Friday, May 10, 2013

The Mother of All Page to Screen Blogs

Werth: Twenty-three Skidoo, Wise.  Have some bathtub gin and let's toast the opening of Baz Luhrmann's The Great Gatsby by gabbing about literary adaptations from page to screen.  

Wise: Um, don't you mean, let's put on old bathrobes and have lumpy pancakes in bed?  

Werth: Are you hungover?

Wise: It's Mother's Day on Sunday, and shouldn't we be celebrating the ladies who make it all possible?  

Werth: Let's compromise and do literary mothers on the big screen. 

Wise: I'm all for that, as long as it doesn't turn into a glam rock disco anthem.

Werth: This means I will have to discuss the biggest mommie book turned into a movie of all time. Yes, that day has come. I will gab about Mommie Dearest (1981).

Wise: I've already fastened my seatbelt. 

Werth: I'll be blunt. I think Christina Crawford's hit tell-all 1978 book Mommie Dearest is opportunistic exaggeration. It and the subsequent movie have supplanted an image of Joan Crawford in the public's mind that has eclipsed the talents of this hard-working, dedicated actress. 
But let me be clear, Joan Crawford was no saint. She was a control freak, a mean drunk, obsessively strict with her children and so invested in her image that it's likely there was no difference between Joan Crawford movie star and Joan Crawford human being. That's one of the reasons it is so much fun to watch Faye Dunaway "become" Joan Crawford.


Wise: It takes a lot of eyebrow pencil and even more cojones

Werth: Like the book, Mommie Dearest the movie tells the story of how Golden Age Hollywood movie star Joan Crawford adopted Christina (played as a teen and older adult by Diana Scarwid) and the subsequent wire-hanger-inspired abuse that followed. And as with the book, the scenes without Joan are a snooze. 
Dunaway is literally possessed by Crawford and translates Crawford's larger than life screen persona into her portrayal. Crawford doing something as simple as taking a shower or putting on elbow lotion becomes a full-scale MGM production. Almost everything in this movie looks like it's from a movie. There is no sense of reality... with the exception of one scene where Joan confesses to Chrisitna that she's broke. Dunaway tones down the makeup and the gestures to become what might be a glimpse of what Crawford was really like. Dunaway's physical resemblance to Crawford is eerie, especially when you add-in that Dunaway was the same age as Crawford at this time, was dealing with the same career issues, and had even just adopted a childalthough Dunaway lied to the press for years and claimed to have given birth to her son.

Wise: Art imitating life channeling crazy. 

Werth: Dunaway's unearthly connection to Crawford produces a portrayal that is so monstrous you can't take your eyes off it. The eyebrows, the lips, the held-back shoulders and perfectly timed puffs of smoke fill the screen. Unfortunately that over-the-top performance also turned what was supposed to be a dramatic treatment of child abuse into a camp classic that had gay men around the country shouting the lines back at the screen. 
In the end, no less than Christina Crawford herself denied that her mother acted like that. I don't like Mommie Dearest for what it did to Crawford's image, but I do have to give props to Dunaway, whose dedication to the part is something Joan Crawford would appreciate.

Wise: Little Children (2006) focuses on another bad mommy in an extreme situation.  Sarah Pierce (Kate Winslet) is a young suburban mother with a daughter she doesn't understand and an older husband who's become hooked on internet porn.  At the park one day she meets former college football star Brad Adamson (Patrick Wilson) who's supposed to be studying for the bar, but wastes his hours daydreaming about former glory. 
They begin a flirtation that quickly escalates into an affair, igniting a domestic firestorm when Brad's wife Kathy (Jennifer Connelly) catches on to their dalliance.  During all this, Brad's buddy Larry, a former cop, has a begun a campaign to expose and harass recently released sex offender Ronny McGorvey (Jackie Earle Haley).
Werth: Sex offender, dead guy who kills you in your dreams, a super hero with a bag on his head. Jackie Earle Haley better be careful of typecasting.

Wise: Director Todd Field adapted Tom Perrotta's novel with  the help of the author, and it's interesting to see how the book and the film diverge.  Most of the plot points are the same, but the leap from page to screen erased some of the author's black humor while heightening the interconnectedness of the characters.  A scene at the local pool, for example, contrasts Sarah and Brad's growing romance with Ronny's own conflicting desires to become a regular member of society while indulging in his squirmy desires.  
The juxtaposition not only points out the risk that Sarah and Brad are taking, it also suggests the longings that all three characters have that can never be fulfilled.  

Werth: Seeing Wilson's rear end was fulfillment enough for me.

Wise: Winslet, who has made a career of great performances, is particularly good here, if a bit more subtle than in other films.  Her Sarah begins frumpy, shoulders hunched as if she is still poring over the feminist texts she studied in college.  
As the affair progresses, she becomes more golden, her body less lumpy and more voluptuous, while her speaking voice becomes less nasal and more direct.  This is no typical movie makeover scene, instead it's a carefully calibrated depiction of a woman discovering both what she wants and what she doesn't need.  
Wilson has a bit less to do, but manages to cast off his somewhat effete persona and play a believable jock plagued by regret.  
But it's Haley who's the real stunner here, transforming himself from a washed-up kid star to a character actor with incredible depth.  His Ronny is both poignant and tragic, slyly comic, and well deserving of his Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor.  

Werth: I hope you're satisfied that we covered both literature and motherhood in one fell gab.

Wise: Indeed we have, now let's get to those pancakes.

Werth: Tune in next week for more light and fluffy Film Gab!


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