James Dean Is Not Dead

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Jimmy Jimmy

 

30 September 2013 is the 58th anniversary of James Dean’s death.  Elaine Lennon remembers.

 

“All of us were touched by Jimmy, and he was touched by greatness.”
    Natalie Wood, Dean’s co-star in REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE

 

“He was very afraid of being hurt. He was afraid of opening up in
case it was turned around and used against him.”
    Elizabeth Taylor

 

“[Dean’s] death caused a loss in the movie world that our industry could ill afford. Had he lived long enough, I feel he would have made some incredible films. He had sensitivity and a capacity to express emotion.”
   Gary Cooper

 

“I didn’t know what to do. How do you tell an eight-year-old boy his mother’s going to die? I tried. In my own stumbling way I tried to prepare Jim for it. Nowadays, he lives in a world we don’t understand too well, the actor’s world. We don’t see too much of him. But he’s a good boy, my Jim.
A good boy, and I”m very proud of him. Not easy to understand, no sir.
He’s not easy to understand. But he’s all man, and he’ll make his mark.

Mind you, my boy will make his mark.”
Winton Dean, James Dean’s father, in Modern Screen, August 1955

 

“He had the greatest power of concentration I have ever encountered.
He prepared himself so well in advance for any scene he was playing,
that the lines were not simply something he had memorized — they were actually a very real part of him.”

Jim Backus, who played Dean’s father in REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE

 

“He didn’t show you very much. He’d challenge you to find him.
Then when you’d found him, he’d still make you guess. It was an endless game with him. The thing people missed about Jimmy was his mischievousness.
He was the most constantly mischievous person I think I’ve ever met.
Full of tricks, full of magic, full of outrageousness.”
Stewart Stern, screenwriter of REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE

 

“Jimmy was not only an internal actor, but an expressionist, which came partly from his studying dance. He would physicalize actions, such as the way he lifted himself up on the windmill in Giant, or goose-stepped measuring off the land, or his sleight-of- hand gesture as Jett Rink. He had the amazing capacity to pick up and learn a new trick almost immediately, tossing a rope and making a knot, a card trick from a magician, coin tricks, racing a car…”

Dennis Hopper, Dean’s co-star in REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE and GIANT

 

“[James Dean] was spectacularly talented, handsome in a fragile sort of way and absolutely outrageous. He was an original. Impish, compelling, magnetic, utterly winning one moment, obnoxious the next.Definitely gifted.”
                                     Edna Ferber,author of “Giant”

 

“In front of the camera, he had an instinct that was nearly uncanny.I don’t recall ever working with anyone who had such a gift.I recall one scene, where he was in a shadow, and had to lift his head to the light. We explained how it should go and he played it exactly right, to the half inch, the first time. He just seemed to know how it should be, without rehearsal or anything.”

                            William C. Mellor, Cinematographer

 

“Jim had a year away from Warner Brothers. We had planned to use that time to get our company started. We would have done both feature pictures and a television series, which would have allowed Jim to break in as a director.I think he would have been a great director.”
                     Nicholas Ray, director of REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE

 

“What I remember most about him was the little boy quality shining forth at you from behind those thick glasses of his, tearing at your heart. He had that extreme and touching idealism of youth which made you wish that he would never have to be disillusioned. Now he won’t be.”
                        Louella Parsons, gossip columnist

 

“Jimmy Dean loved the feel of Indiana soil under his feet and I think that was the source of much of his strength.”
                   Adeline Nall, Dean’s high school drama coach

 

 

Sometimes you can live a whole life in one day.”

                  James Dean in REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE

Bela Lugosi Is Not Dead

Elaine Lennon examines ‘Dracula’ and the immortal Bela Lugosi

<I>I am Dracula.  I bid you welcome!<I>

If you’re a Bauhaus fan (the band, not the buildings) or a devotee of the oeuvre of that cinematic artiste manque forever known as Ed Wood, then doubtless you are acquainted with the name, if not the work, of Bela Lugosi – or Dracula, as we Children of the Night prefer to call him. 

Bram Stoker’s greatest creation may well have been inspired by childhood trips to Kinnity, a strange little village in the mountains of Laois where in later years Hollywood director Rex Ingram would grow up.  Kinnity Castle, now revitalised as a thriving hotel, is a perfect Gothic confection, with the gargoyle-encrusted lodge and leaded windows to prove it, in case you’re too nervous to approach it from the road on a darkening winter evening.  The surrounding landscape is nothing less than Hammeresque in scope and with a little agitation and subterfuge, voila! Transylvania.

