Tuesday, March 29, 2011
A Very Safe Bet
I firmly believe that criticism, whether print media, television or the works of an online hobbyist such as myself, creates a better appreciation of the art one is writing about. The simple math of it makes a critic doubly involved in the same movie — watching followed by analyzing. And the fact that I've had to spend another two hours or more revisiting Dangerous Liaisons makes this task one of the most pleasant I've had in recent months.
What makes Dangerous Liaisons so exceptional is not the beautiful cinematography and attention to visual detail, it's not the spectacular performance of John Malkovich and Glenn Close...OK, wait, it is a lot of that, but what I'm trying to emphasize is this: Dangerous Liaisons is one of the most perfectly written scripts I've heard in my life, particularly as it relates to the relationship between Valmont and de Merteuil.
Their true relationship is one that must always remain a secret. In this still sexually strict age of 18th century France, these two bored aristocrats have the stern judgment of their peers to consider whenever they engage in the task of defiling others. This means that the option of gloating proud upon their successes in seduction has truly no other audience apart from themselves. Accepting this fact, the two competitively consort, raising each other's bar of debauchery. When de Merteuil first suggests Valmont seduce the young and naive Cécile de Volanges (Uma Thurman), he instantly refuses declaring how beneath him that simple task would be. Nay, he raises his standard to a much more difficult task in order to win a truly glorious prize, the chaste Madame de Tourvel (Michelle Pfeiffer). And, since she needs his debauchery to be as base as hers lest she be alone, de Merteuil's promises her own sex to tempt him into considering her task. Ironically, these two are exquisitely bred and exceptionally skilled manipulators. Valmont and the Marquise Isabelle de Merteuil constantly keep the rigid decorum of the aristocracy even when speaking honestly with one another, yet never getting away from seeming like slathering jackals underneath it all.
Their victories only come from sexually debasing others, and it quite obviously makes for a lonely existence, and both of them maintain their games because they only have each other. The script is one of the best examples of how to properly provide exposition to the audience as there's ever been.
Still, no matter what I write, it's nothing compared to the multi-layered guise-within-a-guise that is Dangerous Liaisons. My praise goes out to Choderlos de Laclos for having written the original novel, to Christopher Hampton for the screenplay. It's rare that I go out of my way to see more of a writer's scripts, but I'm looking forward to exploring his other works, such as Atonement and The Quiet American.
One final thing: I was impressed with how some of the casting choices helped create a very satisfying nigh fourth-wall-breaking subtext. Close, here as the immoral and seductive Marquise Isabelle de Merteuil, has had previous important roles that included the freaky mom from The World According To Garp and the year just before Dangerous Liaisons, she showed how psychotic she could be with Fatal Attraction. Keanu Reeves and Uma Thurman, both in roles of true neophytes, when they themselves were relatively unknown actors, predating even Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure, though his character in Dangerous Liaisons is made even better today by Keanu's stereotypical goof-off "whoa. I know Kung-Fu" persona that he still hasn't completely shaken off. A neat undercurrent if I do say so myself.
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Monday, March 28, 2011
The Best High School Movie You've Never Heard Of
By John Cochrane
When Corey Haim died suddenly of pneumonia and cardiovascular complications on March 10 last year at the age of 38, a lot of people probably thought of him as a reality TV star — the latest Hollywood casualty of childhood fame, a career derailed by a lifetime of drug addiction and unreliable behavior. Other people possibly thought of his most famous film role as Sam, an adolescent vampire-killer in the movie The Lost Boys (1987). I immediately thought his unforgettable starring performance in the film Lucas (1986), a buried gem that I saw when it was released 25 years ago today. It remains one of the best movies I’ve ever seen about being a teenager and trying to navigate the often-painful processes of attending high school and falling into unrequited love.
The story begins with Corey Haim as Lucas Bly, a 14-year-old accelerated high school student spending a late summer day wandering around town with a bike and a butterfly net, looking at insects. He comes across a new girl in town, Maggie — played by Kerri Green — who is hitting balls on a tennis court. Once they begin talking, we realize that we’re not watching a typical '80s movie about hip high school students in improbable circumstances, but a film about genuinely interesting people. Lucas is obviously very bright and articulate, but he’s also socially awkward and by the looks of his clothes and big glasses, an outcast. Maggie is a beautiful and shy 16-year-old with flowing red hair, and when she responds to Lucas with kindness and interest, he is immediately smitten. Their friendship develops over the rest of the summer, as the two have deep conversations about art and life — though Lucas is oddly evasive any time questions about his family come up. The film’s opening passages culminate with Lucas and Maggie exploring an underground sewer and listening to an outdoor classical music concert through a manhole. As they sit, back-to-back staring up into the light, Maggie is entranced by the music, and Lucas is entranced by her. The scene ends on a foreboding note though, with Lucas quietly dreading the beginning of the school year.
On campus, Lucas is not the confident master of his domain that he was during the summer, but a small and easy target for jocks and would be tormentors. The film’s depiction of high school and its inherent stress and social anxiety is timeless, and if you don’t experience some hint of recognition from your own high school past, maybe you weren’t really there. We meet some of his classmates, including Ben — a chubby tuba player and video camera enthusiast who’s not afraid to stand up to bullies, Cappie — a varsity football star who cares about Lucas and tries to defend him from ridicule, and Rina — a quiet member of the marching band who has a crush on Lucas, and would probably be his girlfriend if he was older and wiser. Lucas suffers humiliations and tries to tightly hang on to his close friendship with Maggie, but she also wants to have fun and meet people. Lucas despises the high school cliques that so cruelly reject him, and when Maggie tells him that she wants to try out for the cheerleading squad, he accuses her of being superficial. When he shows up on her doorstep in an ill-fitting tuxedo to take her to the school dance, Cappie is already there. Cappie and Maggie invite Lucas to skip the dance and go for pizza with them, but reality becomes painfully clear. Lucas loves Maggie and idealizes her, but Maggie only cares for him as a good friend — one who follows her around like a lost puppy. Soon afterward, in a bold and potentially dangerous bid for attention, Lucas decides to try out for the football team.
If you think this sounds like a typical teenager movie with a predictable ending, it’s not. First-time director David Seltzer doesn’t use flashy filmmaking techniques or cheap jokes, but instead smartly places his emphasis on his own screenplay with its nature motifs of transformation and fragility. In doing so, he delicately captures situations, dialogue and emotions that are sometimes funny, sometimes embarrassing or sad, but always real. In his original 4-star review, film critic Roger Ebert praised the film as one of the five best of the year, saying that “half-a-dozen of the film’s scenes are done so well, they could make short films on their own,” and compared its portrait of adolescence to Francois Truffaut’s new wave classic The 400 Blows (1959). If you know both films, it’s a credible comparison. I would also add that you could watch Lucas with the sound down, and still understand the story. The visuals and performances are so strong, that it would still work as a silent movie.
The characters in Lucas are people that you know and recognize — sometimes clumsy, insecure or awkward, but likable and always trying to do the right thing. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the character of Lucas himself. Ebert said about Corey Haim’s performance:
“He does not give one of those cute little boy performances that get on your nerves. He creates one of the most three-dimensional, complicated, interesting characters of any age in any recent movie. If he can continue to act this well, he will never become a half-forgotten child star, but will continue to grow into an important actor. He is that good.”
The other actors also seem not to perform their parts, as much as embody them. High praise should be given to Kerri Green, who first appeared in Richard Donner’s The Goonies (1985), but really shines here. Lucas would not work nearly as well if we didn’t think Maggie was worthy of Lucas’ total affection, and Green comes across as a genuine beauty both inside and out. (Truth be told, I had a teenage crush on her when I saw this movie, and it’s been reported that Haim did too during the film’s production — a believable possibility that only enhances their chemistry on screen.) Also memorable are Charlie Sheen as Cappie and Winona Ryder in her first on-screen role as Rina — both creating earnest, believable characters — free of clichés and before tabloid hysteria overtook their careers.
Both Lucas and The 400 Blows end with freeze frames of their lead characters. The last shot of The 400 Blows is one of the most famous endings in film — with Antoine Doinel escaping reform school, ending up at the beach and enigmatically regarding the camera with the ocean behind him. Lucas concludes with a shot of Lucas at his locker — the climax of a moving finale, which shows Lucas returning to school after an extended absence. Both characters are yearning for parental love and social acceptance. Both act out desperately to achieve it. Corey Haim’s life and career ended tragically and prematurely — sadly never fulfilling the promise that Ebert mentioned, but Lucas and Haim’s performance will be remembered by anyone who values great films and characters. The lasting image I have of Haim is not from The Two Coreys, but of the freeze frame of Lucas Bly — in his oversize jacket, smiling with his arms in the air.
