Wednesday, February 28, 2007

The Strange Fame of Frances Farmer

There is a strange sort of screen fame, where the pitiful fate of an actor is far better known than anything in the artist's filmography. Marie Prevost is one of these, thanks to a misspelled serenade from Nick Lowe; others include Fatty Arbuckle, Wallace Reid, Maria Montez, and Jayne Mansfield.

The queen of this sad category must be Frances Farmer. She made only sixteen films, and most ordinary people haven't seen any of them. Only about three are still known to even the most ardent movie buffs (in descending order of repute, Come and Get It, The Toast of New York and Son of Fury). Her fame was kept alive via a largely bogus "autobiography," a lurid chapter of Kenneth Anger's Hollywood Babylon and a wildly inaccurate biography. In this, Frances is in keeping with her company, too. Much of what you hear about these Bad-End Actors isn't true. Fatty Arbuckle was almost certainly innocent of rape; Jayne Mansfield was not decapitated in the car crash that killed her. (And the Ur-Source of much of the bad information is Hollywood Babylon, so much so that you start to wonder if this bilious man got anything right except the crime-scene photographs.) Farmer's brutal fate needed little embellishment, but the legends printed by various writers became the facts. And the "facts" eventually led to a Hollywood biopic, and the finest performance Jessica Lange ever put on film.

Frances as a whole isn't a particularly good movie. It is more of an endurance test than anything else--over two hours of watching a beautiful, sensitive and intelligent woman destroyed by the sorriest collection of gargoyles you ever saw in your life. Roger Ebert's review maintains that no one thing is blamed for Farmer's downfall, but in fact Farmer herself largely gets a pass. She does drink a lot, but sheesh, who can blame her? Her life is one betrayal after another, by Seattle, by her mother, by the studio, by reporters, by Clifford Odets, by her ghastly mother again, by the mental health system, by the local military, by a glory-hound doctor and finally by Ralph Edwards and This Is Your Life. There is a fictional "Harry York" character, played by Sam Shepard, who keeps popping up at times when Farmer or the script seems to need him. The device came in for a lot of criticism, but at least he gives the audience time to breathe before the next catastrophe befalls Farmer.

That this horror show is watchable at all is almost entirely due to Lange, who is believable, charismatic and sympathetic. She takes Farmer from her fiery, idealistic teens to hollowed-out middle age with seamless honesty. The false notes are in the script, never in Lange's characterization. It is quite the tribute to Lange that many scenes are as clear in the Siren's memory as the day she saw the movie, for the first and only time, in 1982. Lange's line deliveries are so perfect. I can still see her, radiantly beautiful at a Hollywood party, and hear her quiet but lacerating riposte to a conniving yellow journalist: "You seem like an intelligent young man. Can't you find a more dignified way of earning a living?"

Few people can sit through Frances more than once, although critic and blogger Kim Morgan recently managed it. It is a shame, though, that the movie advances the central myth about Farmer's life, that she received a lobotomy in a Washington state mental hospital. All available evidence indicates it never happened. Another indelible scene in Frances, almost as horrifying as the lobotomy, has her being gang-raped by soldiers from the local military base. This is also a highly dubious tale. And while the movie does portray her drinking, it elides Farmer's other contribution to her own destruction, amphetamine abuse. (She started taking Benzedrine to keep her figure, which tended to be a bit more corn-fed than even 1930s Hollywood preferred.)

So the Siren, like most people, knew Frances only through the 1982 biopic and the myths it enshrines. Until this month, the Siren had never seen a single Farmer picture. The one thing all sources agree upon, however, is that Come and Get It, the odd little logging epic begun by Howard Hawks and finished by William Wyler, was the best movie Farmer ever made. Jessica Lange has said it was the only film of Farmer's that wasn't a chore for her to sit through. The Siren recently sat through this one herself, and finally saw the real Frances at work. The through-the-years film gave Farmer a chance to play mother and daughter, tramp and trueheart. Everybody says Farmer was a loss to the screen, that she had great potential, but is it true, or just another story?

(Look here for part two of "The Strange Fame of Frances Farmer.")

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Do the Contrarian: Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)

It is a lonely thing, disliking Once Upon a Time in the West. Trawling through the vast store of critics' reviews compiled on IMDB yields approximately five thumbs down. The rest fall all over themselves to call this the greatest Western ever made. The Siren's own husband has already penciled in a date to see it with the kids when they're ready (in about ten years). One of my favorite film writers named his blog after Sergio Leone. (Dennis, please try not to hold it against me.) The film's reputation seems impregnable, and in questioning its greatness the Siren plays an exercise somewhat akin to lobbing a spitball at the Washington Monument. She is resigned to the idea that few, if any, will agree with her piece of contrarianism. She does hope, however, that for the time it takes to read this post, you will at least be able to see the movie through her eyes.

Instead of summarizing the plot, which is widely known and too murky anyway, the Siren will state why she dislikes this movie: It is overlong, badly acted, misogynistic and dull. Dear god is it dull. The movie is often compared to an opera, but the more apt comparison is oratorio--plenty of music, no scenery and no acting. The structure cycles through same, same, one minute of dialogue, gunfight, same.

Then again, Leone's camera doesn't seem to care if we ever get interested or not. Again and again we return to the basic pattern of long shot (flat, sun-bleached, not terribly interesting desert) to close-up (flat, sun-creased, not terribly expressive face), close-up to long shot. It has a sort of lulling rhythm to it, like walking through a gallery and turning your head from portrait to landscape and back again. But like the paintings in the gallery, it just hangs there. Leone is supposed to have choreographed OUTITW's performances to Morricone's pre-written, excellent score, but the tempo doesn't change much even when the music does. Certainly there are references to other filmmakers--better filmmakers--Fred Zinnemann with the opening train station sequence, John Ford with the build-up to the massacre, the funeral sequence borrowed from George Stevens. Some take that as a sign of the movie's greatness, but spotting those only irritates the Siren further, as it reminds her of other movies she could be watching. (She could, for example, watch High Noon AND 3:10 to Yuma in only slightly more than OUTITW's running time.)

Said it before, repeat it here--the grand unifying theme of Western movies is, "who's the man here?" OUTITW gives us two. The first is Charles Bronson. Actors do not usually become stars without some sort of star quality, and Bronson has presence, a great deal of it in fact. But Leone's preference for monumental performances, meaning the actors hold poses for beat after beat after beat while we are supposed to wonder what is happening behind those scrunched-up eyes, is catastrophic for Bronson. The Siren is not kidding when she tells you she prefers Bronson in Death Wish, where at least he gets to move. Here he seems preserved in amber, an actor who manages to overplay his lack of affect. That is its own form of odd accomplishment, but that doesn't make it moving.

The second man, more by dint of blowing Bronson off the screen than the script itself, is Henry Fonda. The Siren often wonders how much of OUTITW's impact, then and now, is due to the stunt casting of Fonda. Holy moly, Wyatt Earp just shot a kid! How could Tom Joad be so mean? But is it surprising that a serious, stage-trained actor with a 40-year career behind him at that point could play a villain? Frank is a figure of pure evil, as such his character arc is more like a straight line, and Fonda's chief virtue is in refraining from the sort of hamminess Anthony Hopkins brought to Hannibal Lecter. Fonda, as always, walks softly. The shock from the against-type casting lasts about 20 minutes, and the movie is, of course, 165 minutes long. You have plenty of time to notice that Frank's villainy is no more fleshed-out or believable than hundreds of others, from Lee Marvin as Liberty Valance to Jack Palance in Shane. The difference is that those villains don't overstay their welcome, mostly popping onstage to punch up the action and heighten the stakes. Here you have to spend a long, long time with Frank, and he never gets any less or any more evil, nor does he get more interesting.

If there is anything the Siren can enjoy about the movie, aside from the deservedly praised opening, it is Jason Robards as Cheyenne. He is so deliciously, cornball hammy he seems to have dropped in from another set. When he is on screen the movie does occasionally lurch to life, as when he pops up in a window, hanging upside-down from a railway car, wearing a marvelous expression somewhere between apprehension and glee. Unfortunately, many of his scenes are played with Claudia Cardinale.

Ah, Cardinale as Jill. Misogyny irritates the Siren, but even more than misogyny she is irritated by those who try to gloss or dismiss the problem, for problem it is. OUTITW puts a woman in the middle of the action, gives her character great thematic importance, and then shows her behaving in ways that simply beggar belief. She's the whore with a heart of gold (heaven help us, and in 1968 yet), but more than that she is all appetite and survival instinct, only minimal brain. Jill is an animal shorn of even the small dignity of an animal's initiative. She spends the movie merely reacting to events. Kidnapped? Guess she better sleep with Frank. Railroad workers need water? fine, and because Cheyenne says so she'll let them pat her backside (one of the most bizarre assertions of workers' rights the Siren has ever heard). Bronson rips her dress? She falls in love with him. Duck? Fine, she'll duck. And whether deliberately or inadvertently, Leone cast an actress who was unable at any point in her screen career to suggest much of an interior life for even a well-written character, as in The Leopard. In Visconti's masterpiece, this most beautiful of actresses can mime the charm of a young girl only by waggling her shoulders a great deal and biting her lower lip at strategic intervals. Here Cardinale mostly holds her head still (thank God for that small favor from Leone's techniques) but reverts again and again to the same lips-slightly-parted stare, as the audience wonders whether false eyelashes and Cleopatra liner were around in the 1880s.

Here the Siren returns to the mystery of talent, and why some actors can project things to the camera that others simply cannot. Garbo, whom Orson Welles flatly called "stupid," could stare into the distance and take the audience on a journey through all the ages of Woman, as we pondered what lay behind that beautiful face. Cardinale's beauty is no less stunning, and yet as she looks into the camera you suspect she is trying to recall whether she left the hot plate on in her trailer. Well, perhaps Garbo could have breathed substance into Jill. But the Siren doubts it.

In his better movies (though the Siren has reservations even about those), Leone choreographs the set-up for violence fully as much or more than the violence itself, such as the justly celebrated final shoot-out in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. The Siren doesn't mind the lack of realism in this; as she has said before, realism is a style like any other, and an overrated one, at that. But here Leone just does not know when to stop. I will accept two men circling one another for a final confrontation, sizing one another up like dogs and spitting. I will accept them doing it for a longer time than any two armed men probably ever did in the history of the Colt .45. But when they do it for a quarter-hour--and stop for a flashback to boot--it becomes ludicrous. You might as well bring in Russ Tamblyn and George Chakiris and let the characters dance it out. Furthermore, the impact of this, the final confrontation, is lost because this is how ALL the confrontations in the movie have played out. We have been watching menacing poses for two and a half damn hours. A few more just aren't that interesting.

The theme of OUTITW is the bloody track of the railroad, and how it brings the tough-hombre era to an end even as it brings more exploitation. Leone correctly grasps that the idea of space--that, like Huck Finn, you can always light out for the territories--is a big part of our fascination with the push westward. The director's other idea, here as in his Dollars trilogy, is to strip away the myth that out there was something good or noble, and show that greed and violence built the West. He was hardly the first to do that, but he was one of the most thorough. Trouble is, Leone takes every traditional aspect of the Western and, rather than building on it, either mocks it or replaces it with relentless, dour pessimism. So when the end credits roll at long-bloody-last, all you have is a funhouse reversal of Roy Rogers. Once Upon a Time in the West is, finally, as predictable in its darkness as Rogers was in his eternal goody-goodyness.

(This post is offered as part of the Contrarianism Blog-a-Thon sponsored by Jim Emerson at Scanners.)

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Arrowsmith (1931)

Arrowsmith (1931) is a fine example of the fact that, auteurism notwithstanding, you can't judge a film by its pedigree. This one, based on Sinclair Lewis's Pulitzer-winning book, had John Ford directing, Sidney Howard writing the screenplay, Samuel Goldwyn producing and a cast that included Ronald Colman, Helen Hayes, Richard Bennett and Myrna Loy. And it's still basically an interesting failure, proof positive that they were making dull Oscar-bait almost as soon as the awards were started.

