The Marriage of Maria Braun (1978)

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Aka Die Ehe der Maria Braun. I don’t know a thing about business. But I do know what German women want. You might even say I’m an expert on it. Near the end of World War II, Maria (Hanna Schygulla) marries Hermann (Klaus Lowitsch), who is immediately sent off to battle at the Russian front before the marriage can be consummated. When the war concludes, Maria believes that Hermann is dead. The new widow tries to make a go of life on her own and she starts working at an Allied bar, where she meets black American GI Bill (George Byrd). They start a relationship that is interrupted when Hermann returns unexpectedlyyy. During a scuffle between the men, in the heat of the moment Maria accidentally kills Bill. Hermann takes the blame and goes to jail, while Maria begins a hard new life and builds an empire of her own … He kept me warm on those cold nights after the war. Practically a German take on Mildred Pierce with the miraculous Schygulla giving Joan Crawford a run for her money (Fassbinder had intended the role for Romy Schneider) in the post-war noir-ish businesswoman stakes, this is Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s fiercely sardonic take on marriage and money set in a new kind of Germany with a nod to Brecht. Life for women involves transactional sex which is justified as the ultimate practicality: I don’t care what people think. I do care what you think. And you’re not having an affair with me. I’m having an affair with you. The entire text bleeds fascism – how politics is funneled through culture to create a political landscape, whether we like it or not, infecting everyone who inhabits it.  This is the first of Fassbinder’s three Wirtschaftswunder films and is a key work of the New German Cinema with an ending that literally detonates before your eyes. Eva describes herself as the Mata Hari of the Economic Miracle and this dissects desire in all its forms. The screenplay is by Pea Fröhlich and Peter Mörthesheimer who also wrote the dialogue with director Fassbinder, based on his outline (and he plays a small role in the drama).  It’s a perfect blend of subject matter, realisation and performance, graced with stunning cinematography by Michael Ballhaus. Reality lags behind my consciousness

Oklahoma Crude (1973)

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Businessmen do this to each other all the time. Headstrong lone wildcatter Lena Doyle (Faye Dunaway) accepts the assistance of her ne’er do well father Cleon (John Mills) and hired gun, oilfield drifter Noble Mason (George C. Scott), in defending her oil derrick from businessman Hellman (Jack Palance) and his associates in the Pan-Oklahoma Oil Trust in 1913 …Women are even worse; they try to be like men, but they can’t cut it. I’d like to be a member of a third sex. Producer Stanley Kramer makes a broad comedy far removed from his usual solemn and socially conscious films with a vulgar, funny screenplay by Marc Norman (which he later adapted into a novel) complete with throwaway lines on sexual politics. The leads play mostly against type and Dunaway and Scott are superb bouncing off each other. They offer fascinating, stylised performances with Dunaway doing a kind of Jane Fonda impression in her dyed ‘do. A highly enjoyable frontier outing enhanced by Henry Mancini’s score and song, Send a Little Love My Way which he co-wrote with Hal David, performed by Anne Murray. Beautifully shot by Robert Surtees.  Isn’t that just like a woman? She wants to be treated like a man… and then she cries!

Only Yesterday (1933)

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Eden was never like this. A man considers committing suicide in the wake of the Wall Street Crash when he sees a letter marked Personal, Urgent! … In 1917 young Mary Lane (Margaret Sullavan) has a one-night stand with soldier James Stanton Emerson (John Boles) and she becomes pregnant. She moves away from her small town to live with her free-thinking aunt Julia (Billie Burke) and gives birth to Emerson’s son. Their paths cross again when he returns from France but he doesn’t even recognise her and she finds out in a newspaper that he has married. Ten years later when he is a successful businessman he seduces her again. She falls ill. Subsequently she learns she is dying and writes to him … I’ve never known anyone as lovely as you are. Adapted by William Hurlbut, Arthur Richman and George O’Neil from the 1931 non-fiction bestseller by Frederick Lewis Allan, but the relationship with the putative source is very loose and in fact this has the ring of Letter From an Unknown Woman (written by Stefan Zweig in 1922 and translated into English ten years later).  Nowadays this film is principally of interest as the screen debut and charming performance of the intensely charismatic Margaret Sullavan and as part of a rehabilitation of director John M. Stahl, renowned for his melodramas or women’s pictures, as they used to be called. I’m not ashamed. I suppose I ought to be, but I’m not. In a new volume about Stahl, historian Charles Barr makes the case for this being among the best films of the Thirties. I’m not sure that it is, but we should be grateful to director/producer Stahl for bringing Sullavan, his Broadway discovery, to Hollywood. As a Pre-Code narrative of illegitimacy and men and women’s very different experiences of romantic love, it’s very well dramatised, filled with moments of truth. If he had changed a thousand ways I would still know him. Some key lines on contemporary womanhood are delivered by Billie Burke playing Mary’s suffragist aunt: It’s just another of those biological events… It isn’t even good melodrama. It’s just something that happened. There is little indication of WW1 in terms of costume, everything speaks to the time it was made, but the characterisation is everything – Sullavan is sweet, Boles is a dirty cad.  It is truly terrible when he returns from the war and doesn’t even remember her. And any film with Edna May Oliver is something to love. We’ve turned that double standard on its head

