New Year, New Reviews: "Bombshell" & "Little Women"

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Bombshell (2019) starring Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman, Margot Robbie, John Lithgow, & Kate McKinnon

There are some fine performances here, esp. from Theron (in role of lawyer- turned-journo Megyn Kelly) and Lithgow (Roger Ailes); they are also transformed through prosthetics, wigs, makeup, etc. Kidman (Gretchen Carlson) was the most easy to empathize w/ (IMO); I wished she was had a bigger role. I have to admit that Kidman is having a great resurgence these past few yrs; I didn’t appreciate her skills (when I was younger). Robbie (I’m slowly warming up to her acting) plays a fictional character who is eager to get onscreen work. McKinnon (from SNL fame) becomes friends w/ her; they have some nice chemistry. As a whole, I was NOT blown away by this film (which may remind you of the works of Adam McKay, director of Vice). There are MANY cameos in to enjoy- I won’t give it away; after all, there are VERY serious themes to explore! If you follow the news/politics, then you should check it out ASAP! Otherwise, wait for it to come to streaming.

Little Women (2019) starring Saoirse Ronan, Emma Watson, Timothee Chalamet, Florence Pugh, Laura Dern, & Meryl Streep

The new adaptation (directed by Greta Gerwig) is VERY good- I went to free screening w/ several friends the week before it was released (on Christmas Day). I’ve seen the major film adaptations- ‘30s, late ‘40s, and ‘90s (my family loved that one). There are a few odd choices w/ the casting, as you will see. This film has unique takes- it plays w/ time (starting from the middle of the book and going back, then forward); has more nuanced characterization of smaller characters; and Chalamet (who I really enjoyed) has a fresh take on Laurie (the boy who wants to belong to the March family in some way). Chalamet, who some feel is getting TOO many meaty roles, gives Laurie a light/humorous bent (one critic compared his movements to Chaplin). I loved Christian Bale’s take on Laurie- it will always be my fave. I thought Ronan made a great Jo; I thought the writing, then trying to publish, scenes were great additions. Pugh (who is a fresh face to me) does a great job as Amy, who is usually the sister people love to hate. Amy’s scene re: the practical side of marriage stands out in my mind. The scenery, clothing (some of which was styled by the actors), and music are great- as expected. I consider this a MUST-SEE for fans of the book or the previous movies!

Re-watching Problematic Movies: Gone with the Wind (1939)

In the late ’90s, one of my history classes (in university) examined this iconic film. Our 30ish professor (like many of us) grew up watching GWTW; she considered it very problematic, yet also admired Scarlett O’Hara as an empowered woman. I recall her getting a bit emotional about the story; I’m sure there are millions of others who admired parts of this movie (and novel). Upon closer examination, we find mixed messages, not only w/ regard to history and slavery, but re: war, social codes, love, and marriage.

I’ll think about that tomorrow. -Scarlett’s motto

No doubt this movie (made for less than $4M) was a technical feat! Students of film have been studying it for decades; on recent viewing, I was esp. struck by how well light and shadow were used (production design). There are 50+ speaking roles and 2,400 extras. Out of the 1,400 actresses interviewed for the part of Scarlett, 400 were asked to do readings. Here are some of the actresses considered for the role (who screen tested): Tallulah Bankhead, Susan Hayward, Paulette Goddard, Lana Turner, Jean Arthur, and Joan Bennett. GWTW also used special effects, most notably the burning of Atlanta. Scarlett is described as having green eyes; Leigh’s eye color was corrected (post-production) from blue to green. As she could not dance, Leigh has a body double in the charity auction ball scene. One thing which amazed my mom, but it’s true- Leigh tightened her corset to 18″ (as Scarlett comments)!

Did you know GWTW went through several directors? David O. Selznick (producer) fired George Cukor as director b/c (as a gay man), Selznick though he would be unable to properly direct love scenes between Rhett and Scarlett. Cukor (who had a reputation of getting strong performances from women) continued to privately coach both Leigh and de Havilland on weekends. The scene where Mammy reprimands Scarlett for not eating is one of the few remaining in the final film shot by Cukor. Leigh wasn’t happy w/ macho director Victor Fleming’s style; when she asked for constructive advice, he said to “take the script and stick it up her royal British ass.” Of course, classic movie fans know that Leigh was involved w/ Laurence Olivier during this time; she must’ve gotten a lot of advice from him!

The Emancipation Proclamation (1863) and the 13th Amendment to the Constitution (1865), which both set slaves free, have minimal effects on the plot of GWTW. The house servants at Tara (Mammy, Pork, Prissy and Uncle Peter) continue to serve the same masters and their families. We are to assume that they don’t want to leave or have nowhere to go. Scarlett thinks to herself (in the novel): “There were qualities of loyalty and tirelessness and love in them that no strain could break, no money could buy.” If this isn’t romanticizing “the Old South” (antebellum) days, then I don’t know what is!

What gentlemen says and what they thinks is two different things, and I ain’t noticed Mr. Ashley asking for to marry you. -Mammy (telling it like it is) to Scarlett

When I watched it as a kid, I was surprised to see that Mammy was more concerned w/ propriety than Scarlett; I also saw that she was crucial to this story and has some memorable lines. After Scarlett and Rhett marry, he admits to his new wife that he wants Mammy’s good opinion. As an adult, I realized that- of course- Mammy had to know all the rules which governed the behavior of young ladies! Her life was inextricably tied w/ that of her owners, the O’Haras, and primarily Scarlett. Miss Ellen, Scarlett’s mother, seems to have been the ideal woman in Mammy’s eyes; Scarlett doesn’t quite measure up.

The fact that Hattie McDaniel would be unable to attend the premiere in (segregated) Atlanta outraged her friend Clark Gable; he threatened to boycott the premiere unless she could attend. McDaniel (in her mid-40s) became the first African-American to be nominated for, and win, an Academy Award. She was criticized by some African-Americans; she commented that she’d “rather make seven hundred dollars a week playing a maid than seven dollars being one.” Before she hit the big screen, McDaniel had a career as a singer, traveling across the South (as many black performers did in the early 1900s). Butterfly McQueen (who played Prissy) said that her stereotypical role totally put her off acting. Who could blame her!? Prissy is characterized as lazy and deceitful. In one scene, Scarlett slaps her hard on the face- ouch! McQueen went on to pursue graduate education in Political Science.

On my recent re-watch, I noticed that the field foreman from Tara, Big Sam (Everett Brown), was given two memorable scenes. Big Sam is walking through Atlanta (w/ his fellow male slaves) on the way to digging ditches for the Confederate Army. He is spotted by (a very excited) Scarlett; they catch up on news from Tara. Later on (after the Civil War), Big Sam is the one who rescues Scarlett after she is attacked by a white man while driving her buggy through the “shanty town.” He recognizes her voice, runs to the road, and beats up the would-be robber- what a heroic moment!

I’m saying very plainly that the Yankees are better equipped than we. They’ve got factories, shipyards, coalmines… and a fleet to bottle up our harbors and starve us to death. All we’ve got is cotton, and slaves and… arrogance. -Rhett comments to gentleman gathered together for the ball at Twelve Oaks

One of the main reasons to watch GWTW is Gable (then in his late 30s); he is full of charm, danger, mischief, and (after Bonnie is born)- a bit of vulnerability. As my dad commented years ago: “Why is Scarlett obsessed w/ Ashley when Rhett is around!?” Though he’s not gung-ho about the war (neither is Ashley), Rhett does eventually succeed as a “blockade runner.” Rhett is not about “the cause” (slavery), he’s in it for profit and excitement. After the burning of Atlanta, he joins “the lost cause.” Once their marriage grows sour, the troubled (and potentially violent) side of Rhett emerges. Modern audiences may cringe at the infamous (and quite disturbing) scene where he carries Scarlett up a long stairway, saying he “won’t be shut out” (of her bedroom) one night.

