From Piaf to Stanwyck

  • by Tavo Amador
  • Tuesday December 4, 2007
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Shopping for holiday gifts can be overwhelming. DVDs are often a good, reasonably-priced solution. Following are some intriguing titles worth considering.

La Vie en Rose (2007) is a gripping biography of French chanteuse Edith Piaf (1915-63), played with uncanny exactness by the astonishing Marion Cotillard. Piaf, a self-destructive, self-proclaimed child of the streets, had a remarkable career in France and success in America. The film dramatizes every show business clichŽ, but makes them seem new and powerful. With sexy Jean-Pierre Martins as boxer Marcel Cerdon, the great love of her life who died in a plane crash; Gerard Depardieu; and Caroline Sihol as Marlene Dietrich, who befriended and admired Piaf, yet didn't seduce her. The finale, when Piaf, frail from drugs and alcohol, rallies to sing before a VIP audience at Paris' Olympia Theatre, is sensational. Gay men who came of age in the 60s will recall the popularity of Piaf's "No Regrets," a staple at jukeboxes in gay bars, and an unofficial theme of the era. In French, with English subtitles.

In the late 1950s and 60s, Elizabeth Taylor starred in films with homosexual themes. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (58) and Suddenly Last Summer (59), based on Tennessee Williams' plays, were critical and commercial successes. John Huston's Reflections in a Golden Eye (67), from Carson McCullers' novella, paired Taylor with Marlon Brando as Major Weldon Pemberton, the latent gay instructor at an army base in the south. He lusts for  stunning soldier Robert Forster, who's fascinated by Taylor. She's Leonora, Weldon's adulterous, none-too-bright wife. Lt. Col. Morris Landgon (Brian Keith) is her lover. Julie Harris is the neurotic, tragic Mrs. Langdon, and Zorro David is her flamboyant houseboy. Taylor, at her best, utters one of the most startling lines in literary and film history. Brando is   moving as the priggish, repressed Major. The shocking climax is haunting. Despite the cast and the controversial subject, the film wasn't the expected hit, and signaled the end of Taylor's long reign as a top box-office attraction.

Spain's Luis Bunuel is most famous for his French and Spanish movies, but he did excellent early work in Mexico. El Bruto (53), mistranslated into English as The Brute rather than The Stupid Man, is a gripping tale about class conflict. Pedro Almendariz, who periodically appeared in Hollywood films, plays strong, simple-minded Pedro. He's hired by an indifferent landlord, Don Andres Cabrera (Andres Soler), to evict poor tenants from an apartment building. The riveting Katy Jurado is Paloma, Don Cabrera's young, sexy wife, who seduces Pedro and is betrayed by him. Few women scorned have ever wreaked such vengeance. A year earlier, Jurado had given a stunning performance in High Noon, and would work steadily in Hollywood for a decade, becoming the first Hispanic actress to earn an Oscar nomination. In black-and-white with English subtitles.

Dissatisfaction with war is hardly new, and Stanley Kubrick dramatized the subject early with Paths of Glory (57), based on an actual mutiny by French soldiers during World War I. The grim, deadly monotony of trench warfare is memorably conveyed. Kirk Douglas is the Colonel who defends the rebels against ambitious commanders (Adolphe Menjou, George MacReady) who find more in common with their aristocratic German enemy counterparts than with their lower-class French troops. All three leads give extraordinary performances.

Before Cate Blanchett, before Glenda Jackson, Bette Davis essayed Queen Elizabeth I in two movies. The first, The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (39), directed by Michael Curtiz, teams her with handsome, dynamic Errol Flynn as the ambitious object of her (unfulfilled) passion. Davis is made up, bewigged, and lavishly costumed to look every inch the older queen. She agonizes about private happiness and public duty, and wonders if anyone loves her for herself. In lesser hands, it would be one long giggle, but Davis believes so intensely in the material and acts with such astonishing conviction that skeptics will be cowed. Flynn, with whom she quarreled during filming, is a treat for the eyes. His demands to rule as her husband are tempting indeed. Olivia de Havilland is glorious as the court beauty who wins his affections. With Vincent Price as Sir Walter Raleigh. Based on Maxwell Anderson's play.

Barbara Stanwyck (1907-90) worked nonstop in films for nearly 30 years. The recently released Barbara Stanwyck Collection includes some less-familiar titles from her late period. In Executive Suite (54), splendidly directed by Robert Wise, she's a major corporate shareholder being courted by rival directors battling for control of the company. The impressive cast includes good guy William Holden, his loyal wife June Allyson, Frederic March, Paul Douglas, Shelley Winters as a secretary taking more than dictation, and Nina Foch. In East Side, West Side (49), Stanwyck's a Manhattan socialite with a rocky marriage. Husband James Mason had been unfaithful with gorgeous Ava Gardner. Van Heflin is the man who now tempts Stanwyck. With Cyd Charisse, Nancy Davis (before becoming Mrs. Ronald Reagan), Gale Sondergaard, and William Frawley (not yet Fred Mertz). Stylishly directed by Mervyn LeRoy. My Reputation (46) may have inspired Douglas Sirk's better-known All That Heaven Allows (56). Lonely widow Stanwyck falls for newly discharged soldier George Brent, causing anxiety for her children and small-town friends, among whom is the always-welcome Eve Arden.

Happy holidays.