Tag Archives: Shelley Winters

The Great Gatsby (1949, Elliot Nugent)

The Great Gatsby can get away with a lot thanks to lead Alan Ladd, much of it related to the adaptation. Gatsby, the film, does open with “narrator” Macdonald Carey—set in the present, with Carey reminiscing on the grand old Jazz Age. Of course, the Jazz Age looks a little different in Carey’s memories because the movie’s post-Code and it wasn’t allowed to actually recreate the Jazz Age styles. The lack of style accuracy doesn’t matter much; the parties aren’t important. Ladd’s Gatsby is a quiet, contemplative wallflower; see, the screenplay (by Cyril Hume and Richard Maibaum) gives Ladd a sympathetic backstory. He only became a bootlegger because some rich widow (an oddly uncredited Carole Mathews) screws him out of his inheritance; her much-older husband (Henry Hull in a really fun performance) saw potential in Ladd and wanted to give him a leg up. Then, of course, there was the War. Ladd’s Gatsby is a war hero.

It’s before the War and after the old man mentorship Ladd meets Kansas City socialite Betty Field. Ladd’s just an enlisted man, bound for Europe and the trenches, but it’s Kansas City and he can get into the parties in his uniform. The flashback to their meeting doesn’t come until the film’s introduced both Ladd and Field in the present. Well, 1928 flashback present anyway. It adds something to both of them. Even though Ladd’s had a bunch of personality in the film so far, this tender side of him—he’s not violent in the present, but he’s got to be capable of violence—but this version of him with Field doesn’t have that capacity yet. And Field has zero personality in the present, so any helps.

At its best, The Great Gatsby is a lousy novel adaptation but a good “gangster goes straight” vehicle for Ladd. He does a vague tough guy routine with everyone until Field comes along and then he’s a sap. What’s so impressive about Ladd’s performance is he’s able to moon over Field even though they haven’t got any chemistry together. You think Field’s just incapable of it, but then she plays really well with estranged husband Barry Sullivan; odd because Field and Ladd are running away that point, when she and Sullivan finally click, performance-wise. Because the film’s not really set up to be the story of the characters from the novel, it’s far more interested in Ladd’s bootlegging days, with Ed Begley as his crotchety older partner and Elisha Cook Jr. as his sidekick (a kid who Ladd saved in the War and went with him from medals of valor to killing rival gangs). It’s more interested in the flashbacks to Ladd with Hull and Mathews. The screenplay feels looser in those scenes, like it’s not trying to hit a particular beat.

The two big problems with the film are the main supporting actors—Field, Carey, Sullivan, Ruth Hussey—and the direction. Nugent’s never quite good enough to do anything with the film. He does an adequate job, but he’s always zigging when he should zag. He’s got these one-shot close-ups he uses in the middle of conversations and they always kill the scene. Maybe some of it’s on Ellsworth Hoagland’s, but most of it’s on Nugent. He’s not interested in what the characters have to say and given how talky things get in the final third… it hurts the film.

Now the cast. So Ladd’s great. He showed up to work and he does. He gives Gatsby two hundred percent, which makes up for a lot, but still isn’t enough. Because the supporting cast is a stinker. Sullivan’s the best, but only because he occasionally is able to roll the thin characterization into a hybrid caricature—angry jock blue-blood unfaithful jilted husband—and find some true connection. But he’s not any good, not really. He’s able to overcome. Meanwhile Hussey tries her damndest and never makes it work but points for trying. Carey and Field are miscast and poorly directed. Field’s got no charisma. It might be some of the Code issues, it might be the script, it’s definitely partially on Nugent. But Field’s demure in the wrong way, especially given she’s got such a big part.

Carey’s pseudo-earnest, but he’s not ambitious in his performance. It needs some ambition. Some energy.

Again, Ladd can carry it through—the film’s only ninety minutes—but it’s a shame, even with all the constraints, the movie doesn’t have better direction, better casting; Ladd deserves more than a compromised production.

Oh, speaking of compromise, nice photography from John F. Seitz. He’s got to work with a lot of composites, some awkward framing, but he establishes a rather solid palette for the film. Just wish Nugent where a little better.

