Saturday, September 22, 2007

Bette Meets 90-Take Willie

(The Siren returns from hibernation to join in Goatdog's William Wyler Blogathon. Please follow the links at his place for more on the great, yet curiously underappreciated Wyler.)

She was difficult in the same way that I was difficult. She wanted the best.--William Wyler at the American Film Institute tribute to Bette Davis

It was 1931. Bette Davis was 23 and still new on the Universal lot, scrambling for parts like the other starlets. William Wyler was 29, "not a very good director" by his own admission and struggling to prove he deserved his break despite the (justified) perception that he owed his job to being Carl Laemmle's relative. Davis was auditioning for a part in A House Divided and had hurriedly put on the only size 8 dress she could find. The dress was cut low, and when Davis walked by, Wyler remarked in a voice that carried to every corner of the crowded soundstage, "What do you think of these dames who show their tits and think they can get jobs?" The humiliated actress didn't get the role, which went instead to future flameout Helen Chandler.

So when Wyler, now contracted to Samuel Goldwyn and on his first loan-out to Warner Brothers, showed up to film Jezebel, Davis reminded him of his taunt--and the irony, now plain, that he had made the remark about an actress more willing than any in Hollywood to forego sex appeal when the character required it. Wyler searched his memory for the incident and drew a nice tidy blank, but he apologized to Davis and said he had been having a hard time in those days.

As filming began Davis must have known about Wyler's reputation for repeating takes until the actor was a nervous wreck. Henry Fonda was warned by Humphrey Bogart, who'd made Dead End with Wyler the year before, "Jesus, don't touch it. Don't go in there." But Wyler also had a string of excellent movies under his belt, having guided fine performances from a hopeless alcoholic (John Barrymore in Counsellor at Law), an actress in the twilight of her career (Ruth Chatterton in Dodsworth) and even an actress whose chief qualifications at the time were dazzling beauty and a bed shared with a prominent producer (Merle Oberon in These Three). Davis knew her own self-discipline and fine talent, and she made her bet on Wyler.

Besides, the attraction between actress and director was already evident.

Although Jezebel is often described as a sop to appease Davis after she didn't get Scarlett O'Hara, the Siren's research indicates this isn't the case. The play (produced in 1933, three years before Margaret Mitchell's novel was published) was purchased for Bette Davis by Warner Brothers in 1937, while David O. Selznick was still actively searching for a Scarlett and no decision had been made as to casting. Selznick saw Jezebel , no doubt accurately, as the Warners' way of cashing in on the anticipation surrounding Gone with the Wind and was furious. So in fact, according to GWTW historian William Pratt, Jezebel (which was released in March 1938, eight months before Selznick ever met Vivien Leigh) was the factor that put a period to any chance Davis had at the part. Davis herself always denied the "consolation prize" idea, but in her sunset years she loved to intimate she had come close to Scarlett. Alas, that isn't true either--she was never very high in the running. As early as 1937, when Selznick was working out distribution deals, he rejected an offer from Warner Brothers that was contingent on casting Errol Flynn and Bette Davis and told friends that he would cast Katharine Hepburn as Scarlett before he would consider Davis.

Despite its being forever linked with GWTW, Jezebel is its own animal, a movie just as concerned with the fate of a strong-willed woman in a rigid society, but more harshly realistic about the ways society revenges itself. As a girl the Siren much preferred Scarlett to Jezebel's Julie Marsden. She hated the way Julie is humiliated, not merely in the excruciating ball sequence, but also when she is coldly rejected in favor of the vacuous Margaret Lindsay (a perfectly cast actress whom Davis couldn't stand in real life). Ashley makes his sexual attraction to Scarlett quite clear, but once Henry Fonda rejects Julie, it as though he never loved her at all. Later in life the Siren came to see that Jezebel--while it cannot compare with GWTW's vast historical canvas, indelible characters and peerless production values--is the more biting social commentary.

That may seem impossible, given that Wyler's pictures generally affirm rather than challenge social convention, helping to explain the appeal to Oscar voters as well as the films' rejection by those who prefer "termite art." You can read Jezebel as a straightforward women's tale of the comeuppance of a first-rate scheming bitch, and no doubt that is the tale Wyler and Davis thought they were filming. The movie approves of her treatment, audiences then approved of it and audiences today usually do as well. Witness the reviews that refer to the character as "Jezebel," instead of her name, and speak of her "deserved" humiliation at the Olympus Ball. But director and actress, through their careful attention to Julie's character, create something more complicated. Together Wyler and Davis show us an intelligent and headstrong woman who can exert her will only in petty, useless acts of rebellion. Then they show Julie stripped of her autonomy, first in part and then completely.

