Happy New Year, everyone!
Wednesday, December 31, 2014
When you lose your curiosity, you’re dead. There is so much in the world that one should know, or it would be marvelous to know. And I know nothing. Nothing! My God, one’s life-span is so very short.
Luise Rainer (1910-2014)
Friday, November 21, 2014
If you want to be a legend, God help you, it's so easy. You just do one thing. You can be the master of suspense, say. But if you want to be as invisible as is practical, then it's fun to do a lot of different things.
Mike Nichols (1931-2014)
Friday, October 31, 2014
Happy Halloween, everyone!
It seems only fitting that on the night that dead things walk again, I come back and breathe a tiny bit of life back into this blog. You know, dear readers, the fact that I haven't updated in two months is a thought more horrifying to me than all the scary movies I've seen lately. I've missed this place so much. I never meant to spend so much time away, but sadly, grad school and work have been taking up an inordinate amount of time lately. Believe me, I would not be able to keep away from the blogosphere without good reason.
However, the tide finally seems to be ebbing and I'm eager to start posting again. I've got lots of ideas on the back burner so stay tuned. I'm grateful to all of you that continue checking back with the blog. You guys are the Christopher Lee to my Peter Cushing, the eye of newt in my cauldron, and the stake that pierces my vampiric heart. You're all fantastic. Happy Halloween.
Picture is credited to The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit.
Tuesday, August 19, 2014
directed by Victor Fleming, starring Clark Gable, Myrna Loy, Spencer Tracy
(Note: This is my entry in the Build-Your-Own Blogathon, hosted by the Classic Film and TV Cafe.)
Jim Lane (Clark Gable) was born to ride the skies. He's a test pilot, which is just another way of saying he's rough, reckless, and foolish enough to try anything. His best friend, mechanic Gunner Morse (Spencer Tracy) has had his back for as long as he cares to remember. Gunner knows that Jim is destined to die young, but he still sticks by him, always watching out for danger. But as it turns out, one day, Jim crash-lands and there, sitting in a Kansas wheat field, is the one danger Gunner never expected. Said danger goes by the name Ann Barton (Myrna Loy) and it doesn't take long for sparks to fly between her and Jim. The attraction is so intense, the pair impulsively marry. Gunner disapproves, but before long, he finds that Ann is a warm, wonderful, self-sacrificing woman who worries about Jim just as much as he does. The two form a strange but fierce friendship as they watch over Jim, hoping and praying that this crazy guy they both love will come out okay. But it'll take more than love and luck. It'll take everything they have to give.
Test Pilot is such a textbook example of old-school MGM filmmaking, from the polished heads of its mega-watt stars to the foot-tapping thrills of its action sequences, that I have to think of it as Louis B. Mayer's extended apology for the reviled Parnell. I can just imagine Mayer's directives to the creative team. "Okay, so Parnell was boring. Quick, what's the opposite of Irish politics? High-speed plane racing? Got it, it's gold. And none of that hero of the people jazz, from now on, Gable's back to the boozing and the women. If there's any heavy stuff, let Spencer take care of it. But don't give him too much, it's got to be all about Gable and Loy. Maybe just make it Gable and Loy for the first hour, until we've hooked 'em. Make sure it all ends with marriage and a baby though, we want good, clean fun here."
I kid, but it all adds up to something deliciously enjoyable; Test Pilot is a perfect example of the studio formula firing on all four cylinders. It's essentially two different movies held together by one central conflict. The first half is a pure Clark Gable and Myrna Loy romantic comedy, complete with banter and wrenches and awkward trips to the lingerie department. The second half is a drama about a loyal wife (Loy) and a best buddy (Spencer Tracy) trying their best to stick by a guy who'll probably break both their hearts. While often tagged as a melodrama, the only real plot of Test Pilot is the inevitable tension of being, well, a test pilot, and the toll it takes on those around you.
In so many ways, despite its glossy MGM pedigree, Test Pilot feels like a long-lost Howard Hawks film. It's really more of a hang-out film than a melodrama, closer kin to something like To Have and Have Not or Rio Bravo than it looks on the surface. It's mainly about the chance to hang out with Loy, Gable, and Tracy for two hours and to watch them banter, bicker, and take care of each other. Scenes that a more plot-driven movie would use as a simple gag get drawn out for the sheer pleasure of it.
For example, there's a sly joke after Loy and Gable are married that Loy, who eloped in a hurry, needs a nightgown. Tracy reminds his buddy of the problem and Gable brings it up distractedly to Loy, who responds with a perfectly timed eyebrow raise, as if to say, "Do I really?" The movie could have stopped there, but instead we get to dawdle over a charming scene of Loy daring Gable into the lingerie department and snickering into her sleeve as he makes a total botch of it. The gag just keeps going and building and you're just so grateful that Test Pilot took the time for it.
Of course, the Howard Hawks film that Test Pilot most closely resembles is the aviation drama Only Angels Have Wings and after seeing both films, I'm firmly convinced that Hawks took Victor Fleming's film as a personal challenge. There's a definite resemblance in both films' central theme of how tough you have to be for aviation and how women who love aviators are forced to be even tougher if they want to hold onto their men. However, the Hawks film takes the position that these men are doing what they love and only the people who can keep up with them are allowed to stay. The Fleming film, on the other hand, is pretty explicit that Clark Gable's choices are wreaking havoc on the nerves of his wife and friend. His recklessness is played up more as immaturity than bravery. While it's not too surprising that an MGM film would ultimately come down in favor of domesticity over macho bravado, it's fascinating to see how both films spin such different morals from the same kind of material.
Incredibly, Myrna Loy ranked the loving, loyal Ann Barton in Test Pilot as her favorite role, ahead of her indelible character Nora Charles and her brilliant performance in The Best Years of Our Lives. However, her choice doesn't seem quite so odd after you've seen the film. The role of Ann gives Loy the chance to play an entire emotional spectrum, taking her from light and flirtatious in her early courtship scenes with Gable to wry and witty during the early part of their marriage and finally to a sadder, more desperate woman in the end, one who's fully realized what kind of bargain she's made.
It's really a perfect role for Loy because she gets to play so many different moods but is never forced to take center stage by herself. She's always playing off the boys and nobody could do that better than Loy. She was never happier as an actress than when she could be the perfect foil for her leading man, matching her moves to his like an expert dance partner. She made six movies with Clark Gable and her style with him is always a little slower and more openly sensual than her rapport with William Powell or Cary Grant. No doubt, Loy knew that the rat-a-tat patter of her screwball roles would tear holes through Gable's more macho delivery and she adjusts accordingly.
For me, Loy proves just how great an actress she is here in the way she can make her character's every action seem like the most logical next step. Myrna Loy standing around in a Kansas wheat field looking like she's waiting for cocktails to be served? Makes sense. Falling for Gable in the span of 24 hours? Perfectly natural. Getting engaged to a local and flirting with Gable all the while? Only sane thing to do. Marrying Gable, the crazy test pilot, after knowing him one day? Of course. Constantly going back and forth between leaving him forever and staying with him? She'll do it and come off like the wisest, warmest, wittiest woman you could ever hope to meet. Clark Gable finding someone like her in a wheat field is like the equivalent of someone shoving the winning lottery ticket into your hand and begging you to take it. Just watch her in the scene where she imitates Clark Gable as a bear; it's impossible not to fall for her.
For fans of Spencer Tracy, Test Pilot is essential: for my money, it makes a far better case for his acting talents than the film that actually won him the Oscar that year, Boys Town. Not only is it a more interesting performance, it's also an amazingly underwritten one; Spencer Tracy just takes the part of the loyal sidekick and runs all the way to Alaska with it. Tracy's character Gunner is not given any particular backstory or subplot to call his own. He seems to be utterly wrapped up in looking after Jim, with no thought for himself. He's also a grumpy killjoy who spends most of his scenes frowning over at his buddy. It's hard to blame Tracy for being annoyed that he'd gotten stuck with playing second fiddle to Gable again.
And yet, damn it all if Tracy doesn't draw your eye in every single scene he's in. Tracy was a canny enough actor to realize that he didn't have to resort to any silly stage business like waving a hat or flipping coins to steal attention from Gable. All he has to do is watch him. He's always watching Gable, always aware of him. The audience can't help but care about Gunner because he cares so much. He cares better than his friend can understand. And when Gunner forms a platonic bond with Ann, it's surprisingly sweet and touching. They become almost like parents to Jim themselves, both of them fretting and worrying and fervently trying to buck each other up. Tracy's performance here should be studied by character actors, to remind them that sometimes you're better off on the sidelines.
Of course, Tracy himself wasn't above hamming it up on occasion. There's an anecdote about the filming of one particular scene that demonstrates the Gable-Tracy rivalry perfectly. At the time, Gable had the box office clout but Tracy had the critical praise. Tracy had no interest in playing sidekick to Gable in another MGM film and the insecure Gable was always nervous that Tracy would blow him off the screen. So during the filming of Tracy's death scene, Tracy deliberately tweaked Gable's nose by drawing out every single gasp and dying groan and twitch and mumbled word. Gable had to cradle Tracy in his arms all while his costar died a more drawn-out death than Camille's. Finally, Gable got so frustrated, he let Tracy's head go with a loud thunk and shouted, "Die, goddamit, Spence! I wish to Christ you would!"
As the rowdy, immature Jim, Clark Gable is admittedly playing a pretty standard Gable role. He's gruff but flirtatious with Loy, devil-may-care when it comes to his job, and mortally afraid that something will reveal his hidden heart of gold. There's nothing wrong with Gable's acting here, far from it. It's just that to anyone who's seen plenty of Gable movies, it leaves very few surprises. Loy and Tracy both act rings around him in this one.
However, Gable does get one indelible moment, one that Howard Hawks would outright steal for Only Angels Have Wings. After losing a fellow aviator to a brutal crash, Gable and the other pilots retreat to a bar. One well-meaning patron starts up a toast to the winner and they drunkenly join him. But when he raises his glass and says the name of the dead man, Gable snaps to his feet, dead sober in a flash. "Who's he? Never heard of him." The other pilots also forswear the name of their fallen friend, honoring him by refusing to speak of him. It's the only code they can live by. The scene is every bit as powerful as the "Who's Joe" moment in Only Angels Have Wings and while I would normally take Howard Hawks over Victor Fleming in a heartbeat, I think it's a damn shame that Hawks' film is the only one that's remembered.
Test Pilot actually took a Best Picture nomination in 1938, one of those odd cases of a film with no big social relevance, no big acting moments, and no particular importance that manages to sneak onto the awards list solely because it's a very well-made film. For me, however, I think Test Pilot is worth watching, not because it's deep or weighty or important. It's because it's such a sterling example of old-fashioned MGM filmmaking back in the days when they really did know what the public wanted. They knew they could spin a good yarn just by taking three great actors and giving the audience the chance to spend plenty of time with them. Watching Loy, Tracy and Gable together is exhilaration enough. Whether they're up in the sky or down on the ground, they're stars.
"She's crazy, I broke all the records, too. I entered high school a sophomore and came out a freshman!"
Isn't it obvious? Myrna Loy's impression of Clark Gable as a bear. I defy anyone to watch it and not find their hearts set a-fluttering by Loy.
Final Six Words:
It bounces more than it soars
Note: The Myrna Loy gif is credited to norascharles tumblr.
Tuesday, August 12, 2014
Sunday, August 3, 2014
directed by Thorold Dickinson, starring Anton Walbrook, Yvonne Mitchell, Edith Evans
(Note: This is my entry in The British Invaders Blogathon, hosted by A Shroud of Thoughts.)
Night after night, Captain Herman Suvorin (Anton Walbrook) goes with his fellow officers to a club, where the laughing sons of nobility stare at the gypsy dancers and play the card game faro until the sun rises. Suvorin, a strange, solitary man, never spends any time with the dancers and never spends any money, but there's a furtive hunger in his eyes as he watched the cards. Andrei (Ronald Howard), the only one in the company nice enough to try to be Suvorin's friend, is puzzled by his behavior, but Suvorin, a poor man who despises his wealthier comrades, is determined not to play faro until he's certain he'll win.
One night, Suvorin discovers a book that promises him the key to unbelievable wealth. The book tells the story of the Countess Ranevskaya, a beautiful, desperate woman who sold her soul to the Devil in order to win the secret of the three winning cards. With the secret of the cards, she won enough money at faro to keep herself from ruin. Suvorin is excited beyong measure at the story, especially when he discovers that Ranevskaya is still alive now an old and irascible crone (Edith Evans) who's never once breathed a word of the secret cards to anyone. Suvorin becomes obsessed with learning the three cards at any price. Even if it means seducing the countess's innocent young ward Lizaveta (Yvonne Mitchell). Even if it means loss of life or sanity. Even if he throws his own soul onto the fire...