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Mildred Pierce Parts One and Two
BLOGGER'S NOTE: This recap contains spoilers, so if you haven't seen Parts One and Two yet, move along.
By Edward Copeland
Todd Haynes' miniseries adaptation of Mildred Pierce doesn't play the way you usually think of miniseries of old with two hour long or more parts airing over several nights on the same week. Haynes' miniseries plays more like a limited series, with five episodes, each about an hour long or 10 or 20 minutes over and playing on consecutive Sundays. It premiered tonight with both Parts One and Two. Both will be recapped in a single post after Part Two has aired.
We meet Mildred Pierce (Kate Winslet) as she's busily making pies and finishing up a cake as well in her Glendale, Calif., kitchen in 1931. Her cheating husband Bert (Brian F. O'Byrne) was forced out of the home-building company that he started and still bears his name by his partner and presumed best friend Wally Bergan (James LeGros) and then Bert lost what money he had left in the crash of '29 and has been unemployed ever since, thanks to the Great Depression. Mildred has been helping make ends meet taking orders selling pies and cakes she makes to neighborhood wives. As she slaves in the kitchen, Bert busies himself in the yard, trimming trees and mowing grass. He finally finishes and comes in for some lemonade saying he's done all that he can for the day and thought he go out for awhile. Mildred knows exactly what this means and it sets her off. One of Haynes' best touches in this scene is the way he explains the backstory about Pierce Homes. Much as Hitchcock did in explaining what caused James Stewart's broken leg in Rear Window through a series of photos and clippings on the wall, Haynes pans across photos and blueprints on the well, avoiding the detailed exposition James M. Cain had to supply in the Mildred Pierce novel. Making the scene even more effective, Haynes chooses to do this with a heightening of Carter Burwell's score so the viewer doesn't see and can barely see the fight between Bert and Mildred as it escalates. Before we get to that point, she asks if he'll be home for dinner and Bert says yes at first, but then qualifies it by saying that if he's not home by 6, don't wait for him. This pushes Mildred to the point where she's ready to have it out. She has been turning a blind eye to Bert's affair with Mrs. Biederhof for a long but tonight, she wants a definite answer. If he's going to be there for certain, she'll spend the cake money on lamb chops, but if he's going to still be off with Maggie Biederhof, she'll get something the girls will like better. It leads to a fight that's been a long time coming and Bert packs his suitcase and drives away.
Soon after Bert's departure, Mildred's neighbor and closest friend Lucy Kessler (Melissa Leo) drops by as Mildred busies herself washing dishes. "He took the car," Mildred mutters, much to Lucy's confusion. She asks what Mildred means and she tells her that Bert has left. "He walked on you?" Lucy queries with surprise, though Mildred admits she gave him a little help. "For that floppy-haired little frump?" Lucy says indignantly, referring to Maggie Biederhof. Mildred says she can have him if she can do things the way he wants. "I've got my own ways and I can't just change them for someone else," Mildred declares. That simple line of dialogue could be a key to the entire story of Mildred Pierce. By the end of this episode, not to mention the series as a whole, we will see that Mildred can change, though it's not necessarily for someone else. The ability, inability or unwillingness of the characters in Mildred Pierce to adapt really drives this tale. "Well, you've joined the biggest army on earth," Lucy tells her. "You're the great American institution that never gets mentioned on Fourth of July — a grass widow with two small children to support. The dirty bastard." Mildred actually defends Bert, saying that he's alright. "He's alright, but he's still a dirty bastard," Lucy responds. "They're all dirty bastards." It's interesting that for an author known for his tough crime novels as James M. Cain was that he produced a book such as Mildred Pierce, because if it had been written by a woman, some reactionaries would accuse the author of being anti-men since there really isn't a positive portrayal of one in the entire story. Of course, all the characters are flawed and the biggest bastard of them all will turn out to be a young woman. To have written this in 1941 makes it even more remarkable, not that Mildred can be viewed as an early feminist heroine either.
After hearing another arrival, Lucy excuses herself after leaving Mildred some chicken she'd prepared but that she feared would spoil because her husband Ike, a truck driver, got a sudden call for a job down to Long Beach and she was going to go with her. Mrs. Gessler exits as 11-year-old Veda (the phenomenal Morgan Turner) returns from her piano lesson. Despite how tight things have been, Mildred always has found a way to keep paying for piano lessons for Veda. Mildred asks her daughter how the lesson was and she gives some vague answer and complains that the teacher will give her palsy before taking a seat at the kitchen table. Mildred asks about her sister's whereabouts and Veda says she's playing outside. Mildred retrieves a cupcake, telling her daughter that she had leftover batter from the cake. Veda inspects the cake on the table and asks, "Who, pray tell, is Bob?" Her mom gives Bob's full name and Veda recognizes it as the paperboy. Mildred frets that he might not get the cake if she can't figure out a way to get it over there. Veda inquires about the car's whereabouts and Mildred tells her father took it. Veda suddenly remembers she still has time to catch a show on the radio and rushes out of the kitchen. Mildred hears Ray's voice and tells her it's time to come inside. The 6-year-old girl (Quinn McColgan) comes bounding in singing "Swanee" before sitting down to her cupcake. As much of an air of sophistication as Veda tries to put on, Ray is just your basic cute-as-a-button kid that you'd find in any time period. Veda returns from the bedrooms and asks her mother why her father's clothes are missing. Mildred didn't really want to get into it, but she tries to tell her daughters as calmly as she can that Bert has left and that he probably won't be be back. He didn't want to leave when they were home because he didn't want to get them upset. Ray seems visibly upset by the news that her father is gone, but it doesn't seem to affect Veda much who just tells her mother, "I just wondered why his clothes were gone." Mildred assures the girls that everything will be OK and Ray climbs into her mother's lap. Mildred motions for Veda, and she comes and hugs her mother as well. "What would I do without my girls?" Mildred smiles as Ray says her trademark phrase, "Cut the mush." The always class-conscious Veda renders her judgment, telling her mother that if her father has left for Mrs. Biederhof that the woman is "distinctly middle-class."
Mildred visits an employment agency run by a Mrs. Turner (a really good performance by Brenda Wehle) who practically laughs Mildred out of her office because all she's put on her card is receptionist, when she has no experience for such a job. She points to the filing cabinet behind her filled with cards bearing names of qualified applicants for all sorts of jobs, some with doctorates. Mrs. Turner apologizes, but there's nothing out there of that sort for someone like Mildred. It get Mildred down a bit and it doesn't help when she stops to get groceries but has to put hot dogs back when she realizes she doesn't have enough cash to afford them. When she gets back home, she's surprised to find Bert's parents getting ready to take Veda and Ray away for the weekend. Mildred asks if Bert put them up to them, but they deny it, though their grandmother does make a subtle jab about the kids being "all alone." Mildred tells them she just went shopping for groceries. Veda comes out and reassures her mother that she made certain that Ray packed all the things she needed. Mildred tells her girls to behave for their grandparents and they drive away. Not too long after that there's a knock on the door, and to her surprise it's Bert's former partner, the man who stole Pierce Homes from him, Wally Bergan. He needs to ask Bert about a title. After trying to avoid the truth for a few moments of Wally's questions about where to find Bert, she invites him in and tells him that they have split. Wally expresses shock and admits that he always found Mildred attractive. She tells him he hid it pretty well, but he says it's because he's "conscientious." When Wally learns that the kids are gone for the weekend, he asks Mildred what's she's doing the next night and, to her surprise, she accepts the date.
"Wally Bergan!" Lucy exclaims with surprise when Mildred tells her of his sudden interest in her and their impending date. Lucy apologizes for forgetting to tell her of that aspect of being a grass widow — men suddenly assume the newly single women are red hot mommas with corresponding loose morals. She warns Mildred not to let him take her out to dinner because then he'll get a drink and figure he's earned it when something happens. Mildred assures Lucy that nothing will happen, though Lucy is skeptical and suggests a better idea is for her to fix him something there and ply him with the still illegal-in-1931 liquor, which Lucy gladly provides, a sideline of her husband's work as a truck driver, producing gin, scotch and wine. That way, Lucy tells her, you don't owe him anything and if something happens, "That's just Mother Nature and you know she's no bum...Within a month, he'll be taking you shopping for a divorce." Mildred still isn't certain that this should be a road that she should be traveling on and asks Lucy if she really wants to be a kept woman. "Yes," Lucy replies. We've seen signs so far, but we will really see as the story develops that Mildred Pierce isn't that type of person who gets kept — she does the keeping.
