Monday, June 27, 2016

Chicago (1927)

(The unabridged and updated version of a Siren column about the 1927 silent version of Chicago, first published behind a paywall at the now-defunct Nomad Widescreen.)

Nothing guarantees immortality for a murderer quite like getting away with it, as Lizzie Borden could have told you. So could Beulah Annan, the woman who, in 1924, shot a lover foolhardy enough to threaten to leave her — and who walked out of a courtroom 13 months later, a free woman. The story so captured her city and era that a play, a musical and two movie versions bear only the name of her town as a title: Chicago.

The 2002 Oscar-winner was a hashhouse mess that threw the Broadway musical revival's greatest asset — its Bob Fosse-inspired choreography — into a whirling Cuisinart of cuts. Director Rob Marshall demonstrated an uncanny instinct for slowing down the numbers that needed to sizzle, and cranking up the ones that needed some quiet. Trust the Siren, it’s a much better idea to turn to the 1927 silent and see how delightful this little cyanide pellet of a story remains.

Based on a 1926 hit play by Maurine Dallas Watkins, who covered both Beulah and a similar murderess for the Chicago Tribune, the film unspools the simple tale of a simple woman with two simple needs: fortune and fame, in that order. Roxie Hart (Phyllis Haver) is married to Amos (Victor Varconi). Amos works at a news-and-candy stand; he is poor, honest, hardworking, and loves his wee girly with all his handsome, sappy heart. Roxie, naturally, is sick to death of him, and has been carrying on with Rodney Casely (Eugene Pallette), who provides her with all the niceties.

In this silent movie Pallette is of course bereft of his famous voice, which sounded like a bullfrog trying to climb out of a tuba. But Pallette is young(ish), virile, many pounds lighter than in My Man Godrey nine years later and, more to the point, his character Casely has money. Money that he has been spending on Roxie, and money that he has decided, it transpires, to spend on something else. What that something else may be we are destined never to know, for when Rodney arrives at a tryst and rudely announces he's giving Roxie the air, she airs him in return, with a couple of bullet holes.

Amos, once over the shock of discovering Roxie isn't the true-blue sweetie he thought, attempts to take the rap for her, but is foiled by a wily, ambitious assistant district attorney (Warner Richmond). Roxie lands in jail and encounters the Matron (May Robson) plus an assortment of other female murderers, including Two-Gun Rosie (Viola Louie) the tragic Teresa (who isn't billed) and "The Real Lady,” later called Velma Kelly in the musicals, here played by a skinny, menacing and altogether fabulous Julia Faye. (Faye even bears a spooky resemblance to Bebe Neuwirth, who played Velma in the 1996 Broadway revival of Chicago.)

The rest of the film is taken up with watching Roxie scheme and feud from jail cell to courtroom, while Amos slides further into chump-dom as he attempts to rob the jailhouse lawyer (William Flynn) who's promised to get Rosie an acquittal. The idea is to pay the crooked shyster with his own money, and it’s a pretty good scheme for someone capable of doing it competently, which needless to say Amos is not.

Notice there has been so far no discussion of the director. That's because, well, pull up a chair. The name on the credits is Frank Urson, but Flicker Alley's excellent DVD edition includes a liner-note essay, "Who Directed Chicago?," indicating that even at the time of the movie’s release, producer Cecil B. DeMille was widely believed to have done most of the directing. But the essay muddles things further by noting that DeMille took over direction after seven days of photography. Then, in the next sentence, it asserts: "Urson seems to have directed much of the film." In his biography of DeMille, Empire of Dreams, Scott Eyman says the producer wound up "stepping in and directing a fair amount of the picture himself."