When Universal acquired this most infamous literary property it had already been a long-running theatrical success, adapted for the stage by Hamilton Deane and John Balderston. An earlier unauthorised version had been filmed in Germany by F.W. Murnau with the unforgettable Max Schreck but the Stoker estate was not happy with it.

Though I would never trust Halliwell in any matter, filmic or otherwise, I do like his summation of the legendary plot:  ‘a Transylvanian vampire count gets his comeuppance in Yorkshire.’ Pithy, eh?

Universal Studios, run by Junior Laemmle (because Uncle Carl Laemmle liked to keep things in the family, as the Hollywood rhyme goes), was making a concerted attempt to create product on a shoestring and keep the overheads down in the wake of the Wall Street Crash.  Taking a leaf out of their sister studio’s book in Germany, he decided to make a series of low-budget, atmospheric films which would be shot in half-light and therefore  not require the usual jolts of expensive electricity.  The play was entrusted to scenarist Garret Fort for adaptation and to Tod Browning to direct. Browning’s preferred star was his friend Lon Chaney, but as Chaney was seriously ill the role went to Lugosi, who had played it successfully both on Broadway on a nationwide tour of the States.

Born in Transylvania in the Hungarian town of Lugos, as Bela Ferenc Dezso Blasko October 20, 1882, Lugosi’s father was vice president of the state bank of Lugos. Bela was the youngest of five children. He became a Shakespearean actor, although he never quite shook that accent.

<I>Dracula<I>’s reputation stems primarily from the fact that it was the first horror talkie;  everything about it was fresh, even the rubber bats that dangled uselessly from the ceilings. Slow, stagey, hilarious for so many wrong reasons, it is however the mother of horror cinema, inspiring legions of imitations and homages. Despite its creaky pace and technical shortcomings, it’s eerily compelling, especially in the opening sequences – helped along by Karl Freund’s wonderful cinematography and a commanding use of Tchaikovsky. Never mind that all the bites and stakings take place offscreen.

Lugosi comes into his own, smooth, sinuous and seductive as he slinks his way through the dialogue with an almost sincere knowing wink at the camera. No fangs for him; he’s just a big hunk of love. As Michael R. Pitts says in <I>Horror Film Stars<I>, “No one actor ever exuded a greater aura of mystery than Bela Lugosi. With his tall stature, dark handsome features, piercing eyes and well-modulated Hungarian accent, the actor was very able to project the image of suave evilness… There can be no doubt that Bela Lugosi possessed more personal charisma than did his other counterparts, both before and since, in the horror film field, and while most of his genre outings were low-quality efforts, the actor himself is perhaps the most readily identifiable performer ever to make horror pictures.”

With a similarly impressive supporting cast – has there ever been a better Van Helsing than Edward Van Sloan? While Dwight Frye is superb as Renfield – it doesn’t actually look as good as the word-for-word Spanish-language version that was shot on the same sets at night time.

Lugosi was already fifty years old when the film was made and he became inextricably linked with the genre.  He died 16 August 1956 (Elvis would die the same day 21 years later) after suffering a heart attack. He was buried in the cape that made him famous (so was Elvis.  Believe it – or not?). His later career had been aided by the aforementioned Mr Wood, his thick Hungarian accent limiting him to play the villain. Lon Chaney, Jr. reckoned that <I>Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein<I> sabotaged the careers of The Wolfman, Dracula, and the Frankenstein monster. “For the first time, these three were in supporting roles and made to look foolish. After Costello got through, there was no interest in them at all.”
There remains, however,<I>Dracula<I>: the film that launched Universal as the house of horror, and Lugosi as its master.

@Writer:  Elaine Lennon

A restored print of <I>Dracula<I> is being screened at the National Concert Hall from 01 October.

Originally published on http://www.oceanfree.net

You Don’t Know Jack

Elaine Lennon talks to writer/director Fintan Connolly about his forthcoming debut feature <I>Flick<I>, a dreamlike, impressionistic view of contemporary Dublin as seen through the eyes of middle class drug dealer, Jack Flinter, who gets into a spot of bother…

Fintan Connolly graduated from the Communications School at the College of Commerce, Rathmines (now at DIT Aungier Street) in the mid-Eighties.  He proceeded to form a company with Hilary Dully and they made a series of hard hitting documentaries for RTE, Channel 4 and TG 4. <I>Flick<I> marks his feature filmmaking debut.

