That wonderful, singular actress Shelley Duvall celebrates her 70th year today. Some performers remain in our consciousness for the overwhelming character they project, others inhabit their roles with such power they are just legends for a kind of inimitable genius. While Duvall belongs to the latter category she possesses a kind of eccentric consistency that means she is out on her own, beyond conventional representation. She was not only the muse of Robert Altman so for me she is always the mysterious Millie of 3 Women; she also became the most important actress in the world of Stanley Kubrick when he terrorised her on our behalf in The Shining. I will always love her in Joan Micklin Silver’s F. Scott Fitzgerald adaptation, Bernice Bobs Her Hair. More than an actress, singer and even set decorator, she became a highly successful TV producer with Faerie Tale Theater. We are not worthy. Many happy returns.
He was a successful child actor on radio and made the transition to juvenile roles on the silver screen. When that ran out of road he sold ladies’ slacks with his brother, making a million in women’s pants, as he liked to put it. Then he became the head of production at Paramount and was behind some of the best films in the last era that we can truly call a golden age of cinema, the New Hollywood. He prioritised story above all so it’s apt that he wrote one of the best memoirs ever about the movie business The Kid Stays in the Picture which became a documentary (and an ace radio book). He’s hilarious and now he’s eighty-nine. Happy birthday Robert Evans!
He treated me like a queen and I loved his voice. God how I loved his voice. Anyone who knows anything about Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton knows one thing above all else – they were never called Liz and Dick. Nobody would have dared. That aside, this is a gloriously kitschy exercise in flashback framed by an interview with them (that never happened in reality and culled from the many letters and notes Burton wrote to Taylor) in which they discuss their fatal attraction on the set of Cleopatra in 1962 , their subsequent adulterous relationship despite having children in their respective marriages, living together and making The VIPs and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (Taylor insisted), tricky divorces, their wedding, their peripatetic lifestyle and decision to live on a boat because of the living expenses of two families travelling from set to set and regular house moves in the middle of a never-ending international paparazzi hunt. It’s all here, with the immensely welcome if odd presence of the great Theresa Russell as Taylor’s mother Sara. Surely some mistake. Punctuated by fabulous jewellery, newspaper headlines, make-ups and bust-ups, heavy drinking, Taylor’s weight gain, Burton’s jealousy of her Academy Awards, the need to make films to solve financial problems and finally Burton’s alleged affair with Nathalie Delon which drove Taylor to a supposed assignation with Aristotle Onassis – at the centre of the chaos and tantrums is a couple whose sexual attraction to one another is overwhelming and quite incomprehensible to other people (a truism for most couples – the only thing these icons ever shared with mere mortals). What we have outside of the relationship is the nature of celebrity as it simply didn’t exist prior to this scandalous duo whose newsworthy antics even attracted the ire of the Vatican (‘erotic vagrancy’). Hello Lumpy! Lohan was roundly criticised for her portrayal and it’s true she doesn’t actually sound, look or move like Taylor but boy does she revel in the lines, like, Elizabeth wants to play. Strangely, she convinces more as the older Taylor with the frightwig and makeup. Bowler is adequate as Burton (even without the disproportionately large head) and underplays him quite well, but what is essential is what surrounds them – glamour, beauty, incredible locations. They literally had a dream of a life. What is clear in this evocation of the Battling Burtons is their need for constant reassurance and the one-upmanship resulting from their shared drive to always do better to keep on an even keel. I will love you even if you get as fat as a hippo. Burton’s descent into full-blown alcoholism upon the death of his brother Ifor (David Hunt) following a desperate fall in their home in Switzerland is the pivot to the real conclusion of the famous relationship, a second short-lived marriage following one of Taylor’s serious illnesses notwithstanding. There are a lot of books about them but if you want to see something as crazy, turbulent and tragic as they seem to have been, watch this. It’s wonderfully made, completely daft and utterly compelling. Written by Christopher Monger and directed by Lloyd Kramer. I want more
