Tuesday, March 21, 2017

LIZ SMITH: La Belle et la Bete

by Liz Smith & Denis Ferrara

Before Disney, There was Jean Cocteau's Dazzling "La Belle et la Bete."

“DONNEZ-MOI ma bête!”

Sitting in a darkened movie theater, that is what Greta Garbo sadly mused when she saw the extraordinarily handsome actor Jean Marais, transformed by love from fearsome beast to handsome prince in Jean Cocteau’s 1946 black and white masterpiece, “Beauty and the Beast.”

Translated it means, “Give me back my beast!”  (They didn’t call Garbo the Melancholy Swede for nothing.)
"Love can turn a man into a beast."
AS WE all now know, Disney’s latest incarnation of Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont’s 1756 fairy tale, is a gigantic hit, likely having passed the $400 million mark, breaking all sorts of records.

This live-action extravaganza stars Emma Watson as Belle, Dan Stevens as The Beast, Luke Evans as Gaston.  Also on hand, Josh Gad (Le Fou), Kevin Kline (Maurice), Emma Thompson (Mrs. Potts), Ian Mckellen (Cogsworth), Ewan McGregor (Lumiere), Stanley Tucci (Maestro Cadenza).  Music, of course, by Alan Menken, Tim Rice and Howard Ashman.
Emma Watson as Belle and Dan Stevens as The Beast in Disney’s latest incarnation.
The giddily giant grosses and hyped up anticipation have caused me to think back on past “B&B’s.”  I was absolutely swept away by the 1994 Broadway version. (Susan Egan and Terrance Mann and Beauty and Beast.)  I saw it a number of times and used the power of this column to browbeat everybody to see it at least once.

“Really, Disney’s ‘Beauty and the Beast?’  I pass.” This is what some of my more sophisticated friends said. I went to pains to disabuse them of the notion that it was a childish evening in the theater.  I was literally the show’s unpaid PR person. It was nominated for nine Tony’s. It took only one, to our displeasure.
Susan Egan and Terrance Mann in the 1994 Broadway version of Beauty and Beast.
I knew friends were resisting because “Beauty” had already been a wildly successful animated 1991 film, also from Disney.  This used the voices of — among others — Robby Benson, Paige O’Hara, Jerry Orbach, Jo Anne Worley and most memorably, Angela Lansbury as Mrs. Potts.  Her marvelous voice work turned Miss Lansbury, already a national treasure into, well — a universal treasure.  It was the first animated film to be nominated for a Best Picture Oscar.
BUT ALL this Disney talk has made me wonder if we’ve forgotten the source material, the film that so moved Miss Garbo? 

I admit I had director Jean Cocteau on the brain, having just re-read Francis Steegmuller’s great 1971 biography, “Cocteau” which included a delirious chapter on the shooting of “Beauty and the Beast.”  Jean Marais was Cocteau’s muse and lover. (Later, Marais starred in  Cocteau’s “Orphee.”) He was also addicted to all manner of abusive substances.  He was also married to actress Mila Parely.  All terribly French.
Cocteau and Marais on the set of Beauty and the Beast.
The country was in bad shape after World War II, and the film was beset with money problems, shortages of technicians and celluloid.  Jean Marais suffered agonies personal and professional (the Beast costume was a horror to wear.)  Yet against the odds it was made, and it stands as triumph of surrealism (the justly famous arm candelabras), Freudian sexuality and symbolism.
Marais becoming the beast.
There is also some considerable ambiguity at the end, when the beast (Marais) is revealed in all his human glory.  Belle (a lovely Josette Day)  doesn’t seem quite as happy as she should be; we feel perhaps, Belle should have accepted the Beast as a Beast.  Under the avalanche of gorgeous, then-unprecedented style, it’s a little hard to say.

What is not difficult to understand is Cocteau’s magnificent use of the camera — shadow and light, in glorious black-and-white. This is half-horror, half fairy tale, and essential, even if you adore your Disney “B&Bs.”
And I’ve always loved this opening title from the Cocteau film:

“Children believe what we tell them. They have complete faith in us. They believe that a rose plucked from a garden can plunge a family into conflict. They believe that the hands of a human beast will smoke when he slays a victim, and that this will cause the beast shame when a young maiden takes up residence in his home. They believe a thousand other simple things. I ask of you a little of this childlike simplicity, and, to bring us luck, let me speak four truly magic words, childhood's open sesame: "Once upon a time ..."

Required reading: Janet Reitman’s big piece in the current Rolling Stone, “Betsy DeVos’ Holy War.” She is the new and justly controversial Secretary of Education. Reitman’s article is sobering, intricate, scary reading — and terrific journalism. It is far more to the point of what liberals should be concerned about, rather than the Al Capone’s vault that was Rachel Maddow’s big presidential tax reveal. Maddow has taken a lot of heat for this, with Andrew Sullivan going so far as to chastise Maddow and the rest of MSNBC for its ongoing “smugness and condescension.” Finally, somebody listened to us! Too bad nobody did before the election. (We were also vastly amused by Maddow’s Trumpian defense — it wasn’t her that hyped the story, it was ... the media!  Love it.)
Also of note in Rolling Stone is Patrick Doyle’s cover story on pop star Ed Sheeran. It is basically a catalogue of the young man’s relentless drinking and partying. When/if he eventually goes into rehab. Or has a dangerous, drastic adventure because of his drinking. Or breaks up with his current “life partner” girlfriend, this will be a valuable, much-quoted “before the fall” profile. (The girl is named Cherry and considering the fact the Sheeran seems buzzed 80 percent of the time, I hope she is taking things with a grain of salt — and not the salt around the rim of a margarita glass, either.)
Photograph by Peggy Sirota
Mr. Ferrara bravely cuddles his wounded arm. All concerned are relieved that he has put off construction jobs, as well as that summer vacation stint as a Chilean miner.
YOU MIGHT have noticed we were away for a few days.  A much-needed break, we felt.  And it just happened to coincide (we won’t say luckily) with one of us (Mr. Ferrara) throwing out his right shoulder, arm and hand, while shoveling snow last week.

As he said: “Men over 60 should not try to prove they are manly and fight the elements.  That is what able-bodied teenage neighborhood boys, looking to make a few extra bucks, are for.” 

And a correction.  In alerting you last week about the coming off-Broadway musical “Diva: Live From Hell” we wrote that the theater was at 155 1st Avenue. True. But it is not “between 9th and 19th Streets” as we typo-ed.  It should have been 9th and 10th.

Made it sound like “Diva” was being held at a football stadium!

Contact Liz here.