Monday, September 30, 2013


The latest Supporting Actress Smackdown  is upon us. This time it's a 1980 party  that Nat and StinkyLulu
are co-hosting. Make sure you go there.
Meanwhile I've been doing my own poking and prodding through the 1980 field. And though I don't feel quite as at home as I did for the '52 festivities, there's still plenty of Supporting Actress sand to sift.

A sincere, affecting, although maybe overly comforting film, Resurrection”’s  expression of the spiritual/ paranormal still earns high marks. Much (but not all) of this due to the incandescent Ellen Burstyn, one of  the greats.  Here (as she often does) Burstyn permeates the atmosphere with a soft-spoken sensitivity, irresistible but always fully grounded. Perfect casting for a character who’s  meant to be both approachable and extraordinary.

The Film’s Supporting Actress Nominee: EVA LE GALLIENNE  ♥♥
Le Gallienne wears her assumed folksiness like ermine robes. You can almost see her brandishing orb and sceptre fashioned from carefully polished old theatre awards. “Helen Hayes has nothing on me! Watch and learn.” Grandly unaware that Burstyn, Shepard and Farnsworth are all knocking it out of the park around her in genuinely, thrillingly cinematic style.
Further observations:
Le Gallienne’s not what you’d call bad in this picture. She’s too canny an old theatre vet, mistress of a million tried and tested stage techniques. And certainly aware of the need to scale it down somewhat for the screen ; there’s no actual declaiming to the balcony here. But she’s never particularly believable as a wise old farmland bird. This woman’s spent too much time cultivating her diction instead of her crops. And there’s always an air of conferring a favor on the proceedings just by appearing. She tends to over embroider her reactions when other characters have center stage too, never quite willing to give up the spotlight.  Her voice is certainly a well-oiled instrument. But it sounds a bit like Jeanette Nolan’s  to  me. And I get the feeling that, like Nolan, she could only be fully believable playing nasty.  Kindliness  just doesn’t seem a natural fit. Certainly we never get that conspiratorial twinkle Ethel Barrymore was so good at –you know, where she’s implicitly telling us “this may be a tall tale, but don’t I make it fun?”

For twenty years or so after World War 2, color and black and white films co-existed happily on the world’s movie screens. Old-school color tended to be vivid, near- hallucinatory in its intensity. And was mainly used for musicals, spectacles, adventure films , big star romances and  glorified fashion shows.
With its lower costs, black and white was certainly , by necessity, the province of low budgeters – sci fi, horror, Abbott & Costello and  Bowery Boys comedies. But it was also the go-to choice in big budget dramas that were conceived or marketed as serious art.  Things like “On the Waterfront”, “From Here to Eternity”, “A Streetcar Named Desire” were all high pedigree “important” pictures and color was judged too frivolous for the occasion. By 1966, as color TV became ubiquitous, black and white films grew rarer and rarer. “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’, an immense success, was one of the last. After that, most films were shot in color. It was felt (maybe correctly) that the public at large could no longer accept black and white as realistic. As the 60’s turned into the 70’s, color itself changed. The sharp, vibrant hues of yore were replaced by a grainy blueish grey palette. I call it “French Connection” color. It may have captured a more realistic semi-documentary feel. But it was no pleasure to watch.  And, generally, even the fantasies relied more and more on these drab, dispiriting tones.  Of course I grew up (movie crazy)  in  the 50’s , so I’m hard-wired to like old Technicolor and to be completely comfortable with black and white drama.  By the end of the 70’s new black and white films had , oddly, become like oases of beauty. Remember how “Manhattan” felt like a celebration of something that had been lost? At any rate, “Inside Moves” styles itself as a gritty movie about urban down and outers – and it’s shot  in washed-out “French Connection” color. The picture’s no masterpiece. But I can’t help thinking it would’ve been more effective in monochrome.  The story’s  an uneasy blend of the hard-hitting and the flat-out mawkish. A kind of redemptive Skid Row fairytale  set in and around a neighborhood bar ,where a group of variously handicapped friends congregate nightly. John Savage, seriously damaged suicide survivor, gets a job as bartender there and becomes more and more involved in the lives of the regulars. Savage was an actor very much on the way up in 1980, super-gifted, good-looking and charismatic. “Inside Moves” ‘ failure to find an audience seems to have signalled a downturn in his prospects as a major star. Too bad.  Because he’s marvellously talented.  Loved him  in “The Deer Hunter” and “Hair”. Certainly he’s excellent in “Inside Moves” too. Carefully crafting the vocal and physical tics – and sustaining them beautifully, always using them to build rather than just accessorize his performance. Also terrific in the film is David Morse,another actor that deserved a bigger film career.  Although his character becomes less effective in the second half(due to the writing not the acting), in the early stages of the film, he’s  fascinating. An obsessively friendly optimist  whose can-do charisma is just the outer level of an epically complex character. The bar’s regulars are, for the most part, Archie Bunker level  cartoons. With one exception.  A guy named “Wings”, who’s lost both hands. He’s played with considerable skill and genuine likeability. The actor looked familiar to me but I couldn’t quite place him. I kept thinking, “Did Lawrence Tierney somehow learn how to be genial at this late date?” or at other times, “Could Scott Brady still have been making movies in 1980?”. When I finally checked  imdb I was startled to find that it was Harold Russell, the real-life amputee who won Supporting Actor in 1946 for “The Best Years of Our Lives”. He’d pretty much stayed away from movies since – but here he was in 1980 giving another display of top-calibre talent . 