Gatsby’s a missed opportunity.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Elliott Nugent; screenplay by Cyril Hume and Richard Maibaum, based on Owen Davis’s play of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel; director of photography, John F. Seitz; edited by Ellsworth Hoagland; music by Robert Emmett Dolan; produced by Maibaum; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Alan Ladd (Gatsby), Betty Field (Daisy), Macdonald Carey (Nick), Ruth Hussey (Jordan Baker), Barry Sullivan (Tom), Elisha Cook Jr. (Klipspringer), Ed Begley (Lupus), Howard Da Silva (Wilson), Henry Hull (Dan Cody), Carole Mathews (Ella Cody), and Shelley Winters (Myrtle).



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Lolita (1962, Stanley Kubrick)

The first half of Lolita is a wonderful mix of acting styles. There’s James Mason’s very measured, very British acting. There’s Shirley Winters’s histrionics; she’s doing Hollywood melodrama on overdrive but director Kubrick (and Winters) have it all under perfect control. And then there’s Sue Lyons as the titular character. She’s far more naturalistic than either Mason or Winters–and certainly more than Peter Sellers in his supporting role. The second half of the film loses that mix. Instead of Mason playing off other styles, he’s mostly left to his own hysterics.

And Winters was better at them.

Lolita is a difficult proposition as Mason, as a supreme pervert, has to be somewhat sympathetic. Winters, who should be sympathetic, has to be a villain. Lyons, who is a victim, has to be villainous. And what about Sellers? He has to not run off with the picture, which he almost does every time he’s in the movie.

That first half, which Kubrick tells in summary, is gloriously well-paced. It moves in short sequences–sometimes just a shot with actors entering and leaving–and it moves it lengthy scenes. It’s far more interesting stuff than the second half of the film, which is a Hitchcockian thriller without any thrillers.

Great music from Nelson Riddle, great photography from Oswald Morris.

Everything sort of falls apart in the third act as Kubrick rushes to find a conclusion. The second half, with Mason’s outbursts and arguments, can’t compare to the sublimity of the first.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Stanley Kubrick; screenplay by Vladimir Nabokov, based on his novel; director of photography, Oswald Morris; edited by Anthony Harvey; music by Nelson Riddle; produced by James B. Harris; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring James Mason (Prof. Humbert Humbert), Shelley Winters (Charlotte Haze), Sue Lyon (Lolita), Jerry Stovin (John Farlow), Diana Decker (Jean Farlow), Lois Maxwell (Nurse Mary Lore), Bill Greene (George Swine), Marianne Stone (Vivian Darkbloom) and Peter Sellers (Clare Quilty).


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The Delta Force (1986, Menahem Golan)

The Delta Force is…

1) the only Chuck Norris movie my mom let me watch as a kid (I think it’s the only Chuck Norris movie I’ve ever seen).

2) “the most homoerotic movie I’ve ever seen,” according to my wife.

3) somewhat interesting for the first forty-five minutes.

The Delta Force stars four Academy Award winners (Lee Marvin, Martin Balsam, George Kennedy and two-time winner Shelley Winters), one Silver Berlin Bear winner (Hanna Schygulla) and one Academy Award nominee (Robert Vaughan). The only two who give good performances are Marvin and Balsam. Kennedy, Winters and Vaughan aren’t bad. Schygulla, in one of her only (I think) English language performances, is bad. Well, maybe not bad… but not any good at all. She does get one of Delta Force‘s more interesting scenes, a German flight attendant (sorry, bursar) who gets to pick out all the Jews on the plane. She doesn’t want to–being German and all (in a scene with some dialogue lifted out of a certain “Fawlty Towers” episode–John Cleese and Connie Booth should have sued)–but does it anyway. The kicker? She makes a mistake, calling up a Russian (Yehuda Efroni), who isn’t Jewish. This mistake kicks off Delta Force‘s most interesting scene–the Arab terrorists (Robert Forster, who, like Marvin, is enough of a professional not to look embarrassed, and David Menachem) make the German flight attendant call all the Jews on the plane up to first class, which has been emptied. Now, the plane’s got 144 passengers (Forster is nice enough to remind everyone as the sequence begins) and guess how many of them help the Jews? Keep in mind there are two terrorists with a gun and a grenade apiece, the plane’s in flight. Okay, just guess. Guess how many of the American Christians help the Jews being led to their deaths?

