Sunday, November 26, 2006

1974 : The Overlooked - MILDRED NATWICK in “Daisy Miller”

Of course, it’s an ordeal to watch Cybill Shepherd clobbering her way through Henry James. A giant toadstool of a performance. And even in the lovely 19th century gowns, she still looks like a linebacker. (Where, oh where, was Leigh Taylor-Young when we needed her?). The film’s hard-pressed to survive a disastrous Daisy. But it manages. Because “Daisy Miller” has so many other things going for it. Fine script, handsome production, excellent leading man (Barry Brown) and bell-ringing supporting turns from a pair of illustrious ladies.

The marvelous Mildred Natwick was nothing if not versatile. A strong dramatic actress, she could also dither with the best of them. Teamed with Charles Boyer in “Barefoot in the Park” (1967), she proved to be his most deliciously amusing partner since Irene Dunne. In “Daisy Miller” we first encounter her up to her elegant (and fully clothed) elbows in the baths with a silver tea service floating preposterously in front of her. She’s Mrs. Costello, a blueblood through and through, absolutely encoded with a complex system of societal do’s and don’ts which she maintains rigorously. To her, these principles represent the natural order of things – and guided by them, she regards herself as capable of recognizing decorum in all its facets. And – just as importantly – the lack of it. Her entire manner suggests a weary acceptance of the fact that most people WILL not and CANnot understand what’s proper. Mrs. Costello’s idea of noblesse oblige is pretty much summed up in her cool appraisal of the Miller clan:

“They’re the sort of Americans one does one’s duty by just ignoring.”

To her, the concept of upward mobility stands in utter – and idiotic – defiance of the laws of – not just propriety – but gravity. The lady sees no need to deliberate about things that are self-evident. But, for all Mrs. Costello’s inflexibility, Natwick makes our experience with her quite pleasant. And narrow though her viewpoint may be, she does make some awfully penetrating observations. The lady doles out her dialogue one silver spoonful at a time – never giving us quite as much as we want. Thanks to Henry James, Mrs. Costello has a way with words. Which is the very least one can say in praise of Mildred Natwick.

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