For a film that Martin Scorsese himself referred to as a "masterpiece," The Queen of Spades has been strangely overlooked for decades. Even now, while it's attained a certain small cult status with those who've seen it, in the U.S., it still only pops up on a dual DVD with Dead of Night (not that Dead of Night isn't a good film in its own right) and it doesn't usually pop up when people are chatting about all the great films of Britain's postwar period. Maybe it just has too much competition; The Queen of Spades was nominated for a BAFTA in 1949, the same year as another little film you might recollect, oh, The Third Man that was it. Maybe it's because Thorold Dickinson, the film's director was born under an unlucky star since despite his own good reputation, his movies (the 1940 British Gaslight, Secret People, Hill 24 Doesn't Answer) haven't always been the easiest to get a hold of. Or maybe it's because The Queen of Spades is easy to mistake for just another cozy British ghost story.
In fact, the film is tremendously arresting in its visuals, its set design is amazingly elegant for its shoestring budget, and its performances are all topnotch. It's creepy, it's thrilling, and it horrifies in all the right place. Finding The Queen of Spades kicking around on Youtube or in out-of-date DVD releases is like realizing that the eccentric little old lady neighbor you've been ignoring for years was really Miss Havisham all along.
Adapted from a Pushkin short story, The Queen of Spades tells the story of Herman Suvorin, a man who becomes convinces that the riches and esteem he craves will be his if he can learn the secret of how to win at cards. It's a simple enough tale that teases you as to whether our hero is literally selling his soul or just going completely off his head. But for me, The Queen of Spades takes that simple story and makes it beautiful. Despite the fact that director Thorold Dickinson was given the assignment only five days before it started, despite the fact that they had the budget of a mayfly supper, and despite the fact that it showcases little actual horror, The Queen of Spades is a visual feast, creating a cold, haunted vision of Imperial Russia that could rival The Scarlet Empress.
Much of the credit has to go to Dickinson, who's endlessly inventive in his distorted camera angles, twisted mirror shots, and imagery. In one moment that made me literally catch my breath, he goes from a shot of Herman Suvorin scratching out a love letter while a spider spins a web in his dusty room to a shot of Lizaveta swooning away on her bed, her fingers suggestively reaching under the pillow to caress his letter as the transposed image of the spider keeps spinning over her face.
In another sequence where a younger and more beautiful version of the Countess makes her bargain with the Devil, Dickinson blurs the edges of the scene, as if we're watching something not quite of this world. To hint at the doom that will befall her, all he has to do is show a shot of some mysterious figure's gnarled hands slowly working out the details on a tiny doll, a little miniature of the Countess. And when the Countess does make her fateful visit to the place that, in the film's cryptic words, "left a mark on her soul," Dickinson leads up to it by showing us the Countess walking through a shadowy tunnel, coming to a door that enters into pitch blackness. We hear her scream and we hear the scream of her horses but nothing more. And when the light comes back, the tiny doll is being trapped under a glass bowl by those same unknown hands. When the movie cuts to the real Countess, she's pleading to a painting of the Virgin Mary for mercy but in a merciless answer to her prayers, the faces of Virgin and Infant slowly turn to black. It's as great as anything you'll find in a Val Lewton film.
The legendary stage actress Edith Evans, here playing the old, crabbed Countess Ranevskaya, is the film's most impressive visual effect. Just watching her hunch across the screen, with her huge powdered wig teetering on her head and her eyes darting around suspiciously is like watching some grotesque oddity from Alice in Wonderland come to life. The Queen of Spades was actually Evans' screen debut, but she's so assured onscreen that you'd think she'd been doing films for years. In her line delivery, Evans is a perfectly banal, constantly complaining old woman, but you can't help but notice something haunted and despairing in her eyes. She strikes the perfect balance, keeping you guessing as to whether Evans is an ordinary woman who's become the unfortunate target of Suvorin's delusions or a soulless crone who knows far more than she's telling.
Dark-eyed, regal Yvonne Mitchell, also making her screen debut after years on the stage, is surprisingly very good as the naive, romantic Lizaveta, the Countess's companion. She's lovely and good-hearted, but her life with the Countess has kept her sheltered from the outside world. Despite Suvorin's brusque manners, poor situation, and unattractive appearance, his ardent love letters (diligently copied out of books) are enough to set her head spinning. It would be easy to write off Lizaveta as just another ingenue, a helpless pawn in Suvorin's schemes. But Mitchell has too much dignity in her manner to let you dismiss her entirely. Instead, you get the sense of a woman who could very well grow into strength and intelligence, given the chance to experience the world. By forcing her ward into seclusion and servitude, the Countess has ironically turned her into the same reckless, unhappy woman she herself once was, seeking relief in a faithless lover.
Ronald Howard, son of Leslie Howard, gets the film's most thankless role as the pure-hearted Andrei, Suvorin's aristocratic foil. As the only character not to originate from the original Pushkin story, his main purpose is to provide Lizaveta with a happy ending. Still, Howard shows more than a few sparks of his father's talent, giving Andrei a genuine warmth and sensitive watchfulness that makes you root for him to bring Suvorin down. Judging by his work here, Howard should have had more of a career.
Like his other great obsessive role, Lermontov in The Red Shoes, Anton Walbrook is again the cold, vaguely inhuman creature whose eyes light up and whose hands tremble, not for a fellow human being, but for something intangible. In this case, it's privilege, not art. He looks at the beautiful, adoring Yvonne Mitchell as if he can stare right through her to the life of wealth that awaits him. Considering that the only other character he spends any time with is an attractive young man, who seems rather fond of him for no apparent reason, it's tempting to try to work in a gay subtext here. However, Walbrook doesn't play it that way; he's just as bored making small talk with Andrei as he is writing love sonnets to a woman.
That chilly detachment certainly fits for the character, but it did leave me feeling a little removed from Suvorin for a good part of the film's runtime. Unlike Lermontov, who can at least boast that he's bringing beauty into the world, Suvorin's concerns are all wrapped up in himself and so his downfall doesn't feel particularly tragic or shocking. I'm not one to complain about characters being likable or not, but I couldn't help wishing for a little more insight into Suvorin.
Still, that minor complaint aside, Walbrook's performance is knock-out spectacular once Suvorin goes from pinched misanthropy to complete insanity. Intensity was Walbrook's great gift as an actor and he brings it full-force to this role, commanding your attention simply because his needs are so raw. He wants the secret of the cards and he wants it so much that everything else in the world has turned to ashes for him. His one scene with Edith Evans is a stand-out, but I'm also enthralled by the moment when he finally feels he's won. Walbrook mutters to himself, hardly daring to believe it. He closes his eyes in relief. And then he stands up as if to stretch but instead, Walbrook put his hands to his chest, clawing at his own skin in some kind of bestial triumph and then makes this undefinable noise. It's like a bird of prey cawing, I quite literally can't think of another actor ever doing anything like it. And then to cap it all off, Walbrook lifts his hands up, lets out a few hysterical sobs, and ends with a glass-rattling scream that would unnerve even the most jaded horror fan. You don't know whether to be more terrified of him or for him. There's plenty of actors who can make a meal of a mad scene, but Walbrook truly makes this unique and memorable.
