Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Always the heroine's friend


My posting on Grease got me thinking about Joan Blondell, and it turns out she was born 102 years ago tomorrow: as good an excuse as is needed to recall this slightly unusual, always enjoyable regular of thirties Hollywood.
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Born into a vaudeville family and on stage from the age of three, her abundant talent and sassy style made her perfect for the Jazz Age and flapper musical revues that defined Broadway in the late-twenties (and twenties culture generally), leading to a number of headlining performances and a stint with the iconic Ziegfeld Follies.
When Al Jolson revolutionised Hollywood practices in 1927, killing off silent movies overnight and catapulting all of the major studios, quite unprepared, into the talkie era, desperate producers looked instantly to Broadway for performing talent with a proven track record in vocal projection. Blondell and James Cagney had scored a huge hit on Broadway in 1929 with a revue called Penny Serenade; both were put under contract by Warner Brothers and appeared in the film version of the show, re-titled Sinner’s Holiday (1930).
They were teamed again the following year in the gangster classic The Public Enemy and a further six times through the thirties. But though Public Enemy made Cagney a major star, Blondell would only ever rise to supporting roles in major releases (supplemented by leads in ‘B’ films).
She could do comedy, musicals and intense drama and, without conforming to anyone's definition of beautiful, conveyed an earthy sexuality that made her ideal for the risqué pre-Code years and always left her looking somewhat constrained thereafter, delightful though she is in films like The King and the Chorus Girl (1937) and Topper Returns (1941). She has enormous eyes and a cute quality in stills that is totally belied on film by her sure gift for rapid-fire dialogue and uncompromising air of independence and cynicism, of vivacity made weary from too many broken hearts and broken promises. City life has made her a realist.
But in the forties she is an essentially comic presence; the old danger is gone because Hollywood no longer has any room for it; the realism is gone because the world in which she is a realistic figure is essentially off-limits.
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Her roles tended to fall into one of three categories. The first of these is the chorus girl in Warner backstage musicals that differ from later Hollywood musicals (and those of other studios at the time) in their avoidance of showbizzy gloss and feathers; typically they will involve struggling producers and sharply-etched Depression-era backgrounds, with chorus girls dancing as an alternative to poverty. Blondell (and others, such as the young, pre-Fred Ginger Rogers) are not gotta sing, gotta dance-types but smart-aleck dames who have been around the block and know all the angles.
Her work for Busby Berkeley included the startling 'Remember My Forgotten Man' number in Gold-Diggers of 1933; she appeared in four of his films, and many similar variations for other producers.
This type segued into that of the gold-digger, as most gold-diggers tended to be ex-chorus girls who had left the stage and married their sugar daddies, or are on the lookout for one. They tend to travel in pairs or trios, wisecracking and earthy in each other’s company but able to instantly turn on the helpless little girl routine when they spot a rich sucker. This type is associated with the real life Peggy Hopkins Joyce and the fiction of Anita Loos, who wrote the gold-digger classic Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. As well as appearing in the Berkeley musicals Gold Diggers of 1933 and Gold Diggers of 1937 Blondell had helped define the type in the hilarious The Greeks Had a Word For Them (1932), later re-titled Three Broadway Girls and based on the hit Broadway play Gold Diggers.
Her second distinct type was the friend of the heroine, again something of an archetype in the early thirties, when no pretty leading lady was complete without a smart-mouthed girl-buddy, who tended to be much more pragmatic and cynical in matters of love and romance. In 1931 alone Joan was best pal to Barbara Stanwyck in Illicit, Bebe Daniels in My Past and Loretta Young in Big Business Girl: always the bridesmaid and never the bride, both as character and performer.