Was documentary something to which he naturally gravitated?

“If you look back to the mid-Eighties, after the first Film Board was closed down,it was a pretty bleak period all round.

There wasn’t really anywhere to go with features. We just felt that if we made documentaries about our peer group and so on, we could get some employment.”

How would he describe those programmes?

“We were trying to get away from punditry, we were getting people to talk their stories through without experts coming in. We did a series [‘No Comment’] on issues like homelessness, heroin and prisoners and so on, and another on relationships. Then we did a couple of one-offs, one on old people and eviction and another on abortion.”

Indeed, the latter, <I>Secret Journeys<I>(1994) proved so controversial as to be unbroadcastable on initial consideration by RTE.

“It left me thinking about where we were going. There was a confluence of events and we felt we had gone as far as we could go with that kind of programming.”

He turned to producing fiction shorts, including <I>Horse<I>, by fellow Rathmines alumnus, Kevin Liddy.

“It was a time to think about what’s next and there was a new Film Board so the climate was a little more convivial in terms of feature filmmaking.”

And how has his background in documentary informed his approach to film?

“It’s like osmosis.  You soak in a lot – timeframe, people, locations.  You’re looking for a story in documentary as well as in drama. You shoot, you edit but in hindsight I think you’ve got more latitude with drama. With documentary you’re trying to keep it authentic to people’s experiences, with drama you can make it up.

“My sense of location, my sense of framing came from documentary, characters may be true to the people you meet. Any experience behind the camera is useful.”

Why make yet another film with a drugs theme?

“I had seen a lot of trouble with heroin and thought it would a very interesting documentary and I made one called <I>Smack<I>. With <I>Flick<I>, when I first started thinking about it, drugs weren’t really the first thing I thought about. It was more about the city and about this character, Jack, this guy who’s in a rut.  I think the drug scene and the city baddie aspect of it came as a secondary thing. I thought that that milieu would compel a longer narrative.  That was in 1996 and there have been a lot of films with that theme since then.”

After initial interest at the development stage, the low budget meant the film took a long time to make.

“I was a first time director and after a while I realised, this is what they call development hell. You’re up against established arthouse directors.  Fiona (Bergin, the producer) had done enough line producing to know that we could make the film cheaply if we could find the right people. She essentially went to a number of individuals and raised tranches of money from them.  We had to shoot the whole film and then look for completion money from the Film Board.”

(<I>Flick<I> contains probably the most explicit sex scene of any film the Board has ever supported.  Chief Executive Rod Stoneman laughed it off at the packed Galway Film Fleadh screening.)

“The budget was under £20,000 for eighteen days’ shoot. We had to make the script fit the budget.  I didn’t have anything to compare it to.  All I knew from shorts was a lot of effort and time went into it and if you just had an extra week you could make a feature!”

The script’s balance is undone at times with a lack of plot clarity but it’s held together with Jack’s voice, a sinuous score by Niall Byrne and some beautiful washed-out cinematography by Owen McPolin.

“I think that the script in itself is only a blueprint. It’s the process of making the film.  I got an inkling of that when I did my first reading. The next film I do, I’d bring in the actors much earlier.”

And do a Mike Leigh?

“Not necessarily, I think you have to follow a structure.  I haven’t got the experience to do that, but certainly they contribute a lot.”

And how would he characterise his hero?

“He’s essentially a guy who’s unable to make a decision and a decision is forced on him.  He’s not straightforward, not even anti-heroic, but I realised afterwards it was more like observing him.  I think the music kind of made up for that.”

Indeed the problematic hero of <I>Flick<I>, Jack Flinter (played by newcomer David Murray) has proved particularly difficult for men to accept.

“Young male filmmakers especially dislike him.  They seem to see something of themselves onscreen and are uncomfortable.”

Can he mean that ageing, talentless band, ranging from the psychopathic red-haired wannabe  who spends more time whoring than directing, to the unwashed coke-dealing dwarf who calls himself a documentary maker when he’s not pimping some University’s telephone operators?  An appalling vista, indeed, as Lord Denning might say.

“Women just seem to like him a lot more than men do. He’s the kind of guy that women would be drawn to, I felt.”

