Classics revisited for holiday giving
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DVDs are good holiday gift choices, especially for fans of classic Hollywood films.
Ida Lupino was one of the studio era's (ca. 1925-60) most distinctive stars. This year marks the centenary of her birth, and tributes are being held in New York and elsewhere. The English-born, husky-voiced beauty died in 1995. She made her mark as both a compelling, versatile performer (1940's "They Drive by Night," 1941's "High Sierra," 1942's "The Hard Way," which earned her the New York Film Critics Best Actress Award) and uniquely as a director-writer. The films she helmed were usually low-budget, but they are often gripping. They dealt with then-daring topics like rape and unplanned pregnancies. Their feminist perspective keeps them fresh. A good example is "The Bigamist" (1953), in which she and first-billed Joan Fontaine discover they're both married to Edmond O'Brien. How the women learn the truth is plausibly rendered. Class distinctions are shown: the elegant Fontaine assists her husband in his business; Lupino is a waitress. The dilemma each wife faces is touching, yet the man isn't demonized. The final courtroom scene is beautifully handled. Lupino gets fine performances from Fontaine and O'Brien, and gives one herself. Screenplay by Collier Young, then married to Fontaine, but who had once been wed to Lupino.
Lupino's contemporaries Joan Crawford and Bette Davis (all were at Warners in the 1940s) were the subjects of FX's "Feud: Bette vs. Joan" (2017), and were respectively portrayed by Susan Sarandon and Jessica Lange, both of whom have been much better. Among Sarandon's many memorable performances is her exquisite Sally in Louis Malle's wonderful "Atlantic City" (1980), co-starring a sensational Burt Lancaster. This comic, nostalgic look at corruption, an unconsummated May-December romance between an aging, small-time hood and the estranged wife of a dope dealer, is one of Malle's most humane pictures. Lancaster was at his considerable best, and Sarandon matches him. With Kate Reid as Lancaster's sharp reality check.
Crawford was not the first real-life movie star Lange portrayed — she gave a riveting performance in "Frances" (1982), based on the life of Frances Farmer (1913-70). That luminous beauty rose to film prominence in the late 1930s, appeared on Broadway in the original production of Clifford Odets' "Golden Boy" (1937), then alternated between movies and theatre. Plagued by alcoholism, in 1942 she was also diagnosed with "manic depressive psychosis." That led to a forced institutionalization. Under Graeme Clifford's suspenseful direction, Lange gives a harrowing portrayal without resorting to melodramatics. A ferocious Kim Stanley is Farmer's mother.
Farmer was neither the first nor the last now largely forgotten actress to suffer from the demands of stardom and die prematurely. Another was Jean Seberg (1938-79). Shortly before her 18th birthday, director Otto Preminger made her his and George Bernard Shaw's "Saint Joan" (1957), a major failure that earned her terrible but largely undeserved notices. Preminger then cast her as Cecile in his version of Francois Sagan's "Bonjour Tristesse" (1958). Cecile's complicated relationship with her womanizing father (David Niven) is threatened by one of his beautiful old flames (Deborah Kerr). The three leads are excellent, and Kerr's typically genial, kind demeanor is explored to reveal a more complex character. Seberg subtly captures the indulged Cecile's self-centered, thrill-seeking rebelliousness, yet is still sympathetic. Set in a black-and-white Paris and a glorious, full-color Riviera. Gay Arthur Laurents wrote the perceptive screenplay. Givenchy designed the splendid gowns, and the jewelry is by Cartier. In the 1960s, Seberg was targeted by the FBI because of her anti-Vietnam War activities and support for the Black Panthers. Her body was found in the trunk of a car in Paris. The official cause of death was a drug overdose.
Another Paris-set picture with a special appeal is the 1961 adaptation of Sagan's "Aimez Vous Brahms?," filmed as "Goodbye Again." It stars a radiant Ingrid Bergman as Paula, a successful interior designer whose long-term lover, Roger (a virile Yves Montand), is charming and adores her, but doesn't wish to give up his womanizing ways. A chance encounter with Philip (a very appealing Anthony Perkins), the son of one of Paula's wealthy clients (Jessie Royce Landis), leads to a romance that meets with social disapproval. Sagan and Samuel Taylor, who adapted the novel, demonstrate the double standard by which men are allowed to have younger mistresses, but women risk their reputations when taking a younger male lover. The fatalistic ending underscores a woman's limited options. Bergman, Perkins, and Montand are splendid. Diahann Carroll has a bit as a nightclub singer. Directed by Anatole Litvak.
The City of Light's Cirque L'Hiver Bouglione has been an institution since 1852. Carol Reed filmed "Trapeze" (1956) on location there. This romantic triangle features bitter Mike Ribble (powerfully built Burt Lancaster), once the greatest "flyer" in the world but now disabled, aspiring trapeze artist Tino Orsini (a very pretty and well-buffed Tony Curtis), and Lola (Gina Lollobrigida), the ambitious beauty who longs for sawdust stardom. Lancaster, who did his own stunts, and Curtis are terrific. Lollobrigida convincingly transforms Lola from a manipulative user to a sympathetic lover. The marvelous Katy Jurado is touching as bareback rider Rosa, who knows Mike better than anyone, including himself. Thomas Gomez is enjoyable as the circus owner whose main interest is making money. Reed powerfully captures the grittiness, seediness, yet courageous gallantry of life under the Big Top. The fine screenplay is by Liam O'Brien and James R. Webb from a novel by Max Cotto. Ben Hecht and Wolf Mankiewicz had an uncredited hand in the adaptation. The gorgeous color cinematography is by Robert Krasker. Shot in some of Paris' less familiar neighborhoods.