The best of these roles are her performances in two still-jawdropping classics of pre-Code excess. In Night Nurse (1931), again with Stanners, she's the fellow nurse helping to uncover a really creepy plot to murder two wealthy children for their inheritances. Joan chews gum from first scene to last; as a more experienced nurse her function is to show Stanwyck's novice the ropes; how to pull a fast one under the nose of the formidable matron and how to deal with the predatory machinations of wolfish interns. Their rapport is wonderfully real; the scene in which they share a bed because a practical joker has left a skeleton in Barbara's is highly reminsicent of Thelma Todd and Zasu Pitts.
And in the incredible Three on a Match (1932), Joan is the emotional centre of a film that plays as a female version of the kind of Warners gangster film that starts with the characters as children and follows them through their divergent life paths. Here it's three girls and the two other points of the triangle are hard acts to shine alongside: Bette Davis has the smallest and least consequential role, but she looks amazing in her Hollywood-conformist period, platinum blonde and never less deserving of Carl Laemmle's famous verdict given when she was briefly under contract at Universal: "I can't imagine any guy wanting to give her a tumble". And Ann Dvorak, another cut off at the knees when the Code was enforced, gives one of the most amazing performances in Hollywood history, fearless in its courting of audience enmity as she helter-skelters into despair, degeneracy and death. Despite this, Joan's is the central character, the main point of identification for the audience and the character with the most interesting life-story. Her performance is extremely canny in its recognition of this: she knows the others have the better close-ups and the bigger outbursts and the sexier swimming costumes and the splashier deaths, so she contrives simply to get it right: relaxed and natural and necessary. I say 'simply' but obviously this is not simple and the majority of actors and actresses cannot do it, because they lack the judgement, or the subtlety, or temperament gets in the way.
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An especially notable feature of these films is the license allowed and taken with regard to erotic imagery: not for nothing are these sometimes termed ‘the lingerie years’. Thomas Doherty notes one memorable example in his book Pre-Code Hollywood: “in Office Wife (1930) the camera follows Joan Blondell’s legs into a bathroom, where her lingerie drops to the floor as she disrobes. The camera remains focused on her legs as she slips out of her chemise, her arms entering the frame from above, thereby conjuring an image of the naked actress bending over… Under the Code, so explicit a mental image – that is, an image not even depicted on screen but merely planted in the spectator’s mind – would be too arousing to summon up.” Pre-Code, however, it was par for the course.
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Finally, she proved a natural for another early-thirties favourite: the wisecracking reporter. The most famous example of the tradition is the male Lee Tracy, but many of the others were women, their characters a variation on the ‘heroine’s friend’ and often engaged in high-decibel, insult-laden spats with crass editors (whom they would sometimes end up marrying at the fade-out). To emphasise their status as partially de-feminised women in a man’s world, these characters were often given masculine first names: Joan is Timmy (for Timothea) in Back in Circuit (1937). (Another key exponent of this type was the physically similar Glenda Farrell who, because she was also under contract at Warners, was paired with Joan in a variety of films on eight occasions.)
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Very much an icon of the early thirties, Joan’s career stalled a little from the forties on. But she kept working continuously until her death, both in movies and, with greater individual success, on stage.
In the seventies she became one of the comeback queens of the tv movie, giving delightfully skittish performances in
The Dead Don't Die (1975) and, alongside Sylvia Sidney, Dottie Lamour and John Carradine, in Death at Love House (1976). These roles led to nostalgic turns in Michael Winner's Won Ton Ton, The Dog Who Saved Hollywood (1976) and Grease, and a last chance to really act in Opening Night (1977) for John Cassavetes.
Blondell made just under a hundred films between her debut in 1930 and her death on Christmas Day, 1979. Her thirties roles are characterised by wit, sparkiness and strong characterisation, and she was always somewhat bemused by the vapidity of many leading ladies who achieved superstardom with none of her professionalism or hard graft, once remarking: “I’d hate to see them on stage with a dog act”.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