True to its stage roots the movie has three acts, well-summarized by Nick Davis as The Dress, The Duel and The Disease. Julie Marsden is engaged to Preston Dillard (Fonda) and happily stamping her size-five riding boots all over him. She loves Pres but, with few other outlets for her restless energy, she amuses herself by constantly testing his love. Infuriated by his refusal to leave a board meeting to attend a ballgown fitting with her, Julie rejects her regulation white dress in favor of a vivid red one that is being prepared for the town's most notorious courtesan. (As the town in question is New Orleans, we must be talking about one hell of a whore.) This is a beautifully set-up scene, Julie on a dais and surrounded on three sides by mirrors. Aunt Belle (Faye Bainter, showing why Stinky Lulu has anointed Wyler the Patron Saint of Best Supporting Actresses) and the dressmaker form a Greek chorus of warning and disapproval. (The Siren pauses to ask why, in the 1930s, dresses symbolizing wanton behavior always had some sort of swaying fringe to them. Was it hearkening back to the more sexually liberated 20s?) At first Pres refuses to take his scarlet-clad woman to the ball, then, stung by Julie's suggestion that he is afraid to defend her, he escorts her and sees to it that she is shamed in front of everyone she knows.

According to Davis, Jezebel's script gave the Olympus Ball short shrift and the production manager allotted a half-day to shoot it. Wyler took five days and turned it into the best scene in the film. It is, in effect, a drawn-out death scene, in which you watch the death of Fonda's love for Davis, the death of the old, confident Julie who is certain of her man's love, and the death of Julie's place in society. It is stunningly filmed but wrenching to watch, as they join a full dance floor only to have the other couples leave it, until gradually they are the only ones dancing. The formation is as old as time--the woman in the center, those condemning her forming an unbreakable circle, and the man Julie loves dragging her into the middle to extend her agonies just that much longer. As brilliant as the camerawork is, the Siren finds the scene just about unbearable. Not until MASH, as Sally Kellerman hit the ground in a vain attempt to cover herself, would the Siren encounter a scene that showed such soul-deep humiliation of a woman.

Pres leaves for the north and Julie shuts herself away on her plantation, Halcyon, only emerging to ride her thoroughbred horse in a way that risks breaking her neck each time. Comes word that Pres has returned. Julie, seeing her chance at last, dons the white dress she had rejected a year before and greets Pres, sure of her welcome. "I'm kneelin' to ya, Pres," she croons, sinking to the floor in an unmistakable evocation of a bridal dress being removed on a wedding night. And the Siren always wants to scream, "Get up! get up! don't DO that!" It's almost as lacerating as the ball, because the audience knows what Julie does not--Pres has come back with a Yankee bride. Before Pres can tell her, in comes Amy (Lindsay), Aunt Belle in tow. And here you can see Wyler's hand, because the Davis of Of Human Bondage or Dangerous might have flung her emotions all over the set. Instead, she keeps her eyes focused on Fonda and speaks two words without much emphasis, yet they snap out like her riding crop: "Your wife?" And then you see her denial turn to coiled, deliberate fury, directed at Amy with the politeness Southern women always muster best for those whom they truly hate.

Julie, desperate to win back Pres, begins to manipulate her old beau Buck (an unusually animated George Brent) into provoking Amy at every turn. Pres's brother, Ted, staying at the plantation for plot reasons that remain murky to the Siren, gets more and more hot under the collar until finally he challenges Buck to a duel, which Buck does not survive. Despite the fact that a belatedly remorseful Julie tried to stop the duel, she is blamed by everyone, including the loving Aunt Belle, who delivers the title line in unforgettable fashion: "I'm thinkin' of a woman called Jezebel, who did evil in the sight of God." Act two is over.

Before everyone can leave Halcyon in the same manner Julie once cleared out the Olympus Ball, Act Three is upon us--yellow fever results in quarantine. Julie responds in classic Southern-hostess fashion, telling the guests who now hate her guts, "Ladies and gentlemen, my home is yours, as always." Just in case we didn't realize that yellow fever was serious business in antebellum New Orleans, we get a series of intertitles screaming, "YELLOW JACK!" Ah, how the Siren loves intertitles. Pres hears of his brother's duel and for once it is the nominal hero who swoons dead away. But of course, the leading man can't just faint like a sissy so we learn Pres has come down with the dreaded yellow fever. Julie, suddenly (and, to the Siren, suspiciously) fired with noble purpose, persuades Amy to let her go with Pres to the island where yellow fever victims are being warehoused. The movie ends with Julie cradling Pres's head in her lap, as a simple wagon takes them down to the wharf and an uncertain fate. The swelling music and noble expressions want us to think Julie is choosing redemption through almost certain death. The Siren would much rather think Julie has no plans to die--she believes she's going to nurse Pres through his illness, and she's angling for another chance to hold her man.