The weather helps Mildred with her plan to change Wally's date intentions by bringing on a driving rainstorm which helps her convince him to stay in and let her fix something instead of going out in this inclement weather, though for a few moments Wally seems pretty determined that he has to be the one buying her dinner before he caves. Not only does Mildred's great cooking soothe the savage beast, he welcomes the taste of her liquor, saying it's been ages since he's had real gin like that because all the speakeasies offer weaker stuff. With dinner complete, Mildred gathers the dishes to head to the kitchen and then to change into something more comfortable. Wally mentions how he might want to pull on those apron strings. "You do and I might make you put it on and do the dishes," Mildred jokingly scolds Wally. She's not laughing when she's in the privacy of her bedroom and in a state of undress with just a slip showing and she spies Wally watching through a crack in the door. He apologizes, but says he meant it about those apron strings before coming all the way in. Mildred tries to find a modicum of modest by keeping her back to him, but Wally grabs her, fondling her and kissing her neck before Mildred turns around and falls to the bed. Afterward, Mildred fixes herself up at her dressing mirror while Wally smokes in bed, an ashtray resting on his sizable pot belly. She asks what he's thinking about he actually says Bert, which sets Mildred off. "That's rich." Bert tries to make the case that he feels slightly guilty for doing this to his friend, but Mildred gets angry, reminding him that he forced his friend out of the company he started and she's never fond of a doublecross. After lambasting Wally for a few minutes, she apologizes, telling Wally that she hasn't been having the best of times lately, but Bert says he understands and imagines that would be true. The next morning, as she's hauling trash to the curb, she runs into Lucy who asks how things went. "I'm on the town," Mildred tells her. Lucy asks how that feels. "Fast."
Mildred hits the streets, determined to find a job for herself since the employment agency was of no use. In a nicely assembled montage, Mildred walks in to high end store after high end store only to be greeted with a series of heads shaking no. After she's been walking for a long time, dressed in the best outfit she owns, her feet really begin to hurt. She leans down to loosen one of her shoes and you can see that the wear-and-tear has taken its toll and her heel has started to bleed through her hose. She then happens to notice a man placing a notice for a job opening in The Tea Room on the eighth floor of the department store he walks back into. Mildred goes in and takes the elevator straight to eight where she sees what the Tea Room is and what working there would mean. Waitresses in uniform gingerly walk through the narrow aisles between tables carrying teacups and other items. She must have been staring for some time because the man at the restaurant's entry asks her if she's there for the job and Mildred quickly answers no and beats a hasty exit from the place. The following morning, Ray and Veda have returned from their grandparents and Mildred tries to hurry them up so they won't be late for school. Veda offers her mother a rare moment of encouragement, telling her that things can only get better and almost immediately the phone rings and it's Mrs. Turner from the employment agency. Mildred tells her she'll be here as soon as she can. Mrs. Turner tells her the job is for domestic work, which she doesn't usually handle, but she happened to be in Beverly where she met a Mrs. Forrester who's about to marry a Hollywood director and plans to remake his mansion. She remembered Mildred touting her household skills and decided to call her. Mildred thanks her for thinking of her and tells her she recently had a chance for a similar job as a waitress, but Turner interrupts her. "And you turned it down?" Mildred explains that she just couldn't bear facing her girls, having their daughters know their mom wore a uniform and depended on tips. "You'd rather they starve?" "That will never happen, but I will go to the interview as a courtesy to you," Mildred tells her. Mrs. Turner asks what difference it could possibly make for her, but she should know one thing. She has nice work with this agency, but if it were gone and Mrs. Turner had to choose between pride or her belly, her belly would win every time. Mildred is curious though as to why Mrs. Turner thought of her. "You want to know the truth? You've got a nice head on your shoulders and good figure, but you've let half your life slip by with nothing to show for it except for sleeping and cooking." Mrs. Turner closes by teling Mildred she just isn't of any use.
The bus ride to the mansion for the interview with the wealthy bride-to-be is a long way and Winslet perfectly conveys all the thoughts Mildred must be contemplating before she even gets to the meeting. When she finally arrives and rings the doorbell, an African-American servant answers and asks if she's help. When Mildred answers in the affirmative, he tells her that she must enter through the back door and closes the front. Not a good start for someone as obsessed with appearances as Mildred, but she goes to the back door anyway where the same man greets her and shows her to an area where he says that Mrs. Forrester will meet her momentarily. Mildred takes a seat and waits until Mrs. Forrester (Hope Davis) sweeps into the room and Mildred stands and gives her the paper from the employment agency. Mrs. Forrester informs Mildred that it is customary for the servant not to sit until the mistress of the house has invited her to do so, so Mildred stands again, though Mrs. Forrester assures her it's OK since she is new and she may sit since they have a lot to discuss. "This is fine," Mildred says, continuing to stay upright. "I've invited you to sit," Mrs. Forrester repeates forcefully and then Mildred takes her seat again. She tells Mildred that she will be moving in when she marries the director who owns this mansion, but she plans to restore this "mausoleum" and it will require lot of efficient help. She tells Mildred that there are servants' quarters out back and she would be welcome to live there with her daughters. She also mentions that she has two sons of her own from her previous marriage, but of course the children wouldn't be allowed to fraternize. As Mrs. Forrester drones on, Haynes has slowly moved the camera to a profile shot of Winslet and just the slight tilting of her head and the far-away, echoing tone Davis' voice shows that Mildred has drifted somewhere else. She stands up and tells Mrs. Forrester that this job isn't for her. Mrs. Forrester is taken aback, "Mildred, the mistress of the house terminates the interview." "It's Mrs. Pierce and I'm terminating the interview." She tells her that the servant will show her the way out but Mildred informs her she'll find her own way and makes a point of exiting out the front door.
Back on a bus after that incident, Mildred stops at a diner to get a bite to eat when a fight breaks out between two waitresses because one catches the other stealing other waitress's tips. Because of the commotion the Greek owner (Mark Margolis) of the diner comes out and fires them both for turning his restaurant into a boxing ring. All the waitresses end up in the kitchen arguing, feeling it's unfair to fire the one who caught the thief since she didn't do anything wrong. The diners are getting restless with no one serving. Mildred quietly finishes her lunch and pays and meekly makes her way to the kitchen. After some yelling from the waitress canned for reporting the thief about Mildred better not be her replacement, another waitress (Mare Winningham) asks Mildred if she's looking for a job. She tells them it looks as if they needed help. Abandoning her bias toward uniform work, Mildred decides to lower her standards. A job is a job. That waitress gives her the rundown on pay and hours and sets her up with a uniform. Mildred learns her name is Ida and Ida sort of floats behind her as Mildred tries to pick up the trade, making plenty of mistakes of course, such as saying chicken without gravy when you have to tell the cook "hold the gravy" and remembering to always take something back when you bring something out. It's a rough day. At the end of the shift, Ida tells her that she's not certain she's cut out for this work and neither is Mr. Chris (the owner), but Archie (the cook), so they are going to give her a try. Mildred doesn't say much. "What's the matter? Don't you want the job?" Ida asks. "Yes. I'm just tired." "I can imagine the way you trot."
Mildred gets home to find Veda and Ray on the stoop and asks Lucy to come in. She asks if she can borrow $3. Lucy says more if she needs it. Mildred whispers that she got a job as a waitress at a hash house. Lucy says she always wondered when she was looking for jobs as a salesperson why she didn't try that sooner. In these times, Lucy tells her, no one can buy anything, but they still have to eat. Mildred suddenly feels sick and runs to the bathroom to vomit. Lucy helps her. Mildred just isn't sure she can do that and deal with those awful people. One guy pinched her on the butt. She makes Lucy swear not to tell anyone because she can't let Veda know what she's doing. "Veda has some funny ideas, if you ask me," Lucy says. "She has something in her that I thought I had and now I find I don't," Mildred tells Lucy. "Pride or nobility or whatever it is." Lucy tells Mildred she has to take this job and besides, no one has those old ideas about uniforms anymore. Mildred still frets about what Veda would think. Lucy tells her she's right about Veda's attitude. "Veda wouldn't do it herself, but she'll let you do it for her." Lucy helps get Mildred up. Mildred says she doesn't just want her to have bread. "For both my girls, I want them to have all the cake in the world." As Lucy helps hold Mildred up as she walks down the hall, Carter Burwell's score takes an ominous turn as the camera does a 180 and we see a stark outline of Veda's head through the frame of the windowscreen.