Far From the Madding Crowd (1967)

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Don’t anyone suppose that because I’m a woman, I don’t understand the difference between bad goings-on and good. I shall be up before you’re awake, I shall be afield before you’re up, and I shall have breakfasted before you’re afield. In short, I shall astonish you all. In the late nineteenth century in England’s West Country beautiful young Bathsheba Everdene (Julie Christie) inherits a picturesque farm from her uncle and decides to run it herself. Three very different suitors – Francis Troy (Terence Stamp), an intense soldier who has impregnated a maid; William Boldwood (Peter Finch), a prosperous middle-aged farmer; and Gabriel Oak (Alan Bates), a neighbouring sheep farmer of modest means – all contend for her hand in marriage and her different attitudes to each of them cause conflict and tragedy … At home by the fire, whenever I look up, there you will be. And whenever you look up, there I shall be. Adapted by Frederic Raphael from Thomas Hardy’s classic novel, this is one of the most gloriously beautiful films of its era, starring some of the most attractive British performers, all shot in almost decadently luminous imagery by the great Nicolas Roeg, a few years from making his directing debut. However none of that would matter if it weren’t for the management of the material which clarifies the novel’s question – how is it possible for a woman to maintain her independence and property while claiming a romantic relationship for herself? The painful issues of patriarchy and community combine when Bathsheba turns down Gabriel’s offer of marriage and she inadvertently triggers a chain of horribly dramatic events in this bucolic setting. It’s director John Schlesinger’s third film with Christie and she’s at the peak of her beauty and charisma playing this passionate girl. You can understand why everybody loves her. A woman like you does more damage than she can conceivably imagine

Jane Fonda in Five Acts (2018)