<I>Flick<I> is replete with many excellent performances in supporting roles, including David Wilmot as Jack’s smackhead accomplice; Alan Devlin as Pop, the big dealer that they’re trying to do business with; Mannix Flynn as a rough cop;  and especially, Maria Lennon (as Jack’s ex-girlfriend, Kay), whose appearance at a party he’s attending with new love Isabelle (Isabelle Menke) gives his ecstasy buzz an unpleasantly realistic edge.  Their encounter is probably the best scene in the film.

“I just wanted her to come in and for him to have his little wobbly then. I’m trying to fill in a little more about where he’s coming from and also,  Isabelle, she’s not really listening to him.  But Isabelle saves him as well.”

One might ask why she bothers, however Murray’s performance is hypnotic and it anchors the film’s delicate narrative. Murray is currently ‘taking meetings in L.A.’ following a successful stage run in New York with <I>The Ginger Man<I>.

“He’s into performing in other ways, in bands, performance art. Once I met him I knew he was as good as I could get.”

And how would Connolly describe his own strengths as a director?

“I put a brave face on things and look like I know what I’m doing!”

And his next project?

“<I>Big Chill<I>, <I>Festen<I>, that kind of thing. Maybe a bit of <I>Straw Dogs<I> in the country.”  Can’t wait!

@Writer:  Elaine Lennon

<I>Flick<I> is released at selected cinemas from 08 September 2000.

 

 

Elaine Lennon talks to writer/director Fintan Connolly about his forthcoming debut feature <I>Flick<I>, a dreamlike, impressionistic view of contemporary Dublin as seen through the eyes of middle class drug dealer, Jack Flinter, who gets into a spot of bother…

@Normal: Fintan Connolly graduated from the Communications School at the College of Commerce, Rathmines (now at DIT Aungier Street) in the mid-Eighties.  He proceeded to form a company with Hilary Dully and they made a series of hard hitting documentaries for RTE, Channel 4 and TG 4. <I>Flick<I> marks his feature filmmaking debut.

Was documentary something to which he naturally gravitated?

“If you look back to the mid-Eighties, after the first Film Board was closed down,it was a pretty bleak period all round.

There wasn’t really anywhere to go with features. We just felt that if we made documentaries about our peer group and so on, we could get some employment.”

How would he describe those programmes?

“We were trying to get away from punditry, we were getting people to talk their stories through without experts coming in. We did a series [‘No Comment’] on issues like homelessness, heroin and prisoners and so on, and another on relationships. Then we did a couple of one-offs, one on old people and eviction and another on abortion.”

Indeed, the latter, <I>Secret Journeys<I>(1994) proved so controversial as to be unbroadcastable on initial consideration by RTE.

“It left me thinking about where we were going. There was a confluence of events and we felt we had gone as far as we could go with that kind of programming.”

He turned to producing fiction shorts, including <I>Horse<I>, by fellow Rathmines alumnus, Kevin Liddy.

“It was a time to think about what’s next and there was a new Film Board so the climate was a little more convivial in terms of feature filmmaking.”

And how has his background in documentary informed his approach to film?

“It’s like osmosis.  You soak in a lot – timeframe, people, locations.  You’re looking for a story in documentary as well as in drama. You shoot, you edit but in hindsight I think you’ve got more latitude with drama. With documentary you’re trying to keep it authentic to people’s experiences, with drama you can make it up.

“My sense of location, my sense of framing came from documentary, characters may be true to the people you meet. Any experience behind the camera is useful.”

Why make yet another film with a drugs theme?

“I had seen a lot of trouble with heroin and thought it would a very interesting documentary and I made one called <I>Smack<I>. With <I>Flick<I>, when I first started thinking about it, drugs weren’t really the first thing I thought about. It was more about the city and about this character, Jack, this guy who’s in a rut.  I think the drug scene and the city baddie aspect of it came as a secondary thing. I thought that that milieu would compel a longer narrative.  That was in 1996 and there have been a lot of films with that theme since then.”

After initial interest at the development stage, the low budget meant the film took a long time to make.

“I was a first time director and after a while I realised, this is what they call development hell. You’re up against established arthouse directors.  Fiona (Bergin, the producer) had done enough line producing to know that we could make the film cheaply if we could find the right people. She essentially went to a number of individuals and raised tranches of money from them.  We had to shoot the whole film and then look for completion money from the Film Board.”

