Tag Archives: Elmer Bernstein

My Left Foot: The Story of Christy Brown (1989, Jim Sheridan)

My Left Foot is told in flashback. There’s the present–kind of glorified bookends–when Christy Brown (Daniel Day-Lewis) is a successful adult and flirts with his nurse (Ruth McCabe)–and then the past, which recounts Brown growing up poor, with cerebral palsy, in 1940s Dublin. Hugh O’Conor plays Brown until he’s seventeen or eighteen, then Day-Lewis takes over. Since Day-Lewis has a beard and a distinct manner in the present-day stuff, when he’s a teenager and before he’d ever gotten any rehabilitation or treatment, it’s a very different role. O’Conor plays a very different role too in his maybe twenty minutes–he’s got to play younger Day-Lewis from the first scene when he’s not even a tween. And he’s got the big material to get through.

Dad Ray McAnally thinks Day-Lewis is catastrophically cognitively impaired. Mom Brenda Fricker doesn’t think so, but McAnally’s a loud (sometimes scary) drunk and there are the six other kids to think about. But it also means the audience knows something the characters don’t. Yes, there’s something about the expectation, both for the narrative and O’Conor’s performance–but also presents the characters from a particular angle, which tends to work a lot better for Fricker than McAnally. Because there’s also the unseen scary bits regarding McAnally. Fricker–rightly so–gets sainted. McAnally gets gray, only My Left Foot isn’t really set up for gray.

My Left Foot is very precise in its attention and its intention. The focus is on O’Conor and Fricker–then Day-Lewis and Fricker–in the family’s house. My Left Foot’s production values are never bad, but director Sheridan and production designer Austen Spriggs focus their efforts on the scenes at the family’s house. Sheridan’s not a flashy director, but when he’s out in public–basically these occasional pub scenes for McAnally–and photographer Jack Controy is no help–the precision is gone. To wildly varying degrees. The verisimilitude orbits Fricker. Because Day-Lewis (and O’Conor) are too busy doing these layered performances, not to mention the impossible physicality layer. They don’t need a grounding or anything, they just can’t be concerned with tempering the mood.

It’s actually something brought up later on–as someone reads Brown’s actual writing aloud–regarding the constant feeling of isolation, even in a large family. Day-Lewis and O’Conor are always isolated. Much to Fricker’s frustration. Day-Lewis, Fricker, and O’Conor all have big character arcs in the film. No one else has them. Even if their characters do change a lot–like McAnally or Fiona Shaw, as Day-Lewis’s first doctor and champion–they don’t get to do it on screen. Once they’ve changed too much, they just disappear. Same thing happens to Fricker in the third act; worse, sometimes she’ll be in a scene and wasted. Shane Connaughton’s script sacrifices a lot of character for efficiency. Sheridan enables it, yes, but the script is ruthless.

But I’m getting a little ahead.

Once Day-Lewis takes over, the film nicely ambles about. There’s a subplot about McAnally and Fricker being able to buy him a wheelchair and one of the sisters getting in trouble, but they’re very mild subplots. They provide some narrative structure. Otherwise, it’s these micro-vingettes, all of them doing–often heartbreaking–character development for Day-Lewis. Fricker gets her character development in big moments. Day-Lewis’s builds. The film avoids getting too in-depth with anything. Just like McAnally’s faults are left unexplored, as are all of Brown’s medical problems over the years. Or physical realities. Or, actually, mental ones. Day-Lewis has a couple big rejection from women scenes and the film skips the hard stuff. My Left Foot isn’t rosy, but Sheridan and Connaughton make a real effort not to get too real with any of it.

And, given–while in the present and now apparently a writer (Brown’s work as an artist and writer are very murky in the background)–Day-Lewis tells McCabe (who’s reading his first book, My Left Foot) about how it’s too sentimental. The film is too sentimental. The acting is never too sentimental. The production never looks too sentimental–Jack Conroy’s photography is too flat for the emotion. But Sheridan and Connaughton are going for sentimental. Elmer Bernstein’s score is often so saccharine–while being technically competent if not better–it distracts from the acting.

Of course, with a better ending–the micro-vingettes have been becoming summarized micro-vingettes skipping forward in the narrative without any rhythm–the film maybe could’ve gotten anyway with the sentimentality. Day-Lewis is charming as hell by the present day stuff. He’s just not in it enough in the present day to get too sentimental about. Everyone’s material take a dive in the third act; the film has run out of time to tell its story so there’s a rush to the finish. The transition from flashback to present is really, really, really rough. It races and interrupts the actors.

The film’s exceptional moments come in the first and second acts, when all the elements sync up–the acting, the writing, the history–and Sheridan is able to get these fantastic scenes. Because the writing gets so loose with the history later on, there’s less opportunity for that sync.