All clear then? No? Then it's best to look at Chicago itself, which is studded with moments that fairly screech DeMille, like the lingering shots of the opium-den splendor of the lawyer's lair. Who knew jailhouse work could inspire a highly developed taste for chinoiserie, down to an elegant marble inkwell where you can stash your cash payoffs? There's also the major role played by Roxie's garters, which have little tinkling bells attached to them. A catfight between Roxie and the Real Lady is shot in a lip-licking style any viewer of DeMille's ancient-world epics will recognize, and Fritzi of the wonderful Movies, Silently, believes that’s another thing that indicates DeMille was in charge: Julia Faye was C.B.’s mistress at the time. Plus,

DeMille kept every film he directed in his personal film vault. Of all the dozens of films released as programmers and specials under the DeMille banner, there was only one movie found in that personal vault that did not have DeMille as the credited director. You guessed it, that movie was Chicago.

Frizzy-haired, sulky-sexy Phyllis Haver was one of Mack Sennett's original Bathing Beauties at age 16, earning a salary of $12 a week before moving on to DeMille's production company and performances in The Way of All Flesh (which is now, sadly, a lost film), What Price Glory?, and this picture, her biggest and best role. "I wasn't much of an actress," she told Sennett in his memoirs, but he begged to differ, and so will anyone watching Chicago. Her Roxie is a study in comic venality, dismissing flashes of conscience in the time it takes to powder her nose — which she does in the mirror that’s just been shattered by one of the bullets she fired at her lover.

Roxie makes little moues at Amos and at strategic moments she deploys baby-talk, helpfully spelled out in the intertitles. Judging by this movie and Booth Tarkington's novel Seventeen, as well as boop-a-doop singer Helen Kane and others, there was a near-epidemic of female baby-talk in the Jazz Age, and it threatened the sanity of many an otherwise stable man. Haver plays Roxie like a child in other ways, whether she's chewing energetically while Amos embraces her or giving him a kittenish look of apology when he accuses her of faithlessness.

Even the intertitles, not always a boon to a good silent movie, are funny — the Siren's favorite is the matron rebuking her charges with, “This is a decent jail, you can't act the way you do at home!” Despite some late-stage concessions to conventional morality, Chicago is a rambunctiously cynical film.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Madam Satan (1930)

(About five years ago the Siren had a column at a doomed little webzine called Nomad Widescreen, and she was in the habit of posting excerpts and links at her own place, you know the drill. Now that Nomad is long-gone she’s been going back and posting the columns in full, and whaddya know, she hadn’t gotten around to this one. So here, enjoy a slightly spruced-up version of the Siren’s musings on Madam Satan.)

“You’ve never seen anything like it,” proclaims the tagline for the 1930 Cecil B. DeMille musical Madam Satan. But for the first fifty-five minutes or so, it isn’t true, unless you have magically avoided all bedroom farces about neglected wives and straying husbands.

Around the hour mark, however, it’s time for Madam Satan et Cie to put on some Adrian costumes and start partying on an insanely large zeppelin, pausing only for an interpretative dance depicting the wonders of electricity. From that point on, Madam Satan justifies its publicity.

And perhaps the zero-to-90mph structure is meant to offer a provocative metaphor for life. Yes, life. For aren’t we all, in some sense, just waiting to party on a zeppelin? No? OK, maybe it’s just the Siren.

The story is a variation on the Johann Strauss warhorse Die Fledermaus. In Madam Satan, wife Angela (Kay Johnson), tired of the infidelities of her randy husband Bob (Reginald Denny), decides to get him back by disguising herself as a captivating guest at a masquerade ball. Bob falls for the wanton masked woman, and then she reveals her identity. After the shock has worn off, Bob returns to his newly interesting wife and declares, as all erring husbands in early comedies must, “I’ve been such a fool.”

The movie is one half-hour too long, that half-hour is right at the beginning, and it’s almost all scenes of the female lead, Kay Johnson. Scott Eyman, in his DeMille biography, calls Madam Satan’s three main characters (the other being Roland Young as the husband’s sidekick, Jimmy) “sexless.” That’s pretty much incontestable. Denny could deliver a quip, but he's too controlled for you to buy him as a lust-hound. Roland Young’s specialty was looking fretful, not a quality one associates with a red-hot lover. Johnson, at least in the first half, is an elegant blonde with a nice line in reproachfulness and the sex appeal of a bowl of tapioca. She was 26 years old, but she looks much older and, more important, she acts much older. Angela droops around planning to cook broccoli for dinner, complaining to the maid, picking out delicate melodies on the organ, and casting wounded looks that display her aristocratic profile. Hell, the Siren would cheat on her, too.

