If you look at my most recent film reviews you’d think I’m stuck in the 1960’s at the moment. It’s just so happen to have gone that way recently. I chose this film purely on the basis of the director Robert Aldrich who has a varied and interesting filmography, who during the 1960’s had a really strong period of directing, OK there’s a few missteps but no-ones perfect. Most known for his work concerning the darker sides of relationships and the tensions within their dynamic. With The Killing of Sister George (1968) he makes a return to the theme of fading/faded fame. After the success of rival sisters in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane (1962) that pitted two women both no longer relevant to the public, relying on their past for currency to try and restore themselves. Of course more famous for bringing together Bette Davis and Joan Crawford who famously hated each other. Together on-screen they produced fireworks, on set a few more went off too. Brought to life recently in Feud: Bette and Joan that dramatised the events leading up to their only film together and there after. It seems that Aldrich couldn’t shake the theme, returning to it after the success of The Dirty Dozen (1967), which allowed him to set-up his own production company. Sister George if often cited as he favourite film and you can see why, a lot of energy has clearly gone into it.
The fictional soap Applehurst, all looks rather quaint now, aging actress June Buckridge (Beryl Reid) fears that here role on a long running soap opera’s being killed off. The worst fear for a lot of aging actors even today. William Roach, the longest-serving actor in Coronation Street feared he’d never recover from his stroke, only to be killed off. Now in his 80’s you could easily understand why. Yet fans of the longest running soap still love this character, even if the actor now takes a less prominent role in the soap. It’s the fear of the unknown, not having control over a character that you have shaped, breathed life into for the est part of your career – such as Roach who has made the role his own and probably the only one of his career, in short he knows little else in terms of his acting career. To be cast-aside without even consulted, the sense of belonging and power you have believe you have on the program is nothing. We are a few steps away from Jane Hudson (Davis) whose own career was cut short by puberty and fickle audience tastes. A theme that anyone in the entertainment world can easily related to.
This fear of lack of relevance, having to start over again brings out the worst in June as we find out, a regular drinker and alcoholic we see her reach new lows that don’t go unseen by the BBC. Sending round Mercy Croft (Coral Browne) to put the fear of god in her. June takes out her frustration on who I first believed to be her long-term lodger a much younger woman – Alice (Susannah York) who takes a lot of abuse. June’s in fact the male of a lesbian relationship. Part of the controversy caused by this film on it’s release in the late 60’s, a year after homosexual sexual offences had been de-criminalised. Of course aimed at men, the subject would still be very raw for the general public, getting used to seeing more overt displays in public of homosexual men. Women were pretty much ignored, making this film slightly easier to make and depict women more than co-habiting. The open secret relationships of the entertainment world are the first to be revealed. An industry generally more excepting of people’s private lives.
June or George’s downward spiral is long and dramatic, mirroring a character from a modern day soap, not the twee show she was soon to be axed from. An alcoholic who gets herself in trouble with the Catholic church to making her lover do unspeakable acts in fits of rage. A woman whose clearly passed her prime and in denial about it, needing the approval ratings to boost her delicate ego that’s supported by her drinking. Ruining everything that matters around her. Unaware that the world around her has changed. When Croft arrives we see another side to her, one that wants to please yet ultimately suspicious of the power that she holds.
There are clear comparisons to Jane Hudson who we see long after the carpets been pulled from under her. Here it’s just about to happen, this is the beginning of the fall-out professionally and emotionally. desperately needing to be taken seriously, to not having to be voicing a cow in her next job. A major difference between the two women in this later film is the relationship, one that’s sexual with undertones of fractures, whilst the Hudson sister’s based on a rivalry that has been boiling over for years ready to explode. Aldrich has taken the same dynamic and sexualized it to great effect, we don’t need to men for fireworks to go off. As we have seen more recently more female-centric films (still not enough though) allowing for drama that’s not revolving around a man.
I have to mention the sex scene towards the close of the film between Croft and Alice, as awkward as it is at times to watch, it soon becomes Count Dracula sitting over his next victim who waits to be liberated from one life to start another. Croft who has been eyeing up her latest prey for the duration of the film is now ready to swoop down and take a bite. Easily read as seeing Lesbians still as group a people to be feared unlike gay men who are now to be seen and ridiculed on-screen.