How I learned to stop worrying and love Grease


When asked what films I like least in all the world, my standard answer is: American cinema of the 1970's.
But by that I mean that suffocating wave of self-deludingly self-important American movies like One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Lenny, The Deer Hunter, The Godfather, Apocalypse Now and anything directed by Sam Peckinpah or Hal Ashby or Brian De Palma or Robert Altman.

What it is easy to forget is that there were two major movements in American film at the time. The other formed part of one of the oddest and least-analysed moments in that decade's cultural history. This was the so-called 'nostalgia boom', a huge outpouring of affection for and interest in old Hollywood occasioned by the shocked realisation that its stars, attitudes and methodology were not temporarily out of fashion but lost forever. The cinema book industry we take for granted started here, and the TV movie, with its rep company of old stars and charming pastiches of old genres, also played a large part in creating the right conditions for the moment to thrive.

The nostalgia boom is forgotten today, but it is the reason for the seventies cult of Bogart, for the massive early successes of both Mel Brooks and Peter Bogdanovich (and for their unfair rejection when the moment passed) as well as for individual films as diverse as Star Wars, Jaws, That's Entertainment!, Gable and Lombard, Won Ton Ton, WC Fields and Me, The Great Waldo Pepper, Superman, American Graffiti, Silver Streak and dozens of others that are either set in the thirties, forties or fifties or else self-consciously revive the dormant popular styles and genres of those decades.
They were by no means all good - given the reckless abandonment of Hollywood's old professionals, and professionalism, that had prompted the revival in the first place it is difficult to imagine how they could be - but a lot of them were very pleasant indeed, and alongside the likes of A Clockwork Orange and Last Tango In Paris it was obvious that they all at least had their hearts in the right place, and that there was a lot to be said for that. (Some, generally the least successful, strove to combine the two streams of nostalgia and modern posturing; the results included Chinatown, The Wild Party, Inserts, The Last Tycoon and Day of the Locust.)

Of all products of this most valuably corrective countermovement to the po-faced poncing of Cimino, Coppola et al, one of the most unassuming, unexpected and delightful was Grease (1978).
To many, this is no doubt as uncontroversial as a claim can get. But I have friends who consider it pretty much the naffest, ickiest, crappest thing going in this or any imaginable universe, and my affection for it the kind of thing one should keep guarded as closely as a fondness for setting fire to orphanages.
And I do understand their objections, though they are objections made in error. It is incredibly easy to mistake it for something very unpleasant indeed; it easily could have been with different handling, perhaps it even should have been. Perhaps it's a mistake that it wasn't. And it's easy to take affection for it too far. A Channel Four viewers' poll on one of those wretched countdown list programmes they do declared it the greatest musical of all time: clearly this sort of illiteracy must be combated...
And yet, I've just watched it again, for maybe the sixth time in my life, again expecting not to like it as much as last time, again liking it even more, again concluding that it is a great film, and a great screen musical, as well as great fun.
Partly, I'm lucky because I saw it on its original release (and understood not one word of it; I didn't even realise it was set in the past; among a myriad misreadings of the sexual references I thought the line 'Did she put up a fight?' was 'Did she put up and fight?', asked enthusiastically because boys like fighting).
So I still have a sense of it as something new, possessed of that aura of excitement that also still lingers in the air around Jaws and Star Wars. And, luckier still, I somehow managed to completely miss its subsequent transformation into kitsch icon. I went to an all-boys school, and so was spared the grim spectacle of girls launching into spontaneous, gratingly American-accented renditions of the songs in the sixth form common room that so rightly turned the stomachs and earned it the undying hatred of my co-educationally stranded associates. I had no idea it had become a kind of Rocky Horror for the even less discerning until my twenties.
Thus I come to it uncluttered by any such concerns. I see only the professionalism of seventies American popular cinema and a lively recreation of the mores of fifties American popular cinema. (The Deer Hunter got the Oscars that year, but people rarely request the songs at weddings.)
It's really well directed (by Randal Kleiser, a big favourite of John Waters and the director of that other great relic of my youth, The Blue Lagoon) and exceptionally well edited. The cutting between shots during the musical numbers is done with a dexterity and judiciousness that is truly surprising. Some of the songs are charming. (I don't like them all, simply because I'm not a fan of fifties music. Greased Lightning, for instance, is just too clever and successful an Elvis pastiche to be enjoyed, but on its own terms it's perfectly realised.)
And the leads are great. John Travolta, much underrated for his unusual ability to combine the functions of dramatic actor and self-mocking song and dance man, while at all times retaining possession of one of the weirdest faces on any man ever, is, as he often is, really good. Stockard Channing is even better. The supporting cast are all terrific. Room is found for Sid Caesar, Eve Arden and Joan Blondell, not just to walk on and off again but in proper parts with good lines. My favourite character and performance of all, when I saw it in 1978 and still today, is Jan, played by Jamie Donnelly. A stunning, Shelley Duvall-type beauty.
The only thing that did suprise me this time around is how plotless it is. Not a problem; it never drags. I'm sure it's a pretty grim experience on the London stage with tv no-talents going through the motions in it, but you have to be steel-hearted indeed not to warm to this film. Nothing in it is done badly, nothing grates, and the atmosphere of happiness and optimism is palpable and infectious.
Let's hear it for the toilet paper!

