Thursday, August 28, 2014

Advise and Consent

Otto Preminger's Advise and Consent (1962) is better-remembered for its racy incidental content than its story. Too bad, since it's a well-tuned political procedural. Preminger adapts Allen Drury's novel into a compelling drama, expertly crafted and perfectly cast.

The ailing President (Franchot Tone) nominates Robert Leffingwell (Henry Fonda) as his new Secretary of State. A fierce battle occurs in the Senate, with conservative Senator Cooley (Charles Laughton) stonewalling Leffingwell's confirmation. He produces Herbert Gelman (Burgess Meredith), who claims Leffingwell is a Communist, throwing the hearings into chaos. The Administration and its opposition exchange underhand tactics, launching character assassination over unsuitable politics, mental illness and sexual deviancy.

Advise and Consent is dense but remarkably streamlined, Preminger juggling multiple plotlines with ease. Wendell Mayes' script evokes assorted controversial politicos: Cooley's a Richard Russell/Strom Thurmond mix, Gelman a shambling Whittaker Chambers, Senator Anderson (Don Murray) replicating Lester C. Hunt's downfall. And Cantwell's conciliatory views on the Cold War recalls "eggheads" from Alger Hiss to Adlai Stevenson. This grounds Consent in real-world politics, granting it credibility.

Consent provides an acid expose of Washington chicanery. Preminger relishes the backstage maneuvers underpinning the Senate's pompous speeches about democracy. The President threatens Anderson for putting principle over party; soon his wife's (Inga Swenson) receiving anonymous phone calls about "what happened in Hawaii." Cooley invites the unreliable Gelman, his mere presence trapping Leffingwell in a pointless lie. Then events let the Vice President (Lew Ayres) upend everything with an eleventh-hour power play.

Preminger enjoyed pushing studio buttons, from Anatomy of a Murder's racy courtroom dialogue to having blacklisted Dalton Trumbo write Exodus. Advise and Consent's depiction of Congressional promiscuity (having affairs seems second nature) and backbiting destroys memories of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. One Senator's exposed as a homosexual, culminating in a visit to a seedy gay bar (surely a Hollywood first!). Each side casually employs smears and blackmail: vague accusations of Communism or deviancy are enough to ruin someone's career.
Preminger's cynicism won't shock modern viewers, suffused with post-Watergate paranoia, cable news and tabloid outrage. Today sex scandals, corruption and underhand smears are accepted facets of political life. Fiction increasingly rejects The West Wing's sunny idealism for Machiavelli-on-the-Potomac sagas like House of Cards; even Steven Spielberg's Lincoln ties the Great Emancipator with dirty politicking. Fortunately, Advise and Consent is engaging enough not to seem quaint.

Henry Fonda proves brilliant casting. Seemingly upright and noble, he proves thin-skinned, defensive, blaming others for his own dishonesty. It's Fonda's best performance of the 1960s, save Once Upon a Time in the West. Charles Laughton relishes his final role, a "powerful, devious friend" even slimier than his Spartacus character. Walter Pidgeon provides ballast as the outwardly-honorable Majority Leader. Don Murray and George Grizzard play younger Senators outclassed by such august schemers.

Other politicos are played by Franchot Tone, Lew Ayres, Peter Lawford, Will Geer and Edward Andrews, each getting several meaty scenes. Arizona Senator Henry F. Ashurst ("Opposed, sir!") cameos. Betty White plays a Senator modeled on Margaret Chase Smith. Burgess Meredith gets a brilliant bit part: harried, confused and pitiable, he nearly steals the movie. Inga Swenson does well as Anderson's confused wife. In contrast, Gene Tierney's wasted as Pidgeon's mistress.

Like The Best Man (1964), Advise and Consent seems remarkably prescient. A 1962 viewer might view Preminger's film as too scabrous, too distrusting by half. A 2014 viewer, with a half-century of hindsight and daily reminders on CNN, won't have that luxury.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Reflections in a Golden Eye

Some movies are hard to swallow, but Reflections in a Golden Eye (1967) is truly indigestible. John Huston's overheated flop is Tennessee Williams by way of Pier Paolo Pasolini, a cocktail of sexual hangups, caricature southerners and baroque direction. It might be fun if it weren't so aimless, boring and stupid.

Tensions run rife on a Southern military base. Major Weldon Pendleton (Marlon Brando) teaches tactics to new recruits. Outwardly an ideal soldier, his impotence and self-absorption repulse his wife Leonora (Elizabeth Taylor). Leonora takes up with Colonel Langdon (Brian Keith), whose own wife Allison (Julie Harris) is going insane. Rounding out the freak show are Ancaleto (Zorro David), Allison's gabby Filipino servant, and Private Williams (Robert Forster), a mute soldier obsessed with Leonora.

