Mt. Lofty Botanic Gardens
This is a continuation of the series involving ‘neglected’ plays.
MARY ELIZABETH BRADDON (1835-1915) was a popular Victorian novelist, her most acclaimed and successful work being the ‘sensation novel’ Lady Audley’s Secret (1862). Initially published in serial form, the novel proved so popular that it was almost immediately adapted for the stage. There were a number of adaption, however, the most lasting and performed one was by the comedian Colin Henry Hazelwood (1823-1875); an irony in itself.
It was subsequently produced many times throughout the 19th Century and well into the 20th Century – and then – disappeared from popular view. It was further adapted for ‘silent film’ in 1912, 1915, and 1920, Sadly, the 1915 version starring ‘the vamp’ Theda Bara, the most notorious and popular femme fatale of the early silent film era, has been lost. Perhaps the last big success it had in the theatre was in 1930 when Tyrone Guthrie directed it with Dame Flora Robson as Lady Audley.
There are a number of fascinating things about Lady Audley’s Secret, not least its theatrical history and influence but also a rather fine connection to Australian history. Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s elder brother, Edward Braddon (1829-1904), immigrated to Australia in 1845 and eventually became Premier of Tasmania from 1894-99, and was a Member of the First Australian Parliament. The suburb of Brandon in the Australian Capital Territory, and the Tasmanian electorate of Braddon are named after Sir Edward Braddon. However, our story lays with his sister and the ‘sensation’ of Lady Audley’s Secret.
Sensation fiction in novels and plays was the most popular genre in Victorian England in the 1860s and 1870s. The three novels that best represent this are Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White (1859-60), Ellen Woods’ East Lynne (1861), and Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret (1862). Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations (1860-61) and his unfinished The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870) also fall into this genre. Many of the sensation novels of this time were subsequently adapted for the theatre and later film, even musicals.
The definition of this genre is that the story involves the uncovering of a secret, and is a deliberate mixture of romance and realism often involving murder, adultery, greed, forgery, blackmail, corruption, revenge, and madness. They are works of sheer melodrama. This is not something that can easily be dismissed as not matter how sensational the secret and action may be, invariably they are set within a relatively domestic world. The question of personal and social identity rises to the front, questioning individual and the world’s morals, ethics and actions. Invariably a kind of moral universe eventually exerts itself, with good triumphing over evil. One of the best essays on sensation fiction is John Ruskin’s Fiction – Fair and Foul.
Furthermore, sensation drama, in theatre, film and television has been relatively and consistently present from the 1860s to today. Wonderful examples include Patrick Hamilton’s Rope (1929), as well as Alfred Hitchcock’s 1948 film of the same name, Emlyn Williams’ Night Must Fall (1935). Adding to these personal favourites, which are also now somewhat ‘neglected’ plays, is Reginald Denham’s and Edward Percy’s Ladies in Retirement (1940), which Charles Vidor turned into a film in 1941 with ida Lupino.
As with all the works cited in this series of ‘neglected’ plays, if you are seeking new acting scenes in which to work on you will find some pretty fabulous ones in these plays. The fact that we still love sensation drama can be seen in popular crime detective dramas, as well as in the modern musical versions The Mystery of Edwin Drood and The Woman in White.
Very often this type of drama is based on a real-life event, adding to the complexity of the ‘identity’ issue, almost as if we need the incident to be dramatised in order to understand it. This is exemplified by Rope, which was inspired by the real-life murderers Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, as well as Lady Audley’s Secret, which was inspired by the life of child murderer Constance Kent (1844-1944). Issues of gender and class division and madness played a significant role in the Constance Kent case, as they do in Lady Audley’s Secret. This is exemplified by the last lines spoken by Lady Audley in the play – ‘Aye – Aye (laughs wildly) Mad, mad, that is the word. I feel it here (Places her hands over her temples)’.
Is Lady Audley mad? Or is she simply a cold-blooded psychopath? Or is she a type of proto-feminist character, a lowly female member of the Working Class, battling for upward social mobility against domineering men? She has been seen as all of these in subsequent analysis and re-inventions of the novel, play, and story. She certainly prefigures the ‘woman-with-a-past’ characters in the subsequent ‘problem plays’ in the late 19th Century, exemplified by Pinero’s The Second Mrs Tanqueray (1893) [see previous article].
However, she also belongs to the much older theatrical heritage of the femme fatale character in drama, which stretches as far back to ancient times with Helen of Troy and her sister Clytemnestra, as well as Medea and Phaedra. Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth, Alexander Dumas’s Lady deWinter in The Three Musketeers , and Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler are femme fatales, and modern times the femme fatale has been wonderfully portrayed a number of times by Glenn Close, in Fatal Attraction (1987) and Dangerous Liasons (1988). Aspects of Lady Audley can also be seen in Barbara Stanwyck’s Phyllis Dietrichson in Billy Wilder’s brilliant Double Indemnity (1944) and Lana Turner’s Cora Smith in Tay Garnett’s terrific The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946). I’d even add Ann Downs in Joseph Kramm’s Pulitzer Prize winning play The Shrike (1952), and Shirley Stoller’s Martha Beck in Leonard Kastle’s ‘cult classic’ The Honeymoon Killers (1970), which Francois Truffaut called his ‘favourite American film’ (check it out), and, of course, Sharon Stone’s stunning Catherine Tramell in Paul Verhoeven’s Basic Instinct (1992).
One distinguishing characteristic of these characters, as well as Lady Audley, is that invariably they are ‘blondes’, or ‘redheads’. I have no idea why ‘blonde’ and ‘red-headed women have been associated with the femme fatale, but it stands as a rather curious essentially masculine construction and projection. Not only do you get the beautiful ‘Blonde Venus’ there is also the ‘Blonde Vampire’.
I’m actually not too sure where the femme fatale sits today. She and sensation drama is certainly still present, exemplified by the upcoming revival in London of the musical version of The Woman in White. It would seem that she primarily belongs in the world of gothic fantasy and horror, exemplified by Rachelle Lefevre’s Victoria Sutherland in the Twilight film series.
However, the modern femme fatale may not be the personification of pure evil that she once was, such as Barbara Stanwyck’s Phyllis Dietrichson in Double Indemnity and Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth. Feminism has largely had an influence in diluting and reducing the evil power and nature of the modern femme fatale. This is highly apparent in Disney’s Maleficent (2014) in which the classic evil witch, although wonderfully played by Angelina Jollie, is given a relatively predictable ‘back story’ that makes her subsequent actions ‘understandable’ due to be the victim of male domination. This romanticised reduction concerns me a little, as it does with male villains, such as the vampire, as it seems to suggest that real evil, real evil people, male and female, don’t really exists, and that everyone and all evil actions are relatively ‘understandable’ – they are actually ‘nice’ people underneath all this. Rubbish. Real evil, real evil people, male and female, do exits, and their actions rather than being ‘understandable’ are repugnant, destructive, and – well – evil – and should be denounced. The potential danger of hypocrisy, and the gullibility of accepting ‘wolves in sheep clothing’ is remarkably pronounced; not all people are ‘understandable’ or ‘nice’.
However, the above characters cited above are not really those that sit within the genre of sensation drama. As previously stated, and in reference to Lady Audley, sensation drama and the femme fatale really exists within a relatively domestic setting and not in the world of fantasy. This makes the modern femme fatale figure particularly dangerous. I am, however, hard put to find modern examples; although arguably Robin Wright’s Claire Underwood in the US TV series House of Cards (2013-2017) falls into the femme fatale archetype. As does Nurse Ratched in Dale Wasserman’s continuing popular play adaptation of Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1963). Furthermore, whilst Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth may remain the most ever-present femme fatale I doubt very much if we will ever see again Ann Downs in Leonard Kastle’s The Shrike, or Lady Audley in Lady Audley’s Secret. Nonetheless, you can always read and see these works, and the femme fatale remains, in various forms, a vital archetype in modern and classical drama – long may she reign.