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Worth every penny


My all-time favourite Dracula movie is not the Lugosi original, not Love at First Bite, not even Dracula AD 1972. It is a fascinating short, made probably in England, probably some time in the nineteen-sixties, entitled Dracula and the Spook. The plot is not as inventive as those of the Hammer movies being made at the same time, neither can it boast the same production values. It begins with a burst of eerie music, then we see a coffin lid slowly open and the unmistakable figure of Dracula rise part way from it before lying down again and reclosing the lid. I remember he does this a couple of times while, I think, a ghost flits past a window in the background. It's all over much too quickly, but if you want to see it again, all you have to do is put another penny in the slot.
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Dracula and the Spook was, of course, a penny arcade slot machine. I encountered it on Paignton Pier sometime in the mid- to late-seventies, at a time when it was already beginning to look redundant and lonely amidst a throng of much noisier, shinier machines that gave you the chance to win something. But I always went straight for it whenever we paid a visit, and in all that time never remember anybody but me paying it the least attention. Finally, one year, I discovered it unplugged, stuck round the back in a kind of storage area, waiting for removal and perhaps even destruction. I never saw it again.
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Rye, near Hastings, is one of those achingly beautiful little towns that have somehow escaped the jackboot of modernity, famous for its association with Paul Nash, Henry James and Radclyffe Hall. Worth a visit for all sorts of reasons (loads of old book shops, a beautiful church, winding streets) it also boasts - in its small tourist information centre - a magnificent permanent exhibition of these wonderful penny slot machines.
Not Dracula and the Spook, alas, but some so similar as to give me a shiver of recognition all the same, especially one called Chamber of Horrors made in the sixties by a company called Animated Amusements. (Apparently they also did one called The Mummy's Tomb.)
How strange and poignant it is to wander among them, observing with a clarity quite lost on their original consumers (who went to these machines on exactly the same impulse that draws their descendants to Grand Theft Auto IV) that these are works of genuine imagination and craftsmanship, as well as cutting edge in their technology. What they do is invariably simple in the extreme, but the imagination that went into them, and the fact that successful businesses made their living making them, seems strange and enchanting.
There are several from one Frederick C. Bolland, made in the early fifties, characterised by a strange, sometimes macabre sense of humour and a keen awareness of national archetypes, including The Drunkard's Dream, The Miser, The Burglar and The Haunted Churchyard.
Then there is one from Peerless Enterprises, made some time in the fifties, called The Beauty Contest and peopled with a wholly disreputable assortment of lecherous onlookers observing what, it must be said, are some pretty ropey-looking broads.
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Many of the older ones lack the sarcasm and are content merely to charm and in some cases to baffle: The Bellringers from 1930 is just what it says, with the sound not taped, of course, but actually produced by the bells the figures are manipulating. The Reading of the Will is another unlikely oddity from 1930; again, the title tells all. Elsewhere there is a fire brigade at work, a crying baby, a guillotine and an execution outside a prison: what a freeze-frame of the cultural preoccupations of their day!
What else do we have? Well, there's a laughing Barnacle Bill the Sailor, like the one from Sleuth, dating from 1950, and an amazing fortune-telling Egyptian Pharaoh from whom the future course of your love life is no secret. Also good at prophecy is the mysterious Sidney, who knows, as the placard he eagerly holds proudly claims, and as he will happily prove by telling you what your future career will be for a penny.
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There's even a What the Butler Saw machine, the sort with the magazine of photographs manipulated at high speed (like a flip-book) this one showing the behinds of some enchanting young ladies going for a nude swim. (And not Albert Steptoe filling a bath with milk.)

But the certain gem is Charlie and Mabel in the Park, an original silent-era (almost certainly unlicensed) representation of Chaplin and Normand sat on a bench, he impudently raising the hem of her dress with his cane, she making as if to strike him but in fact just slightly moving her arm in his direction, before thinking better of it and turning back again. Perhaps once upon a time she did wallop him, but it's as well she doesn't anymore: the whole piece looks so fragile it's doubtful he would survive. Finding a lost Chaplin film may be more exciting that stumbling across this beautiful, beautiful artefact, but only slightly.
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Rye is quickly and easily reached from London, and these extraordinary relics of temps perdu are emphatically worth the trip. So give Brent Cross a miss this weekend and give yourself a treat. As its web page charmingly notes (see here for more details), the visitors' centre is "staffed by an expert team of ladies", who will be happy to turn your useless decimal currency into old pennies, thus enabling you to enter this Narnia of lost imagination and mechanical ingenuity.
Or there's a new Batman film out. Over to you.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Gloria Stuart is 98 today


In 1998, Gloria Stuart became the oldest actress ever to be nominated for an Academy Award for her part in Titanic. The film itself has not held up at all, but Stuart deserved the recognition: after the death of Fay Wray (who turned the Titanic gig down) she became perhaps the last of the great thirties Hollywood stars.
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A philosophy graduate from Berkeley and a gifted exponent of Shakespeare and Chekhov on stage, she was an intelligent and serious actress encumbered with Hollywood glamour. She came to films reluctantly, and was never certain she had made the right decision, particularly as her much announced superstardom never materialised.
“When I graduated from Santa Monica High in 1927, I was voted the girl most likely to succeed,” she once said, “I didn't realize it would take so long.”
The attempts to turn her into a production line Hollywood sexpot were often so blatant they seem deliberately antagonistic, as if intended to break her independence and feistiness. She appears in a 1932 Hollywood on Parade short in a cheesecake line-up of Hollywood’s unanimous choice of 1933’s starlets of tomorrow: fourteen girls, one from each studio. “I’m an all-American girl,” she says, in answer to her one question. (The 14 chosen proved a meagre crop, with only Ginger Rogers built for the long haul. Others included Patricia Ellis, Mary Carlisle and Lona Andre, who tells us she got into pick-chas bah bein’ the pantha woman. They didn’t realise when they said stars of tomorrow that they meant Monogram’s stars of tomorrow.)
At Universal, Carl Laemmle Jr was enraptured (“I have never seen such poise, such delicate beauty, such depth, why she almost scares you”) and insisted that “We’ll have to find some truly distinguished stories for her, in fact the finest, because… it would be foolish, and rather embarrassing all round, to put her in, well, a trivial story”.
. But none of her work, either freelance or contracted to Universal and later Twentieth Century Fox, made anything like full use of her talents. She looks stunning in the Eddie Cantor farce Roman Scandals, and does her best singing ‘I’m Going Shopping With You’ with Dick Powell in the Busby Berkeley musical Gold Diggers of 1935; at Fox she worked with Shirley Temple and the Ritz Brothers, and gave one of her best performances in one of her best films: John Ford’s The Prisoner of Shark Island (1936).
Today, apart from Titanic, she is probably best known now for her roles in Universal horror films. In The Invisible Man (1933) she is purely decorative, essentially reprising Mae Clark's worried girlfriend role from Frankenstein. But Secret of the Blue Room (1933), the least known of the bunch, at least has the sense to keep her the centre of attention.
Adapted from a successful German film, Geheimnis des Blauen Zimmers, no effort has gone into Americanising it, so Paul Lukas is our hero, Captain Walter Brink, and Gloria is our heroine, Irene Von Helldorf, doting daughter to Croydon-born Lionel Atwill. (At least Lukas has an accent: Irene is German by way of Long Island.)