Reviewers even at the time complained that Colman was, at forty, too old for the title part. That didn't bother the Siren so much, since practically everybody in a old-time Hollywood movie is usually too old for their parts. (The Dead End "Kids"? West Side Story?) Far more serious a drawback is that he was British down to his very garters, and here he is supposed to be an archetypal Midwesterner. As Stephen Murray of points out here, the actor's chief characteristic was that he was debonair. Ronald Colman was undoubtedly debonair when he was flossing his teeth. Arrowsmith isn't debonair, he needs to be fresh and achingly earnest--someone like Lew Ayres, perhaps.

The movie's biggest problem, however, is that while Howard would do a superb job of compressing a long novel eight years later for Gone with the Wind, here what you get is a bunch of people talk, talk, talking through a series of disjointed scenes. Nobody simply acts in Arrowsmith, not without discussing the ethical and philosophical implications at great length. Yet simple human motivation remains murky. The movie lurches from one plot point to another, never giving you a good bead on Colman's Martin Arrowsmith, a high-minded doctor. He proposes to nurse Helen Hayes the day he meets her, and as if that isn't enough, in the next scene is giving up his dreams of being a medical researcher to be a GP out in the middle of nowhere, because he will need to support her. "You will be back," his mentor tells him, or rather "You veel bee back," as this mentor is Middle European (aren't they all?). And indeed Arrowsmith does come back, after his special serum cures some South Dakotan cows.

Now Arrowsmith is movin' on up, to a deluxe research facility in the sky and some of the best visuals in the movie, courtesy of Ford and cinematographer Ray June. The look of the New York office is superb and Ford, so brilliant with outdoor sequences, here uses Richard Day's sets beautifully. There's a vertigo-inducing shot of the Chrysler Building from the ground up, as Colman and Hayes try to reassure themselves that they feel at home in this vast, bustling city. A short scene later Arrowsmith emerges from the elevator and walks along the grand swoop of the office, the black-and-white constrasts and vastness of the place emphasizing him as one cog in a very, very large machine.

But Arrowsmith doesn't entirely fit in this grand place, as indeed he does not fit precisely anywhere. He develops another serum, this time for humans, and goes down to the British West Indies to test it during a plague outbreak. There is a great deal of talk about the primacy of science over mere human feelings, which in practice means he's going to give the serum to half the islanders, but not the other half. In the movie, this is clearly seen as unsentimental devotion to science and the greater good. Goatdog has a great review of Arrowsmith that includes an excellent discussion of the medical ethics then and now. Even so, a modern viewer, horrified, is likely to recall the Tuskegee experiment. Ironic, because one of the movie's virtues is the character of Oliver Marchand (Clarence Brooks), a black doctor played entirely as a devoted, dignified professional, with no shuffling, "humor" or degrading dialect added.

In her autobiography, Myrna Loy described the way Ford handled her appearance late in the movie, as Arrowsmith is inoculating the natives. You see the islanders lined up as the doctor sees them, just a series of arms one after another, until the camera lights on Loy's fair-skinned arm. The camera follows Arrowsmith's startled gaze up to that gorgeous face, and the attraction is apparent from that moment forward. That's fortunate, because while a good look at Myrna Loy is always most welcome, she has very little to do here. Goatdog also has an excellent exegesis of Loy's brief role as sexual temptation for the saintly doctor. Post-Code re-releases cut her role to almost nothing. I believe the version I saw restored most of her scenes, but you still have to be hip to 1930s innuendo to figure out what passes between her and Arrowsmith.

Ford had made more than 70 movies at this point, but Arrowsmith marks only the very beginning of his greatness. A lot of Ford's preoccupations are already well in place: The loner fighting society, yet searching for a place in it, too. The sacrifice of home comforts for the sake of a larger good. Man vs. Nature. The film seems to grow more visually sophisticated as it progresses, though the Siren has no idea if it was shot in sequence. The superb, Metropolis-like views of New York give way to the the Caribbean island and the most beautifully shot scenes in the movie, as a misty, Defoe-like procession of biers and mourners continually moves past the doorway of Arrowsmith and his wife. Later, there's an extraordinary shot of a doomed Helen Hayes sinking into a cane-back chair to smoke a cigarette, as light slants through a shutter and around her hair. Here Ford is already working out his vocabulary, and despite its many flaws, that is the best reason to see Arrowsmith.
(Cross-posted at NewCritics.)