This is an article in the series devoted to seemingly ‘neglected’ plays and playwrights.
Jean Giraudoux (1882-1944) was a major French writer in the early 20th Century, particularly in the period between WW1 and WW2. Many of his plays were international successes including Amphitryon 38 (1929), The Enchanted (1933), The Trojan War Will Not Take Place( 1935), Electra (1937), and particularly Ondine (1939) and The Madwoman of Chaillot (1943).
Considering Giraudoux’s social and political position, as well as his heightened poetic realism, I find it rather extraordinary that he is now relatively neglected. Is this because a number of his great characters are elderly? His themes and subject matter are still extremely relevant to our complex modern world, just as challenging and, dare I say it, ‘innovative’ as they were when first written and performed. Maybe it’s the arguments – relatively long scenes, reminiscent of Shaw, in which a particular issue is debated. However, in context, they are still theatrically dramatic.
The Madwoman of Chaillot is a case in point. Written in 1943 but not performed until 1945, this is truly a wonderful play – and very relevant for today.
It deals with an eccentric old woman and her equally eccentric friends in Paris who are concerned with the environmental changes they see being inflicted upon their region in Paris, and elsewhere. These environmental and ecological changes are massive in their potential destructiveness, and are led and desired by a group of conniving and manipulative successful corporate businessmen. These corporate executives are known as The Prospector, The President, The Baron, The Broker. They plan to rip up streets in PAris to get at the oil hidden underneath. Countess Aurelai, the madwoman of Chaillot, is determined to stop them. She gathers together her own little army, made up of The Street Singer, The Sewer Man, The Flower Girl, The Sergeant, and most importantly The Rag Picker. Then there are her elderly so-called aristocratic friends – Constance, Gabrielle and Josephine.
At a very strange tea-party organized by Aurelia the corporate executives are put on trial. This is truly extraordinary scene, and in particular The Rag Picker’s advocerial prosecutor’s speech is fantastic – breathtaking. One by one the corporate executives, these ‘wreckers of the world’s joy’ are judged, condemned and lured to a basement from which they never return – they disappear – or are they murdered. It isn’t actually stated, but the suggestion that Aurelai and her friends have actually deliberately led them to their deaths, and subsequently are murderers, is very unsettling. Nonetheless, the evil man have gone, and joy returns to the world. Still – what may, or has happened to bring about this happy ending is rather complex and creepy.
The play was a considerable success when it was first produced, and subsequently was performed in London, New York, and many other parts of the world. In 1969 Jerry Herman, Jerome Lawrence, and Robert E. Lee turned the play into the musical Dear World, which starred Angela Lansbury.
Also in 1969 British director Bryan Forbes made a movie version with a truly amazing cast featuring Paul Henreid, Charles Boyer, Yul Brynner, Richard Chamberlain, Danny Kaye, Oskar Homolka, Nannette Newman, John Gavin, Donald Pleasance, and Katharine Hepburn as Countess Aurelia, with her friends played by Edith Evans, Margaret Leighton and Giulietta Masina – amazing! Unfortunately, however, the film is not really successful, despite the brilliance of the actors. Nonetheless,it is worth watching, especially if you are unfamiliar with this extraordinary play.
Many notable and terrific actresses have played Countess Aurelia, including Martita Hunt, Geraldine Page and Anne Jackson.
The play occasionally re-appears, usually in American Universities theatre courses, and in Europe, sometimes in rather exciting modern re-inventions. However, as far as I’m aware it hasn’t (surprisingly) been seen in Australia for centuries – literally.
It would be so wonderful to see this play live again on-stage. I am quite surprised that it is now in the ‘neglected’ plays bin, at least in Australia. Maybe it simply isn’t known about, not being taught in respective drama schools and History of Theatre course? Hence this article. It does feel sometimes that the respective state theatre subsidized seasons come from the list of plays in whatever History of Theatre course the deciding artists have authorities may have done as students – it is a bit limited and predictable.
Not only is The Madwoman of Chaillot extremely topical for today’s world it also offers great roles for senior actors – something, or rather person who are also somewhat relatively ‘neglected’ in the Australian professional theatre. A new production of this with a cast of some of our finest ‘senior’ actors and actresses would be amazing to see. The Madwoman of Chaillot is a play well worth reviving.
DAME OLIVIA DE HAVILLAND was born 1 July, 1916, in Tokyo and at the grand age of 101 she is still alive and well and living in Paris. Whilst her parents were British, nonetheless she and her younger sister Joan (later known as Joan Fontaine) was raised in Saratoga, California by their mother. She made her acting debut in an amateur production of Alice in Wonderland. What follows in this rather lengthy article is essentially a tribute to Olivia de Havilland’s brilliant career. In my respective acting classes I am often citing past great actors and films, of which my young (and not so young) students are often completely unaware. Many have not even seen or even know about Gone With The Wind, which is perhaps the film that most would identify with Olivia de Havilland. However, there is so much more to this extraordinary actress and 20th and 21st Century woman.
In 1934 she played the role of Puck in a local production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. That summer the legendary director Max Reinhardt came to Los Angeles to direct a production of The Dream at the Hollywood Bowl. One of Reinhardt’s assistants saw Olivia de Havilland in the Saratoga production. Due to this assistant’s praise Reinhardt offered de Havilland the second understudy for the role of Hermia. One week before the production opened Gloria Stuart (Titanic), who was playing Hermia, and the first understudy left the production and Olivia de Havilland went on. Reinhardt was so impressed with the then 18 years old Olivia de Havilland that he subsequently cast her as Hermia in his lavish 1935 film version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. She appeared with alongside other Hollywood legends including James Cagney, Dick Powell and a very young Mickey Rooney. Also in the cast was Australian actress Jean Muir who played Helena.
Following A Midsummer Night’s Dream she then appeared in Captain Blood (1935) with Errol Flynn. This hugely popular film, Olivia de Havilland’s ‘break-out’ film, led to more films in which she starred with Errol Flynn – Four’s A Crowd (1938), Dodge City (1939), The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936), The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939), Santa Fe Trail (1940), They Died With Their Boots On (1941).
The 8 films that Olivia de Havilland did with Errol Flynn’s is a classic example of the successful on-screen romantic couple. Born from the Hollywood Studio system, as well as the classical theatre, many have tried to emulate this very specific but elusive kind of movie magic, but only a few have ever been as successful as the de Havilland-Flynn pairing. This includes, Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, and Doris Day and Rock Hudson. In modern cinema the films of Drew Barrymore and Adam Sandler are the only on-screen pairing that comes close, although I would also argue that the pairing of Kiera Knightly and Orlando Bloom in the Pirates of the Caribbean film series captures this special type of movie magic.
In the 1930s as well as the films she made with Errol Flynn she also appeared in a few films with Bette Davis, my favourite being It’s Love I’m After (1937). This marked the beginning of a life-long friendship between Olivia de Havilland and Bette Davis, which is an aspect of de Havilland’s current plans to sue the producer’s of the TV series Feud that deals with the relationship between Davis and Joan Crawford, and in which Catherine Zeta-Jones appears as Olivia de Havilland. One delightful little story about Olivia de Havilland’s relationship with Bette Davis can be found in the This Is Your Life: Bette Davis episode in which Olivia de Havilland makes a surprise appearance. She talks about her relationship with Bette Davis, who is sitting right next to her, and they laugh about how prior to The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex de Havilland was Flynn’s leading lady, but in Elizabeth and Essex she now was Bette Davis’ maid! Haha!