As we meet up with Mildred Pierce again in Part Two, the opening seems similar to the way we were introduced to her in Part One, only we're in the bedroom instead of her kitchen and instead of filling her pie tins with usual ingredients, she's spreading rocks around in them and practicing carrying them at once without dropping them so she'll perform better at her new job as a waitress at Cristofor's Cafe in Hollywood. She has to practice in the privacy of her bedroom out of fear that her daughters, especially 11-year-old Veda, will learn she's lowered herself by taking a job that requires the wearing of a uniform and earning the bulk of her wages off tips. Mildred doesn't get to practice long when she hears a commotion in the living room. Bert has paid a surprise visit and both girls are hanging all over him. The daughters compete for their father's attention, since he's no longer a resident of the house. Little Ray shows off the crown she won after winning the Queen of May pageant. "I think it looks perfectly ridiculous to me," Veda declares. Ray says that's because she thinks only she can be queen, which Veda denies and tells her father is an absolute lie. Out of nowhere, Veda asks her father if he is thirsty and then turns to her mother and suggests that she should open the scotch. The glare Mildred gives Veda could burn a hole through her. Bert, surprised that they'd have any scotch, says he could go for some. Mildred goes to her bedroom and removes the scotch from her closet and starts preparing it as Veda slinks in behind her. Mildred asks Veda what right she had to go through her closet. Veda sluffs off the privacy question, saying she didn't realize they had secrets, but Mildred said she could tell she knew what she was doing was wrong by the cheeky look on her face. "Very well mother. It shall be as you say," Veda responds. "And stop that silly way of talking," her mother adds. Veda suggests that a certain stinginess has descended on the household since Bert's departure. "One might think peasants have taken over the house." Mildred asks Veda if she even know what a peasant is. "A very ill-bred person." Mildred gives Veda the cart of scotch to carry out and while she does that she lifts the car keys from Bert's coat pocket. After some drinking and playtime, Mildred decides for the girls to go to bed. As Bert is leaving, Mildred asks him if he got what he needed from his desk. He says yes, but he can't find his car keys. Mildred admits it's because she took them and he's not getting them back. "I'm working and I need it. If you think you think I'm gonna pound around on my feet and ride buses and lose all that time and be a sap while you lay up with another woman enjoying the high life..." Bert doesn't really object, he's just surprised she's working. Mildred asks if he wants her to drive him back. He agrees. "To Maggie Biederhof's?" "I'd prefer not to say where I'm staying," Bert replies, "but if you want to drop me at Maggie's, that'll be fine."
Mildred's finding her groove at the diner, but she's starting to notice the customers complaining about the qualities of the pies and Ida bringing up the issue with Mr. Chris. As they are finishing work for the day, Mildred asks Ida how much Chris pays for the pies, but she's not positive. Mildred tells Ida about her piemaking and that she could bring in samples. Ida realizes she's serious. Mildred asks her if she'd like a ride home. "You've got a car?" "It runs," Mildred replies. Ida tells her that she should bring in three: an apple, a pumpkin and something else, but no cherry or strawberry because they fall apart too easily. She'll make certain they get served and bring it up with Mr. Chris. Mildred won't have to do a thing. "Ida, you're a real pal," Mildred tells her. The next day, Mr. Chris happily laughs as he sees how well Mildred's pies go over. After work, Mildred, Ida and two of the other waitresses go out for drinks to celebrate. Mildred worries that since Mr. Chris has hired her for 35 pies a week, she may have to hire help. "At 35 cents a pie, you can almost afford it," Ida tells her as Mildred thanks Ida again and the woman clasp glasses. Setting up her operation at home, Mildred hires a woman named Letty (Marin Ireland), who also doubles as baby sitter when Mildred can't be there.
That turns into a shock when Mildred returns from shopping and calls for Letty, but she doesn't answer. She makes a call with the news that another restaurant pie contract has come her way when Letty appears — wearing her uniform from the diner. Mildred quickly gets off the phone. "I told her you wouldn't like it," Letty says," but she hollered and carried on until I put it on." Mildred asks who she's referring to — as if she didn't already know the answer — "Miss Veda, ma'am." "Miss Veda?" "That's what she says I should call her," Letty tells Mildred. Mildred goes on the warpath. In another room, cute and innocent little Ray is playing shoot-'em-up, saying she's the public enemy, while Veda sit calmly on the couch. Mildred says that once again she was snooping in her closet since those uniforms were on a top shelf underneath sheets. Veda claims she was merely looking for a handkerchief and she "resents the accusation." Mildred then demands to know how the uniform ended up on Letty. Veda says she assumed she bought them for her to wear when she took them to the pool because who else could they possibly be for? She removes Ray from the room and gives her a bath. Later that evening, she confronts Veda again about the uniform. An exasperated Veda says they've already gone over it and she's going to bed. Mildred grabs her and accuses Veda of knowing it was Mildred's uniform when she made Letty put it on and admits to working at the diner in Hollywood. Veda immediately starts mocking her mom for being a waitress. Mildred says she doesn't know how she found out about it. "Do you think I'm stupid? Do you think I'm dumb?" Veda asks and Mildred gives the brat a long overdue slap that knocks the glass of milk out of her hand. "You may not realize it young lady, but everything you have costs money. From the maid you ordered to the traipsing with you to the pool to the food and the clothing and everything else and I don't see anyone else doing anything about it," Mildred tells Veda, not that the spoiled brat gives a shit. "Weren't the pies bad enough? Did you have to go and degrade us by being a waitress?" Veda screams, prompting Mildred to take her over her knees and give her a well-deserved spanking. Then Mildred, feeling guilty and wanting to win Veda back, concocts a spur-of-the-moment lie and tells Veda that the only reason she took the job was to learn the restaurant business because she plans to open a place of her own, a fine restaurant they can be proud of. Some people do well from restaurants, she tells Veda. Veda apologizes and salivates at the notion of getting rich from one. Mildred tells Veda never to forget that Mildred had been wrong and Veda had been right all along. "Never let go of that." It's as if Mildred has become Victor Frankenstein and Veda is the monster he created, except in the case of Frankenstein's monster, you have sympathy for the monster. You won't for Veda.
With the restaurant idea now firmly established in her head, Mildred starts keeping a notebook of ideas both at her diner and elsewhere. After another roll in the hay with Wally, she asks if he'd help her come up with some estimated costs for opening a restaurant that she wants to present to this one regular customer at the diner. Wally asks her to slow down and start over from the beginning and she tells him her idea is to open a chicken restaurant. People would either get chicken and waffles or maybe chicken and vegetables with carryout pies still on the side, eliminating a la carte pricing and need for menus. Wally says he might be able to do it by giving her the model home. It could be used for a restaurant, give the receivers a loss they need for their 1931 taxes and give Mildred a title that would open a line of credit. Then Wally remembers the hitch — Bert was one of the original incorporators of the property and she's married to him. It won't work unless she and Bert get divorced. When Mildred talks to Bert, he thinks it sounds like a bunch of hooey or possibly collusion. Bert says he would give her and the kids the house and then calms down when he decides there's no way Mildred would have an affair with Wally so he agrees to divorce her so she can get the place for the restaurant. Mildred cries and gives Bert a big hug as he leaves.
Mildred packs the girls' luggage to take to school with them as they are spending the weekend with their grandparents again and they are picking them up immediately after school. Mildred makes a quick stop to see how the restaurant is coming and to show off the new range to Wally before heading to the diner for her last day of work. Her first customer is a charming man (Guy Pearce) who asks why anyone looks at a breakfast menu since they know what they are going to get. Mildred suggests to check the prices. "That's it," he replies. He orders and tells her if she steps on it, he might have enough time to go to Santa Barbara for a swim. "I wish I could go to Santa Barbara for a swim," Mildred says. The man suggests she should. The new waitress has a loud and costly accident. Back in the kitchen, Mildred suggests that the new girl's problem may be Mildred — that she makes her nervous — and wonders if Mr. Chris would mind if she slipped out early. Ida says he always likes to save a buck and tells her to go on, she'll cover for her. Ida also promises to come out to her new place as soon as she can. Mildred returns to her handsome customer and surprises him because he asks why she is smiling. Mildred tells him she thought she would be original for a change but first she has to go to Glendale to drop off her car and get a few things before she can join him on his jaunt to Santa Barbara.
He shows up later at Mildred's house in Glendale in a nice convertible. He notes again that she's smiling. "I can't quite believe I'm doing this," Mildred laughs. He asks since her name is Mrs. Pierce if she's any relation to Pierce Homes. "Bravo," she commends him on his guesswork and tells him she was once married to him. He says some of the worst homes ever built. All the roofs leaked. "Not like the treasuries leaked," Mildred says. He finally introduces himself as Monty Beragon. They arrive at the beachhouse and Mildred hurriedy changes to her bathing suit and heads to the ocean where Monty chases her. Later, the return for some steamy lovemaking. Afterwards, they cook steaks over a fire and Mildred tries to learn more about Monty, but he's either hesitant to talk about his life or bored with it, mentioning his connection to independent fruit growers and how the monthly checks have grown smaller since the big names such as Sunkist arrived on the scene. Basically, he admits. he does nothing. "You mean you just loaf?" Mildred asks. She questins if that makes him content and he just returns to have his way with her again. The next night when he drives her back to Glendale, she makes him stop by the restaurant so she can turn on the sign for him. He asks when the opening will be and she tells him two weeks from Thursday, 6 p.m.