So, let's talk about "90-take Willie" and how he directed his actors. The standard image of Wyler is of a director shooting take after take, and when the frustrated actor shrieks "what do you want from me?" he responds with something along the lines of "I want you to do it better." But the image of a rather inarticulate, ESL director doesn't quite play. From an early point Wyler chose his own subjects and his own writers, and he always chose adult stories, frequently from well-known literary sources, and scripts by the best writers in Hollywood. That doesn't suggest a man incapable of telling an actor precisely what he wanted. Wyler reportedly believed that repeating a scene broke down an actor's defenses and unlocked new approaches, but that doesn't mean he never had meaningful discourse with his actors. This fine tribute, by director Josh Becker, repeats a story about Henry Fonda enduring 40 takes of a scene on Jezebel. But Fonda himself recalled it somewhat differently, in an interview in Mike Steen's Hollywood Speaks:

I guess it's rather well known that there are actors who didn't like Wyler, just like there are actors who didn't like Ford or Fritz Lang, etc., because Wyler was known to want to shoot a lot of takes. You know, fifty takes and that kind of thing...I had a very good experience. Wyler and I got along famously. We're still friends. He never took fifty takes, though he might have taken thirty! But it was never without a reason. I've worked with John Stahl [on Immortal Sergeant] who was a director who would take it over and over again without telling you why. It was as though he was saying "If they're going to give me actors like this, what are you going to do?" You know? But with Wyler, every time he did it again he gave you something to think about. He'd say, "This time in the middle the scene react to a mosquito bite." These inventions would just come to him. He was rehearsing with film really! And that wasn't bad because I like rehearsals. So it was a good experience with Wyler, and I liked it very much.

Bette Davis later said that the moment when she began to trust Wyler's direction completely came when he forced her to watch dailies of a scene in Jezebel where she was coming down a staircase. He had shot the scene some thirty times, annoying the living daylights out of her. But when she saw the rushes, she realized that one take had "captured a fleeting, devil-may-care expression" on her face that was perfect for Julie. After that, she endured the takes. And like Fonda, she claimed that Wyler did make suggestions: "He'd remain silent, take after take after take, then when I was exhausted, he'd give a suggestion that would turn the whole scene around and make it live." She also said he "never asked you to make a move that wasn't logical. If you told you to go to a window, there was a reason for it."

With the auteur theory has come the persistent critical notion that directing actors is somehow a minor talent--that it is better to be Fritz Lang, insisting that everyone hit those chalk marks, driving people to near-breakdowns and consequently seldom having the same leading actor twice, than to be William Wyler, with your name attached to many great performances but (allegedly) not to any one overarching vision of film. The Siren says it's a fine thing to be either one.

There is a book to be written about William Wyler and Bette Davis. The story has the arc of a perfect women's picture. There's that inauspicious first meeting. There's the new meeting years later, on the set of the movie that would win Davis her second Oscar (and the first she truly deserved). Move through the director and star having a torrid extra-marital affair, carried on in the days of studio "morals clauses," when adultery came with the very real risk of ruined careers. Then Davis having an abortion during the filming of the even greater The Letter, and never telling Wyler. Continue with Davis' tale of how her single, highhanded act destroyed their chance for marriage. Then the last film together, where conflict reaches a level than ensures they never work together again. Finally, a meeting on Wyler's set much later in life, where Davis claimed, "I still saw that old gleam in his eye..."

Yes, a good story. But not as good as the movies they made together.

(Material on Davis and Wyler's personal relationship comes primarily from I'd Love to Kiss You: Conversations with Bette Davis, by Whitney Stine. Other sources include A. Scott Berg's Goldwyn and David O. Selznick's Hollywood by Ronald Haver.)

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Tyrone Power in Nightmare Alley

(Part Two of the Siren's thoughts on Nightmare Alley. Part One is here.)

You have to say one thing for Tyrone Power, even in a depressing movie he has a way of lifting a gal's spirits. The more the Siren reads about Power, the more affection she develops for the man. According to everyone who ever knew him, Power desired two things above all: respect as an actor, and a happy, stable family. Life gave him too little of either. Several of his adventure movies are still well-loved, such as The Black Swan and The Mark of Zorro, but few were the roles that gave him a chance to created a complex character. Nightmare Alley shows he had real ability under the gloss.

