“THREE ACT TRAGEDY” (2010) Review

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“THREE ACT TRAGEDY” (2010) Review

When I was in my early teens, I had shifted my attention from Nancy Drew mysteries to those novels written by Agatha Christie. And I have not stopped since. I confess that this shift in reading material was the result of seeing the 1978 movie, “DEATH ON THE NILE”, for the first time. Properly hooked on Christie’s works, I focused my attention on her 1934 novel, “Murder in Three Acts”, also known as “Three Act Tragedy”.

I have seen two adaptations of Christie’s 1934 novel. The first was television adaptation in the mid 1980s, titled “MURDER IN THREE ACTS”, which starred Christie veteran Peter Ustinov as Hercule Poirot. Although I enjoyed it, I had hoped to see an adaptation of the novel in its original 1930s setting. I had to wait many years before the ITV series, “AGATHA CHRISTIE’S POIROT” granted my wish with an adaptation that not only retained the original setting, but also the original title, “THREE ACT TRAGEDY”.

The story begins on the coast of Cornwall, where Hercule Poirot attends a dinner party at the home of famed stage actor, Sir Charles Cartwright. The latter’s guests also include:

*Dr. Sir Bartholomew Strange – Sir Charles’ old childhood friend and a nerve specialist
*Lady Mary Lytton-Gore – a Cornish neighbor of Sir Charles, who is from an impoverished old family
*Hermione “Egg” Lytton-Gore – Lady Mary’s young daughter, with whom Sir Charles is in love
*Muriel Wills – a successful playwright also known as Anthony Astor
*Captain Freddie Dacres – a former Army officer and gentleman gambler
*Cynthia Dacres – Captain Dacres’ wife and a successful dressmaker
*Reverend Stephen Babbington – the local curate and Sir Charles’ Cornish neighbor
*Mrs. Babbington – Reverend Babbington’s wife near Sir Charles’s home in Cornwall.
*Oliver Manders – a young Cornish neighbor of Sir Charles’, who is interested in Egg
*Miss Milray – Sir Charles’ secretary

The guests gather in Sir Charles’ drawing-room for a round of pre-dinner cocktails. The party is marred when one of the guests, Reverend Babbington, collapses and dies after drinking his cocktail. An inquest rules his death as a result from natural causes. However, Sir Charles believes that Reverend Babbington may have been murdered, but Poirot is not convinced. About a month or so later, Poirot is vacationing in Monte Carlo, when he encounters Sir Charles. The latter reveals via a newspaper article that Dr. Strange had died from similar circumstances, while hosting a dinner party at his home in Yorkshire. Most of the guests who had attended Sir Charles’ party had also been there, with the exception of Mrs. Babbington and Miss Milray. Unlike Reverend Babbington, Sir Bartholomew’s death has been ruled as a homicide. Both Poirot and Sir Charles return to Britain to investigate the two deaths.

Although “Three Act Tragedy” was one of the first Christie novels I had read, it has never been a favorite of mine. I liked it, but I did not love it. Screenwriter Nick Dear made some changes to the story that I either found appropriate or did not bother me. Dear removed characters like society hound like Mr. Satterthwaite and stage actress Angela Sutcliffe (and one of Sir Charles’ former lovers). I did not miss them. One change really improved the story for me. One aspect of the novel that I found particularly frustrating was the minimized presence of Poirot. The lack of Poirot almost dragged the novel into a halt. Thankfully, Dear avoided this major flaw by allowing Poirot’s presence to be a lot more prominent. He achieved this change by making Poirot a friend of Sir Charles and removing the Mr. Satterthwaite. Dear also made one other major change in Christie’s story, but I will get to it later.

Visually, “THREE ACT TRAGEDY” is a gorgeous movie to watch. Peter Greenhalgh, who had passed away last year, provided the production with a colorful photography that I found particularly beautiful. My only complaint about Greenhalgh’s photography is that it struck me as a little fuzzy at times to indicate the story’s presence in the past. Another dazzling aspect of “THREE ACT TRAGEDY” were the production designs created by Jeff Tessler, who more orless served as the production designer for “AGATHA CHRISTIE’S POIROT” between 2005 and the series’ end in 2013. Judging by the admirable way he managed to re-create not only the movie’s 1930s setting, but also various locations, only tells me that he had been doing something write. I certainly had no complaints about the costumes designed by Sheena Napier. Like Tessler, she worked for “AGATHA CHRISTIE’S POIROT” for a long period of time . . . even longer than Tessler. Although I am no expert on early 20th century fashion, I thought Napier excellent job in creating costumes for the production’s setting and the different characters.

The performances featured in “THREE ACT TRAGEDY” were first-rate. I did not find anything exceptional about David Suchet’s portrayal of Hercule Poirot, but I thought he gave his usual more-than-competent performance. Martin Shaw gave a very solid performance as the charming, yet intelligent Sir Charles Cartwright, who was the first to sense something wrong about the first murder. I was also impressed by how the actor conveyed his character’s insecurity over a romance with a much younger woman. Kimberly Nixon seemed like a ball of fire, thanks to her portrayal of the vibrant and charming Egg Lytton-Gore, who found herself torn between two men. I also enjoyed Art Malik’s portrayal of the extroverted Dr. Sir Bartholomew Strange. Although there were times when his performance struck me as a touch too jovial. Ronan Vibert gave a rather insidious, yet oddly charming performance as “gentleman” gambler Captain Freddie Dacres. The one performance that really impressed me came Kate Ashfield who gave a very interesting performance as playwright Anthony Astor aka Miss Muriel Wills. Ashfield did an excellent job in recapturing Miss Wills’ secretive, yet uber observant personality. The production also featured solid performances from Anastasia Hille, Tom Wisdom, Anna Carteret, Suzanne Bertish, and Tony Maudsley.

