The Half-Time Report

These days, a lot of people worldwide are watching a certain sport’s championship tournament on television. So am I. Every game has a ‘Half-Time Report’ between its two periods of play. Analysts use it to reflect on what’s happened so far. Some film critics do a movie version halfway into the year, presenting ‘half-time highlights’ after 6 months of screenings. I’m doing one here. I can’t create a top ten only made up of movies because I haven’t seen enough that meet my standards for such a list. I’m mixing movies with performers instead.

Favourite Movies: “The Prize” and “The Richest Girl in the World” are not the best movies I’ve seen this year…just two that made me happier than most. “The Prize” reminded me of some movies I love and felt fresh at the same time. Paul Newman is ingratiating as a mellow, lazy, and witty drunk who becomes a sincere and desperate hero. I was pleased to see Edward G. Robinson in an important small role, making a smart career choice long after his ‘glory years’.

“The Richest Girl in the World” gave me something I’ve been wishing for ever since I saw “Trouble in Paradise” two years ago –
a funny and touching movie with Miriam Hopkins in the lead role, showing off all the personality traits that made me love her in that movie. She brings her endearing nervous energy, insecurity, and stubbornness to the part of a wealthy, romantic idealist in love.

Favourite Performances By An Actor: I’ve liked Gary Cooper and his acting in the past. A Cooper performance had never made me emotional until I saw “Pride of the Yankees” and “Sergeant York”. Coop plays passionate characters more subtly than many actors, not ever talking loud and fast or having wild facial expressions and body movements. He suggests deep feeling with calm dignity. He can express and inspire emotion while being fun too. I love his playful courtship of Teresa Wright in “Pride of the Yankees” and pious, polite manner with a cute Southern accent in “Sergeant York”.

Favourite Performances By An Actress: In “The Great Lie”, Mary Astor is fussy, self-absorbed, and egotistical. In “Dodsworth”, she is full of kindness, sympathy, and generosity. To look at the two performances is to see the breadth of her range as an actress. I’ll never forget her most dramatic scene in “The Great Lie”. I think it’s best described as ‘ferocious’. I love that word. I so rarely get to use it in a sentence. I wish Astor had more screen time in “Dodsworth”. She makes every minute precious, especially at the end. Her presence and performance are key to its impact. I’ve seen more movies starring Mary Astor than most people will ever see starring anyone. I can’t get enough of them. If she’d changed her name to ‘Mary Awesome’, it wouldn’t be arrogant…it would be accurate!

Favourite Adolescent Performance: In my eyes, no movie teenager has ever grown up as movingly as Anne Shirley in 1934’s “Anne of Green Gables”. The evolution of her “Steamboat ‘Round the Bend” character is even more uplifting because she starts out so hateful. Shirley often conveys this character’s vulnerability with hands. Her fingers bend and clutch with eager longing in lovely, melancholy body language. Twice this year, Miss Shirley has captivated me through delicate portrayal of a naive, reckless child who overcomes humble beginnings and blossoms into a sweet, sensitive young lady.

Favourite ‘New Discovery’ Actor: “International House” features a huge cast of big personalities. When W.C. Fields shows up, he surpasses everyone in bravado. His scenes made me immediately want to see the mercurial loudmouth in his own movie. I started with “It’s A Gift”. This movie shows that in addition to ‘life of the party guy’, Fields could also play a simultaneously grumpy and likable regular fella. Watching him deal with a nagging wife, selfish kids, and obnoxious neighbours, I realized something. Even though W.C. Fields has an Old Hollywood look, his comedic attitude and perspective are as relevant today as they were 80 years ago.

Favourite ‘New Discovery’ Actress: In “Mexican Spitfire” and “Mexican Spitfire’s Blessed Event”, Lupe Velez is a true screwball original. She kept me on her side at all times, despite being shrill and petulant like a spoiled brat. Her manic antics made me laugh harder and more often than any other actress I’ve watched this year. A woman who constantly argues, deceives, and bosses others around to get her way sounds like a nightmare. The energetic Velez made these actions adorable to me. She giggles, shouts, winks, and runs around through two righteously wacky performances. They made her my favourite actress of those I’d never seen before 2014.

For me, movie watching is sometimes similar to playing a sport, except without physical exercise (unfortunately)! I can win or lose, winning when I like a movie, and losing when I don’t. I also think of myself like a coach hoping to find new players for my ‘dream team’. I find new all-stars every time I’m exposed to the work of actors and actresses like those I wrote about above. If I find more, perhaps I’ll expand my 2014 dream team in December. I need to see more silver screen players in action before I ‘draft’ again. Until then, stay tuned…and thanks for reading! Now…back to the game in progress!


Born to Play Death

I became interested in the film “Orpheus” when I was doing research about Greta Garbo last year and came across critic Roger Ebert’s review of it. Here are the lines that got my attention:

The weakness in the cast is Maria Casares, as the Princess, death’s embodiment.

She lacks the presence for the role. Despite all the tricks of costuming and makeup, she is slight and inconsequential. Cocteau wanted either Greta Garbo or Marlene Dietrich,

And to imagine either one as the Princess is to see the film with its final piece in place.

(There is a moment that would have become famous if performed by either one[…])

Ebert’s review made me curious to see what this Princess character was like. I wondered if I’d agree that she’s an ideal role for Garbo or Dietrich. When I watched the movie, I not only agreed…
I felt cheated by the absence of both actresses! I just kept thinking:
It is TRAGIC that this character wasn’t played by Garbo or Dietrich!

