Wednesday, November 23, 2016

BONJOUR TRISTESSE 1958

Seeing as 2016 has exposed America as a country hell-bent on both leading the charge and serving as the gatekeepers to the demise of decency and death of dignity; I wonder if the moral dilemma at the center of the Bonjour Tristesse would even appear as such to audiences today. In a world that takes its ethical cues from reality television, and where ego-driven consequentialism (the end justifies the means) has come to replace a humanist moral compass; the choice between a life of financially well-upholstered self-gratification versus the option of sharing an authentic emotional relationship with one you love, would likely seem a no-brainer to those who reduce human beings to either "winners" or "losers": Go for the villa on the French Riviera!
Jean Seberg as Cecile
David Niven as Raymond
Deborah Kerr as Anne Larson
Mylene Demongeot as Elsa Mackenbourg
During the nascent days of what has come to be known as the Jet Set; a year after Playboy Magazine branded and commodified the image of the ladies’ man; and a good six years before Fellini exposed the world to La Dolce Vita; 18-year-old Françoise Sagan achieved  acclaim and infamy when she wrote of “La Belle Vie” in her debut novel Bonjour Tristesse. Considered shocking at the time, Bonjour Tristesse is a wafer-thin tale of a precocious 17-year-old girl who admiringly but heedlessly adopts the sybaritic ways and philosophy of her widowed father—a shallow playboy—and the way her surface sophistication fails to prevent her from responding in the most childish way possible to the jealous threat imposed by the introduction of “a woman of substance” into their incestuously codependent twosome.

Though I only just read Bonjour Tristesse prior to writing this essay, its frank talk of mistresses, womanizers, adolescent sex, drinking, smoking, and basic, old-school bohemian living-it-up,  still resonates with a narrative and psychological insight startling in a writer so young. I can only imagine what the American response to the novel was back in the days when the strongest stateside glimpses of 1950s teenage life were provided by the polar-opposite rebellion/conformity images of James Dean and Dobie Gillis. And that’s just the view from the boys’ room. The scope of behavioral possibilities for girls was even narrower. Teenage girls of the '50s who didn’t fit into the conventional "biding-my-time-until-compulsory-wife-and-motherhood" of My Little Margie/A Date With Judy/Gidget mold, were always depicted as the “bad” girls in juvenile delinquency exploitation films. There was no gray area: virgin or "going steady" wife and mother to be...that was it.
Cecile and Raymond: Two of a Kind
Given Bonjour Tristesse’s risqué reputation, perhaps it was inevitable that the novel would be brought to the screen by Otto Preminger, a director known at the time for shattering taboos on the big screen (Carmen Jones - 1954) and challenging censors (The Moon is Blue - 1953, The Man With The Golden Arm - 1954). With a screenplay by Arthur Laurents (Rope, Anastasia) and sumptuous CinemaScope color photography by Georges Perinal (Oscar winner for The Thief of Bagdad – 1940), Bonjour Tristesse was Preminger’s follow-up feature to the critically lambasted Saint Joan, and only the second motion picture appearance of that film’s star: Preminger discovery and protégée Jean Seberg.

Every "plucked from obscurity" cliche in the book applies to then-17-year-old Jean Seberg being discovered by Otto Preminger, signed to a seven-year contract, and thrust into the lead role of Joan of Arc in his calamitous 1957 film version of George Bernard Shaw's play. The poor U.S. reception accorded Bonjour Tristesse when she was but a seasoned  veteran of 19 (the film did well in France) brought their professional relationship to a premature end.

Narrated by Cecile and presented as a series of black & white, present-time Paris flashbacks of the colorful summer she and her father spent on the French Riviera a year before, Bonjour Tristesse is a coming-of-age tale in which the getting of wisdom is paid for in bitter tears of self-recrimination. Wealthy, widowed playboy and zealous bon vivant Raymond (Niven) may be Cecile’s father, but he is anything but a dad. More companion than parent (Cecile calls him by his first name), Raymond’s conduct—a staunch disregard for sincere emotion, and a tireless pursuit of hedonistic distraction—is precisely the kind of immaturity that looks like maturity to an adolescent. Thus, Cecile adopts Raymond’s fecklessness, cynical philosophies as her own, unconnected and unmoored to either life experience or self-awareness.
Geoffrey Horne as Philippe
The drama is set in motion when a casual invitation extended to family friend Anne Larson (Kerr) is accepted, upsetting the epicurean balance of the heretofore frolicsome foursome comprised of Raymond and his mistress-of-the-moment Elsa (Demongeot), and Cecile and Philippe (Geoffrey Horne), a vacationing law student and eight years Cecile’s senior. The arrival of the chic and sophisticated Anne has the splintering effect of an adult entering a children-only birthday party: a welcome change-of-pace and escape from juvenilia for some, a fifth wheel to others, and, perhaps to most, an unfocused and vaguely felt threat.
British character-actress Martita Hunt (Anastasia, The Unsinkable Molly Brown) as Philippe's mother,
getting poker advice from the "brilliant" Elsa 

Whatever the initial response, the lingering impression made by the contrasting virtues of Anne’s maturity, intelligence, and sensitivity on the hollow hedonism of that summer, is the unwelcome awareness for all that “There’s gotta be something better than this.”

