Saturday, February 27, 2010


Centennial Tributes: Joan Bennett

By Josh R
The more one sees of Joan Bennett, the more there is to like — that is, if one is willing to undertake a cineaste’s version of a search-and-recovery effort. Of the major credits discussed in this piece, only a handful are readily available for viewing — most notably three of the four films she made for Fritz Lang, the German auteur who saw past her nondescript prettiness and found something both unique and uniquely unsettling simmering beneath her unperturbed ingénue’s countenance. The roles on which her reputation was based were atypical of American cinema of the 1940s. Her best work came for European directors, in films that were decidedly European in character, while her depiction of unvarnished feminine carnality was markedly different from anything Hollywood had attempted since the pre-Code era (and it should be noted that not even Harlow or Stanwyck in their pre-Code days can match the coarseness of Scarlet Street's ‘Lazy Legs’ — but more on that to follow).

Fittingly, she wound up plying her trade more often than not on the margins of the commercial filmmaking establishment, if not altogether outside of it; there is no other leading lady of the 1940s whose resume can boast outings for Lang, Renoir and Ophuls. The films she made for the latter pair, as well as the fourth she did for Lang, remain stubbornly out of reach, consigned to the scrap heap of films deemed unworthy of release on video or DVD. If Joan Bennett’s career is one that has been sadly overlooked, with but a fraction of its treasures assigned their rightful value, the impression created by the remaining pieces testifies to an uncommonly adventurous and challenging body of work, at once both singular in character and aching for rediscovery.

In life, as on film, she proceeded to the beat of her own drummer, and her personal history was not without its share of incident and scandal. She was the younger sister of the platinum-haired Constance Bennett, a top box office attraction of the early 1930s — it took several years and a change of hair color for Joan to emerge from her sibling’s shadow. By 16, she was married to a millionaire; by 18, a divorced single mother with a few silent film credits under her belt. She was Katharine Hepburn’s petulant pre-adolescent sister in Cukor’s adaptation of Little Women. Quite literally, there was more to Joan Bennett than this and other early roles revealed — flouncy blonde ringlets and masses of ruffles could only partially disguise the fact that she was noticeably pregnant at the time of the film’s shooting. She made a lot of costume pictures and minor melodramas and was serviceably winsome, even though at times she seemed to be struggling to suppress a yawn — romantic ingénue roles did nothing to test her, and by the end of the decade, her boredom was becoming increasingly evident.

If she had staked her claim to semi-stardom as an innocuous, diffident little blonde, raising her naturally husky voice several octaves to a strained helium-induced squeak so as not to seem abrasive, it didn’t take Joan Bennett too long to wise up, get practical and allow caution to fall by the wayside. When her second husband left her for the raven-haired exotic Hedy Lamarr, she dispensed with both the peroxide and the inhibitions, reinventing herself as a worldly brunette with enough sexual swagger to put any other screen siren, French or otherwise, in her place. The transformation literally occurred onscreen — in the opening scenes of 1938’s Trade Winds, she is a guileless, flaxen-haired debutante draped in ermine and demurely playing Chopin on the piano. Ten minutes into the film, she has shot a man in cold blood, eluded capture by the police by driving her roadster into San Francisco Bay and resurfaced on a Shanghai steamer with a forged passport, a survivalist mentality, and hair the identical shade of her ex-husband’s new paramour. Even her makeup was reminiscent of Lamarr’s, in a manner that could hardly be chalked up to coincidence; at the time, her defiant response to being jilted, in the form of a thinly veiled swipe at her romantic rival, was regarded as one of Hollywood’s better inside jokes.

She made a brave try for the coveted role of Scarlett O’Hara, and impressed David O. Selznick enough to have briefly been considered a leading contender for the assignment. Without the backing of a major studio, her opportunities were limited; nevertheless, she landed a plum role in Lang’s 1941 noirish chase film Man Hunt, as a cockney streetwalker trying to help Walter Pidgeon evade capture by Nazi pursuers. It was a fruitful collaboration from the start; the affecting blend of toughness and vulnerability Lang was able to extract from his new muse was enough to convince Bennett that she had found her champion. With her third husband, producer Walter Wanger, she and Lang formed a production company. 1944’s The Woman in the Window played almost like the flip side of Preminger’s Laura — a variation on the same theme, but observed in a much more fatalistic vein and without any concessions to conventional sentimentality. Edward G. Robinson’s buttoned-down psychology professor becomes enamored of a portrait of Bennett he sees in a gallery window; once he encounters the model in the flesh, he is drawn into a web of murder, blackmail and treachery that sends his life into a tailspin. In contrast to Tierney’s goddess figure, Bennett’s equally enigmatic Alice Reed is both angel and demon rolled into one — temptation personified, she leads men to their doom without even having any obvious designs on doing so.

