Toys in the Attic (1963)
User ReviewsAdd a Review
While Gerry Page has the showier role it's Wendy Hiller who gives the film's best performance. With subdued delivery and subtle looks she conveys a wealth of background into both who she is and the history of the entire family's dynamic. It's a wise choice, if she had fluttered and extrapolated as Page's Carrie does the viewer would never be able to make it past the first five minutes of the film.
One step removed from a Tennessee Williams chamber piece this will be enjoyed most by fans of his work as well as fans of great acting.
His child-like and overly animated conversation with Lily's mother is a key indicator here. He is still very much a little boy at this point in the story, yet you can see his irresistible personal charm and attractiveness is also working on his own mother-in-law.
These are qualities that were intrinsic to Dean Martin's real life and his professional persona. And the film camera being as unforgiving as it is in revealing a certain "biology is destiny" truth about a person's look, manner and aura, I don't believe Jason Robards Jr., who created the role on stage and was a fine actor on both stage and screen, would have been able to pull it off in the movie. Yes, Paul Newman could have pulled it off. But so could Dean Martin. His performance is one of the things I enjoy most about watching this as I do every few years on my old TCM DVD-R copy of it (we really need an official DVD/Blu-ray release of this soon). His final scenes with Page and Hiller are standouts. It is thrilling to see Julian's growth into manhood for the first time in his life under these brutal circumstances as Dean Martin portrays him.
This is a dramatic performance that, IMO, surpasses his previous impressive dramatic performances in The Young Lions, Career, Some Came Running and Rio Bravo.
And on the issue of questions about the family resemblance (or lack there of) among the three siblings, I'm not sure that is such a critical oversight of the filmmakers considering the musical chairs heritage elements found elsewhere in the story. Questionable lineage/parentage is an openly discussed factor for at least two other characters. It wouldn't be a stretch to consider the possibility that the three siblings in this old New Orleans family might have been the product of two or more fathers. The two "old maid" sisters are overly conservative and averse to outsiders to an almost neurotic level. Was this the result of a mother who instilled this fear in her daughters in order to atone for her own wild youth? Possible. I just think the question of whether Dean Martin, Wendy Hiller and Geraldine Page look enough alike to be taken for siblings is not much of a distraction and, in its own way under the circumstances of this story, might even add something of value to consider.
The story begins with Julian (Dean Martin) working on some business deal. When he and his wife, Lily (Yvette Mimieux) arrive back to see their families in Louisiana, things sound great. Julian has announced that one of his deals went through and he is now rich. He lavishes gifts on his two spinster sisters (Geraldine Page and Wendy Hiller). During this phase of the film, Page's character is REALLY, REALLY annoying. She talks non-stop and the tone of her voice could incite murder!! My advice is to grit your teeth and stick with it--all sorts of nasty craziness is to follow! What? Well, see the film for yourself.
The film is NOT perfect--and it's obvious when you see an Italian-American (Martin) playing the brother. The casting just didn't make much sense, though his acting was just fine in the film. As I mentioned above, Page's acting also seemed to be a bit too much at times. But, the story is golden if you keep watching. Don't believe me--see it for yourself! It gets pretty icky!
I don't think Dean was all that bad in the part, the problem was he did not have that much to work with. When you think about it the roles he played in Some Came Running and Ada could have been dress rehearsals for Julian Berniers in Toys In The Attic. I just don't think the play itself is up to the standards Lillian Hellman set for herself in The Little Foxes.
In fact the subject matter seems to be more Tennessee Williams than Lillian Hellman. Martin is the younger ne'er do well brother of spinsters Geraldine Page and Wendy Hiller. Page is kind of Blanche Dubois flighty type on the surface, but she really rules the Berniers roost. And she's got a nice incestuous thing for her brother.
Who is now married to Yvette Mimieux, a young, but even mentally younger child like bride. Dino's got a deal cooking with the wife of a big tycoon played by Larry Gates. Years ago he had a fling with his wife Nan Martin, but now they're just seeking to take the big guy for a big score.