The Film’s Supporting Actress Nominee: DIANA SCARWID  ♥♥
Her rather indefinite introduction – or rather drift - into the film was, I’m sure, deliberate. But it reads like a miscalculation. At very least,  it’s poorly executed. She doesn’t really get any focus till about an hour in.   Then establishes a nice intimacy in her first fully realized interactions with Savage.  Later, they seem to be asked to  extemporize a little dialogue. And she definitely  can’t keep up with Savage here. Scarwid looks like a working class Lady Di and sounds like Shelley Fabares after an an Actors’ Studio intervention.  En route to a not quite palatable happy ending, though, her character’s given some moments of unexpected complexity motivation-wise  -  and the actress acquits herself effectively.
Further observations
Like John Savage, Diana Scarwid was on her way up in 1980. The Oscar nomination’s proof of that.
But unlike Savage, she’s not an especially riveting presence. Her career hit a brick wall a year later with “Mommie Dearest”, the same film that interred Faye Dunaway’s stardom.  Scarwid’s fine in that picture , by the way. Actually delivering more accomplished and sustained work than she manages  in “Inside Moves”. And, of course,  Dunaway is flabbergasting (and I mean that in a good way). But, somehow a lynch-mob mentality sprang up around the film. Faye Dunaway was effectively  sentenced to wear sackcloth and ashes from then on. And Scarwid’s chance at top-tier stardom disappeared in a wave of collateral damage.  

P.S. If I had to consider an “Inside Moves”   actress for a supporting nomination, it would definitely have been Amy Wright. She makes Morse’s hooker-junkie girl -friend  quite an experience. Sporting  the look and vibe of some sweet hostess on a Saturday morning kid’s show . With enough charm to be manipulative, (matching the personality she projects to her current audience) but with no long-term plan beyond follow the next high. She could be cuddling a puppy one moment, then skinning it alive and selling tickets.  She’s got the pared down, play-it-by-ear instincts of a panhandler.  And manages to make all these conflicting sides seem part of the same disturbingly convincing character. She’s even got the gift of gab. And the script wisely allows her to resist  - even scoff at – the film’s final tide-swell of redemption. Having her at the center, rather than the sidelines of the film, might have turned “Inside Moves” into a better – and tougher – movie.

What registered as a fresh populist fairy-tale in 1980 now seems slightly arch and a bit condescending to its characters. Not enough, though, to keep it from being entertaining. The Hughes/Robards scenes that book-end the piece still work nicely. But what really sustains the movie are the deeply likeable presences of Paul Le Mat and Mary Steenburgen. Le Mat’s career never seemed to maintain momentum after “Melvin and Howard”, but here, he’s an endearing embodiment of Melvin’s self-torpedoing philosophy (“Rome wasn’t burned in a day. You gotta keep plugging!”). Steenburgen, distinctively luminous, built herself  a long-lasting admired career . And though  we never got to see quite enough of the lady, her appearances have always been welcome.
The Film’s Supporting Actress Nominee:  MARY STEENBURGEN  ♥♥♥♥
Steenburgen’s Lynda is a splendid fusion of delicacy and resilience. Game for a Hawaiian War Chant wedding. But, unlike Melvin, able to set limits on the impracticality. In her justly celebrated tap dance to “Satisfaction”, she conveys the liberating joy of artistic expression, even when the talent’s questionable (Lynda’s, not Steenburgen’s. That’s on full and exhilarating display here). She makes the potentially unbelievable studio audience support totally credible.  The actress plays her final scenes with Le Mat beautifully, knowing  - on a practical level – that she’s lucky to be away from him. Yet never once doubting his honesty or goodness.  And the loving bond they share  is there for keeps.

Further Observations:
It didn’t strike me in 1980, but seeing the film again, I have to say that Pamela Reed’s really terrific as wife #2.  Nailing every aspect of a complicated character – and mostly from the sidelines.  Her Bonnie thinks she’s practical and determined enough for the both of them. But – in the end – becomes ruefully/ affably resigned to the fact that Melvin’s sweetly dysfunctional personality – the one that made her love him - is just incompatible with upward mobility.