Author Margaret Mitchell’s first choice to play Rhett Butler was Basil Rathbone. The only four actors David O. Selznick seriously considered for the role were Gable, Gary Cooper, Errol Flynn and Ronald Colman. The chief impediment to Gable’s casting was his MGM contract; this was the era of contract players. He was not drawn to the material, didn’t see himself in a period film, and doubted that he could live up to the public’s anticipation. He was persuaded by a $50,000 bonus, which would enable him to divorce his second wife and marry actress Carole Lombard. Gable disliked his most famous film, which he called “a woman’s picture.” Leigh said she hated kissing Gable b/c of his bad breath. He was rumored to have false teeth (a result of too much smoking). Gable would sometimes eat garlic before his kissing scenes w/ Leigh- ugh!

Open your eyes and look at me. No, I don’t think I will kiss you. Although you need kissing badly. That’s what’s wrong with you. You should be kissed and often and by someone who knows how. -Rhett says to Scarlett (after he returns from Paris)

Selznick always wanted Leslie Howard to play Ashley Wilkes, but Howard felt that he was too old (the character was supposed to be about 21 at the start of the film). My dad agrees w/ that! Howard wore extra makeup and a hairpiece to make him appear younger. Selznick was only able to persuade him to take the part by offering him a producer credit on Intermezzo (1939). Vincent Price, Dennis Morgan, Douglass Montgomery, and Melvyn Douglas were among the actors who tested for the part of Ashley. Many viewers on Twitter (during my re-watch) were annoyed w/ the fact that Howard kept his English accent. Also, some women noted that he was a jerk for “giving Scarlett hope” and “leading her on” in several scenes. I realized that scene where Ashley and Scarlett talk re: maybe running away from Tara (and their responsibilities) was done very well- acting and the look of it.

While Scarlett is colorful/rebellious/independent, Ashley’s cousin/wife, Melanie Hamilton (Olivia de Havilland), is the epitome of a demure/calm/traditional lady. Her hairdo is simple (no curls), she dresses plainly (not seeking attention from men), and is 100% devoted to just one man- Ashley. Others (incl. elders of her society) look to her to determine what is “proper.” Melanie is selfless and giving (tending to wounded soldiers w/o complaint); Scarlett is selfish (wanting to run away from nursing, marrying her sister’s beau- Frank Kennedy- for his money, etc.)

In one memorable scene, when a Union soldier comes to rob Tara, Melanie (weak after giving birth) grabs a sword and clambers down the stairs in an effort to help Scarlett. There is a moral strength to Melanie; Scarlett (who is physically much tougher) eventually realizes that. These two women (who perhaps would be “frenemies” today) are like two sides of a coin; they have to rely on each other. In McDaniel’s pivotal scene (after the sudden death of Bonnie), Mammy cries and gently pleads: “If you can’t help us, who can? Mr. Rhett always set great store by your opinion. Please, Miss Melly.” Gable was reluctant to cry (in his following scene), but de Havilland convinced him that it would be the right thing to do for his character.

SPOILER-FREE Review: Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019)

This French film (in limited release in the U.S.) was runner-up at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival; the South Korean film- Parasite- was the winner. It is written/directed by a woman (Celine Sciamma) and focuses on the love between two women living in 18th century France- an independent/well-traveled painter, Marianne (Noemie Merlant), and a noblewoman educated in a convent, Heloise (Adele Haenel). It also has much to say about being a female artist, as well as the power of bonds formed between women (as friends across social classes). Through research, Sciamma discovered that there were hundreds of women who not only posed as models- they were also painters in this time period.

Marianne travels to the remote island of Brittany where she has been hired by La Comtesse (model turned actress Valeria Golino- now in her mid-50s) to paint a portrait. The subject will be her daughter, Heloise, who is betrothed to a nobleman in Italy; this stranger will marry her if he likes the picture. This was commonly done in this time; in S3 E6 of The Tudors (Search for a New Queen), Henry VIII has Hans Holbein- the most famous portrait artist of that time- paint a potential spouse, Anne of Cleves. There was a painter who came before Marianne, but his work was unfinished; Heloise refused to pose. La Comtesse says that the work must be done in secret; Heloise is told that Marianne is a companion for walks. Marianne settles into a small parlor on the first floor w/ her supplies; she learns a bit more about the situation from a young maid in the household, Sophie (Luana Bajrami).

This is an unique film that has been loved by many critics; the theater was mostly filled when my friend and I saw it last weekend. Time is taken to build up the characters and move the story forward; it has a powerful payoff. I was surprised to be feeling emotional in the last act; I’ve seen many films, but not quite like this! There is no musical score, aside from one song. As several critics noted, every shot looks like a painting. The co-leads seem to be opposites, at first, w/ Marianne as the dominant (more interesting) character. In time, they are seen as equals; both are strong-willed individuals who chafe against the limitations placed upon them. The actors have terrific chemistry together! The love scenes are done in a sensitive manner; this is the (rare) female gaze in cinema. There is also much natural beauty to admire- ocean waves, towering cliffs, and untouched beaches.

Holiday Film Noir: "The Reckless Moment" (1949) starring James Mason & Joan Bennett

This splendidly nuanced work has emerged as one of the standouts of the noir cycle…

Ophuls… drew from Bennett her most natural, believable performance. She has never been better.

Near perfect, this is a marvellous and magical non stop emotional thriller with the camera moving with such fluidity we can only stare in wonder.

James Mason is great as a refined crook who suddenly finds himself feeling empathy for others. Can’t think of too many actors who could pull this off…

Traumatic as Lucia’s experience is, Donnelly’s devotion to her connects Lucia with the love and sexuality that may be missing from her marriage.

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews

Lucia Harper (Joan Bennett, then 39 y.o.) is an upper middle-class wife/mother w/ an energetic teen son and stubborn/beautiful 17 y.o. daughter. Lucia’s husband, Tom, has to go away on business to Berlin (during the holidays). The family lives in an ocean-front home in Balboa, 50 miles south of LA. Bea, who is an art student, is involved w/ an older man, Ted Darby. He is sleazy and lives in a sketchy hotel in LA. When Lucia realizes what’s going on, she warns the man to stay away from Bea (who is underage). Ted ends up dead on the beach, not far from the Harper’s house. Lucia thinks Bea was responsible, so quickly takes action to protect her daughter (as well as her family, respectability, and lifestyle).

When the dead body of the man is discovered by police, they suspect murder! Lucia is visited by an Irishman, Martin Donnelly (James Mason, then just 40 y.o. in his third American movie). He has love letters written by Bea to Darby; these could be damaging if turned over to police or the press. The price for the letters is $5,000 (which Lucia doesn’t have on hand). Donnelly’s boss Nagle wants payment- fast. Soon, the crooked man finds himself empathizing w/ – something you don’t expect- and developing feelings for the housewife.

She’s lucky to have a mother like you. -Donnelly comments

Everyone has a mother like me! You probably had one, too! -Lucia retorts

This is a tight, tense, and quite effective movie (which I learned about when browsing online through holiday classics playing at AFI). It’s an unique blend of melodrama and noir; you can see it (free) on YouTube. The director, Max Ophuls, is an immigrant from Germany; he worked in several European cities before coming to the U.S. in 1941. Often times, the outsider has a fresh take on something that others take at face value. Mason here may remind you of Gregory Peck (tall w/ high cheekbones and dark hair), BUT w/ potentially dangerous vibes. IMO, to be an effective leading man, a actor MUST be able to project a hint of danger. Some actors didn’t stray (or perhaps get chances to stray) from the “gentleman” role. Though Mason is British, his Irish accent is very good. Bennett does a great job- her character is quick-thinking, determined, and tough as a mother. Lucia gets drawn into the seedy side of life, much to her dismay and discomfort, but she has the guts to go there.

Hitchcock Meets Steinbeck: “Lifeboat” (1944) starring Tallulah Bankhead, John Hodiak, Mary Anderson, & Hume Cronyn

Six men and three women – against the sea and each other. -One of the taglines from the movie

…this is what is best about Hitchcock – when he wasn’t busy being a technical show-off, he always kept his mind on thrilling and enthralling the audience. A director who plays TO an audience, pandering to a specific set of sensibilities, will make films that will only ever appeal to the tastes of one era. Hitch on the other hand plays WITH the audience, and this has made his pictures stand the test of time.

