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Suddenly, Last Summer (1959)
Unsung, surreal masterpiece
Long-fabled as one of the most bizarre films to come out Hollywood during the years of the Production Code's strict enforcement, SUDDENLY, LAST SUMMER is a riveting psychological drama that remains absolutely gut-wrenching even after nearly fifty years since it's original release. Screenwriter Gore Vidal takes Tennessee Williams' one-act play and runs with it, fleshing out the central characters and expanding the story's central arc. Vidal had the seemingly impossibly task of taking a tale involving homosexuality, incest, pedophilia, and even cannibalism and presenting it all in a manner that would be acceptable to the rigid Production Code, yet still coherent to the average film audience. Not only did Vidal succeed victoriously, but the slightly ambiguous nature of the film's climax and denouncement actually makes the twice as unsettling and disturbing.
With relatively few characters to populate the story the performances are absolutely crucial, and the tight-knit cast delivers the goods in spades. Long after many of her acting contemporaries of the thirties and forties had been forgotten, Katharine Hepburn continued to reign supreme on the silver screen and her sublime performance as the manipulative and cunning Mrs. Venable ranks among Hepburn's best work of the decade. The wounded vulnerability of a post-car accident Montgomery Clift serves him well in a difficult role as the middle man between the film's leading ladies, and the still-handsome actor provides a humane, completely genuine performance that supplies viewers with level-headed window into the off-kilter story. Albert Dekker, Mercedes McCambridge and Gary Raymond also excel in minor roles.
The film's biggest surprise, however, is the exceptional portrayal of Elizabeth Taylor in the film's central performance. Although usually somewhat of an uneven actress, Taylor completely nails a dauntingly difficult role in a complex, multilayered performance that deservedly won her a Golden Globe Award as well as her third consecutive Oscar nomination. During the film's climatic revelation, Taylor lets out a series of bone-chilling screams that I could never imagine coming out of any other actress. Not only does it remain Taylor's finest performance (which is a considerable achievement when one considers that WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF is also on her resume), but it is also a performance that simply could not be bettered.
Although perhaps he could never surpass 1949's A LETTER TO THREE WIVES or 1950's ALL ABOUT EVE in the eyes of most viewers, SUMMER contains some of the finest work of director Joseph L. Mankiewicz' legendary career. Brilliantly combining southern Gothicism with straight-faced psychodrama and even grandiose horror, Mankiewicz stitches the various seemingly disparate threads together in a harrowing, yet perversely satisfying whole. Even the lengthy, sometimes criticized flashback sequence is an absolute tour de force of film-making that leaves viewers emotionally exhausted as one experiences the on screen turmoil more than simply watching it. An often unheralded classic, the film remains of the most sorely underrated films of its era.
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958)
Exceptionally tense and claustrophobic
A top-notch adaptation of Tennessee Williams' classic play, the first screen version of CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF is a wrenching and intense character study that brings out the best of nearly every individual involved. Williams' source material is arguably his greatest play (rivaled primarily by A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE) and it is expertly adapted to screen by screenwriter/director Richard Brooks. Although the racier elements of Williams' dialogue is either toned down or eliminated, Brooks remains remarkably faithful to structure of Williams' story and its characters. Brooks wisely regulates his screenplay to the basics of the play, which allows plenty of time for him to reach into his lead character's minds.
The film is remarkably gripping and intense for such a leisurely-paced, dialogue-heavy film. As a director, Brooks manages to wring every bit of tension out of the source material without attempting to expand the narrative, which surely would have placed the film in danger of losing focus. Although the MGM production values are typically lavish, Brooks maintains a marvelously claustrophobic aura throughout the entire film that somehow manages to remain faithful to its theatrical origins without actually feeling static or stagy. In fact, although the film reaches such pseudo-operatic heights in its drama, it's somewhat shocking that proceedings remain as relatively grounded as they do.