That Power worked so hard to put Nightmare's Stanton Carlisle on the screen tells you something about him as an actor. Take a look at the brilliant Montgomery Clift, for example, who has a large reputation for emotional nakedness on-screen. Given the chance to play Joe Gillis in Sunset Boulevard, Clift bailed at the last minute, saying he didn't want to play more love scenes opposite an older woman after doing The Heiress. Others have noted that the part might have rung a bell (more like a cathedral) regarding Clift's relationship with far-older singer Libby Holman. Power, on the other hand, with a resume dominated by candy-box historicals and swashbucklers, fought long and hard for the chance to play the lead in a movie that equates entertainment with fraud and ends with his character barely hanging onto humanity.

Nightmare Alley opens in late afternoon at a carnival--not a big flossy one, but a low-end affair serving the shirtsleeved masses. Power is killing time before his act goes on, snapping his gum and restlessly wandering around the grounds. He starts watching the sideshow geek, the debased individual whose "act" consists of biting the heads off chickens. Salary: one bottle of rotgut a day. Behind the geek's barker we see a big painting of what appears to be the Piltdown Man on a bad day, but we never see the face of the real geek. Instead, the camera focuses on the barker's patter, the geek's screams and Power's reaction. "How does a guy become a geek?" wonders Power to another worker. He doesn't get a real answer. But if you have watched much film noir at all, the question alone is the foreshadowing equivalent of dropping a counterweight on your head.

Stanton is working the crowds for the carnival's phony seeress, Zeena (fabulous Joan Blondell, sexy as ever, but just past the point where "blowzy" got permanently affixed to her description). But that's a stopgap. Already Stanton is angling to get the code Zeena used for a mentalist act with her old partner, Pete, now a hopelessly broken-down alcoholic. Stanton is clearly having an affair with Zeena, and clearly he is using her, despite some off-handed regard for the woman. Stanton drops hints, but soon realizes Zeena is still in love with Pete, and won't betray her old partner or their act. Pete, despite his condition, won't give up the code either. One night Stanton tries to ply the drunk with a bottle of cheap booze, but it doesn't work, and Stanton accidentally swaps the hooch for a bottle of wood alcohol. That's the end of Pete, and Stanton gets the code soon after.

That's just the beginning of Stanton's climb. All along his real attraction was to "electric girl" Molly (the remarkably beautiful Coleen Gray). Soon enough he has left Zeena and the carny behind. He marries Molly and moves to a more sophisticated act in a Chicago club, stringing along another group of suckers. At first the new marks differ only in wardrobe and grammar, but one night up turns psychiatrist Lilith (Helen Walker). She's running her own sort of game, secretly recording the socialites who pour out their neuroses to her. She lures Stan into joining forces, and together they set up the biggest con yet: disguising Molly as the long-dead love of a wealthy old man. But Molly can't go through with it, and the scheme unravels. Stan has the tables turned on him by Lilith. He goes on the run, and becomes utterly dependent on booze as he hops freight cars. Eventually--inevitably--he winds up back at the carny, willing to do any job...

Power was about 33 when the movie was made, already getting a bit hooded in the eyes and softer around the jaw, but still completely gorgeous. His looks get little direct comment in the movie, but Power's beauty is vital. You don't have to wonder why Blondell doesn't seem put off by Stanton's barely concealed ambition. Stanton knows something Power himself must have known well: Looks matter, they matter a lot. See the elderly lady in the Chicago nightclub blush and lower her lashes at Stanton's approach. Watch the way Stanton draws back when Molly's strong-man boyfriend objects to his presence. The retreat isn't that of a man afraid of a beating, but that of someone so sure of his attractiveness he can pick his moment, any old moment.

One strength of the script is the way it fleshes out Stanton's background. To fellow carnies at a roadhouse he talks of life in a orphanage, and how he learned to feign religious devotion because it deflected the brutality of the people running the place. His parents? "They weren't much interested." Fakery has been his survival mechanism for a long time.

That doesn't mean fakery is the whole of Stanton's persona, however. There's a part of him that wants something real. In a scene with the boozer Pete, played with amazing fervor and pathos by Ian Keith, Stanton is immediately drawn in by Pete's "psychic" spiel: "I see a boy...a dog..." Immediately Stanton says yes, that's me! that's my dog! "There's always a dog," says Pete, with a malicious, wheezing laugh. Power moves back like a crestfallen boy--only for an instant. Then he's back to his main plan, trying to hoodwink Pete into getting the code.