And no real attempt at it in the present day stuff. Day-Lewis and McCabe are just cute together. Both actors do quite well with the material, but Sheridan is going for cute. And gets to pull it off thanks to Day-Lewis.

Sheridan and Connaughton are able to get away with a lot because of Day-Lewis and Fricker. Fricker not getting to finish any of her subplots is downright mean of the film, given how much of it she enables.

Fricker, Day-Lewis, and O’Conor give great performances. Exceptional. Singular. Performances deserving that sort of adjective. McAnally is excellent. His part isn’t good enough but he’s excellent. Fiona Shaw is fine. She’s sympathetic but not too sympathetic. McCabe’s cute. All the brothers and sisters are perfectly fine; they’re interchangeable in the narrative, so there’s not opportunity for much more.

My Left Foot has its problems. It also has exceptional pluses. The pluses win out.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Jim Sheridan; screenplay by Shane Connaughton and Jim Sheridan, based on the book by Christy Brown; director of photography, Jack Conroy; edited by J. Patrick Duffner; music by Elmer Bernstein; production designer, Austen Spriggs; produced by Noel Pearson; released by Palace Pictures.

Starring Daniel Day-Lewis (Christy Brown), Brenda Fricker (Mrs. Brown), Ray McAnally (Mr. Brown), Fiona Shaw (Dr. Eileen Cole), Hugh O’Conor (Young Christy Brown), Ruth McCabe (Mary), Alison Whelan (Sheila), Kirsten Sheridan (Sharon), Declan Croghan (Tom), Eanna MacLiam (Benny), and Cyril Cusack (Lord Castlewelland).


THIS POST IS PART OF THE 2ND DISABILITY IN FILM BLOGATHON HOSTED BY ROBIN OF POP CULTURE REVERIE AND CRYSTAL OF IN THE GOOD OLD DAYS OF CLASSIC HOLLYWOOD.


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Love with the Proper Stranger (1963, Robert Mulligan)

Love with the Proper Stranger has a lot to resolve in its third act. There’s a somewhat sizable supporting cast, the act two cliffhanger for leads Natalie Wood and Steve McQueen’s romance is precarious–there’s a lot. So it’s striking when Proper Stranger just doesn’t do a third act. Director Mulligan loves the New York location shooting and he just embraces it for the ending, doing a big crane shot but otherwise being very vérité.

Proper Stranger is a melodrama about Wood getting pregnant, McQueen being the daddy, them not being married, and McQueen not really remembering Wood anyway. It doesn’t want to be a melodrama. Mulligan and writer Arnold Schulman do everything they can to avoid traditional melodrama; long, fantastic portions of the film are just McQueen and Wood looking at each other, trying to figure out what to say. Milton R. Krasner’s photography holds the actors’ faces, Mulligan giving them time to deliberate on how to approach the other. It’s a shame this method is entirely gone by the lead-up to the end. McQueen will be furtive, then not, with Wood’s reaction expresses slow to catch up. They’re wonderful to watch together.

Shame the script doesn’t keep up with them.

Schulman gets easily distracted. He’s got a lot of depth in his scenes, which focus on Wood and McQueen, but make sure to provide a lot of activity around them. So when the film quiets that activity to spotlight Wood and McQueen, it’s affecting. Mulligan trains the viewer how to watch the stars, how to wait for them to act out.

Oops, I got distracted by something wonderful in Proper Stranger, which writer Schulman never does. Instead, he gets distracted by the Italian ethnic comedy subplot he’s got going with Wood’s family. When Wood moves out, mother Penny Santon goes into bedridden conniptions. It seems like a significant subplot, given how much time is spent with Wood’s family during the film, but maybe not. Because resolving it would be difficult and Proper Stranger eventually just wants to ride it out on Wood and McQueen’s charm and the lovely, rending Elmer Bernstein score.

Schulman and Mulligan try very hard to give Wood her agency and McQueen some unpredictability, but they don’t know after the character and actor have had that moment. Both actors have big character arcs, which the film first embraces, then ignores. Once Wood moves out, she’s no longer a protagonist, she becomes subject. Her embrace of agency reduces her part. It’s real unfortunate. Especially since it’s not like McQueen gets the extra space. It’s just wasted. Schulman and Mulligan bungle the finish without any clear motive, except it’s time for the movie to stop.

Nice support from Edie Adams, Tom Bosley (in a way too thin part in Schulman’s ethnic comedy plot line), and especially Herschel Bernardi as Wood’s most protective older brother. It’s not a great part, but Bernardi does a lot with it. Because Mulligan gives him time to react and process the plot as it unfolds. Love with the Proper Stranger goes from being patient and deliberate to dispassionately rushed.

McQueen’s good, Wood’s good. Both have some great moments, both have some not great ones. Wood’s are usually because of the script, while McQueen’s are his ambitions for the performance just not clearing. There’s a very occasional Italian accent thing he does and it never works. But their great moments more than make up for the rest.