The film is blessed with a top-notch cast, lead by the breathtakingly beautiful Paul Newman in a complex and thoroughly convincing portrayal of wounded masculinity. In a deeply internalized portrayal, Newman clearly conveys volumes of information with one glance of his steel-blue eyes. Taylor is unarguably at her sultriest as the frustrated Maggie, a definitive Williams' heroine, and her old-school Hollywood glamour contrasts perfectly with Newman's refined method acting. The supporting cast is flawless, lead by an outstanding, scene-stealing portrayal Burt Ives and featuring terrific turns by Jack Carson, Judith Anderson, and Madeleine Sherwood completing the impossibly tight ensemble.
Although Tennessee Williams himself panned the film for censoring the more salacious elements of his original play, the film received largely positive reviews from most major critics and was later nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Picture. Audiences also responded, as the film grossed more that five times it's budget. It is crucial for a film adaptation of source material from any media to stand on its own, and the 1958 film version of CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF is an absolute classic by any measure.
The Big Bounce (1969)
Flawed, but fun Elmore Leonard adaptation with Ryan O'Neal is at his sexiest
The works of author Elmore Leonard are not known to make the transfer from the page to the screen very successfully. Sure, 1995's GET SHORTY was a big success, but HOMBRE (1967), THE 52 PICK-UP (1986), and CAT CHASER (1989) were all considered unqualified disasters (although HOMBRE is certainly underrated in retrospect). Unfortunately, 1969's THE BIG BOUNCE is also considered among those disasters, which is a totally undeserved fate for such an efficiently effective little film. In fact, I dare say I enjoyed THE BIG BOUNCE even more than GET SHORTY.
The film opened to scathing bad reviews upon its release in spring of 1969, and audiences stayed away in droves (the film was never even released on home video until 35 years after its theatrical release in 2004). I haven't read Leonard's original novel, so I have no idea how faithful the film is when compared to the source material. I can say, however, that director Alex March and screenwriter Robert Dozier do a fine job keeping the momentum going, as the film moves along at a pleasing pace. And while the picture may not exactly have Oscar-worthy cinematography, the film is certainly good to look at, especially in its original Panavision widescreen format.
The film's major ace-in-the-hole, however, is the always-terrific Ryan O'Neal in the lead. Although O'Neal was a major star in the seventies, starring in the smash hits LOVE STORY (1970), WHAT'S UP, DOC? (1972), and PAPER MOON (1973), he has never really seemed to receive his deserved props for being the truly topnotch actor that he is. Even in the absolute worst films (and he has made more than a few), I have yet to see him give a lackluster performance. And this film is no exception.
After five years of starring on the popular primetime soap opera "Peyton Place," O'Neal made his starring debut in this film, and it is clear he had already begun mastering a respectable craft. From beginning to end, he is completely believable as our hapless hero. You never doubt his genuineness. It is yet another performance that makes you set up and ask yourself, "Why didn't this man get any more respect back in the day?"
Of course, even if he never received much critical kudos, Ryan was certainly one of the top male pinups of his era. The reason is clear: in addition to being drop-dead-gorgeous, Ryan also was not the least bit shy about sharing his beautiful body with the rest of the free world. He always gave us exactly what we were wanting to see, and it all began here in THE BIG BOUNCE. Appearing in various stages of undress throughout the entire film, if watching Ryan in this film doesn't get you hotter than hell, then you better run out and get some Viagra.
As for the rest of the cast, Leigh Taylor-Young, who was married to Ryan at the time of the film's release, is amusing as the wild and crazy hellion. Although Taylor-Young is far from my favorite actress, she really gives the part her all and is an absolute hoot to watch. The chemistry between her and O'Neal is magnetic, and some of their scenes together are pretty steamy. Leigh also looks terrific here, and does a somewhat surprising amount of nudity (isn't it odd that films from the late-sixties and early-seventies often have more causal nudity than films today).
The camp honors for the film must go to future Oscar-winner Lee Grant, who probably likes to forget she appeared in this film. Grant turns in a hysterically unsubtle performance as the hot-to-trot single mom who lusts after Ryan throughout the picture (can't say I blame her). Grant literally trembles with unrestrained horniness anytime she is around O'Neal, and some of their scenes together are marvelously entertaining kitsch. She's basically all over the place at once, but I'd be lying if I said I didn't find her entertaining.