A neighbor comes running across the yard as soon as Mildred returns asking where she has been — they've been trying to reach her since last night. Ray got the flu. and since she wasn't home, they had to take her to the hospital. Mildred makes tracks for the hospital and hooks up with Bert while little Ray lies in bed with a bandage over her lip. This portion of the story to me one of the most fascinating in the different ways it is treated here, was treated in Michael Curtiz's 1945 version and in the original James M. Cain novel. We'll get the Curtiz version out of the way first, because it's the loopiest. In it, Kay (remember Ray had a different name) had pneumonia instead and because Mildred wasn't home, they took her over to Mrs. Biederhof's where a doctor and a nurse set things up. It also very unsubtly foreshadowed what was to come by having the little girl hacking for a few scenes prior much like Nicole Kidman in Moulin Rouge so that you'd know, "Ding dong! Consumption's on its way!" Why all these 1930s doctors were recommending these seriously ill children be treated at home before taking them to the hospital and the grandparents and father all were clueless about what to do because the birth mother wasn't home is beyond me. So in 1945, Kay dies at Mrs. Biederhof's. In the miniseries and the novel, the possible diagnosis is grippe, but the blister on her lip and her fever makes the doctor (Peter McRobbie in the miniseries) and though they are having the blister tested, he fears that results won't be back in time so he recommends, even though it will be more costly, a blood transfusion and we see a tattooed man giving blood to Ray. Apparently the doctor's strategy worked, even though they all beat up on Mildred as if only her home had the magic. She sends everyone home and stays. Then she sees nurses and doctors rushing in again. Ray's fever is suddenly rising again as is her pulse. Poor little Ray dies at the hospital with Mildred holding her hand. Now, the fascinating part of the Cain version is that the extra cost for the blood transfusion goes literally to professional donors, such as the tattooed man, who waits in the novel until he has his money before he lets them take his blood. Surely, there has to be some suspicion of getting blood from that source. Also, when they falsely tell them that Ray is out of the woods, everyone goes home, including Mildred, and it's not until she returns the next morning that Ray has a relapse.
As for the miniseries, after seeing her daughter die, Mildred calls Mrs. Biederhof looking for Bert and leaves a message about Ray. She then goes home, wakes Veda up and crawls in bed next to her and cries.
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Saturday, March 26, 2011
Centennial Tributes: Tennessee Williams
By Sheila O'Malley
An interviewer once asked Tennessee Williams, “What is the definition of happiness?” Williams thought a bit and then replied, “Insensitivity, I guess.”
The great female characters of the Williams canon — Laura and Amanda Wingfield (Glass Menagerie), Blanche DuBois (Streetcar Named Desire), Alma Winemiller (Summer and Smoke), Maggie the Cat (Cat on a Hot Tin Roof), Catherine Holly (Suddenly, Last Summer), to name just a few — are the “sensitives” of the world, predisposed to unhappy lives because of their sensitivity, but in Williams’ view, the sensitives are the strongest of all of us. This psychological standpoint is still his most radical contribution. The more obviously hearty people will not understand, and would wish Blanche to “buck up” a little bit, or Alma to stop mooning around about John Buchanan…but to wish that is to wish away Williams’ drama, of course, and to wish away the best part of ourselves, which is our vulnerability. Williams spoke to that vulnerability and gave it a voice in a way no other 20th century playwright did. His only rival was Eugene O’Neill. In a 1948 essay in The New York Times, Williams wrote about the questions that people would ask him about his plays and his characters:
On this particular occasion the question that floored me was, “Why do you always write about frustrated women?”
To say that floored me is to put it mildly, because I would say that frustrated is almost exactly what the women I write about are not. What was frustrated about Amanda Wingfield? Circumstances, yes! But spirit? See Helen Hayes in London’s Glass Menagerie if you still think Amanda was a frustrated spirit! No, there is nothing interesting about frustration, per se. I could not write a line about it for the simple reason that I can’t write a line about anything that bores me. Was Blanche of A Streetcar Named Desire frustrated? About as frustrated as a beast of the jungle! And Alma Winemiller? What is frustrated about loving with such white hot intensity that it alters the whole direction of your life, and removes you from the parlor of the Episcopal rectory to a secret room above Moon Lake Casino?
Tennessee Williams was born Thomas Lanier Williams III on March 26, 1911, in Columbus, Miss., to parents Cornelius and Edwina Williams. He had a brother, Dakin, and a sister, Rose. He was very close to his maternal grandfather, Walter Dakin, an Episcopal priest who, later in life, traveled extensively with his grandson, and set up house with him in Key West on occasion. Cornelius Williams was often absent due to his job as a traveling salesman (Tennessee would utilize this experience in his first hit play, Glass Menagerie, where Mr. Wingfield, never seen in the play, was described as “a telephone man — who fell in love with long-distance!”), and so the three children were raised primarily by Edwina. His father thought “Tom” was effeminate and gave him a hard time about it.
The family moved to St. Louis, where Tennessee attended high school and began writing in earnest. He tried his hand at poetry, short stories, essays. His interest in drama would come a bit later.
In 1937, he was accepted into the University of Iowa (after dabbling in journalism at the University of Missouri). He transferred eventually to Washington University in St. Louis where we start to see the playwright Tennessee Williams being born. He worked on the campus literary journal, whose members are pictured here (Williams is second from the left). He became involved with a local theater group called the Mummers of St. Louis, who produced one of his earliest known plays. He looked back very fondly on that company and even as an old man said that the productions of the Mummers represented to him the best that theater had to offer: the sheer joy in the process, the collaboration, and the sense of a supportive cohesive community. This was the 1930s and Clifford Odets was the biggest star in American playwriting, his socially conscious and politically left-leaning plays taking Broadway by storm in the productions of the short-lived Group Theatre. Williams loved Odets, and his earliest plays (some of which will be published for the first time this April in a collection called The Magic Tower show that influence, an influence he would quickly shed. (The new book can be found on Amazon here.) While his successful plays are some of the most socially conscious plays ever written, in terms of their constant reminders to us that we need to be KIND to one another, he was not explicitly political, and the left-wing bandwagon was not for him. Odets’ mantle fit awkwardly on Williams’ shoulders. It was around this time in Williams’ life that his beloved sister Rose began her long descent into madness.
Tom’s sister Rose was always thought to be neurotic, too “nervous,” and once she hit her teenage years and became boy-crazy (like most teenage girls), the cracks in her psyche began to open. A failed “debut” seems to have been particularly traumatic, and Rose had a series of breakdowns (one psychiatrist told her that her problem was that she needed to get married), was hospitalized, given insulin treatments, shock treatments, and finally, in 1943, a prefrontal lobotomy. By that point, Williams had left town and was living in New York, struggling to get by on writing grants and odd jobs. On March 24, 1943, he wrote in his journal, after receiving a letter from his mother about Rose’s “operation”:
1000 miles away.
Her head cut open. A knife thrust in her brain.
Me. Here. Smoking.
This was the defining event in his life, even more so than being a gay man in the 1930s and '40s, even more so than being a writer from the South. Rose’s inability to either heal the cracks within her, or live with those cracks, haunted Tennessee Williams to his dying day, and play after play deals with madness, fear of madness, and also, in one case specifically (Suddenly, Last Summer) lobotomies. There is a danger in assigning too much autobiographical meaning to Williams’ works, as though there should be a literal A to B correlation. To read the plays as glorified journal entries is a huge disservice to the universality of his work (the recent failed production of Glass Menagerie at The Long Wharf, reviewed here by John Lahr, is evidence of that.) Williams turned what had happened to his sister Rose into art. As Tom Wingfield says, in his final monologue in The Glass Menagerie:
I would have stopped, but I was pursued by something. It always came upon me unawares, taking me altogether by surprise. Perhaps it was a familiar bit of music. Perhaps it was only a piece of transparent glass. Perhaps I am walking along a street at night, in some strange city, before I have found companions. I pass the lighted window of a shop where perfume is sold. The window is filled with pieces of colored glass, tiny transparent bottles in delicate colors, like bits of a shattered rainbow. Then all at once my sister touches my shoulder. I turn around and look into her eyes. Oh, Laura, Laura, I tried to leave you behind me, but I am more faithful than I intended to be! I reach for a cigarette, I cross the street, I run into the movies or a bar, I buy a drink, I speak to the nearest stranger — anything that can blow your candles out! For nowadays the world is lit by lightning! Blow out your candles, Laura — and so goodbye...
