Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Modern love affairs

Eve Arden and Eleanor Parker in the 1947 movie version of John William Van Druten’s popular 1943 play “The Voice of the Turtle.” 
"The Voice of the Turtle" — and of Renee Fleming, too!  The Life Force that is Drew Barrymore.  
by Denis Ferrara

“HOW was the play?”
“It stank.”
“No!  But I liked it.  How can you say it stank?”
“Listen, if I tell you a piece of fish stinks, you don’t ask why, do you?”

So it goes between Eleanor Parker and Eve Arden in the 1947 movie version of John William Van Druten’s popular 1943 play “The Voice of the Turtle.”  (It is the acerbic Miss Arden who didn’t like the play she saw — or bad fish.)

I came across this about a week ago on Turner Classic Movies, renamed for some reason “One for the Book.” 
Considered rather risqué for its time, the movie is about a young actress (Parker) who has been unlucky in love and vows only to care for her career. A fellow actress friend (Arden) is luckier in — well, not love, but hooking up, as we’d say today.  One of Arden’s old flames, a soldier, shows up (Ronald Reagan).  Arden dumps Reagan for another partner, leaving him with Parker, who tries to resist, but the inevitable occurs.

I became fascinated watching this curiosity — which has some daring situations and conversantly quaint concerns about who’s talking, who’s watching, what will “they” think.  What struck me most is that the divine Miss Parker, one of filmdom’s great beauties and an excellent actress, is compelled to enact an annoying quirky character — quirky to the point of seeming to need, looked at with 21st century eyes, medication or at least therapy. 

Her indecision, dreamy asides, and non sequiturs are supposed to be endearing.  They are not. Perhaps she was directed to emulate the famously distinctive style of Margaret Sullavan, who had played the role onstage.  Indeed Parker appears to wear her hair in a similar short flip that Sullavan popularized. It looked unflattering on Margaret and worse on Eleanor, although Parker’s beauty can survive any hairstyle. (And if you’ve seen 1950’s classic prison film, “Caged,” you know Eleanor Parker’s good looks survive a shaved head!) 
The weird whimsy, the subtle sex vibes, the wacky attempts at antic physical humor, kept me watching, as did — surprise! — the very agreeable performance of Ronald Reagan. Between the occasional near delirium of Parker, and the hard-bitten presence of Eve Arden, Reagan appears blessedly normal and down to earth — too down to earth, really to fall for Parker’s character.  And he was still quite a handsome fellow at this point.

As for Eve Arden, delicious as she was, a little of her goes a long way, and she is given an unusually lengthy stroll through “The Voice of the Turtle.” However, her final exchange with Reagan, in which he wickedly disses her, is classic.  “If a woman said that to me, you know what they’d call her!” Arden declares, one of those absurd 1940’s hats quivering with the insult. 
Eve Arden, Ronald Reagan, Wayne Morris, and Eleanor Parker in "The Voice of the Turtle."
I don’t know that “Voice of the Turtle” is a good movie, but it fascinated me, and I appreciated that it did not end with a conclusive declaration or ceremony.  Some might watch the fade-out and smell orange blossoms; others could imagine the very major model of a modern love affair. 

I don’t think this film has been much seen, and for all it oddities, it is worth a look.  It held my attention, and kept my itchy channel surfing finger off the remote—a remarkable feat, as my powers of concentration lessen.
SPEAKING of movies, we always say “they don’t make ‘em like they used to,” a phrase that can be taken as either a bad or good thing, depending on your age or sensibilities.  I say the stars are not what they were — at least not for me — but many movies are better than ever.  And sometimes a movie gets made that you just know would have been better off done back in the 1940’s or 50’s — even the 60’s or 70’s.  I do mean the new “Bel Canto” starring Julianne Moore, Ken Watanabe and Christopher Lambert.

Although it is already streaming On Demand, I made it my business to go into Manhattan and down to the Village to check it out. How could I resist a theater called Cinepolis Chelsea? 
Ken Watanabe and Julianne Moore in “Bel Canto."
“Bel Canto,” which is based on a novel by Ann Patchett — which is based on a true story — tells the tale of an American opera diva (Moore) invited to sing at the birthday party of her great admirer, a Japanese businessman (Watanabe) in an unnamed South American country riven with poverty and unrest. 

The party is invaded by guerrillas — while the diva is singing, natch — looking for the president of the country, who had been invited but declined to show up.  The well-heeled guests are held hostage.  Weeks appear to pass, alliances and affections between captors and captives ignite. 
Now, in the good old days, any attempt at reality would have been thrown out the door.  No matter the varying nationalities of the guests and guerrillas, everybody would have spoken some subtly accented English and we would just suspend disbelief.  Why not?   But in “Bel Canto” we get subtitles as well as a convenient translator.  With a better script it might not have mattered, but working with what the actors have, such realism is vastly annoying. 