For Raymond, Anne offers the opportunity for genuine happiness and a rescue from a life of superannuated adolescence. Cecile, torn between admiration and resentment, keenly fears Anne’s unattainable poise will only serve to emphasize in her father’s eyes (per their atypical father/daughter relationship) the very chasm that exists between being a grown-up and merely acting like one. Unacquainted with what she stands to gain in acquiring both a mother and a father, Cecile can only see what she stands to lose in terms of the unimpeded path to instant gratification she is currently afforded by Raymond. Anne is more than a rival for her father's affections, Anne is a threat to Cecile's priveledge not to have to think. About anything. Anne threatens Cecile with the inevitability of having to grow up, and as such, Cecile sees her as a threat to her way of life. She must be stopped.
What follows in this gender-switch Come Blow Your Horn can best be described as a perverse, uniquely Gallic precursor to Disney's The Parent Trap as Cecile schemes to save her father (and most importantly, herself) from the specter of death by matrimonial maturation. With predictably tragic results.
Cecile Allocated To The Sidelines

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
Bonjour Tristesse is unequivocally my favorite Otto Preminger film. Although I arrived to the party rather late (I saw it for the first time just five or six years ago), it took absolutely no time for me to fall in love with its chic style, period sophistication, gorgeous French locales, and uniformly splendid performances. Arthur Laurents’ emotionally perceptive screenplay maintains Sagan’s view of Cecile as an unreliable, slightly self-dramatizing narrator. But by way of a nifty framing device that provides a glimpse of Cecile and Raymond’s life in Paris subsequent to that fateful summer (in eloquent black and white), Cecile’s deceptively colorful reveries of an untroubled past come to inform the scenes that take place in the monochrome present in despairingly poignant ways.
It's Only A Paper Moon
Enlivening my first viewing of Bonjour Tristesse was its having coincided with the broadcast of the reality TV trainwreck that was Ryan & Tatum: The O'Neals. A program to which I was religiously drawn every Sunday evening. Watching a real-life Cecile (Tatum O'Neal) grappling with a real-life Raymond (Ryan O'Neal) over his having let a real-life Anne come between them (Farrah Fawcett), made for a positively surreal viewing experience.

PERFORMANCES
From what I’ve read, much was made at the time of Preminger’s accent-clashing decision to pepper Bonjour Tristesse with but a smattering of actual French actors and instead have the lead Parisian characters of Sagan’s novel portrayed by two distinguished stars of the British cinema and a green teenager from Iowa. I’m sure purists and fans of the book were thrown by it all, but as one raised on a steady diet of Yankee actors in classic films speaking with clipped, mid-Atlantic dialects, not to mention British actors cast as everything from Egyptians (Cleopatra) to Southern belles (Gone With the Wind) to dustbowl Texans (Walk on the Wild Side); I can’t say Seberg’s flat Midwestern twang bumping up against Niven and Kerr’s veddy veddy proper English along France's southern coast caused me much concern. If anything, it made the authentic French accent of the adorable Mylene Demongeot stand out like a sore baguette.
As Elsa, Raymond's mistress-of-the-moment, French actress and '50s/'60s sex-symbol
 Mylene Demongeot  (still acting at 81) is a delight. 
Otto Preminger has never struck me as a particularly sensitive director, but the performances he elicits from the entire cast of Bonjour Tristesse are something else again. Thanks largely to the contributions of the cast; Francoise Sagan’s introspective-yet-detached novel is fashioned into a heartbreaking parable about the human propensity for casual cruelty.
How unfortunate it is that as a youngster I first came to know of David Niven via his one-note performances in what then-appeared an unending stream of atrocious, look-alike sex comedies (Bedtime Story, Prudence & the Pill, The Impossible Years, and The Statue). It took several years for me to come to appreciate—through exposure to his earlier work—what a consummate actor he is. In Bonjour Tristesse Niven adds untold nuance to his portrayal of a man-child who goes from enviable to pitiable over the course of the film. 
When Enjoying Each Other's Company Turns Into Needing The Reassurance of Each Other's Company


I love Jean Seberg in this, although I’m not at all sure I’d have felt the same had I seen Bonjour Tristesse back when it was intended to remedy the damage inflicted by her out-of-her-depth performance in Saint Joan. Time has been kind to Seberg, and the effectiveness of her Cecile is as much a triumph of personal style (she’s the epitome of youthful chic) as it is the distancing needed to assess her performance without all the nagging hype. I find Seberg to be remarkably good here, with even her liabilities (her line readings can sometimes be a little robotic) morphing into assets under the heady sheen of her unassuming star quality.
When it came to adolescent sexual independence, Cecile's unfettered license would likely cause
Annette Funicello's waterproof bouffant (the Beach Party movies were still five years away) to turn stark white

But the jewel in Bonjour Tristesse’s crown, the linchpin upon whom the entire emotional thrust of the film pivots, is Deborah Kerr. In an earlier essay on her work in the film Black Narcissus, I acknowledged the high level of esteem in which I hold her talent. Her work in this film is no less astonishing. More than merely serving as an identifiably "substantive" woman by way of her intelligence and poise (to contrast with Raymond's usual flirtations), Kerr confirms the narrative’s assertion regarding her character's sensitivity and vulnerability by giving a beautifully realized performance that is as wise to understanding the inner workings of this kind of woman as it is ultimately heartwrenching. She really is one of my all-time favorite actresses.


