Friday, 30 August 2019

The Devil Wears Prada (2006)

Meryl Streep on demonic good form in The Devil Wears Prada

Director: David Frankel
Cast: Meryl Streep (Miranda Priestly), Anne Hathaway (Andrea Sachs), Emily Blunt (Emily Charlton), Stanley Tucci (Nigel Kipling), Simon Baker (Christian Thompson), Adrian Grenier (Nate Cooper)

Miranda Priestly (Meryl Streep) is the lord of all she surveys. Ruling the fashion industry from the editorial office of her magazine Runaway, she can make or break careers with a pursed lip or a raised eyebrow. And, while barely raising her voice beyond a whisper, she expects total obedience and deference in the office, with her assistants little better than personal slaves. It’s a tough world for wannabe journalist Andrea (Anne Hathaway), hoping for a big break from her connection with Miranda. Andrea looks down on the world of fashion, and longs for a serious journalism career – but will her ideals survive the temptations on offer… 

The Devil Wears Prada is your pretty standard morality tale of the moth brought too close to the flame: the hero struggling to resist the temptation to jack in their principles and dreams in order to win the praise of a domineering bully and secure riches and fame. We’ve seen it all before, and to be honest TDWP doesn’t really do anything different from this formula, other than introduce it into the world of fashion and making both the tempter and tempted a woman.

And it works where it does because it has some pretty impressive women in these roles. None less than Meryl Streep, who seizes on the role with a quiet relish and has the confidence to underplay scenes that lesser actresses would tear into as if their only dinner that day was the scenery. What’s notable about Streep’s Miranda is that she is so calm, so quiet, so assured, so unflustered that she only needs the slightest gestures and hints to break people around her. It’s the ultimate confidence that comes from supreme power – she knows she never needs to raise her voice, that people will fall silent to listen to her. Streep also mines her considerable comic talent to lace her many moments of cruelty and selfishness with an arch, dry humour.

It’s no wonder poor Andrea has such a rough time in this film. Only in Hollywoodland could Anne Hathaway be considered a dumpy frump, but the styling of her as a someone with no sense of fashion whatsoever (at least initially) does at least make her stand out from the rest. Andrea’s plotline follows what so many other “moth to the flame” plots have followed, moving from snide indifference to her job to all consuming obsession as she begins to parrot the same values and opinions of her master. She even has a partner (usually the woman’s role, so very nice to see it reversed) who complains about her not being at home enough.

The film avoids cheap shots at fashion as well which is refreshing, stressing at every point that it is a world of legitimate art and expertise and has made an important contribution to the culture and society of the 20th century. No wonder so many fashion famous faces cameo. Andrea’s scornful disregard for fashion is punctured early on as being an inverted snobbery and part of her desire to project an image of herself. 

The real issues here are workplace bullying – although the film never really delves into it that much and is eager to leave no real resolution. Emily Blunt – who is extremely good, with more than a hint of desperation and depression under her cool, arch, British exterior – as Andrea’s fellow assistant shows early on how environments like this chew people up and force them to become sharks or die. It’s a suggestion the film is not keen on exploring in real depth though, preferring a far lighter, more traditional story as we wonder whether Andrea will be seduced by the darkness or will return to her roots of integrity and journalism (one guess which way she goes).

Even at the end though, Andrea is still desperate in some way for Miranda’s approval and to be acknowledged in some way by her. It’s a feeling that the film shares. It wants Miranda to turn to it and praise it, it’s scared of really calling her out on her behaviour, instead wanting to cut her as much slack as possible. It wants to see her triumph and, even at the end, to take a wry pleasure from Andrea forging her own life. It’s as besotted with her as the characters are, and for all it shows that Andrea doesn’t do well from spending time with her, it still seems to want to show that under it all “she is human”. It dodges the bullet of actually dealing with bullies and monsters, and instead takes the line of saying “yeah sure she was bad, but she had great style so you can’t not like her.” Which means, in a way, it follows the same line that in real life allows charismatic geniuses in the workplace to continue behaving any way they like.