The young Lisa Eilbacher is surprisingly credible, and displays of refreshing minimum of kiddie star cuteness as the young daughter of Grant's character. In particular, Eilbacher flawlessly handles one very difficult scene with such accuracy and truth that she provides the film with its one true heart-wrenching moment. Not surprisingly, Eilbacher continued acting and raked up numerous credits throughout the seventies and eighties, although she had not been seen in anything new for nearly 20 years now. I'd certainly like to know what she's been up to.
The rest of the cast is filled out by a good assortment of character actors, a better lot than I would have expected, including James Daly and Robert Webber. The best of the group is easily Van Heflin, in a touchingly unsentimental performance as O'Neal's boss/father figure. It's very nice little portrait of tough love that feels refreshingly unforced, and it's a fitting bookend to the career of Heflin, who died a few short years later in 1971. All of the other minor roles are acceptably cast as well.
Although the film is definitely underrated, it still is not perfect. Although it's enjoyable while it's playing, the film never really adds up to much in the end. It is further marred by an abrupt ending that ties things up too quickly and an absolutely atrocious music score (seriously, it's one of the worst original film scores that I've ever heard). Still, I guarantee that THE BIG BOUNCE will give you a couple hours of grooving, sexy fun. And the young Ryan O'Neal is very much worth checking out, especially here at the peak of his physical beauty.
Superficial, but entertaining
Possibly the most anticipated (or at least the most hyped) film of 2006, DREAMGIRLS is a fictional account of the rise and fall of a Supremes-like singing group. The original play, as staged by Michael Bennett, opened on Broadway in 1981 and was an immediate success. Not only did the play run for many performances, but it won six Tony awards and a Grammy, and also made actress/singer Jennifer Holiday a star. Plans for a film adaptation languished in development hell for 25 years until respected director/screenwriter Bill Condon pushed the long-awaited film into production.
As with any film that is so eager anticipated, expectations were very high for DREAMGIRLS, which ended up receiving relatively strong reviews and won nearly every conceivable "supporting actress" award for Jennifer Hudson. I personally found the film to be enjoyable, but not the great masterpiece that Paramount seemed to believe it is. Basically, the film is slick and extremely well-made on the surface, but offers no real insight or uniqueness to its routine plot line. The film relies far too often on the mechanisms of the predictable plot rather than allowing us to experience the joy and pain of its characters, which would have led to a truly rewarding experience.
That's not to say that the film isn't entertaining while it's playing, because it certainly is. As paint-by-the-numbers as the film may be, it makes up for what it lacks in character and genuineness with style and flare. The film is a splashy musical of the type that is rarely seen, and it zips along at a breakneck speed that equates to a surprisingly brisk pace for a movie that runs 131 minutes long. The audience is always two steps ahead of the picture, but it is so buoyant with energy that no one will mind.
The performers all do a capable job with the familiar material. I thought that Jamie Foxx and Beyonce Knowles were good in their respective roles even though I found their characters unconvincing in the end (Foxx's Berry Gordy-like mogul becomes a one-dimensional villain in the film's final third, while Beyonce's Deena never once displays any Diana Ross-like arrogance and is unconvincingly portrayed as a virtual saint). The film really draws its strength from terrific supporting performances from Eddie Murphy, Anika Noni Rose, Danny Glover, Keith Robinson, and especially the stunning Jennifer Hudson. Miracle of miracles, newcomer Hudson is every bit as sensational as the buzz indicated, and she truly is a knockout!
I never saw the play in any of its incarnations, so this film was my first true exposure to material. Overall, I found the much-praised songs by Henry Krieger and the late Tom Eyen to be only average (there are also four newly-written songs by Krieger and various other writers). I enjoyed the several Motown sound-a-likes (especially "Move" and the instantly memorable title song), but I found many of the more dramatic pieces to be fairly tuneless and rambling. The highpoints are easily Hudson two big solos ("And I'm Telling You I am not Going," and "I am Changing"), both of which are sold by the conviction and intensity of Hudson's performance.