THE STUFF OF DREAMS
Bonjour Tristesse is one of the most effective uses of 20th Century-Fox's epic-scale CinemaScope process for the conveyance of intimate themes I've ever seen. Although the French Mediterranean coastline has sweep and grandeur, Preminger and cinematographer Georges Perinal don't restrict the dimensions of the widescreen process to the mere recording picture postcard images. The expanse of the cinema frame is consistently enlisted to enhance storytelling and visually underscore the film's emotional conflicts.
Use of negative space to denote Cecile's emotional detachment
Space & framing reinforcing Cecile's perception
that Anne and Raymond have united in opposition
Once Anne and Raymond become an item, Cecile (from whose perspective the story is told)
always sees herself as just slightly apart
"Brilliant" economy of storytelling:
Albertine the maid helps herself to the champagne, Raymond & Anne share a private laugh,
Elsa begins to smell a rat, and Philippe & Cecile enjoy not having anything to think about  

THE STUFF OF FANTASY
Bonjour Tristesse boasts a magnificent soundtrack by composer Georges Auric. I only recently acquired it for my ipod, but when I was young, it was one of those soundtrack albums every home seemed to have.
French singer/actress Juliette Greco, singing the film's title song

Hope Bryce and May Walding are credited with Bonjour Tristesse's costumes and wardrobe, but the clothes that make the strongest impression are the striking, super-stylish gowns and dresses by iconic designer Hubert de Givenchy. Deborah Kerr, whose character is a fashion designer, wears one elegant outfit after another, while pixie-cut Seberg became an instant style trendsetter with her American take on Audrey Hepburn's gamine chic look.  

Looking at Bonjour Tristesse nowdigitally pristine, widescreen and positively gorgeousit's hard for me to wrap my mind around the fact that it was a flop when released 1958 (although the French took to it, but then again...that Jerry Lewis thing....). As I said before, I think it's one of Preminger's best: a legitimate minor masterpiece. And though perhaps not exactly true to the tone of the novel (for which I'm grateful. The film is more moral) it is nevertheless a movie I revisit with a great deal of pleasure and always leave with teary eyes and a sincerely touched heart.
Saul Bass
Copyright © Ken Anderson

Thursday, November 10, 2016

MISERY 1990

In a verbose, exasperated correspondence, a reader once expressed to me his intrigued bewilderment at how my otherwise—to use his words—“perceptive and aware” observations on the toxicity of idol worship and fame culture (per my essays on Maps To The Stars, The Day of The Locust, Come Back To The 5 & Dime Jimmy Dean Jimmy Dean, The Fan, and For Your Consideration) stood in frustrating contrast to my parallel tendency to lapse into periodic bouts of unapologetic fandom, shameless name-dropping, and displays of philography (autograph collecting). 
Once the feeling of being terribly flattered that my writing could actually exasperate someone passed; I understood his point. I could see how my expressed disdain for the hollow distractions of fame culture and celebrity-worship perhaps suggested to the reader that I place no value on “fandom” at all, in any of its forms. In which case my attendant essays subjectively praising actors whose work I admire, upon whom I harbor crushes, or who I’ve met (cue the autograph scans); must have come across as paradoxical at best, hypocritical at worst. 
But that falls under the heading of reading the content while misunderstanding the context. The truth of the matter is that if I do indeed possess any insight into the phenomenon of fame culture, it’s insight born of firsthand experience, not academic observance. I’ve been a film fan my entire life, even owing my 30-year career as a dancer to film fandom (I fell in love with that irresistible 1980 roller-disco glowstick, Xanadu), so I've come to recognize that not all fandom is created equal.
“Healthy fandom,” as I call it, is when the admiration for and appreciation of the artistic accomplishments of others serves as a kind of balm to uplift the spirits and enhance quality of life. This type of artist-identification has the ability to inspire, broaden horizons, and awaken within individuals an awareness of one's potential and life's possibilities through exposure to the creative arts. Fan worship when channeled into role-modeling can foster self-discovery, self-actualization, and the cultivation of one's own artistic gifts. When it comes to fame culture, I think there's nothing wrong with looking outside of oneself if, by doing so, one becomes motivated to look within. 
Then there’s what I call “toxic fandom.” That’s when one focuses on the life and achievements of others, not as a means of finding oneself, but for the sole purpose of losing oneself. Toxic fandom doesn’t look to the arts for ways to cope and engage with reality, it looks to the arts to escape from it.
Because the toxic fan seizes upon a personality, film, TV series, or Broadway show with a singularity of focus more appropriate to a religious totem or fetish object; the actual talent or merit isn’t a requirement (cue the Kardashians). Fame can be worshipped for fame’s sake alone. With all that is good, happy, and beautiful in the world projected onto a single subject of worship, said “object of affection” doesn’t bring the toxic fan happiness, it represents happiness itself.
Certainly qualifying as the absolute worst-case scenario of toxic fandom gone terrifyingly off the rails is Stephen King's brilliant Misery. Brought to chilling and unforgettable life on the big screen by director Rob Reiner and screenwriter William Goldman (The Stepford Wives, Magic). 
James Caan as Paul Sheldon
Kathy Bates as Annie Wilkes
Richard Farnsworth as Buster
Frances Sternhagen as Virginia
Lauren Bacall as Marcia Sindell
Prolific author Stephen King is the master of Le Cauchemar Banal—the banal nightmare: high-concept thrillers in which ordinary characters in workaday settings find themselves thrust into unimaginably horrific circumstances. Whether it be “bullied high school teen kills entire class,” “dysfunctional family driven insane by haunted hotel,” “rabid dog terrorizes toddler” or, in the case of Misery, “deranged fan imprisons favorite author”; King’s particular literary gift is his ability to mine the darkest, most relatable phobias lurking behind ostensibly commonplace conflicts. The best of the films adapted from his novels (Carrie, The Shining, The Dead Zone) shore up King’s solid storytelling by giving emphasis to his almost Biblical/Freudian take on human nature. I can’t think of a work of Stephen King’s which doesn’t in some way confront matters of sin, redemption, guilt, evil, fate, transformation, loss, and desperation. Sometimes all at once! 
The Wilkes farmhouse
Just the kind of creepy-cozy place you'd imagine a serial killer would live