Do you need a hint? Think about the 1930s.

That’s right… zero. Not a one. They even keep their mouths shut. The Russian complains he isn’t a Jew. After all is said and done, when it won’t make any difference, Catholic priest Kennedy at least gets up and sits with the Jews in first class. There’s no explanation to why he isn’t disgusted by the display he’s witnessed from his fellow gentiles.

In the first forty-five minutes of Delta Force, there are quite a few of these disquieting moments. Menachem gets a couple scenes where he’s incredibly sympathetic to his hostages and–conversely–a couple scenes where he’s incredibly brutal to other hostages. Forster’s portrayed as completely evil, but then he too gets a couple scenes of strange humanity. These aren’t subtle displays of contradictory behavior, they’re as neon as they can get, but they’re very interesting.

The second half of the film, with Chuck Norris and William Wallace’s romantic getaway to scenic Lebanon–the script’s so incredibly stupid in the second half, it’s never clear whether or not the Lebanese government and military are actually endorsing the terrorists or if there’s some faction of the military supporting it or whatever… it’s idiotic.

Wait, what was I talking about?

Oh, the second half. There’s a couple interesting scenes when the film tries to make American audiences terrified of the Arabs. But it’s all so dumb–Norris rides around on a souped up motorcycle (he’s apparently insecure about something) and blows up the bad guys (who are some of the stupidest villains in movie history)–it’s almost impossible to remember the engaging first half. My wife couldn’t believe I’d watch the movie after having seen it before–the last time must have been when I was thirteen or so–and I told her the reason it seemed better in my memory (to be fair, the first half is fine) is because I used to see it on television, with commercials. It runs over two hours and to get it into a two hour slot, they would have had to cut more than a half hour… which probably came out of the lousy second half.

She didn’t believe me.

As jingoistic as Delta Force gets–the rescued hostages sing “America the Beautiful,” not the “The Star-Spangled Banner” or “This Land is Your Land,” certainly not in a Chuck Norris movie–it’s hard for the cartoon action scenes in the second half to erase the memory of the first half. The first half of the film is a metaphor for the Second World War. Of 138 people, only one would stand up with the Jews. Kennedy getting up there placates, but it’s really just like the thirties. The fine American Christians didn’t care what the Nazis were doing to the Jews.

It’s such a shocking scene, I wonder who wrote it.

As for the movie overall… my wife described Marvin’s performance perfectly. He keeps acting like he’s in a real movie and expecting his co-stars to respond in kind. When they don’t, there’s a flash of confusion on his face before he can reorient himself. Susan Strasberg isn’t in it enough. Bo Svenson is awful. Steve James is okay. Kim Delaney is lousy. Norris is, big shock, terrible. His love interest, Wallace, is terrible too.

It seems like Golan didn’t really know how to direct actors, so he just got solid professionals for the hostages–but then made big mistakes, like casting Natalie Roth as Strasberg’s kid. It’s Susan Strasberg acting opposite a kid who wouldn’t make it as a non-speaking extra in a commercial.

Golan’s direction’s lousy, but compared to action movies today, it’s fine. You can tell what’s going on.

Alan Silvestri’s score’s more appropriate for a sports movie (maybe a handicapped runner overcoming the odds and winning… the silver) but it’s okay.

The Delta Force probably plays better on TV with commercials.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Menahem Golan; written by James Bruner and Golan; director of photography, David Gurfinkel; edited by Alain Jakubowicz; music by Alan Silvestri; production designer, Luciano Spadoni; produced by Golan and Yoram Globus; released by Cannon Films.

