Friday, April 25, 2008


Fond as I am of 1953, I don’t think the Academy managed to spotlight many of its actual highlights when they chose their
supporting actress nominees that year. With one exception.
Though "Mogambo" ’s a pretty pedestrian effort (action-wise, this particular African safari’s about as exciting as a trip to a water-cooler), up-and-comer Grace Kelly manages to turn it into something of a personal triumph. Ava Gardner’s role - wise-cracking any port in a storm play-girl - is certainly larger and showier. And – on the surface of it – the more dominant part. But maybe not. ’Cause in the script’s original incarnation ("Red Dust"{1932}), Mary Astor played the Kelly role and carried off a similar coup, turning an ostensibly supporting part into the picture’s real acting showcase. To her credit, Gardner is less cartoonish than Jean Harlow had been. For openers, the onscreen Ava generally projects a languorous, laid-back quality that’s easier to live with than most of Harlow’s shenanigans. The platinum blonde kewpie-doll exterior – candy-floss hair and three coats of paint – presents its own obstacles. But then there’s the curious diction – at once crass and high-falutin’. And the frequent onscreen tantrums – frantic mazurkas of charmless squawking. Harlow’s odd attributes were never more unconvincing than in the (all too frequent) outings when she played (if that’s the word) a socialite. At least in "Red Dust", she’s cast in a more down-market guise. Still, after all the Harlow bashing , let me add that she managed to balance her effects quite nicely in the excellent pre-coder "Red Headed Woman". And her work in "Wife vs. Secretary"(1936) – unexpectedly warm and rich - proved once and for all that there’d been real talent there all along. Making one wish Metro had used her more judiciously in the years preceding it. Still, whatever Jean Harlow was selling in the early 30’s, it was obviously something the public couldn’t get enough of. ’Cause at the box-office she was gangbusters. And a mellower, more realistic Harlow probably wouldn’t have raked nearly as much money into Leo the Lion’s coffers. Getting back to Gardner, I’d say the popularity of "Mogambo" is what finally cinched her status as a major league movie star . But it’s still not a very interesting performance. Yes, the beauty and the voice - with its powdery sensuality - are hard to ignore (and who’d want to?). But there’s a curious lack of spontanaiety in most of her dialogue. She often seems to be reeling off bits of some mildly raunchy class assignment. Delivered with more duty than conviction. The only snippet that really works for me is her wryly delivered re-entry line part way through the picture - something to the effect of, "Yeah, it’s me. The Return of Frankenstein". But, mostly, it’s just paint-by-number stuff. Ava had already played the bruised glamour girl - with less emphasis and greater effect - in "Show Boat" (She was a genuinely touching Julie). And would get it just right again – in the 60’s – in "Seven Days in May". But here it’s pretty much skin-deep. The film’s mammoth success and Gardner’s obvious upward mobility on the Hollywood scene – might explain her Best Actress nomination that year. But she’s not half as fascinating as onscreen rival Grace Kelly who, noticing the rest of the cast is half asleep, takes the opportunity to whip up an intriguing little cocktail of her own , equal parts prim and primitive. The picture’s a kind of Hemingway-lite soap opera with Gable as a safari guide, casually hooked up with stranded ( but adaptable) good time girl Gardner. He’s hired by a naïve young Brit – a kind of amateur scientist with more money than brains. The guy’s all gung-ho about some vaguely defined research project that involves tape recorders and gorillas. He’s a kind of Dian Fossey - but without the brains. What he does have, though, is a beautiful young wife, Linda (played by Kelly, a triumphant twenty-three at the time). She arrives, cheery and gracious – fully expecting to play young Lady Bountiful. But Hubby promptly takes to his bed with some sort of jungle fever. Leaving Linda to face about a dozen consecutive emotional and cultural blind-sides, not the least of which is the steadily escalating sexual attraction between her and Gable. I love how quickly Kelly’s flawless face goes from tabula rasa to rapidly changing emotional barometer. Expertly registering confusion, anger, jealousy, distress, desire and any number of variations thereof. There’s a fluidity of expression that’s quite startling . Really resourceful – and way beyond the call of duty for what amounts to a safari soap opera . Certainly beyond what might reasonably be expected of a young socialite dabbling in the movies, which is how Kelly was generally perceived up until "Mogambo". She hits every note she has to – with real aplomb. The imperious streak. The cattiness with Gardner. The progressive irritation with hubby, increasingly inneffectual in her eyes next to Gable’s elemental he-man. And there’s no shortage of stunning images capturing Kelly’s beauty blooming like a hot pink rose in the African landscape. Kelly even makes Linda likable. You catch yourself rooting for her. I love her embarrassed silence when Gable is forced to come to the rescue after she gets herself into a pickle with a panther. And when a coy question to The Great White Hunter gets a blunt response, her reaction’s beguiling.– a bit of smart, self-deprecating humour. "Not very gallant", she chuckles, "but understandable". Later as things between them heat up, she has no trouble handling her end of some sexually charged verbal fencing (as they sail suggestively down a fast-moving river). Linda knows what she stands to lose. A wealthy, comfortable, life. A secure future. But Gable represents excitement, adventure and probably lots of hot sex. And when nice, clueless Hubby urges her to live every minute and make the most of it, he probably means she should set up a tape recorder of her own near Gorilla Town. But it’s clear Linda’s putting an entirely different construction on his words. She’s pretty much decided to take the plunge. In the end, it’s Gable who just can’t bring himself to hurt Hubby. And when he gives Linda the kiss-off, she caps off her performance with a neat little display of hysteria, complete with gunfire. In the end, she quietly retreats with Hubby ( still blithely clueless). But Linda’s future is a toss-up. Has she been sufficiently burned that she’ll opt for permanent respectability in sleepy Devonshire? Or are the newly acquired perspectives and sharpened appetites going to make her increasingly restless? There never was a "Mogambo 2". So we’ll just have to go on guessing. Clark Gable may have put up gamely with the hardships of location shooting in Africa, but doesn’t seem to have extended his efforts to the point of stretching himself acting-wise. Except in his scenes with Kelly, where he seems genuinely surprised, impressed and – I don’t know – turned on, maybe, as Kelly finds increasingly creative ways to make her performance captivating. Interestingly enough, Gene Tierney was originally cast as Linda in "Mogambo". When she dropped out for health reasons, Kelly came onboard. Tierney would’ve been good. She usually was. But we’d have had to do without the striking blonde-brunette contrast the Kelly - Gardner combo provided. And more importantly, Tierney wouldn’t have been as stunningly youthful or as fluidly expressive. Nature wasn’t stingy, as far as young Grace Kelly was concerned. A striking beauty. Born to wealth and privilege. Smart. Charming. But who’d have guessed there’d be so much talent, too?. Grace Kelly was a very good actress. Besides the Academy Award nomination, she also won a Golden Globe for her work in "Mogambo". Oddly, I don’t think she ever had a richer showcase for her emotional versatility than this glorified jungle programmer. Certainly not " The Country Girl", drab talk periodically interrupted for some godawful musical numbers – even if it did win her an Oscar. Amazingly, her legendary career, just beginning to hit its stride with "Mogambo" was over three years later. Before her 27th birthday. The famous marriage in Monaco. The immediate and permanent withdrawal from films. A lot of actresses owe Kelly big-time for that decision. Elizabeth Taylor, say. Or most of the post ’55 Hitchcock heroines . It’s clear that with her phenomenal fame – and equally impressive qualifications – physical and artistic, Grace Kelly would have been the go-to girl for most of the big projects of the late 50’s and probably on through the 60’s. What’s more, it was a talent that may well have grown and deepened as she reached middle age and beyond. Grace Kelly’s career may have been brief, but she seems to have secured permanent status as one of Hollywood’s iconic figures. Not just beautiful. But special.

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