(<I>Flick<I> contains probably the most explicit sex scene of any film the Board has ever supported.  Chief Executive Rod Stoneman laughed it off at the packed Galway Film Fleadh screening.)

“The budget was under £20,000 for eighteen days’ shoot. We had to make the script fit the budget.  I didn’t have anything to compare it to.  All I knew from shorts was a lot of effort and time went into it and if you just had an extra week you could make a feature!”

The script’s balance is undone at times with a lack of plot clarity but it’s held together with Jack’s voice, a sinuous score by Niall Byrne and some beautiful washed-out cinematography by Owen McPolin.

“I think that the script in itself is only a blueprint. It’s the process of making the film.  I got an inkling of that when I did my first reading. The next film I do, I’d bring in the actors much earlier.”

And do a Mike Leigh?

“Not necessarily, I think you have to follow a structure.  I haven’t got the experience to do that, but certainly they contribute a lot.”

And how would he characterise his hero?

“He’s essentially a guy who’s unable to make a decision and a decision is forced on him.  He’s not straightforward, not even anti-heroic, but I realised afterwards it was more like observing him.  I think the music kind of made up for that.”

Indeed the problematic hero of <I>Flick<I>, Jack Flinter (played by newcomer David Murray) has proved particularly difficult for men to accept.

“Young male filmmakers especially dislike him.  They seem to see something of themselves onscreen and are uncomfortable.”

Can he mean that ageing, talentless band, ranging from the psychopathic red-haired wannabe  who spends more time whoring than directing, to the unwashed coke-dealing dwarf who calls himself a documentary maker when he’s not pimping some University’s telephone operators?  An appalling vista, indeed, as Lord Denning might say.

“Women just seem to like him a lot more than men do. He’s the kind of guy that women would be drawn to, I felt.”

<I>Flick<I> is replete with many excellent performances in supporting roles, including David Wilmot as Jack’s smackhead accomplice; Alan Devlin as Pop, the big dealer that they’re trying to do business with; Mannix Flynn as a rough cop;  and especially, Maria Lennon (as Jack’s ex-girlfriend, Kay), whose appearance at a party he’s attending with new love Isabelle (Isabelle Menke) gives his ecstasy buzz an unpleasantly realistic edge.  Their encounter is probably the best scene in the film.

“I just wanted her to come in and for him to have his little wobbly then. I’m trying to fill in a little more about where he’s coming from and also,  Isabelle, she’s not really listening to him.  But Isabelle saves him as well.”

One might ask why she bothers, however Murray’s performance is hypnotic and it anchors the film’s delicate narrative. Murray is currently ‘taking meetings in L.A.’ following a successful stage run in New York with <I>The Ginger Man<I>.

“He’s into performing in other ways, in bands, performance art. Once I met him I knew he was as good as I could get.”

And how would Connolly describe his own strengths as a director?

“I put a brave face on things and look like I know what I’m doing!”

And his next project?

“<I>Big Chill<I>, <I>Festen<I>, that kind of thing. Maybe a bit of <I>Straw Dogs<I> in the country.”  Can’t wait!

@Writer:  Elaine Lennon

<I>Flick<I> is released at selected cinemas from 08 September 2000.

Originally published on http://www.oceanfree.net

 

 

Two-Faced Woman

Elaine Lennon muses on schizophrenia, soap opera and Renee Zellweger, the star of<I>Nurse Betty<I> and <I>Me, Myself & Irene<I>.

On paper, <I>Nurse Betty<I> must have looked extremely fun for its creators, John C. Richards and James Flamberg:  a writerly intervention into the creation of meaning, via the dissociative breakdown of a Kansas waitress and her consequent identification with the goings-on in a gruesome daytime soap.  Indeed, as an intellectual exercise it has some good points, but it’s sadly lacking in audience gratification and continues its mealy-mouthed Mormon director Neil LaBute’s fascination for off-off-Broadway theatrical-styled misogyny.

The intimacy of television as a medium is such that it will always have a far more subversive effect on our lives as a purgative and source of one-way empathy than cinema ever could – it’s not just in your livingroom, it’s in your face and in your head. Media Studies 101 states that as a viewer you participate in the construction of televisual meaning and pleasure:  it’s the whole crux of sociocultural praxis. Thus it was that I spent much of the Seventies wishing I were Marcia in <I>The Brady Bunch<I>,Jim Rockford in <I>The Rockford Files<I>,Samantha in <I>Bewitched<I>, either <I>Mary Tyler Moore<I> or <I>Rhoda<I>, depending on what day of the week it happened to be, <I>Starsky<I>, rather more than <I>Hutch<I>, and, when it came to <I>Charlie’s Angels<I>, I simply had to be Farrah Fawcett-Majors (as she then was). In other words I was shifting my identification in a slippery sort of fashion because I wasn’t a total spazz and realised that I did not in reality live in a mobile home on a beach in Malibu. The reasons for sitting glued to Eighties high-camp soaps like <I>Dallas<I>, <I>Knots Landing<I> and <I>Dynasty<I> were simpler:  they were great fun and the lifestyles were terrific sources of aspiration.

Who are soap viewers anyhow?  According to <I>Nurse Betty<I>, it’s ‘people with no lives watching other people’s fake lives.’ Politically speaking, it’s mainly women because of their disproportionately weak role in the family power structure in which their flexible identity constantly alters to cope with husband/children/mother in law:  soap provides an outlet for exhibiting control and association that is otherwise foreign to their decentred existence. Betty (Renee Zellweger) possesses none of the competencies usually ascribed to soap fans by sworn academics, principally the decoding strategies that make sense of characters, actions, camera movements and narrative loops.  Yet Betty has all of the gullibilities that are forever symbolised by those poor souls who in decades past sent their last thruppences to the poverty-stricken inhabitants of <I>Coronation Street<I>. In other words, Betty is so dumb she can’t spot the difference between TV and real life. Her soap obsession is central to her fugue (literally, an amnaesiac’s flight from reality) which takes the form of a roadtrip to L.A. (la-la land) – where she thinks she will marry her supposed fiance, Dr David Ravell, the slimy heroic medic from <I>A Reason to Love<I>. She’s chased by the father and son drug dealers (Morgan Freeman and Chris Rock) who murdered her no-good hubby (Aaron Eckhart) – an event to which she is mute witness and which precipitates her dissociation in the first place.

As the mulish foil to Jim Carrey’s narcissistic schizoid Charlie/Hank in <I>Me,Myself & Irene<I>, Zellweger seems uncannily real:  her squinty deep-set eyes threaten to sink into the back of her high-coloured head at any minute.  But she’s given a wider range of characteristics than LaBute could find, funny dialogue, better camera angles and a mean high kick to boot.

Just as only the most deluded fool could take merry prankster Lars Von Trier’s <I>The Idiots<I> to be anything other than a direct reflection of his middle class, po-faced audience, only the most deranged ostrich could be daft enough to think that this latest outing from those Rhode Island taste-arbiters, the Farrelly Brothers, is an insult to the mentally ill.   In fact, it’s a good-natured kick to the groin of tastemongers everywhere, undercut by the swoony, <I>Good Will Hunting<I>-style soundtrack of Steely Dan covers, an undertow to the pastoral Ocean State setting.  It even quotes Woody Allen’s self-justifying paedo-line, ‘The heart just wants what the heart wants.’ Sick?  You better believe it. This isn’t the Farrellys’ best work by a long way, but with any luck it will offend everyone who’s dead from the neck up and please fans of Jerry Lewis’ classic <I>The Nutty Professor<I> no end.

The logical conclusion of making textual meaning is a productive moment of interaction, as they say.  In <I>Nurse Betty<I> this occurs when Betty lands a role in the soap because George/Dr David(Greg Kinnear) takes her role-playing to be Method Acting.  ‘I don’t think I’ve felt like this since I was with Stella Adler in New York.  You’re so <I>real<I>!’ he joyously exclaims at her relentless corn-fed charm.  ‘Who’s Stella?’ is Betty’s jealous idiot soaphound response. On the artificial hospital set at the TV studio his New Directorly bullying quickly forces Betty to re-connect with her former reality – and her dissociative phase lapses in a scene that is so intellectually sullied as to be verging on the truly distasteful. Betty’s inferior brain could never re-cast the text in which she finds herself implicated:  she’s the original empty human subject waiting to happen. The whole point of the film turns on the difference between the words ‘association’ and ‘dissociation’.  Laugh?  I nearly died.

