Monday, August 28, 2006

1962: The Overlooked

Jane Fonda in Walk on the Wild Side
Where "Sweet Bird of Youth" reeked of prestige, "Walk on the Wild Side" was pretty much written off as plain disreputable. But guess what! It's much more entertaining, with beautiful black & white photography, excellent use of locations and some really well-dressed intriguing sets. To say it lacks 30's flavour is unfair. No Hollywood film seriously attempted to do recent period till the late 60's.By that time fashion had finally become more diversely accomodating and film honchos were less terrified of having their stars look slightly out-of-date. At any rate, what's not to like about a film that offers us so many famous actresses all doing their thing - and doing it with relish. Anne Baxter blends her facility with accents (Mexican in this case) with her natural ability to be a Mensch. Capucine does a dialed-down Ingrid Bergman that's, well, restful. Joanna Moore's a memorable (memorably pretty and memorably touching) Miss Precious. And, of course, there's Stanwyck, all icy authority and frustration. But the should-have-been nominee is Jane Fonda. It's only, I think, her second film. And she's already miles ahead of her contemporaries in charisma, confidence and distinctive talent. And how about that dress she changes into at the gas station? She and that particular glad-rag are a match made in pulp heaven. As Kitty, the scrappy survivor who'll do whatever it takes and then some, Jane Fonda is pure snap, crackle and pop. The script asks a lot from Kitty - and Fonda doesn't back down an inch. The real surprise is that it took so long for the actress to consolidate her status in Hollywood. But that's undoubtedly down to her Euro-centric lifestyle, script and marriage choices. She got her first Oscar nomination in '69 as a feisty Depression dame in "They Shoot Horses". But her Kitty in "Walk on the Wild Side" is more than just a dress-rehearsal for that part. It's an impressive accomplishment all on its own.

Shelley Winters in Lolita

I'm tempted to say Shelley Winters' lack of a supporting nomination for the genuinely epic "Lolita" was because of her star billing. But I think the Oscar voters simply weren't impressed by the film. "Lolita" was years ahead of its time. And the Academy tended to be years behind. Whatever the case, this is a great performance, fully worthy of sharing the spotlight with Lansbury and Duke. There's a fine line between brilliant parody and overkill - and Winters successfully negotiated it more than once - but never quite so adroitly as here. She's hilarious and tragic, scary and pathetic. No one could have gotten more out of Charlotte's affectations ("Shall we have our coffee on the piazza?). Her looks, her movements (that deliciously lumbering cha cha cha),her total oneness with Charlotte's absurd wardrobe - all add flavour to an irresistible Shelley Winters sundae. Of course, she shares most of her scenes with James Mason in the performance that represents the single most outrageous omission in Academy history (others that come to mind - Charles Laughton in "The Hunchback of Notre Dame", Dennis Quaid in "Far From Heaven"). Their styles are radically different but when they're onscreen it's a duet made in heaven. Perhaps the picture reaches its giddiest climax when Humbert reads Charlotte's letter declaring her love. (Go! Scram! Departez!). Only Mason is physically there. But Winters has made such a vivid, lingering impression that one can simultaneously hear her voice in the words, all the while revelling in Mason's peerless delivery as he reads and reacts to her declaration. No Tuvan throat singer ever achieved such delicious duality of tone. Hats off to Shelley Winters. In almost any other year, I would have given her the trophy.


I made a point of revisiting 1962's"Tender is the Night." Joan Fontaine has fun as Baby, the hard-boiled heiress. She's chic, affably brittle and definitely one of several good things in this much-maligned Fitzgerald adaptation. I remember Gena Rowlands as being extra-special in John Cassavetes" "A Child is Waiting", but didn't get a chance to see it again. I did , however, manage to catch up with "Requiem for a Heavyweight" to reacquaint myself with Madame Spivy's butch gangster lady. She's still unsettling but not quite as startling as I remembered. But then I've had 44 years to compose myself.


Vertigo's Psycho said...

Years ago on the "Tonight Show" Winters made the claim she missed out on a SA Oscar nod for Lolita because she wanted to be placed in the lead category. Too bad, as I think her Charlotte vyes only with Winters hilarious, touching work in Next Stop, Greenwich Village for the top screen performance by this colorful, gifted star(I think she deserved the two SA Oscars, but she received them for the wrong movies). Lolita is one of the great 1960's films, with Kubrick perfectly directing his incredible cast (Mason and Sellers- who should have won Supporting Actor- deserved noms, and Sue Lyon's no slouch, either); I would place the film right after Manchurian on a "Best of '62" list.

Don't think I've got around to Walk yet- with you and Nick both singing Fonda's praises, I'll have to put it on my short list.

CanadianKen said...

Interesting to have some confirmation that Winters' lack of nomination probably did come down to waffling about category placement. I agree that she's wonderful in "Next Stop Greenwich Village". And I'd rank "Lolita" at the very top of the heap in '62. Hopelessly romantic and deeply cynical, this picture is proof positive that bleakness can be downright lush. Sorry to part company with you, though, on Sellers. I've never been an admirer. Not not not funny!. I think Kubrick indulges him shamelessly at the expense of the project. So, to me, it's always a source of amazement that the picture sustains its greatness in spite of Sellers' onslaught A friend and I were talking about just this subject the other day. And we came to the conclusion that Peter O'Toole would have been a happier choice. He can be crazy and Clare Quilty insolent too. But he's also watchable. Which, to me, Sellers seldom is. As for Sue Lyon, I think the years have been very kind to that performance. Line readings that once seemed flat are now right on the money. She's a beautiful bubble-gum version of Dietrich in "the Blue Angel". And the casual "whatever" in her voice and attitude make the havoc she incidentally wreaks all the more devastating.

Vertigo's Psycho said...

Lyon's cool, sly, and sage work as Lolita Haze certainly deserves major props (many carped on the fact she looked older than her 14 or 15 years, but she sure as hell gets the point across that Lo is extremely hot to trot, and, from Lyon's first, knowing closeup, it's clear this girl gets exactly what Humbert has in mind concerning their future).

Don't think O'Toole (or anyone else) could match the spontaneous creativity Sellers employs throughout Lolita to bring Quilty so vividly to life- it'd be interesting to read the shooting script to determine how much improvising Sellers did. Concerning his performance, everything he does works for me (the only problem I have regarding Sellers has to do with his "look"- I don't really see Lolita going ape over him- Mason's the better catch. In this one instance, the charismatic O'Toole- at the peak of his beauty- makes more sense).