Starring Chuck Norris (Maj. Scott McCoy), Lee Marvin (Col. Nick Alexander), Martin Balsam (Ben Kaplan), Joey Bishop (Harry Goldman), Robert Forster (Abdul), Lainie Kazan (Sylvia Goldman), George Kennedy (Father O’Malley), Hanna Schygulla (Ingrid), Susan Strasberg (Debra Levine), Bo Svenson (Capt. Campbell), Robert Vaughn (Gen. Woodbridge), Shelley Winters (Edie Kaplan), William Wallace (Pete Peterson), Charles Grant (Tom Hale), Steve James (Bobby) and Kim Delaney (Sister Mary).


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Harper (1966, Jack Smight)

Harper may very well be an anachronism. I’m not quite sure how to use the word. There’s certainly something off about it. It’s based on a novel written in 1949–a detective novel in the vein of Chandler, which explains why it feels like Chandler–but then it’s filmed in 1966 and it’s not a period piece, but that discrepancy isn’t what I’m talking about. Harper was on the cusp between studio-based filming and location filming. A lot of Harper is location work, shot by Conrad L. Hall, who does a beautiful job. Except there’s some studio stuff in there–driving with rear projection–and it just doesn’t work. When the movie started and I realized–around the time Johnny Mandel’s name showed up with the music credit–it was directed by Jack Smight. All I could remember from Smight’s oeuvre was one of the Airport movies, but I knew he wasn’t going to work out. The combination of him and Johnny Mandel doing a detective movie, just wasn’t going to work.

But Harper does work to some degree. It’s incredibly well-written by William Goldman and incredibly well-acted by the entire cast. Except you’ve got a cast and a writer–whether they knew it or not (though I imagine Goldman did know)–working against the director. Smight wasn’t trying to screw up the movie, his background just didn’t provide the tools required to make Harper work to its full potential. Watching the movie, I couldn’t help thinking about Bullitt and how Peter Yates did something different with Bullitt and Jack Smight didn’t do anything different with Harper and Harper was written to be a different kind of movie. There are scenes going on too long for emphasis and these music cues to clue the viewer in on this film being “cool” maybe… I don’t know. It’s not a cool movie. Listen to the searching, sadden dialogue. The scenes between Paul Newman and divorce-in-progress wife Janet Leigh are fantastic. Not even Smight misunderstanding Goldman’s script and Newman and Leigh’s acting can cut down on how wonderful their eventual scene (after they’re in a couple telephone conversation scenes) turns out.

Harper‘s opening credits are a treasure-trove of good actors who’ve become punch lines or just forgotten. Lauren Bacall shows up, playing–to some degree–her character’s father from The Big Sleep. She’s only around for a couple scenes, but she’s good in them and having fun. She’s playing for the camera though, which is sort of what Smight was going for. A laugh. Specifically, those punch line actors are Shelley Winters and Robert Wagner. Wagner’s damn good here. Winters is playing herself, which is funny for a bit, and then it becomes clear she doesn’t have much else to do. In the forgotten department, Robert Webber’s scary good and Strother Martin shows up in a straight role (probably the first time I’ve seen him not being funny). Julie Harris is actually the only disappointing performance. Arthur Hill’s good and I thought it was strange to see Newman share so much of the film with him, but then I looked at Newman’s filmography and realized he doesn’t monopolize. A lot of the friendship between Newman and Hill is verbalized though and maybe it was the unexpected.

I’ve seen Harper before. Maybe seven years ago it aired on AMC, probably letterboxed. I remember not being impressed with it. Seeing it again, I definitely appreciate it more, but there’s a bit of sadness along with it–just because it could have been so much better, if only it had a different director.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Jack Smight; screenplay by William Goldman, from a novel by Ross Macdonald; director of photography, Conrad L. Hall; edited by Stefan Arnsten; music by Johnny Mandel; produced by Jerry Gershwin and Elliot Kastner; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Paul Newman (Lew Harper), Lauren Bacall (Mrs. Sampson), Julie Harris (Betty Fraley), Arthur Hill (Albert Graves), Janet Leigh (Susan Harper), Pamela Tiffin (Miranda Sampson), Robert Wagner (Alan Traggert), Robert Webber (Dwight Troy), Shelley Winters (Fay Estabrook), Harold Gould (Sheriff Spanner), Strother Martin (Claude), Roy Jensen (Puddler), Martin West (Deputy) and Jacqueline de Wit (Mrs. Kronberg).


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