Friday, January 27, 2006

Post about her birthday, then drop out of sight ... such was not the Siren's intention. She actually had a very nice birthday, involving a lavish dinner and a present of tickets to a Wagner opera for this week. I hope that fellow redhead Moira Shearer, another Jan. 17 baby, had as lovely a time. Part Two of my Luise Rainer disquisition is almost done but has turned out to be a lot more work than I had anticipated. I hope to have it posted this weekend. Meanwhile, this beautiful still prompts me to wonder about all the many ballerinas who claim The Red Shoes sparked their desire to dance. Considering the movie's tragic ending, isn't that just a wee bit odd?

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Shelley Winters, 1920-2006

My idea of a movie star is Joan Crawford, who can chew
up two directors and three producers before lunch.
--Shelley Winters

The best tribute the Siren can offer Shelley Winters is this: She was an utterly fearless actress. "Never underestimate the insecurity of a star," wrote William Goldman. And there you have, probably, why Winters never attained star status. She didn't care about the kind of gilded image a true star cherishes. She was willing to play homely, desperate, grasping, foolish, irritating. They tried to turn her into a glamor girl, and she didn't give a damn. She wanted to act.

Who the hell hasn't Shelley Winters slept with?
--Bette Davis, upon reading

Late in life the fame of Winters, who died Jan. 14 age 85, rested on her girth and her celebrated love life. That, and her role in The Poseidon Adventure, where her touching, albeit oft-parodied, performance seemed the only one grounded in any recognizable form of reality.

The string of lovers contrasts with her best roles, in A Place in the Sun, The Night of the Hunter and Lolita. In all three movies, Shelley's character spends a too-short life pathetically yearning for love--and, having chosen a spectacularly unsuitable object for her affections, the woman dies for her pains. As often noted, Winters got murdered quite a lot. At other times she played baldly unsympathetic parts with gusto, including Oscar-winning turns as the horrific mother in A Patch of Blue and as Mrs. Van Daan in The Diary of Anne Frank.

I saw Shelley Winters in A Place in the Sun. She gave a very moving performance, which surprised me, because Shelley is not a sensitive girl socially.
--Joan Crawford

Shelley's dedication to Method acting was such that others sometimes wondered if she went too far. Montgomery Clift reportedly thought her pathetic turn as Alice in A Place in the Sun became annoying. He was right, and it helps the movie. Not many other 1950s blondes would have gone mouse-brown and let the desperation show so nakedly that the audience wants Clift to escape almost as much as he does. Good as she was, it is hard to imagine that from Gloria Grahame, who was up for the role.

The most famous shot of Winters from Night of the Hunter was actually a wax dummy filmed underwater. But the Siren's favorite moment is Winters as she shrinks back from Robert Mitchum after being told her sexual desire is disgusting. After this rejection, as brutal as any blow, her expression of beatific resignation forms a terrifying image of a personality being erased.

For me, her greatest accomplishment is Charlotte Haze in Lolita. Every camera angle in that movie makes it obvious that the ever-icy Stanley Kubrick feels no more compassion for Charlotte than Humbert does. She's presented as blubbery, ridiculous, her middle-aged face cruelly contrasted with Sue Lyon's dewy features. And she still grabs our sympathy, because Winters doesn't condescend to Charlotte, even if Kubrick does. Her expression when confronted with Humbert's treachery is the most tragic moment in the movie.

As the last of the Golden Age dies off, we often mourn the loss of its beauty and style. This morning, without Winters, movie acting seems just a little less bold, too.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Snubbing the Showgirls

The Siren apologizes for her overlong absence. She was editing a physics monograph for a relative. No, she is not kidding. Her brain hurts.

But it seems she has arrived back just in the nick of time, for a group of film bloggers, including Siren faves Flickhead, Girish and Peter, have banded together in an attempt to resurrect the reputation of Paul Verhoeven's Showgirls--or, failing that, at least to discuss it with a straight face.

The Siren would never suggest that scenes such as the one above have muddied their usual sparkling thought processes. But she is still a bit worried. Hold the line while the Siren dabs her cyberfriends' foreheads with a lace handkerchief. Here, gentlemen, please borrow my marabou-trimmed fan for a moment. Pass it to Jacques Rivette when you are done. Breathe gently and evenly, and listen to the Siren.

The movie is a walking, pecking, flying, gobble-gobbling, ready-for-its-bourbon-bottle-closeup turkey. Sure, it has a certain '90s social relevance. So does "Veronica's Closet."

Douglas Sirk's movies smuggled a lot of subversive messages, but they were, even on the surface plot level, about serious subjects. Racism in Imitation of Life. The arrogance of the rich in Magnificent Obsession. Impotence, alcoholism and general family dysfunction in Written on the Wind. The petty constraints of bourgeois society in All That Heaven Allows.

What, exactly, is the serious subject matter of Showgirls? All that glitters is not gold? Except it is. There is no implicit critique of Vegas, the movie is celebrating--hell, wallowing--in it. Watch the camera linger lovingly on Nomi's every acquisition. See it sweep through the Haute Hick interiors as though doing an appraisal for tax purposes. And if the movie is anti-erotic, that is due to ineptitude, not deliberate distancing.

The acting is just atrocious. Elizabeth Berkley, moving her mouth as though the lip gloss is a surgical dressing she dare not disturb. Gina Gershon, sporting a "Texas" accent that even George Bush Sr. would deride as phony. Kyle MacLachlan, so obviously phoning it in he should have pinned his salary check to his shoulder.

And the dialogue. Sweet St. Francis of Assisi, the dialogue.

Cristal Connors: I've had dog food.
Nomi Malone: You have?
Cristal Connors: Mmm-hmmm. Long time ago. Doggy Chow. I used to love Doggy Chow.
Nomi Malone: I used to love Doggy Chow, too!

Joe Eszterhas shopped the script around Hollywood for years, it was his pet. The Siren remembers the pre-release publicity for this movie, before everyone realized it would bomb. The lure was that it was made for adults, supposedly very frank and open about its eroticism. During filming the screenwriter went nuts if anyone tampered with the dialogue. So if, when Gershon tells Berkley, "I like nice tits," Berkley wanted to reply "I like possessing nice tits" instead of "I like having nice tits," that was verboten, because you don't want to rough up the meter when dealing with poetry like that.

And the rape scene also tells you that these guys were serious, that was there was no winking at the audience. This was an exploitation flick gone horribly wrong and way over-budget. It has some value as camp, but that's it.

Gentlemen, the Siren usually worships your taste, but de gustibus non est disputandum and all that sort of thing. She sincerely hopes you do not mind this energetic dissent.

And now she is signing watch a Douglas Sirk movie.

Before she does, the Siren sets aside her smelling salts to give you an updated list of the many hardy (lost?) souls participating in International Showgirls Day, commemorating the 10th anniversary of the film's European release.

UPDATE: The SHOWGIRLS BLOG ORGY includes, in alphabetical order: