Wednesday, May 18, 2011

May revivals: Elizabeth Taylor edition

Hey all. Mike here with the next revival list. Haven't been feeling well lately (getting better now), so writing has been the last thing on my mind. Felt I was getting way behind until I noticed how the rest of May was shaping up. So instead of splitting up the month in half, I'll split it kinda into thirds. Or specifically, some films for this weekend, and a few for the Memorial Day weekend. And for this weekend, I narrowed it down to one film each day of the weekend. All three films are in one location, honoring one actress, and all for the cheaper then usual price of 9 dollars. Here we go:

WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF- Fri May 20 at 6- Walter Reade at Lincoln Center- Part of the Elizabeth Taylor retrospective at Lincoln Center. Let's face it, Ms. Taylor is far from the first person to be considered for a retrospective. Half her filmography is worth avoiding, the woman herself as celebrity is more famous than her acting work, and it would take her death to force a New York revival programmer to conceive a Liz Taylor retrospective. It would probably take a half century, minimum, before she might ever be better remembered for her work. The more people who think of as celebrity first die out, the quicker the changeover will happen. But anyway, Lincoln Center has jumped in first with a weekend long retrospective. I won't post everything, since Lincoln Center is rarely into double features. So if I'm going to post any of her work, I'm posting the big guns, starting with Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf.

Among the best of the stage-to-screen transfers ever. I've been waiting a long time for this to play in a revival house. Hell of a first film for director Mike Nichols. Richard Burton and Taylor (heavier and made up to look far older and tired in a successful attempt to de-glamorize) are George and Martha; bitter middle-aged alcoholics, who in order to keep any semblance of interest in their marriage, tear into each other and the young couple (George Segal, Sandy Dennis) who come to their little party. As the film goes on, the head games get more cruel and vindictive.

Not necessarily a happy film, but with Albee's words, a joy to behold. No matter the attempts to open up the film, the house still feels like a steel cage. The attempts at opening, in particular the diner, doesn't hold as well, but everything else does. Some modern audiences might consider the acting as over the top at times, but I would disagree. I have a weakness/high tolerance to some excess, but it fits the piece.

Not on the first AFI Top 100 list, but on the second Top 100 list. 13 Oscar nominations. Oscars for Taylor for Actress, Dennis for Supporting, Art Direction Costume and Cinematography for a black and white film. Nominations include for Picture, Burton for Actor, Segal for Supporting Actor, Nichols for Director, Editing, and Alex North's very good score. I hope the overture and closing music are played here. Also nominated was Ernest Lehman for his screenplay, despite the fact that the actors hated his version so much, they and Nichols went behind his back and replaced all but 2 lines back to Albee's original. For me, best film of 1966. Excuse me if I'm not agreeing with the Academy with their choice of A Man For All Seasons. I want to go. let me repeat. I. Want. To. Go:

GIANT- Sat May 21 at 6- Walter Reade at Lincoln Center- Part of the Elizabeth Taylor retro. Giant is (practically) never revived. You can always count on this being screened for some sort of Taylor and/or Rock Hudson and/or James Dean and/or director George Stevens and or 30 Days of Oscar series on TCM. But playing on the big screen anywhere else in New York? Not likely it seems, until now for one night only.

Epic film with a little social message stuff thrown in. Two generations of history are told in the state of Texas, through the filter of a family and their rival, though the emphasis is more Old Money vs. New Money, as well as racism toward Mexican-Americans. But like I said, the heavier influence on the story is the fight between Old Money and nouveau riche. Rancher baron/ old school Hudson (never better, except in Seconds) marries socialite Taylor, of whom ranch hand/hot head Dean has a major crush on. The change of power and new money in Texas is mirrored in Dean, when his character strikes it rich via Oil, causing the unfair fight between them to suddenly become a rival between equal rivals.

Classic drama. One of the big hits of the 1950s, which combined with his untimely death days before Giant's shooting completed, solidified James Dean as icon (now with Cowboy Hat!). 10 Oscar Nominations, including Picture Dean and Hudson for Actor, Mercedes McCambridge for Supporting Actress, and Screenplay. Its only Oscar was to Stevens for Director. On the AFI Top 100 list, though not on the second one:

CLEOPATRA (1963)- Sun May 22 at Noon- Walter Reade at Lincoln Center- Part of the Liz Taylor retro. A rare 70mm screening, and a litmus test for you film buffs out there. This print was previously screened last Labor Day weekend, when the Walter Reade had their 20th Century Fox retrospective. After it stunningly sold out, they're bring Cleopatra back for the Taylor retro. Anyone wanna bet the Walter Reade will be planning either a Richard Burton or Rex Harrison retrospective if this sells out again?

The film that almost bankrupted a studio and was synonymous with the term Flop for years, despite actually seeing an eventual profit before the end of the 1960s. Others have written about the difficulties, love affairs, the rampant budget gone wild, and occasionally, the idea that this is a bloated film. Good looking, but empty of quality. I'll let you research the articles regarding the filming difficulties, but I disagree with a good chunk of this assessment. This Sand and Sandals saga, where the Egyptian queen entices 2 powerful Romans, goes limp when we rely on spectacle. In particular when it runs on too long, like the famous parade sequence. Or isn't very interesting, like with the final navy battle. One reason why it may look cheap was that Fox was in such debt, that they had no money for a proper final fight.

What is surprising to me, is how much of the human drama actually works. Liz Taylor provides a great center in the title role, and yes, we believe the men in her life would throw much away to be with her. The film however, never completely recovers when it loses Rex Harrison as Caesar. Fascinating character, terrific performance and once the Ides of March scene occurs, we need someone big to fill in the gaps. Surprisingly, Richard Burton fails to do that. Now why this happened (possibly busy wooing Taylor in real life, possibly too busy being in charge of getting Taylor to set each day, possibly not sober on set at times) I'm not sure. His dialogue is mostly crap, so he didn't have a lot to work with. But since there's a heavy emphasis on Marc Anthony and Cleopatra together in the film's second half, a sense of disappointment tends to set in. Luckily, Roddy McDowall turns in a career performance as Octavian and he, along with supporting turns from Hume Cronyn and Martin Landau, carry some of the slack.

More of the slack covered by the sumptuous production design. The sets, the costumes, nothing less then spectacular. Alex North's score is also on that level. Oscars for Art Direction, Costumes, Cinematography, and Visual Effects (really?). Nominations for Picture (really?), Harrison for Actor, Editing (Really?!?), Score and Sound. The cut that will be screened at Lincoln Center is 4hrs, 2 mins long (I expect an intermission); probably as close as we'll ever get to the original cut, though the 5-6 hour versions I can skip. The 70mm print should give us a clearer image and a kind of vertical IMAX, that the Walter Reade screen can handle. So can the film buff in you handle that flawed but interesting film, whose reputation screams overpriced hype yet with hidden virtues buried deep? We'll see:

Sorry that I had no time for A Place In The Sun, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Father of the Bride, Reflections of a Golden Eye, or National Velvet. And I have no desire to sit through Raintree County. Noble effort, but "an underrated Civil War epic"? Hardly. Some good scenes and a risky performance from Taylor that works, but way too long, with the amount of soap opera that works well in Giant, but not here. If you wish to see one of those yourselves, click on the first link below Virginia Woolf.
Let me know ASAP about this weekend. My next post will comprise mostly of midnight movies that we all should be able to stay up for during the Memorial Day weekend, as well a Norman Jewison retrospective at Lincoln Center. Later all.

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