However, she is recognised by the writer (who else could drive the film’s Big Idea?) as the very centre of the cultural process known as the Production of Meaning.  If nothing else, Lyla (the drily impressive Allison Janney doing a Good Witch impersonation) sees in Betty the whole purpose of soap opera  – a never-ending drama – in the first place. ‘The story is beyond belief – which is perfect for us’, she barks, following the preposterous newsworthy shoot-out which concludes the main drama in true soap-opera style (remember <I>Dynasty’s<I> Moldavian massacre?).  Not for these writers the pleasing conflation of reel and real life which made <I>Tootsie<I> a work of true catharsis and hilarity – just a paper-thin, generic, join-the-dots scene where each character in the film can meet every other character, despite the fact that they don’t have enough narrative linkage to bring them together in the first place.  Not once is Morgan Freeman’s inexplicable obsession with Betty properly interrogated. This truly is a film of multiple independent identities.

Everything about Betty is second-hand – from her used-car salesman husband, to her life, to her dreams:  the film’s concluding moments, which see her drinking coffee outside the Cafe Sistina, are in fact the re-enactment of a once-in-a-lifetime trip as recounted to Betty by an Arizona bartender she meets on her travels. LaBute’s theoretical inroad into mainstream catholic acceptability has come full circle.  For this Dorothy, it would seem, there’s no place like Rome.

@Writer:  Elaine Lennon

 

<I>Nurse Betty<I> opens 15 September.

<I>Me,Myself & Irene<I> opens 22 September.

 

 

www.oceanfree.net/film   2000

The Subject Was Rose

Art and life can sometimes conjoin to create a  genuinely powerful legacy.  Elaine Lennon assesses the unusual backstory to the recent death of forgotten Hollywood actress, Rose Hobart.

Even the most fervent of film buffs will scarcely have been exercised by the death of Rose Hobart. But like most denizens of Hollywood, aspects of her life offer us yet another means by which to examine the disparate elements that make up the phenomenon of American cinema in all its strange variety.

Born on May Day, 1906 in New York City, Rose Kefer took to the stage at age 15.  Later she would perform in Noel Coward’s <I>The Vortex<I> and even venture as far as London in <I>The Comic Artist<I> in 1926.  Probably her finest stage moment came courtesy of Katharine Hepburn when she replaced her in <I>Death Takes a Holiday<I> on Broadway. The vengeful Hepburn played music from a stage box as Hobart attempted to get to grips with the role – she managed so successfully that Hollywood soon came calling. By 1930 she was making her Hollywood debut in an adaptation of Molnar’s <I>Liliom<I> (the basis for the musical <I>Carousel<I>).

Her best known early role however was in <I>Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde<I>(1932) for which Universal loaned her out to Paramount.  It’s  a film whose sexuality seems frank for those pre-Production Code days and it remains endlessly entertaining.  Hobart played Frederic March’s fiancee but would much rather have been the prostitute frequented by Mr Hyde:

            ‘I would have given anything to play the Miriam Hopkins

            part in <I>Dr Jekyll<I>.  That’s why Ingrid Bergman chose

            it in the remake and why Lana Turner loused up my part.’

She returned to the theatre for a spell but when she came back to Hollywood she was rewarded principally with the role of The Other Woman – impeccably dressed and coiffed, inhaling cigarette smoke and breathing out pure lust.   A lifelong liberal, her activities in the Screen Actors Guild and the Actors Lab made her a target for blacklisting.  She had been appalled with the working conditions in Hollywood since her arrival on the coast:

            ‘On my first three pictures, they worked me 18 hours

            a day and then complained because I was losing so much

            weight that they had to put gauze in my evening dress

            so my bones wouldn’t stick out!…. We were militant

            about working conditions.  We wanted an eight-hour day

            like everyone else.’

The heady days of Senator Joseph McCarthy spelled a period of inactivity for Hobart:  she refused to name names at the HUAC hearings and despite the fact that she was not a member of the Communist party she didn’t work again until the late 1950s on some television shows. Then she played a maid in a recurring role on that seminal soap, <I>Peyton Place<I>.

While she may have eventually been eclipsed by the startling Ms Katharine Hepburn, Hobart’s is not a name unknown to fan of alternative cinema – that twilight zone where cinema becomes art becomes installation – or more precisely, to fans of Joseph Cornell.  Andre Bazin in his writings spoke of the technical discoveries essential to the invention of cinema but more than that, he stressed, cinema needs visionaries:  nothing, he said was more important.