So during this long, long opener the main pleasure is the elegant way DeMille frames Cedric Gibbons and Mitchell Leisen’s art decoration; a particular bit of beauty is an all-glass shower stall with stunning Art Deco water fixtures. Otherwise, despite some bright dialogue (Johnson: “Bob has gone out;” Young: “By the door or the window?”), it’s standard stuff, even when the maid unexpectedly gets the first song — all about love being something you have to seize with both hands, or some such bit of sublety.

Then, thank goodness, we shift to the apartment of Bob’s bit on the side, Trixie, played by Lillian Roth. For later generations, Roth’s claim to fame would be writing the first major recovery memoir, I’ll Cry Tomorrow, about how she plummeted into alcoholism and degradation and reclaimed her life through Alcoholics Anonymous. By the time Roth published it, in 1953, her movie career was so long over that for most folks Roth was a dim memory of a cute kid playing it straight with the Marx Brothers in Animal Crackers. Her brief performance in Madam Satan shows just how big a shame it was that she flamed out. Roth could dance, she could sing and she was sexy beyond belief. When she flings off her rumpled satin robe and twitches her pelvis to the “Low Down” number, the vaudeville energy of this rather plump, frowsy jazz baby ignites the entire movie. The other actors catch fire around her, from the accompanist calling, “Put some pepper in it, Papa wants to sneeze” to Roland Young snapping, “I wouldn’t marry you to keep warm on an iceberg.”

And thereafter, at long last, we’re on the zeppelin, and everything else starts to cook. It’s a ravishing bunch of sets, like the unholy mating of Metropolis and The Hollywood Revue of 1929 — big ramps and shiny Bakelite staircases angling up and down. The guests mill about in costumes as unapologetically tasteless as anything MGM ever did. Worth waiting for: the woman whose symbolic “fish” costume has her attached to a toy fisherman, and another dressed as “the call of the wild,” complete with a stuffed elephant and leopard and a yard-wide white-wool wig.

And there’s that lightning/electricity dance number, which begins and ends without explanation of any kind. One minute the guests are hanging around the zeppelin whooping it up, the next minute a large group of people are dancing around an electrified pseudo-god and you’re agog at the costumes that crawl right up the chorus girls’ backsides — or the Siren was, anyway. Then, just as abruptly, it’s back to the arriving guests.

Johnson acquits herself better in the second half, vamping her husband in a “flames of hell” costume and affecting a passable French accent: “Who vants to go to ’ell weeth Mad-AM Say-TAN?” Still, the moment when Johnson has a sort of dance-off with Roth is a mistake — tart or no tart, Roth wipes the floor with her.

Johnson and Denny have a rather dull tryst and then, as if sensing this won’t suffice for dramatic action, DeMille unmoors the zeppelin and everyone has to parachute off. He has great fun filming the panicked guests and their landings in and around the Central Park reservoir. At times it’s so close to the rescue sequence in The Towering Inferno that I wondered if Irwin Allen had ever seen Madam Satan.

It is, as Eyman put it, a “movie that no one but DeMille could have directed--or would have wanted to: a musical comedy-romance-drama-disaster film.” With a zeppelin, yet. Still, if someone asked the Siren for reasons to see it, you'd better believe she'll mention the moment when a six-armed Hindu goddess lands in the middle of a craps game. But she’d start with Lillian Roth.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941)

The Siren's essay for the Blu-Ray release of Here Comes Mr. Jordan, the immortal supernatural comedy made at Columbia in 1941 and directed by Alexander Hall, is now online at the Criterion Collection site. The story of Joe Pendleton (Robert Montgomery, in one of his best performances), a boxer whose soul is snatched too soon from a plane wreck, and the efforts of the Unmentioned Almighty's recording angel Mr. Jordan (Claude Rains) to restore him to a body (and life) that's "in the pink," stills plays like a charm.

