Sep 29, 2013

Quote of the Week

My characters are ambiguous. Call them that. I don't mind. I am ambiguous myself. Who isn't?

-Michelangelo Antonioni

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Sep 24, 2013

Audrey Hepburn and Mel Ferrer Star in Mayerling (1957)

It really happened. Newlyweds Audrey Hepburn and Mel Ferrer played doomed lovers in a lavish production of Mayerling (1957) for the Producer's Showcase anthology series on NBC. The film aired once, on February 4, 1957, and never again. Though it was broadcast in color, it has only been preserved on the black and white kinescopes that were once used for archival purposes. Now it is available on manufactured-on-demand DVD, and if you are a Hepburn fan, you are going to be pleased.

Mayerling is the name of a real Austrian village where the Viennese Archduke Rudolph and his teenaged love Countess Maria Vetsera apparently died in a murder/suicide at a hunting lodge in 1889. The film's story is of their doomed love affair.

The married archduke meets the countess by chance in an amusement park. They begin to see each other frequently, angering his father the Emperor, though his Empress mother is quietly glad that her son has found someone to make him happy. Under pressure from his father, who threatens to send Maria to a convent if he does not end their romance, Rudolph decides he cannot live without his love. She agrees to die with him, though she seems too heartbreakingly young to truly understand what she is doing.

It's a highly romanticized version of a story that in real life was made much more complicated with politics and the events that would eventually lead to World War I. Yes, the country is in turmoil, but there's plenty of time for dancing in the park and dressing for fancy balls.

This version of Mayerling comes between two film versions: a French production directed by Anatole Litvak in 1936 (he also produced and reportedly co-directed this production) and a gorgeous, if less stirring interpretation directed by Terence Young in 1968. The Hepburn/Ferrer production doesn't even come close to the scope of these movies, nor should it be expected to, but it is still surprisingly lush.

The picture quality was much better than I expected. While there are lots of little black spots and scratches, the overall condition of the print is good. The lighting was consistent and the sound mix good enough not to distract from the performances. It is clearly an old television film, but it looks and sounds remarkable given that limitation.

Costumes, set design and music were all executed with the same care and detail you would find in a feature film. This was clearly a pricy production. The main difference is that the camera doesn't move with the performers and it is always clear the actors are working in confined spaces. You think about these things when Hepburn isn't onscreen, even when there are fine supporting performances by Raymond Massey, Diana Wynard and Judith Evelyn to enjoy.

Whenever Hepburn appears though, she sucks up a lot of those details and grabs you into her orbit. In early television, could be difficult to be heard or seen. You needed a big personality to overcome the technical limitations of early television. With her warm charisma Hepburn conquers these hurdles easily.

Newly married and in her late twenties, Hepburn captures the forthright innocence of her seventeen-year-old character. She understands the way a young woman can be simultaneously deeply philosophical and dangerously careless. The actress is best when she is silent, working her eyes for all that devastating, overwhelmed Audreyness. Hepburn always knew how to play a woman in love.

If only she had had an equally passionate actor to play against. But instead there is Mel Ferrer, who says his lines as if he is reading them off a chalkboard. I was able to push aside the other versions of Mayerling well enough when I watched this one, but it was impossible not to be haunted by Charles Boyer in the 1936 Mayerling while watching Ferrer flop around. Where Boyer exploded with frustrated rage and passion, his 1957 counterpart stomps around like a spoiled schoolboy.

 Ferrer never fully commits to his performance. He holds back, as if he's in rehearsal. When Ms. Audrey appears so charmingly in love, you can't believe he's the guy she's fussing over.

Don't let Mel keep you away though. This is a lovely production, a must-see for Hepburn fans and worthy viewing for anyone fascinated by the history of television. A delightful discovery like this one makes me wonder what other interesting old TV movies are out there, waiting for another moment of glory. I know Producer's Showcase also staged a version of Dodsworth, starring Fredric March, Claire Trevor and Geraldine Fitzgerald. There was a version of Cyrano de Bergerac as well, in which José Ferrer recreated his Academy Award-winning performance with Claire Bloom and Christopher Plummer. I'd love to see these and other potential treasures from the early days of television.

Mayerling can be purchased here.

Many thanks to Films Around the World for providing a copy of the movie for review.

Sep 22, 2013

Quote of the Week

I was blessed with a sense of my own destiny. I have never sold myself short. I have never judged myself by other people’s standards. I have always expected a great deal of myself, and if I fail, I fail myself.

-Sophia Loren

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Sep 17, 2013

Haunted By Italian Cinema in Maui

Every once in a while, I like to switch off my film projector and go out into the real world. No matter where I go though, I always seem to see things that remind me of something I've seen in a movie. My trip to Maui this summer is a perfect example. As I lay by the pool, the shape of the balconies in front of me reminded me of something:

It didn't take me long to figure out they made me think of the balconies on the building that made a brief appearance in the last scenes of one of my favorite flicks, Michelangelo Antonioni's L'Eclisse (1962):

They're not exactly the same:

But seeing the building against the sky like that still made me think of it:

So yes, while I was baking in the sun, I couldn't help but think about the bleak ending of an Italian film about incommunicability. And I loved that! I need a break from work from time to time, but not from my passions.