I do have a complaint about “THREE ACT TRAGEDY”. I really wish that Nick Dear had not changed the murderer’s main motive for the killings. I have heard rumors that there are two different versions of the story’s resolution. My literary version of “THREE ACT TRAGEDY” questioned the murderer’s sanity, making the murders a lot more interesting to me. Unfortunately, Nick Dear used the other resolution, one that struck me as a lot more mundane and not very interesting. Too bad.

Aside from changing the killer’s motive for the murders, I rather enjoyed “THREE ACT TRAGEDY”. I am thankful that screenwriter Nick Dear had made Hercule Poirot’s presence in the story more prominent than it was in the novel. After all, he is the story’s main investigator. But despite excellent acting and solid direction by Ashley Pearce, I would never regard it as one of my favorite productions from “AGATHA CHRISTIE’S POIROT”. It was simply a pretty good adaptation of a solid Christie novel. There is nothing else for me to say.

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“SAVING MR. BANKS” (2013) Review

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“SAVING MR. BANKS” (2013) Review

When I first saw the trailer for the recent biopic, “SAVING MR. BANKS”, I knew I would like it. First of all, the movie was about the development of one of my favorite movies of all time, the 1964 musical “MARY POPPINS”. And two, it featured some very humorous moments that I personally found appealing. Not long after the movie first hit the theaters, I rushed to see it as soon as I possibly could.

Directed by John Lee Hancock, “SAVING MR. BANKS” told the story of “Mary Poppins” author P.L. Travers‘ two-week stay in 1961 Los Angeles, while filmmaker Walt Disney attempts to obtain from her, the official screen rights to her novels. The development of “SAVING MR. BANKS” began when Australian filmmaker Ian Collie produced a documentary on Travers back in 2002. He saw a potential biopic and convinced Essential Media and Entertainment to develop a feature film with Sue Smith as screenwriter. The project attracted the attention of producer Alison Owen, who subsequently hired Kelly Marcel to co-write the screenplay with Smith. Marcel removed a subplot involving Travers and her son, and divided the story into a two-part narrative – the creative conflict between Travers and Disney, and her dealings with her childhood issues. Because Marcel’s version featured certain intellectual property rights that belonged to the he Walt Disney Company, Owen approached Corky Hale, who informed former Disney composer, Richard M. Sherman of the script. Sherman supported Marcel’s script. Meanwhile, the Disney Studios learned of the script, as well. Instead of purchasing the script in order to shut down the production, they agree to co-produce the movie, allowing Kelly Marcel access to more material regarding the production of “MARY POPPINS”. The Disney Studios approached Tom Hanks for the role of Walt Disney, who accepted. When they failed to secure Meryl Streep for the role of P.L. Travers, they turned to Emma Thompson, who accepted it.

Through the urging of her literary agent, a financially struggling P.L. Travers finally decides to leave her London home, and agreed to meet and negotiate with Walt Disney in Los Angeles over the film rights to her “Mary Poppins” stories, after twenty years. While in Los Angeles, Travers express disgust over what she regards as the city’s unreality and the naivety and overbearing friendliness of its inhabitants like her assigned limousine driver, Ralph. At the Disney Studios in Burbank, Travers collaborates with the creative team assigned to develop the movie – screenwriter/artist
Don DaGradi, Richard and Robert Sherman. She finds their casual manner and their handling of the adaptation of her novels distasteful. And Travers is also put off by Disney’s jocular and familiar personality. She pretty much remains unfriendly toward her new acquaintances and a new set of problems arise between her and the studio. Her collaboration with the Disney Studios also reveals painful memories of her childhood in 1906-07 Australia and memories of her charismatic father, Travers Goff, who was losing a battle against alcoholism; and her mother Margaret Goff, who nearly committed suicide, due to her inability to control Goff’s heaving drinking.

Hollywood politics can be mind-boggling. I learned this valuable lessons, following the reactions to not only the recent historical drama, “THE BUTLER”, but also the reactions to “SAVING MR. BANKS”. The first movie came under fire by conservatives for its historical inaccuracies, when President Ronald Reagan’s son accused that movie of a false portrait of his father. Some four-and-a-half months later, many feminists accused the Disney Studios of not only damaging P.L. Travers’ reputation, but also of historical inaccuracies. Actress Meryl Streep, who had been an earlier candidate for the role of Travers, added her two cents by openly accused Walt Disney of being a bigot on so many levels, while presenting an acting award to Emma Thompson. Since political scandal brought “SAVING MR. BANKS” under heavy criticism for historical accuracy or lack of, I figure I might as well discuss the matter.