Adapted from King’s 1987 bestseller, Misery is a two-character, single-location twist on the Scheherazade folk tale (wherein a princess forestalls her execution through the spinning of captivating stories), pitting deranged superfan Annie Wilkes (Bates) against popular romance novelist Paul Sheldon (Caan).
After a Colorado mountain blizzard results in Paul Sheldon crashing his car off of a snowy bluff, he wakes to find himself nursing two broken legs and a dislocated shoulder in farmhouse of “number one fan” Annie Wilkes. How Paul’s status shifts from patient to prisoner is revealed through character (retired nurse Annie Wilkes is batshit crazy) and the development of the story’s central (and might I say, ingenious) conflict:

Annie would like nothing more than for Paul Sheldon to continue churning out Misery books—a series of historical romance novels chronicling the adventures of heroine Misery Chastain—until his dying day (which threatens to be sooner than Paul would like if he doesn’t get with the Wilkes program).
Paul, on the other hand, after writing eight financially successful but spiritually crippling Misery novels (do I foreshadow much?), would like nothing more than to put Misery out of her misery, move on, and, via his just-completed profanity-laced crime novel Fast Cars, pursue a career of literary legitimacy. 
Misery's tense melodrama is an macabre exaggeration of the possessive/regressive side of celebrity-worship. Creative growth may be a fundamental part of being an artist, but an equally dominant characteristic of fandom is the wish for a favorite star to keep repeating past successes.  

The close-quarters confinement of two people with such fiercely cross-purpose objectives generates considerable dramatic tension, but Goldman’s taut screenplay, which opens up King’s novel to include rescue-effort sequences involving the local sheriff (Fransworth), his deputy/wife (Sternhagen), and Paul’s literary agent (Bacall), nicely replicates the novel’s escalating sense of dread born of having the true nature of Paul’s rescuer and biggest fan revealed to us exclusively from Paul’s limited perspective. 
In both appearance and personality, Annie Wilkes amusingly plays into the suppositions many of us hold regarding the kind of people who read romance novels or give themselves over to obsessive fandom. But as Annie’s fangirl eccentricities reveal themselves to be symptoms of a larger mental instability; Paul’s mounting anxiety becomes our own as Annie’s irrational outbursts and mercurial mood swings hurls Misery into violent chaos.
Scenes played for black comedy invite us to share Paul's incredulous amusement at Annie's parochial prudishness, Midwest drabness, ignorance ("Dome Pear-igg-non"), and fondness for pop-culture kitsch. But the laughs catch in our throat as we come to understand that the earnestness of Annie's beliefs are rooted in rigid dogma

Lacking the novel's built-in identification factor (the story is told from his perspective), the film nevertheless does a great job of having us experience Annie and her rages with the exact same unexpected suddenness and startlingly irrational violence. So much so that, in effect, Rob Reiner becomes our tormentor; the male Annie Wilkes at whose mercy we suddenly find ourselves. In these instances, we (unlike Paul) can escape, but the compelling nature of the story holds us captive in our seats, no more willing to leave before first learning how things turn out than Scheherazade's king.


MISERY AS FAME-CULTURE METAPHOR
I read Misery many years after having seen the film. And while the movie is a very faithful to the book, as with many adaptations, the changes necessary to mold the descriptive liberties of the written word to fit the specific hyper-reality of the screen can shift a story's narrative emphasis in ways interesting and unexpected. Misery the novel, with its stressed emphasis on Paul's point-of-view read very much to me like one man's internal struggle. Paul Sheldon waging a war with the creative process, his life-altering encounter with Annie Wilkes serving as a kind of baptism by fire through which his creative spark is reborn and over which his eventual artistic maturity triumphs. (This fits with Stephen King's Rolling Stone interview in which he states he was Paul Sheldon and Annie Wilkes was his cocaine addiction.)

The film version, with the necessary excision of Paul's nonstop internal monologues and lengthy passages relating to the content of Misery's Return, subtly shifts the dynamics of the conflict. Since we no longer share the inner workings of his mind and are left to merely observe his behavior, Paul Sheldon may remain the story's central character, but his role in it is has become more reactive. Conversely, Annie, who is depicted in the book in almost one-dimensional terms (a monster comprehensible only in as far as Paul is able to make sense of her erratic behavior), is made the more dynamic character in the film because her actions and desires propel the plot. Deprived of his character-illuminating inner monologues, Paul Sheldon's goals become simplified: survival/escape. Annie, depicted in more complex terms, has fragmented, nonlinear goals that intensify in direct proportion to the deterioration of her mental state.
Kathy Bates' unforgettable, Academy Award-winning performance humanizes the monster that is Annie Wilkes. Playing a frightening character more pathetic than sympathetic, Bates somehow never surrenders Annie's humanity, even when her behavior is at its most indefensibly psychotic.

