African-American experience, which as 13th so eloquently expressed, is the result of decisions that have never been in their hands.
Denzel Washington is Troy Maxson, an unyielding, fiercely proud working-class black man in '50s America, who's the king of his castle, a house he bought with his sweat and blood and the $3,000 his brother got for having half his head blown off in the war.
Across 140 minutes, via dazzling set-pieces both restrained and marauding, Wilson lays bear the virtues, vices, triumphs and compromises of Troy's existence, and that of black Americans both then and now: poverty, incarceration, brutal fathers, restricted choices and mistakes inherited and repeated across the generations. Viola Davis, who like Washington played her role on Broadway in a 2010 revival, is Troy's wife Rose, a fond, no-nonsense and fiercely loyal co-conspirator whose entire worldview is about to take an almighty beating.
To say more would be to undermine the film's ability to astound and confound, so I'll add simply that it is both extraordinarily original and utterly timeless, with a polemical power that comes along rarely, and two of the finest performances in years. Davis won a BAFTA at my office last night, but Washington is every bit as good, and probably even better – presumably the reason he's not scooping every gong going is because his character is so complex, and decidedly difficult to like. There are passages here that mesh together every emotion of a sidelined people fighting for self-worth: righteous but corrosive anger, well-earned but worthless pride, a cod-Biblical relationship with mortality and temptation that runs the gamut from twinkly-eyed gameplaying to supernatural terror.
He's haunted by his father, and he haunts his son.
There's superb support too from the likes of Stephen Henderson and Mykelti Williamson, and while the film perhaps has a couple of endings too many (with shades of Edna Ferber sagas or The Place Beyond the Pines' daddy issues), its epilogue does ultimately justify itself, at least in giving Davis another chance to shine, and articulating Wilson's final verdicts on manhood, on creativity and on Troy.
Fences must have been staggering on stage back in '83 and in its 2010 revival, but this filmed version is about as good as you could imagine – a little obvious symbolism here and there, like the rose falling to the floor – utilising cinema's virtues (close-ups, full sets, cuts and multiple takes) without sacrificing the intensity or authenticity of the material. Fences stands shoulder-to-shoulder with the great American plays of the mid-20th century; now in 2017 it can tell the kind of story that was kept off our cinema screens for too damn long. (4)
Many thanks to the NSPCC for inviting me to their preview screening.
The Great Lie (Edmund Goulding, 1941) – A far-fetched melodrama, in which an affecting Bette Davis unfathomably feuds with concert pianist Mary Astor for the affections of smugly stolid George Brent, the most objectionable leading man in ‘40s Hollywood. The first half is good fun, reaching its apogee with a beautiful wedding sequence augmented by dramatic and audial grace notes – a little black kid in a tree singing a spiritual as the newlyweds recline on a first-floor patio – but the film goes increasingly awry, degenerating into histrionics and inexplicable plot developments, and then failing to deliver the cathartic climax that would have made that halfway worthwhile.
There’s a fair amount going for it, including one of Davis’s most appealing characterisations: her Maggie is defined only in relation to a man, which is a missed opportunity in the writing, but her performance is perfectly balanced: joyous, explosive, then noble and sad: marinaded in misery, commandeered by confusion. The film is further enhanced by Max Steiner’s lush score, fitfully thoughtful direction– with crane shots and intelligent Tony Gaudio compositions, around a third of the time – and particularly Hattie McDaniel’s lovely supporting turn, the great African-American actress mining humanity from a role as Davis’s housekeeper that on paper’s not much more than a ‘mammy’ stereotype.
Unfortunately the story, the casual misogyny and the limp dialogue prevent it all from amounting to very much, a problem compounded by two of the central actors. Astor is promisingly cast as the villain, but her one-dimensional, Oscar-winning (!) performance becomes merely annoying after a while. It’s also oddly sterile: I remain baffled that possibly the most sexual woman in Hollywood doesn’t know how to be sexy on camera. When it’s beside the point – as in The Palm Beach Story or Midnight – she sizzles, with an offhand attitude that’s immensely attractive, but when it’s demanded of her to be alluring, she ballses it up: in The Maltese Falcon she’s neurotic rather than fascinating, here’s she’s superficial and irritating in a way that fatally undermines an already compromised script. Despite her shortcomings, though, Astor’s character remains a passionate artist, and the idea that these vital women would be warring over someone as unappealing as Brent’s vapid, uninspired and casually sexist aviator is altogether incredible.
It’s still just about worth it for the film’s virtues, the greatest of which is Bette at her lofty zenith.
See also: I write about Bette Davis a lot, like here, for example.