Krasner’s photography, Bernstein’s score. Excellent. Aaron Stell’s editing, not excellent. Some bad cuts, but it might be because Mulligan’s trying different things in scenes. He’s trying to avoid the melodrama, like one more New York location shot will elevate the film. Except he just goes with Schulman’s depressing comic sequences for Wood’s family. It doesn’t make any sense.

Kind of like how it doesn’t make sense the movie doesn’t have a third act. What Proper Stranger does get done is good, but should be better. Wood and McQueen deserve better. Their performances deserve a film wholly worthy of them.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Robert Mulligan; written by Arnold Schulman; director of photography, Milton R. Krasner; edited by Aaron Stell; music by Elmer Bernstein; produced by Alan J. Pakula; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Natalie Wood (Angie Rossini), Steve McQueen (Rocky Papasano), Herschel Bernardi (Dominick Rossini), Tom Bosley (Anthony Columbo), Edie Adams (Barbie), and Penny Santon (Mama Rossini).


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Hud (1963, Martin Ritt)

Every once in a while in Hud, it seems like Paul Newman's eponymous lead character might do something selfless. Not redemptive or nice, but selfless. It's not the point of the film and not one of its promises–it's just visible how significant it would be for Brandon De Wilde, playing Newman's orphaned nephew.

Hud fires on all cylinders. Director Ritt and cinematographer James Wong Howe compose a breathtakingly gorgeous film. It's hard to imagine the skies as having color; in Howe's black and white photography they are an infinite gray. It's a very small cast–Newman, De Wilde, Melvyn Douglas as the patriarch, Patricia Neal as the housekeeper who both Newman and De Wilde desire–and the black nights keep the cast claustrophobically close. Newman and Douglas's dysfunctional relationship can't be escaped, with De Wilde growing up in it and Neal the outside observer.

The screenplay, from Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank Jr., gives Douglas these wonderful monologues, full of sincerity and wisdom, while it gives Newman monologues of selfishness and cynicism. They're dueling ideologies and it becomes clearer and clearer as the film progresses they're in direct reaction to one another. It's a brilliant script.

As for the cast, the last cylinder–except perhaps the sound design and Elmer Bernstein's score–all of actors are phenomenal. The film has a relatively short present action but De Wilde goes through a visible transition as things move along, whereas Newman and Douglas more reveal themselves as the film progresses.

Hud is a singular motion picture.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Martin Ritt; screenplay by Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank Jr., based on the novel by Larry McMurtry; director of photography, James Wong Howe; edited by Frank Bracht; music by Elmer Bernstein; produced by Ravetch and Ritt; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Paul Newman (Hud Bannon), Melvyn Douglas (Homer Bannon), Patricia Neal (Alma Brown), Whit Bissell (Mr. Burris) and Brandon De Wilde (Lonnie Bannon).


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An American Werewolf in London (1981, John Landis)

There’s a lot of good stuff about An American Werewolf in London–for example, Landis doesn’t have a single joke fall flat–but something about it just doesn’t work.

Something Landis doesn’t do, as a director. I can’t quite put a label on it, since he does so many things well. Like the English setting.

With Robert Paynter’s photography, even when the English are acting stereotypically unfunny, it seems perfectly real. During these sequences, in the second half of the film, it also feels like Landis is doing a deliberate, thoughtful look at someone becoming a werewolf.

Only, he’s really not, because David Naughton’s wolf man is barely a character. Landis just thinks of good scenes and executes them mediocrely.

Maybe if Malcolm Campbell’s editing weren’t so disjointed and awful, Landis could get away with it better. The editing is rather awful–so bad I would forgive all the stupid dream sequences, if only they’d been well cut.

Without the dreams, Landis might have had time to create a real character for Naughton. He sort of coasts through the film, assuming he’s charming enough for it to work.

The supporting cast is excellent, particularly John Woodvine and Brian Glover. Jenny Agutter is fine. Griffin Dunne is occasionally awful, usually due to script problems, but mostly good.

The special effects are similarly problematic. The transformation is neat and amazing, but the actual design for the werewolf is a complete yawn.

The film has a lot of potential… too bad most of it is unrealized.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Written and directed by John Landis; director of photography, Robert Paynter; edited by Malcolm Campbell; music by Elmer Bernstein; produced by George Folsey Jr.; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring David Naughton (David Kessler), Jenny Agutter (Nurse Alex Price), Griffin Dunne (Jack Goodman), John Woodvine (Dr. J.S. Hirsch), Lila Kaye (Barmaid), Joe Belcher (Truck Driver), David Schofield (Dart Player) and Brian Glover (Chess Player).


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THIS FILM IS ALSO DISCUSSED ON BASP | AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON (1981) / AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN PARIS (1997).