Was the movie historically accurate in its portrayal of P.L. Travers? Many criticized the movie’s failure to delve into the author’s bisexuality and relationship with her adopted son. What they failed to realize was that Travers’ sex life and adopted son had nothing to do with her creation of “Mary Poppins” or her dealings with Disney. The movie they wanted was the movie written by Sue Smith. And Alison Owen had put the kibbosh on those storylines long before the Disney Studios got involved. Disney did meet with Travers at her London home. Only he did so in 1959, not 1961. But the movie was accurate about him gaining the movie rights after her 1961 visit. Disney’s 1959 London trip only resulted in his acquiring an option – which gave the filmmaker a certain period of time to acquire the actual film rights. However, Travers’ family, the Goffs, moved to Allora, Queensland in 1905, not 1906 as the movie had suggested.

Was Travers that difficult, as suggested in the movie? I honestly have no idea. Richard Sherman made it clear that he found her difficult to like. I have read somewhere that Travers had managed to alienate both her adopted son and her grandchildren by the time of her death in 1996. And there are also . . . the audio tapes that recaptured Travers’ sessions with Don Di Gradi and the Sherman Brothers in 1961. Tapes that she had requested. She did not come off well in those tapes. Critics also claimed that the movie idealized Disney. Here, I have to keep myself from laughing. Granted, the movie and actor Tom Hanks portrayed the “Disney charm” at its extreme. But the movie also made it clear that Disney was utilizing his charm to convince Travers to sign over the movie rights. And quite frankly, his charm came off as somewhat overbearing and manipulative in some scenes. I perfectly understood Travers’ reaction to the sight of Disney stuffed animals, balloons and fruit baskets in her hotel room. And I certainly sympathize with her reaction to being dragged to Disneyland against her will. I have loved the theme park since I was a kid. But if I had been in Travers’ shoes, I would have been pissed at being dragged to some location against my will.

When the movie first flashed back to Travers’ Australian childhood, I had to suppress an annoyed sigh. I really was not interested in her childhood, despite what the movie’s title had indicated. But the more the movie delved into her childhood and made the connections to her creation of the “Mary Poppins” and the development of the 1964 movie, the more I realized that Kelly Marcel had written a brilliant screenplay. By paying close attention to the story during my second viewing of the movie, I noticed the connections between the tragic circumstances of Travers’ childhood, “Mary Poppins”and her 1961 Los Angeles visit. Some of the connections I made were the following:

*Travers’ aversion of Southern California weather, which must have reminded her of Australia and her childhood

*Her aversion to pears, which reminded her of Travers Goff’s death

*Her aversion to a Mr. Banks with facial hairs

*Her aversion to Mr. Banks’ cinematic personality

*Her aversion to the color red, which may have also reminded her of Mr. Goff’s death

*Her reaction to the Sherman Brothers’ song – “Fidelity Fiduciary Bank”, which brought back painful memories of an incident regarding her father at a local fair

*Her Aunt Ellie, whom she re-created as Mary Poppins

I also have to compliment the movie’s visual re-creation of both 1961 Southern California and Edwardian Queensland, Australia. Production designer Michael Corenblith had to re-create both periods in Travers’ life. And if I must be honest, he did an exceptional job – especially in the 1961 scenes. His work was ably supported by Lauren Polizzi’s colorful art direction, and Susan Benjamin’s set decorations. I also enjoyed Daniel Orlandi’s elegant and subtle costumes for the movie. I was amazed by his re-creation of both Edwardian and mid-20th century fashion, as seen in the images below:

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I found John Schwartzman’s photography very interesting . . . especially in the 1961 sequences. Unlike other productions that tend to re-create past Los Angeles in another part of the country (2011’s “MILDRED PIERCE”), “SAVING MR. BANKS” was shot entirely in Southern California. But what I found interesting about Schwartzman’s photography is that he utilized a good deal of close-up in those exterior scenes for Beverly Hills and Burbank in an effort to hide the changes that had occurred in the past 50 years. But as much as he tried, not even Schwartzman could hide the fact that the Fantasyland shown in the movie was the one that has existed since 1983. Mark Livolsi’s editing did a solid job in enabling Schwartzman to hide the changes of time for the Southern California exteriors. But I also have to commend Livolsi for his superb editing of one particular sequences – namely the juxtaposition of the 1961 scene featuring the Sherman Brothers’ performance of the “Fidelity Fiduciary Bank” song and the 1906 scene of the bank-sponsored fair in Allora. Thanks to Livolsi’s editing, John Lee Hancock’s excellent direction and Colin Farrell’s portrayal of Travers Goff, this sequence proved to be the most mind-blowing and unforgettable in the entire movie.

