Monday, December 28, 2015

LIZ SMITH: Remakes and Holiday Affairs

Janet Leigh — one of the most beautiful women ever to grace the screen.
by Liz Smith

"Murder on the Orient Express" Remake? ... Mike Nichols ... Tiger Woods ... The real-life sorrow of Michelle Dockery ... Janet Leigh and "Holiday Affair."

"THE GREATEST thing that could happen is to not be remembered. What I mean by that is, the kids right now, they have no idea who Michael Jordan was, but the Jumpman logo is cool. My learning center, kids go through it and they don't know who I am. They don't know what I've done. But it's a safe haven for them to learn and grow."

Tiger Woods to Time magazine. And good for him and good luck to him, I say. Because we are all such perfect people out here, aren't we?
SPEAKING of perfect people, I am anticipating the HBO documentary "Becoming Mike Nichols" which debuts here on February 22nd.

Directed by Douglas McGrath and incorporating Mike's last in-depth interview his good friend, the director Jack O'Brien, this is said to be a stellar portrait of one of the great men of comedy stand-up, of movie, theater and TV directing. I have written so much about Mike that there is little else to add or to prompt people to watch this. He was a genius in his art and in his life. I miss him terribly.
JUST THE other day I was reporting on the rumored fourth re-make of "A Star is Born" and bitching a bit about the dearth of new ideas.

Now I see that Kenneth Branagh is planning to direct and star in a remake of Agatha's Christie's "Murder on the Orient Express." This was done brilliantly back in 1974, starring Lauren Bacall, Ingrid Bergman, Wendy Hiller, Vanessa Redgrave, Jacqueline Bisset, John Gielgud, Sean Connery, Richard Widmark, Martin Balsam, Anthony Perkins, Michael York and Albert Finney as Detective Hercule Poirot. It was just fabulous and won an Oscar for Miss Bergman — her third — for her small exquisite scene about tending to "little brown babies."
Jacqueline Bissett and Lauren Bacall in "Murder on the Orient Express."
Ingrid Bergman as Greta Ohlsson.
Albert Finney as Detective Hercule.
I suppose great material is always ripe for re-invention but I can't begin to think who to cast properly for all the various roles. At the time — in '74 — everybody was so perfect, and although waning, certain aspects of the star system still glittered.

I recall how dazzling and sexy Vanessa Redgrave was, conveying her interest in Sean Connery with just a toss of her head ... Lauren Bacall barking out her lines like cigarettes stubbed into an ashtray and the divine Wendy Hiller, as Princess Dragomiroff.
Sean Connery as Col. Arbuthnot and Vanessa Redgrave as Mary Debenham.
Lauren Bacall as Mrs. Hubbard.
Wendy Hiller as Princess Dragomiroff.
"You never smile, madame?" asks Finney of Hiller.

"My doctor has advised against it," she replies, separating every word as if each one was a tooth pulled without pain relief.

Hmmmm ... well, we still have Maggie Smith for that role.
I HAVE never met the actress Michelle Dockery, nor was I aware of her before her leap to fame as Lady Mary on "Downton Abbey." But she has become a favorite. Many people "hate" Lady Mary, but I find her refreshingly candid — she is not "politically correct." Perhaps not terribly nice all the time — especially to her insipid sister, Edith. But there's a warm heart beneath the well-dressed semi-ladylike exterior. At least that is how I have always found her characterization. (An acting job that has deserved an Emmy, so far withheld.)
I was so looking forward to the final season of "DA" which debuts here in the US on January 3rd. But now I feel almost ashamed that I was so excited. Miss Dockery recently suffered a real-life loss, in the death of her fiancé John Dineen. That her "DA" role has included the death of Lady Mary's husband, makes it all the worse.

Of course I will watch it. But I'm afraid Miss Dockery's every utterance will now be freighted with unhappy, unintended, double meanings. As if there wasn't enough fictional unhappiness in the world of "Downton."

I might never meet Michelle Dockery. But I send her every good wish, every healing thought, as this year comes to a close.
I CAME across — on Turner Classic Movies, naturally — a little gem called "Holiday Affair" starring Janet Leigh, Robert Mitchum and Wendell Corey. This concerns a young war widow (Leigh) and two suitors (Mitchum and Corey.) What struck me about the film — what made it a "gem" was the beauty and charm of Janet Leigh. In the movie she is compelled to choose between a man who appears irresponsible and somewhat sinister (Mitchum) and another who is doting but unbearably boring (Corey).
I kept thinking she should show the door to both of them and wait for some guy who is her equal, at least, certainly, in terms of looks. (In real life she got Tony Curtis!) Janet Leigh was simply one of the most beautiful women ever to grace the screen. And she had a body that just wouldn't quit.

It was, in fact, the body that Marilyn Monroe should have had! (MM had other qualities, chiefly her compelling vulnerability, but she did not always take care of her instrument — the shape that first propelled her to fame.)
Robert Mitchum and Janet Leigh in "A holiday Affair." Janet and Tony Curtis.
Leigh, with her face and form and a wonderful distinctive voice should have become one of MGM's biggest stars. But they wasted her in a lot of silly costume stuff, and her best work came from of loan-outs to Orson Welles and Alfred Hitchcock ("Touch of Evil," "Psycho.") And even then she was to the side or killed off suddenly. Leigh was compelling in "The Manchurian Candidate" but that was Sinatra's movie, and lots of fun in "Bye, Bye Birdie" but thanks to George Sidney's obsession, it became an Ann-Margret festival.
Janet Leigh (with her body that just wouldn't quit) in "Psycho." Returning to her trailer while shooting "Touch of Evil."
Watching "Holiday Affair" reminded me that the good old days of the big-studio system didn't always work out. Sure, you were groomed and protected and coddled. But when it came to the career you had to do as they said — or else. And if the studio choices failed, nobody in the executive offices took the fall. It was the star who was at fault.

It is likely that even if Janet Leigh had been handled correctly, she would not have become as big as she should have. Her family life was vital. Still, to see "Holiday Affair" is to wonder where else were they looking for great stars when they had all that right at hand?
Contact Liz Smith here.