The great Italian – or should I say Florentine – director Franco Zeffirelli has died at the grand age of 96. He was a remarkable man, whose authorial stamp was distinguished by two particulars – his sympathy for young people and his flair for dramatising opera and theatre. Endless Love was for some of us kids the first time we saw real teen romance up there on the big screen. Whole new generations were in floods of tears at the remake of The Champ. And there can be few students of Shakespeare who cannot recall whooping with delight at their viewing experiences of The Taming of the Shrew, Romeo and Juliet or Hamlet, which even got a shout-out by Cher in Clueless. That’s how good the man was at making seemingly incomprehensible lines and complex plotting accessible. He made Shakespeare relevant and fun. He did the same with several operas – he took La Traviata and made it a great night out at the movies. And he had vision of a very particular kind: who else would have chosen Tommy Howell to play Young Toscanini? Or Robert Powell to play Jesus of Nazareth, the goodest good guy of them all? He was a devoted son of Florence, making several movies and shorts there, recalling his own complicated upbringing in Tea With Mussolini, a tribute to the marvellous women of the ex-pat community who reared him following the death of his mother when he was 6. He was the result of an extra-marital liaison and named for the ‘little breezes’ in Mozart’s Idomeneo which set him on a path in that very idiom – starting as an assistant to Luchino Visconti in the theatre where he became an outstanding production designer (perhaps partly thanks to his da Vinci lineage) and director. He was one of eight Italians to be nominated as Best Director at the Academy Awards but his outstanding gift to us was his talent for seeing into the heart of things. Grazie e addio, Franco.
The guy in the lab. Rowdy Yates. The Man With No Name. Dirty Harry Callahan. Clyde’s friend. The musician, composer, actor, producer and director and Hollywood superstar Clint Eastwood turns 89 today. Entering his eighth decade in the industry where he paid his dues in uncredited roles in movies and bit parts before regular work on TV and the spaghetti genre made him a worldwide figure, this year’s The Mule (practically a musical!) proves he’s still got the chops and the pull to make box office gold with something to say about the way we live now. Widely recognised as an icon of American masculinity, he found his particular space with the assistance of Don Siegel but exploited his personal brand in cycles of police procedurals, comedic takes on folklore and the country and western sub-genre as well as tough westerns. Unforgiven marked his coming of age as a great director, an instant classic and a tour de force of filmmaking. While some might think he has feminist sympathies he has rarely risked acting opposite a true female acting equal – a quarter of a century separated him from Shirley MacLaine in Two Mules for Sister Sara and Meryl Streep in The Bridges of Madison County. It took another decade for him to make the stunningly emotive Million Dollar Baby with Hilary Swank, which marked a different kind of turning point: he has transformed his cinematic affect from what David Thomson calls his brutalised loner to bruised neurotic nonagenarian in one of the most spectacular careers in cinema. Many happy returns, Clint!
I want to be loved. 1940s New York City: Jacqueline Susann (Michele Lee) is a second-string theatre actress and well-known party girl who turns to journalism following her marriage to press agent turned producer Irving Mansfield (Peter Riegert). Though constantly surrounded by the glitterati of the theatre and social scene she doesn’t achieve celebrity status herself and has to endure the tragedy of a brain-damaged son who has to be institutionalised. Then when she’s 47, she publishes the raunchy bestselling novel Valley of the Dolls. Outwardly committed to publicising her work and involved in regular cross-country media campaigns, she privately battles cancer and constantly questions her troubled relationship with her society portraitist father Robert (Kenneth Welsh) who never got around to finishing her picture … Everything I do is for you. Everything I make is for you. Treading much straighter territory than Isn’t She Great (the Bette Midler version) this adaptation by Michele Gallery of Barbara Seaman’s biography Lovely Me ironically strays indirectly and presumably unintentionally into camp now and then, and it doesn’t really do justice to the genius of its subject but Lee is excellent as this spiky confrontational woman who did things her own way. For anyone interested in the backstage antics of NYC’s post-war theatre scene with big personalities like Ethel Merman (Gloria Slade), the evolution of publishing and the making of the notorious film of Susann’s most famous novel with Barbara Parkins (Annie Laurie Williams), Patty Duke (Melanie Peterson) and the lovely Sharon Tate (Leila Johnson), there are residual attractions, but the drivers of this biopic are the private tragedies of the woman who revolutionised modern publishing by establishing her own critic-proof brand of sex and sass. Directed by Bruce McDonald. You don’t cook, you don’t clean, you never stay in. My life is never going to be dull
That radical filmmaker, director, screenwriter, producer and actor Orson Welles, would have celebrated his 104th birthday today. Still making news 34 years after he left our orbit with last year’s The Other Side of the Wind, we are still awed by his achievements in radio, theatre and cinema. Happy birthday Mr Welles.