In a lesser film, the director would have just let Walbrook's performance carry the whole thing, but Thorold Dickinson creates a movie that's just mad enough to keep pace with its feverish hero, using mirrors, shadows, sounds, and eyes to tell the old story of what happens when we want too much. More people should know it and more people should talk of it. And more people should be talking about Thorold Dickinson, a man who played his best even when fate dealt him an unlucky hand. The ghosts of the other great movies he could have made haunts The Queen of Spades just as much as the story's ghosts do.
"Take life as you find it."
"I'd rather take it by the throat and force it to give me what I want."
For me, the most thrilling scene in The Queen of Spades comes when Suvorin hides in the Countess's room in order to beg the secret of the cards from her. Dickinson carefully draws out the suspense. He shows us every slow step of the Countess being made ready for bed, her body suddenly shrunken without the weight of her wig and jewels. She mumbles to herself the same prayer we heard the younger Countess make, "Holy virgin, have mercy on me." In the darkness, Evans' eyes look like two black holes. Suddenly she sees a black apparition next to a painting of the Virgin. She rears up and the shadow steps forward to reveal himself as Suvorin. He comes forward, pleading, presenting himself as a supplicant. The Countess looks away from him, mute. Suvorin falls to his knees, asking her to help him in the name of God and any human feeling, but she moves away. Suvorin's pleas turn to demands and then finally to threats. And still the Countess refuses to answer. By this point, the audience is almost as maddened as Suvorin, wanting desperately for this woman to share what she knows. But what if he's a madman tormenting an innocent old woman? The film doesn't tip its hand either way and it ups the tension immensely, as you keep trying to figure out who's most in danger here.
It's hard to overstate just how brilliantly matched Walbrook and Evans are in this scene. Walbrook brings all his vocal gifts to Suvorin's shifting, increasingly savage speech and Evans uses the power of her face alone to show both great dread and a strange, mute contempt. I won't give away how the scene ends or the little shock coda afterwards, but it left me very grateful for directors who know how to let actors bring the horror all on their own. Sometimes you don't need CGI demons coming up through the floorboards or overacting Satans (actually scratch that--you practically never need that). Sometimes all you need is the terror in two people's eyes as they slowly realize they're staring into the face of their own damnation.
Final Six Words:
Sends shivers of delight and horror
Sunday, July 20, 2014
Thursday, July 17, 2014
directed by John Ford, starring Henry Fonda, Alice Brady
(Note: This is my entry in the John Ford Blogathon, hosted by Krell Laboratories.)
Young Mr. Abraham Lincoln (Henry Fonda) is a man of weighty thoughts but light experience, at least when it comes to the rule of law. All he really knows, he's only learned from books. But after he loses his first love Ann Rutledge (Pauline Moore), Lincoln makes up his mind to study the law in earnest. However, his first case will prove to be as great a challenge as he could ever have imagined.
The Clay family have come to town for a Fourth of July celebration. At the fair, the two brothers (Richard Cromwell and Eddie Quillan) get into a fight and a man ends up dead with a knife in him. Both Clays are accused of murder. Both are determined to take the blame, trying to spare their brother from a hanging. Their mother (Alice Brady) is a witness to the crime but absolutely refuses to say a word; she'll never sacrifice one to save the other. The other key witness to the crime is J. Palmer Cass (Ward Bond), a friend of the victim; he insists that he saw the stabbing by the light of the moon and refuses to budge on that point.
Lincoln agrees to take on the case, but all the fates seem against him. He's got a town braying for the blood of the two Clay boys, a town that's ready to lynch them at any second. He's got a jury that's already biased against the case. He's got no testimony to counter the accusations. His defendants won't tell the truth of what happened. And he himself is as green a lawyer as ever walked into a courtroom. But that won't stop him from putting up one hell of a fight. Little does he know that it's only the beginning for him.
Of all our presidents, Abraham Lincoln is arguably the most cinematic. Theodore Roosevelt and Andrew Jackson had more bombastic personalities and George Washington was the more standardized hero, but Lincoln stands out as uniquely well suited to the big screen. He's both the approachable, folksy "rail-splitter," the common man striving to better himself, and the mythical, untouchable paladin for human rights. He's a figure we can look up to in awe, but, to snag an old election phrase, someone we could also imagine wanting to share a drink with. Consider that in the very same year, we got both a big-budget, prestigious, Oscar-nominated film inspired by Lincoln's efforts to pass the Thirteenth Amendment and a splashy fantasy action flick about Abraham Lincoln, the vampire slayer. Lincoln presents, in many ways, the archetypal image of what Americans want to think about themselves. Sharp and tricksy but also reasoned and wise. Compassionate yet stern as steel. A humble background but the will for power.
John Ford's 1939 biographic film, Young Mr. Lincoln, is a testament to those ideas of Abraham Lincoln and in that regard, it's a beautiful, modest, rather slippery piece of work. "Biographic" is a term I use very loosely here, because the movie has little interest in retelling the facts of Lincoln's life. It marks off a lot of the famous little anecdotes about his early career, like the time when he told the story of the dog and the pitchfork in court or the time he asked Mary Todd to dance ("I want to dance with you in the worst way"). But it carries precious little in the way of facts. The movie invents wholesale a story about him defending a pair of accused murderers and devotes most of the runtime to that. With the overwhelming abundance of storytelling material in Lincoln's actual life, the choice to depict him as a crusading Atticus Finch seems oddly limiting at first glance.
However, once you get past that mental hurdle, Young Mr. Lincoln offers a portrait of Lincoln that is deeply affecting and more complicated than you might expect from the synopsis. In fact, the Lincoln here has a lot in common with the 2012 Spielberg version of Lincoln. They're both presented as canny, thoughtful men, not above using a little trickery or insults to get their way. The Lincoln in this film cracks lowbrow jokes, hems and haws over his true intention and calmly manipulates people. He even cheats to win a game of tug-of-war at one point and John Ford cuts away without tipping his hand as to whether we're supposed to applaud his smarts or be disconcerted by his casual disregard for rules. Without showing Lincoln's political career, the 1939 film manages to throw in a great many hints about his political aptitude. This film also highlights Lincoln's essential isolation from other people, ending in a famous scene of him walking alone up a hill that surely must have been in Spielberg's mind when he filmed the final scene for his version. The key difference between the 1939 and 2012 biopics is that the Spielberg story is about the collaboration and compromises Lincoln and other people must make to form that more perfect Union. Ford's film, by contrast, presents Lincoln as a singular figure, one whose struggles are not truly shared or understood by anyone else.