Both leads are well suited for their roles, York’s Alice the younger woman whose perfect for the role, after being turned down by Julie Christie, who he’s clearly still looking for when he found York who portray’s a victim of domestic abuse yet still able to break free of the cycle which would only get worse. Whilst Reid is clearly enjoying the role of George, the insecurities of an aging actress are all there, the ego, the resentment and bitterness that comes when your passed over or tossed aside. A role that was turned down by Angela Lansbury and eyed up by Davis on the hunt of her next Oscar, something Aldrich wanted no part of for a third time. I can see where the controversy that surrounded the film. A clear shift in tone for Aldrich who was well aware of changing tastes in America and France, wanting to push boundaries himself. A year before the release of Midnight Cowboy (1969) that made the depiction of Sex and Drugs acceptable to the modern audience. The Killing of Sister George was one of those ground-breaking films that paved the way for American New wave to get underway in the 1970’s.
I don’t usually binge on TV, eating up about a film a day instead. However I sometimes make the odd exception, such as Westworld that I’m excited to return next year. I’ve made a start on the Star Trek spoof – The Orville, which I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how well written it is. Not too heavy on the casual comedy whilst still exploring some heavy ideas, not in great detail.
In the last week I have taken in Feud – Bette and Joan based on the rivalry between Bette Davis and Joan Crawford over 8 episodes. I’m very familiar with the relationship, having made a work based on Shaun Considine’s now much derided book. However a lot of what was in the book has translated to the screen. Focusing on the period before Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962) went into production. There was no build of the two actress’s careers. Instead straight into find both Crawford (Jessica Lange) and Davis (Susan Sarandon) as out of work actors waiting for another film to come along. I was expecting a tongue and cheeky bitchy comedy from the two of them. It was funny in places, however I found a rather modern take on the dynamic. Both women portrayed as mature women just wanting to work in an industry that had thrown them on the scrap heap because they aren’t the next big thing any more. The best days of their career are behind them no longer able to ride the wave of that success. At this point Davis had not been Oscar nominated in nearly a decade, resentful that her co-star Anne Baxter beat her to her last worthy win in All About Eve (1950) a case of life imitating art. Whilst Crawford was waiting for another film like Autumn Leaves (1956) to come her way. Both capable of leading a film, just no offers of work or scripts coming their way. The rivalries built up naturally as we get to know them.
I have noticed and come to accept that films and TV that explore the history of Hollywood can be quite prescriptive, feeding facts that we read about as dialogue which can seem forced, however it’s needed to give the film/TV show a strong foundation, to know what we are exploring. The facts become conversation and the quotes become dialogue once more. by episode four I found a feminist leaning come through in the form of Pauline Jameson (Alison Wright) whose a combination of people combined into one role. Robert Aldrich‘s assistant on both Baby Jane and Hush…Hush Sweet Charlotte (1964) who wanted to be a director in her own right. Offering Crawford a script she wrote and willing to direct. Only to be turned down by Crawford, not on the basis on gender, but that of gender defined roles and perceived ideas of female ability, a product of the 1920’s talking to a more enlightened 1960’s women. Whilst through the duration of the 8 episodes the two legends are just wanting to work, to feel wanted and be relevant in their careers.
With the first half of the series focusing on Baby Jane before the apparent Oscar rigging by Crawford, which is still very much hearsay and conjecture. Before moving onto the troubled second film they started together, which I was looking forward to as no footage exist of Crawford in the film before she fell sick (of Bette Davis). Then both falling either into low budget films and obscurity. It’s a pattern that has repeated it self for years for actresses’ who we see come and go, based not on their talent but box-office draw. A few make a return but not as successful, you have to seek them out in the smaller films that get less exposure. A lot are now turn to TV, which has now become an acceptable place to work for film stars. Hopefully that will change with the harassment scandal that is shaking the industry. Change is slowly happening, emphasis on the slowly. If Feud does anything to change the depiction and position of women in film it shows that change is long overdue and effected even the most celebrated of Hollywood stars.
I’ve been looking for this Western for a while now, catching it originally a few years ago and not completely understanding the subtleties of this actually quite dark film. Not on a Fordian scale, or even that of Budd Boetticher, we are returning to the murky realms of Robert Aldrich who could move from genre to genre with ease. Here in The Last Sunset (1961) he pits two leading men of Hollywood against each other. From the opening titles, if you look carefully, the same landscapes covered by two riders, taking the same path. We don’t tend to see that unless there is a chase midway into a film. It’s a chance for a double take, to question the audience attention to what is going on, to look beyond the surface of the image we are given.
We learn that Brendan ‘Bren’ O’Malley (Kirk Douglas) is on the run but in no real hurry. In fact he’s enjoying the chase, riding into the Brenkenridge Ranch, meeting Belle (Dorothy Malone) who lets him stay the night, O’Malley as like many of Douglas’s roles are neither good or bad, he’s elusive, charming with a dark streak that he carries it all off with a little too much confidence. With his time on-screen first we believe he’s the good guy as much as you can if you are familiar with Douglas’s past roles. Building up the role of Dana Stribling (Rock Hudson) who is after him. Instead of going into hiding he encourages John Brekenridge (Joseph Cotten) to take him on to lead his cattle North to Texas.