Since I had mentioned Colin Farrell, I might as well discuss the cast’s performances. Emma Thompson won the National Board of Review award for Best Actress for her superb portrayal of the very complex P.L. Travers. She did a superb job in capturing both the author’s bluntness, cultural snobishness and imagination. The movie and Thompson’s performance also made it perfectly clear that Travers was still haunted over her father’s death after so many decades. One would think Tom Hanks had an easier job in his portrayal of filmmaker Walt Disney. Superficially, I would agree. But Hanks did an excellent job in conveying some of the more annoying aspects of Disney’s character behind the charm – especially in his attempts to win over Travers. And two particular scenes, Hanks also captured Disney’s own private demons regarding the latter’s father. Colin Farrell gave one of the best performances of his career as Travers’ charming, yet alcoholic father, Travers Goff. I was especially impressed by his performance in the Allora Fair scene. Bradley Whitford was cast as Disney Studios animator/screenwriter Don DaGradi. He not did a first-rate job in portraying DaGradi’s enthusiasm as a Disney employee, but also in portraying how that enthusiasm nearly waned under the weight of Travers’ negative reactions to the project. Both Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak were cast as the songwriting brothers – Richard and Robert Sherman. And they both did excellent jobs in capturing the pair’s contrasting personalities. Schwartzman was deliciously all pep and enthusiasm as the extroverted and younger Richard. And yet, he very subtlely conveyed the younger Sherman’s anxieties in dealing with the difficult Travers. Novak struck me as very effective in his portrayal of the more introverted and intense Robert. And he was also very subtle in portraying the older Sherman’s own penchant for bluntness, especially in one scene in which the songwriter openly clashed with Travers. Ruth Wilson managed to give a very memorable performance as Travers’ long-suffering mother, Margaret Goff. She was especially impressive in one tense scene that featured Mrs. Goff’s suicide attempt. And Paul Giamatti was simply marvelous as Travers’ fictional limousine driver, Ralph. He managed to be both sweet and charming, without being saccharine. The movie also featured solid performances from Annie Rose Buckley, Kathy Baker, Melanie Paxson, Rachel Griffiths and Ronan Vibert.

I must admit that I still feel angry over how “SAVING MR. BANKS” was deprived from any Academy Award nominations, aside from one for Thomas Newman’s score. And if I must be brutally honest, I did not find his score particularly memorable. I was more impressed by John Lee Hancock’s direction, the movie’s visual styles, the performances from a superb cast led by Emma Thompson and Tom Hanks; and especially the Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith screenplay. And considering how so much talent was overlooked by the Academy of Motion Pictures and Arts, I do not think I can take Hollywood’s politics seriously anymore. It seems a travesty that this superb film ended up as a victim of Hollywood’s flaky politics.

Top Ten Favorite Movies Set in the 1920s

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Below is my current list of favorite movies set in the 1920s: 

 

TOP TEN FAVORITE MOVIES SET IN THE 1920s

1-Some Like It Hot

1. “Some Like It Hot” (1959) – Billy Wilder directed and co-wrote with I.A.L. Diamond this still hilarious tale about two Chicago jazz musicians who witness a mob hit and flee by joining an all-girls band headed for Florida, disguised as women. Marilyn Monroe, Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon starred.

2-Bullets Over Broadway

2. “Bullets Over Broadway” (1994) – Woody Allen directed and co-wrote with Douglas McGrath this funny tale about a struggling playwright forced to cast a mobster’s untalented girlfriend in his latest drama in order to get it produced. John Cusack, Oscar winner Dianne Weist, Jennifer Tilly, and Chazz Palminteri starred.

3-Singin in the Rain

3. “Singin in the Rain” (1952) – A movie studio in 1927 Hollywood is forced to make the difficult and rather funny transition from silent pictures to talkies. Starring Gene Kelly, Donald O’Connor and Debbie Reynolds starred in this highly entertaining film that was directed by Kelly and Stanley Donen.

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4. “The Great Gatsby” (2013) Baz Luhrmann produced and directed this energetic and what I believe is the best adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel. Leonardo DiCaprio and Tobey Maguire star.

5-Five Little Pigs

5. “Five Little Pigs” (2003) – Although presently set in the late 1930s, this excellent adaptation of Agatha Christie’s 1942 novel features many flashbacks in which a philandering painter was murdered in the 1920s. David Suchet starred as Hercule Poirot.

6-The Cats Meow

6. “The Cat’s Meow” (2001) – Peter Bogdanovich directed this well-made, fictionalized account of producer Thomas Ince’s mysterious death aboard William Randolph Hearst’s yacht in November 1924. Kirsten Dunst, Edward Herrmann, Eddie Izzard and Cary Elwes starred.

7-The Painted Veil

7. “The Painted Veil” (2006) – John Curran directed this excellent adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham’s 1925 novel about a British doctor trapped in a loveless marriage with an unfaithful who goes to a small Chinese village to fight a cholera outbreak. Naomi Watts, Edward Norton, Toby Jones, Diana Rigg and Liev Schreiber starred.

8-Changeling

8. “Changeling” (2008) – Clint Eastwood directed this excellent account of a real-life missing persons case and police corruption in 1928 Los Angeles. Angelina Jolie, John Malkovich, Michael Kelly, Jeffrey Donovan and Colm Feore starred.

9-Chicago

9. “Chicago” (2002) – Rob Marshall directed this excellent adaptation of the 1975 stage musical about celebrity, scandal, and corruption in Jazz Age Chicago. Renee Zellweger, Oscar winner Catherine Zeta-Jones, Queen Latifah, John C. Reilly, and Richard Gere starred.

10-Millers Crossing

10. “Miller’s Crossing” (1990) – The Coen Brothers co-wrote and co-directed this intriguing crime drama about an adviser to a Prohibition-era crime boss who tries to keep the peace between warring mobs, but gets caught in divided loyalties. Gabriel Byrne, Marcia Gay Harden, Albert Finney and John Tuturro starred.