Olivia de Havilland also appeared in such ‘big budget’ epics such as Anthony Adverse (1936), but then came the biggest of them all – Gone With The Wind (1939). I love Gone With The Wind, in which Olivia de Havilland played ‘mealy-mouthed’ Melanie Wilkes. She, like the rest of the film, is simply wonderful. I am fully aware that it now attracts some severe criticism in regards to its depiction of slavery and African-American stereotypes. Whilst there may be some validity in these censures, nonetheless, it is still a great film – for many reasons. Olivia de Havilland was amongst the first to congratulate Academy Award co-Best Supporting Actress nominee Hattie McDaniel when McDaniel won the award – the first African-American actress to do so. I love Hattie McDaniel’s quip when she was criticized as subscribing to so-called ‘Uncle Tom’ black stereotypes for her fabulous and memorable performance of Mammy: “I’d rather make seven hundred dollars playing a maid than seven dollars being one’.
Despite being somewhat overshadowed by Vivien Leigh, with whom Olivia de Havilland enjoyed a great friendship and working relationship, nonetheless, de Havilland’s Melanie also displays a wonderful ‘cool charm’ and ability to successfully lie and deceive. This ‘cool charm’ is particularly apparent in the second half of the film, in the Atlanta section, involving the deception of the army in regards to her wounded husband, Ashley (Leslie Howard). Olivia de Havilland is also at her best in all her scenes with Vivien Leigh (and there are a lot) including the final ‘death of Melanie’ scene. She is also wonderful in her scenes with Clark Gable, comforting him after the death of Bonnie, and before that her one scene with the terrific Ona Mason as Belle Watling.
One terrific example of superb screen acting is the sequence in which Melanie recognizes from afar the returning battle scarred Ashley (Leslie Howard); in this short sequence there are no words spoken, and the range of emotions that go across Olivia de Havilland’s face is wonderful and extraordinary – from concern, intrigue, disbelieve, realization and finally rapturous joy. I love Gone With The Wind and have watched it many many times, and always find it delightful and discovering something new about it.
Olivia de Havilland made 16 films during the 1940s. The best of these in the e 40s are Santa Fe Trail (1940), The Strawberry Blonde (1941), Hold Back the Dawn (1941) and The Died with their Boots On (1941). During WW2 Olivia de Havilland was an active member of the Hollywood Canteen, dancing and entertaining troops. This is somewhat reflected in the film Thank Your Lucky Stars (1943), in which she appears in a comic song ‘The Dreamer’ with Ida Lupino and George Tobias. Olivia de Havilland also bravely visited front-line troops on islands and other places in the Pacific war zone.
From 1943 to 1945 Olivia de Havilland was engaged in a legal battle with Warner Brothers to whom she was contracted. This was a battle for artistic freedom. A number of others, including Bette Davis, had challenged the fixed and rigid control the respective studios had over their contract players and failed. Not Olivia de Havilland. Her landmark victory meant that in future contract players were able to negotiate their artistic freedom and work with other studios. It went into law as the ‘De Havilland Law’. Even her estranged sister, Joan Fontaine, acknowledged her victory, stating, “Hollywood owes Olivia a great deal”. Subsequently, however, due to Warner Brothers’ influence, and the respective studios ganging together, Olivia de Havilland was ‘blacklisted’ and did not work for two years.
In 1945 she signed a two-picture deal with Paramount Pictures and subsequently made To Each His Own (1946), for which she received her first Academy Award for Best Actress.What To Each His Own exemplifies is Olivia de Havilland’s artistic need and desire to play characters that go through a considerable transformation, physically as well as psychologically. In To Each His Own Olivia de Havilland beautifully plays an unwed mother who has to give up her child. In this highly romantic drama the character she plays, Jody, ages from a young innocent American girl to an old woman in WW2 London. Whilst it is perhaps easy today to dismiss this sentimental drama, nonetheless, for its time it was covering controversial ground. Furthermore, To Each His Own marked the beginning of a new period in Olivia de Havilland’s career that saw her make films which what are possible her most impressive in regards to acting performances.
This includes the complex ‘film noir’ psychological thriller The Dark Mirror (1946), in which she plays the dual role of twins battling each other in a torturous love triangle. This fascinating film, written by Nunnally Johnson and directed by Robert Siodmak has been regarded as a precursor to Johnson’s The Three Faces of Eve (1957). Olivia de Havilland was experimenting with the so-called ‘method acting’ technique, and did an enormous amount of research into the psychology of twins. It is speculative as to whether or not she also drew on her own problematic relationship with her sister, Joan Fontaine.
What is definite is that her work in The Dark Mirror in a way prepares Olivia de Havilland for her next two films that are in many ways the highlights of her career – Anatole Litvak’s The Snake Pit (1948), and William Wyler’s The Heiress (1949) for which Olivia de Havilland received her second Academy Award as well as a Golden Globe Award and the New York Film Critics Award for Best Actress. Olivia de Havilland is simply marvelous in both The Snake Pit and The Heiress. There is an extraordinary and truly fascinating depth and complexity in the respective characters that she plays in these films.
The Snake Pit is a harrowing and profoundly moving story about madness and the insane. One is completely seduced by Olivia de Havilland’s character, Virginia – is she insane or isn’t she? Just as effective as Russell Crowe in Ron Howard’s A Beautiful Mind (2001) one is drawn into the world of Olivia de Havilland’s Virginia – a woman who finds herself in an insane asylum, but doesn’t know how she got there. The Heiress is based on Henry James classic novella Washington Square, and the play adaptation by Ruth and Augustus Goetz. It is a story about deliberate cruelty. A young woman, a wealthy heiress called Catherine Sloper who is cruelly treated by her father, brilliantly played by Ralph Richardson. She falls in love with a young man, Morris Townsend, played by the irresistible Montgomery Cliff, who deserts her after being offered financial remuneration by her father. Years later, after her father has died and Catherine has inherited her fortune, Morris returns in the hope that Catherine will forgive him and that now they can be married. Catherine goes along with Morris’ plans until the devastating ending. When challenged by her Aunt Lavinia (Miriam Hopkins) as to how Catherine can be so cruel, Catherine replies, “I was taught by experts”. This is a great story, complex and intriguing and Olivia de Havilland is simply brilliant, especially in the final scenes. Once again – as with The Snake Pit, and her other films in this period, one is seduced by her seeming innocence, unaware of the serpent that lies beneath until the end. Well worth watching.
Due to family commitments and various theatre engagements in New York, which included playing Juliet in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and Candida in George Bernard Shaw’s Candida, Olivia de Havilland did not make another film until 1952. When she did it was the mystery romance, My Cousin Rachel (1952), which was Richard Burton’s first US film. This was followed by Not as a Stranger (1955), which was Stanley Kramer’s debut film, and also featured Frank Sinatra. Her marriage to French journalist Marcus Goodrich meant that she relocated to live in Paris. She returned to Hollywood to make Michael Curtiz’s western The Proud Rebel with Alan Ladd, and 1959 she was in the British courtroom drama Libel (1959), directed by Anthony Asquith with Dirk Bogarde.
Her marriage to Marcus Goodrich ended in 1962, but they continued to cohabitate in the same house in Paris. In that same year Olivia de Havilland scored her greatest stage success, appearing with Henry Fonda on Broadway in Garson Kanin’s A Gift of Time. She also appeared in Guy Green’s film Light in the Piazza (1962) that many years later became the basis for Craig Lucas’ and Adam Guettel’s magnificent musical The Light in the Piazza (2005). In 1962 Olivia de Havilland published her semi-autobiographical book, Every Frenchman Has One, about her life in Paris, which subsequently became a bestseller.
In 1964 Olivia de Havilland made two rather extraordinary psychological horror films. The first was Walter Grauman’s Lady in a Cage (1964), which featured a young James Cann. This is really odd 1960s film – and it is stylishly very 1960s, almost psychedelic at times, with the addition of a doco-drama element. The other film was Robert Aldrich’s Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964) with Bette Davis, as well as other ‘old Hollywood’ actors, Joseph Cotton, Agnes Morehead, Mary Astor, and Australian actor Cecil Kellaway. Olivia de Havilland took over the role that Joan Crawford was playing when Crawford became too ill and had to withdraw. This film also features the young Bruce Dern. Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte is Robert Aldrich’s follow-up to his What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962). As Bette Davis told me (yes – me) Baby Jane was the better of the two films due its script superiority. Still – Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte is a highly entertaining film, with the seemingly innocent Olivia de Havilland being actually as ruthless and cold-blooded as she was at the end of The Heiress.