In 1939, Williams moved to New Orleans, and it was there that he began to emerge as an individual voice. It also was when he formally changed his name to “Tennessee,” the state where his father was born. In his journals and letters, it is apparent that during this fertile time in his life he already was percolating the ideas that would become Glass Menagerie and Streetcar Named Desire: There are early one-acts that are rehearsals for those later plays. His first major full-length play was Battle of Angels (1940), about a virile young drifter named Val who strolls into a dressmaker’s shop in a small town after his car breaks down, looking for help. The dressmaker’s shop is run by a woman named Myra who is trapped in a loveless marriage. Battle of Angels would eventually be rewritten by Williams in 1957 as Orpheus Descending. Battle of Angels was produced in Boston and was a resounding flop. It would be his first (but not his last) experience of controversy and calls for censorship, due to the explicit sexual subtexts in his plays. Although Battle of Angels was not a success, it brought him into contact with powerful people, producers and agents (Margo Jones, Audrey Wood and others), who would become lifelong supporters of Williams and his work. Around this time, he wrote in his journal:
My next play will be simple, direct and terrible — a picture of my own heart — there will be no artifice in it — I will speak truth as I see it — distort as I see distortion — be wild as I am wild — tender as I am tender — mad as I am mad — passionate as I am passionate — It will be myself without concealment or evasion and with a fearless unashamed frontal assault upon life that will leave no room for trepidation. I believe that the way to write a good play is to convince yourself that it is easy to do — then go ahead and do it with ease. Don’t maul, don’t suffer, don’t groan — till the first draft is finished. Then Calvary — but not till then. Doubt — and be lost — until the first draft is finished.
It was out of this attitude that The Glass Menagerie was born. Williams had written a short story called “Portrait of a Girl in Glass” (1943) and began to turn it into a play (he often worked this way, backing into the play format). Margo Jones, one of the pioneers of the American regional theater movement, had hitched herself to Tennessee Williams early on, and was tireless in promoting him. She and Eddie Dowling produced The Glass Menagerie (Dowling also directed and played Tom Wingfield) and a production was planned to open in Chicago in 1944. Casting was a challenge and getting the once-great and now-washed-up Laurette Taylor (who had been a star of vaudeville) to play Amanda Wingfield was a big coup. Taylor had been famous as a young actress, but now was known mainly for her drinking problem. Rehearsals for Glass Menagerie were difficult sometimes. Lyle Leverich wrote in Tom, his magnificent biography of Tennessee Williams:
Tennessee remembered that Laurette appeared to know only a fraction of her lines, and these she was delivering in “a Southern accent which she had acquired from some long-ago black domestic.” He was even more disconcerted when she said she was modeling her accent after his! Tom wrote to Donald Windham, complaining that Laurette was ad-libbing many of her speeches and that the play was beginning to sound more like the Aunt Jemima Pancake hour.
To him, Laurette’s “bright-eyed attentiveness to the other performances seemed a symptom of lunacy, and so did the rapturous manner of dear Julie.” He was witnessing a characteristic of many of the theater’s great actors who were quick studies but painfully deliberate in their approach to a role. As Laurette’s daughter explained, “She seemed blandly unconscious of the discomfort of the others…Amanda [the role] fascinated her. She could see whole facets of the woman’s life before the action of the play and after it was over.” This is what her husband had taught her was the test of a good part. “The outer aspect of this inner search concerned her not at all.”
Paul Bowles, a friend of Williams who composed the music that played throughout the play, came to Chicago for the dress rehearsal, and described the atmosphere:
“I flew out to Chicago [and] arrived in a terrible blizzard, I remember. It was horrible. A traumatic experience. And the auditorium was cold. Laurette Taylor was on the bottle, unfortunately. Back on it, really. She had got off it with the first part of the rehearsals but suddenly the dress rehearsal coming up was too much. [Laurette was discovered] unconscious, down behind the furnace in the basement. And there was gloom, I can tell you, all over the theater because no one thought she would be able to go on the next night.”
But she did go on, and by all accounts it was one of the greatest performances ever given by an American actress in the history of our theatrical tradition. The praise runs far and wide, and while Williams’ play, with its delicate heartbreak, and keening sense of loss and memory, was definitely something “new” (nobody was writing like he was at the time), it was Laurette Taylor’s magnificent performance that helped launch Williams into the stratosphere. His life would never be the same again. Leverich wrote:
Laurette Taylor never lost an opportunity to divert the praise that was being heaped upon her to that “nice little guy,” Tennessee Williams. She was always quick to remind her admirers that it was he, not she, who had written the lines that gave The Glass Menagerie its special power and beauty. And she told Tennessee, “It’s a beautiful — a wonderful — a great play!”
For his part, Tennessee Williams always said that, as much as he regarded Laurette Taylor a personal friend, he never ceased to be in awe of her. “She had such a creative mind,” he once remarked. “Something magical happened with Laurette. I used to stand backstage. There was a little peephole in the scenery, and I could be just about three feet from her, and when the lights hit her face, suddenly twenty years would drop off. An incandescent thing would happen in her face; it was really supernatural.”
The Glass Menagerie moved to Broadway in 1945, and was a smash hit, Laurette Taylor becoming the toast of the town once again (she would die in 1946), and Williams becoming a star. In 1947, Williams wrote a letter to his friend (poet and publisher Jay Laughlin):
I have done a lot of work, finished two long plays. One of them, laid in New Orleans, A STREETCAR CALLED DESIRE, turned out quite well. It is a strong play, closer to Battle of Angels than any of my other work, but is not what critics call “pleasant.” In fact it is pretty unpleasant.
This “unpleasant” play would bring him into contact for the first time with one of his most important collaborators, Elia Kazan. It may seem like an odd combination: the lyrical openly gay Southern writer paired up with the virile manipulative ambitious Greek immigrant, but it turned out to be a perfect fit. Kazan’s genius with theatrical language, with turning “psychology into behavior” (his definition of good acting), his strong basis in production values and practical matters (there was a reason why his nickname was “Gadg” — short for “Gadget”, a fix-it man) helped ground Williams’ work in a living-and-breathing reality. If a “lyrical” director had taken Williams’ plays on, it could have been disastrous, but Kazan’s gritty sense of truth often saved Williams from himself. Williams recognized this, recognized what Kazan provided. It was an intense, combative (at times) and very fruitful working relationship, and Kazan would go on to direct some of Williams’ biggest successes. A Streetcar Named Desire, starring Jessica Tandy as Blanche DuBois and a young relatively unknown Marlon Brando as Stanley Kowalski, opened on Broadway in 1947. Glass Menagerie had launched him, A Streetcar Named Desire solidified his position. It also made Marlon Brando a star. Brando described, years later, his experience of that time:
You can’t always be a failure. Not and survive. Van Gogh! There’s an example of what can happen when a person never receives any recognition. You stop relating: it puts you outside. But I guess success does that, too. You know, it took me a long time before I was aware that that’s what I was — a big success. I was so absorbed in myself, my own problems, I never looked around, took account. I used to walk in New York, miles and miles, walk in the streets late at night, and never see anything. I was never sure about acting, whether that was what I really wanted to do; I’m still not. Then, when I was in Streetcar, and it had been running a couple of months, one night — dimly, dimly — I began to hear this roar.
On opening night, Williams sent Brando a telegram:
RIDE OUT BOY AND SEND IT SOLID. FROM THE GREASY POLACK YOU WILL SOME DAY ARRIVE AT THE GLOOMY DANE FOR YOU HAVE SOMETHING THAT MAKES THE THEATRE A WORLD OF GREAT POSSIBILITIES.
Streetcar won the Pulitzer Prize. Williams, now financially successful and famous, traveled, moved about (New Orleans, to Key West, to Provincetown, to Italy, and back), worked on the screenplay adaptations for Menagerie and Streetcar, and kept writing plays. Over the next decade, Broadway saw the following Tennessee Williams productions: Summer and Smoke. (1948), The Rose Tattoo (1951), Camino Real (1953), Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955) (which earned him a second Pulitzer Prize for drama), Orpheus Descending (1957), Garden District (1958), and Sweet Bird of Youth (1959), an extraordinary run no matter which way you slice it. Not all of these plays were successful (and Camino Real was a huge flop, although I believe that time will vindicate that play someday — it’s brilliant, and decades ahead of its time), and Williams had that problem that only very successful people have: How do you keep topping yourself? How do you continue to work when you sense that everyone and their mother just wants you to write Streetcar again? Williams attempted something different with Camino Real, and critics and audiences alike let him know in no uncertain terms that this is not what we want from you. It broke his heart, but he never gave up. His work ethic was extraordinary. The film versions of Streetcar and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof upped his profile even more, making him one of the most important voices of the 1950s.