We open in a large and imposing Germanic mansion, almost a castle, where Irene, younger, prettier and more kittenish than the Teutonic sobriety of her name might lead you to suspect, has chosen to celebrate her 21st birthday by inviting the three men who most fancy her to dinner and have them squabble over her. (We’ve all met girls like this.)
Stuart is coquettish and haughty here; with little in the script to bite into she plays the part as a prim tease; indeed, with Lionel Atwill on hand as master of ceremonies, we’re beginning to wonder just what kind of coming of age party this is going to turn into.
“And now,” he says, “Give us all a nice birthday kiss”; Stuart first kisses her father full on the lips, then all the other men in turn. But before Atwill has time to get the snake out of the cupboard, the contest between the three eligible bachelors (that’s Captain Walter Brink, Frank Faber and Thomas Brandt: stout Germanic types all, especially young Tommy) takes a sinister turn when it is discovered that the castle has a sealed bedroom, in which two guests were murdered years before, their killer never identified and his method of entering and escaping never found. In an only barely sublimated courtship display, it is mooted that they each spend consecutive nights there. One dies, one disappears, and one puts two and two together.
There are no surprises here. But it’s got the full compliment of panels and passages, it’s got red herrings of a sort, it’s got Gloria Stuart done up like Harlow in platinum curls and clinging satin nightwear… and how she must have hated teasingly delivering lines like “Oh, it must be terrible to be a man and have to be brave; thank goodness I can be a coward with a clean conscience!”
The masterpiece of her Universal years, and probably of her career, is James Whale's The Old Dark House (1932). (As well as The Invisible Man director and star also teamed on The Kiss Before the Mirror [1933], a stylish murder mystery, between the two horrors.)
.How she must have relished the chance to begin a film not cooing in luxury but trapped in a car in the pouring rain, already deep in a bitter argument with her screen husband. She gives an excellent performance throughout The Old Dark House because she can see it’s worth the effort; she’s also at her most beautiful on screen here, too, which may not be a coincidence. The film is among the more authentically pre-Code of the early Universals, and the potent atmosphere of weird eroticism in the scene where she is subjected to sexual interrogation at the hands of Eva Moore is still disquieting and extraordinary.
Deciding to change out of her wet clothes, Stuart is taken upstairs by Moore, who sits on the bed and harangues her with lurid reminiscences of her hated sister, who had died in the same room at the age of twenty-one. She was wicked, “handsome as a hawk”, and “all the young men used to follow her about with her red lips and her big eyes and her white neck.” As each tragic episode of this poor girl’s life is recounted as if evidence of her evil – she fell off a horse and broke her spine, then lay screaming on the very bed on which she is now sitting (Moore gives the pillows a satisfied pat to make the point), begging to be killed for month after month, before finally expiring “Godless to the last” - Stuart is slowly undressing to her satin underwear, fixes her stockings, then dresses slowly, just her shoes first, then pulling on a fantastic (if quite inappropriate considering the temperature and the company) clinging white satin dress. (Like a white flame, director James Whale envisaged.)
The juxtaposition between the horrible narrative, recounted with obvious glee by Moore, and the alluring visuals is deliberately emphasised by Whale, who brings it to a memorable dramatic coda, as Moore concludes her diatribe against “brazen, lolling creatures in silks and satins” by circling Stuart and ending up staring into her face:

You’re wicked, too. Young and handsome, silly, and wicked! You think of nothing but your long, straight legs and your white body, and how to please your man. You revel in the joys of fleshly love, don’t you? (She grabs the material of her dress.) That’s fine stuff, but it’ll rot. (She pinches Stuart’s skin.) That’s finer stuff still, but it’ll rot too, in time!

Whale finishes with a great shot of the curtains, and Stuart’s dress, billowing in the wind as she runs down a corridor on the beautiful, Cat and the Canary–ish set. Bravura, pre-Code tours-de-force from writer, director and cast alike, and one of those scenes where you most long for a look at one of those gleaming first run prints. (The Old Dark House survives only in a ratty old print resembling a DVD bootleg.) Stuart, her hair neatly parted and half-lit, half-shadowed, getting a chance to really perform while being photographed so magnificently, looks as beautiful as any actress has ever looked at the movies.
All of which helps make Gloria Stuart the world's most important living film star.