CINEMA: Her Man (Tay Garnett) − A stunning little Pre-Code movie from Tay Garnett, with Helen Twelvetrees utterly irresistible as a hard-boiled waterfront prostitute who spies escape from under the heel of brutish pimp Ricardo Cortez when charming, fairheaded Phillips Holmes sails into town.
This is the meeting point of von Sternberg's vivid, melodramatic Docks of New York and Garnett's own ship-based romantic tragicomedy, One Way Passage, with a rich atmosphere created through Edward Snyder's sumptuous, jawdropping tracking shots and Twelvetrees' tough-but-tender characterisation.
It's messy as hell, with a touch of the stiltedness inevitable in early talkies, plenty of incomprehensible comedy from James Gleason and Harry Sweet, and ad-libbed crowd dialogue three years after that stopped being a good idea, but it's also remarkably innovative, in both its technical wizardry and the story such mastery is serving. It begins novelistically: opening on a man dropping his luggage into the ocean, zoning in unerringly on Marjorie Rambeau's dipsomaniac, and then roaming around the busy Havana streets in search of its heroine.
And though the comic passages have a distressingly low hit-rate, despite an amusing bit for Franklin Pangborn and a Tashlin-esque climax, the central story that renders them a nuisance also makes them an irrelevance.
It's really something: deeply affecting and enduringly fresh, as Twelvetrees' archetypal bad girl − her eyebrows at right angles, her upper lip curling into a sneer − is transfigured and transformed by love, while Holmes goes all gooey and Cortez's knife-wielding psychopath prepares for war.
That story, based unpromisingly on the murder ballad, Frankie and Johnny, is augmented by some gorgeous photography: a hatless corpse spreadeagled on a barroom floor; Twelvetrees' ecstasy turning to veiled terror as Cortez approaches her in a broken mirror; the pain in her eyes as she rearranges her face, while preparing to break Holmes's heart. (And a brunette Thelma Todd in a backless dress, because why not?)
It ends with carnage, Holmes like a prototype of Mitchum's he-man in His Kind of Woman as he bulldozers his way through a barroom full of heavies, using cans, a table and eventually just his fists, before Rambeau laughs, sighs and says those words we've been waiting for. (3)
Apple Tree Yard (2017) − I watched this four-part BBC serial because of Emily Watson, whose performance in Breaking the Waves 21 years ago remains perhaps the finest characterisation I’ve ever seen (Robards, Gish, Rylance, Henry Fonda and Wendy Hiller are all in with a shout too), and whose subsequent career has been littered with breathtaking work. I think there’s an argument that she is the best actor around today, or at least the actor working today who has scaled the greatest heights; admittedly the past five years have offered few parts worthy of her virtuosic talents. This is more of the same: she’s given a prominent role, which is welcome, but the programme is bafflingly erratic: compelling one minute, repellent the next; so passionate that its stilted writing brushes erudition, then so laboured that it’s utterly embarrassing (a special mention for the awful girl talk sequences between Watson and best bud Susan Lynch).
Watson plays Dr Yvonne Carmichael, a married mother – and renowned gene specialist – who falls for mystery man and apparent spook Ben Chaplin (giving a forced, detached fraction of a performance), after meeting him in the Commons lobby. Their passionate encounter in the Emily Davison broom cupboard sparks a destructive chain of events, which begin with a truly horrifying scene that has polarised audiences. My feeling was that it was entirely justified in the context, but others who are better placed to comment think otherwise. The series then plods along for more than two hours: two hours dominated by heavy-handed writing, but punctuated by both tragedy and the odd moment of insight, before juddering into life for its final half-hour.
At its best, it’s thoroughly worthwhile: its depiction of the dehumanisation and persecution faced by rape victims is timely and fittingly nauseating, the shifting dynamics of Carmichael’s relationships are effective, and there are small moments of moral grace (a postcard, a gesture from the public gallery, a dinner party rant), before an ending that tries to be maturely unresolved and then opts for being gleefully trivial and yet altogether unforgettable (who cares about social polemicising when you can Shyamalan the shit out of it). But taken as a whole, it’s absolutely all over the shop: a baggy, plodding, self-satisfied series that seems to regard its every move as remarkable or revelatory, when we’ve seen the vast bulk of this before: a woman violently punished because she steps outside the accepted social norms. Apple Tree Yard doesn’t think that’s acceptable, but it’s still the story it tells, rather than another one.
Watson can’t always wring quality from a script this weak, directed in such a pedestrian fashion (she somehow managed in Julian Fellowes’ risible Separate Lies, though was sunk by Miss Potter, having been overlooked for the main part, *sigh*), but she has some fine moments, particularly in the courtroom climax. Next time, why not give her something better to work with? (2.5)
Thanks for reading.