“THE CAT’S MEOW” (2001) Review

“THE CAT’S MEOW” (2001) Review

There have been many accounts of the infamous November 1924 cruise held aboard William Randolph Hearst’s yacht, in honor of Hollywood producer Thomas H. Ince’s birthday. But the biggest . . . and probably the most fictionalized account was featured in “THE CAT’S MEOW”, Peter Bogdanovich’s adaptation of screenwriter Steven Peros’ stage play. 

The movie takes place aboard Hearst’s yacht on a weekend cruise celebrating Ince’s 42nd birthday. Among those in attendance include Hearst’s longtime companion and film actress Marion Davies, fellow actor Charlie Chaplin, writer Elinor Glyn, columnist Louella Parsons, and actress Margaret Livingston. Many of the guests harbor agendas that revolve around Hearst and Davies. Chaplin, who has become infatuated with the actress, sees the weekend cruise as a chance to declare his feelings for her . . . and convince Davies to end her relationship with the publisher. Parsons sees the cruise as a chance to develop a stronger professional relationship with her boss, Hearst, and relocate from the East Coast to Hollywood. Faced with a bad financial situation and accompanied by his mistress Margaret Livingston, Ince hopes to convince Hearst to allow him to become a partner in the publisher’s Cosmopolitan Pictures. Hearst suspects that Davies and Chaplin are engaged in an affair and has great difficulty in battling his jealousy. Thanks to this jealousy, a violent death ends the cruise, which becomes a subject of Hollywood legend.

After watching “THE CAT’S MEOW”, I realized that after so many years of documentaries and somewhat mediocre films, Peter Bogdanovich had maintained his touch as a first-rate director. At least back in 2000-2001. “THE CAT’S MEOW”struck me as a first-rate character study of a good number of film and publishing luminaries in the world of 1920s Hollywood. What I found interesting is that aside from one or two characters, most of them are not what I would call particularly sympathetic. Well, superficially, hardly any of them are sympathetic – including the very likable Marion Davies, who was not only Hearst’s official mistress, but who was doing a piss-poor job of hiding her attraction for Charlie Chaplin. But despite the lack of superficial charm, the movie managed to reveal the demons and desires of each major character. And thanks to Steven Peros’ screenplay and Bogdanovich’s direction, characters like Hearst, Davies, Chaplin and Ince rose above their superficial venality and ambiguity to be revealed as interesting and complex characters. The most interesting aspect of “THE CAT’S MEOW” was that many of the characters’ agendas either succeeded or failed, due to the romantic drama that surrounded Hearst, Davies and Chaplin.

For costume drama fans such as myself, “THE CAT’S MEOW” offered a tantalizing look into the world of Old Hollywood in the 1920s. Bogdanovich made a wise choice in hiring Jean-Vincent Puzos to serve as the movie’s production designer. In fact, I was so impressed by his re-creation of November 1924 that I felt rather disappointed that his efforts never received an Academy Award nomination. Puzos’ work was aided by the art direction team led by Christian Eisele and Daniele Drobny’s set decorations. But the second biggest contributor to the movie’s 1920s look were the gorgeous costumes designed by Caroline de Vivaise. I was extremely impressed by how the costumes closely adhered to the fashions worn during that particular decade. But de Vivaise did something special by designing all of the costumes in black and white – as some kind of homage to the photography used during that period in Hollywood. And if anyone is wondering whether de Vivaise won any awards or nominations for her work . . . she did not. What a travesty.

Bogdanovich gathered an impressive cast for his movie. “THE CAT’S MEOW” featured first-rate performances from the likes of Claudie Blakley and Chiara Schoras as a pair of fun-loving actresses that embodied the spirit of the 1920s flappers; Claudia Harrison as Ince’s frustrated mistress, actress Margaret Livingston; Ronan Vibert as one of Hearst’s minions, the stoic Joseph Willicombe; and Victor Slezak as Ince’s sardonic and witty colleague, George Thomas. But the more interesting performances came from Jennifer Tilly, who gave a delicious performance as the toadying and opportunistic columnist, Louella Parsons; Joanna Lumley as the wise and occasionally self-important novelist Elinor Glyn; and especially Eddie Izzard, who was surprisingly subtle and witty as the wise-cracking, yet passionate Charlie Chaplin.

But in my opinion, the three best performances in “THE CAT’S MEOW” came from Edward Herrmann, Cary Elwes and Kirsten Dunst. The latter was the only member of the cast to earn an award (Best Actress at the Mar del Plata Film Festival) for her performance as Hollywood starlet and W.R. Hearst’s mistress, Marion Davies. What made Dunst’s performance so remarkable was that she was the only one – as far as I know – who portrayed the actress as a complex and intelligent personality, instead of the one-note stereotype that director Orson Welles had introduced in his 1941 movie,“CITIZEN KANE”. I suppose one could credit screenwriter Steven Peros for writing a more realistic portrayal of Davies’ true nature. But it would have never worked without Dunst’s performance. Cary Elwes gave – in my opinion – the best performance of his career so far as the harried and ambitious movie producer, Thomas Ince. What made Elwes’ performance so impressive was the subtle manner in which he conveyed Ince’s desperation to save his career as a Hollywood producer through any means possible. But for me, the best performance came from Edward Herrmann as the wealthy and controlling William R. Hearst. Herrmann did a superb job in conveying some of the worst aspects of Hearst’s nature – sense of privilege, arrogance, his bullying and bad temper. Yet, Herrmann also managed to convey Hearst’s desperate love for Davies and vulnerabilities through the more unpleasant mask. It was a remarkable performance that failed to garner any real recognition. And this is more of a travesty to me than the lack of awards for production design or costumes.