The movie was released, as the Siren points out, during a year that was wall-to-wall with perfectly terrible news. And it was a huge hit. After watching Here Comes Mr. Jordan several times for this essay, the Siren can tell you that its restorative powers endure. The essay can be read in its entirety here. The Blu-Ray can be purchased at Criterion or wherever fine physical media are sold.

Excerpt follows:

The much-loved Here Comes Mr. Jordan has spawned two direct remakes and a sequel, but the 1941 original retains a snap and a vigor—and a unique charm—that no other version has been able to duplicate. Why does it keep such a hold on our affections? Perhaps it’s the way it mixes elements in a way unique to its era—screwball comedy, slapstick farce, boxing fable, supernatural romance. Directed by Alexander Hall and released by Columbia Pictures, it boasts a just-crazy-enough premise—angels try to return the soul of a boxer, who has been mistakenly snatched by an overeager apprentice, to a ring-ready body back on Earth—yet has enough real-world pathos to leave a lasting emotional impact. The rollicking dialogue and gleefully complex plot, the film’s belief in friendship, destiny, and true love, and even—or perhaps especially—its indifference to theology and the permanence of death, are as irresistible as ever.

The movie has two bona fide stars: Robert Montgomery as boxer Joe Pendleton, showing off a convincing accent straight from New York’s outer boroughs, and Claude Rains and his heavenly voice as Mr. Jordan, the executive angel who must fix his underling’s mistake. The endless complications of the story arise from the early twist of Joe’s grief-stricken manager, Max (James Gleason), having Joe’s earthly remains cremated. Eventually Joe is deposited in the body of Bruce Farnsworth, a rich layabout whose wife (Rita Johnson) and secretary (John Emery) have just teamed to bump him off, or so they think. Joe isn’t keen on being a dissipated millionaire—he wants to regain his shot at the boxing championship with a body that’s “in the pink,” a phrase he repeats so often that even the serene Mr. Jordan tells him it’s “obnoxious.” But then Joe lays eyes on dewy Bette (Evelyn Keyes), a young woman whose father has been swindled by Farnsworth. To help her, Joe becomes Farnsworth, and settles for hiring a baffled but cooperative Max to train the body he’s got.

For Montgomery, this film marked a shift from the sophisticates he had played for much of his career. “The directors shoved a cocktail shaker in my hands and kept me shaking it for years,” he once remarked. He’d been permitted to put down the martinis for an acclaimed role as a Cockney serial killer menacing Rosalind Russell in 1937’s Night Must Fall. And in 1940, in something of a warm-up for Mr. Jordan, Montgomery had been an American bootlegger who somehow winds up inheriting a British title in The Earl of Chicago. But Joe Pendleton was the role that let Montgomery fully combine his comic abilities with a macho quality he’d rarely been allowed to display.

Monday, June 06, 2016

"Steel and Silk": A 100th Birthday Tribute to Olivia de Havilland, at Sight & Sound

The Siren is proud to announce that she was asked by the venerable Sight & Sound to write a tribute to Olivia de Havilland on the occasion of that great lady's 100th birthday, which will occur on July 1. With their permission, she is posting an excerpt. You can purchase Sight & Sound here; if you want to know about all the goodies in the latest issue, click right here.

One thing you won't find in the Sight & Sound tribute, if you pick up a copy (and of course the Siren hopes you do): a discussion of the famous feud with Olivia's sister, Joan Fontaine. This was de Havilland's show all the way. For many years, even as she wrote about Fontaine, the Siren has insisted that she has fully as much admiration for de Havilland. Now, patient readers, the Siren has 2500 words in print to prove it.

The Snake Pit
And this was a pleasure to write. It entailed revisiting films ranging from The Snake Pit (de Havilland's personal favorite), to her Oscar winners The Heiress and To Each His Own, to de Havilland's marvelous work with Errol Flynn, to lesser-known gems like My Cousin Rachel. They all left the Siren more impressed than ever with the delicacy and emotional breadth of de Havilland's acting.

Dodge City
As part of her research, the Siren was permitted to listen to a recording of an extensive talk that de Havilland gave at the British Film Institute some years back. She discussed her entire career, and by the time she took questions from the audience, they were (of course) eating out of her hand. She spent a lot of time discussing the landmark "De Havilland decision" that finally cracked the ironclad legal agreements that kept some actors chained to a studio, unable to turn down lousy roles unless they wanted to serve out the missed time on the back end of the contract. She remembered every detail, and no wonder. It wasn't simply a matter of de Havilland calling in some hotshot lawyers and turning them loose. The Siren wanted this article to make clear that the case took two years, and demanded a great deal of personal sacrifice. De Havilland's famed graciousness and charm come along with a strong, ambitious and determined character.

The excerpt follows.

Hold Back the Dawn
By May 1943 her contract was up, and she happily anticipated a new phase. Now she could seek out more parts like the lovelorn schoolteacher betrayed by Charles Boyer in Mitchell Leisen’s Hold Back the Dawn (1941) – a film she loved, and another Oscar nod, achieved on loan to Paramount. Not so fast, said the brothers Warner. She had to serve out the additional six months she had accrued on suspension.

De Havilland contemplated the studio offering she’d just completed, a third-billed turn in a Brontë sisters’ biopic called Devotion (1946), playing a bizarre version of Charlotte Brontë who flounces around in dainty clothes, steals Emily’s fiancé, and is never glimpsed holding a pen. De Havilland sued.

The lovely Livvy was tilting at windmills, was the consensus around town. Asked in her BFI interview if she garnered support from her colleagues, she said, without rancour, “I was rather by myself, because nobody thought I could win.” Her lawyer thought she could, however, by invoking an old California ‘anti-peonage’ (debt slavery) law which forbad contracts that extended past seven years. In November 1943 the case went to trial.

As soon as she filed suit, Jack Warner wrote to every studio in town to remind them that she was still effectively under contract. In court the studio didn’t hesitate to fight dirty, insinuating that an affair was the real reason the actress had turned down one movie. The Warner attorneys, however, hadn’t reckoned on the de Havilland sang froid. She had spent years on set with Michael Curtiz, one of the most notorious yellers in the business; these guys were nothing. So when one lawyer thundered, “Is it not true, Miss de Havilland, that on the morning of January 16, you wantonly refused to show up for work on Stage 8?” “Certainly not,” came the reply in that musical de Havilland voice. “I declined.”

Dinah Shore, Orson Welles, Frances Langford, Walter Huston and Olivia de Havilland 
The judge ruled for de Havilland, but not until March 1944. Warner Brothers appealed, Jack Warner dropped producers another line to say the matter was far from over, and for the rest of the year de Havilland stayed, as Otto Friedrich put it in City of Nets, his portrait of Hollywood in the 1940s, “unemployed and unemployable”.

On tour with the USO
For two years de Havilland made no movies, from the age of 26 to 28, vital years for an actress. Her legal bills mounted; she drew on her savings and, after the first ruling in her favour, found some work on radio. She refused to give in, and she refused to stay idle. She travelled to Alaska to visit soldiers, and such was Warner’s pettiness that according to Friedrich, he wrote to General Hap Arnold seeking to blackball the actress to stop her entertaining the troops. Arnold, unlike Hollywood, told Warner to mind his own business. The court of appeals ruled in de Havilland’s favour, and Warner Brothers appealed to the California Supreme Court. She went to the South Pacific, visiting the wounded and contracting pneumonia so severe that she coughed blood and her weight dropped to 90 pounds. De Havilland was convalescing in the hospital in the Fiji Islands when word came that the Supreme Court had refused to hear the studio’s appeal. She’d won.

Years before, Bette Davis had failed in her attempt to challenge her contract. Jack Warner had just found out that his all-purpose flower-like ingénue was tougher than Jezebel.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

What I Think About When They Say Donald Trump Cannot Possibly Become President

... From The Past Is Myself, the memoir of an Englishwoman named Christabel Bielenberg. In the early 1930s she fell in love with a German law student named Peter Bielenberg, married him in 1934, and stayed with him in Germany throughout the war, even as he was arrested and sent to Ravensbruck for involvement in the July 20, 1944 plot to kill Hitler.