Power's best scene in Nightmare Alley comes after Pete's death, when the carny is about to be shut down by a local sheriff. The manager, Zeena, Molly and the other employees all try to get around the sheriff, to no avail. Stanton, possessed of the all-important code and emboldened by weeks of perfecting his delivery with Zeena, persuades the manager to let him have a go. In a tent stripped of its garish scenery, crowds gone and the night-time lighting showing the seediness more than ever, Stanton starts to talk to the sheriff. I sense things about you, he tells the sheriff. There are people who are jealous of you. Stanton mentions the sheriff's wife (there's always a wife). As he talks more and more, Stanton unravels the sheriff's life, bit by bit, breaking down the man's defences. The sheriff starts to glow with the same interest we saw Stanton show Pete--this man sees me, he understands me. Stanton, vampire-like, grows stronger and more confident by the moment. The sheriff leaves, dumbstruck with gratitude for the "truths" he has been shown, and Stanton seems invincible. From here on, until his schemes unravel, Power gives Stanton a much cooler and more collected physicality. When we see him working, Stanton no longer seems restless or nervous. His shoulders are squared, every expression is calculated for effect. His guard comes down at times--when Lilith talks to him about Pete, when he is with Molly, when Zeena and the strong man come for a visit--but until his career as a mentalist crashes to a close, Stanton's poise leaves him completely only when he is alone.

Power's transformation in the sheriff scene is so strong that many viewers, including James Ursini and Alain Silver, who provide the commentary track on the DVD, maintain that the scene shows Stanton has actual psychic abilities. The Siren isn't so sure. Not long before we saw Pete deceive with equal ease and aplomb. To the Siren, the sheriff scene reads like a master con artist finally reaching the very peak of his abilities, becoming more daring with each well-timed, educated guess. There are elements of the supernatural in Nightmare Alley, including Zeena's fearfully accurate tarot cards, and the Miltonian question of whether Stanton's Satanic ambition angers God. But the actual abilities of the humans are left to the imagination. You can read the movie as suggesting a spiritual world, but you don't have to believe Stanton has access to it. And you can also give it a straight Darwinian reading: There is no Guiding Force out there, only the "blind, pitiless indifference" of life's long con.

If Stanton does have psychic gifts, his abilities are fitful and desert him when most needed, after he encounters Lilith. She's another con artist, but she has one essential Stanton lacks: utter ruthlessness. Stanton, haunted by the accidental death of Pete and showing the irritability of the guilty when Zeena shows up late in the film, has a conscience he must fight. Walker, an actress with the slanted eyes and slightly flattened features of a Persian cat, shows no emotion or empathy. Stanton's the sheriff now, lured in by the way Lilith seems to understand his wants and conflicts. Her late-stage betrayal takes Stanton apart with terrifying ease. Power's face and body show him as crushed as he was by Pete, but this time he can't put the mask back on. It would be easier to see his character get shot. His subsequent slide into suicidal drinking doesn't seem like too big a stretch at all.

Siren fave Flickhead, in the comments to her previous post, called Nightmare Alley and The Shining "probably the two finest illustrations of alcoholism and alcoholic thinking ever committed to film," and went on to note "Stanton’s delusions of grandeur at odds with his low self esteem, the alcoholic ‘egomaniac with an inferiority complex.’ Plus the knowing scene of him succumbing to the bottle in his hotel room as the walls close in. Putting the booze to his lips, you can hear the faint screams of the geek rattling in his head." Power wasn't a big drinker (his vice was cigarettes, three to four packs a day), but he shows a deep understanding of addiction. Nightmare Alley was released after The Lost Weekend, but for the Siren, Power's portrayal of alcoholism was more devastating than Ray Milland's (and Milland was good indeed). Perhaps that's because Nightmare Alley isn't a "problem illness" film--it doesn't diagnose or sketch out a cure, it just puts the results up on screen.

Power is so good in Nightmare Alley that the Siren feels guilty about not giving him more credit previously. Not that she ever disliked Power (show me the woman who does), but the Siren admits she was too much in the sway of critics who dismiss him. ("Power was as much like a very nice bank clerk as ever," sighs David Shipman, describing The Razor's Edge. Pauline Kael called him "wanly miscast" in, of all things, The Mark of Zorro, one of Power's best swashbucklers.) Admittedly, there was always something guarded about Power as an actor. You seldom get the sense that you are seeing the whole of one of his characters on screen. The difference in Nightmare Alley (as well as in Witness for the Prosecution) is the way he takes that wariness, the reluctance to reveal, and uses it. When, back at the carny, he accepts that final job offer, Tyrone Power's still-beautiful face is as psychologically bare as any actor in noir.