The extravagantly gifted, wayward and brilliant auteur director Francis Coppola celebrates his eightieth year on the planet. And aren’t we lucky to have him! The first of the great American filmmakers to get an MFA in Film, he earned his stripes first with Roger Corman and then by writing wonderful screenplays. He won five Oscars in four years and directed both Marlon Brando and Robert De Niro to Academy Awards in the role of Vito Corleone in The Godfather films. Some of his films are among my personal favourites alongside that Mafia saga – Rumble Fish, Apocalypse Now, Tucker: The Man and His Dream. Sometimes his works are flawed and more miss than hit but are still wonderfully full of life – One From the Heart, The Cotton Club, Peggy Sue Got Married. And then there’s a genre workout like The Rainmaker which is perfectly formed. In recent years his output has been sporadic and unsatisfying but it seems that Megalopolis, only 50 years in the writing, might yet see the light of day. Happy birthday Mr Coppola. We are not worthy. I wanted to be like those great European filmmakers of the ’50s and ’60s, and if I was hit by lightning it was The Godfather; that changed my whole life. So I just want to get back to what I was doing when I was first falling in love with films.
The heroine of the Nouvelle Vague has died. Agnès Varda wasn’t just a director, she was a master of a medium she knew little about when she made her brilliant debut, La Pointe Courte in 1955. She infused all her work – mainly in documentary – with a finessed sensibility that transcends the time in which it is made and her major features, Cleo de 5 à 7 and Le Bonheur are devastating portraits of contemporary womanhood. The later Vagabond was as shocking as her earlier work and made Sandrine Bonnaire a star. Her marriage to Jacques Demy was complex and yielded a wonderful homage, Jacquot de Nantes, a combination of essay with cinephilia that is utterly unique. Documentaries and art installations proved her humanity, flooded with an interest in the marginalised, the unheralded and the quotidian. She seemed to take great pleasure in finding everyday faces and places. She was making films until quite recently and was a regular visitor to film festivals where I was privileged to hear her speak on occasion. Varda seemed to be able to access her inner child, eternally youthful, questioning and interested, an impression assisted by that French bob she wore until the end. Some critics would claim her films have outlasted those of her male peers: I wouldn’t entirely disagree. Merci, Agnès.
Aka Le redoutable/Godard mon amour. You have to choose – either it’s politics or cinema. In 1967 during the making of his film, La chinoise, French film director Jean-Luc Godard (Louis Garrel) falls in love with 17-year-old ingenue actress Anne Wiazemsky (Stacy Martin) the granddaughter of François Mauriac, and later marries her. The 1968 protests lead Godard to adopt a revolutionary stance setting up the Dziga Vertov Group with critic Jean-Pierre Gorin (Félix Kysyl) and retreating from his celebrity while Anne continues to make films for other directors and his didactic attitude creates an irretrievable schism with other directors following his call for the cancelling of the Cannes Film Festival … The future belonged to him and I loved him. Michel Hazanavicius’ biopic of Godard falls between two stools: on the one hand it’s a knowing wink to a fiercely committed and politicised prankster who eventually became too serious for his own good or his audience’s enjoyment; on the other it’s a partly serious examination of the evolution of the most significant filmmaker in Europe in the Sixties which invariably vibrates with politics and the issue of celebrity and how it drove him to make incendiary statements which reverberated badly. This is adapted from Un an après the memoir of Wiazemsky (who died in 2017) so the story of the director’s post-’68 retreat into the radical takes its lacerating prism from his resentment at her attempts to escape his stifling grip and gain a mainstream career as he becomes immersed in communal filmmaking. He abuses her co-workers, evinces contempt for his own films and their admirers and renounces his friendships in order to produce films without an audience. He pronounces on the necessity to consign the work of Renoir, Ford and Lang to the dustbin of history and insists only the subversive comedy of Jerry Lewis and the Marx Brothers be kept. He tells us that this is