Tuesday, September 12, 2017

LIZ SMITH: Duty to the world

 Linda Darnell, Ann Sothern, and Jeanne Crain in 1949's “A Letter to Three Wives.”
by Liz Smith & Denis Ferrara

"Outlander" Returns ... "The Deuce" Debuts — Fall TV Sizzles.  Also The "Satanic" Rolling Stones ... The Divine Linda Darnell.   

“YOU have no idea how hard it is to live out a great romance,” confided Wallis Simpson, the Duchess of Windsor, many years after she watched King Edward VIII abdicate his throne for her — “the woman I love” — as he famously broadcast his renunciation of royal duty to the world.
WELL, in truth, the hard part of Wallis and the Duke’s romance was the crushing dissatisfaction, ennui and boredom of their life after they became roaming ex-pats from Britain, bitter, brittle and pointless. 

A genuinely difficult, truly great romance might be exemplified by the beloved fictional characters Claire Randall and Jamie Frasier of the “Outlander” books and the TV series.
Sam Heughan as Black Jack Randall and Caitriona Balfe as Claire Randall Fraser.
The show returned Sunday night via the Starz network, in dazzling style — heartbreaking, brutal and romantic. 

The three main actors — Caitriona Balfe (Claire), Sam Heughan (Jamie) and Tobias Menzies (in the dual role of Jack Randall — the obsessed 16th century Jamie-torturing villain and confused 20th  century hubby to Claire) — remain superb.  As does every aspect of the series; based on the season opening, anyway.  Best were Claire’s attempts to adapt to the restrictive standards of the 1948 world she has returned to (for non-viewers, time travel is involved — just go with it!) 
Tobias Menzies and Sam Heughan. Photo Credit: Starz
Also, one of the most brutal extended execution scenes ever filmed, as British soldiers dispense with Scottish rebels. The horror is not in what is shown, graphically, but what one doesn’t see, and how the soldiers coldly, calmly announce, “Who will be next?”  

I can’t imagine fans are in the least disappointed with this return.
Caitriona Balfe and Tobias Menzies. Photo Credit: Starz
ALSO ON Sunday night was the premiere of HBO’s highly anticipated “The Deuce” about the seedy world of New York’s prostitution and porn life, circa 1971. This is everything HBO’s failed music 1970’s era series, “Vinyl” was not.  It is dazzling, dissolute, magnificently acted (yes, James Franco, playing twin brothers, finally has something he looks truly involved in.)  Maggie Gyllenhaal, as the no-pimps-on-me hooker, working 42nd Street is sensational. (This is go-for-broke performing for Gyllenhaal who, at age 39, eschews all vanity for the role.)  The recreation of Manhattan at its grimiest — but most compellingly pulsating — is incredibly rendered.  I’ve rarely been as impressed/instantly hooked by a series.  Fair warning — graphic to the max.  Not for the faint of heart.  Kudos to all.
James Franco and Maggie Gyllenhaal in "The Deuce.” Courtesy of HBO
MUSIC NOTES:  On September 22nd one of the most controversial and criticized Rolling Stones albums, 1967’s “Their Satanic Majesties Request,” will receive a deluxe re-release, on vinyl and CD, with mono and stereo versions and the original cover art. (Lenticular, or depth of vision — it was considered very “druggy” in that very druggy era. The cover was more discussed at the time than the songs!)
The deluxe re-release of the Stones' “Their Satanic Majesties Request." Click to order.
Although the album did reasonably well, it was compared negatively to The Beatles “Sgt. Pepper,” which came out the same year.  But it’s been 50 years, and since the Stones are still vibrantly with us — for heaven’s sake, Mick is still producing children! — ABKCO Music thinks it is time for a re-evaluation.  In fact, the record is not nearly the “rubbish” some of the Stones themselves thought it was.  It is a considerably more interesting effort than the one small hit that it spawned, “She’s a Rainbow.” 
Speaking of that tune, in connection the re-release of the album, a new music video has been created, by Lucy Dawkins and Tom Reddy.  It’s called a “lyric video” because aside from fantastical visuals, the song’s (rather lame) lyrics are shown.  But it’s a fun thing to watch, showing mostly famous women who were subjects of art from the Victorian, Classical, Romantic and Renaissance eras.  It’s amusing, colorful and you can find it on the Jezebel website. 

A Jezebel reviewer, Kelly Faircloth, writes that the video “makes you yearn for a beach on which to blaze while wearing a caftan.” (Or, yearn for a joint, beach and caftan optional.)
“IF ANYBODY wants me, they can come in and get me.  This ain’t a drive-in!”

That’s Linda Darnell, in 1949’s “A Letter to Three Wives,” one of the two films that secured Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s reputation as perhaps the most revered of great director/screenwriter’s.  (He would follow with the fabled “All About Eve, in 1950.)
Linda Darnell as Lora Mae Hollingsway in “A Letter to Three Wives.”
“A Letter to Three Wives”  ran late Sunday night on the Movies! Network. I’d caught Darnell on TCM earlier in the day in 1952’s “Blackbeard the Pirate.” The latter movie was an entertaining and profitable potboiler, but it was already a sign that the dark and sultry Darnell, who had begun in films at the age of sixteen, and was not yet thirty years old, had reached and passed the peak of her career.
But it is “A Letter to Three Wives” that is her real peak, a tough/tender performance that should have won her an Oscar nomination at least. (The award has been given for far less committed performances than Darnell’s.) 
Her turn as cynical Lora Mae also should have woken up her home studio 20th Century Fox, to the kind of roles Darnell should be tackling, but Darryl Zanuck, who WAS Fox, wasn’t always wise. (He insisted Marilyn Monroe had no appeal, was nothing special and he earned her eternal enmity for the way he treated her, and some of the movies he forced her to make. Few star and studio head relationships were as bitter and at cross purposes as MM/Zanuck.)

There would be some good work for Linda after “A Letter To Three Wives,” most notably in another Mankiewicz film, the intense and provocative “No Way Out.”  But back then especially, once the industry decided you are “done” the fork was stuck in and that was pretty much that. There were also unhappy personal issues.  She would die horribly in a house fire in 1965 at the young age of 41, already a half forgotten figure of nostalgia.
But she (and her on-screen sparring partner Paul Douglas), are what keeps the “A Letter to Three Wives” afloat today, the spicy work of Ann Sothern and Kirk Douglas notwithstanding. (As with most Mankiewicz films, there is a lot of talk, sometimes a bit too self-consciously “smart” for its own good.)
Darnell and her on-screen sparring partner Paul Douglas.
One more note about this movie — Jeanne Crain, who plays the third wife in the film. Not a vivid actress, she was quite good with the right material, and here, helped by the Mank script, she does very well as the youngest and most insecure of the ladies.  What struck me, once again was how absolutely exquisite Crain was, a flawless beauty, who was just as photogenic as the likes of Hedy Lamarr, Elizabeth Taylor, Ava Gardner  and others remembered today as “most beautiful.” I don’t know if she was as impressive as the other ladies in the flesh, but onscreen, she was definitely their equal.  (I’d add Eleanor Parker to this list as well.  Many who knew Parker, of “Caged,” “Scaramouch” and later, “The Sound of Music” fame, would declare her as Hollywood’s most under-sung great beauty.)
Jeanne Crain as wife #3.
Oh, and here’s Darnell’s most famous bit of business in “A Letter to Three Wives.”    Thelma Ritter — who needs no descriptive adjective before her name — advises Linda on her first date with Douglas:  “You should wear somethin’ with beads, show what you got.” Darnell: “What I got don’t need beads!”

You said it, honey.
Barbara Lawrence, Thelma Ritter, and Linda Darnell.
Contact Liz here.