In summary, I found DREAMGIRLS to be appealing and entertaining, yet I could help but wish that director Condone had infused the film with just a fraction of the depth he gave his own 1998 James Whale biopic GODS AND MONSTERS. With just a little more insight or more detailed characterizations, the film could have been a truly great picture. As is, the film solidly enjoyable, and certainly as well produced as any film recent memory. DREAMGIRLS may ultimately be empty inside, but it sure is a pretty package!
The Comedians (1967)
A good effort that succeeds in many areas, but still falls short of greatness
After delighting audiences in director Franco Zeffirelli's 1967 hit adaptation of Shakespeare's THE TAMING OF THE SHREW, the Burtons' popularity with audiences seemed to be on the wane as their next film, Peter Glenville's THE COMEDIANS (1967) became their first full-fledged box office disappointment. There was much publicity surrounding the political thriller as it shot in Africa (masquerading as Haiti) and the fact that Taylor accepted half her usual salary and took second billing behind Burton kept gossips wagging for months (she reportedly only took the part out of fear of being replaced with Sophia Loren). But when the film opened, critics found it slow and talky and audiences simply seemed uninterested. Although the film is never quite as interesting or as suspenseful as it could have been, I dare say that THE COMEDIANS probably plays a great deal better today without the heavy expectations of the time surrounding it.
Graham Greene does a respectable job of paring down his complex novel for the screen, and director Glenville keeps the film moving at a reasonable pace in spite of its lengthy runtime of 150 minutes. The film is always interesting and occasionally gripping, although Greene and Glenville keep the audience at a relative distance which prevents the picture from striking as hard as it could have. Burton is in good form, and Alec Guinness, Paul Ford, and Lillian Gish all turn in top notch support (only Peter Ustinov feels under utilized). Unfortunately, Taylor is dreadfully miscast as a German military wife complete with a woefully unconvincing accent and her ill-fitting presence creates several lulls in the film as the number of scenes between her character and Burton's character are increased (in order to give the diva her proper screen time) which hampers a few long stretches of the film and slightly undermines what could have been a first-rate effort.
Harrowing film masterpiece
After basically making fools of themselves in the hilariously bad SANDPIPER (which nonetheless popular with audiences at the time), the Burtons made what is arguably the comeback of the decade with the blistering masterpiece WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? (1966). In his first film, director Mike Nichols immediately announced himself as a major force to be reckoned with and as one of the most promising directors of the decade (and he would continue to make good on that promise throughout the decades). The film should be remembered not only as the taboo-shattering masterwork that it is, but also as one of the most taunt, biting, and intense dramas ever produced. Even forty years after its premiere, this film is certainly not light entertainment.
Although her weight gain and garish make-up is not enough to disguise her natural beauty, Taylor is frighteningly effective in a career-best performance. Burton is even better in a disturbing portrayal of the emasculated male bent on revenge. The fit and gorgeous George Segal and loopy Sandy Dennis are perfectly cast as the mismatched couple who subject themselves to the reign of psychological terror unleashed by George and Martha. Both Taylor and Dennis deservedly won Oscars, and Burton and Segal were absolutely robbed of the awards for their sensational work.
The film pushed the limits of the production code at the time, and (along with 1966's BLOW-UP) paved the way for the "new" rating system of "G," "PG," "R," and "X." The film deservedly won raves from critics, and was nominated for 13 Oscars (winning 5). The film was smash hit at the box office, coming in as the third-highest grosser of the year. This film has lost none of its gut-wrenching power over the years.
The Sandpiper (1965)
Hilariously misguided tripe; a must for bad movie-lovers
For their third film together (and their first as a newly-married couple), the Burtons chose one of the most infamous bad movies of all-time, the hilariously misguided effort THE SANDPIPER (1965). The film had a great pedigree starting with director Vincent Minnelli (who helmed such classics as 1944's MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS, 1958's GIGI, and even 1970's criminally underrated ON A CLEAR DAY YOU CAN SEE FOREVER), and great supporting cast featuring Eva Marie Saint, Charles Bronson, Robert Webber, and James Edwards. Unfortunately, the film misses the mark on almost every occasion, undermining a potentially interesting love story with poorly-developed characters and cornball dialogue. I won't spend the time discussing the film's clumsy attempts as addressing such complex issues as theology, which are handled even worse than the central love triangle.