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I grew up in the shadow of a national monument.  It seems odd to think that the most important woman of her time, the one who showed what it was to be female in the late twentieth century, the vector for a society’s emotional, cultural and political spectrum, should have lived her life through men. Henry.  Roger.  Tom.  Ted.  They directed how Jane Fonda lived and Susan Lacy’s film feels like an extended therapy session, recalling the one Fonda improvised in Klute. I wanted someone to mould me, she says to camera. And after her mother’s suicide, which she found out about in a fan magazine, her father married again (not for the last time) to a much younger woman, and Jane learned how to be bulimic at boarding school, a reaction to his criticism of her puppy fat. She attended Lee Strasberg’s classes and financed her acting in New York by becoming a photographic model before leaving for France where she was greeted as a mix of Bardot and Moreau.  There she fell under the spell of Roger Vadim who turned her into sex kitten Barbarella. She admits to a hedonistic lifestyle in their marriage but became politicised particularly under the guidance of Simone Signoret and was stunned when director Sydney Pollack asked her what she thought of the script for They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? the film she credits with turning her into an actress. Nobody had ever asked her what she thought of her work before: The first time I ever made a movie that was about something.  That, she says was when I had my first hair epiphany. Hence the influential look in Klute. Even that was decided by a male hairdresser. Her anti-Vietnam War politics  became a wholly immersive activity (although, oddly perhaps, the vital relationship with Donald Sutherland is not explored: it was his wife who introduced her to the world of radical chic. Then she and Sutherland had an affair.) Her activism led her to encounter Tom Hayden of the Chicago Seven and she declared of her feelings about her next husband, If I’m not with Tom Hayden then I’m nobody. Her daughter by Vadim suffered while her son with Hayden travelled everywhere:  actor Troy Garrity (his parents decided their surnames would burden him) is interviewed and is quite vivid about the family setup and the time they stayed with IRA terrorists in Belfast. Not your average reminiscence. They lived in a terrible house at the beach with no modern appliances and homeless people living in the garden. She produced her own films, including Coming Home. They went to the Oscars in a station wagon. The couple’s organisation Campaign for Economic Democracy needed money so she decided to make a workout video and write a book and donate all the profits:  the book went to the top of the bestseller list for two years and The Jane Fonda Workout singlehandedly created the video industry, remaining the biggest seller of all time. Hayden responded by having affairs. Two photographs dominate the archival exploration:  one is a publicity shot, a posed childhood family tableau with neither Henry nor Frances Seymour Fonda engaging with each other or Jane or her brother Peter. This image clearly haunts Fonda:  these are four people utterly untethered from each other. Interestingly, Peter and Jane both think the other sibling had it worse in terms of a relationship with Henry, the famously distant man who could only express emotion on camera and with whom Jane attempted a rapprochement in On Golden Pond. She remembers that she touched his arm in an unscripted moment and she swears she could see tears in his eyes:  what a horrible, horrible thing to have to hold onto, that your father’s only display of anything other than total indifference towards you came in a movie you made for him. He won the Oscar for Best Actor. Then he died. Home movie footage shows a cute little blonde pigtailed girl dressed in buckskin, determinedly striding the wild garden of her 1940s home, wanting to be Tonto. Alone. The other photograph referenced is the famous shot of Hanoi Jane which went around the world when she posed on a North Vietnamese anti-aircraft gun. Hayden wearily explains that he tried to tell Fonda that she was dealing with the media. She set off for Vietnam not having known where it was on the map two years earlier as she told Dick Cavett, who says here her actions must have been a combination of bravado and naiveté. It’s not an argument that is fully explored but I would like to recommend a 2005 book which excavates the extent to which Fonda was framed (in every sense that this term implies) both by the media and the then government: Mary Hershberger’s Jane Fonda:  A Political Biography of an Antiwar Icon – even hawks might be shocked at how this young woman was hounded and intimidated. She cannot apologise enough and those who hate her will never accept that she was duped or that she is truly sorry. I wanted my life to have meaning. Her marriage to Ted Turner (predicted by a psychic) led to her retirement from acting because he couldn’t bear to be alone. Yet she grew as a feminist and left him after a decade which she describes as probably the most profound turning point of my life. She observes that she looked different for every man and the photos of each marriage exhibit this rather shockingly, fashion and age notwithstanding:  she was always playing a role dictated by others. She says that she is only ever her true self with female friends and her romantic relationships are now democratic.  She has become a brilliant memoirist and is in a female-centred hit web TV show (Grace and Frankie) with Nine to Five co-star Lily Tomlin at what she calls the beginning of her final act. So, finally, Jane.  She researched her mother’s life and found that Seymour had been sexually abused as a child. This she discovered in a note her mother wrote in a mental institution. It took her until her seventies, but Fonda finally absolved herself of the guilt she felt her entire life about her mother’s violent death, a situation that created a kind of stasis leading her to believe she was unlovable. A film fan would have liked more analysis of her acting, and only the late Pollack and Alan J. Pakula are interviewed, but, as she says,  Good enough is good enough

Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974)

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I could lay under you, eat fried chicken and do a crossword puzzle at the same time; that’s how much you bother me. When her abusive husband dies, single mom Alice (Ellen Burstyn) and her wiseass 12-year old son, Tommy (Alfred Lutter) leave their small New Mexico town of Socorro for California, where Alice hopes to make it as a singer despite not being particularly good.  She dreams of returning to Monterey where she grew up. Money problems force them to settle in Tucson, Arizona instead, where Alice takes a job as waitress in a small diner owned by Mel (Vic Tayback). She intends to stay there long enough to make the money needed to head back out on the road, but her plans change when she begins to fall for David, a rancher (Kris Kristofferson). Tommy befriends Audrey (Jodie Foster), a slightly older girl who encourages bad behaviour and whose own mother is a prostitute.  When David quarrels with Tommy, Alice leaves him until they come crawling back to one another …  Martin Scorsese (handpicked by Burstyn) entered mainstream Hollywood with this genre piece, a woman’s picture written by Robert Getchell (who died 2017) that announces itself with a parodic rose-tinted dream sequence and titles on crushed satin, 1930s-style. But it’s a woman’s picture with an underlying and sometimes overt threat of violence, despite its sunsplashed settings. So we travel with Alice as she makes her way through life as an adult who has it tough but still dreams of being what she wanted as a small child, reality notwithstanding, lurching from one bad relationship to another in the American Southwest. As this 35-year old woman’s life is unpicked, sometimes with humour and sometimes with pain, the crushing of her ambitions is hard to watch even as she maintains a certain optimism necessary just to make it through her day.  Making the decision to settle for less is something she works on every day. Burstyn’s performance is nuanced and moving, but she is matched by Lutter as her bratty son (who seems more like an argumentative friend) and Foster as his troublesome friend, and particularly by Ladd as Flo the fellow waitress with whom Alice shares home truths. Burstyn won the Academy Award, Ladd was nominated, and Getchell lost out in the Best Screenplay category to Robert Towne for Chinatown. Scorsese was nominated for the Palme d’Or at Cannes. That’s how good a year this was for movies.