I tried to recall anything about the movie that left a negative mark within me and could only come up with one or two matters. The movie seemed to be in danger of slowing down to a crawl, following the tragic shooting that followed Ince’s birthday party. I wonder if Bogdanovitch had tried too hard to reveal the details that led to the cover up of the incident. However, one particular scene really annoyed me to no end. It was the scene that featured Elinor Glyn’s theory about the“California Curse”:

“The California Curse strikes you like a disease the Minute you set foot into California..so pay close attention, my dear. You See this place you’ve arrived in, the place we call home…isn’t a place at all. But a living creature. Or more precisely an evil wizard like in the old stories. And we all live on him like fleas on the belly of a mutt. But unlike the helpless dog, this wizard is able to banish the true personalities of those he bewitches. Forcing them against their will to carry out his command, to forget the land of their birth, the purpose of their journey, and what ever principals they once held dear. The Curse is taking hold of you if you experience the following: You see yourself as the most important person in any room. You accept money as the strongest force in nature. And finally your morality vanashes without a trace.”

As far as I am concerned, Elinor Glyn was full of shit. She could have easily described any individual who forgets his or her principles, no matter where that person resided. And according to Ms. Glyn, the curse has three symptoms – seeing yourself as the focus of all conversations, using money as the most important measure of success, and the disappearance of all traces of morality. Why she seemed to believe that such a mindset only existed in Calfornia . . . or better yet, Hollywood, is beyond me. Anyone with too much ambition could acquire this curse in many other places in the world. Peros and Bogdanovich’s decision to include this crap in the movie damn near came close to ruining my enjoyment of the movie.

But in the end, I managed to overcome my annoyance of the so-called “California Curse”. Why? Because “THE CAT’S MEOW” remained a first-rate and entertaining movie about Old Hollywood that impresses me, even after ten years.“Hooray for Hollywood!”.

“THE BUCCANEERS” (1995) Review

 

“THE BUCCANEERS” (1995) Review

Several years ago, I had anticipating watching for the first time, “THE BUCCANEERS”, the 1995 television adaptation of Edith Wharton’s last novel. After all, I have been a major fan of “THE AGE OF INNOCENCE”, Martin Scorcese’s 1993 adaptation of Wharton’s award-winning 1920 novel for years. But my eager anticipation nearly ebbed away, when I discovered that “THE BUCCANEERS” had only managed to rouse a lukewarm reception from many television critics. 

The five-part miniseries turned out to be an unusual production from the BBC. One, it was based upon a novel written by an American author – namely Edith Wharton. There have been other British television productions based upon the literary works of an American, but they are very rare. Another interesting aspect of Wharton’s “The Age of Innocence” is that the author did not finish it, due to her death at the age of 75. Fifty-six years later, Wharton scholar Marion Mainwaring finished the novel, which was published by Viking. Around the same time, the BBC hired screenwriter Maggie Wadey to adapt and finish the novel for the television. As a result the novel has two slightly different endings. Another aspect of this miniseries that struck me as unusual was that instead of hiring British actresses to portray four of the five leads, the BBC hired four American actresses – Carla Gugino, Mira Sorvino, Alison Elliott and Rya Kihlstedt.

The plotline for “THE BUCCANEERS” is very simple. The story begins in 1873 Newport, Rhode Island; in which two sisters of anoveau riche businessman and their two sisters are introduced – Virginia “Ginny” and Annabel “Nan” St. George, Conchita “Connie” Closson and Elizabeth “Lizzy” Elmsworth. Whereas the Brazilian born Conchita manages to snare Lord Richard Marabel, the dissolute second son of the Marquess of Brightlingsea, the other three girls struggle to find a place amongst the members of old New York society. When a prank committed by Ginny and Lizzy backfires, Nan’s English governess Laura Testvalley proposes to Mrs. St. George that Ginny and Nan have a London season amongst the upper-class British. She argues that their acceptance by the British high society would assure them a place amongst the upper-class New Yorkers. Due to their friendship with the vibrant Conchita, Virginia and Annabel are introduced to Lord Richard’s family – the impoverished Brightlingseas and their neighbors, the equally impoverished Sir Helmsey Thwaite and his son Guy. As they get settled to conquer British society, Ginny and Nan are surprised by the arrival of Lizzy, who has arrived in Britain for her own season.

Although the girls’ original purpose for visiting Britain was to enjoy a London season, a friend of Laura Testvalley has other plans for them. Thirty years earlier, the American born Jackie March had been engaged to a British aristocrat – namely the very young Lord Brightlingsea – who abandoned her at the altar. Miss March remained in Britain and became something of a sponsor/matchmaker for young society girls. It was Miss March who recommended that the visiting Americans rent a villa owned by one of her former sponsors, Lady Idina Hutton. She also recommended that the girls do more than just enjoy a London season in order to impress old New York society. She recommended that they consider marrying into upper-class British society. Miss March’s plans eventually come to fruition:

*Virginia or namely her father’s wealth attracted the attention of Lady Idina Hutton’s lover and Lord Richard’s older brother, Lord Seadown.

