Monday, January 28, 2013

Book Review: I Do and I Don't

I Do and I Don't:  A History of Marriage in the Movies (2013) by Jeanine Basinger

"Embrace happy marriage in real life but keep away from it onscreen." The words were Frank Capra's but they could just as easily have come from any Hollywood director, past or present. And not just happy marriages but any kind of marriage, be it new or old, funny or serious, a tender refuge or a deadly trap, has always been a tricky topic for movie-makers. Why? As Jeanine Basinger argues in her new book I Do and I Don't: A History of Marriage in the Movies, marriage is too familiar and yet too mysterious for the movies. What makes a marriage work? Why should we care about a couple after they've stopped fighting their feelings? What can the movies tell us about marriage if it's a show we already have a front-row seat for?

Well, according to Basinger's book, the movies can tell us quite a lot about marriage and the fears and desires they represent. She digs into a trove of old movies, finding unexpected and powerful images. An old D.W. Griffith film about adultery in which the bored husband finds himself wrapping dollar bills into the blond curls of his mistress but is outraged that his daughter would seek similar excitement with a cheap Lothario. A scene between Ida Lupino and Robert Preston as an old couple that agree to separate but not before walking upstairs for one more night together. Starkest of all is an anecdote drawn not from fiction but from a documentary on the marriage of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz. After the couple separated, their children began showing them The Parent Trap in hopes that it would encourage them to get back together. As Lucille Ball said, "They must have shown us that movie about seven times before we had to sit them down and explain things."

If marriage has been stuck on the sidelines all these years, then marriage movies could have no better champion then Jeanine Basinger, a witty, knowledgeable academic with an unassailable reputation as one of the best film scholars around. Her former students range from Joss Whedon to Michael Bay and she's published many well-regarded books on Hollywood, most recently The Star Machine and Silent Stars. She ruefully comments at the beginning of I Do and I Don't that her friends warned her about tackling this topic, but she didn't listen. She canvassed her fellow cinephiles on the topic of movie marriage only to be met by puzzled shrugs and halfhearted mentions of The Thin Man.

The most endearing and intelligent aspect of Basinger's book is the way she follows her subject down the rabbit hole of obscure, forgotten films, proudly indifferent to things like Netflix availability or name recognition. So she gives Nick and Nora Charles, the most famous married pair in all moviedom the brush-off  ("The Thin Man is about a detective who solves murders...not about marriage"), but thoroughly analyzes the self-sacrificing wife of One Foot In Heaven. She gives some space to Brief Encounter but pays far more attention to David Lean's other adultery movie, The Passionate Friends. Movies like Chicken Every Sunday, The Captain's Paradise, Cass Timberlane, and The Very Thought of You all earn a write-up. Basinger isn't afraid to stick up for what she enjoys either, singing the praises of the Pitt-Jolie vehicle Mr. and Mrs. Smith, in spite of its lackluster critical reputation: "One of the most original commentaries on marriage, the marriage movie, and marriage counseling ever put on film."

The main problem with I Do and I Don't is that Basinger lives up to her stated intention of keeping the book between a scholarly text and a more casual coffee-table book rather too well. It feels like it's been stretched too thin, not comprehensive or structured enough for a tome, but too weighted down with serious intentions to be a light read. Basinger often tries to sketch out movie plots like linear graphs ("the movie either told the story of marriage in the popular, moving-forward, active mode...or they told it backwards as a flashback"), an approach that is thwarted by her own writing style. She's far more interesting when she goes off-script:
"The Bride Wore Boots uses several screen minutes to tell us what The Bride of Frankenstein tells us in a matter of seconds. Brought to life by the good doctor, Elsa Lanchester takes one look at her intended and lets out a blood-curdling shriek."
Basinger is no slouch when it comes to original and thoughtful analysis either:
"Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis...are a couple on the brink of divorce...The couple they represent is lopsided: Lewis madly loves Martin, but Martin is cool, indifferent to Lewis's ardor. As the years go by in their work together, it's clear Lewis becomes more and more manic in order to attract love and attention, while Martin gets more and more detached. In the end, Lewis turns to others (the audience) and goes crazy, while Martin suddenly realizes he's being upstaged and looks really angry. Their partnership is the comic visualization of divorce."
I can't help wishing that Basinger had either done this book as a loose series of essays on her chosen theme or as a compendium of "marriage movies," giving each one a proper place in the index. Instead, she opts for a footnote-heavy, digressive style that tries to subdivide into categories ("infidelity," "class differences," "addiction, etc.") but keeps wandering off. I also found myself getting really frustrated by the lack of an index in this book. If you're going to pelt me with observations on Too Many Husbands, by all means, but at least give me an index so I don't risk mixing it up with No Room for the Groom.