The depth given to the character of Annie Wilkes in the film (which I credit to Kathy Bates 100%) makes her Misery's "dominant focus": the most dramatically compelling element of a movie. Since interest IN a character can feel distressingly like sympathy FOR a character to our subconscious, in thrillers this contributes to creating an overall sense of unease for the viewer (think Hitchcock tricking us into identifying with Norman Bates in Psycho). We identify with Paul Sheldon's left-at-the-mercy-of-a-madwoman vulnerability; but since more of us know what it's like to be a fan than to be a celebrity, a tiny part of us can also relate to Annie. And we hate ourselves for it.

ANNIE WILKES: THE ULTIMATE THE TOXIC FAN 
If, as someone once said, success is the natural killer of creativity, to that dictum I’d also add: fans are the assassins of artistic exploration.
One of showbiz’s most enduring clichés is the artist who, upon achieving mainstream success, longs for artistic credibility: The Gidget who wants to be a dramatic actress (Sally Field), the stand-up comic who wants to be Ingmar Bergman (Woody Allen); the purveyor of pop-music candy floss who wants to be taken seriously (Madonna).
Some stars have been able to reinvent themselves without alienating fans or losing popularity (Robin Williams, Tom Hanks), but in most instances, attempts to abandon a popular commercial brand are met with resistance, if not outright hostility, by the artist's fanbase.
The terrifying relationship between Paul and Annie depicted in Misery is fascinating when viewed as a meta commentary on the co-depended love/hate relationship celebrities have with their fans.

“I love you Paul. Your mind...your creativity. That’s all I meant.”
Toxic fandom has at its core, a one-sided inequity of intimacy: the fan knows everything about their favorite celebrity, said celebrity doesn't know they exist. Love for an artist's work can be fulfilling, for it at least has the potential to feed the soul. Pent-up, intermingled feelings channeled into an appreciation of an artist's work at least holds the potential for fulfillment of the soul. But when the line gets blurred between love of art and love of artist, you're pretty much staring into the eye of an emotional one-way street.


“You just better start showing me a little more appreciation around here, Mister Man!”
Sooner or later the healthy fan learns that it's not possible to prop someone atop a pedestal without eventually realizing they've left themselves somewhere down on the ground. This realization inevitably leads to resentment. A constant complaint of celebrities today (especially among those who hate being reminded of the very real debt they DO owe to their fans) is what they see as the pushy entitlement of fans. They carry with them an attitude of "You owe your success to me!" or worse, the embittered "You think you're better than me?"—sadly, an epithet usually hurled by a fan moments after treating a celebrity as though they were precisely that. Nathanael West's The Day of the Locust is a work about the deep wellsprings of envy and resentment that can lie beneath fan culture. 

“You and I were meant to be together forever.”
From Presley devotees who refuse to acknowledge Fat Elvis, to Liza Minnelli concert goers who boo if she doesn't sing Cabaret; the symbiotic, vaguely contentious relationship between toxic fan and artist is always a struggle against stasis. Being a creative artist means development and growth, but being a fan frequently means latching onto some favored moment, digging in one's heels, and refusing to accept the fact that everything moves on. The toxic fan wants fan and celebrity to remain together forever, frozen in aspic.

There! Look there! See what you made me do?”
Ever notice how many online fan sites, chat rooms, and movie tribute pages are rife with the most vitriolic bullying and harassment imaginable? Intense self-identification with a celebrity, movie, or TV series often makes the toxic fan (usually a person with a vague sense of self from the start) feel so special, they tend to grow protective and proprietary over time. Separating themselves from the herd by the bestowal of meaningless titles and rank upon themselves (number one fan, biggest fan, most devoted fan), fandom becomes less about the personal joy one derives from the appreciation of a particular subject, and more about appointing oneself its combative gatekeeper.
Given that the seeds of fandom so often take root in adolescence—when individuals turn to the arts as a means of coping with the pain of loneliness, bullying, or feeling like an outsider—it's the height of irony that in so many cases the bullied grow to become the biggest bullies.

“You’ll never know the fear of losing someone like you if you’re someone like me.”
With its combined elements of genres ranging from horror to crime drama, Misery is a very effective suspense thriller (so much so that to this day I can’t watch the famous “hobbling” sequence, nor can I watch that final, bloody skirmish). James Caan and Kathy Bates are both super, handling the drama and black comedy with equal skill. (Although it's amusing to think that the athletic Caan, in this and 1979s Chapter Two, is Hollywood's idea of what a writer looks like.)
The first time I saw it in 1990, all I came away with was the feeling of having enjoyed a real thrill-ride of a movie. it has since become a favorite I've re-watched the film several times over the years (and it is indeed a quaint little timepiece, what with its rotary phones, typewriters, phonograph records, and bottles of Liquid Paper) and what stays with me is now are the characters.
Annie Wilkes may represent the crippling dominance of addiction to Stephen King, but to me, Misery is a searing horror fable (cautionary tale?) about how fame culture can promote emotional displacement through toxic fandom. Culturally speaking, what can be scarier than that?

Do any of you know or have had a run-in with a toxic fan? Better still, a toxic celebrity encounter? Would love to hear about it!