*Lizzy ended up marrying a self-made aspiring politician named Hector Robinson

*Annabel fell in love with Guy Thwaite, but ended up marrying the very wealthy Julian Folyat, Duke of Trevennick; when Guy left Britain to find his fortune in South America.

As I had stated earlier, most critics were not initially kind to “THE BUCCANEERS”. Most British critics dismissed it as a costumed soap opera of the second-rate kind, with an ending that had been “Hollywoodized” (happy ending). These same critics also accused the miniseries of mocking the British aristocracy. The American critics, at least those who considered themselves Wharton purists, accused the miniseries’ screenwriter, Maggie Waddey, of changing the elements of the author’s story by including topics such as marital rape and homosexuality. Personally, I found all of these arguments irrelevant. Most dramas about personal lives – whether first-rate or not – tend to possess soap-operish elements. This hostility toward soap operas has always struck me as infantile and irrelevant. And why are all Hollywood productions guilty of having a happy ending, when that has not always been the case?  Other literary works and their adaptations have mocked the British aristocracy. Why was there such a big hullabaloo over how the aristocracy was portrayed in this particular story? As for the additions of marital rape and homosexuality, these elements did no harm to the story, as far as I am concerned. And I must admit that I have become increasingly weary of demands that all movie or television adaptations should be completely faithful to their literary source. Such demands strike me as impractical.

My complaints about “THE BUCCANEERS” are very few. In fact, I only have two. The first time I ever saw actress Gwen Humble on the television screen was in a miniseries called “THE REBELS”, an adaptation of a John Jakes novel. Although I had no problems with her performance in that particular production, I must admit that I had a problem with her performance as Virginia and Annabel’s mother, Mrs. St. George. I understand that Mrs. St. George was supposed to be a shallow and somewhat silly woman. But I feel that Humble went a little too far in conveying those certain traits. Her performance struck me as exaggerated and a little amateurish. Another problem I had with “THE BUCCANEERS” is a rather minor one. It has to do with Virginia’s husband, Lord Seadown. His father is a marquess – which is ranked somewhere between a duke and an earl (count). As the eldest son, he is entitled to a courtesy title. But what was Seadown’s courtesy title? His younger brother was called Lord Richard Marable, which is correct for the younger son of a marquess. The courtesy title for the eldest son of a marquess is usually an earldom – namely Earl of Something. Was Seadown’s name a courtesy title – Earl of Seadown? Or was he supposed to be regarded as Lord Seadown Marable? If the latter, what was the courtesy title he used? I found it all slightly confusing.

However, “THE BUCCANEERS” has been one of my all time favorite miniseries, ever since I first saw it. And there is so much about it that has made it such a favorite of mine. One, producer-director Philip hired a production crew that did justice to Wharton’s story. The miniseries featured some elegant locations that served as the story’s various settings. Some of these locations included Castle HowardBurghley House and Newport, Rhode Island. I also enjoyed Remi Adefarasin’s photography. It had a deep and rich color that did justice to a story filled with emotions and passion. Colin Towns provided an elegant and entertaining score that remained memorable for me, since the first time I heard it years ago. But it was Rosalind Ebbutt’s costumes that really blew my mind. She provided exquisitely outfits that were beautiful and elegant – especially those for the lead actresses. More importantly, her costumes not only reflected the fashions wore by the American and British upper-classes during the 1870s, they also reflected the change in the main characters’ status and in women’s fashion throughout the decade, as the following photographs show:

Another one of the major virtues of “THE BUCCANEERS” turned out to be its cast. Wharton’s novel is filled with interesting characters. And Saville and his casting director did an excellent job in finding the right actor/actress for the right role. Aside from Gwen Humble’s portrayal of Mrs. St. George, there were so many first-rate performances in the miniseries that it would take me another article just to describe them. But the supporting performances that stood out for me came from the likes of Sheila Hancock, whose portrayal of the Dowager Duchess of Trevenick was an expertly performed mixture of cool haughtiness, sharp wisdom and long suffering; Michael Kitchen, who skillfully conveyed both the charming and shallow nature of Sir Helmsley Thwaite; Jenny Agutter, who was excellent as Lady Idina Hatton, Lord Seadown’s insecure and tragic mistress; Dinsdale Landen and Rosemary Leach, who both portrayed the Marquess and Marchioness of Brightlingsea with a mixture of class haughtiness, charm and great humor; Peter M. Goetz, who seemed to personify the self-made 19th century American businessman; and Connie Booth, who gave one of her better performances as the ambitious and sharp-minded Jackie March.