In all fairness, Burton has the right degree of sullenness to play the conflicted reverend, but the script gives him little else to do other than appear solemn. Burton is unarguably one of the greatest acting talents of his time, but this character is so one-note that even he cannot save it. Unfortunately, Taylor fares even worse although she does display a believable rebelliousness that is necessary for her role of the free-spirited, agnostic artist, she is simply out of her element amongst the mid-sixties beatnik scene. No matter how hard she tries, it simply impossible believe a glamour queen like Taylor as a shack-living, bra-burning hippie, and the characterization only becomes less convincing and more ridiculous as the movie goes on.
In the supporting cast, only Robert Webber's villainous Ward makes much of an impression, as Eva Marie Saint is completely wasted as Burton's wronged wife and Charles Bronson is as miscast as Taylor as a sexually ambiguous sculptor. Even with its terrible dialogue, leaden plotting, and unconvincing performances, The Sandpiper is still certainly watchable. The location footage of the Big Sur is sometimes breathtaking and the Oscar-winning theme song "The Shadow of Your Smile" is memorable, but these attributes alone cannot lift the movie out the realm of being a "bad movie classic." Despite it's dubious quality and unanimously bad reviews from critics (or maybe because of them), THE SANDPIPER was yet another significant hit at the box office for the Burtons.
The V.I.P.s (1963)
Extremely entertaining soaper
After the torturous, three-year-long CLEOPATRA shoot, Hollywood was eager to capitalize on the media coverage of the Taylor/Burton affair, and the duo was immediately cast in as the leads in MGM's ensemble aviation drama THE V.I.P.S (1963). Amazingly, given CLEOPATRA'S equally torturous post-production period, THE V.I.P.S managed to be shot, edited, and even released before the mammoth CLEOPATRA hit the screens. So, while CLEOPATRA was actually filmed first, it was the THE V.I.P.S that offered audiences their first glimpse of the couple on screen together. I'm sure that this must have sent executives at 20th Century Fox (the studio that financed the ridiculously expensive CLEOPATRA) through the roof!
When judged on its own terms, THE V.I.P.S is a good soap opera that becomes quite engrossing while it's playing, yet doesn't embed itself in the memory too deeply. It basically focuses on an assortment of wealthy individuals as they suffer and come to terms with their own various personal crises as they are stranded in an airport due to a heavy fog bank. Yes, it relies on the old "watch the rich people suffer" cliché, but the whole enterprise is generally well handled by veteran director Anthony Asquith, and the airport setting provides a luxurious-but-still-claustrophobic arena for these individuals to sort things out. In other words, the film hardly strays from the usual formula, but it does that formula very well.
The players in the drama are the usual assortment of wealthy film characters (businessman, filmmaker, royalty, etc.), but they are well cast. Orson Wells and Margret Rutherford (who won an Oscar for her performance here) are amusing in the more comedic subplots, while the almost unspeakably handsome Rod Taylor is terrific as a financial-strapped businessman and a young Maggie Smith nearly steals the whole film in a heartbreaking turn as his lovesick secretary. As for Taylor and Burton, they are cast in the central love triangle as a married couple is threatened by the suave Lois Jourdan. Both Burton and Jourdan give madly passionate performances that sent many hearts aflutter in the theaters, but the top-billed Taylor is unfortunately given nothing to do aside from look beautiful (which, naturally, she does very well).
Sweet Bird of Youth (1962)
Exceptional entertainment; Newman and Page are outstanding
There are numerous qualities that make SWEET BIRD OF YOUTH a stellar film, starting with the tremendous source material. Williams' tale of fading film actress and princess-by-marriage Alexandra Del Largo escaping Hollywood after a failed comeback attempt and being taken advantage of by aspiring actor/gigolo Chance Wayne is full of ripe drama, all of which is fully exploited by the 1962 film. Williams' typical subplots of southern hypocrisy are also well incorporated into central story by director/screenwriter Richard Brooks (who also helmed 1958's sensational CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF), and actually heighten the tension of the piece. Even with the censorship of early-sixties cinema (including an unnecessarily re-written ending), Brook's SWEET BIRD OF YOUTH still packs a mean punch.
