LILITH A film review by Ralph Benner Copyright 1996 Ralph Benner
After reading "Warren Beatty and Desert Eyes," you wonder if author-critic David Thomson can sleep well at night knowing that his hyperbole on Robert Rossen's LILITH is so far off the mark as to become self-tormenting: it's "the best film Beatty has made at that point in his career and you could make a case that it is the best he will ever make. A failure in its year (1964), the picture grows more profound and beautiful as the years pass by. It is a lake that resists every effort to plumb its depths....(it's) the picture that most clearly engages Beatty in something like his own appetite for sexual encounters." Anyone who has paid even the slightest attention to Beatty's near-legendary sexcapades knows that Hal Ashby's SHAMPOO comes closest to what we perceive as the image of Beatty's hungers (not excluding self-respect). And how is it possible not to fathom Lilith when its depth is considerably lower than one's own crotch? But Thomson's British-born and educated, which goes a long way in explaining his witless annotation. His across-the-Atlantic view also explains why he doesn't "see" a more reasonable explanation for Rossen's movie having failed at the box office and as an artfully lyrical examination of sexual addiction: American audiences were deep into Hollywoodized mental analysis about themselves in movies like SPLENDOR IN THE GRASS, THE HUSTLER, A VIEW FROM THE BRIDGE, THE CHILDREN'S HOUR, THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE, DAVID & LISA, and via TV shows like "Alfred Hitchcock Presents," "Ben Casey," "Kraft Suspense Theater" and the psycho-doc-is-in-session stuff like "The 11th Hour," "Breaking Point," and, if none of that enough, the English booked appointments for us in ROOM AT THE TOP, LOOK BACK IN ANGER, A TASTE OF HONEY, THE ENTERTAINER, SONS AND LOVERS, SATURDAY NIGHT AND SUNDAY MORNING, THE MARK, VICTIM, THIS SPORTING LIFE and, unsure if it's an English or American production, LOLITA. So when LILITH came onto the scene, and concluded with a "Twilight Zone" last line from Beatty, intimating that he too is trapped by the irresistible lure of sex, smart but babble-fatigued movie goers weren't too impressed. After SPLENDOR IN THE GRASS, THE ROMAN SPRING OF MRS. STONEand ALL FALL DOWN, they had already granted that Beatty was well on his way to proving that he indeed saw Hollywood as a great big bed.
Rossen's LILITH is a respectable bomb, though: it wants to dive in to the murky waters of sex, into an exploration of what turns people on, that just because one person's appetites are different from the norm, they shouldn't be conclusively judged as abnormal. As the scheming Lilith, Jean Seberg is institutionalized because she's a nymphomaniac, and, as a therapist-in-training trying to pull her from her amoralism, Beatty falls in love with her. But the premise is misleading. He isn't really in love with her, he's intrigued by her, and, it becomes obvious, is turned on by her teasing sexuality. (The only honest scene in the movie is when, after discovering that Lilith has made it with another woman, he has to have her right then and there.) But you don't believe that this screen Lilith is so powerful a sexual magnet that she can draw in so many; something's missing - an angelic demoness vacillating between sexual bliss and fatal attraction. Seberg was never much of an actress to begin with, and it's unfortunate that she was chosen over other actresses considered: Sarah Miles, Diane Cilento, Samantha Eggar or Yvette Mimieux, who might have been the most rewarding. Not only needing the break, Mimieux had the beauty to pull off a sort of supernal looniness needed to entice, to entrap, to be the icon of free sex. Seberg, on the other hand, isn't much more than a tramp with extra-large looking front teeth that have a repellency when viewed close up. Seberg's real-life suicide may add a mystifying lore to LILITH, but it has zero effect in enhancing her performance. And that once more Beatty is a movie's most beautiful love object is disconcerting, and made even more so by his ludicrously moody, intentionally evasive portrayal.
Watching LILITH, based on the 1961 J.R. Salamanca novel, you will quickly surmise that it would have benefited from having been made, say, in the 70s, when the subject of sex didn't face the threats of censorship and the National Catholic Office. But you can appreciate Rossen's attempt in trying not to make judgment on the self-discovery of the ease with which one can become a sexual habitue. Rossen's last movie, and it's also lenser Eugen Schufftan's last American picture - another example of what we miss by not using b & w. The more observant amongst viewers will note the house that Gene Hackman and Jessica Walter live in - designed by Richard Sylbert - will two years later in WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? become the playground in which Liz and Dick play their "hump the hostess" and "get the guests" games.
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