The year is 1932, and Christabel is trying to understand German politics.

Hitler was himself was to speak to an open-air rally, and the venue was — not inappropriately as Peter did not fail to point out — Hagenbeck's Zoo. A huge area had been cordoned off, and rows of burly Storm-troopers wedged the milling crows into orderly rectangles. Peter survived the community singing, the rolling of the drums, the National and the Party anthems, but his reaction to the usual reverberating start was unequivocal. My ears were hardly attuned to the Leader's Austrian accent, before I found myself being marched out of the enclosure. Up against the giraffe house, well within earshot of and successfully silencing some Party stalwarts in brown pillbox hats who were rattling collection boxes under the noses of luckless late-comers, Peter delivered himself of one of his rare political pronouncements.

"You may think that Germans are political idiots, Chris," he said very loudly and very firmly, "and you may be right, but of one thing I can assure you, they won't be so stupid as to fall for that clown."

(More about Christabel here.)

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

In Memoriam: The Ziegfeld Theater, 1969-2016

Last week the Siren was in Midtown, meeting a friend for drinks, and she passed the Ziegfeld Theater, Manhattan’s most glorious movie venue. And she saw that The Force Awakens was playing there, and thought, “Hey, that one’s practically a license to print money. I know the Ziegfeld's had some problems, but I bet Star Wars is helping a lot."

Given her prophetic abilities as they stand currently revealed, you can take the Siren’s theory about what killed the Ziegfeld for whatever it’s worth. But dead the Ziegfeld most certainly is. A "high-end event space"? Thank you so much, O Titans of Business! We were running out of those in Manhattan!!

Here's the Siren's theory, anyway. Take it or leave it.

Real estate killed the Ziegfeld.

But not in the way you may be thinking (i.e., the theater's own rent). Real estate killed the Ziegfeld's audience.

Movies, as the Siren wrote in her novel, are the people’s art form. For all the glitzy premieres held at the theater, like any other venue it needed people who could attend regularly. And as the years went by, fewer and fewer working-stiff film lovers lived within striking distance of the Ziegfeld. It is at 141 West 54th Street in Manhattan, between 6th and 7th Avenues. It’s close to a lot of subway trains. But the Ziegfeld is a long-ass haul from much of Brooklyn. It is a shlep from much of Queens, where a lot of shallow-pocketed cinephiles also live. From the Bronx or Staten Island, fuggedaboudit. Combine that with the rise of ever-more-pristine home video versions of the crowd-pleasers that once were the Ziegfeld’s bread and butter, and, well.

You can call it laziness, if you want to be a scold. But when you’re scraping by, as so many ordinary New Yorkers are, time is money. An hour to get there, an hour to get back, after long hours of however you’re earning a living — that isn’t a small physical and mental consideration. If you are paying a sitter a typical NYC rate, it’s a pretty large monetary factor as well.

Who does live close to the Ziegfeld these days? Well, there’s this charming edifice, which casts a shadow like a middle finger raised to Central Park, and is filled with condominiums bought as investment properties, many of them empty for large blocks of the year. (More are on the way.) When these owners are in town, the Siren suspects they spend more time at expense-account restaurants and the offices of personal shoppers than they do in the red-velvet seats of the Ziegfeld.

There are many hotels in the immediate vicinity, full of tourists on the phone to the concierge, begging for tickets to Hamilton. When you spend New York money for a visit here, a ticket to a movie seems like awfully weak tea. “The Force Awakens? Really? C'mon honey, we can see that back in Phoenix. If we can’t swing Hamilton, let’s try The Book of Mormon.”

The Ziegfeld was a swell location for the Siren when she lived on Avenue A, and even better when she lived on 125th Street and Broadway. She can remember when they still allowed smoking in the balcony. She can remember standing on 6th Avenue, very far back on the line to see a dazzling 70mm version of Vertigo. Such was the space at the Ziegfeld that even though it was sold out, she had a great view. The Siren can still hear the sympathetic groan that went up from the audience after a certain tragic death in Lawrence of Arabia.