On the face if it we have a cattle drive with rivals who are waiting to kill each other, it’s anything but just that or we would have this film today, it would be a run of the mill Western that would have long been forgotten. If we under the surface we have a yearning in O’Malley for the past, an old flame in Belle who knows why he’s back. Making a deal with John for a 5th of the herd, and his wife. A very unusual deal to strike, luckily struck as John’s an alcoholic and a coward whose walked all over.
Add to that the 16-year-old daughter Melissa ‘Missy’ (Carol Lynley) who believes she’s a woman at her young age. Perceived as such in Mexico so acts that way. It’s not questioned by those around her. It’s not long for her to start falling O’Malley who at first has no interest. Cinematically this is a very dark area, even for the early 60’s leaning towards underage sex, is played innocently on-screen. O’Malley does little to encourage her. Its only when a seed that’s planted earlier in the film’s brought to light, a yellow dress that O’Malley last saw her mother at the same/similar age in that dress. Producing feelings in O’Malley to transfer his emotions from mother to daughter.
Yet the first half of the film there is a love-triangle form between O’Malley, Belle and Stribling, as John is blissfully unaware and drunk. Played by Cotten who I thought would be out-of-place, however its an interesting choice that pays off, the older man, a Confederate veteran who has a secret history of cowardice that has taken the form of alcoholism, he’s respected however by all in his company. Stribling doesn’t make a move on Belle, leaving him to fend of O’Malley who takes any chance he can get, again ignoring the admiring Missy. O’Malley taunts Belle, whistling a tune that’s repeated throughout, a motif that plays on our minds and that of Belle.
The Last Sunset’s filled with psychologically conflicted characters who are placed into this cattle drive which is not a jolly affair, darker than Tom Dunsons in Red River (1948) that sees two very different men pitted against each other. However 13 years later the Western has changed so much in that time. Good and evil becomes blurred here so they can live alongside each other for so long before the warrant that was originally raised can be fulfilled. Stribling having been made a deputy to ensure he can get justice for his sister. Even that isn’t black and white as we later find out.
The final twists which I had completely forgotten hit me as fresh as it would have originally. Maybe I should wait this long again to watch it (4 years I think?). Its a dramatic twist, the possibility that O’Malley might be Missy’s father. It would make sense. Of course there is no way to prove this, it’s down to belief alone that soon hits home for him. Leading up to a classic, fast paced edited showdown that leaves us on the edge of our seats. It’s a unique Western, much like others by Aldrich who also gave us to takes on the gunfight at the OK Corral and that’s just to begin with. He adds a psychological depth and uncertainty to his work they aren’t just a standard genre film.
Directly inspired by the famous feud, instead on a pair of has-been sisters, the rivalry is very clear on-screen for the audience to see. Was There Ever…? (2012-13) Is inspired by both Whatever Happened To Baby Jane? (Robert Aldrich,1964) and the Shaun Considine, Bette and Joan, The Divine Feud book that discussed the rivalry between the two actresses. Was There Ever…? (2012-13) Brings the two actresses together in a contemporary setting, where both are able to have a conversation, allowing us to decide if a feud ever existed or not, Was the feud an invention of the media or their own actions and comments that has since built into the history of film.
You can read a copy of Was there Ever…? at this link
A diary of the piece can also be found at this link
Neath is a lone artist riding his horse through the wilderness of the myth of conquest; the Western. Strolling into empty spaces where he finds clichés to explore, building cardboard and balsa model miniature towns, devoid of life, ever changing in form as the models disintegrate, new ones taking their place acting as film sets to be photographed and filmed.
Wandering off his path into other world constructed by film, struck by the ideas and imagery that he finds within them. Exploring the high angles of Brief Encounter (1945) dir. Lean to the single beds in Mrs Miniver (1942) dir. Wyler. Nodding his hat in the direction of artists such the Thomas Demand and Slinkachu, the empty spaces and unseen worlds are the themes they share.
When the boots are off he investigates the fabric and conventions of film, what makes it tick, pulling it apart using video and digital image and manipulate film. With the notion of handmade at centre of his practice he’s work is never far away from his hands that touch all he makes.
Professor Neil Campbell of American Studies at the University of Derby explains that the decline of the genre came about with an increasingly sophisticated audience wanting more than a hero coming into town and gunning down the villains to only leave at the end. Films of the time were competing with real images of the Vietnam War and of the Civil Rights movement.
He will always look and ride on in the search of what the Myth of conquest is about, its form and language from its rise through to the golden age and decline before being reborn in its various forms. Looking on with a sense of wonder and yearning to understand what makes it so rich and masculine for the artist who plays cardboard