Why France is different


The story so far...
Hollywood has announced that from now on it will produce only Batman movies. Britain stopped making films of any sort in the early nineteen-seventies. Film critics still talk in excited tones about Japanese films, and Iranian films, but they don't really enjoy watching them any more than you would.
This means that only France continues to support a thriving national film industry, producing routinely good and distinctive films. By distinctive I mean characteristic of the country of origin. And by good I do not mean masterpieces but films with nothing much wrong with them.
One such is Les Femmes de l’ombre, which someone must have had high international hopes for, because it has been rewarded with Amelie-style saturation publicity and a particularly crass re-title (Female Agents).
It’s a very good war film – not great, just very good, and that’s fine – with excellent but unfussy period detail and the refreshing lack of the smug revisionism required by law in Britain. Great. Now the French are showing us how to make World War II movies. Compare it with the vile Dunkirk scenes in that monumental piece of crud Atonement.
Like no other national cinema, France can still surprise. Blunted a little now by relentless imitation, Amelie was plainly the most original and distinctive movie of its decade. And as Audrey Tautou reminds us, France is also the last country to maintain, support and renew its own stable of iconic stars, who put the sissyboys and pouting clotheshorses of Hollywood to shame. Somehow, France finds stars, knows how to present them with real old-fashioned glamour and mystique, and to hold on to them by giving them regular work suited to their talents. They do occasionally pop over to Hollywood to embarrass an amateur-hour co-star or two (recall Béart dwarfing little Tommy Cruise; Marceau gobbling up Mel Gibson and spitting him back into the sea; Tautou and Hanks, the double-act nobody cheered for) but they soon return to the country that knows what to do with them.
They are also all women, of course. There are male film stars in France, no doubt, but their job is basically to give the women something ordinary to contrast with while they're being magnificent. The French have always understood what Bette Davis meant when she observed that actors are something less than men but actresses are much more than women. (If indeed she did say it: Paula Wilcox said it playing her in the excellent one-woman play Whatever Happened to the Cotton Dress Girl? so it may have been an invention of the playwright. Is it ever true, though.)
Even Johnson, who had nothing but bile for 'players', liked to hobnob with the actresses at Drury Lane; his favourite was an Irish actress called Kitty Clive, unschooled but possessed of a sharp intelligence and a witty, unpretentious wisdom he found delightful. (He eventually had to terminate the friendship, explaining to Garrick that "the silk stockings and white bosoms of your actresses excite my genitals.")
From the dawn of cinema the women have always been vastly more important than the men; the masculinisation of cinema is a modern invention, another useless side-effect of the sexual revolution, no doubt. Whatever, French cinema will have none of it. As the ploddingly over-explanatory British title at least makes clear, all the stars of Female Agents are women, and they all have something to do. (American films have trouble finding work for one woman, especially, oddly enough, if they're French.)
Then there was 8 Femmes. Again, the title did not deceive - eight female icons of French cinema (including Danielle Darrieux!) in a jeu d’esprit of a kind I had given up hope of ever seeing in the cinema again, each with their own song number. Huppert does an amazing torch song at the piano, Béart a raucous knees-up, Ledoyen some infectious indie-pop. Hard to imagine America - or anywhere else - trying this and it not coming out campy and disastrous. Meryl Streep gurning her way through a bunch of stiltony Abba numbers or this gorgeously-coloured, ultra-stylish murder mystery musical? You must choose for yourself.
Leader of the female agents is Sophie Marceau, whose career tells its own story about how France nurtures and rewards talent. No British actress would have had so many chances, or been given so much time and room to become iconic. She has been allowed to build a career, with stumbles and wrong turns along the way, beginning as a teen starlet and graduating to costume epics, appearances for Michelangelo Antonioni and Bertrand Tavernier and loan-outs as a combined Bond girl and villain in The World Is Not Enough and what could well be the definitive Anna Karenina. Her performance in Les Femmes de l'ombre is a vindication and a triumph.
Here then is my totally subjective list of favourite performances by great female icons of French cinema:
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Arletty dans Les Enfants du Paradis (1945)
Nowhere else to fairly begin but here, with Carné's masterpiece, made in extraordinary circumstances under Nazi occupation. A defining example of the lyrical realism that remains part of the enigmatic appeal of French cinema to the present day, Arletty's performance is just one of a thousand attractions in this totally unique and transfixing three hour exercise in audience transportation. It is ironic, but not relevant, that Arletty was briefly imprisoned for a wartime affair with a German officer: that art can achieve a perfection impossible to find in the messy confusion of real life is one of the film's key themes.
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Brigitte Bardot dans Une Parisienne (1957)
