Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Happy Birthday, Spartacus!

Werth: Happy Friday, Wise!

Wise: Happy Friday, Werth. Why are you wearing a toga?

Werth: Because when you throw a birthday party for Spartacus, you've got to go Roman.

Wise: Kirk Douglas' 95th birthday is certainly an event worth celebrating.

Werth: I'll say. The legendary Hollywood leading man and producer has been growling on the big screen since he first appeared in 1946 in the classic drama-noir, The Strange Love of Martha Ivers.

Wise: He even growled at Anne Hathaway at this year's Oscars.

Werth: With a charisma and an energy that few could match, Douglas often plays men who go after what they want. In 1952's The Bad and the Beautiful, Douglas used every ounce of tenacity and charm in his arsenal to play Jonathan Shields, a young Hollywood producer who has a Tinseltown-sized axe to grind. 
Shields' father died a ruined and reviled producer, and young Jonathan vows to do what his father couldn't: rule Hollywood. To do this, Shields does what any good producer does—he finds undiscovered talent, creates a huge success with it, and then tosses it into the gutter.

Wise: Sounds like a Kardashian wedding.

Werth: Told in flashback, Shields' three greatest discoveries—director Fred Amiel (Barry Sullivan), writer James Lee Bartlow (Dick Powell), and actress Georgia Lorrison (Lana Turner)—convene to hear out their old mentor, now nemesis, one last time. It's a smart dramatic set-up that director Vincente Minnelli milks for all it's worth. As we watch Shields' courageous rise to power, we already know something will go horribly wrong and we can't wait to see it. 
Minnelli is at the peak of his non-musical directorial powers here creating a Hollywood he knew all too well with his overly-fussy sets, sly Oedipal hints, and clever use of hiding and revealing his stars—figuratively and visually. Dick Powell seems effortless as the southern writer who gets wrecked by the Hollywood game. The always complex Gloria Grahame won a Best Supporting Oscar for her role as Amiel's starstruck wife. 
And Lana Turner kicks the idea that she was just sweater-filler straight to the curb. Her harrowing car ride in a thunderstorm after Shields betrays her is an all-time favorite.

Wise: Every time I watch it, I want to buy a car, a mink, and a cyclorama. 

Werth: And at the center of it all, Douglas was nominated as Best Actor for playing Shields as a cad whose passion and electricity is so magnetic that we aren't repulsed by his greed for power. Instead, we actually want to see him succeed—even if that means Lana Turner getting wet. Winning five Oscars and becoming a box-office hit thanks in part to Douglas' gusto-filled performance, The Bad and the Beautiful is all good.  

Wise: Douglas got all wet himself two years later in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954).  Based on the Jules Verne classic, the film was one of Walt Disney's earliest (and most successful) forays into live-action film.  Dispensing with the cheap-y aesthetic of kiddie serials and B-picture Westerns, the film features clever design, spectacular underwater shots and a high profile cast including Douglas as roguish sailor Ned Land, James Mason as the mysterious Captain Nemo, and Peter Lorre as the creepy sidekick, Conseil.  

Werth: If there was a Best Creepy Sidekick Oscar, Lorre would have won it... for every movie he starred in.

Wise: The plot is mostly episodic, but it does feature some of Verne's classic leitmotifs: a dim-witted but honorable scientist plunging into the unknown (in this case Paul Lukas as Professor Pierre Aronnax); a glib adventurer who learns heroism (Douglas); and the gentleman genius whose unwavering ideals condemn him to death (Mason).  
Director Richard Fleischer remained faithful to the source material, but ramped up the action sequences including gun battles, shipwrecks, and James Mason wrestling with a giant squid.  

Werth: Great preparation for working with Judy Garland in A Star is Born the same year.  

Wise: Mason certainly made a career of playing both tortured and noble, but it's Douglas who does the most interesting work here.  Normally so tightly wound in his roles, Leagues allows Douglas a bit more space to be playful: he sings, he plays guitar, he's awestruck by both science and the sea.  Sure, there's still plenty of his typical fisticuffs, but the vulnerability gives the picture an added depth.  

Werth: Depth of say, 20,000 leagues?

Wise: There's just something about a man making puns in a toga.

Werth: Tune in for more costumed cinematic wordplay in next week's Film Gab.  

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