BONUS MATERIAL
In 2008 Kathy Bates appeared as Annie Wilkes in a commercial for DirectTV. Watch it HERE.
Copyright © Ken Anderson

Saturday, October 22, 2016

BEYOND THE FOREST 1949

Rosa Moline is discontented and doesn’t care who knows it. Rosa (Bette Davis) is the bored and restless wife of dull-but-decent general practitioner Lewis Moline (Joseph Cotton), the only doctor in the small town of Loyalton, Wisconsin. Loyalton is a lumbering town, both literally and figuratively, whose local sawmill blasts heat and spews sawdust ceaselessly, fueling Rosa’s certainty that she is suffocating and being buried alive.
But if the local sawmill is the arrhythmic heartbeat of Loyalton, the only thing that can get Rosa’s pulse racing is when the train that goes to and from Chicago pulls into the station twice daily. A train whose chugging steam engine beckons (per the film’s portentous narration): “Come, Rosa. Come away before it’s too late. Chicago…Chicago…Chicago….”

Bette Davis as Rosa Moline
Joseph Cotten as Lewis Moline 
David Brian as Neil Latimer
Ruth Roman as Carol Lawson
Minor Watson as Moose Lawson
Dona Drake as Jenny
Fans of the overripe cinema of director King Vidor (Duel in the Sun, The Fountainhead, Ruby Gentry) and Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? will recognize Beyond the Forest as the film whose title George is stumped to recall when Martha mimics Bette Davis and utters the oft-parodied line “What a dump!” But for that bit of theatrical immortality bestowed upon this hotly contested post-war melodrama (plagued by censorship interference, it's a film Davis did only under protest, contributing to the end of her 18 years with Warner Bros) it’s unlikely many others could recall Beyond the Forest, either; a lesser entry in the Bette Davis canon that has nevertheless developed a devoted cult (and camp) following over the years.
"What a dump!"
Brandishing an emery board, that international symbol of the self-absorbed and aloof, Bette Davis utters what The American Film Institute voted #62 in its roster of 100 Most Memorable Movie Quotes

Joining the ranks of the many discontented housewives of great literature: Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler, Flaubert’s Emma Bovary, Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, Carol Burnett’s Eunice Higgins…Rosa Moline is a woman who longs for more out of life. Feeling constrained and stifled by marriage and the conventional morality of small town life, Rosa not only wants more, but feels she deserves more. Though a Loyalton native, Rosa has always clung to the idea that she is somehow “different” from the other women in town; a grade above the ordinary and therefore meant for better things.
Which is why, rather than simply escaping Loyalton on her own and paving an independent path for herself in the big city—“What as…a telephone girl, a stenographer, waitress?”— Rosa sticks around, thumbing her nose at the low-rent aspirations of the townswomen ("You certainly go in for mass production, don't you?" she remarks to a local mom and her brood) and settling for a life of not-so-quiet desperation as a doctor’s wife in the town’s finest house (said aforementioned dump). 
A life of pitiful attempts at cultivating second-hand class (“I wanted venetian blinds...all the houses in magazines have venetian blinds!”), and of having her middle-class pretensions consistently deflated by the knowing insolence of her Native-American housekeeper. 
Jenny - "Do you want that Chicken a la King business served on toast?"
Rosa - "Well I showed you the picture in the magazine, didn't I?"
Jenny - "How can I see if there's toast under all that goo?"

But Rosa is a woman with a dream. Well, to be honest, more like a scheme. Not one to content herself with merely the best that Loyalton has to offer, Rosa sets her sights on wealthy Chicago businessman Neil Latimer, the owner of a nearby hunting lodge overseen by family friend Moose Lawson. After carrying on a torrid, year-long love affair with the bachelor industrialist practically under her husband’s saintly, overworked nose, Rosa plans on getting Neil to marry her and whisk her away with him to Chicago. Sure, she's already married, but what’s a little detail like that when woman has it in her mind to fulfill her destiny? And make no mistake, Rosa is a woman who wants the good life, has convinced herself she deserves the good life, and is so determined to acquire the good life for herself, she’s willing to do just about anything and everything to make sure that happens.
When Velma Takes The Stand

Like many a film noir, Beyond the Forest is a tale told in flashback. When me first meet Rosa she is on trial for shooting a man, the who and why melodramatically divulged once the film proper kicks in and takes us back five months prior. Here, Rosa is revealed to be a crack shot with a lousy disposition (after using her rifle to take out a poor, defenseless porcupine minding its own business, her only explanation is "I don't like porkies...they irritate me."); the film conveniently supplying three likely targets for her trigger-happy temperament.
There's her goody-goody husband who is too nice to press his clients into paying their bills (those ankle-strap sandals aren't going to pay for themselves, y'know). Next, there's Moose, the town souse and Lewis' fishing buddy. Moose's only offense is he, like the character of Leroy in The Bad Seed, is one of the few people in town who sees right through Rosa. Their mutual antipathy (Moose- "You're something for the birds, Rosa. Something for the birds." Rosa - "You're something to make the corn grow tall!") isn't at all helped by the fact that Moose has a well-turned-out daughter (Ruth Roman) who's everything Rosa would like to be.
Lastly, there's rolling-in-dough Neil K. Latimer. Although he and Rosa share a passionate physical attraction and Rosa sees him more as a ticket out of purgatory than the love of her life; the monkey wrench in the works (and probable bullet to the body) is Rosa's nagging fear that he just doesn't think she's good enough for him.
I can't vouch for how 1949 audiences reacted to Beyond the Forest (we can all agree it wasn't particularly favorable), but I remember getting a huge kick out of watching DavisVampira wigged, low necklined, lumpy-figured, clomping about in Joan Crawford pumps and spitting out her campy dialogue in her best self-parodying, Bette Davis drag queen impersonationwhile trying to guess which one of these male clay pigeons would irritate her to the point of having to mete out a little "porcupine justice."
"If I don't get out of here I'll die. If I don't get out of here I hope I die!"


WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
There’s no getting past the fact that Beyond the Forest’s single main attraction for me is the staggeringly miscast Bette Davis. Looking awkward, uncomfortable and unable to get even a remotely credible foothold on the type of bad-to-the-bone vexed vixen Gloria Grahame could play in her sleep; Davis (whom director King Vidor seemed intent on molding into a bad copy of Jennifer Jones' Dueling in the Sun hotpot in a peasant blouse) relies instead on a mannered (read: ludicrous) vamp posturing and broad-as-a-barn emoting.
And while I can fully understand why she campaigned enthusiastically to be replaced by Virginia Mayo in the part"She's good at these sorts of roles!" (which sounds like a generous compliment until you stop to think about it)I'm glad jack Warner held her to it, because Davis, in all her sublime awfulness, is the best thing in the film.
Rosa goes camping (with a capital CAMP)
Moose-
"The trouble with you, Lew, is you don't get up here often enough."
Rosa - "He doesn't do ANYTHING enough!"

Beyond the Forest treads such familiar noir ground that even upon first viewing, I felt as though I’d seen it before. Certainly my having already encountered Joseph Cotten as Marilyn Monroe's nice-guy cuckold in Niagara (1953) and David Brian as Joan Crawford's hankered-after symbol of well-heeled respectability in Flamingo Road (1949) contributed to the déjà vu. Beyond the Forest's allusions to adultery, abortion, miscarriage, sexual dissatisfaction and (gasp!) the lead character’s blatant disdain for all the things postwar women were supposed to want, must have been pretty heady stuff back in the ‘40s, but watching it now only makes me aware of how—outside of a few stylistic touches in the cinematography and use of music—it’s all been done before and to better effect. The sole exception, thus supplying the film’s only spark of energy and interest, is the Bette Davis’ completely off the rails performance.
Rosa, literally trapped in a domestic cage

PERFORMANCES
As a fan of Patty Duke's Neely O'Hara and Faye Dunaway's Joan Crawford, I obviously have no real problem with unrestrained, bordering-absurd performances. When they enhance (rather than derail) a production, they shine like beacons of inadvertent genius. But in accessing the "Carol Burnett Show parody" level of Bette Davis's unsubtle take on the character of Rosa Moline in Beyond the Forest (which bears more than a passing resemblance to a supposed-to-be-awful screen test performance Davis gives in 1953's The Star), it doesn't seem fair to lay all the blame at the actress's ankle-strapped feet.
For example, I'm not sure who came up with Davis' almost goth girl appearance here, but you'd have to look to Joan Crawford's garish getup in Strait-Jacket (1964) to find a campier image of toxic sexuality. Another problem is Davis' age. Although only 40, Davis looks at least five years older, the resultant effect being that Rosa's desire to hightail it out of Loyalton comes off as half-hearted at best, at worst, an epic case of foot-dragging.
"Rosa...moving easily, freely, every man's admiring eye upon her."

She's not given much help by a screenplay (adapted from Stuart Engstrand's 1945 novel by Lenore J. Coffee, Warners' only woman screenwriter) which, perhaps in an effort to undercut audience sympathy and identification (who wouldn't want to get out of that hick town?), makes Rosa into an almost misogynist caricature of self-interest and greed. Though one can imagine any number of good reasons why a vital woman would feel stifled by small town life, the film sees fit to reduce all Rosa's desires to the material and superficial. The only time the movie comes close to granting her recognizably human emotions is when (tellingly) her spirit is broken by a particularly humiliating visit to Chicago. Otherwise she's depicted as little more than an overage Sadie Thompson spewing forth an unbroken stream of harsh invectives at anyone unfortunate enough to cross her path.
Pregnant, hair restrained, body covered, and (God forbid) wearing flat shoes; Rosa, now convinced of her ordinariness, is at last brought low. Is this return to traditional gender roles what people wanted from women in the postwar years?

THE STUFF OF FANTASY
I don't happen to find Beyond the Forest to be particularly persuasive as drama, but as arch melodrama, it can't be beat. Vidor ratchets up the excess to the point that everything about it feels satirical, even when it's in deadly earnest. The natural performances of the rest of the cast, Joseph Cotten especially, grounds the film just enough to provide Davis' over-the-moon emoting with a solid springboard from which to soar.
Case in point: my favorite sequence - Rosa's trip to Chicago. Set up as the film's dramatic centerpiece and given ample buildup by having the 1922 Fred Fisher song "Chicago (That Toddlin' Town)" chime in on the soundtrack every time Rosa gets that faraway look in her eyes; the sequence instead plays out like an early draft of Neil Simon's The Out of Towners.
All Dressed Up With Nowhere To Go
Fantasies vs Murphy's Law as Rosa's dream of Chicago turns into a nightmare