The 1960s were rough on Williams. His audience disappeared. His new plays were not successful, although Streetcar, Glass Menagerie, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and all the others were now staples in repertory companies across the nation. And yet he kept on. Some of those “lesser” plays from later on, in the '60s and '70s, glow with a kind of eerie fire, and I still wait for some of them to be revived properly. It is a mind-boggling body of work when looked at it as a whole, and it continues to grow in stature, making the more commercial playwrights of the same era look trite.
And the later plays? The ones that were flop after flop after flop? At the time, they suffered by comparison to Williams’ earlier successes and most people gave up on him. He no longer found a home on Broadway and the experimental downtown scene that was burgeoning in New York was also not available to him. His plays were orphans, but now, with perspective and distance, they don't suffer at all in comparison to Menagerie or Streetcar. They stand on their own as excellent plays, difficult, challenging, moving, and recognizably Williams. Plays such as The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore, Kingdom of Earth, Small Craft Warnings are worthy of serious reconsideration. I wouldn't call these "major" plays, but saying that feels ungenerous to a great and enduring talent. If a playwright could write just ONE play as great as Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (Williams considered it his best), then that should be enough for one lifetime, but Williams was in it for the long haul, as heartbreaking as that was for him. He had guts.
He wrote in his published memoirs:
Work!! — the loveliest of all four-letter words, surpassing even the importance of love, most times.
In 1981, the influential Jean Cocteau Repertory Company (they are still around) in New York did a production of what would be Williams’ last full-length play, Something Cloudy Something Clear. Williams was present at rehearsals, showing up with rewrites, coming up onstage to “act out” how a moment should be played. Something Cloudy Something Clear is his most blatantly autobiographical play: An elderly playwright looks back on an important love affair he had in 1940 during a summer in Provincetown. The boundary between the past and the present is porous and people from the playwright’s earlier years stroll through the action, unbidden memories rising up from out of the unconscious. It’s a beautiful play. Of course, it was not a success. Williams was interviewed at the time, and he said:
I’m very conscious of my decline in popularity, but I don’t permit it to stop me because I have the example of so many playwrights before me. I know the dreadful notices Ibsen got. And O’Neill — he had to die to make Moon successful. And to me it has been providential to be an artist, a great act of providence that I was able to turn my borderline psychosis into creativity — my sister Rose did not manage this. So I keep writing. I am sometimes pleased with what I do — for me, that’s enough.
It’s enough for me, too. For all of us.
Tennessee Williams died in 1983.
Sheila O'Malley writes about actors and film for Capital New York and Fandor, as well as contributing occasional pieces to The House Next Door and Noir of the Week. Her personal blog is The Sheila Variations where she gets to be as obsessive as she wants about everything.
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Friday, March 25, 2011
Mildred Pierce — nearly unabridged
BLOGGER'S NOTE: This contains mild spoilers for the new miniseries, the James M. Cain novel it is based on and the 1945 Michael Curtiz film starring Joan Crawford.
By Edward Copeland
If your only familiarity with the story of Mildred Pierce comes from Michael Curtiz's great 1945 film starring Joan Crawford in her Oscar-winning role and you've never read the James M. Cain novel from which it was adapted, the new HBO miniseries directed by Todd Haynes and starring Kate Winslet as the title character will barely seem like a remake to you at all. It's much more faithful to the original Cain novel and while the 1945 movie and this new 2011 miniseries share a title, similarities and many common characters (though often bearing different names), when you watch Haynes' version you'll feel as if you are seeing a completely new story — and it's a great one.
Though I've put the spoiler warning up top, I'm going to have to reiterate it again because this post will serve not only as both a preview and overall assessment of the five-part miniseries that begins Sunday night, I also will be comparing the 2011 Mildred Pierce with the 1945 version as well as with the James M. Cain novel itself, which I've done a quick read of to see what both versions kept and what they cut. So, after a few general paragraphs about the HBO miniseries, anyone who doesn't want to have anything ruined, best look away. I'll warn you again when it's time.
To get to the most important thing you are probably asking yourself about Haynes' Mildred Pierce out of the way first (How does it rate?), I have a simple answer: It is terrific. Originally, I was uncertain how to approach my coverage of the five-part miniseries. Should I watch the whole thing and write one piece and be done with it? Once I started watching it, I realized that wouldn't do. Haynes' production excited me so much, I felt compelled to write more on it. This Mildred Pierce proves too remarkable to finish discussing after one post. So today, you'll get my overall preview/review of the miniseries and I will follow up the next three Sundays with recaps of each installment after it airs. (Parts One and Two air this Sunday, followed by Part Three the following week and Parts Four and Five on the final night, so I'll have three recaps in all.)
I've been mixed to negative on Haynes' work in the past, only strongly liking his Douglas Sirk homage Far From Heaven. His other films as a director that I've seen such as Poison, Safe, Velvet Goldmine and I'm Not There left me less than satisfied. Far From Heaven played for me as a glorious exception in his filmography — until now. His Mildred Pierce tops even Far From Heaven. As director and co-writer, it's the best piece of filmmaking that Haynes has done so far. His visual compositions combined with a strong and clear narrative and a remarkable cast make this Mildred Pierce a wonder. Often, it seems as if Haynes found the perfect shot on which to end each episode and many times uses openings that echo the beginning of the previous installment. I was fortunate to be able to see all five parts in a compressed period of time, since it's addictive. I feel sorry for home viewers who will have to wait a week between parts. Granted, it probably isn't fair on some level to compare Haynes' version, which has more than five hours to play with, with Curtiz's, which ran less than two hours, but the new version actually lowered my opinion of the 1945 film when I watched it again while I was more than halfway through the miniseries. One thing should be clearly stated: This almost shouldn't be called a remake because the 1945 film strayed far from James M. Cain's novel and the miniseries adheres to the book almost as if it were sacred text.
The technical credits also prove wondrous. The production had to re-create Depression-era Southern California in New York and nearby New York areas, but it looks great. The colors comes across vibrantly well through the cinematography of Edward Lachman, who also was d.p. on Far From Heaven. Part of me questioned whether everything should be filmed looking so bright and beautiful in the Great Depression, but I got over that objection rather quickly, thanks in no small part to Ann Roth's expert costuming. A "making of" special says that Roth had to dress 2,000 extras a day. The same special shows Winslet worrying that Roth wouldn't take the job because she's so in demand, but Roth did. She's a four-time Oscar nominee for costume design, winning for The English Patient. She's also in high demand on Broadway where she's been a three-time Tony nominee and her latest work is for the controversial musical The Book of Mormon by South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone. The biggest surprise to me is that the score is an original one because it's so evocative and sounds as if it were lifted directly from the story's time period, but no, it's original music composed by Carter Burwell, who scores most of the Coen brothers' films.
The key to what makes this Mildred Pierce so great belongs to the casting decisions, particularly putting Kate Winslet in the title role. It's been clear for quite some time that Winslet is one of the best, if not the best, actresses of her generation and she wows again here. You don't usually think of Winslet and Joan Crawford in the same role, but even though Crawford won an Oscar for her Mildred, once everyone has seen all five parts of the 2011 version, when you think of the character Mildred Pierce, you will think of Kate Winslet first. Of course, Winslet overflows with so much talent, she could probably play just about any role Crawford ever did though I doubt you could say the reverse. Joan Crawford in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind anyone? Didn't think so. In that behind-the-scenes special, Winslet said that making this miniseries was the hardest work physically for her since she made Titanic. Now that I've seen it, I don't think that was hyperbole. The range and development that Mildred goes through and that Winslet plays truly is remarkable. Having had that image of Joan Crawford in my head for so long, Winslet seemed too young, but according to the character's construct, she's precisely the right age. She makes her obsession with her evil daughter's Veda's needs much more believable than Crawford did because with the expanded running time, you see from where Veda's attitudes first sprang. Winslet succeeds at making Mildred's changes realistic and never rushed, be it from housewife to a cheating husband to successful businesswoman or from a bit of a prude to a woman comfortable with her sexuality and a drink now and then.
Winslet also gets able support from a superb ensemble cast that includes Brian F. O'Byrne, Melissa Leo, James LeGros, Guy Pearce, Mare Winningham and others who appear in just one or two scenes such as Richard Easton, Ronald Guttman and Hope Davis. Then there are the two Vedas: Morgan Turner as the younger Veda in Parts One through Three and Evan Rachel Wood as the older Veda in Parts Four and Five. Before I discuss in detail how these performers did, especially in comparisons to predecessors (if there were predecessors), here comes that SPOILER WARNING again. From now on, the movie, the miniseries and the novel shall all be discussed in minute detail, so stop reading now if you want to be surprised or are unfamiliar with the novel or 1945 film either.