French cinema entered its lumpen international phase in the fifties - just before the nouvelle vague came in - and Bardot was by far its most exportable face. But the Vadim movies with which she cemented her reputation have not aged anything like as well as the trifles that preceded and surrounded them. This gloriously inconsequential piece, for example, is a typical throwaway comedy of the period, with Bardot flirty and charming and entirely free of the ennui that forced her early retirement; the photography and colour are impossibly gorgeous, and Brigitte gets to play against a silvery and distinguished Charles Boyer.
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Audrey Tautou dans Vénus Beauté (Institut) (1999)
Amelie now seems unimaginable without her, though she was not the first choice and would never have got the part if Jeunet had not seen her on a poster for this film, in which she gives an equally beguiling, and Cesar-winning, performance. One of those heightened slice-of-life films that France does with such arrogant ease, it’s another girls' ensemble (about a Parisian beauty parlour and the women that work there); Tautou, Nathalie Baye and Mathilde Seigner are equally excellent, but it is obviously Tautou that's marked for stardom. The male casting is as weird as the female casting is felicitous: what the Lord gives with one had he takes away with the other.
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Emmanuelle Seigner dans Frantic (1988)
Seigner hanging from a Parisian roof top trumps Beatrice Dalle in the flashier but less enduring 37°2 le matin or Adjani in Subway to become the key image of impossibly stylish French femininity in the eighties. It was a pretty dank decade all in all, and only France managed to make anything out of it. Seigner was tested with a meatier role in the ridiculous Bitter Moon and found wanting, but here, in the underrated masterpiece of Polanski’s Parisian exile, she is cool, glamorous and perfect in what is additionally perhaps the best evocation of Paris itself in modern movies.
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Juliette Binoche dans Trois Couleurs: Bleu (1993)
One of the great images of nineties cinema is Binoche’s enigmatic face, staring at us from the thickets of Kieslowski’s doomy yet hypnotic meditation on the sort of stuff directors like Kieslowski like meditating on. Julie Delpy and Irene Jacob in the subsequent chapters are fine, but Binoche's work here is one of the great modern screen performances, with reams of psychological and emotional information conveyed in the tiniest gestures and nuances of speech. Even doing nothing at all, as Kieslowski’s camera simply stares at her staring back, or above us, or to one side, she rivets attention without a trace of mannerism or forced feeling. Imagine what a song and dance any American actress would make of a role like this! Binoche does virtually nothing, and says all.
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Isabelle Adjani dans La Reine Margot (1994)
I could have chosen Herzog’s Nosferatu, or Camille Claudel or especially L’Été meurtrier, but this is the most porcelain of stars in her most swaggering star role, in a film with an epic quality that, again, seems to have deserted all other film-producing nations but this one. Nothing that is going to change your life, but all very monumental; extremely vivid period sense; almost grand guignol at times. Then there’s the scene where she's got the little mask on. You know the bit I mean.
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Mathilda May dans Naked Tango (1990)
A work of distinctly minor appeal, but a dazzling turn for the nude space vampiress of notorious British sci-fi disaster Lifeforce, here sporting a Louise Brooks wig in a weird period underworld melodrama. A great French star that somehow slipped through everybody’s fingers, May never quite made her mark but retains a following; she's always worth watching, her films, alas, usually are not. This one, made by Hollywood in arty pretentious mode, is the most interesting, and her best showcase.
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Emmanuelle Béart dans La Belle Noiseuese (1991)
The most self-conscious glamourpuss of modern French cinema, Béart is, perhaps, the foremost icon of her generation. Not the most talented, but the most impossibly enigmatic, stylish and quintessential; it's a fair bet that we will talk of her when recalling the nineties as we link Bardot to the fifties. So many great, transfixing performances in so many good movies: Nathalie, L'Histoire de Marie et Julien, Nelly et Monsieur Arnaud, Une Femme Française, L'Enfer, Un Coeur en Hiver... But this was the one that made her, perhaps the Frenchest film ever made. Four lovely hours of pretentious dialogue, moody, uncommunicative characters, beautiful countryside, artistic angst and Emmanuelle Béart as nature intended. The most convincing recreation of the process of creating a work of art in cinema; Michel Piccoli's Edouard Frenhofer is my fourth favourite fictitious painter in movies (after Bogart in The Two Mrs Carrolls, Hancock in The Rebel and Adam Sorg in Color Me Blood Red).
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Simone Simon dans Cat People (1942)
Once upon a time, even Hollywood knew what to do with French stars. A wonderful logic informs the casting of this masterpiece of stylish horror: who better to play a woman who turns into a snarling panther when sexually aroused than a French actress who looks like a cat? So the purring Simon was brought over and rewarded expectation. The expected star career did not follow, though she's just as great in the sequel, in Mademoiselle Fifi by the same team, and in Johnny Doesn't Live Here Anymore, an attempt at frothy, Euro-style comedy from Monogram, the Hollywood studio least up to making the attempt. Some nice work in France, too, but she is best remembered now for Cat People, and for having a series of gold-plated keys made for her apartment, which she handed out to specially selected gentlemen.