the beauty of Marxist-Leninist rhetoric – any old rubbish can make sense. I’m not Godard. I’m an actor playing Godard. And not even a very good actor. It’s part pastiche too, indulging in many visual references to Godard’s work, leading to a lot of amusing moments as well as beautifully crafted design that can be appreciated in this multi-referential marital saga/romcom. Every time JLG goes to a protest he gets trampled by riot police and his glasses are broken (see: Take the Money and Run). He decides he needs different shoes and becomes obsessed with them, literally another running joke. He attends a student rally at a university and makes anti-semitic declarations which embarrass everybody not just because he calls Jews Nazis but because he is stunningly inarticulate. He is invited by Bertolucci to a conference in Rome and ends up telling him his films are shit so Bertolucci tells him exactly what he thinks of him. The Situationists despised Jean-Luc. And he agreed with them. Garrel is brilliant as the lisping narcissistic self-absorbed pedant who is humorously unaware of the plethora of contradictions, ironies and paradoxes besetting his every statement. He flounces out of the Cannes festival and complains about having to stay in the luxurious beachside home of Pierre Lazareff, the Gaullist proprietor of France-Soir but lies back and enjoys the man’s library, bitching about the lack of petrol to get him back to Paris – despite avowing support for a general strike. He belittles the generous farmer who volunteers to drive him and the gang, plus former friend Cournot (Grégory Gadebois) whose film didn’t get screened at Cannes due to JLG’s antics, all 500 miles back to Paris: this scene is laugh out loud funny, embodying the ridiculous idea of a filmmaker becoming a revolutionary by wanting to make films that nobody will ever want to see, above the common man whose cause he claims to espouse. The bore is now a boor. The irreverent approach sends up Godard but it also somewhat downplays his achievements and the deterioration of the marriage, the first casualty in his argumentative retreat from commercial cinema as friends and values are abandoned without care. Martin makes the most of a part that puts her on the receiving end of both withering condescension and nasty put-downs from a man twice her age basically holding her hostage while trying to be a teenage activist and flailing for filmmaking inspiration. You make films. You’re not the Foreign Secretary. There is a sense in which Hazanavicius’ Woody Allen references (the early, funny ones, see: Stardust Memories) function in two ways, leaving us to wonder if this isn’t just about Godard but also about Hazanavicius himself, following a drubbing for his last serious drama set in war-torn Chechnya (also starring his own wife/muse Bérénice Bejo who features here as fashion designer and journalist Michèle Lazareff Rosier – who wound up becoming a filmmaker! And who also died in 2017) having made his own name with comedies and overt Hollywood homages (The Artist). Not altogether unlike Godard. So we see Godard enjoying pulp fiction and musicals but suffering through La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc while disavowing sentiment of all kinds. Following his suicide attempt, the last sequence occurs during the making of Vent d’est, Godard’s Maoist western and his last collaboration with Anne before she left him. The voiceover is now his, just as he is outvoted by his automanaged bunch of commie cast and crew. He is no longer the auteur of note in this ménage à con. Finally, he manages a smile. Perhaps even this arch ironist now understands the grave he’s dug for himself. We like him, but it’s too late. His gift is gone. With Jean-Pierre Mocky as an outraged diner at a restaurant, we realise we are in the realm of satire and this is a wonderfully clever lampooning of an anarchic cynic much in the mould of Godard himself, keen to distance himself from a decade of success, now in utter contempt of his audience. He clearly never saw Sullivan’s Travels. Or if he did, misunderstood it complètement. This is hilarious – a postmodern film about the cinematic revolutionary who invented the form that manages to be both serious and incredibly witty, all at once. Kudos to cinematographer Guillaume Schiffman for replicating Raoul Coutard’s beautiful work in Godard’s Sixties masterpieces. Definitely one for the bourgeois cinéaste. We’ll love each other later. Now it’s the revolution!