The female service comedy had a history in Hollywood. World War Two audiences enjoyed (or at least attended) “The Doughgirls” and “Keep Your Powder Dry”. Later (in ’52 to be exact) Esther Williams’ “Skirts Ahoy!” did box-office battle with Rosalind Russell’s “Never Wave at a WAC”, while Judy Canova provided  some rear-guard action in “The WAC from Walla Walla”. Goldie Hawn’s 80’s resuscitation of the mini-genre added saltier dialogue but generally followed the established template. Pampered young woman finds herself – through implausible circumstances - in the armed services. Blithely expecting the deluxe treatment to continue, she instead has to slog her way through a brutal slapstick version of basic training.  Eventually she  bonds with some “regular” gals (assorted sketchily drawn stereotypes), comes up against  a tough drill sergeant and  distinguishes herself (largely by accident) in some under-explained war games.  Ultimately, of course, Judy  emerges as a spit and polish soldier – and snags a man. Except that the picture’s only half over at this point. What follows is a long rom-com that sends her to Paris where she hooks up with a Mr. Right (who’s really Mr. Wrong).  And as her hair gets bigger and her head gets smaller, Judy Benjamin begins to realize that fulfillment comes not from Harlequin romance but from old-fashioned army-issue self-esteem.  It’s  Simple Simon stuff, nothing more.  A big hit in its day -  but “Private Benjamin” doesn’t look that spiffy now.

The Film’s Supporting Actress Nominee:  EILEEN BRENNAN  ♥ ½
Eileen Brennan was a marvellous personality and a terrific actress . But you’d never know it from “Private Benjamin”  The script does confound the usual expectation that after a sustained period of mutual antagonism, the two female characters will wind up with at least a modicum of  respect  and understanding for one another. Even “The Devil Wears Prada” peddled this.  But, no, Brennan’s character  is mean and petty at the beginning and stays that way. And she and Judy Benjamin remain emphatically  unbonded. This would at least imply a sustained through-line to the character. But the performance just  seems  unstructured . As if at the beginning of every scene, the director said, “Okay. Eileen, Try a different approach this time. “  It all seems haphazard and unfinished.   Broad but not in any fun way.  The baby talk. The drunken Miss Hannigan act (in a scene where I don’t think she’s supposed to be drunk). The picture’s bland but Brennan’s actively disappointing .The character’s  not interesting. Nothing’s sustained, nothing pays off, there’s no reason to care about her. Not even to fear her. Brennan’s petty tyrant never even seems to represent a serious threat to Judy Benjamin. Any plots and plans she has just seem to evaporate.  Besides which, I never actually laughed.
Further Observations:
This one annoys me in a very particular way. The case of an actress I admire whose only Oscar nomination came  for a performance that’s way below her usual level of accomplishment. I’d have nominated her for ”Daisy Miller” in ’74. And she’d have definitely been in the hunt for “The Last Picture Show” in ’71. I didn’t see “Private Benjamin” till now. So I just figured, what with the nomination, Brennan was going to shine here. But for me, she didn’t.

Here’s a picture that was marketed as an artistic event in 1980. Certainly everyone was talking about it. And  the word masterpiece was tossed around liberally.  I remember being floored by it at the theatre.  Rewatching it this week, over thirty years later, I found “Raging Bull” still delivered big-time.  Anything I could say’s been said before.  Spectacular  black and white photography.  Raw documentary  feel .  A staggering  sense of time and place.  Relentless momentum, amazing fight sequences (in and out of the ring), claustrophobic tension, tragedy and  exhilaration . And of course performances – and performer interaction - that throb and scorch.  Scorcese’s finest hour.

The Film’s Supporting Actress Nominee:  CATHY MORIARTY  ♥♥♥♥♥
Right off the bat,she really looks like someone that stepped straight out of the 40’s. Conjured up from old memories, old newsreels, old scrapbooks. Snoods, turbans, the works –they all look like organic extensions of Vickie’s personality. Initially, she’s a near emanation of other people’s fantasies. A blonde tenement sphinx . But there’s a real person inside.  Had Vickie’s husband been less psychotic, she’d likely have stuck around.  But caught  in a violent environment,  she ultimately stands her ground and  finds a way to move on.  Cathy Moriarty carves out her own artistic space here –hard-edged , gleaming , permanent– in the middle of a masterpiece .
Further Observations:
She was nineteen when she started filming “Raging Bull”. I think Joe Pesci had seen her photo somewhere and recommended her to Scorcese and De Niro. She’d never filmed before.
Yet from her first second on camera, it’s impossible to imagine better casting. Where did all that poise come from?  There’s a touch of Jan Sterling. And Moriarty has that same “Mamie Van Doren with substance” look that Jessica Lange captured in the opening scene of “Blue Sky”. You know, that quality  that Mamie herself never came within a mile of.  Moriarty’s hypnotically expressive in her close-ups. And she goes toe-to-toe with De Niro and Pesci at their peaks. – yet seldom raises her voice. And what a voice!  Low, compelling -straight no chaser.  This is someone who would have been right at home in the noir pantheon. Except, of course, for the authentic accent –neither  asked for or attempted in the 40’s.
In  “Raging Bull”. Cathy Moriarty’s does it all and does it very very well.

No comments: