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SOME STARS & SOME CRITICS: THOUGHTS ABOUT GRANT, HITCH, KAEL & THE LEOPARD (1940-1963)

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GRANT, HEPBURN, AND STEWART IN COSTUME POSE FOR THE PHILADELPHIA STORY

Rewatching North by Northwest and To Catch a Thief this week led me to go back 15 years and rewatch The Philadelphia Story. I looked up Pauline Kael's thumbnail directory comment on it. And this is leading to a yen to watch more Cary Grant movies - the good ones. And think again about Pauline Kael's somewhat troubled legacy.

Pauline Kael's thumbnail description:
Quote:
The Philadelphia Story
US (1940): Comedy
112 min, No rating, Black & White, Available on videocassette and laserdisc
Philip Barry wrote this romantic comedy for Katharine Hepburn, shaping it for her tense patrician beauty and her eccentricities, and she had her greatest popular triumph in it on Broadway (in 1939) and on the screen. There's conventional Broadway shoddiness at its center: the material plays off Hepburn's public personality, pulling her down from her pedestal. As Tracy Lord, a snow maiden and a phony--which is how the movie public regarded Hepburn, according to the exhibitors who in 1938 had declared her "box-office poison"--she gets her comeuppance. The priggish, snooty Tracy is contemptuous of everyone who doesn't live up to her high standards (and that includes her father, played by John Halliday, and her ex-husband, played by Cary Grant); in the course of the action, she slips from those standards herself, learns to be tolerant of other people's lapses, and discovers her own "humanity." Shiny and unfelt and smart-aleck-commercial as the movie is, it's almost irresistibly entertaining--one of the high spots of MGM professionalism. There isn't much real wit in the lines, and there's no feeling of spontaneity, yet the engineering is so astute that the laughs keep coming. This is a paste diamond with more flash and sparkle than a true one. The director, George Cukor, has never been more heartlessly sure of himself. With James Stewart, who took the Academy Award for Best Actor for his performance as the journalist who has a sudden romantic fling with Tracy, and Ruth Hussey, John Howard, Roland Young, Mary Nash, Henry Daniell, and Virginia Weidler. The additions by the adaptor, Donald Ogden Stewart, are brief and witty; Hepburn's gowns are by Adrian. Produced by Joseph L. Mankiewicz.

Now I have been reminded that Kael devoted one of her best long essays, which I'd never previously read, to Grant, a 10,000-plus word profile which, as a New Yorker subscriber, I have immediate access to. It's called "The Man from Dream City," and was published in the July 14, 1975 issue. I have also found a piece about this essay by Christina Newman for BFI, "Pauline Kael and the men from dream city."

Will the Kael Cary Grant profile tell me anything I don't already know intuitively about the actor? Maybe not, I thought. But it will be informed by Kael's incestuous familiarity with classic Hollywood movies, her lively prose style, and her bold comments on other stars for comparison to highlight what's unique about the star Archie Leach became. And I am learning a lot. Escaping a grim early life to be with a troop of players, Grant was first a stage acrobat, who always worked hard, with tremendous discipline, and did well. He was not "discovered" by Hollywood when he went there and signed a contract after a period of starring in Broadway roles; it was just another logical step up in a continuously successful thespian career.

Kael relates Grant in this essay to the other male stars of the era of screwball comedies and its final decline. That period was wonderful, but brief: 1937-1940 were Grant's peak years. She has already described how uniquely romantic, sexy, and suave he was, why he excelled over and apart from everyone else, when she sums up his career brutally."Nearly all Grant’s seventy-two films," she writes, "have a certain amount of class and are well above the Hollywood average, but most of them, when you come right down to it, are not really very good." This is despite his never signing a contract after the age of 33 and therefore being able to make all his own independent choices.

Unlike everyone else, he studiously avoided being corralled into playing cowboy roles. What he held out for most was the current equivalent of drawing room comedies. But the trouble with that strategy, Kael says, was that the first rate writers were no longer doing those, so he constantly wound up with second rate material. He avoided anything really serious, with rare exceptions, the main one being None but the Lonely Heart (Clifford Odets 1944), Odets' directorial debut with someone else's material, which Kael has a lot of good to say about, and about Grant as the poor son Ernie and Ethyl Barrymore as his mother. She is better than him, Kael says. She thinks he was aware that in this role closest to his heart and his early life he nonetheless ironically wound up seeming miscast. He turned away from stretching himself thereafter.

". . . if Alfred Hitchcock, who had worked with him earlier on Suspicion, hadn’t rescued him with Notorious, in 1946, and again, in 1955, with To Catch a Thief (a flimsy script but with a show-off role for him) and in 1959 with North by Northwest and if Grant hadn’t appeared in the Stanley Donen film Charade in 1963, his development as an actor would have essentially been over in 1940," Kael writes. His career sailed on, friends with Odets but avoiding his projects in future, never again doing something as demanding and close to home as None but the Lonely Heart. From then on he only played Cary Grant. "He might have become a great actor; he had the intensity, and the command of an audience’s attention. But how can one tell? One thinks of Cary Grant in such a set way it’s difficult even to speculate about his capacities."

Kael is great on how Grant gets better with age and more himself by playing down. Macho actors like Anthony Quinn and Kirk Douglas overstrain as they get older, she says, while "Grant, with his sexual diffidence, quietly became less physical—and more assured. He doesn’t wear out his welcome: when he has a good role, we never get enough of him. Not only is his reserve his greatest romantic resource—it is the resource that enables him to age gracefully." And this defines better than I could what's so great about watching Grant play Grant in To Catch a Thief and North by Northwest. She also points out that the understated elegance of his clothes, like "the lean-fitting suit he wore through so many perils" that "seemed the skin of his character" in North by Northwest - was another thing that came later; his earlier outfits, however snazzy, were bulkier and more ordinary.

In The Philadelphia Story Grant isn't as important and his role isn't as well worked out. But at times something subtle and complex is going on with him and James Stewart, as if almost accidentally. Stewart has the better role; and he received an Oscar for his handling of it. Stewart does some remarkably subtle things in the scene in the library when Kathryn Hepburn's character has just discovered he's a sensitive poet. This happens in a movie where so much of it is schtick of drunkenness (which may have won the Oscar). Stewart's sweet, soft voice in the library scene is disarming and fresh.

Grant gets to play with his lines, because he's on the sidelines. All the subliminal stuff in The Philadelphia Story I didn't remember makes it fascinating, even troubling. I thought "I have to watch all that stuff again, to try to figure it out," at the same time thinking it may ultimately be unfathomable. The complexity of both Stewart and Grant in this picture seems remarkable, yet accidental, and largely the result of improvisation. It gives one hope to see that between the lines in a conventional (if highly successful and entertaining) Hollywood comedy, one may yet find extra things, hidden treasures that at first don't meet the eye.

These explorations next led me back to watching Hitchcock's Suspicion (1941) and Notorious (1946). Though the latter is very highly regarded, and the grownup Ingrid Bergman is certainly more appealing and three-dimensional in Notorious than the shallowly naive, adolescent character played by Joan Fontaine in Suspicion, Notorious is a disappointing story that doesn't hold up. Modern presentations of espionage and enemy plotting are more sophisticated and complex than this too-easy seduction by Bergman and the accidental discovery of uranium in a wine bottle. Suspicion almost stands out more: at least Cary Grant's irresponsible gambler character, this charming and dangerous con man, seriously upsets me. Both movies leave me longing for the endlessly suave Cary Grant "playing Cary Grant" of the later Hitchcock films.

Nonetheless Kael is almost absurdly dismissive of both these films in her brief references to them. Of Notorious she says, in a thumbnail review, that it's "great trash, great fun." Richard Brady, The New Yorker's behind-the-scenes movie writer (where Anthony Lane is the longtime for-show one) has fun with Kael's arbitrary evaluations and dismissals in a short column headed "Pauline Kael's Cannon Fodder."This wasn't in the main pages of the magazine, though; it was restricted to its online movie notes. It was when David Denby still alternated reviews with Anthony Lane, Denby, whose bitter oedipal resentments toward Kael were recorded in a 2003 piece in the magazine, "My Life As a Paulette." Could Brody's piece have been influenced by rancorous chats with Denby?

Brody says in his column that in her writing, at least, Kael ignored Hitchcock's (most admired by cinephiles Vertigo and when it was revived she chose not to write about Psycho, which Brody particularly admired. He implies she valued all the wrong things and overlooked reviewing great films when they came out. This may be true though, of course, it's a matter of opinion what most needed to be written about. We'll see if Brody leaves a comparable legacy. (In a sense he's doomed from the start because he has not had her public voice as a main New Yorker movie reviewer. Denby did from 1998 to 2014; he still writes occasionally for the magazine, but not reviews.)