The 1970s was the decade that saw the final major film works of Olivia de Havilland. None of them are particularly good or memorable, although Airport ’77 (1977) is the best of the series that followed the success of Airport (1970); and the disaster film The Swarm (1978) is rated as one of the ‘worst films ever made’, and one of the ‘100 Most Enjoyably Bad Movies Ever Made’. Her final film was forgettable The Fifth Musketeer (1979).
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s Olivia de Havilland was in a number of TV movies and mini-series. This included playing the Queen Mother in The Royal Romance of Charles and Diana (1982). Her best TV performance was as the Dowager Empress Maria in Anastasia: The Mystery of Anna (1986), for which she won a Golden Globe Award as Best Supporting Actress in a TV Series.
As the above indicates it is a phenomenal and highly diverse career.
She has been honoured many times, most recently being made a Dame of the British Empire the day before her 101th birthday on 31 June, 2017.
As previously mentioned, she is now back in the limelight due to her objections and legal battle with the makers of Feud: Bette and Joan (2017), in which Catherine Zetta-Jones plays Olivia de Havilland. Time will see how this all plays out. However, Time is not on Olivia de Havilland’s side. It is hoped that due to this incredible woman’s deserved status, as well as longevity and age, that no matter what she request that the respective producers will yield to her demands, and apologize for any offense. What does it really matter if Feud is shelved and unavailable for a few years. It has already been screened, and will soon fade into obscurity. We now are all fully aware that being a ‘celluloid hero’ doesn’t mean immortality; the ‘stars’ and films of yesteryear are now largely forgotten and unwatched. However, Olivia de Havilland is still with us. Olivia de Havilland now is really the only person left from the so called ‘Golden Years of Hollywood’. A wonderful actress, and a trailblazer, not only in terms of career but also in enabling other Hollywood artists to work freely. A LEGEND. Thank you Olivia de Havilland.
Sigmund Romberg (1887-1951) is now a relatively neglected musical theatre artist; and yet, once upon a time, particularly in the 1920s, he was amongst the most celebrated of Broadway musical composers The film Deep in My Heart (1954), directed by film musical master Stanley Donen, is a Hollywood ‘musical bio-pic’ based on the life of Sigmund Romberg.
The ‘bio-pic’ is a sub-genre of filmic ‘historical drama’, which remains the primary genre in world cinema. One only has to look at the respective film awards from across the world to clearly see that most ‘Best Film’ awards have gone to ‘historical drama’ films. The musical ‘bio-pic’ is curious genre, wildly different in form and structure. Some attempt to cover and entire life of a particular musical artists, and some focus only part. A number of ‘musical bio-pics’ are based on successful theatre musicals, others are original film works, In all cases, however, the popular ‘hits’ of this artist is interweaved into the narrative – sometimes successfully, sometimes not. Part of this challenge involves whether or not the particular song advances the narrative, and/or reveals something specific about the artist.
The most successful original works include Michael Curtiz’s Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942) which is based on the life of Broadway artist George M, Cohan, and brilliantly portrayed by James Cagney; Alfred E. Green’s The Jolson Story (1946) and Henry Levin’s Jolson Sings Again (1949) with Larry Parks as Al Jolson.
In more modern times there are Sidney J. Furie’s Lady Sings the Blues (1972) about Billie Holiday, beautifully played by Diana Ross; Michael Apted’s Coal Miner’s Daughter(1980) about Loretta Lynn, played by Sissy Spacek; Mike Leigh’s Topsy-Turvy (1999) about Gilbert and Sullivan, played respectively by Allan Corduner and Jim Broadbent.
In the 21st Century we have James Mangnold’s Walk the Line (2005) about the early life of Johnny Cash, played by Joaquin Phoenix, and June Carter, played by Reese Witherspoon; and Stephen Freares delightful Florence Foster Jenkins (2016) with Meryl Streep in the title role, as the woman labelled ‘the worst opera singer in the world’.
Films based on Broadway musicals include William Wyler’s Funny Girl (1968) with Barbara Streisand repeating her performance as Fanny Brice, catapulting Streisand to international stardom. There are also a number of ‘made for television’ films and mini-series, such as Gypsy (1993) based on the Broadway musical of the same name about Gypsy Rose Lee, with Bette Midler as Lee’s mother, Rose; and Life with Judy Garland: Me and my Shadows (2001) with Judy Davis giving a mesmerizing and award winning performance as Judy Garland. There are many others, but these are my personal favourites.
Deep in My Heart is the fourth in a series of ‘musical bio-pics’ that MGM made in the late 1940s and early 1950s. The others include – Till the Clouds Roll By (1946) about Jerome Kern, Words and Music (1948) about Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, and Three Little Words (1950) about ‘Tin Pan Alley’ team Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby. All these films are highly fictionalized, sanitized and sentimental, to the point of absurdity, treatments of the respective real artists lives. However, they all worth watching as these films contain spectacular musical numbers featuring the greatest MGM musical stars, including Judy Garland, Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire, Cyd Charisse, Lena Horne, Frank Sinatra and Mickey Rooney. As one critic in Variety wrote about Till the Clouds Roll By – ‘Why quibble about the story?’.
I love the works by Sigmund Romberg. Deep in My Heart may not be historical accurate, nor is it particularly dramatically interesting, but the songs and the musical sequences are thrilling. They don’t necessarily capture the magical potency they have in the theatre, but as a tribute to Romberg, which is what the film essentially is, they are truly excellent. Furthermore, they are performed by great musical artists, including Gene Kelly, Ann Miller, Ann Blyth, Jane Powell, Howard Keel – and more. There is a wonderful musical number, ‘I Love to go Swimmin’ with Wimmin’, with Gene Kelly and his brother Fred Kelly, the only time they appeared together on-screen.
The film ‘stars’, however, are Jose Ferrer as Sigmund Romberg and Merle Oberon as Dorothy Donnelly, who was Romberg’s friend and wrote the book and libretto for The Student Prince (1924), Romberg’s most successful musical/operetta. Jose Ferrer is a terrific actor who rose to fame with his Academy Award winning performance of Cyrano de Bergerac (1950). Merle Oberon is one of the screens great ‘professional beauties’, and is also an excellent actress. Whilst Jose Ferrer is a bit hammy and theatrical as Romberg, in the most delightful way, it is Merle Oberon who brings real gravitas, heart and soul to the film. Her final scene is extremely moving.
Deep in My Heart follows the rise of Sigmund Romberg as a young ‘Tin Pan Alley’ composer in New York who prefers the more classical repertoire from his homeland Vienna than the contemporary and popular ‘ragtime’. After meeting Sam Harris he succumbs to popular tastes and writes a string of ‘hits’ with the hope that he will eventually be able to do his own preferred work. This he finally achieves with the production of Maytime (1917) and Blossom Time (1921), quickly followed by his masterworks The Student Prince (1924), The Desert Song (1926) and The New Moon (1928). He then lapses into relative obscurity, no longer deemed ‘fashionable’, Finally, however, after the death of his dear friend Dorothy Donnelly, and with the encouragement of his wife, he does a special concert at Carnegie Hall that honours him, his music and his legacy.
His legacy – yes! Romberg is perhaps still considered ‘unfashionable’, nonetheless, his work is still highly relevant. His highly romantic songs prefigure those one can find in the works of Andrew Lloyd Weber, as well as Claude-Michel Schonberg and Alain Boubil. These musical theatre artists, as well as Romberg fall into those works that bridge formal Viennese operetta and conventional jazz and pop orientated musical theatre. Romberg’s work is just as valid in musical theatre training as are the works of Gilbert and Sullivan – maybe even better – as they provide a ‘classical’ foundation for the singing voice that is perfect for modern musical theatre.