Also crucial to the film's success is casting. No matter what film you're watching, you can always depend on Paul Newman to deliver the goods (which is precisely why he remained a top box office drawl up through the mid-eighties), and he gives one of his absolute best performances SWEET BIRD. Newman had originated the role of Chance in the original stage production, and his immortal screen performance of the role has clearly benefited from the hundreds times that he had previously played the role on stage. Arrogant, masculine, and painfully gorgeous, Newman nearly incinerates the colloid! Also returning from the original stage play is Geraldine Page as Alexandra, the ultimate boozing, wash-up actress. Page is nothing short of sensational a true thinking, feeling, conflicted woman who is desperate to run away from her problems, but completely uncertain of her next move. Alexandra is vain, insecure, and even comedic at times, and Page finds the perfect balance in her portrayal, as she understands that the very qualities that make Alexandra so strong is also what causes her to be weak. Page won a well-deserved Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Drama, but lost the Oscar to Anne Bancroft for her tour de force performance in THE MIRACLE WORKER - seeing that both performances are so phenomenal, I would venture to say that the votes for both awards were probably mighty close.
The rest of the cast is no less impressive. Ed Begley won a Supporting Actor Oscar for his role as 'Boss' Finely, and it is refreshing to see the actor let loose in a vile performance without any obvious apprehension. Rip Torn and Mildred Dunnock are great in supporting bits, and Oscar-nominated Shirley Knight is hauntingly lovely as the appropriately named "Heavenly." Director Brooks also makes excellent use of the widescreen frame, composing many exceptional shots that are all but destroyed when the film is altered from its original Panavision format.
Certainly some viewers will carp about the re-written ending (the studio demanded that things end "happily") as well as the removal of such hot-button topics as abortion and castration to appease the censors, yet none of these omissions dramatically affect the film. Even though he caved in to the studio in terms of the finale, director Brooks must be given credit for focusing on the characters and dialogue and avoiding the temptation to "dress" the play up for movie audiences. The film is firmly planted in its central relationships, and this is what carries the day. No matter how censorious the Production Code may have been, no one could mask the white-hot dynamic between Newman and Page.
The Drowning Pool (1975)
Excellent mid-seventies noir
Newman reprises his role as Lew Harper for the second and final time in the long-awaited sequel to 1966's HARPER, another twisting mystery; this time set in Louisiana. Unfortunately, THE DROWNING POOL was tepidly received by both critics and audiences, most of whom seemed to think the film paled in comparison to the original. I am one viewer who disagrees strongly with the general consensus in this case. Not only is THE DROWNING POOL a first-rate mystery thriller, but it is also one of the most sorely underrated films in Newman's filmography.
The film has a completely different look and feel than the previous film, which may have been the reason that so many critics and audiences unfairly rejected it. Gone is the sixties-era go-go mania, which has been replaced with the moody elements of modern film noir which perfectly suits the intricate story of murder and blackmail. The film may not have the starpower of the previous film, but it nonetheless offers solid work from Joanne Woodward, Anthony Franciosa, and a particularly affecting turn from Linda Haynes. Best of all is the then-18 year old Melanie Griffith, who owns her role as the scheming bit of jail bait, unsubtly lusting after Newman's Harper.
Yet nothing can even come close to upstaging Newman, who is as commanding here as anywhere else in his career. In many ways this is a transitional effort for Newman, paving the way from early brutish roles (1958's THE LONG HOT SUMMER, 1963's HUD) to his latter day, more cerebral heroes (1982's THE VERDICT, 1994' NOBODY'S FOOL). Also, even at age 50, the man has rarely been sexier. To top things off, we also have one of the greatest, most original escape scenes in movie history - although I'm not giving it away; you'll have to check out this underrated thriller and see for yourself.