Despite its sometimes muddled approach, I Do and I Don't is a fascinating journey into a genre that's never really been defined before. For most romantic comedies, marriages is the destination, not the journey. For other films, marriage is a subplot, a glimpse behind the curtain. If somebody had challenged me to name my favorite "marriage movie" before I read Basinger's book, I might have named The Best Years of Our Lives, which looks sensitively at two marriages, one of impulsive romance and one of enduring love. One marriage survives but not without gaining bitter experience along the way ("How many times did I tell you I hated you and believed it in my many times have we had to fall in love all over again?"). And yet even this movie keeps marriage as part of a larger story, the story of troubled vets returning after World War II. Basinger makes a persuasive case that marriage has been a shadow subject on film all these years, something alluded to and joked about and despised and yearned for but so rarely understood. Let's hope that her book is a step towards shedding some light on the most elusive American dream of them all.

Final Six Words:

Rare, valuable glimpse into movie marriage

Note: I received an advance copy of this book from Alfred A. Knopf (Random House). It will be released on January 29, 2013. It is available for purchase at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Powells, and directly from the Random House website.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

...And now, for the reveal

I have a confession to make. Rachel is not my real name.

At this point, a fair number of my readers might be rolling their eyes and thinking, "So what? It's not like my real name is robstenforever69." And others might be wondering why I'd bother to create a pseudonym in the first place. The world of classic film blogging is not exactly a den of dark secrets and false identities (Except if you stumble across the Rudolph Valentino fanbase--those guys don't mess around). You'll have to bear with me since as small as this confession seems on the surface, it's an important decision for me.

Back in September 2009, I had it in mind to start a blog about the classic movies I loved. Few of my friends or family shared my interest and I wanted an outlet, a place that actually cared more about Cary Grant than Adam Sandler. A place where I could let off steam. 

So I did what a lot of aspiring bloggers did. I snapped up a blog, gave myself a name that was unlikely to lead back to my offline self, toyed with what to write, and ended up writing nothing at all. My life got busy, I got distracted, and the blog was stillborn.

But then, over a year later, I ventured back to The Girl with the White Parasol. Life had slowed down again and I was feeling at loose ends. I felt I had nothing to lose by going back. So I posted a review of I Walked with a Zombie. Then I wrote a little more. And more. I started commenting on other people's blogs as "Rachel," trading jokes back and forth. I got a few followers. There's a great freedom that comes to writing when you can say to yourself, "This is just for fun." The only standard was my own. If I made typos or made stupid puns or wrote something that flopped, who cared? And if I ever did go on to write something professionally, at least I wouldn't be haunted by anything from my silly blog.

I feel that once you put your name to something, it becomes a responsibility. It means you're willing to risk something. And you know what? I've had this blog for years. I have over a hundred followers now (Thank you guys, for that wonderfully timed Christmas present). I've met brilliant people who've changed the way I think about film and art. I've read the saga of Penelope Trunk and her own travails with writing under a pseudonym.  I've talked about this blog with friends and family and coworkers who've all told me, with varying degrees of puzzlement, "Why don't you ever let people see it?" They're right. I think my blog is worth a little risk. In the long run, I want my blog to be something that made me a better writer, a deeper thinker, and a happier person. And I'm tired of putting another name to something that I'm proud of.

My name is Aubyn Eli. I'm called Aubyn. It rhymes with "robin." I'll be putting it to my posts from now on.