So why is Romberg not done? I know from bitter experience that in a number of cases in regard to training I had to insist that Romberg was included in respective exercises and showings. This was somewhat reluctantly agreed too, but with a shaking of heads and sense of patronizing and indulging the ‘old man’. However, in all cases, once one of Romberg’s songs was performed the magic happened. They have their own unique and dramatic potency that can enrapt an audience. Rather than simplistic, overt sentimentality they demand considerable depth and technical skill. This is best exemplified by ‘Deep in my heart, dear’ from The Student Prince, ‘The Desert Song’, ‘Romance’ and ‘The Sabre Song’ from The Desert Song, and ‘Softly, as a Morning Sunshine’ and ‘Lover, Come Back to Me’ from The New Moon.
‘Lover, Come Back to Me’ is quite rightly one of the most important and wonderful popular songs from the 20th Century, evident in the many past and modern artists who have recorded their own versions of this beautiful song. Furthermore, there are the thrilling energetic numbers, such as ‘The Drinking Song’ in The Student Prince, ‘The Riff Song’ and ‘The Military Marching Song’ in The Desert Song, and ‘Stouthearted Men’ in The New Moon. It is perhaps difficult for young people to appreciate that when ‘The Drinking Song’ was first performed in 1924 its enormous popularity was almost regarded as revolutionary in ‘Prohibition’ America. It is still a wonderful and powerful ‘show-stopper’.
This prejudice against Romberg, however, I fear will remain – until a visionary producer/director comes along and re-invents the work in the same way that Joseph Papp re-invented Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance in 1981, turning that show into a modern mega-hit. This could easily happen to The Desert Song, as it could with another similar work from the same period – Rudolf Friml’s The Vagabond King (1925). All of Romberg’s major musicals were turned into films. Whilst these films may endorse the ‘unfashionable’ opinion of Romberg, nonetheless, they are all we currently have as a record of these once extremely popular works – plus Stanley Donen’s Deep in My Heart. There are also, however, numerous recordings by past and modern singers, classical and popular, who at the very least are savvy and clever enough to appreciate the power and potency of the works of Sigmund Romberg.
Our Boys by Jonathan Lewis is a two-act play that was first performed in London on 1993, and subsequently won a number of awards. The Adelaide Repertory Company’s production, directed by David Sims, is the Australian premiere of this thoroughly enjoyable, moving, challenging and unique play. My litmus test in regard to seeing theatre and films these days is whether or not it has moved me emotionally. In the case of Our Boys it did most profoundly and in a way that caught me by surprise. Set in a military hospital in the 1984, we follow the trials and tribulations of 6 war veterans. On the surface, especially the first act, the play is full of crude, smutty and vulgar British humour, similar to other hospital drama-comedies such as Carry on Doctor (1967) Peter Nichol’s The National Health (1969).
Some may dismiss this play as just another case of ‘men behaving badly’, nonetheless, something else is at work here. Underneath all this, and is partly the motivation for such behaviour is genuine fear – and specifically the fear of impotency. I’m finding it difficult to think of other dramatic works that concentrate on masculine impotency – a taboo topic that few men would even discuss let alone admit too. In a theatrical world that is often led by feminist ‘equality’ issue this play is a sober reminder that there are tragic contemporary male stories to be told as well; in a way it makes the play unique in contemporary theatre.
Our Boys, however, does join rather a long and brilliant heritage of other war and/or post-war traumatic stress dramas. This includes – R. C. Sherriff’s Journey End (1928) and W. Somerset Maugham’s For Services Rendered (1932). There are also William Wyler’s Academy Award Best Film winner The Best Years of our Lives (1946) and Fred Zimmerman’s The Men (1950), which was Marlon Brando’s debit film. Speaking of Brando it is an often neglected factor in regards Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire (1947) that one reason why Stanley and his buddies are so violent is partly associated with 2WW experiences. Other works include Willis Hall’s The Long and the Short and the Tall (1959), John Frankenheimer’s brilliant and unsurpassable The Manchurian Candidate (1962), Barry England’s Conduct Unbecoming (1969), David Rabes’ Sticks and Bones (1971) and Streamers (1976), Peter Nichols’ Privates on Parade (1977), Hal Ashbey’s Coming Home (1978), Oliver Stone’s Born on the Fourth of July (1989), Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan (1998), Simon Stevens’ Motortown (2006) and Stella Feehily’s O Go My Man (2006). Closer to home, there are such Australian dramas as Sumner Locke Elliott Rusty Bugles (1948), George Johnston’s My Brother Jack (1964), John Power’s The Last of the Knucklemen (1978), and Bill Bennetts’ A Street to Die (1985). However, the film that has the most immediate impact on Our Boys is the Michael Cimino’s devastating brilliant The Deer Hunter (1978).
Towards the end of Our Boys first act, in an attempt to cheer up the wheel-chair bound character of Lee, who is often inarticulate due to being shot in the head, the men stage a beer drinking competition called ‘Beer Hunter’ after the film The Deer Hunter. The drinking game parallels with devastating and highly memorable Russian roulette game in the The Deer Hunter. It is due to this game and the celebrations that the men find themselves in trouble, facing military discipline for ‘conduct unbecoming’ and expulsion from the army. With their self-esteem and sense of potency already vulnerable this new attack on their individual security brings forward issues of class warfare and scapegoating. The resident officer is blamed for being a back-stabbing informer – but he is innocent. The actual informer is one of their own, and without giving it away, is the character who has the most to lose. He betrays his friends and lies, blaming the officer; when the truth is finally revealed the sense of betrayed loyalty becomes violent in its retaliation. Surprise, surprise – not.
Our Boys as well as the works cited above all involve “men behaving badly”, physically and emotionally, often due to past or current war experiences. The individual stories and characters highlight struggles for self-esteem, power and potency. In this masculine rationale if you do not have these things then you don’t have an identity and viability to make positive and active contributions to society. Whilst ‘feminists’ may rage, nonetheless, masculine identity, health and well-being is still firmly tied to these issue, which are generally the domain of the work-place. Men still are (too often) defined by the work place and what they do (or not do) for a living. What does one do when self-esteem, power, potency, viability, credibility and identity is taken away by things that are beyond your control by murderous violence – physical and/or psychological? Does one resort to the betrayal of loyalties, revenge, in order to satisfy delusional prejudices and self-preservation? In Our Boys these issues rise to the surface, especially in the second act. Ironically, there are good outcomes for some of the patients in Our Boys – but by no means not all – such is life. This mixture of fateful and fortuitous endings only serves to add to the overall greater complexity of the play
Throughout this admirable and ultimately extremely moving production the voice of Margaret Thatcher (post-Falkland War) is heard, stating things like ‘we must take care of our defenses in order to prepare for any situation’. But how can you prepare for sudden and inexplicable violence? One could argue, perhaps, that these men are in the military and subsequently are trained for the violence of war. But this is not necessarily so; not all military personnel are trained for and do active service; and yet are still targets for violence. Nor do all military personnel, especially when working in a domestic and local world, necessarily expect sudden violent acts of internal terrorism. The final scene of Our Boys attempts to articulate the ‘horror’ of home-front terrorist violence. It is the most moving as well as frightening moment of the play. The harrowing experience and subsequent trauma of home-front terrorist violence is stunningly realized in the final confession by Joe, the patient who has been in hospital the longest, and beautifully acted by Adam Tuominen. Joe has an inexplicable disease that has resulted in the removal of one of his fingers. This mysterious disease, however, could be read as metaphor for HIV/AIDS – or other cancers – as it seems as if it will never be cured. Or is it the disease inside his brain, the never-ending post-traumatic disorder due to the incredible violence he experienced. Joe’s story is partly based on a real-life event in a bombing in London by the IRA. As the story unfiled I found I was gasping and shaking my head with the sheer horror of the violence. How could anyone get over such things? The thing is – like an incurable disease – you don’t.
