Bette Davis, The Hard Way. Movies reviewed: Jezebel, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane, All About Eve

Posted in 1930s, Cultural Mining, Hollywood, Movies, New Orleans, Uncategorized by CulturalMining.com on November 22, 2013

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM, looking at high-brow and low-brow movies, indie, cult, foreign, festival, documentary, genre and mainstream films, helping you see movies with good taste, movies that taste good, and how to tell the difference.

jezebell_01I see hundreds of movies a year, and I think I have a pretty good grasp of current cinema. But what do I know about old Hollywood? Next to nothing. So when I heard that TIFF was running a retrospective of a famous star through December, I thought I’d finally take a look at what all the fuss is about. I had always avoided these movies, so this really is the first time I’m watching her movies.

That actress is Bette Davis, and they’re playing a selection of her films in a series called The Hard Way. She’s unusual looking — huge round eyes, a narrow nose, not conventionally beautiful but quite distinctive, especially her voice. I’m starting to understand her fame. She plays strong – often tyrannical – women, but ones who don’t necessarily end up getting what they want. She conveys her meaning with a grand gesture, a cruel slap or a dismissive flick of her fingers.

This week I’m looking at three of her movies, one from each stage of her long career. First, from her days as a huge star in the late 1930s, a romantic drama set in the Old South;  in her comeback in the early 1950s, in an amazing drama set amidst Broadway theatre; and, with her second comeback, a dramatic horror movie set in Hollywood in the early 1960s.

jezebell_03Jezebel (1938)

Dir: William Wyler

It’s antebellum New Orleans, a land of strange customs. Chivalry prevails: a gentleman can be challenged to a duel at dawn merely for besmirching a woman’s name. But, at the same time, half the people there are enslaved to the other half. In the middle of this world is Julie (Bette Davis), a strong-willed southern belle living on a halcyon plantation. She loves one man only, a businessman named Pres Dillard (Henry Fonda). But she also loves her freedom: riding horses and asserting her own opinions, damn the rest. But she commits a social faux pas at the ball by appearing in a red dress, not the requisite white one. What a Jezebel! The audacity! The horror! Pres heads up north without asking her hand in marriage.

He returns a few years later a changed man. Julie – struck by melancholy — is sure he’s jezebell_02come back for her. But has he? When the plot turns, she sets in motion a series of intricate revenge plots among her friends, schemes that could lead to death. This is all done in the midst of a plague of yellow fever among the swamps, a symbol of the putrefaction of the entire pre-war south. Will Julie change her ways and feel regret? And will Pres ever love her again, or at least respect her?

This movie is an interesting look at another era, but it was so removed from now that it was hard for me to sympathize. A red dress? Honour? Chivalry? Jezebel is not a pro-slavery movie; it shows the pre-Civil-War south as a decadent, outdated culture on the verge of collapse. But how can you take a movie like this seriously after seeing Twelve Years a Slave, one that takes place during the same time period, but about the people who were really oppressed? Still (not a spoiler), the closing scenes in Jezebel do provide a suitably dramatic conclusion to this epic drama.

babyjane_01What Ever Happened to Baby Jane (1962)

Dir: Robert Aldrich

Baby Jane Hudson is a tap-dancing child star of vaudeville, known for her blonde bologna curls and frilly white dresses. Her father flogs life-sized Baby Jane dolls at every performance. Her plain sister Blanche depends on her income. But with the dawn of the talkies, Blanche’s Hollywood star rises even while Jane’s falls. But when Blanche is crippled after a deliberate car crash, Jane becomes her nursemaid out of guilt.

Now, it’s the early 1960s, and they still live in the same rat-infested old Hollywood mansion. The adult Jane (Bette Davis) still has her blonde curls, but she’s an old woman now with inches of white pancake makeup slapped on her cheeks, and grotesque black eyeliner and misshapen lipstick. Blanche (Joan Crawford), in a wheelchair, is isolated in a room upstairs and can’t come down. They exist in a sort of a truce. But when Blanche’s old movies are revived on TV, Jane is overcome by jealousy and anger. She should be famous. She should have a comeback, not her sister. She becomes increasingly unhinged, flashing from 10-year-old girl to her hideous and cruel self. Can Blanche escape this hell-hole of Hollywood torture and decay? Two aging cinematic icons playing themselves, battle it out to the end.

And the final scene is just amazing.

Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, though a schlocky, much-imitated horror movie, did work as a comeback for Bette Davis, who carved out a new career as the queen of fear.

allabouteve_01All About Eve (1950)

Dir: Joseph L Mankiewicz.

Margo (Bette Davis) is a great broadway actress at the peak of her career. Eve (Ann Baxter) is a superfan. She shows up at every single performance in a trenchcoat and a crumpled Tilley hat. When they actually meet, Eve’s earnest story of love and loss entrances Margo and all her friends with her freshness, innocence and sincerity. Margo gives her a room in her home and Eve becomes a combination maid, confidant and personal assistant. But Margo gradually becomes suspicious when she sees Eve studiously imitating her every move. She’s not worshipping her… she’s trying to become her! Margo’s friends dismiss her fears as an aging actress’s egotitistic paranoia.

Soon Eve becomes Margo’s actual understudy and, due to some manipulation by Margo’s friends, Eve wows the critics, especially the all-powerful and all-knowing theatre critic Addison Dewitt (George Sanders).

Is Eve the ingénue she pretends to be — or an ambitious psychopath? All About Eve won a slew of Academy Awards, and, far from feeling dated, it really is a masterpiece, showing the pettiness, deception, artifice and manipulation in the dog-eat-dog world of theatre, and by extension, Hollywood. Perfect script, fantastic acting, flawless direction.

All About Eve, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane and Jezebel are part of TIFF’s program The Hard Way: the Films of Bette Davis, curated by James Quandt. Go to tiff.net for listings. Also opening today is Empire of Dirt a Canadian drama about three generations of stubborn, first nations women, who are thrown together for the first time.

This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Friday morning on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website,culturalmining.com

 

The Life and Times of Leos Carax: Les Amants du Pont-Neuf, Mauvais Sang, Pola X, Holy Motors

Posted in Art, Cultural Mining, Dance, Fantasy, France by CulturalMining.com on August 22, 2013

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM, looking Boymeetsgirl_photofest_01_mediumat high-brow and low-brow movies, indie, cult, foreign, festival, documentary, genre and mainstream films, helping you see movies with good taste, movies that taste good, and how to tell the difference.

Leos Carax is a French Director. He’s one of those filmmakers that you may not have heard of, but who, once you see his movies, you’ll be hooked. He’s impossible to categorize, partly because he’s not like any other director, and partly because he’s not even like himself – he’s constantly changing his style and techniques. They shift from absurdist, comic-book-like films, to classic film noir gangster movies, to hyper-realistic semi-documentaries, and then back again. The one constant, in almost all his films, is the actor Denis Lavant.

Loversonthebridge_frl_03_mediumLes Amants du Pont-Neuf

Dir: Leos Carax

The first Leos Carax film I saw was Les Amant du Pont Neuf – Lovers on the Bridge. It’s a simple, — but not simplistic – story of an artist who is going blind (Juliette Binoche) who meets Alex, a street busker (Denis Lavant). They fall in love, sort of, and meet on an ancient Paris bridge that’s under repairs.  With the help of an eccentric, white-bearded hobo named Hans, the two of them try to stay together… but can they?

When I first saw this movie I thought – who the hell is playing this guy, alex? Denis Lavant is an intense performer who uses fire, acrobatics and bodily contortions and fighting as part of his acting. The movie feels like Carax just run into this busker on the street at random, and decided to film him. (That’s not the case, obviously). Oh yeah, and in this movie he doesn’t really speak. He’s an unbreakable but cartoonish figure, while Binoche is a tragic and passionate heroine.

Critics tend to exaggerate the importance of movies, every poster has some critic saying a movie is the best thing ever. Personally, I think hyperbole is the most overated technique in the world – no the universe… But honestly, if you’re a cinephile, if you love movies, you should be required to see Les Amants du Pont-Neuf. It’s that different, that important.

Mauvaissang_photofest_01_mediumMauvais Sang

… was one of Carax’s earliest films, the second one he made. It’s as complex as Pont Neuf is simple. This is about two young lovers, Lise and Alex (played by a teenaged Julie Delpy and Denis Lavant), happy and carefree in the fields of Paris. He is known as a trickster – he picks up extra income doing street scams like three card monte in dark allies. But Alex is pulled away from this life by a pair of aging gangsters.

They know him from working with his late father, and they need Alex – known for his nimble fingers – to help pull off a complicated theft. You see, they owe money to an older American woman, also a gangster; if they pull off the heist, she’ll will cancel their debt. If not… they’re dead meat.