Sometimes, an actor's star persona is virtually indistinguishable from his offscreen one, as in the case of Clifton Webb. Other times, it's almost a night and day contrast; the down-to-earth homemaker turns into a sultry temptress on silver nitrate or vice versa. Personally, I hold to the theory that you can usually unearth bits and flashes of the actor's true self underneath the performance, no matter how wide the gulf seems at first. Vincent Price's joy in living, Joan Crawford's drive for self-improvement, Rita Hayworth's need to please. It's there if you know where to look for it. But Henry Fonda is one actor that strains that theory of mine to the breaking point.
On film, Henry Fonda is the purest personification of honesty. He isn't just a good guy. He's the hero struggling in the dark, his eyes fixed on some distant mountain peak of perfection that the rest of us can only imagine. He could take characters as decent and honorable as Tom Joad, Juror No. 8, Wyatt Earp, and Abraham Lincoln and convince you that they were possible. And yet in real life, Henry Fonda was a cold, unreachable man who alienated his loved ones and quite frankly, acted like a shit to them much of the time. After you've read a few of the Fonda family bios, it seems frankly unbelievable that this man could dig deep enough to find the fathomless generosity and compassion of his most famous roles.
However, when you look at Henry Fonda and compare him to the other famous "good guy" actor, James Stewart, the connection snaps into place. The hallmark of a Fonda hero, as opposed to a Stewart hero, isn't heartfelt emotion, it's thought. Fonda heroes are always staring off somewhere into the middle distance, thinking their way towards a solution. Unlike Stewart, who so often ends up loving too well and not too wisely, Fonda is more isolated, more cerebral and less open. In Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Stewart's climactic speech has him distraught and anguished, voice cracking, fiery and exhausted. In Grapes of Wrath, Fonda's famous speech has him looking offscreen, patient and undaunted, slowly struggling his way towards the understanding that he himself belongs to a larger whole. And there is a certain coldness to that kind of hero. He can't belong to us in the way Stewart can.
All this is leading up to a notion of mine that when Henry Fonda plays the John Ford hero, it results in films that tend to be quieter and less easy to pin down than Ford's films with John Wayne. My Darling Clementine, The Grapes of Wrath, and Young Mr. Lincoln all have their fair share of Fordian humor and American nostalgia, but they keep us at more of a distance (I have a feeling that Mr. Roberts might be the exception that proves the rule but don't tell me, I still haven't seen it).
I realize that I have spent almost this entire review talking about Henry Fonda and not the supporting cast, which includes some famous names, including Ward Bond, Donald Meek, Alice Brady, and Richard Cromwell. And that's for the very good reason that this film is really Fonda's showcase the whole way through. When he's not onscreen, you're waiting for him to come back. The other characters don't really register, although I appreciate the sly touch of having the aptly-named Donald Meek play Lincoln's slick, confident opponent. Alice Brady's performance as the anguished mother of the defendants is also good, but the script rarely gives her more than one note to play. Truthfully, Young Mr. Lincoln, while a great character study for its protagonist, does suffer a little by making the supporting characters so simple. John Ford films in general rely heavily on archetypal characters, but I can't help feeling that they came across as richer and deeper in movies like How Green Was My Valley or Stagecoach than they do here.
The greatest joy this film has to offer for John Ford fans, aside from Fonda, is the aching beauty of its camerawork. His shots of Lincoln rambling through the woods look like something you want to hang in a gallery, they're so well framed. Ford's ability to find both emotion and mythic resonance in his stories is also just as evident here as it is in his more famous films. There's an early scene with Lincoln talking to his first love Ann Rutledge out near the river. She encourages his dreams, he compliments her hair. The sun is shining. The mood is tentative and hopeful; their romance is just barely beginning. When she walks away, Lincoln tosses a stone in the river. The ripples slowly transition to shifting blocks of ice in the dead of winter. The camera finds Lincoln making a slow, deliberate walk to Ann's grave to replace the flowers there. The cruel, lovely simplicity of the image cuts straight to the bone.
For me, the best John Ford films are built on moments like that. Moments that make us feel like we're seeing an elemental truth of human experience. While I wouldn't rank Young Mr. Lincoln as one of his greatest films, if only because his best is so very great, it carries enough of those moments to make me very glad that John Ford and Henry Fonda chose to make their idea of Abraham Lincoln. In 1939, they were without a doubt the best men for the job.
"What I'm afraid of is that some of the jurors might not know you...and that'd put me at a great disadvantage."
The scene in which Lincoln takes on an angry lynch mob. It's a simple scene on the surface, but it's so elegantly constructed that if I taught film classes, I'd make it required viewing for all my students. Abraham Lincoln has just taken on the case of the two Clay brothers and a raging mob descends on the cell, ready to storm it and kill the boys then and there. Lincoln appears just in time and throws himself between the crowd and the door, armed with nothing but his lanky body and the sound of his voice. Rather than just appealing to their better natures or diffusing the situation with humor or angrily calling them out, Lincoln applies all these strategies in one speech, revealing his incredible political aptitude for the first time.
I love the way that Ford matches the shifting camera angles to Lincoln's shifting tactics. In the first part of the scene, when Lincoln appears in front of the door, Ford's camera goes for a jarring, extreme close-up of his back turning around. When he turns, the camera has traveled sharply away from him and he's a distant, almost frightening figure in black, loudly proclaiming that he'll beat up anyone who tries to pass him. As the crowd argue with him, Lincoln gradually turns the conversation into subtle mockery, poking fun at himself in order to draw a laugh from them ("I'm just a fresh lawyer trying to get ahead...and you boys act like you want to do me out of my first clients"). Ford brings the camera closer and now Lincoln is in the middle of the frame. He's more approachable now, but rather cool and dispassionate. The crowds starts to calm. Ford cuts to a beautiful closeup of Lincoln, now leaning against the doorframe, his head bowed. He begins speaking regretfully of the nature of lynch mobs, subtly drawing the conversation away from the comical waste of money to the real moral cost. The humor's gone. Then he actually calls out one of the mob by name, reminding him of his honorable name and piety. He paints a picture for the crowd of this same man going home to read his bible and turning to the passage, "Blessed are the merciful for they shall obtain mercy." By now, the crowd has been thoroughly subdued. Their battering ram is almost slipping from their hands. Lincoln looks up and says softly, "Why don't you put it down for a spell, boys, ain't it getting heavy." He has won a total victory. Moreover, Ford's camerawork matches Fonda's performance so perfectly in this scene, Lincoln can't help but win over the movie audience as well.