Richard Huw gave a humorous, yet intelligent performance as Hector Robinson, the ambitious young Member of Parliament who ends up winning Lizzy Elmsworth’s hand. And Mark Tandy was pretty solid as Lord Brightlingsea’s heir, the mercenary Lord Seadown who marries Virginia for Colonel St. George’s money. I was very impressed by Ronan Vibert’s portrayal of the dissolute Lord Richard Marabel, Conchita’s husband and Lord Brightlingsea’s younger son. But the two male performances that really impressed me came from Greg Wise and James Frain. The latter portrayed the haughty Julian Duke of Trevenick, who manages to win the hand Annabel St. George (much to the surprise of her governess), before alienating her with his lack of skills as a husband. Frain could have easily portrayed Julian as a one-note villain, especially when one considers the act of marital rape that his character committed against his wife in Episode Three. Being the skillful actor that he is, Frain conveyed all facets of Julian’s personality – both the good and the bad. And his assertion near the end of Episode Four that he is “not a monster” may have been one of Frain’s finest moments on screen. Greg Wise probably gave one of what I consider to be three of his best performances in his portrayal of Guy Thwaite, Sir Helmsley’s only son. His Guy could have been one of your typical handsome, romantic heroes. But Wise did an excellent job in revealing Guy’s insecurities regarding his lack of funds might seem in Annabel’s eyes with very few words – an act that led him to lose her to Julian. And he also conveyed how in the throes of love, Guy could be a slightly selfish man with no thought to how his “friendship” with Annabel might affect her social standing. Thanks to Wise’s performance, his Guy Thwaite proved to be equally complex.

We finally come to our five leads in the story – the four American heiresses and Annabel St. George’s English governess, Laura Testvalley. I have noticed that whenever someone brings up Cheri Lunghi, he or she inevitable brings up her role in “THE BUCCANEERS”, the Anglo-Italian governess Miss Testvalley. I certainly cannot blame them. Lunghi proved to be the glue that held the story together, skillfully serving as its eyes and narrator at the beginning of each episode. Rya Kihlstedt gave a charming and solid performance as the blunt and level-headed Lizzy Elmsworth, who seemed more impressed by Hector Robinson’s ambitions than any aristocrat. She and Richard Huw managed to create a very credible screen presence. Alison Elliott’s Virginia St. George proved to be one of the most complicated characters in the story. Thanks to the actress’ excellent performance, she conveyed Virginia’s haughtiness and obsession with being connected to an aristocratic family; and at the same time, garnered sympathy by expressing the character’s love for her husband and disappointment upon discovering that he had only married her for money. And less than a year before she won her Academy Award, Mira Sorvino proved just how first-rate she could be as an actress in her portrayal of the Brazilian-born Conchita Closson. Her Conchita was a delicious and complicated minx torn by her desire for the luxurious and glamorous lifestyle of the British aristocracy and her contempt for what she deemed as their cold personalities. If Cheri Lunghi’s Laura Testvalley was the story’s eyes and narrator, Carla Gugino’s Annabel St. George aka the Duchess of Trevenick proved to be the heart and soul of “THE BUCCANEERS”. Thanks to Gugino’s superb performance, the actress literally transformed Nan from the childish and naïve sixteen year-old girl, to the bewildered nineteen year-old bride and finally to the weary twenty-one year-old wife, disappointed by a failed marriage and in love with another man. There are times that I wondered if any other actress could have accomplished what she did. It seemed a pity that none of the major television and critics awards organizations never acknowledged her performance with a nomination.

Many critics have heaped a great deal of scorn upon Maggie Wadey’s adaptation of Wharton’s novel. Frankly, I believe this scorn was undeserved. I may not have been that impressed by her other works, but I honestly believe that “THE BUCCANEERS” was her masterpiece by far. Many accused her of failing to adapt Wharton’s “spirit” or “style” by including marital rape and homosexuality into the story. Since both topics where added without any tasteless sensationalism, I had no problems with these additions. And Wadey also made sure to give the story’s happy ending something of a bittersweet edge. Despite leaving Julian for the man she loved, Guy Thwaite, Annabel found herself ostracized by society and especially by Virginia – as was proven at the Marquess of Brightlingsea’s funeral. Annabel and Guy’s elopement also left the latter disinherited by his father, Sir Helmsley. And her assistance in the elopement left Laura Testvalley rejected by Sir Helmsley and unemployed. So much for the “happy ending”. Because the story revolved around four American heiresses marrying into the British upper-classes, “THE BUCCANEERS” also proved to be an interesting study in culture clash between two Western nations in the mid-to-late nineteenth century. But in all of the articles I have read about the miniseries, I find it surprising that no one has bothered to noticed that the topic of the continuing decline of the British aristocracy was also mentioned . . . more than once. It almost became a secondary theme. The Brightlingseas’ interest in the St. George family certainly seemed an indication that they were more willing to marry money – regardless from where it came – rather than find a way to earn it. Unlike Guy Thwaite, who preferred to create his own wealth with two years in South America, rather than marry it. And the character of the Marquess of Brightlingsea literally became a symbol of the aristocracy’s decline in scenes like a heated conversation between him and Hector Robinson; and a speech by Guy Thwaite to the House of Commons during a montage that featured a montage of his death.

Now that I think about it, why should I care what others feel about “THE BUCCANEERS”? Every time I watch it, I always fall in love with the miniseries over and over again. Maggie Wadey wrote an excellent adaptation of Wharton’s novel – probably her best work, as far as I am concerned. Led by the likes of Carla Gugino, Cheri Lunghi, Greg Wise and James Frain, the cast proved to be first-rate. And Philip Saville did justice to both the cast and Wadey’s screenplay in his direction of the miniseries.