The theme of temptation was revisited by Robinson, Bennett and Lang — Man, Woman and The Devil, if you will — to even more stunning effect in 1945’s Scarlet Street. Adapted from Renoir’s La Chienne (once again, the European influence at work), the film observes a masochistic weakling who falls prey to the machinations of a particularly slovenly specimen of femme fatale, of a strain that would make Double Indemnity's Phyllis Dietrichson seem downright genteel by comparison. Indeed, Bennett’s Kitty March — nicknamed ‘Lazy Legs’ by the smarmy, abusive pimp she dotes upon — had the dubious distinction of being the most graceless, classless and altogether vulgar piece of cheap fluff ever to make an appearance in high-grade film noir (due in no small part to the influence of Scarlet Street, she wouldn’t be the last.) Lolling about her filthy walk-up in a tacky negligee, scattering candy wrappers and cigarette butts on the floor while waiting for her worthless boyfriend to materialize for rough sex and even rougher treatment, Lazy Legs is indolent to the point of inactivity; lack of ambition would be her most salient characteristic if not for her total lack of sensitivity or scruple. Stretching her whisky-soaked alto into a slatternly drawl, Bennett embellished the role with subversive flashes of humor; seductive and repellent at the same time, Lazy Legs is all the more alluring for her lack of any appealing trait beyond her beauty. It amounted to a revelatory performance, in a film not only startling for its stylistic brilliance, but for its unmistakably sadomasochistic undertones (of her unsuspecting quarry, who treats her with affection bordering on reverence, Kitty asserts that “If he were mean or vicious or if he balled me out or something, I’d like him better.”)

If Scarlet Street marked Bennett’s crowning achievement, it wouldn’t be the actress’s last successful foray into the realm of film noir. Based on a short story by Ernest Hemingway, The Macomber Affair cast Gregory Peck as a typically Hemingway-esque great white hunter/rugged individualist hired to lead a wealthy American couple on a Kenyan safari, only to find that he has been drawn into an elaborate game of recrimination and cruelty. An unsettling examination of passion and betrayal told against the backdrop of the African wild, Zoltan Korda’s vastly underrated film furnished its leading lady with a role of even greater emotional complexity than the Lang films had; Margaret Macomber’s cool, patrician exterior masks long-held resentments and deeply destructive impulses, neither of which can be prevented from bubbling to the surface in an isolated wilderness where the rules of civilization no longer apply. Just as the character cannot fully comprehend how she allowed herself to be trapped in a dysfunctional marriage of convenience built on lies, her efforts to avoid being poisoned by years of accommodation and denial have ended in futility. Even as the film moves to its inevitable conclusion, Margaret’s motives remain clouded in ambiguity — we’re never really sure how many of her actions are intentional, and to what extent she’s simply at the mercy of her own subconscious. It was another striking, unusual performance that deserved — and still deserves — a wider audience than it ultimately received.

The Macomber Affair, like Trade Winds, is among the aforementioned films not to be found on VHS or DVD. Renoir’s The Woman on the Beach was butchered on the cutting room floor by anxious studio executives, and occasionally appears in its bastardized form on television (sadly, not soon enough for the writing of this piece). Lang’s Secret Beyond the Door is cited by film historians as one of her better vehicles; given Bennett’s track record with Lang, such assertions can be readily believed, even if circumstance requires they must be accepted on faith.

The postwar era marked a shift in values — once the boys were back and Ike was in, many of the no-good dames of the 1940s were expected to shove their trashy heels to the back of the closet and forsake their wayward ways. Implausible as it may seem, a scant five years after Lazy Legs had vamped her way to infamy, Bennett found herself at the side of Spencer Tracy, embodying the values of bland suburban matronhood and fussing over Elizabeth Taylor’s trousseau in Father of the Bride. The film was profitable enough to merit a sequel, Father’s Little Dividend — to say that Bennett was wasted in these films would qualify as an understatement. After that flush of mainstream success, her career fell by the wayside; once the temptress had been domesticated, no one thought to inquire just what kind of a wild life Ellie had led prior to becoming Mrs. Stanley Banks — worse still, no one seemed to be particularly interested. In real life, the reverse may have proved to be the case; in 1951, Walter Wanger shot his wife’s agent, asserting that the latter “was breaking up my home”, and was briefly imprisoned. The ensuing scandal did his wife’s career no favors, and she worked sparingly in films for the remainder of career. She found renewed life on television in the gothic horror soap opera Dark Shadows, earning an Emmy nomination for her efforts, and with a supporting role in Dario Argento's cult classic Suspiria.

In a day and age when film buffs and writers speak at length about glory deferred — Jeff Bridges is frequently cited as one of our most underrated actors — a case can be made for Joan Bennett as one of the more egregiously overlooked talents in the annals of film history. Academy Award nominations are often judged to be the barometer of career success; Bridges, it must be said, has been honored on five such occasions (and if people are still referring to him as underrated now, I suspect they won’t be after next Sunday night). Joan Bennett never received an Oscar nomination; but then, her best film work was ahead of its time. Sadder still is the realization that time has yet to catch up with her. Had she received a nomination or two, it’s tempting to wonder whether or not she’d enjoy a higher profile than she does now. ‘Lazy Legs’ stands as one of the more daring film noir performances of its era; her other efforts testify to the fact that she was more than a one-hit wonder. With or without the recognition she deserved, it must be asserted that she made an indelible mark on the American cinema. For whatever reason, The American Cinema has yet to recognize her true worth.

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It's sad that so many of these films seem to be swept aside but that seems to be the attitude of the entire industry now. Remake films sooner and sooner. Sweep honors of legends to the past off to dinners no one sees to make more room for people most have barely heard of yet because they think they'll appeal to younger viewers. They are all as misguided as the people running most newspapers, chasing audiences that probably don't exist and alienating and ignoring the core audiences for their product that do.
Naturally, I assume you are referring to NBC's Olympic coverage.
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