Black Widow (1954)

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Writer/director/producer Nunnally Johnson had a great career as one of the finest screenwriters in Hollywood but he made some mis-steps when he moved to producing and directing and this is one of them. At a theatre world party, ambitious young writer Nancy Ordway (Peggy Ann Garner) weasels her way into the affections of married producer Peter Denver (Van Heflin) whose actress wife Iris (Gene Tierney) is away. She is then found dead in his apartment a presumed suicide but it swiftly becomes a murder investigation and Peter is the chief suspect. Neighbours Lottie Marin (Ginger Rogers) – another famous actress  – and her husband Brian Mullen (Reginald Gardiner) are concerned for their friend’s situation. Nancy was staying with a brother John (Skip Homeier) and sister Claire (Virginia Leith) from the Amberlys, a wealthy family, and it appears from Peter’s investigations that she had designs on the brother, as well as any man who could give her a leg up, as it were, but there’s a letter produced from Nancy that states she is pregnant by a man with a famous wife called Iris. George Raft is the detective on the case … Adapted by Hugh Wheeler from Patrick Quentin’s novel and with a screenplay by Johnson himself, this manages to fail on many fronts despite wonderful star wattage on display albeit some of the performances are poor. There is no attempt to conjure the attractions of Broadway despite the location shoot and the widescreen process doesn’t aid the suspense. The most arresting characterisation comes from Leith who had a very short career and her most infamous appearance was in a sci-fi called The Brain That Wouldn’t Die as a decapitated head. That’s showbiz.

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Easter Parade (1948)

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When Broadway star Fred Astaire’s dance partner Ann Miller leaves him for a solo act he wagers he can make a star of the next girl he sees – who happens to be Judy Garland. This sheerly delightful Irving Berlin musical comedy is a wonderful backstage romance and even the performance of Kennedy pimp Peter Lawford warbling A Fella with an Umbrella can’t ruin a gloriously atmospheric colourful romp in turn of the century New York. Highlights include the showstopper Steppin’ Out With My Baby and The Girl on the Magazine Cover, plus the final title number. From a story by husband and wife team Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, who co-wrote the screenplay with Sidney Sheldon. Two accidents caused casting changes – Gene Kelly broke his ankle playing volleyball and suggested Astaire replace him, while Cyd Charisse’s broken leg meant Miller got her big break at MGM (as it were!). Gorgeous stuff as you’d expect from director Charles Walters. Easter blessings and chag Chanukah sameach.

All About Eve (1950)

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Bette Davis is theatre great Margo Channing, whose home is invaded by the unexpectedly venal Eve (Anne Baxter), a scheming no-name tramp who wants to take her place, steal her man and take over Broadway. Writer/director Joe Mankiewicz’ portrait of womanhood, ageing, rivlary, marriage, theatre and performance was based on industry scuttlebutt about the legendary Tallulah Bankhead and Lizabeth Scott during the Broadway run of The Skin of Our Teeth – or Elisabeth Bergner’s trouble with her secretary, depending on who you believe. Davis was in fact accused of imitating Bankhead – whose hairstyle she sports. In fact she had a cold when the film started and her director asked her to keep her voice like that. She only got the role because Claudette Colbert endured a back injury prior to production, in a case of life imitating art. Margo needs a new hit, written by her great friend Hugh Marlowe, whose wife (Celeste Holm) is her best friend. He’s always writing young, Margo’s getting older. Her lover is her director, Gary Merrill, a younger man, who just might up and run to Hollywood. Her ex-vaudevillian dresser Birdie (Thelma Ritter) doesn’t trust Eve one little bit and once ingratiated into the group, Eve does her best to alienate everyone and isolate Margo. There are endlessly quotable lines, many from acerbic critic Addison De Witt (George Sanders) with a wonderful walk-on from Marilyn Monroe as his latest protegee from the Copacabana Academy of Dramatic Art. Mary Orr’s story The Wisdom of Eve was published in 1946 and then adapted for radio three years later. She sold it to Fox and it was then adapted by Mankiewicz but she never received screen credit. She did however get an award from the Screen Writers Guild for Best Original Story. This is usually referred to as a Camp Classic – which is odd in a way because it’s about a woman asserting traditional femininity against a queer attack in an anti-fairytale (as it were). Davis is simply brilliant, whatever, reconciling the two facets of Margo – grand gestural movement (learned from Martha Graham) and closeup emotionality. Just classic.

Birdman (2014)

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How rare is it that a Best Picture Academy Award winner can actually be watched more than once? I give you Crash, The King’s Speech and 12 Years a Slave, to name an intolerable few. Would you willingly sit through one of those again?!  This audacious, formal take on the unadulterated insecure narcissistic exhibitionistic actor (is there any other kind…) Riggan Thomson is an exception. His attempt to stage a Raymond Carver play on Broadway to try to recalibrate his career and be more than ‘one of those people awarding each other for cartoons and pornography’ (as hatchet woman theatre critic Lindsay Duncan snarls) is beset with difficulty. He tries to escape his populist reputation as the titular superhero but the grand irony is of course that cinema offers a far more fertile illusion than does the stage of realism trading as fantasy and to paraphrase R. Kelly, you will believe you can fly. Keaton is wonderful in a screenplay that trades on his definitive performance as Batman way back when, and it is a work that is replete with sharp references and allusions, written by director Alejandro G. Inarritu, Nicolas Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris and Armando Bo. This is a far greater film about heroism than those streamlined cookie cutter comic strip types Hollywood is now throwing up at us every time May rolls around:  this is a real flight of fancy, proceeding from earthbound and complex emotions and reality to actuated existence, expressed by a roving camera (that of Emmanuel Lubezki) that must have been a nightmare to act around by a game ensemble. Yes, this appealed to the Oscar voters’ vanity, but they got it right. And how fantastic was it to see Keaton mouth the words, ‘F’in A!’ at this years Oscars when his latest movie, Spotlight, also won the top award?! Hell yeah!