Based on a Carson McCullers novel, Reflections in a Golden Eye resembles some dystopian novel where emotion is outlawed. Leonora and Langdon chat about Alison's self-mutilation as if discussing the weather. Everyone's similarly blase about Williams' midnight panty raids and bareback horse rides. All except Pendleton, who takes Leonora's horsewhip unflinchingly but grows obsessed with the peeping tom. He becomes a country-fried Aschenbach, primping before a mirror and stalking Williams around the base. Yes, another repressed gay soldier - and Southern too! Who'da thunk?

Scenarists Gladys Hill and Chapman Mortimer shovel on the pomposity. Pendleton speaks endlessly about leadership and barracks life, drooling like Ernst Rohm over soldiers living "clean as a rifle." Yet his own manhood's forfeit when he can't ride a horse, or grow aroused by naked Elizabeth Taylor. Landon holds forth on manliness, less passionate than constipated. Meanwhile, Anacleto rambles about peacocks and Rachmaninoff, in a bid to be the most obnoxious character in movie history. Williams is lucky, relieved the burden of reciting Reflection's mush-mouthed script.

Perhaps the proceeding paragraphs make Reflections sound like fun. Too bad Huston plays this absurd material completely straight, without any hint of humor or irony. What's left is aimless, pretentious junk strewn with unaccountable bursts of style. Aldo Tonti's photography comes tinged in a yellow haze, presumably to literalize the title. Huston stages weird set pieces, like Pendleton's breakneck horse ride, that expend energy to little purpose. It culminates in the worst-directed climax in Hollywood history, a dizzying collage of overacting and horrendous camerawork.

Marlon Brando revisits his Boomhauer impression from The Chase, mumbling about them dang ol' soldiers not adhering to his concepts of leadership. Elizabeth Taylor mostly contributes dandified shrieks, Brian Keith lobotomized growls. Robert Forster spends half the film nude, the other half face-deep in Taylor's undies. Julie Harris's scenery-chewing seems authentic in comparison. And Zorro David makes Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany's look like Sessue Hayakawa.

Reflections in a Golden Eye is one of Classic Hollywood's strangest failures. So many skilled artists collaborating and yet it's completely unwatchable, even as camp. Ultimately it's a black hole, sucking cast and director into a void from which no talent can escape.

Monday, August 25, 2014

The Sergeant

Rod Steiger is Classic Hollywood's most frustrating star. With the right role and capable direction, Steiger can be brilliant: On the Waterfront, Doctor Zhivago, The Pawnbroker, In the Heat of the Night. But too often he's a Method caricature, bugging out eyes, gnashing teeth, twisting his voice into a tortured hyena snarl. His bellowing, eyebrow-arching Napoleon in Waterloo might be cinema's worst performance by a great actor - and that wasn't a bad movie.

The Sergeant (1968) is another dreary '60s psychodrama casting the military as repressed nutcases and homosexuals as tortured psychopaths. Who better to enliven such turgidity than that master of nuance, Rod Steiger?

Sergeant Callan (Rod Steiger) arrives at a remote Army base in postwar France. Discipline is slack and the Captain (Frank Latimore) is preoccupied by staff meetings and booze. Callan soon takes command, instilling harsh discipline upon the garrison. He takes a fancy towards Private Swanson (John Phillip Law), making him orderly and chaperoning him on dates. Swanson starts to suspect something uncouth about Callan's attentions - evidenced by the Sergeant's increasingly erratic behavior.

Adapted by Dennis Murphy from his own novel, The Sergeant shares Reflections in a Golden Eye's (1967) interplay of sexual frustration and military discipline. Without that movie's camp sensibility, it's a tedious exercise in unintentional homophobia. The Sergeant envisions Callan as a tragic figure, tormented and finally destroyed by his sexuality. Instead he's a predatory pervert, stalking his intended, doling out rewards and punishment and finally assaulting Swanson. Why should we sympathize with this creep?

Murphy and director John Flynn further hobble things with endless detours. The Sergeant opens with an exciting World War II battle completely detached from the plot. If anything it detracts, painting Callan as nuts (strangling an unarmed German) from the get-go. Swanson romances a pretty French girl (Ludmilla Mikael), to contrast his heterosexuality against Callan's "sickness." And a subplot where Callan punishes a hard-drinking Private (Elliott Sullivan) is so thinly sketched we don't care. These just delay the preordained conclusion, obvious to anyone who's seen The Children's Hour or any other gay-themed '60s drama.