Christopher Strong (1933)

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Aka The Great Desire and The White Moth. Don’t ever stop me doing what I want. Fascinating and startling Pre-Code drama starring Katharine Hepburn not as the eponymous Member of Parliament but a daring aviatrix modelled on Amy Johnson. Lady Cynthia Darrington meets the married Sir Christopher (Colin Clive) at a party and they can’t help but fall for each other. His wife, Lady Elaine (!) (the fabulous Billie Burke) worries about their daughter but the frankly virginal Cynthia stirs Christopher, especially when she dons a silver moth costume for a fancy dress ball and to hell with marriage and flying… for a while. The clever way to illustrate sexual congress – a bedside lamp switched on with just Hepburn’s bangled wrist in shot as we see from a clock it’s the wee small hours – the use of altimeters not just as a signal for her ambition but a correlative for this extra-marital relationship – and of course Hepburn’s striking look in her second film appearance – make for a stylish Art Deco picture. Cynthia’s final flight after she discovers her pregnancy still gives her an opportunity for personal expression and record-breaking and it is this aspect – and the fact that the film was directed by Dorothy Arzner (with a little help from silent director Tommy Atkins who also assisted on Hepburn’s debut Morning Glory) – means this was rehabilitated over the years by feminism. Adapted from Gilbert Frankau’s novel by Zoe Akins. Quite dazzling.

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It Happened to Jane (1959)

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Doris plays Jane Osgood, a widowed mother of two trading lobster. When a shipment of 300 of the poor creatures dies in transit she asks her lawyer George (Jack Lemmon) to sue the railroad company and she’s awarded money. The company files against her and George wants her to take the train in lieu then the newspapers get hold of the story and she threatens to appear on TV. George is jealous of Larry (Steve Forrest) who’s a journalist she’s smitten with and the railroad bypasses the town, endangering all the businesses … Cute undemanding comedy with great stars and fun script by Norman Katkov and Max Wilk, this saw director/producer Richard Quine reunited again with regular star Lemmon and the great Ernie Kovacs, who had also appeared in Bell, Book and Candle:  he’s cast here as “the meanest man in the world”! Re-released in 1961 as Twinkle and Shine.

Mildred Pierce (1945)

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The film that marked Joan Crawford’s comeback after she was unceremoniously dumped by Metro, this is a reworked and condensed adaptation of James M. Cain’s Depression-era novel by Ranald McDougall, with uncredited rewrites by melodrama specialist Catherine Turney. And:  William Faulkner, Albert Maltz, Margaret Gruen, Margaret Buell Wilder, Thames Williamson and Louise Randall Pierson. Director Michael Curtiz didn’t want Crawford – she was the last of a long list that was topped by Bette Davis and Barbara Stanwyck – and they fought tooth and nail throughout production with producer Jerry Wald acting as go-between. She’s the woman with the straying husband who starts baking cakes and waiting tables to support her daughters – the younger one, Kay, is a smart and funny tomboy, the elder, Veda (Ann Blyth) is a spoiled puss of a musician with a taste for the high life. The action takes place over four years in the Forties as Mildred starts up her own restaurant and builds a chain with the help of her husband’s realtor partner Wally (Jack Carson) but when playboy investor Monte (Zachary Scott) enters the fray, a tangled web of business and adultery leads to murder. Crawford gets to show off her full emotional range in this superb maternal melo mix of independent woman, weepie and film noir, distinguished by Ernest Haller’s deep shadowy photography and Max Steiner’s score. And what about Anton Grot’s sets! Crawford took home the Academy Award for Warner Bros. What a show!