Final Six Words:
Wise, wistful portrait of elusive legend
Saturday, July 5, 2014
I've talked before on this blog about miscasting. It's one of my eternal fascinations. Not just the plainly ludicrous decisions like casting Susan Hayward as a Tartar princess or Denise Richards as a nuclear physicist. No, I'm more interested in those casting glitches where everything seems like it should perfectly line up and yet it still goes wrong. Why are some of the greatest acting legends of all time so stymied by roles that other, less talented people can carry off like gold medalists? So I decided to draw up a list, focusing not so much this time on just the movies but on the performers themselves. Why are great actors unable to play certain parts?
Please note that I'm aware some of my readers will fiercely disagree with my selections here. I welcome a good debate so feel free to bring up any rebuttal in the comments section. Also, since I never like dwelling too much on the negative, stay tuned for Part Two, where I talk about the times when seemingly miscast actors turned in great performances.
Without further ado, here's my list:
Cary Grant Can't Do Costume Pictures
Of all the great film stars, perhaps nobody was as skillful and deliberate in managing their career image as Cary Grant. He turned down roles other actors would have sold their entire toupee collections for and he ended up with a resume that's enough to send the nicest, most easygoing man in Hollywood reeling with sheer envy. He worked with the best directors, the greatest leading ladies. But there was famously one thing that Grant spent most of his career avoiding and that was this: he would not do historical costume pictures. After seeing himself in The Howards of Virginia, a critically reviled flop about the Revolutionary War, Grant said, "I don't belong in costumes." He stuck to that notion for seventeen years, until agreeing to star in The Pride and The Passion, another film that got a sound drubbing from critics and audiences alike.
The standard answer to why Cary Grant just doesn't seem right for costume pictures was that he was too modern. He was to the tuxedo born and nothing else would do. But I'm inclined to take issue with that a little. After all, he does a perfectly good job in Gunga Din and in that one, he was a good twenty years away from the twentieth century and nearly forty years from the nearest cocktail party. The man wore costumes well and while he looks admittedly kind of silly in The Howards of Virginia, if you just look at stills of him in The Pride and the Passion (the performance itself is another matter), he wears the old British naval uniform with perfect dignity. Grant's voice and mannerisms are distinctive of course, but if the public can accept Tony Curtis as a Greek slave and Clark Gable as a Southern gentleman and Robert Ryan as John the Baptist, why then is Grant singled out?
No, I think the reason lies somewhere in the fact that Grant is a natural clown. He needs to kid his surroundings to belong to them. If he tries to be self-serious, he turns stiff. And the problem is that most historical epic films are just that, they're epics. They're trying to preserve history like a monument and Grant is one actor that should never be set in marble. He can fit in just fine when the movie is a historical romp like Gunga Din. But if the subject is weighty, forget it. In short, I think he misfires in costume pictures for the exact opposite reason that Charlton Heston succeeds in them. Because Heston is serious enough to believe himself anywhere and Grant is smart enough to disbelieve himself everywhere.
Barbara Stanwyck Can't Play Ingenues
People who follow my blog know that I'm a firm believer in the "Barbara Stanwyck Can Do Pretty Much Anything" Doctrine. She could do comedy, Western, film noir, drama, crime, soap opera, horror, and do it all with no apparent effort. That alone makes her stand out from the other female acting icons like Crawford and Davis. They could reach her heights but they never rivaled her range.
The one gap I've really found in Stanwyck's career is this: she could never really play the innocent. Even in her earliest movies like Ladies of Leisure and Shopworn, she's already cynical and experienced, a young woman who's had plenty of hard knocks and starts to get suspicious if she can't see one coming. This characterization carried her through most of her career, but even for someone like Stanwyck, there were times when being a tough cookie just wouldn't cut it.
While Frank Capra can be credited as the director who discovered and refined Stanwyck's talent for hard-edged, secretly vulnerable women, he also gave her some fairly awkward roles as well. Take her part as the lovelorn, self-sacrificing heroine of Forbidden. The movie opens with Stanwyck as the shy, bespectacled librarian (!), who only opens up to life after she falls in love with dapper Adolphe Menjou (?). Remember that ridiculous scene in It's a Wonderful Life where we get the dreaded reveal of Donna Reeds, sans makeup, as the town's spinster librarian? Nearly the whole first half of Forbidden plays like that scene. Stanwyck can't even begin to settle into character until the second half, where she gets a new job and starts trading sexy banter with Ralph Bellamy (?). Capra would push Stanwyck's credibility even further by casting her as the naive missionary in The Bitter Tea of General Yen. But this is where it gets interesting. Stanwyck should, by all rights, be utterly wrong for this part. She's no sucker and she's no saint. Despite that though, Stanwyck manages to plow through the role because she plays the missionary, not for gentleness, but for bull-headed, stubborn pioneering spirit. She's deluded, but not soft.
By this point, I've seen fifty Barbara Stanwyck movies and I never cease to marvel at how Stanwyck takes the same tactic whenever they force her to play innocent girls. She plays them like bulldozers. Whether they're sweet wives smiling through their tears (Ten Cents a Dance), power-behind-the-throne spouses (The Great Man's Lady) or feisty Irish tomboys (Union Pacific), they're always 100% determined. It doesn't always fit the role, but it sure as hell fits Stanwyck and that's enough to lift the curse of miscasting.
Claudette Colbert Isn't Motherly
Clearly, Hollywood didn't agree with me on this one since it was happy to cast smiling, purring Claudette Colbert in quite a lot of maternal parts, particularly as she aged. Most famously there was Since You Went Away, with Colbert doing the American version of the Mrs. Miniver character, but there's also Imitation of Life, Tomorrow is Forever, Family Honeymoon, and Parrish. I can only speak for Imitation of Life and Tomorrow is Forever, but I can't help thinking that whenever that potent Colbert charm gets hit with a dose of syrupy sentimentality, the result is like a batch of rock candy. It glitters alright but it's too sweet to eat and too hardened to melt on your tongue.
In Imitation of Life, Colbert is in top form whenever she has to run her business or trade banter with her friends. She's smart, witty, sophisticated, she's the epitome of everything you want Claudette Colbert to be. But the minute her bratty moppet of a daughter is onscreen, lisping and begging for her rubber duck (bet you didn't know that the actual closing line of Imitation of Life is "I want my quack-quack"), Colbert coos and giggles and plasters a warm, motherly smile on her face. It's about as artificial as it gets. It makes the ending of the film, in which Colbert agrees to postpone her wedding to Warren William until her teenage daughter gets over him, even more risible than it might otherwise have been. I can't watch Colbert getting all trembly and noble without wanting Sandra Dee to teleport in from the 1959 remake and snap, "Oh, mama, quit acting!"
The funny thing is, there is a strong note of "come-to-Mama" in Colbert's love scenes. Watch her in something like Cleopatra or Midnight and it's totally there in her mannerisms, in the way she bends over her leading men. She tends to them, she humors them, and all the time she knows she's wiser than they'll ever be. On her, it works and she's mesmerizingly sexy and confident. But when it comes to motherhood, or rather the oft-times sickly sweet, sentimental vision of motherhood that Hollywood went for in the '30s and '40s, Colbert just can't make it work. After all, it's pretty hard to look like you're burning with the sacrificial flame of unconditional love when you can't even be bothered to turn your head to the left.
Gregory Peck Can't Be Wicked
Of all our acting legends, I find Gregory Peck to be one of the most off-and-on in terms of what he can and can't do. Whenever I start to think he's overrated, I'll remember To Kill a Mockingbird and The Gunfighter and ask for forgiveness. Then, I catch a glimpse of him in something like Moby Dick or Cape Fear and gnash my teeth in frustration that these parts didn't go to actors who would make more of them. But just when I've decided that the man is hopelessly stiff and humorless, I'll catch a rerun of Roman Holiday and be enraptured all over again by how charming and romantic he can be. It's Audrey Hepburn's picture, but it's easy to forget how much support Peck gives her and how graciously he draws attention to her side. Really, for someone who came to embody straight-arrow decency in movies, the man is surprisingly mercurial in what he brings to the screen.
So many actors, especially those tagged as bland or boring, shine particularly bright when they get to play evil. Gene Tierney won her only Oscar nomination for playing a child-drowning madwoman in Leave Her to Heaven. Robert Montgomery got some of the best notices of his career for his turn as a psychopath in Night Must Fall. Robert Walker, cast over and over again as a boy next door, turned out to be one of the greatest villains in cinema as the complicated killer Bruno Anthony in Strangers On a Train. But Gregory Peck does not belong to this class. He is never worse than when he plays bad.
Case in point is his performance as bad, bad Lewt McCanles in Duel in the Sun. He plays the dangerously seductive, totally amoral rancher's son who merrily proceeds to wreck Jennifer Jones' life, just because he can. At this point in his career, Peck was preternaturally gorgeous. He always had incredible screen presence. He looks like a man who could drive a woman to the brink. But his performance in Duel in the Sun is the most unconvincing thing ever, a weird combination of campy, over-the-top line readings and stilted boredom. To be fair, nobody really comes off that well, performance-wise, in Duel in the Sun. Still, I think there's a difference between the acting of Jones, who comes off more like a well-meaning performer undone by over-direction and bad scripting, and Peck, who just cannot fit this role. He's just not the wicked seducer. Having also seen him try to play a more redeemable version of the type in How the West Was Won, I think I can say that with some confidence. However, I still haven't seen The Boys From Brazil, so maybe Peck finally does manage to unlock his evil self by playing a Nazi. I'll have my fingers crossed for him.
Gene Tierney Isn't Lower-Class
"I suppose you were a model of all the virtues when you were young."
"Certainly I was. I won a prize for deportment at school."
That bit of dialogue comes from The Ghost and Mrs. Muir but it could just as easily come from several other Gene Tierney movies, including nearly all her best ones (Laura, The Shanghai Gesture, Leave Her to Heaven, Dragonwyck, Heaven Can Wait). She belongs to that class of actresses (Grace Kelly is another), who can't help but remind you of the good little girl in the classroom, the one who wins all the prizes and has a stunning debutante ball when she turns eighteen. Onscreen, she's the born aristocrat. Well-bred, well-mannered, and smooth as silk. Tierney was often a harder actress to cast than she seems at first glance. She's not really warm onscreen, but there's a sweetness and mildness to her presence that's difficult to shake. This made her too cool and remote for "America's Sweetheart" roles and too nice for tarts or rebels. Her best parts could turn that to her advantage, letting her play women whose gentle nobility shone through in difficult circumstances. She could play costume parts with ease because that kind of feminine ideal half-belonged to another era anyway. And when she did play villainesses, as in Leave Her to Heaven or The Razor's Edge, she turned them into "good girls gone bad," women who probably had won prizes for deportment in school, women so perfect that of course they had to snap. The Shanghai Gesture takes that idea to a whole new level, giving us cool-as-ice-cream Tierney in the first half and dragging her down into a sullen, opium-addicted slave in the second.
Still, Darryl Zanuck didn't always choose the right parts for his star and Tierney also got miscast quite frequently, having to play everything from Western outlaws to South Seas island girls. But for me, one of the more interesting misfires is Tierney in the screwball comedy Rings on Her Fingers. The movie is a poorly concealed rehash of The Lady Eve, with Henry Fonda once again playing the lovestruck sap and Tierney cast in the Barbara Stanwyck role as the con artist falling for her mark. And you pretty much find out everything you need to know about how wrong Tierney is for this part in the very first scene of her as a wisecracking, cynical shopgirl. She's smacking her gum, she's rolling her eyes and trying out a Brooklyn accent. She's about as convincing as Wallace Beery in drag. Tierney might have been able to play a lower-class character if said character was sweet and polite. But a chip-on-her-shoulder floozy? Forget it. The filmmakers themselves must have figured this out pretty quickly, because they shove Tierney into the role of adoring and reformed spouse only halfway into the movie, dooming any hope of real comedy.
Gene Tierney herself illustrated the nature of her screen persona in an anecdote in her memoirs. She and Groucho Marx were entertaining the troops during World War II and he talked her into coming out on stage and doing a sassy little bump and grind. Tierney was doubtful but did it. The crowd responded, not with catcalls or applause, but with dead silence. When she went back to Marx, he told her, "You were right, you can't do a bump." Tierney ruefully summed it up by saying, "Marilyn Monroe would have done that bump and looked adorable. On me, it was all wrong."