And what does this dramatic reveal mean for my blog? Not much. I'll still be the same person. I'll still blog about old movies. I'll still believe in Alfred Hitchcock, Barbara Stanwyck, Technicolor, Edith Head, Humphrey Bogart, the obvious superiority of Sunset Boulevard over All About Eve, and the importance of a good exit line. I'll still love The Magnificent Seven more than The Seven Samurai. And I'll still keep looking for the girl with the white parasol.

Thanks for the support you've given me all this time, guys. If I can still get away with toasting the new year, here's to a happy 2013!

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

A New Year, a New Gatsby

As a new year dawns, I look forward to many things. To seeing new places, to meeting new people, and of course, to seeing many more movies. And one of those movies is Baz Luhrmann's much-anticipated and much-delayed The Great Gatsby. Odd considering I don't really expect it to be a success. While I admit to a weakness for Moulin Rouge, I feel like Luhrmann's bombastic, all-or-nothing style is more likely to smother Fitzgerald's story than to lift it up. But the truth is that I am a Gatsby junkie, I have been since high school, I've seen the 1949, 1974, and 2000 movie adaptations, and I will no doubt go to the Luhrmann film still hoping for the best. The Great Gatsby is a story that feels so cinematic in its concept and yet it's never found a solid footing onscreen. Why?

Because my fascination with all things Gatsby extends to the films, I decided to examine the 1949 and 1974 films and how they went wrong. If you choose to read further, be warned that I assume you've read the book and know all these characters already.

The 1949 Film

(directed by Elliot Nugent, starring Alan Ladd and Betty Field)

This movie's been out of circulation for a long time due to copyright issues but a new print came out last year and a fuzzy but passable version is floating around online. It's definitely worth a look for just how strange it is. I say strange because its makers don't treat Gatsby like the great enshrined classic it would become. They appropriate the basic plot and turn it into, of all things, a film noir. It becomes the tale of a noble-hearted gangster and the woman who betrayed him. The writers and director play fast and loose with the story, spending a great deal of time on Gatsby's rise to power and subtly altering Daisy and Tom from callous aristocrats into treacherous and calculating plotters. Their final betrayal of Gatsby becomes a typical noir frame-up, with Daisy agreeing to make her lover into the patsy as Gatsby overhears. It is utterly unreal to see a Gatsby that actually wises up to Daisy's true nature in the end. Perhaps these alterations, bizarre as they feel to a lover of the book, could have worked. But the filmmakers don't fully commit to such a dark reinvention. Instead they put a white picket fence around it by making it a morality tale of lawlessness punished and bland goodness rewarded. You get the sense that this film was constructed from the scraps of other '40s films rather than being carefully crafted as its own story. So it's pretty much a failure as both a film and as an adaptation. And yet there is something interesting about seeing The Great Gatsby treated as just another story. It's something that would never happen again.

 The 1974 Film

(directed by Jack Clayton, starring Robert Redford and Mia Farrow)

The 1974 movie is every inch the prestige production, including a respected director, the screenwriting talents of Francis Ford Coppola, popular stars, and an all-out, sumptuous recreation of the Jazz Age. Everything in this movie shimmers. The fashions are to die for. The parties are lavish. Unlike the sloppier 1949 version, the 1974 film dutifully repeats most of the original dialogue from the book. It also excises a fair amount of Nick Carraway's narration, instead focusing on the tragic romance of Daisy and Gatsby. You can tell that people were expecting this to be the definitive version, a dreamy, star-studded example of the best Hollywood craftsmanship. And yet this film also fails. Like Gatsby, it tries too hard. Jack Clayon opts for dramatic zooming and high-pitched melodrama so that moments that worked on the page become laughably overdone on film. Everything is categorized so that all love scenes have soft focus and slow music while the sleazy scenes all have a dyspeptic saxophone. And, as if to cap it all off, the film cuts off Nick's final testament to American dreamers for a kicky rendition of "Ain't We Got Fun?" over the credits. It's like a cake made only of stale icing, nothing underneath at all.

And now we move on to the most interesting part of these two faulty films: the casting. 

