After a year and a half of being all-inclusive, for an indeterminate length of time I’ll only be writing capsule reviews for the Top Ten By Year watchlist films. I’ll continue to engage with everything I see by informally writing in my film notebook, but as far as the blog goes, it’s more manageable this way. I’ll list the other films I’ve seen recently with their letterboxd score, but keep in mind that scores are used for vague personal markings, not value judgments.
As I did with 1992, I’ll be going through 1958 by sectioning the watchlist off into broad sections, usually by genre or geography. These mini-units take the specificity of year one step further into the realm of case studies such as where was the Western at in 1958? and other such musings. The 1950’s in American filmmaking was a time of Method, the omniscient influence of theatre, realism, location shooting, self-seriousness, message pictures, humorless renderings. Glamour was replaced with stern representations. Black and white no longer shimmered; grays looked, well, gray. Placid. That’s putting it reductively. I hope to come to a more hands-on understanding of where filmmaking was in 1958, and where it was going.
The first of nine planned sections was technically Crime/Noir/Mystery but I was using the paper I’d written notes on as a bookmark for a book I left at the doctor’s office. Yes, I know. And now it’s been too long so I’ll forgo that first section. For now, here’s one of the shortest sections from the watchlist; the ‘Biopic’. There are only two first-time viewings. My re-watch for the ‘Biopic’ was Robert Wise’s I Want to Live! starring Susan Hayward, which proved much more trying than I had remembered, peaking very early on with Hayward’s introductory bedtime silhouette shot. For a ‘factual’ social drama, it somehow lets the human element fall through the cracks, in no small part due to the lead actress’s Oscar winning performance which reeks of showcasing and is made up of thunderous brass ad infinitum. I was going to have a re-watch of Ivan the Terrible Part II in here, but upon consideration decided to disqualify the film because it was shot in the 40’s, and its release in 58 isn’t even remotely representative of the time.
That brings us to Too Much Too Soon and The Goddess, showbiz ‘biopics’ that unsurprisingly circumvent relationships to craft, focusing instead on the (at this point in film) more commonly depicted dilemmas of addiction/personal demons. The former is based on Diana Barrymore’s memoir, the latter a three-part fictional legend written by Paddy Chayevsky and rumored to be inspired by Marilyn Monroe’s chronic loneliness and severe psychological childlike forms of dependency. Frank acknowledgment of addiction was a sort of hot topic by the late 1950’s, still new enough for its directness to have a knowingly transgressive tinge. In Too Much, Too Soon, alcoholism is often played like a horror show. In one scene Diana (Dorothy Malone) returns to her father John’s (Errol Flynn) cavernous castle to find darkness, the ornate bird cage now empty, broken bottles, and the ominous sound of tinkling glass coming the shadows. Where’s Dad?
Are we watching Errol Flynn play Errol Flynn or Errol Flynn playing his friend John Barrymore? This being a year before Flynn’s death, and knowing his personal history, it’s hard to tell. What I do know is that it’s the best he’d ever be onscreen. It’s a perfect example of how acting had translated from the studio heyday into the 50’s. This larger than life star, once an untouchable heroic screen presence, was now revealing himself to be cripplingly human.
Too Much, Too Soon is Post-Oscar Dorothy Malone, taking names and lead roles. The film focuses on the inescapable impulse to give parents the benefit of the doubt. Split into John and Post-John eras, the latter half sees Diana picking up where her father left off. She goes through ill-advised and abusive relationships (never has a tennis ball been more intimidating), and slides into a drunken abyss of existence. Both this and The Goddess are eager to provide comprehensive roots for their characters behavior. Scenes from childhood are carefully doled out. Diana’s (Malone playing Diana as a schoolgirl starts us off on a bizarre note) incessant need for her father and his attention while the lonely Emily Ann (Kim Stanley) is an unwanted child who tells her cat about her day because it’s all she has.
Both work so hard at laying down the psychological groundwork that neither film takes off the way they should. At the time this was a novel approach, but now it reads as somewhat inert. The turmoil serves to prove that the actors can get inside their characters heads, but the film’s themselves can’t cross that bridge. Too Much, Too Soon arguably suffers from this more. Its second half can be summed up as; Dad’s dead, Dad passes the alcoholic baton to Diana, Diana drinks. A lot. It isn’t a rise and fall narrative because, well, Diana never really rose. It’s more a get-to-know-the-famous-pop and fall. Diana and her emotions are so tethered to Papa John, she is never made compelling in her own right. But the second half makes up for the loss of John/Errol by punctuating Diana’s descent with oddities in tone and performance. Malone’s voice goes crackly. And she appears in proto-Baby Jane makeup in one of the more grotesque, effective, and grotesquely effective rock bottom scenes in recent memory. Think a late 50’s rendition of Ellen Burstyn’s lipstick party in Requiem for a Dream. The Goddess is built around Chayevsky’s Paddy-talk monologues. It only takes nine minutes for the shrieking to begin. Bringing to life the sensationalist inspiration (doubly notable because Monroe still had 4 more years of life ahead of her by the film’s release and was a larger than life current star) was fellow Actors Studio student Kim Stanley making her film debut as Emily Ann Faulker/Rita Shawn. There is some serious movie career momentum being set up here for the stage actress. Now that the movies favored psychological portraiture, the foundation was set for a new generation of actors to take the reins and represent complex characters inside and out.
The Goddess is common among this long-running wave of serious-minded stories that convey information not by showing, but by telling. And telling. And telling some more. The Goddess is explicitly concerned with tracking how someone gets to be a damaged and dependent childlike loner. Dissolves are used to overlay in-the-moment significance with empty emphasis, putting an expiration date on the ‘during’. Stanley is oddly cast (she struggles to carry the early schoolgirl scenes and ditches sexpot allure entirely) making up for what she lacks in star quality with, well, some serious chops. Gal’s got gumption to spare. Yet for all the build-up surrounding her debut, it is Betty Lou Holland as her floozy-turned-pious mother who stands out most. This part was the highest profile role of her career and it’s a conspicuous and transformative powerhouse, the kind of heavy, leaden performance that could find a nice home in Citizen Kane.
One film ends with hope in the form of an old and newly bald friend, the other with the resigned permanence of formative trauma. Of the two films and their real-life inspirations, Too Much Too Soon is the only one of the four (Diana, Movie Diana, Rita, Marilyn) to end with light on the horizon. The Goddess sees Rita basically living as a free-roaming one woman asylum with an righteously overprotective assistant who will always, for better and worse, be there to take care of her. Everybody knows Marilyn passed away at the age of 36 a few years later. And lastly, a mere two years after Too Much Too Soon’s release, Diana Barrymore passed away of an alcohol and drug overdose at age 38.
Other Recent Viewings:
Honeymoon (2014, Janiak) **
The Bronte Sisters (1979, Techine) **1/2
Borgman (2014, Warmerdam): ****
The Congress (2014, Folman) ***