Given the time when this was made… it’s hardly surprising that it’s filled with propaganda. Usually, this annoys me; but here it’s done really well, and the propaganda is actually worked into the story instead of just being there to rally the allied population at the time. Hitchcock turns this into a twist, and the way that he parodies the war on the whole on just a small lifeboat in the middle of the big ocean is great. 

-Excerpts from IMDB review

In the Atlantic Ocean during WWII, a passenger ship and a German U-boat are involved in a battle where both are sunk. The survivors gather in one of the lifeboats. They come from a variety of backgrounds and places: an international journalist- Connie Porter (Tallulah Bankhead), a rich businessman- Charles Rittenhouse (William Hull), a young/Midwestern nurse- Alice MacKenzie (Mary Anderson), a steward- Joe Spencer (Canada Lee), a humble British sailor- Stanley Garrett (Hume Cronyn), and a hard-edged engineer from Chicago- John Kovac (John Hodiak), along w/ his affable buddy- Gus Smith (William Bendix). Stanley and Joe help bring a young Englishwoman carrying a baby in her arms onto the boat- Mrs. Higley (Heather Angel). Trouble starts when they pull another man out of the water- Willi (Walter Slezak)- who turns out to be from the U-boat (German). Some of the survivors want to thrown him back, but others intercede. Connie speaks fluent German, so she can communicate with this man.

It all started when Hitchcock wanted a challenge for himself. He commissioned American author John Steinbeck to write a story based on an idea he had for a drama about people in a lifeboat. Steinbeck’s work was adapted by Jo Swerling; Ben Hecht was also a collaborator in the screenplay. This movie (which cost a little over $1.5M) was shot entirely on a restricted set; the boat was secured in a large studio tank. Hitchcock, striving for realism, insisted that the boat always be moving. The harsh conditions of the shoot took its toll: actors were soaked with water and oil, which led to illness and injury. Cronyn once almost drowned and cracked some ribs! Production was halted twice to allow for recovery of the cast. The famed director insisted on shooting in sequence (which is rarely done), which meant most of the cast had to be paid for the entire shoot. When studio head- Darryl F. Zanuck- objected, Hitch insisted this was necessary to shape the unconventional narrative.

Wow, this movie is impressive- I wonder why I never heard of it before! Like all great films, it takes you on a journey. Hitch made a lot of great films. Lifeboat is lesser-known; I just discovered it last week (thanks to a brief review on YouTube). Hitch succeeds in scene setting and drawing the audience into the story. The way he uses his camera aboard the lifeboat keeps the audience plugged into the plight of the characters. The plot is simple, yet a great premise for a thriller. Its a study of how difference of opinion can create tensions, and how people can deal with those tensions.

The characters are all distinct and each actor does well w/ their role. During filming, several crew members noted that Bankhead was not wearing underwear. When advised of this situation, Hitch commented, “I don’t know if this is a matter for the costume department, make-up, or hairdressing.” LOL! Bankhead (then in her early 40s and a big star) had a style which was later adopted by an younger actress- Bette Davis. Bankhead joked that “All About Eve” should’ve been titled “All About Me” after that hit film came out. In the first scene, we see Connie w/o a hair out of place, wearing a mink coat, made-up, and smoking a cigarette. She looks more annoyed at the run in her stocking than the destruction surrounding her! Connie conveys toughness also, but little by little, her true self comes out as she faces the harsh reality.

It is rare to see such a meaty role for a black American at this time period; Lee even wrote some of his own lines for Joe. Once the film was completed, Steinbeck (who was very progressive) objected to the tone Hitch used w/ Joe in certain scenes. Lee had also acted on Broadway in a lead role in Anna Lucasta. Before he became an actor, he worked as a jockey, boxer and musician. Lee was also a civil rights activist, following in the footsteps of actor Paul Robeson (considered to be a Renaissance Man in his time). My favorite scene in Lifeboat is when Kovac asks Joe for his opinion on what to do w/ the German enemy. Joe replies simply he didn’t realize he had any vote or say in the matter! This was 20+ yrs before the Voting Rights Act.