Jay Gatsby

(Alan Ladd in 1949, Robert Redford in 1974) 

The best reason to watch the 1949 film is because Alan Ladd is really, surprisingly very good as Jay Gatsby. In his day, Ladd was acclaimed more for his style than his depth (Where Danger Lives has a fascinating essay on the star and the tortuous insecurity he felt over his acting) but this film proves that assumption wrong. Ladd feels like a very natural Gatsby, the boyishness of his looks and manner contrasting with the cool confidence that Gatsby the character (and Ladd the actor) had learned how to fake. Ladd is able to utter even the absurdest bits of Gatsby's backstory with utter conviction. It's a great shame that the role never got Ladd the respect he so deeply wanted.

There's an old story Mike Nichols would tell about Robert Redford and the day he was almost cast as Benjamin Braddock in The Graduate. Nichols asked Redford to describe a time when he had struck out with a girl. Redford didn't understand the question. Whether the story is true or not, it does hit on an essential weakness of Redford the star. You could never buy him as a loser. That supernal golden-haired beauty and distant manner put him on a different plane. And that feeds into his portrayal of Gatsby since Redford never seems fully keyed into the desperation under Gatsby's dreaming or the eager, searching nature of a reinvented man. He is a more melancholy and thoughtful Gatsby than Ladd even while the script keeps trying to cast him as the earnest romantic hero. Overall, a noble failure. He does make for quite the iconic image though, as he stares at that green light.

Daisy Buchanan

(Betty Field in 1949, Mia Farrow in 1974)

The wide-eyed, plaintive Betty Field just feels like she's batting out of her league with Daisy. It's a flat, distracted performance, as if the main star of the show had been delayed and Field was a harried usher sent to distract us, all while keeping one eye on the fire exits. If the intent was to turn the '49 Gatsby into a film noir, then they failed utterly in giving their femme fatale any of the original Daisy's seductiveness, charm, or survival tactics.

If Field's performance is lackluster, Mia Farrow's portrayal has luster by the barrelful, enough to choke you with. At one point, director Jack Clayton literally films her with stars in her eyes. Unlike Elliot Nugent, who rushed through a lot of his Daisy's scenes, Clayton's camera bathes Farrow in shimmering light and loving close-ups. But he also indulges her in a performance that's so neurotic and silly that even the cutest and rootin-tootin-est of the Jazz Babies would have wanted to take an axe to this Daisy. In high school, my English teacher couldn't resist rewinding Farrow's final breakdown for us, calling it one of his favorite bits of bad acting ever. But then, Farrow was so painfully miscast. Daisy's voice should sound like money and Farrow, even at 29, had the cracked, mournful voice of an old woman. Daisy's meant to be the illusive lovely idol of Gatsby's dreams and Farrow, well... it's hard not to think of David O. Selznick's ungallant slap to Katharine Hepburn: "I can't imagine Rhett Butler chasing you around for twelve years."

 Tom Buchanan

(Barry Sullivan in 1949, Bruce Dern in 1974)

Barry Sullivan wins an extra point from me for being the actor who physically looks the most like how I envisioned his character. Handsome and polished but with a lurking coldness in the eyes. It's a performance that emphasizes the menace of Tom's character. He barks orders more like a gangster than a polo player. Going along with the noir-like feel of the film, Sullivan is no golden boy. He's every bit the tough guy.

Bruce Dern is a very different interpretation of the rich, entitled Tom. Instead of emphasizing his violence, the later film emphasizes his comical nature. Dern delivers Tom's rambling comments on the superiority of Nordics and the social order in a reedy, petulant whine. This Tom is weak, childish, and unlovable, his ratty little mustache and irritable manner held up against Robert Redford's golden superiority as if to say, "Creeps like him can still get it all." Again, it gives an interesting angle on the character but as with the Sullivan version, you never get the sense that this Tom is a true aristocrat. The kind of man who can make Gatsby shrivel inside because no matter how idiotic he sounds, he was born to the purple. And Gatbsy is not.