Sep 15, 2013

Quote of the Week

Don't be afraid to fall on the floor and cry when you're unhappy....Someone will pick you up. And if nobody's there, eventually you'll pick yourself up.

-Anne Bancroft, as told by Frank Langella

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Sep 9, 2013

Book Review--Gloria Swanson: Ready for Her Close-Up

Gloria Swanson: Ready for Her Close-Up
Tricia Welsch
University Press of Mississippi, 2013
Hollywood Legends Series

Her career is so unique, so extraordinary, that trying to condense it would be like trying to write War and Peace on the head of a pin.

-Kevin Brownlow

That Gloria Swanson was a movie star is clear to many, even those who care nothing about classic movies. Her career-defining role as Norma Desmond in Sunset Blvd. (1950) was so potent that it became bigger than cinema and leaked permanently into our culture. And yet, this is the only Swanson film I have seen. As much as I loved her as the batty movie queen striving for a comeback, it didn't make me want to see more of her work. It was as if she was so good that I couldn't picture her being anyone else.

The same thing happened with audiences who assumed that the fading, desperate Desmond was an autobiographical portrait of Swanson. There were some parallels, but not nearly as many as legend would have it. Gloria Swanson may have struggled, but she never faded away, and in Ready for Her Close-Up, we meet a resilient, multi-talented woman with an insatiable appetite for life.
With William Holden looking 40 at age 50 in Sunset Blvd (50)

When I say multi-talented, I mean it. In addition to winning worldwide acclaim as a beloved comedic and dramatic actress, Swanson dabbled in sculpting, painting, journalism, engineering, inventing, singing and fashion design. She enjoyed success in all of these areas, and could have made her name in any of them, but the movies paid the most, an important consideration for an extravagant woman. When film roles weren't available, she could still find work in entertainment, on radio, television and on the stage from summer stock to Broadway.

Close-Up covers Gloria's epic life from her childhood as a mini fashion plate, where her mother would take pains to dress her in distinctive bows and hand-dyed leather shoes, to her busy later years as a health activist, artist and variety and talk show staple. It's a lot to take in, but Welsch has drawn rich content from her exploration of archives, including unpublished versions of Swanson's autobiography and the star's recorded notes about her life. She also gathered valuable insights from Swanson's daughter, Michelle Farmer Amon.

The teenage comic player
By the time Swanson left her teen years, she had already appeared in numerous films, married and left her first husband Wallace Beery and endured an unwanted abortion. Though I've never heard a pleasant story about Beery, I was still shocked by how horrible he was to his young bride. It was just the first of many ill-advised romances and marriages. Her personal and business relationship with Joseph Kennedy left her struggling with finances for several years, while her marriage to the childish, alcoholic Michael Farmer gave her unborn child with him a name and little else. Her marriage to the Frenchman Henri de la Falaise is the perfect example of the star's romanticism: impulsive, passionate, but rarely able to survive her high standards and the pressures of her fame.

The clotheshorse glamourpuss years
Swanson's high standards extended to her work and lifestyle. On the set, she would fight for the highest quality in everything, a trait which would make her already difficult work as a producer/star with United Artists extremely grueling. As a mother, she insisted on breastfeeding her children, going against the norms of the time. When the worn down star had an encounter with a doctor who encouraged her to adopt diet heavy on the vegetables, she became devoted to organic foods. That and her fight to ban harmful pesticides used in commercial crops made her seem eccentric when she was alive, though it is clear now that she was decades ahead of her time. At 81, she had the glowing skin and fast reflexes of a woman twenty if not thirty years younger.

Welsch manages the complicated task of revealing these and many other facets of Swanson's life with a strong sense of balance. Her brilliance, talent, grandeur and extravagance are all explored in detail. She reveals a warm-hearted woman who could also be cruel. A star with a democratic demeanor on set who could also put on airs. She was complicated, and perhaps that's what kept the public continually fascinated with her, whether she could find a movie role or not.

One area that was not clear to me was Swanson's late life work. I know that she struggled financially for many years, but I could not tell if it was to the end of her life. It seemed that part of the reason she could not settle into retirement was that she was unable to be inactive, however much her schedule wore her down. I wasn't sure if her finances also played a role in those final years. Whatever the case may have been, she seemed to be a woman meant for action, and she certainly fulfilled that destiny, right to the end.

Still glowing in her seventies

All photos are from Wikimedia Commons.

Many thanks to University Press of Mississippi for providing a copy of the book for review.

Sep 8, 2013

Quote of the Week

They say the bad guys are more interesting to play but there is more to it than that—playing the good guys is more challenging because it's harder to make them interesting.
-Gregory Peck

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Sep 1, 2013

Quote of the Week

John Ford once wrote to me, "You are the best fucking actress in Hollywood." Then, when later asked by a young film student at UCLA about me, in front of Merian C.Cooper, he replied to his audience, "Her? That bitch couldn't act her way out of a brick shithouse."

-Maureen O'Hara

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