“Orpheus” is inspired by a story in Greek mythology. It’s about how characters from the ‘underworld’ (the place where people supposedly go after dying) interfere in a man’s life. Maria Casares plays ‘The Princess’, who is actually death itself. She reminds me of the Death character in “The Seventh Seal”. Both are ominous, intimidating figures whose interactions with humans have a fascinating solemnity. Watching “Orpheus”, I found it quite obvious that Casares was cast partially because she looked a bit like Garbo. Her make-up even seems designed to emphasize their resemblance.

Based on her performance in “Orpheus”, I think Casares is a good actress, yet I share Ebert’s belief that she “lacks presence” and “seems inconsequential”. In having this reaction, I’ve realized something about acting that never occurred to me before: someone can play a role perfectly, yet not be the best possible person for it!

Casares is an intriguing guide through the movie’s bizarrely twisted world as it veers between melancholic and darkly humourous. I see a lot of talent and effort in the performance she gives. Her problem isn’t being a bad actress. It’s simply not being Garbo or Dietrich!
The original way that they moved, spoke, or conveyed thoughts and feelings with their faces had a bewitching and magnetic elegance.

No actress could command attention on screen and deliver dialogue with the magic they had. Critic Gene Siskel once made an insightful observation about Greta Garbo’s acting that explains a key reason why I think she’s just right for the role of a supernatural being.

Siskel said that Garbo had an “ethereal” quality. She seemed angelic in performances, often wistfully looking to the sky during scenes. It was as if she received signals from some unseen heavenly force, emoting like a woman possessed. This sort of movement befits a majestic female character who is beyond human and capable of confidently going back and forth between worlds of life and death.

The Princess/Death is a cold, harsh, authoritative force of nature who secretly harbours a romantic longing. Those qualities connect her with Marlene Dietrich, another woman I see as otherworldly. She specialized in playing women like The Princess who were icy on the surface, concealing a tender heart beneath her cool exterior.

Deep voices, extraordinary accents, alluring faces, and lavish make-up give Garbo and Dietrich auras that cannot be duplicated. Some people call them goddesses, and I approve of that description.

Several times in their careers, these two actresses gave fans the gift of seeing them in a role they were clearly born to play. Greta Garbo blessed us with “Queen Christina” and “Ninotchka”. Marlene Dietrich did the same in “The Scarlet Empress” and “Desire”. Such events exemplify perfect marriages between actress and character.

Jean Cocteau offered Garbo and Dietrich another of those marriages through ‘Death’ in “Orpheus“. I wish they hadn’t rejected it. What a missed opportunity. Of all the potential roles they didn’t play, I consider this the most unfortunate case of ‘One that Got Away’.

Lessons From Wendy Hughes

On March 8, 2014, Australian actress Wendy Hughes died. For years, I’ve known her only from a single TV performance. She was on the TV series “Star Trek: The Next Generation” in a 1993 episode called “Lessons”. She played a co-worker of main character Captain Picard. They fell in love. Their courtship unfolds with thoughtful writing and performances, creating one of Star Trek’s finest love stories. The reserved and dignified Captain Picard character had very few love interests. Hughes was my favourite. She’s perfect for her part, always convincing as someone defined by ambition, pride, maturity, intelligence, professionalism, and a gentle heart.

The death of Wendy Hughes got me thinking about how much I loved the only performance I’d ever seen from her and made me want to see others. I got my first chance last month when the movie “Lonely Hearts” was on TV. I was surprised to see her in a physically unflattering role. She plays a shy, nervous, and frumpy young office worker who dates a troubled older piano tuner.

Her natural beauty is muted and concealed by scraggly hair, big glasses, and assorted boring clothing. The movie is a sad love story about two goodhearted characters who like each other, yet have a difficult time because of their insecurities. The characters’ lives are depressing and the sluggishly-paced plot takes them in some disappointing directions. I liked the movie in spite of these negative characteristics because of its sensitive writing and acting.

Hughes was dubbed Australia’s ‘hottest leading lady’ in the 1980s, winning the Australian Film Institute’s equivalent of a best actress Oscar. Admirers give her credit for influencing Australian stars like Cate Blanchett, Nicole Kidman, and Judy Davis. She never achieved their level of success in America and didn’t seem to mind. As a private person devoted to her craft, she probably had no desire for fame. Even if it wasn’t important to her, I wish more people outside of Australia had appreciated Wendy Hughes. When I really like an actress, I just want everyone else on earth to follow my lead.

The movie poster for “Lonely Hearts” has a tagline that I love: “She’s afraid it may be too soon. He’s afraid it may be too late”. This line eloquently explains the main cause of conflict between the movie’s couple. I’m sure it applies to so many lovers in other films and real life as well. The line also reminds me of Wendy Hughes.

Dead at 61, she left this earth too soon, but it’s never too late for one to start watching and enjoying her work. That’s what I hope to do in the coming months. If I’m lucky, most of it will be more upbeat than “Lonely Hearts” and show Hughes with the beauty, charm, and sweetness that made me love her Star Trek performance. I’ve learned a few lessons from re-discovering Wendy Hughes:

1) If I like a person’s acting in anything (even just one episode of a TV series), I should find out what else they’ve done. There’s always a chance that many lovely performances and films await me.

2) Just because someone never became a star in America doesn’t mean they weren’t talented and their career isn’t worth exploring.

3) Any woman good enough for Captain Jean-Luc Picard deserves further examination. Especially if she’s played by Wendy Hughes!

4) With Wendy Hughes in the right romantic role, I can be sure of the following: No man is too good for her, few are good enough, and when she finds one who is, I’m going to see something very sweet.