Congratulations to the Adelaide Repertory Theatre, David Sims, and all the actors involved in this terrific production – Adam Tuominen, Patrick Martin, James Edwards, Lee Cook, Nick Duddy and Leighton Vogt. Thank you for providing an opportunity to see this truly unique and moving modern play. It has remained with me, as it did with my Asian-Australian companion last night, who is studying English here in Adelaide. Admittedly, some of it went over his head, and I was a bit concerned as the Asian imitations in the ‘Beer Hunter’ scene, nonetheless, this was the scene he liked the most. Go figure. He also, like myself, was very impressed with Adam Tuominen’s Joe and Patrick Martin’s Lee. Thank you.
Complementing the up-coming Oz-Asia Festival here in Adelaide the following continues the series of reviews of films that are set in Asia. Previously this has included the extraordinary Chinese film Aftershock (2010) was well as interpretations of the ‘East’ through ‘Western’ eyes, exemplified by Bhowani Junction (1956). This review is of a contemporary South Korean film The Age of Shadows (2016), by ‘cult’ director Kim Jee-woon with a screenplay by Lee Ji-min and Park Jong-dae. It features an exceptional cast, led by Song Kang-ho and (swoon) Gong Woo. Some of you may be familiar with Gong Woo, one of South Korea’s most popular and handsome actors, possibly from the internationally successful zombie film Train to Busan (2016). In fact The Age of Shadows is a bot of a ‘swoon-fest’ all over as its ensemble cast are not only terrific actors but incredibly handsome and beautiful. Furthermore, director and producer Kim Jee-woon exemplifies what I like best about a great many contemporary Asian directors and films. There is a kind of maverick audacity at play; respectful of the art and tradition of film-making, and yet re-inventing it in a completely new and refreshing way.
The Age of Shadows is unique amongst many contemporary Asian films in that it is 20th Century historical drama about South Korean resistance fighters at the time of the Japanese occupation during WW2, something relatively unknown in the ‘West’. With a budget of $8.5 million the film was produced by Warner Brothers, their first ever Korean language film.
Whilst generally receiving good reviews, as well as a number of awards, the film did not achieve the same popularity in the ‘West’ that it had in South Korea and elsewhere in Asia. Some American critics found it ‘hard to follow’ with some ‘impressive ‘action scenes’, as well as being a ‘polished, often exciting patriotist drama’. but that ‘those looking for a deeper, mightier resonance would be well advised to keep their expectations in check’.
Having watched this film I find the above criticism a little to patronising and condescending. This is a beautifully made film – re-creating the period with terrific art design and costumes, as well as often the highly successful atmospheric use of saturated colour particularly in the early parts of the film. This saturation becomes less and less, matching the harsh reality as the film steadily advances to its tragic and violent outcome, Furthermore, the performances by the acting ensemble are truly excellent. Do you care about the fate and fortunes of these characters? YES! Is it an exciting and fascinating story that is well told? YES! Is it worth watching? ABSOLUTELY!!
I can’t answer for its historical accuracy, nonetheless, I am relatively certain that there were numerous brave South Korean resistance fighters who sacrificed their lives in facing the imperial fascistic and brutal military power of the occupying Japanese forces during WW2. Subsequently, for those of us in the “West” that may be ignorant of such things this film is also enlightening as well as thoroughly entertaining.
It is true, however, that there are some exceptional action scenes; the sequence in the train, for example, is brilliant. It is a violent film, complementing the violence of the time, but it is also poignantly heroic; begging the comparative question of would we today be so brave and self-sacrificing when facing such horrific violence. Furthermore, it is not true that the film is ‘hard to follow’; nor is it unmoving and lacking in depth and complexity. The comeuppance of the ‘informer’ is particularly violent, but one couldn’t help feeling completely deserved. I won’t say who is the ‘informer’, nonetheless, this film has complex layers of loyalty and betrayal, stressing the notion that not everything one sees and hears is true. In a year that is dominated in the ‘West’ by Christopher Nolan’s exceptional film Dunkirk, it is well worth watching The Age of Shadows to experience another story about survival – at an incredible cost.
Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk has received ecstatic acclaim as well as condemnation. The influential English director Peter Brook once stated that the ideal audience reaction was made up of those who liked a particular piece of work and those that did not, which subsequently set up the potential for discourse – rather than forgetting about the experience and merely moving onto the after-show drink. The reaction to Dunkirk, running the gamut of film criticism, hopefully will act as an extra spur to see this film in order for you to make up your own mind.
The World War 2 historical event of ‘Dunkirk’ is one that encourages and stimulates heated debate. Was it a victory or a defeat? Depending on your perspective and preference it could be either, and then again it could be both. From the German Army’s point of view it was a victory, defeating the Allied forces and driving the British out of Europe. To the British it is a matter of snatching a victory from the jaws of defeat, with over 300,000 soldiers rescued from the exposed beaches at Dunkirk, assisted by the French Army, and 700 privately owned British small crafts. This matter alone makes the Dunkirk story a potent piece of patriotism – as well as propaganda.
In the history of cinema one of the first appearances of the Dunkirk story is in William Wyler’s 1942 Academy Award Best Film Mrs Miniver, which played an important role in US and UK propaganda at the height of WW2. Other films that involve Dunkirk and ‘Operation Dynamo’ (the code name for the British evacuation) are Leslie Norman’s Dunkirk (1968) and Joe Wright’s Atonement (2007). There is also the 1964 French film, Henri Verneuil’s Week-end a Zuydcoote (Weekend at Dunkirk). This final film is important as it presents the story from a French point of view in that it deals with a young French solider trying to escape with the British flotilla and being constantly denied.
This issue, French troops being denied access, is based on fact and is an extremely controversial matter in regards to the Dunkirk story. Whilst Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk has received some negative criticism in the French press, nonetheless, he has not ignored this issue and deals with it in a similar way to Weekend at Dunkirk, and in rather harrowing and tragic fashion. The storyline of a young French soldier trying to get on a ship complements the overall theme of the film – Survival; and as one of the young British soldiers cries at a heightened moment in this particular storyline (‘The Mole’) involving ‘scapegoats’ and ‘witch-hunting’ triggered by fear and xenophobia, ‘In survival there is no right or wrong’.
A great deal has already been written about the three inter-related narratives in Dunkirk, involving the elements of air, sea and earth (‘The Mole’). The respective time-jumps that these narratives make in the course of the film contribute to the overall sense of chaos. Similar to the harrowing opening sequence of Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan in successfully capturing the chaotic nightmare of war so to does Nolan’s Dunkirk, albeit differently. Spielberg’s film does concentrate on character whereas Nolan’s film concentrates on the event. In a March 2017 interview with The Wrap Christopher Nolan is quoted as saying, ‘The empathy for the characters has nothing to do with their story. I did not want to go through the dialogue, tell the story of my characters… The problem is not who they are, who they pretend to be or where they come from. The only question I was interested in was: Will they get out of it? Will they be killed by the next bomb while trying to join the mole? Or will they be crushed by a boat while crossing?’ – Survival in the immediacy of the moment is the focus, rather than ‘backstory’ and historical personages, such as Winston Churchill. It is a mistake, however, to think that one does not feel any empathy or personal involvement with the respective characters. You can and do – or at least I did. This is primarily due to the high calibre of acting by the respective actors, particularly (for me) Mark Rylance, and Cillian Murphy in what arguably is the most complex, dislikable and tragic surviving character in the film.
There are so many aspects of this film that makes it worth seeing; and it must be seen on the big screen for its full impact and epic mastery. This is film-making at its very best, with Nolan’s vision successfully captured by Cinematographer Hoyt van Hoytma, and Edited by Lee Smith, and a Soundtrack by Hans Zimmer – to name just a few who successfully collaborated on this epic film.