Nick Carraway

(Macdonald Carey in 1949, Sam Waterston in 1974)

When I didn't like Macdonald Carey in Shadow of a Doubt, I told myself it was the contrived nature of his character, the police detective who falls instantly in love with the heroine. When I didn't like Macdonald Carey in The Damned, I said it was just the awkwardness of seeing a man in craggy middle age seduce the sexy young Shirley Ann Field. But it's three strikes now and I have to face the truth. Carey is smarmy. He's bland. There's nothing under the surface with him. And sadly, the '49 Gatsby decided that Nick Carraway should be the voice of the Hays Code so we have to endure Carey's stiff, lecturing presence telling us, "There is a way which seemeth right unto a man but the end thereof are the ways of death." This Nick is so upright and moral, he even reforms Jordan Baker!

Of all the Nick Carraways (including Tobey Maguire), Sam Waterston is the only one whose voice you might actually want for your narrator. He's a soothing, thoughtful presence onscreen but with enough rootless amiability to make his friendship with these people believable. The only problem is, the '74 version decided it didn't really need Nick after all. A lot of his character moments, including his crucial last speech, are pared down and instead we're treated to more Gatsby and Daisy interplay. So Fitzgerald's "boats against the current, borne ceaselessly back into the past" was cut but Daisy wittering about how she wants to push Gatsby around in "a big pink cloud" was left in. Nick is a difficult if not impossible character to succesfully integrate into a film adaptation because he functions more as a gateway than a character in his own right. But the '74 version leaves him stranded betwixt and between, still present but too remote to fully connect with anybody. His growing friendship with Gatsby is excised for more Daisy. It makes the heartbreaking moment when he tells Gatbsy that he's "worth the whole damn bunch put together" into an odd little throwaway moment. Did this Nick ever really care that much?

Jordan Baker

(Ruth Hussey in 1949, Lois Chiles in 1974)

Just as the '49 version of Nick was retooled into the voice of sober respectability, Ruth Hussey's turn as the amoral golfer Jordan Baker was also given a coat of suburban varnish. She vacillates between wanting to be part of her scheming coterie and wanting to be Nick Carraway's love. In the '49 film, we also get to see Jordan's future: she ends up as Nick's loving, gray-haired wife. Because that makes so much sense. Hussey is a fine actress and her specialty was the wisecracking and sensible side character. But she's a little too smart and down-to-earth for either of the roles the script wants to put her in. You get the sense that this Jordan could have a fine busy life elsewhere if she had the sense to get away from these people. 

Lois Chiles isn't nearly as good an actress as Hussey but her silver-tongued and sultry Jordan is still a pleasure. While her predecessor was tart and sensible, Chiles comes across more as a person so utterly devoid of inner doubt that she will continue to glide serenely across the surface for the rest of her days. And man does she rock those Jazz Age fashions (The Fashionéaste has an excellent run-through of the '74 film's glorious costume designs). The only problem with Chiles is that her husky purr and seductive smile were given to the wrong character--her voice sounds more like money than Farrow's does.

Myrtle Wilson

(Shelley Winters in 1949, Karen Black in 1974) 

The only surprise in Shelley Winters' casting as Tom Buchanan's doomed mistress Myrtle is that it happened before Winters had gotten a permanent lock on all "blowsy, unwanted female" roles. She doesn't really get much of a chance to shine in the part and the '49 version doesn't do much to glamorize Myrtle. Thankfully, it doesn't try to belittle her either.

Karen Black might tie with Mia Farrow for being the performer most unpleasantly indulged by her director. We get lots of closeups of Black either laughing or weeping, her emotions practically dripping off the screen. It's a relief when she moves away. Granted, Myrtle is never meant to be a femme fatale or a delicate flower, but it also means that the tragedy of her death is swallowed up by the film's goofy stylizations. And did they have to play that stereotypical "sleazy jazz" over her scenes?

And what about the 2013 movie?

I really don't know if we will ever have a Gatsby film that works. Maybe the book truly does begin and end with the beauty of Fitzgerald's writing, as some critics say. Maybe Fitzgerald is having a subtle revenge on the Hollywood he hated and he watches from beyond the grave while these films only scratch the surface of what he wrote. It could be that Baz Luhrmann will succeed. As a Gatsbyphile, I know I'll still be watching, for better or for worse.

Note: The still of Betty Field is taken from Classic Cinema Gold and the image of Lois Chiles is credited to Cult Queens.