Despite the not too surprising jackals constantly nipping at the edges of her reputation (she ruffled too many feathers in her lifetime, and she left some former acolytes who turned ungrateful) Pauline Kael is a gift to cinema buffs that keeps on giving. This I'm reminded of on finally getting around to watching Visconti's 1963 The Leopard/Il Gattopardo. Kael has an enthusiastic review of it (when 20 years later it finally arrived in the US with its full original 3-hour-plus Italian soundtrack; she points out the 1963 film first came to America in a discolored-looking English-dubbed version missing 20 minutes). This was published in The New Yorker in September 1983 but you can currently find it reprinted online. It shows also how good a summary of this her short blurb-index version is, but what's missing from that is the detailed description of the film's hour-long final ball section, essential if we accept that this part of the film is "one of the greatest of all passages in movies."

It is a magnificent passage, even if the Prince's malaise and brave gloom begin to pall and it doesn't seem to contain any other ideas. It caused me to think of a similar sequence, the final ballroom one of Sokurov's dreamy historical meditation-com-technical tour de force Russian Ark. That sequence depicts the last great royal ball held at the Hermitage under Czar Nicholas II in 1913, shortly before the Bolshevik Revolution. I was underwhelmed by the film's technical feat of a 95-minute unbroken digital-camera single take, though reading Ebert's 2003 review now (yes, Roger keeps on giving too), I'm moved by his idea that "every edit" in a film "is an awakening," so making one long film without a single edit enables Sokurov to "spin a daydream made of centuries." Looking at the Russian Ark ballroom sequence in a 12-minute YouTube clip at first it seems more "real," as one "moves with" the camera eye into what appears an event discovered in progress.

But then, what strikes me in the Russian Ark ball is how cold the color is. It appears shot by daylight in the Hermitage Museum's white painted grand hall, and many of the women's gowns are even white. In The Leopard ball - a huge contrast - what's striking are the intense period colors of the late-19th-century women's gowns, in such subtle and authentic colors and such a variety of textures and patterns of materials, and the golden-hued light of the ballroom below two enormous candelabras filled with lit candles. (The parvenu mayor Don Calogero Sedara (Paolo Stoppa) wonders at these candelabras, and so do we.) The spaces between figures in some shots are black. The Sicilian ball is filmed from many camera angles, with many edit "awakenings." But its splendor and warmth blow away the Russian Ark ball. Perhaps it needs to be very present, as it is, precisely because it backgrounds a man who is there, but not there, the fading Principe.

"Visconti’s triumph here," Kale writes of this passage, "is that the ball serves the same function as the Prince’s interior monologue in the novel: throughout this sequence, in which the Prince relives his life, experiences regret, and accepts the dying of his class and his own death, we feel we’re inside the mind of the Leopard saying farewell to life." I don't think the viewer is placed inside the Prince's mind or his skin in The Leopard as totally as Kael says. Even limiting to what the protagonist sees, which Visconti doesn't exclusively do, can't make you feel what he's feeling - as a novel can. The more we experience film as tour de force the more aware we are of its relative superficiality and shallowness compared to great fiction. But, no worries: The Leopard is replete with scenes like rich 19th-century paintings, richly authentic-looking interiors, crowed scenes, and Garibaldini fighting in the streets that are a delight to the eye. That and all these great actors make up for the failure to capture the complexities of politics and society in 1860 Sicily or the melancholy meditations of a fading, impoverished but noble Sicilian aristocrat.

Il Gattopardo , speaking of actors, incorporates at least three main actors who aren't Italian, Lancaster, Delon and Clémenti, by the technical feat of seamless post-synching or dubbing, a familiar one in Italy, unlike Sokurov's unique feat of a 95-minute single take film. This impresses particularly with Burt Lancaster, whose performance is so relaxed and natural. Delon is very lively, but he may be straining. It's not their voices we're hearing. I take it this practice is less dominant now and that explains less (or no?) use of foreign stars with dubbed voices in Italian films. This practice was a key to the brilliant use of non-actors in early Italian neorealist films. In a film like The Leopard it seems more a distracting oddity.

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THE BALL IN THE LEOPARD

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