Probably the last time the Siren went to the Ziegfeld was for the Turner Classic Movie Film Festival, god bless ’em. It was All About Eve. The great Elaine Stritch introduced the movie and took questions afterward. A Bright Young Thing asked a question about “back in your day.” There was a pause of terrifying length. And then The Goddess Elaine responded, “This IS my day.”

Oh my god, how the Siren will miss the sound of more than a thousand film fans laughing when a good line brings down the house.

But here is the memory of the great Ziegfeld that the Siren will carry forever, the way a besotted fan remembers every syllable a star uttered while signing an autograph.

It was perhaps one month after 9/11. The Siren’s BFF, a film editor, talked her into getting on the subway and coming uptown to see Funny Girl at the Ziegfeld. This man doesn’t like musicals. He’s no Barbra Streisand fan. If he loves William Wyler as the Siren does, he has yet to elaborate on it. But insist he did, and thus did the Siren haul her cookies up to West 54th Street.

The movie was preceded by a preview for Ice Age, which involved a squirrel precipitating an enormous, thunderous, crashing avalanche of massive fragments from an infinitely towering wall of ice. The squirrel runs like crazy to avoid being crushed.

Why this struck anyone as a fine-and-dandy preview to run on a gigantic screen, in October 2001, in New York City, the Siren will never know. She sat in horrified silence, and her BFF managed only to mutter, “Jesus fucking Christ.”

Mercifully, Funny Girl began. And on the screen at the Ziegfeld, that film bloomed. The streets of New York, backlot or location, beckoned. Streisand’s blazing talent never seemed more apparent. Up comes this number.

At about 2:30 Brice is boarding the ferry and you get a glimpse of lower Manhattan — without the World Trade Center, a view that until recently, the Siren had never known and her friend only vaguely remembered. We watched this on the screen at the Ziegfeld, with that sound system wrapping us in Streisand’s eternally New York voice. Streisand/Brice stood on the ferry's deck, belting out Jule Styne and Bob Merrill's anthem as the boat pulled across the harbor. The Siren started crying. She looked at her friend, and he was touching the corners of his eyes.

We glanced at each other some minutes after the number was over, and started to laugh. Because we were both such saps, because this film was so much better than we had ever given it credit for being, because the city was beautiful in 1968, and by god, it would be again. We were probably annoyingly loud, very much the sort who could inspire a blog post about bad movie manners, had blogs been more of a thing in 2001. But it didn’t matter much, because we were sitting more or less dead center, and there were only about a dozen other people in the Ziegfeld.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Truly, Madly, Deeply; Alan Rickman; and Loss

The Siren starts by admitting that she rented Truly, Madly, Deeply some twenty-odd years ago only because she had a raging crush on the late Alan Rickman. (How the Siren hates having to put “the late” in front of that name.) She’d flipped for him, like most of the women and a good many men in the film-watching world, in Die Hard. That lean face, that lustrous voice, that walk that made you yearn to see him cross a room, headed straight for you. OK, he was playing an armed robber, and a notably ruthless one at that. But he was the biggest dose of dangerous cinematic swoon since the likes of Basil Rathbone (to whom Rickman was often compared).

The Siren’s father had died not long before she saw Truly, Madly, Deeply. So, inevitably, the movie wrecked her. The Siren’s beloved, movie-watching mother died suddenly in November, and at the moment, it’s an effort to revisit this film even in memory. But the Siren's going to do it anyway.

The story concerns a London-based translator, Nina, played by Rickman’s lifelong friend Juliet Stevenson, for whom director Anthony Minghella wrote the part. Her lover Jamie (Rickman) died some months earlier. He woke up one morning with a sore throat, and within days, he was gone. Now Nina is trying to get on with it, but in most ways, she can’t. She's a blubbering mess every time she sees the shrink. She has a new flat, but she hears Jamie’s voice echoing through it.