To focus in one just one feature – the sound design and soundtrack – exemplifies the artistry involved in this film. Using the so-called ‘auditory illusion’ of a ‘Shepard tone’, which is a tone whose pitch continually ascends or descends yet seems to get no higher or lower, the sound design is extraordinary and extremely effective. It is ever present, with the addition of a ticking clock, which apparently is the synthesised sound of Nolan’s own pocket-watch. There is very little actual music, but when music does play it is highly effective and carries an emotional punch. A version of Edward Elgar’s “Nimrod” from his Enigma Variations gently creeps in just when the flotilla of small crafts arrive, accompanied by the cheers of the soldiers. It is a highly emotional sequence, and a clever use of Elgar’s stirring and recognisable patriotic ‘British’ music.
One further issue that is of interest – at least to me – is the inter-relationship of Dunkirk with others films. In an interview in a May edition of the British Film Institute Christopher Nolan discussed the various film influences, references and inspirations that he and his crew shared in making Dunkirk. These include films as diverse as – Erich von Stroheim’s Greed (1924), F. W. Murnau’s Sunrise (1927), Lewis Milestone’s All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), Alfred Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent (1940), Henri-Georges Clouzot’s The Wages of Fear (1953), Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers (1966), David Lean’s Ryan’s Daughter (1970), Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979), Hugh Hudson’s Chariots of Fire (1981), Jan de Bont’s Speed (1994), and Tony Scott’s Unstoppable (2010). I would have to experience Dunkirk again to see if I can spot specific references to these films. I may have to leave it for a bit as I was so shattered by the experience that I need a bit of distance. Furthermore, as Nolan and his colleagues are acutely aware and appreciative of other master film-makers I suspect that William A. Wellman’s Wings (1927), with its incredible air battles, was also of considerable influence; as was (hopefully) Verneuil’s Weekend at Dunkirk.
All these above mentioned films are terrific in their own unique way. They are all essentially films with an epic quality. As with literature, plays, opera, and other art forms, the successful production of an ‘epic’ piece of work is the ultimate goal and prize for numerous artists throughout the history of mankind. Christopher Nolan stated in an interview with the Directors Guild of America (June 2017) that he even though he had first been attracted to the story twenty years ago he had postponed doing Dunkirk until he had gained the necessary experience of doing large scale epic blockbusters. I have no idea if Dunkirk will be regarded as his ‘master-work’; it may win the Academy Award (and others) for Best Film, particularly knowing the Academy’s overall preference for ‘historical drama’ in regard to Best Film – but that is not the main reason to go an see this film. This may well not be a film for everyone, and just as many loathe ‘musicals’ or ‘horror’ or ‘science-fiction’ film, so to will many avoid ‘war movies’. However, as previously stated, as far as I was effected, Dunkirk to me is modern movie making at its very very very best.
PS. May be a bit cheeky of me – but – notice the similarity between the poster for Dunkirk and After Shock? Intentional? Accidental? or another inter-film reference to a masterwork?
War for the Planet of the Apes is the third and probably final film in the recent re-imagining of this science-fiction apocalypse fantasy that commenced with publication of Pierre Boulle’s 1963 novel La Planete des Singes (Planet of the Apes).
The first film series started with Planet of the Apes (1968), directed by Franklin J. Schaffner with a screenplay by Rod Serling and Michael Wilson, and was a relatively loose adaptation of Boulle’s novel. It was a popular and critical success, seizing the imagination of a world-wide audience and subsequently spawning four other films between 1970 and 1973.
One reason for the success of this film series was the strong support and commitment given by the respective actors involved, including Charlton Heston, Kim Hunter, Maurice Evans, and in particular Roddy McDowell. Frankly, except for the first and third film, Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971) the rest are rather forgettable and not at the same standard as those just cited, which have a psychological complexity and depth beyond the normal science fiction film.
Nearly thirty years later after the final film, Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973) came Tim Burton’s dark and thrilling Planet of the Apes (2001), which was essentially a re-imagining of the original 1968 film. Burton’s film was a popular and critical success, however, it was not until 2011 that the first film in this current series, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, directed by Rupert Wyatt with a screenplay by Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, was released. The success of this film led to the second film, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014), and finally War for the Planet of the Apes (2017), both directed by Matt Reeves with screenplays by Jaffa, Silver, and Mark Bomback, and Reeves and Bomback, respectively. This new trilogy of films was inspired by Pierre Boulle’s novel, as well as the previous six films (and the 1974 television series), but is completely new take on the original concept of a planet in which apes speak and are roughly equivalent, and subsequently a challenge, to mankind.
What also makes this latest trilogy of films different from previous works is not just the new storyline and given circumstances of the plot, but the art of movie-making in the 21st Century, and in particular ‘performance capture’ and the work of the actors involved who play the apes in the respective films. ‘Performance capture’ is a relatively new form in the art of acting, highly technical, extremely physically, and demanding considerable trust by the actor and director in the collaborative process. The acknowledged ‘master’ in this new form of acting is the English actor, Andy Serkis, whose roles include Gollum in Peter Jackson’s film trilogy Lord of the Rings (2001-03) and The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012), Kong in Jackson’s King Kong (2005), Captain Haddock in Steven Spielberg’s The Adventures of Tintin (2011), Supreme Leader Snoke in J. J. Abrams Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015), and Caesar, the revolutionary ape leader in this new Planet of the Apes series. Serkis’ extraordinary performance, along with the other actors involved, plus the stunning art direction and visual effects by Weta Digital, makes War for the Planet of the Apes an extremely pleasurable and rewarding experience – on the big screen; a significant reductive experience if watched on a small screen (although, sadly, many will watch this film on such – it is not the same experience, nor the intention of the film-makers).
In conversations I had subsequent to watching the South Australian premiere of the film last night it became immediately apparent that many of the influences, openly acknowledged by the respective film makers, were completely missed. In creating the film Matt Reeves and Mark Bomback watched and were inspired by numerous films, including Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments (1956), David Lean’s The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), William Wyler’s Ben-Hur (1959), John Sturges’ The Great Escape (1963), Clint Eastwood’s The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976), and Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979). All these influences (and more) are discernable to the judicious and informed movie-goer eye. Such film cross-referencing is not uncommon in the history of film, adding to the enjoyment as well as depth of films such as War for the Planet of the Apes. One example is Woody Harrelson’s wonderful performance of Caesar’s nemesis The Colonel, inspired by Marlon Brando’s Colonel Kurtz in Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. This is no mere imitation but a respectful homage and inspirational decision. How many actually pick up on this, however, is questionable – at least in my immediate circumstances. I can only encourage you to watch these film masterpieces in order to enhance the pleasure of watching War for the Planet of the Apes; they also happen to be extraordinary films in their own right.
An even larger question is why we are fascinated, to the point of obsession, with imaginings of our own demise. This is evident as far back as The Bible with Noah and the Ark, as well as numerous classical Greek and Roman myths and dramas, exemplified by Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex (c. 429 BCE). As with Oedipus Rex there is fear of contamination and plague in War for the Planet of the Apes, which complements a similar concern in the previous two films. This fear is characteristic of numerous films, particularly those from the USA, in the 21st Century, post ‘9/11’, exemplified by the multiple zombie films and television series, such as The Walking Dead. It is as if the respective film makers, consciously or not, have tapped into a world-wide fear, and subsequently allowing for a kind of contemporary cathartic release in experiencing such dramas, guaranteeing popular and critical success and appeal at this time in the history of mankind. Why apes in this particular case is curious. However, considering our fascination and concern with our closest animal relatives, orangutans, gorillas and chimpanzees, this only adds to the complexity, depth and credibility of the entire Planet of the Apes series. We would like to communicate with them, recognising their all-too human traits – but what if they really do start behaving like human beings? It would be, at least according to these films as well Boulle’s original novel, regarded as a threat. Furthermore, War for the Planet of the Apes taps into issues of destructive and obsessive anger, and the desire for revenge; a consistent theme in world-wide human dramatic literature, exemplified by Shakespeare’s Hamlet (c.1601) and Othello (c.1603), as well as the more recent television miniseries The Night Manager (2016).