Rosa's escape to Chicago city is a comedy of errors which really couldn’t go much worse. List of mishaps:
She can’t get through to her lover on the phone.
She's kept waiting in his offices for hours.
He finally calls but she's so lost in thought ("I'm Rosa Moline!") she misses it.
They meet up and he greets her with wonderful news: he's getting married!
She gets kicked out of a bar for soliciting.
She gets propositioned by a slob in the middle of a monsoon.
In succession: she's heckled by a madwoman, startled by a drunk, terrorized by a newsboy.
Has to chase down a cab in her ankle straps.
No one ever had as miserable a time looking for a good time as Rosa Moline

THE STUFF OF DREAMS
I grew up in a house with four sisters, so I can attest to the fact that the femme fatales of '40s film noir and the sadder-but-wiser fallen women of the '40s "woman's picture" were every bit the vicarious thrill for them as I found those movies where geeky guys like Tom Ewell and Tommy Noonan wound up with incredible women like Jayne Mansfield and Marilyn Monroe.
These films were the kind of wish-fulfillment fantasies that gave wings to our adolescent ids (only in my fantasies, geeky me always wound up with Frank Converse or Steve McQueen). But unlike the myriad male-centric films devised to reassure unexceptional men that the world actually favored them; the women in the film noirs and women's pictures always paid a price for their freedom. A woman's desire to exert power over her fate was rarely, if ever, depicted as a healthy drive, but rather associated with some form of pathology or moral lack. The fun we had watching the "bad girls" (who always dressed better, had the best lines, and moved the plot forward) was always undercut by the knowledge that no matter how much havoc was wreaked, before fade-out, order in the form of gender-role normalcy would be restored to the universe.
Beyond the Forest is too overwrought for me to take seriously, but if well-crafted camp can be considered a legitimate genre (and since we all know how difficult it is to pull off, maybe it should be) it's one of the best of its kind.
A film that can be enjoyed on many levels (I've read of many Bette Davis fans who actually think it's one of her better performances), what I love about it is that the essentially camp drag queen sensibility that makes Davis' Rosa Moline such a hoot of a to watch, is matched scene-for-scene with an unconsciously gay sensibility that makes Rosa's plight relatable and sympathetic.
Rosa, channeling her inner fabulousness
Gay men of my generation traditionally grew up in towns and environments where they felt "different" and out of step with others. Unable to relate to peers who only wanted to get married and start a family, a common reaction and survival tactic was to embrace that which made them not fit in. To take pride and revel in one's uniqueness, and to learn (like Rosa) to express oneself by looking, dressing, and behaving in ways more attuned to how one saw oneself—not with how society said you ought to be.

My partner grew up in a small town and tells me that in spite of having a very happy childhood devoid of bullying or harassment, he never for one moment entertained the thought of remaining there once he came of age. The quiet sameness of the town fostering in him an appetite for big city life; the unspoken dominance of conformity assuring him that he could never truly be himself there. The parallels to be found in the early lives of many gay men (I hope it's only the early lives) and Rosa Moline's bristling at the life she's supposed to want as a woman in a small town, is, I believe, an intractable part of where Beyond the Forest's gay cult appreciation is rooted.
It's a fact of life that we often have to leave someplace in order to find ourselves and discover what it is we really want. Happily, for most of us the road to self-actualization doesn't involve firearms.


BONUS MATERIAL
As many have noted, the readers who leave comments on this blog tend to be so knowledgeable about film they're more like contributors. Blogger Rick Gould brought my attention to the baggy, unflattering suit Rosa wears to Chicago. Since its difficult to imagine seasoned costume designer Edith Head just "happened" to have dropped the ball with Davis's problematic figure, my mind went to the 1988 book King Vidor: American in which authors Raymond Durgnat & Scott Simon suggest that Rosa's ill-fitting handmade suit was perhaps intended to convey Rosa's pathetic attempt at copying the sleeker, more sophisticated suit worn by Moose's daughter Carol.
In the same book the authors reference another point Rick brings up, the similarity in appearance of Rosa and her maid Jenny. Their take is that Jenny & Carol both possess more freedom than Rosa sees herself as having, and that its telling how she adopts the clothing style of these women in two unsuccessful attempts to escape from her life.


Hard as it is to believe, Bette Davis doesn't give Beyond The Forest's worst performance. That dubious honor goes to actress Dona Drake. Admittedly it can't be easy doing anything under that dreadful fright wig and three pounds of Max Factor's Dark Egyptian #5, but as Rosa's just-not-into-it maid, Drake gives (to quote The New York Times): "A fine high-school performance."
Drake's offscreen acting must have been considerably more convincing, for the lovely African-American actress/singer/dancer/bandleader spent her entire career passing as Mexican-American. Going by several different names, among them Rita Rio and Rita Novello, Drake was wed to famed costume designer William Travilla (Valley of the Dolls, Marilyn Monroe) in what is rumored to be an arranged marriage (studio guarding her ethnicity, his bi/homosexuality). She appeared in many films, usually as an "exotic."
You can read more about Drake's life and history:
Travilla's Legacy
Little Known Black History
The Lady Dances
Dona Drake as Rita Rio in the 1936 Eddie Cantor feature Strike Me Pink
She's rather adorable in this musical number which fans of Yellow Submarine (1968) will recognize as having segments rotoscoped for "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds".
Watch it on YouTube HERE
Copyright © Ken Anderson