Then one day Nina is playing a Bach sonata on the piano, one that she and Jamie used to play together. A note from a cello sounds, and slowly the camera moves to show you that Jamie is there, playing his old instrument. At first it’s hard to tell whether the camera is showing us Nina’s daydream. And then she turns, and together with Nina you realize, no. He’s there.

The Siren often dreams about the people she’s lost. In these dreams, she always knows that her father and mother are dead, yet somehow they are back, and she accepts it in the way a dream makes you accept everything. There’s no big reunion, seldom even any discussion. The emotions come when the dream is over. When Nina turns and sees Jamie, she embraces him, weeping so hard she can scarcely see, clutching to make sure this is him, this is his body. That moment has everything the Siren would feel if she found her parents when she awoke, if she could say, “You’ve come back to me.” She would weep and clutch at them the same way. We all would.

Nina’s love has returned, and the movie traces the goofy joy that has come back with him. They play music, sing off-key serenades, talk, even make love. He stays for days, then weeks. Jamie is amusing, attentive, he’s always around. But he complains ceaselessly of feeling cold. He eats strange food. He fills the flat with pale, badly dressed friends from the afterlife who lounge around the TV, argue about whether to watch Annie Hall or Fitzcarraldo, and scatter crumbs all over everywhere. ''I don't know who these people are,'' Nina protests, to no avail. ''I don't even know what period they're from.''

And so Nina gradually recalls the things she pushed out of her memory when Jamie was still gone. He has a snobbish streak and a tendency to drone on about the Tories. He’s controlling, too. Even on loan from the hereafter, Jamie nags his girlfriend about how she brushes her teeth. He maxes out the thermostat and rearranges the furniture without asking. It isn’t that Jamie is secretly a jerk; he’s artistic and loving, and besides, all his rebukes and suggestions are uttered in that sinuous Rickman voice. But soon we realize that this scenario is wrong, that no matter how badly she wanted him back, Nina can’t be with Jamie anymore.

What isn’t as apparent, at least at first, is that Jamie hasn’t returned to comfort Nina. He’s here to show her how to do that herself. And then, he will leave.

The shot of Alan Rickman as Jamie, watching Nina through a window as she walks into what will be the rest of her life, is the Siren’s favorite in all his films. (And brother, the Siren has seen a lot of Rickman. That crush is still with her, and always will be). Rickman was never maudlin. He isn’t prompting the audience to pity Jamie or marvel at his sacrifice. In his face, and his wave, and when he turns back to his ghostly friends, Rickman plays the truth of this supernatural, impossible moment: Jamie still loves Nina, and from wherever he will spend eternity, he wants to know she is fully living while she’s alive.

Most of us believe art isn’t didactic, much less therapeutic. And yet there are movies like Truly, Madly, Deeply that tell us things, or perhaps affirm truths that we already know. That whatever plane the dead move to, no matter how cruelly or how soon, that is where they have to stay. That even if we could call them back, in a deeper sense, we couldn’t. When she first saw this film, the Siren thought of Katherine Anne Porter’s Pale Horse, Pale Rider, and how the heroine Miranda faces the pitiless finality of death:

If I could call you up from the grave I would, she said, if I could see your ghost I would say, I believe…‘I believe,’ she said aloud. ‘Oh, let me see you once more.’ The room was silent, empty, the shade gone from it, struck away by the sudden violence of her rising and speaking aloud. She came to herself as if out of sleep. Oh no, that is not the way, I must never do that, she warned herself.

Anthony Minghella’s film makes the same point as Porter’s tragedy, only with comedy and hope. Surely the people who knew Minghella turned to Truly, Madly, Deeply after he died of a brain hemorrhage, age 54.

Alan Rickman, so precise and intelligent an actor, must have known Truly, Madly, Deeply was both catharsis and comfort. But it isn’t a good one to see when grief is fresh, or at least the Siren won't do that. After time has passed, and you’re trying to find your way forward, the film is beautifully and exactly right.

Maybe next year, Mr. Rickman.