Humphrey Bogart Ain't Upper-Class
Humphrey Bogart had the most perfect sneer in movies. It was perfect because he always aimed it above and not below. Bogart fans know the fun always starts when someone tries to plant their boot on him because that's the moment when Bogart hunkers down, grins, and proceeds to shred them. He knows it's probably a lost battle, he knows they're not worth his busted bones, but he'll do it anyway. Bogart's so good in these moments that it's easy to forget how many miscastings the man had to suffer through in his career. Some are obvious, like the Irish horse trainer in Dark Victory. But there's a less immediate problem that crops up with Bogart, one that kicks the old "Classic Hollywood stars only played themselves" chestnut right down the stairs. He just couldn't play rich men. He couldn't play top of the heap. When he tries to play a self-satisfied businessman in Sabrina, the result is a world of awkwardness.
This one's a puzzler because in real life, Bogart was upper class. His family was pure New York high society, complete with a fashionable apartment in the Upper West Side, a cottage on the lake, and the money to send their rebellious son to the most prestigious prep schools in the state. Hell, Bogart even started out his stage career by playing the kind of namby-pamby rich dweebs who signaled a change of scene by calling, "Tennis, anyone?" And one look at a photo of young Bogart shows that he polished up pretty nicely. For all that though, Humphrey Bogart never belonged in glittering romantic comedies. He only found his true cinematic self on the rougher side of things. He needed something to fight against. If ever he'd been cast in an Ernst Lubitsch film, which one do you think would've detonated first?
Burt Lancaster Can't Be Repressed
Burt Lancaster's ambition as an actor carried him so far and in so many different directions, from lovelorn thugs to fast-talking con artists to dignified Italian noblemen, that when he actually does manage to hit a wall, it reverberates like a shock. He was nobody's idea of a man who could disappear into a part. And yet, looking back, it's rather remarkable how the man could twist his beaming, tanned presence to suit the requirements of a part; he could be elegant or rough, reckless or controlled, brilliant or brutish. He could even pretend to be intimidated by Hume Cronyn. But the one thing he couldn't do is the one thing that ends up sinking an otherwise decent performance in Come Back, Little Sheba. He can't be insignificant.
Part of the problem with casting Burt Lancaster as the repressed, miserable alcoholic "Doc" Delaney in Come Back, Little Sheba is simply his youth. Even though the movie tries to age him up a bit with grey hair, there is no way to make the handsome, thirty-nine-year-old Lancaster look like any kind of probable mate for fifty-four-year-old Shirley Booth. The whole point of the character is that this man has tied himself down to a lifetime of regret with a dowdy, unappealing woman. The only option left is to find some way of growing old with her. Except that there is not one single frame of this movie in which Lancaster doesn't look perfectly capable of hopping in his car, cruising down to the nearest night club, picking up five or six of the prettiest women, and then riding off into the rising dawn. But even if you try to squint through the age difference, the problem is that Lancaster doesn't seem like an ordinary man. His miseries will never be common ones. He is incapable of convincing me that he would spend any length of time pondering the whereabouts of a dog named Sheba.
At the time, the movie, adapted from William Inge's play was an example of the '50s fascination with gray, downbeat realism. But looking at it now, J.J. Hunsecker had more realism in the flickering light of his match than anything Come Back, Little Sheba has to offer.
Julie Andrews Can't Play Hitchcock Blondes
People who've grown up watching Mary Poppins and Sound of Music might be tempted to chime in here with, "Well, of course she can't!" This is after all, the most famous nanny in movies, the woman with a song in her heart and a soul of pure sunshine. Her costar Christopher Plummer compared working with her to "being hit over the head with a big Valentine's Day card every day." But still, I can't shake the feeling that there must be a deeper explanation for why Julie Andrews just seems so painfully miscast as the troubled Hitchcock heroine in Torn Curtain.
After all, nobody excelled at bringing out the buttoned-up sensuality and yearning of blonde actresses like Hitchcock did. He looked at warm, earnest Eva Marie Saint and saw a femme fatale just waiting to break out. He took lovable Doris Day and subtly chipped away at her image in The Man Who Knew Too Much, revealing a woman of buried resentments and animal desperation. But Torn Curtain never finds anything to excavate in Andrews; she just comes across as gracious, pleasant, and hopelessly straight-laced. You'd think it would be near impossible for a woman to be rolling around under the covers with 1966-era Paul Newman without generating some kind of electrical charge. But Andrews' tinkling laugh and repeated titters of "Oh, Michael" just flash freezes the whole thing. Did Hitchcock lose interest in the movie? Was Andrews unwilling to let loose a little? Was it those ugly costumes (surely some of the most unflattering stuff ever put on a Hitchcock leading lady)? Whatever the reason, it makes for some memorable miscasting. The Master of Suspense met his match and it was Mary Poppins.
Vivien Leigh Will Never Be Mousy
We never actually got to see Vivien Leigh take on the role of the shy, shrinking Mrs. DeWinter in Rebecca. She wanted the part very much, more because it offered the chance to play opposite her lover Laurence Olivier than for its dramatic potential. But even though Selznick and Hitchcock humored her with a screen test, they both agreed that she was all wrong. It wasn't even a close call. According to Hitchcock himself, Leigh was "uniquely strong," a bold, determined woman who was "absolutely right to play Rebecca but Rebecca never appears in the film." Instead, Joan Fontaine got the part, winning both an Oscar nomination and an A-list career.
There's a surplus of explanations for why Leigh never fit the role. She was too ravishingly beautiful and raven-haired to be believable as an awkward girl trying to melt into the wallpaper. Her sexual attraction to Olivier was too obvious when they worked together; nobody would buy them as as an estranged married couple. Or, as Hitchcock put it, she was just too strong, too much of a Rebecca. All very good reasons. Except...does it really explain everything? After all, Fontaine herself was the polar opposite of Mrs. De Winter in real life. She was witty, sharp, and more than capable of shoving off her troubles. And while it's plainly ludicrous to imagine Vivien Leigh cursing her lack of beauty, is it really that much more believable when it's Joan Fontaine?
The other reason I toyed with this one is that Vivien Leigh actually can play an innocent, awkward girl. Anyone who's seen her play Myra, the crushed-by-circumstance young lover in Waterloo Bridge knows she's capable of more than devious minxes and psychotic beauties. I struggled for a long time, wondering why Leigh might find it easier to work her way into the head of the painfully innocent Myra and not the shy, naive Mrs. DeWinter. The conclusion I came to is that Leigh just can't play characters who don't ask for anything. Myra reaches for love with both hands and ends up rushing to her fate. Mrs. DeWinter is terrified of asking for anything from life. When you see Leigh talk to Olivier in the test, she's arch, even amused. She can't sell that timidity. In life she was a woman who never stopped grasping for more and if she was the same way on film, audiences can only be grateful we got the benefit of so many memorable, daring, desperate, impossible female characters. Characters that remain unforgettable because they want so much and get so little in the end.