If you were like me (before recently anyway) and had only seen the 1945 Mildred Pierce and never read the 1941 James M. Cain novel upon which it was (very loosely) based, you probably have no idea how much the book and the movie differed. Cain's reputation was that of one of the best of the early 20th century crime novelists. His other acclaimed works that became notable film noirs included Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice. Since Billy Wilder's film version of Indemnity proved to be a hit the year before Mildred Pierce was released, Warner Bros., the studio that made its name and fortune from its gangster films, tried to shoehorn Mildred Pierce into a crime story told in a similar fashion. They gave it a flashback structure that the novel didn't have and, most importantly, turned its focus into a murder mystery — when Cain's novel contained no murder at all. My faithful contributor Eddie Selover made me aware of a book published in 1980 that I wish I could read by Ranald MacDougall (credited screenwriter of the 1945 film), Albert J. LaValley and the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research (called Mildred Pierce, of course) that recounts the making of the 1945 film, including how many of the changes came to be.
In the Michael Curtiz version, Mildred's second husband, the bankrupt playboy Monte Beragon (Zachary Scott) receives the fatal bullets in the movie's opening minutes and the remainder of the film has Joan Crawford's Mildred telling her life story to a police detective to explain what led up to the murder. Guy Pearce plays Beragon in the HBO miniseries but, aside from not being killed, the main change to his character is the spelling of his name which reverts to Monty, the way Cain spelled it in the novel. Other names get changed to match Cain's that were renamed in the Curtiz version, that's how faithful Haynes and his co-writer Jon Raymond are to the novel. Though Cain may be pigeonholed as a crime novelist, Mildred Pierce does not belong in the crime category. Haynes and Raymond follow Cain's outline so closely that Part One covers almost everything that happens in the first four chapters of the book with the exception of one scene, which they save to use as the opening for Part Two. Changing names isn't that big a deal, but what a difference inserting a murder mystery and flashback structure makes. It's sort of like the butterfly effect, changing the entire story, even the parts the 1945 film kept from Cain's novel. The new miniseries rectifies this, because there were a lot of other changes that made big changes. In a figurative way, Todd Haynes found a DeLorean with a flux capacitor and went back to 1945 to wrench Cain's novel from Warner Bros., and make history right again. (Of course, Time Warner owns HBO, but it was a silly metaphor anyway.)
Whether you are reading the novel, watching the miniseries or beginning the flashback portion of the 1945 version of Mildred Pierce, you basically start at the same point. Mildred's husband Bert holds no job, having been forced out of the company he started, Pierce Homes, and lost what money he once had in the stock market crash of '29. This has left the burden of keeping the family afloat to Mildred, a family which also includes their two daughters Veda, 11, and Ray (short for Moire which the Pierces mispronounced except in the 1945 version where they had no problem because her name was Kay), 6. They barely make ends meet on what she makes by selling pies and cakes she bakes in her kitchen. On this day, after a long while of living with the open secret that Bert is having an affair with one Mrs. Biederhof, Mildred has had enough. There would be no more pretending that Bert and Mrs. Biederhof only played rummy together and when Bert refuses to commit to whether he'll be home in time for dinner or not, Mildred essentially tells him to take a suitcase and not come home at all. The scene comes off very well in the miniseries between Winslet and Brian F. O'Byrne, who plays the role of Bert, but it's a problem in the Curtiz version because they cast Bruce Bennett as Bert and he's horribly stiff and self-righteous and plays every scene he has in the movie as if his character has the moral high ground — even in this scene when he's leaving his wife and two young daughters for another woman. The children come off the same when they come home to a missing father, especially young Veda (played by Ann Blyth at all ages in 1945 and by the miraculous Morgan Turner in the miniseries), who already knew of the affair and tries to assure her mother that Mrs. Biederhof is "distinctly middle-class." Bert was the one thing that always bugged me about the original film. His sudden appearance as the hero and his reconciliation with Mildred didn't make much sense to me in the context of Curtiz's film, but seeing how he develops over the course of the novel and the miniseries, it makes more sense that he and Mildred should get back together and he should be the one to tell her to cut ties with Veda once and for all. O'Byrne can make that transformation work in a way Bennett's acting skills and the other film's running time prevented the previous Bert Pierce.
If you already are a fan of the 1945 Mildred Pierce, one of the major reasons probably is the character of Ida Corwin as hilariously played by Eve Arden. Mildred meets her when she happens to stumble upon a fight over stealing tips that gets two waitresses fired at a diner and, desperate for work, Mildred asks Ida, who manages the joint, for a job. She soon becomes Mildred's best friend and, later, business associate when Mildred begins a career as a successful restaurateur. Arden gets most of the film's most memorable lines and the book about the making of the film, according to Eddie Selover, indicates that Arden improvised a lot of her material. More importantly, though Ida Corwin exists in the novel, she doesn't quite in the way the Curtiz film makes her out to be and it deletes an entire character, Mildred's real best friend, her neighbor Lucy Kessler, played in the miniseries by Melissa Leo. Lucy, still referred to as Mrs. Kessler most of the time despite being Mildred's closest confidant, advises her on her new single status and is the first to give her warning signs that something's not right about Veda. Ida in the miniseries meets Mildred in much the same way, but she's merely a waitress at that diner, not the manager. Mare Winningham gets her part in 2011, though Ida does end up becoming involved in Mildred's business. Leo and Winningham both give very good performances, but neither of their tongues are as razor sharp as Arden's was and, actually, both actresses probably were wise not to try to compete with Arden's ghost.
One of the more memorable speeches Lucy gives to Mildred comes after she learns she's given Bert the heave-ho and she informs her that she now belongs to a group known as the "grass widows," and that comes straight from Cain's novel. Since Lucy's character didn't exist in the 1945 movie and she hadn't met Ida yet, she got a shortened version of that speech from the character of Wally, probably the person who changed the most. In 1945, Wally Fay (Jack Carson) is a lawyer who was supposed to be someone who had known Mildred all her life and always had a thing for her, but ended up taking over her restaurants partly out of spite when Mildred ended up in money trouble because of the cash she wasted on Veda and Monty. In the book and the miniseries, his name is Wally Burgan (James LeGros), Bert's former business partner who forced him out of Pierce Homes, helped Veda scam a wealthy family by saying their son knocked her up and tricked Mildred into incorporating herself so that he could force her out too, though in the end, the company ended up in Ida's hands. Both actors play Wally very well, but the two Wallys are so different, it isn't as if they really are playing the same character.
There are countless other differences, some of which I will mention during the recap process, but I thought I would wrap this up with the character who is second in importance only to Mildred herself and that's her evil spawn Veda, because really, Mildred's obsession with her daughter Veda provides the crux of Cain's novel and the miniseries. It really takes the focus of the 1945 version as well, even if they put it in the form of a murder mystery, since Crawford's Mildred is quite willing to take credit for killing Monte even though Veda did it and she'd just discovered they'd been having an affair. At least the Mildred of the novel and the one Winslet gets to portray would never do that. When she catches Monty and Veda in bed together, she finally tries to strangle the spoiled brat to death. Ann Blyth as well as the entire cast of the Curtiz version did have the production code to contend with, so some changes couldn't be helped. For instance, when Veda tries to snag money from the wealthy young man with a fake pregnancy, in the 1945 version she actually has to marry him. In the miniseries, Mildred wants to force the boy to marry Veda when all Veda wants is the money. Cain's novel goes further with Mildred suggesting, when she believes Veda really is pregnant, that perhaps she should seek an abortion, though the word is never used.
You never see Crawford's Mildred express disdain for work that requires you to wear a uniform, though they do have one scene where it's clear she didn't want Veda to know she was working as a waitress. In the miniseries, while Winslet's Mildred only has those prejudices as far as herself is concerned, it makes more sense where Veda picked up her sense of entitlement and the idea that she's better than most people and doesn't belong with the common folk of Glendale, Calif. When comparing the actresses playing Veda — and really we are considering three here: Blyth, Morgan Turner and Evan Rachel Wood — I believe Turner comes off best. Granted, we spend the most time with her, but she seems to hold the perfect mix of being a child and a rotten know-it-all at the same time. Once Wood takes over, she's fine, but I found her performance far too mannered and when there are standoffs between Mildred and Veda, I actually think Turner holds her own with Winslet better than Wood does.
As someone who generally frowns on remakes, especially of really good movies, Todd Haynes' Mildred Pierce defies the odds because as big of a fan as I was of 1945's Mildred Pierce, the miniseries has lowered my opinion of it. I wish I could separate them since the 1945 movie really tells an entirely different story and the miniseries shouldn't be called a remake at all, but too many things are the same for the two not to be linked. Haynes has achieved something almost impossible: Produced a great work of cinematic art and lowered the worth of a classic film at the same time. If you have HBO or have a friend who has HBO or can see Mildred Pierce by hook or by crook, you must do so. See you here for the first recap of Parts One and Two at 11 p.m. CDT Sunday.
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