Rod Steiger finds inventive new ways to chew scenery, even without speaking. Disappointed by Swanson's rejection, his smile slowly crinkles, muscle by muscle, into a disapproving scowl. During his final breakdown, his voice cracks into a ghastly howl, tears raining down his cheeks. In contrast, John Phillip Law never varies his line readings and mannerisms, occasionally narrowing his eyes into a startled glare. Admittedly, pairing a rabid over-actor with a costar who can't act is a novel conceit. But it's not enough to carry a film.

Perhaps if The Sergeant had something meaningful to say about homosexuality or military life, we could overlook the shoddy plot and ludicrous acting. But that's all we get: a ream of cliches, earnestly enacted by a cipher and a ravenous ham.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

RIP Richard Attenborough

Today Richard Attenborough, legendary actor-director, died at age 90. A great loss to all of us cinephiles, whether we remember him as Big X, John Hammond or the director of Gandhi.

Read my writeup for Moviepilot here.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Tea and Sympathy

Let's mark Tea and Sympathy (1956) as Exhibit A of Hays Code squeamishness. Robert Anderson's play wrestled frankly with sexual identity, a verboten subject in '50s America. Vincente Minelli's handsome adaptation flounders about trying to impart a message it can't make plain.

Tom Lee (John Kerr) is an outsider at an all-boys prep school. He prefers theater and music to football and skirt-chasing; his classmates mock him as "Sister Boy." His rough housemaster Bill Reynolds (Leif Erickson) and domineering father (Edward Andrews) extend Tom little sympathy. Tom finds a kindred spirit in Laura Reynolds (Deborah Kerr), Bill's wife who resents his bullying machismo. But Laura's efforts to encourage Tom seem only to exacerbate things.

Tea and Sympathy is usually labeled a "gay film" but that's misleading. Not only gays question their masculinity, and being straight doesn't spare "sensitive" guys from bullying. Nonetheless, the play makes homophobia its central issue: Tom's compromising action isn't knitting but swimming naked with an older man; Bill's shown wrestling with his own insecurities, something the film downplays. Ten years after Crossfire, which swapped homophobia for antisemitism, Hollywood still wouldn't tackle gay-bashing.

Censorship aside, Tom conforms to the classic Hollywood deviant. He's subjected to cruel taunts by fellow students; even his friendly roommate (Darryl Hickman) mocks his "funny" walk. When Dad finds he's playing a woman on-stage, he ruthlessly browbeats Tom into quitting. Yet trying to conform makes things worse; he breaks down resigning his part, while dating the local tart (Norma Craine) drives him to despair. In Classic Hollywood, gays are either decadent villains, comic relief or tortured neurotics. Thus with Tom, whose agonized breakdown evokes pity rather than understanding.

That's what makes Tea and Sympathy frustrating. Like The Children's Hour, it's less pro-tolerance than anti-gossip: Tom's classmates are wrong for accusing him, not for hating gays. In this it's a relic of its time, but undercuts Tom's character development. He reclaims his manhood not by asserting his straightness and flipping off the jocks, but by sleeping with an older woman. The "modern-day" framing device muddies things still further. Why raise this touchy subject if you won't deal with it?

Minelli's high-toned direction contrasts its unpleasant story with immaculate photography and set design. At times Tea resembles Douglas Sirk's melodramas, using unreal beauty to expose middle-class hypocrisy. John Alton's confectionary cinematography reaches its peak in Tom and Laura's final meeting, an idyll given near-religious staging. (Certainly Alton flatters Deborah Kerr as much as Michael Powell ever did.) Dramatic flaws aside, Tea's relentlessly beautiful.

Deborah Kerr provides a sensitive, dignified performance. She conveys repressed anguish and unrealized warmth, making Laura a portrait in repression. John Kerr is unfortunately uneven, effective in emotional moments but less convincing in more banal scenes. Leif Erickson (On the Waterfront) gives Bill enough complexity to avoid being a stereotype; Edward Andrews (Summertime) is the classic disapproving dad. Among Tom's classmates are Darryl Hickman, Dean Jones and Billy Jack himself, Tom Laughlin.

Vito Russo sardonically pegs Tea and Sympathy's moral as "be kind to shy heterosexuals." Given how '50s Hollywood handled racism and juvenile delinquency, it's unsurprising they punted on homosexuality. Tea and Sympathy is a decent melodrama that can't help feeling compromised.