Despite the fun in recognising these influences and world-wide-web connection with other dramatic works, nonetheless, my only criticism of War for the Planet of the Apes is its length. Running at 140 minutes the film drags itself out towards the end with multiple potential endings. Subsequently, with the final film reference to de Mille’s The Ten Commandments, Caesar being like the Biblical character of Moses, denied entrance to the ‘Promised Land’, seemed a bit laboured and sentimental. This is, however, a minor point in what is overall a highly enjoyable film; although I would suggest a visit to the toilet prior to watching this film.
Tonight I watched THE TEAHOUSE OF THE AUGUST MOON, a 1956 American film comedy based on the play and book of the same name; all of which were very successful at the time. I have long been aware of this play and film, and its success and importance in American drama, but this was the first time that I had ever actually sat down and watched it through. It was also of great interest to me – being a Marlon Brando fan – to watch Brando’s attempt at a complete transformation.
THE TEAHOUSE OF THE AUGUST MOON by John Patrick, based on the 1951 novel of the same name by Vern Sneider, opened on Broadway 15 October 1953. It was a great success, winning numerous awards, including the Tony and the New York Drama Critics for Best Play, as well as the Pulitzer Prize. David Wayne won the Tony Award for Best Actor for his performance as the Japanese interpreter, Sakini. The subsequent film in 1956 featured Marlon Brando as Sakini, with Glenn Ford as Captain Fisby, and Machiko Kyo as Lotus Blossom, a Geisha. Whilst Brand and Ford may be relatively well known, Machiko Kyo may not be – not until one is reminded that she is the female lead in Kurosawa’s RASHOMON (1950); this was to be her only non-Japanese film, and stands in contrast to most of her work.
Standing in contrast – this implies a challenge – a departure from what may have been a generally accepted public persona by a particular actor. The same is true for Marlon Brando. His Sakini must be one of Brando’s most light-hearted characters, and certainly his most successful comedy.
It has been customary to lam-blast this play, as well as Brando’s performance for ‘yellow-washing’. In other words, a ‘white actor’ playing an Asian character. This is still very much an issue today, part of a general push internationally for more employment and equal opportunities for non-white performers. I do not wish to enflame this debate, but rather for this once highly regarded play, and film, to be re-assessed. Why? Because it is absolutely charming, funny, joyous and touching.
Yes – yes – it is full of stereotypes, funny-little-Asian folk v crass excitable American soldiers. Yes – it is very much a product of its time – post WW2 American drama. I have written before about this period, which also saw the beginning of the Cold War, McCarthyism, HUAC, and the publication of the Kinsey Report, the first in-depth study of the sexual activities of the contemporary American male and female. As previously mentioned, in a great deal of American drama in this period, there is considerable focus on the uncovering of a secret; that something rotten lies buried within that dramatically will eventually be exposed. The same is true for THE TEAHOUSE OF THE AUGUST MOON. There is a secret – which is the actual construction of the TEAHOUSE, which is not why Captain Fisby was sent to the village of Tobiki in Okinawa – he was sent to create a schoolhouse and advance ideas of American democracy.
There is a delightful satiric edge to how both the American and Japanese characters react and relate, to each other as well as the different cultures and ideas of respectability and honour. It’s all very light-hearted, whimsical and fun. For example, at the beginning of the film, Colonel Wainwright Purdy III (yep – that’s his name) is worried about the morals of the men n his charge. Purdy is played by Paul Ford who played the character on Broadway. Purdy has seen Officers dancing with enlisted men! He instructs his Sergeant (played by Harry Morgan) to send out a memo – ‘No officer can dance with his privates!’. Well – it made me giggle.
I don’t wish to spoil the enjoyment that still can be had from this massive hit play and film from the 1950s. It certainly can be accused, and has been, of racial stereotyping, and a whole lot of other seemingly modern-day offensive matter. However, moving through this may I offer a couple of things in its defense.
For the play and the film to be so successful there must be something more than just the whimsy associated with a light-hearted cultural clash – and there is. The story verges on tragic-comedy at the end when Fisby’s Teahouse is exposed and he is ordered to leave. The final scene between he and Lotus Blossom, with Sakini as translator, in the ruins of the recently destroyed Teahouse, is extremely moving; and beautifully played by Brando, Ford, and especially Machiko Kyo. It is about the complexity of saying goodbye to someone and somewhere you deeply love, about acceptance in regard to things that drive people apart, the importance of memory of ‘time past’, and that one is ordinary and to be happy with that.
It is not a-typical at all in context with a lot of other drama of the time; the heroics are not of earth-shaking importance, there is no grand-standing declaration of independence, ethics, morals, and human rights – it is all quite ordinary, realistic, simplistic, and tragic in its predictability – but then – magic happens.
In the true nature of classical comedy, with a wonderful deus ex machine, there is a happy ending. To be honest – despite enjoying this climatic moment in the film I think this may work better in the theatre. After being completely destroyed the Teahouse is once again fully restored due to its full beauty through the ingenuity and craftiness of Sakini and the village folk of Tobiki.
To watch this ‘live’ in a theatre would be so uplifting and exciting as well as – well – magical – joyous theatre magic!
As a side note – if any Head of a Theatre Design Department should read this – try setting this play and its design challenge to a young design student. The Teahouse is created and it must be stunning and beautiful; it then must be destroyed; and then – in a matter of a minute, for the climax of the play, it must be magically rebuilt and restored to its full beauty.
As regard to Brando and his performance of Sakini, for which he worked diligently, and respectfully, fully committing his talent and skill, I enjoyed his transformation – or attempt at a transformation.
Brando had already established himself as the leading actor of his time with A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE (1951) and ON THE WATERFRONT (1954). THE TEAHOUSE OF THE AUGUST MOON comes after DESIREE (1954) in which Brando plays Napoleon Bonaparte, and sits between GUYS AND DOLLS (1955) and SAYONARA (1957) in a kind of unique arc that involves romance, comedy and interest in Japanese culture, as well as his obvious artistic drive to transform and challenge himself with different dramatic styles and characters.
Despite modern sensibilities, there is an artistry with the actor at work, just as much as there is with Olivier’s Othello, or John Hurt’s Elephant Man, or Yul Brynner’s King of Siam. I don’t wish to offend anyone, but to censor and suppress a talented actor’s desire to transform into a character with a different racial background may be nowadays ‘politically correct’, nonetheless, it is still artistic censorship, and subsequently needs to be at least questioned.
You may be embarrassed and even offended by Brando’s performance – I was not; but rather fascinated (as always) with what he was going to do – how he was going to do it – and appreciating the artistic challenge. Not for all tastes, but hardly worth the outright condemnation that his performance as well as this play has earned. Whether or not this is cringe material or not, it is still worth watching – not necessarily because the transformation is successful or not but because of the attempt, the challenge for the actor, and the degree of difficulty.
But – have a look yourself – and you be the judge. I enjoyed it – immensely; and can easily see why this play and film were such big hits in the 1950s – and could be again! Why? Because it offers hope – hope for a better future, and joy in being human.
I would so love to see this play in the theatre. I very much doubt, however, that I will. The size of the cast and the cost of the design alone would be enormous. Maybe in the US perhaps, where revivals of popular old classics such as HARVEY, PICNIC, and ARSENIC AND OLD LACE have been met with great critical acclaim and popular success. This is not the case here in Australia – a different aesthetic in which ‘de-constructivist’ theatre from the 1990s still reigns supreme, and every story and set is generally about a victim caught in a waste land – not much joy I’m afraid. THE TEAHOUSE OF THE AUGUST MOON, subsequently, would be something radically different. Yes – ‘old fashioned’, but not without artistic worth, merit and success – hope and joy, and genuine theatre magic.