Julianne Moore is a divine creature, one of my favorite actresses, but one I would never have chosen to portray an opera diva — it’s not so much the cliché of opera singers having to be physically opulent — although this is a cliché that works cinematically — but Moore, try as she might, doesn’t have the required effect and grandiosity that would make her inevitable transition more compelling. Had George Cukor directed Norma Shearer in some Golden Age version of this story, he would have been screaming, “Bitch!  Be a bitch, more of that, darling!”
Here, director Paul Weitz apparently instructed Miss Moore, “You’re annoyed, honey.” She lip syncs to the vocals of Renee Fleming and does pretty well (modern lip-syncing requires actual singing — even if one is not gifted musically, so that the face and neck muscles move appropriately.)

Watanabe as the diva’s great fan, is good. Better are Ryo Kase as the translator and one of the young female guerrillas played by Maria Mercedes Coroy. (The relationship that develops between them is absurd, however.  It is a testament to the talents of these young actors — particularly Coroy — that their scenes do not invite outright giggles.)  Sebastian Koch is simply awful as some kind of Red Cross negotiator in a constant state of hysteria.
Ryo Kase and Julianne Moore.
I couldn’t take the film or the situation seriously, and I kept wondering if I was meant to. At times the movie seemed to inadvertently veer off into camp or kitsch.  Or was it intended and simply not followed through with proper panache and dark humor?  It seems neither authentically comic nor tragic until it is genuinely tragic. 

I will say “Bel Canto’s” final scene, Moore in concert, some time after her ordeal, is moving and has a power lacking in the rest of the film; enough so that I didn’t regret the trek into the city. 

I love movies, still.
I’M not a particular fan of Norm Macdonald.  He was an “SNL” regular in the early 1990’s when the show no longer appealed to me.  I knew or cared nothing about whatever the rest of his career consisted of.  Recently I saw he got into trouble because of remarks he made about Roseanne and Louis C.K. and #MeToo.  Couldn’t care less, everybody who utters a sound gets in trouble these days. (If I had a more commanding, masculine sounding voice, I’d love to do radio, but I’d get death threats from every side if I actually spoke my mind — Republicans, Democrats, independents, men, women, animals, vegetables and minerals would despise me. The world has made me what I am, and I’m mad as hell.)
Anyway, up the other night surfing Netflix I saw that Norm Macdonald has a new series — a chat show of sorts.  I watched three episodes — David Spade, Drew Barrymore and Jane Fonda.  Norm gives the word “weird” new meanings but somehow his show — those three episodes at least — is hilarious and he appears to get amazing things from his guests. I’ve never enjoyed David Spade so much. Fonda, who can appear stiff at times, seemed to be alternately bemused and attracted to Norm’s unusual approach. He talked about how people are always surprised when they look in the mirror because they feel so much younger, “How old do you feel, Jane?”  She answered instantly, “80!”  (She also participated, with eye-rolling good humor, in reading off a series of terrible jokes.)
But it was a raucous, profane, messy and oddly glowing Drew Barrymore that really blew me away. Barrymore is a life force deluxe and met Norm and his off-centered manner beat by strange and hilarious beat.  Her feelings are always close to the surface and she is never less than totally honest.  She seems — she is — completely connected to whoever she is with.  Years ago I sat with her, ostensibly to talk about a film she was promoting. (“Riding in Cars with Boys,” I think.)  I made what I thought was a casual remark about myself, which led to her questioning me, which led to a weeping and compassionate Drew Barrymore who was no longer interested in her movie. (Although for the sake of the column we got back on track.)  She has not lost that quality of connection.

I also appreciated and identified with what Drew told Mcdonald about her meeting and interacting with people she’ll likely never see again, and how important it is to be kind and reach out even in the most transitory exchanges.  As my own life seems to get smaller, I very much rely on the kindness of strangers and hope that I am kind to them in return. 
ENDQUOTE: “Truth is the bottom of a bottomless well.”  From Tennessee Williams’ “Suddenly Last Summer.” 

I’ve always loved this line, uttered by lobotomy-threatened Elizabeth Taylor in the delirious 1959 movie version of Williams’ play. 

It is a sentence more sadly and terribly true now than ever before.  So much so that I might even welcome the lobotomy that Katharine Hepburn was assured would make the troublesome Miss Taylor, “peaceful.”
 
Contact Denis here.