What’s the heist? They have to break into a lab and steal a deadly sexually transmitted virus called STBO, that could kill millions, and whose vaccine would be worth a fortune. (This movie was made in 1986, during the height of the HIV plague).

Alex agrees. He leaves his motorcycle with Lise and flees the city – only to be smitten by the gorgeous Anna (Juliette Binoche) , the mistress of one of the white-haired gangsters. But she rejects him, saying she’s attracted to much older men, bigger men, not to him.

And Lise, meanwhile, won’t let Alex leave her.

Mauvais Sang is a highly-stylized film, filled with peeping toms, bizarre scenes of jumping out of airplanes, staring up at windows, and chase scenes down those long French roads lined with plane trees.

Sometimes it feels like he’s mocking the audience, that it’s all just a big parody; and then it’ll shift into an amazingly passionate and playful scene between Binoche and Lavant and you’re totally caught up in it.

The women in this movie are always smartly dressed and coiffed, while the men, even the older gangsters, seem to walk around semi-clothed, with shirtless chase scenes and shootouts.

In this film, Lavant is still a boy, given to extended shots of him racing down a street, shifting from modern dance to shadow boxing to spontaneous handsprings. Binoche is a pixie with a black, page-boy haircut with flawless, porcelain skin and red lips. The two of them setting up scenes of unrequited love you can follow in Les Amant du Pont- Neuf. Wow – what a movie.

Pola X

…was made in 1999, and it feels different from his other movies. It’s about Pierre (Guillaume Pola X (1999 France)  Directed by Leos Carax Shown: Guillaume DepardieuDepardieu), a young novelist from a very rich family. He wears only white linen and hops in and out of bed with his equally blonde fiancée. His publisher loves his innocence and immaturity. But Pierre  wants to experience reallife. Then his controlling mother (Catherine Deneuve) discovers a secret – some old papers that his late father (a French diplomat who served in Eastern Europe) left behind.

Meanwhile, Pierre discovers that a scruffy, dark-haired street woman is following him – who is she? Listen to her story: (clip)

When he discovers that she may be his blood sister, he throws away his best friend, his fiancé, his family and wealth and plunges into her life of danger and poverty… and possibly, love.

Were this by any other director, I’d say, wow, cool, passionate drama – but it feels like something’s missing. While it has a lot of Carax’s touches – it feels like his most main-stream or conventional film. What’s missing is Denis Lavant. Lavant is a very unusual-looking movie star – he has a compact muscular body, a flattened nose, gap-teeth, scarred skin. He can also do just about anything – magic, acrobatics, dance… anything. In comparison, the late Depardieu (he tragically died from an infection) while compelling, just doesn’t seem to match the greatness and strangeness of someone like Lavant.

Finally,

holymotors_wildbunch_02_mediumHoly Motors

…which just came out last year.

Oscar (Denis Lavant) gets picked up in the morning by a white stretch limo, driven by a handsome, older chauffeur named Cecile.

Maybe it’s just a day like any other for a rich businessman… or is it? You soon discover that inside the limo he has costumes, makeup, spirit gum, wigs and beards. He turns into the man or woman he plays in each act. So, over the course of a day, he becomes a middle-aged, ruthless businessman, a homeless Eastern-European woman, an assassin, a doting dad, a dying man, and Kylie Minogue’s lover. Occasionally, between acts, he’s just Oscar: the man in the car.

In one especially marvellous and shocking sequence he becomes an eccentric street maniac (“M. Merde”) who crawls out of a manhole, pushes his way through a crowd, and stumbles into a fashion shoot in a Parisian cemetery. He violently attacks the photographer’s assistant, biting off her fingers, and smearing the blood all over an unflappably blasé supermodel… before carrying her off to an underground hideaway for a bizarre sexual encounter and another shocking transformation. (No spoilers here — watch the movie to find out the rest of it.)

So what’s going on? Is Oscar (which is also the director’s middle name) like the guy in the Truman Show, unknowingly living an artificial life for the delight of viewers? Or is Oscar doing this for you and me (the moviegoers) playing his role in the cosmic scheme of things — the entire movie is his act. Life’s an illusion, but an enjoyable one, and Denis (with Edith Skob as the driver) have never been better.

Modern Love – The Films of Leos Carax, curated by James Quandt,  is being screened in Toronto beginning this weekend, with the director speaking at some of the shows. Go to tiff.net for details. And the funny road comedy I reviewed last week, We’re The Millers, opens today – check your local listings.

This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Friday morning on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website,culturalmining.com

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