Cornell was, by all accounts, a bit of a Surrealist oddball. He liked to make memory boxes, glass-fronted arrangements of juxtaposed bric-a-brac  – they were doorways to vast poetic worlds of nostalgia.  His fondness for pigeons  would be invoked in  short films like <I>A Legend for Fountains<I> and <I>What Mozart Saw on Mulberry Street<I> – meditative works of beautiful simplicity and lyricism. 

Cornell could neither paint nor draw.  Nor could he operate a movie camera. He employed Stan Brakhage as cameraman on his short <I>Gnir Rednow<I> (read it backwards) – he would eventually screen it backwards and upside down. The film was about the closure of the Third Avenue El but Brakhage admitted to him that he’d never even travelled on it. Cornell sent him two tokens the following day. Cornell would prove a lasting influence on the future revolutionary lyric poet of underground cinema. The film consists of repeated cuts, collision montage and rocking, rippling reflections echoing the movement of the train. Cornell was desperate to capture the full scope of life onscreen yet his own was peculiarly narrow, at least to the outsider.   When he wasn’t doting on his mother or caring for his handicapped brother, Cornell spent his time musing on his collectibles and was especially concerned with records: as Deborah Solomon points out in her biography of the artist, “Cornell’s records meant so much to him that sometimes he couldn’t bring himself to open them… Like many of Cornell’s other collectibles, his records apparently brought him pleasure only in the moments when he first discovered them.” He preferred to dream about his favourite performers from home rather than actually attend a performance. A diary entry reads, “No matter how much might be taken on film… there is always something the camera cannot catch.” 

Stan Brakhage has been moved to say of the artist’s slender cinematic output, “I know this will sound preposterous, but I think Cornell’s contribution to the art of film far exceeds anything he did in any of his boxes or his collages.” Cornell’s first collage film was a tribute to a lady he loved from a distance – Rose Hobart.   Hobart’s 1932 film, <I>East of Borneo<I>  saw her playing a woman searching for her ungrateful physician husband (Charles Bickford) in the jungle.  He thinks she’s been cheating on him and has become an alcoholic. It did not set the screen alight but Cornell saw something in it – he cut it to fifteen minutes and replaced the soundtrack with music.  The only scenes that remained were those featuring Hobart, almost entirely removed from any sense of narrative causality, her actions and reactions rendered in limbo, with only the occasional fleeting appearance of two men and two women, who might be anyone, as it were. 

There is the occasional erupting volcano or natives driving crocodiles downriver. Time is ruptured, shots are fragmented, the act of reminiscence is implied and, as P.Adams Sitney says, ‘Cornell describes the marginal area where the conscious and the unconscious meet.’ The effect is hypnotic and maddening by turns. As Quentin Turnour suggests, ‘<I>Rose Hobart<I> demonstrates that the single image itself can have ‘music’, in its mutation and evolution, in the complexity of revelation available when it is closely studied.’ 

<I>Rose Hobart<I> perfectly meets the criteria for cinema as set out by Situationists Guy Debord and Gil Wolman:  they wrote in 1956 that ‘most films only merit being cut up to compose other works’ – cinema being the only realm where detournment (or media critique) could happen.  Cornell so liberates the notion of Hollywood narrative that its Surreal essence is released. <I>Rose Hobart<I> is, if you will, a form of plagiarism – something that the Comte de Lautreamont deemed absolutely necessary:  ‘progress implies it.’ Cornell’s  recontextualisation of the fragmented image did, in the manner of plagiarism, radically alter its intended meaning.   It so infuriated arch Surrealist Salvador Dali that he walked out of its premiere at Julien Levy’s art gallery in New York: he said that it was the film he had always wanted to make.

Rose Hobart never met Joseph Cornell.  If she had, she might possibly have reacted in the same way that Audrey Hepburn did when they had a brief encounter:  moved to present the actress with one of his magical boxes, Hepburn was confused and rebuffed him.  Cornell retreated to his singular universe where he fell in love from a distance with women long since dead. He worshipped them from afar, happiest with the nineteenth century ballerina, Fanny Cerrito.  He himself died in 1972.

Hobart finally took time out to write her own reminiscences in 1994, entitled <I>A Steady Digression to a Fixed Point<I>.  Her autobiography is not, as you might guess, a typical Hollywood kiss ‘n’ tell. She spent the last years of her life at the Motion Picture and Television Country Home, editing the magazine and signing autographs for any fans who asked.

Originally published by  

www.oceanfree.net/film  2000