Friday, April 8, 2011

Stressed-out Gab

Werth: Hey there, Wise.  What’s with all the scented candles?  

Wise: Hello, Werth.  It’s Stress Awareness Month and I’m trying to bring a little enlightenment and peace into my world.  Care for some chamomile tea?  

Werth: Only if it’s spiked with vodka. Look, is this a bad time for Film Gab?  Because we can do this after you give yourself an oat bran facial or whatever else you have planned.  

Wise: No, I’m prepared.  Talking to a Friend is one of the Ten Strategies for Stress Reduction.  

Werth: So is Talking about Movies where Characters are more Stressed than You are.
Wise: And I have the perfect stressed-out damsel with Bette Davis in one of her most camp-tastic roles: the tragic southern belle driven crazy by a secret from her past in Hush... Hush, Sweet Charlotte

Werth: I love a good ellipsis.

Wise: Planned as a follow-up to Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? the movie originally re-teamed Davis with Joan Crawford until either illness or on-set rivalry forced Crawford to drop out of the picture.  A number of replacements were considered, including Katherine Hepburn, Barbara Stanwyck, Loretta Young, and Vivien Leigh whose legendary response to the offer was: “I can just about stand to look at Joan Crawford at six in the morning on a southern plantation, but I couldn't possibly look at Bette Davis.”  Instead, Olivia de Havilland got the role of the poor cousin returning to the ancestral home of Davis’s Charlotte who has lived as a mad recluse ever since her married lover was discovered hacked to bits in the summer house.  

Werth: I hate when that happens.  
Wise: Charlotte has been shunned by the locals ever since the murder thirty years ago, and she gets no sympathy from her neighbors when the state serves her an eviction notice that orders the demolition of her plantation house to make way for a brand-new super highway.  Pinning her hopes on her cousin Miriam to save her home, Charlotte gradually realizes that her poor relation has grown into something more sinister.  With de Haviland’s Miriam on the scene, Charlotte begins having nightmarish visions, flashbacks to her lover’s dismembered corpse, but when she appeals to her cousin for help, the comfort that Miriam offers is cold indeed.  

Werth: And de Havilland definitely uses some of her goody-two-shoes routine from Gone With the Wind to chilling effect.
Wise: She really has some terrifying moments, especially when she’s dealing with Charlotte’s loyal maid, played with high Southern Gothic abandon by Agnes Moorehead who received her fourth Best Supporting Actress nomination for her efforts.  But she’s just part of a fantastic cast that includes Joseph Cotten, Victor Buono, George Kennedy, Bruce Dern, and an almost unrecognizable Mary Astor in her final film role as the bitter widow of Charlotte’s dead lover.   

Werth: Moonlight and magnolias mixed with an ax.

Wise: Living up to the myth of Scarlett O’Hara would make anyone anxious. 
Werth: Maybe that’s true, but there’s really nothing like the stress of being a woman of leisure in Edwardian England, and that’s why George Cukor’s 1944 thriller Gaslight really stresses me out.

Wise: Really?  I thought it would be the lack of electric lighting.  

Werth: Ingrid Bergman plays Paula Alquist, the blushing bride of handsome and romantic pianist Gregory Anton (Charles Boyer.) They have returned from their honeymoon to live in her childhood home, nestled in a picturesque London square complete with crowing flower peddlers.

Wise: I feel the stress washing over me in waves.

Werth: Did I mention that as a child, Paula found her famous opera star aunt strangled to death in that same house, the murder never solved?

Wise: That could make being carried over the threshold a little creepy.

Werth: Soon poor Paula begins to forget and lose things, hear footsteps at night, and imagine that the gas lamps in her bedroom are dimming all because she is, as her husband so gently puts it,  “high-strung.”

Wise: I’ve heard about cures for high-strung Edwardian women...

Werth: The fun in this film comes from Cukor’s choice to let the audience in on what’s going on. Almost immediately he gives visual cues that the person behind Paula’s impending madness is none other than her loving husband. Playing against the French lover roles that made him famous, Boyer soon reveals that he is, what the French call, a douchebag. His refined sadism and controlling, condescending behavior falls only slightly short of the husband in The Burning Bed.

Wise: That sounds like an abandoned Calvin Klein fragrance. 

Werth: What really makes this thriller work is that even though we know who the villain is, Bergman’s Paula does not—and it is her superb performance as a woman struggling with self-doubt and the terror of encroaching madness that makes us climb the walls right along with her. In another actress’ hands we might say, “Hey, stupid. Look at the keylight shining on your husband’s evil, beady eyes,” but Bergman’s fragility and beauty makes audiences want to protect her—or at least to cheer her on when she decides to protect herself.  That year Bergman would beat no less than Claudette Colbert, Greer Garson, Barbara Stanwyck and Bette Davis to win her first of three Oscars. It was a warm-up for her part as another endangered female in master stress-maker Alfred Hitchcock’s classic Notorious which premiered a few months later.

Wise: Talk about out of the fire and into the Nazi espionage ring.

 Werth: In Gaslight, Bergman is joined by steadily working (but not-at-all British) Joseph Cotten, dithering nosy neighbor Dame May Witty, and in a star-making turn, the very young Angela Lansbury as snide, tartlet maid, Nancy. Cukor is not generally remembered for his thrillers, but it was clearly a genre that he understood. He very skillfully melded his “women’s picture” style with the mystery genre, sculpting nerve-wracking close-ups of Bergman as she strained to maintain her sanity under those maddening, flickering gaslamps.

Wise: Whew!  I’m not sure if delving into these stress-filled movies made me feel better or worse.  Maybe we should put on some Enya and journal about our experiences.   

Werth: You do the Orinoco Flow. I’ll think of themes for next week’s Film Gab.

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