On stage the Gates and Martin parts are not played, but talked about. When Lillian Hellman's play was on stage the sisters were played by Maureen Stapleton and Anne Revere. Revere in the part Hiller does won a Tony Award for Best Supporting Actress. The play ran 463 performances in the 1960-1961 season.
I think if the part Dino had was played by Paul Newman or Montgomery Clift, the film might have been marginally better. But even more so Lillian Hellman was poaching on Tennessee Williams subject matter and she should have kept off the grass.
Similarly, the beautiful Yvette Mimieux is wildly miscast as his insecure wife.
Thankfully, much of the other actors are at home in this film and this sort of film. They give good performances.
Geraldine Page is in fine form as one of Martin's two spinster sisters. It isn't a subtle performance but it works very well. Wendy Hiller, as the other sister, does give a subtle performance. She is not authentically Southern; but for a good actor that makes no difference. (Think, for starters, Vivian Leigh in "GWTW.") Gene Tierney is also on-hand. Though she'd had a troubled life, she'd matured well. She was never a great actress but she had screen presence and she is right for her part here.
I was familiar with the play and wondered if the movie would include its most controversial aspect. (Can't give it away.) To my surprise, it does; and it's very effective.
Please note: I have nothing against Dean Martin. He is fun in "Kiss Me Stupid." But he was essentially a singer and comic performer. This movie contains no songs and is anything but comic. Had his and Mimieux's parts been cast more according to the script, the movie could indeed have been extremely, rather than occasionally, powerful.
The story focuses on three siblings-the cheery Geraldine Page who is on the surface sweet but hiding an emotional secret destined to destroy her, the quiet Wendy Hiller who can only shake her head as everything around her drowns, and the gregarious drifter Dean Martin who left home to seek his fortune, and now returns with wife Yvette Mimieux whose mother he apparently took money from to marry her and get Mimieux from under mama's hair. Mama (Gene Tierney) seemingly has her eye on Dean, even though she's got a light skinned black man whom she keeps company with. Yvette is upset when she spots Dean with the abused wife Nan Martin whose husband (Larry Gates) verbally assaults her as if she was the most vile substance under his shoe. "If one of my clients drinks to the point of throwing up on the dining room table, you will sit there and smile", he tells her, and this leads to an even more horrific moment that utilizes an extremely violent visual to bring everything out to a gruesome psychological climax.
These are not happy people, and the seemingly happy relationship between the three siblings is a total lie. Geraldine Page by this time had established herself with two Tennessee Williams stories ("Summer and Smoke" and "Sweet Bird of Youth") as the portrayer of seemingly happy but ultimately miserable heroines, and like the mother in "The Glas Menagerie", she is living in a past which probably never existed for her. Hiller's performance is mostly through her eyes, saying a lot with very little, and she is outstanding. Slightly miscast, Dean Martin is very jarring as their brother, but Mimieux is appropriately fragile as the young wife who doesn't want to see the world fall apart around her but realizes that it is pretty much inevitable.
There's a nice supporting performance by Gene Tierney in the rather small role of Mimieux's mother, still as glamorous as she was in 1944's "Laura" and quite handsome even with just a wisp of gray hair. Poor Nan Martin's character is just on the cusp of being revealed. Dean indicates that there's more to the eye for her than what his wife sees, so it is never really made clear if he is just helping her try to get away from the hateful Gates (in a role far away from his Emmy winning role as kindly patriarch H.B. on "Guiding Light"), and that she is actually truly on the side of the marriage. Where the blame lies for all this drama is never really made clear, but so is the blame in life. Psychological torture knows no villains, even if Gates is obviously cruel and spiteful, and the real villain is a surprise to be held in a climax that is riveting and makes you drop your mouth in shock.
I would love to see what this had to explore as a play as the film is only 90 minutes, and the play was obviously a bit longer. The black and white photography is excellent, as is the set of the house where the two sisters live. Amazing opening credits with a sort of 3-D look get your attention from the start. This is a thinking man's drama, certainly not perfect, but then, the best things in life never really are.