Which isn’t to say this isn’t a fun film with decent performances and lots of good jokes. Streep gives Miranda a huge degree of depth – we have moments of her loneliness and isolation from her family – but it’s a film that could have done more to show the negatives of how working lifestyles like these affect people. I guess that would have made it less fun though.

Thursday, 29 August 2019

The Song of Bernadette (1943)

Jennifer Jones sees visions of the Virgin Mary in the moving The Song of Bernadette

Director: Henry King
Cast: Jennifer Jones (Bernadette Soubirous), Charles Bickford (Abbé Dominique Peyramale), Williem Eythe (Antoinie Nicoleau), Gladys Cooper (Marie Theresa Vauzou), Vincent Price (Vital Dutour), Lee J. Cobb (Dr Dozous), Anne Revere (Louise Casteror Soubirious), Roman Bohnen (François Soubirous), Mary Anderson (Jeanne Abadie), Aubrey Maher (Mayor Lacade), Linda Darnell (Virgin Mary)

“For those who believe in God, no explanation is necessary. For those who do not believe, no explanation is possible.”

With these words, this worthy religious epic from the Golden Age of Hollywood kicks off its retelling of how visions of the Virgin Mary from one poorly educated peasant girl, Bernadette Soubirous, turned Lourdes from a backwater near the French-Spanish border into one of the most important Catholic pilgrimage sites in the world. It’s material that you could fairly expect to be pretty dry and sanctimonious stuff. But, surprisingly, it’s rather affecting and engaging work – and, although made with a certain workmanlike competence, carries enough touches of grace to lift it up into the second tier of the Hollywood firmament.

Bernadette Soubirous is played by Jennifer Jones – in one of her first screen roles, for which she became at 25 one of the youngest Best Actress Oscar winners ever. Until her visions begin, she is just an average peasant child, struggling with asthma, her parents (Anne Revere and Roman Bohnen) struggling with poverty, failing at religious school under the strict tutelage of Sister Marie Theresa (Gladys Cooper), and generally looking ahead to a life very much like any other. But visions of the Virgin Mary (played by an unbilled Linda Darnell) bring belief and devotion into her life, and she reports the content of the visions (and her discussions with the Virgin Mary) with an honest simplicity and consistency that wins many backers, not least local priest Abbé Peyramale (Charles Bickford). But the local officials of Lourdes, led by local prosecutor Vital Dutour (Vincent Price), concerned that these visions will impact plans for the town’s development and anxious about the hysteria they could encourage in the simple-minded, try their best to restore what they see as reason over the intoxication of faith.

Faith really is the word of the day in Henry King’s at-times stately, but also shrewdly worldly drama that mixes divine intervention and belief with a fair-hearing for the doubters and the arguments of reason. The miracles, when they come, are followed with several characters – not least Lee J Cobb’s coolly rational doctor – outlining the alternative explanations for why these people may suddenly feel they have been cured. Later Dutour complains wryly that it only takes a handful of cures among the thousands that come for everyone to continue to want – or need – to believe. 

But the film sides squarely with the truth of Bernadette’s visions, not least by stressing at every turn her honesty, guilelessness and principle. Questioned by various church officials – many of them terrified of being duped by a con, having been stung in the past – she sticks with an honest openness to the same version of the story over and over again. Peyramale – initially just as sceptical – is won over to belief by Bernadette’s sudden knowledge of such matters as the immaculate conception, when she seemed barely aware of what the Holy Trinity was while studying at school. 

King – a largely middle-of-the-road director, but who marshals his resources well here – clearly takes inspiration from Carl Dreyer’s films on similar topics of faith and visions in his shooting of Bernadette. Bright light and intense close-ups that study every inch of her rapture help convey the spirituality of her visions. When Bernadette leads groups to her visions – none of whom can see what she sees – light radiates around her and over her, but seems to barely touch those she is with. The cinematography by Arthur C Miller is beautiful, a brilliant use of light and darkness to skilfully sketch both the poverty of Bernadette’s background and the radiance of her visions.

The mood of the film is also helped be Jennifer Jones’ impressive performance. Bernadette is, in many ways, potentially one of the least interesting and dynamic characters in the film, but Jones pulls off the immensely difficult task of making someone stuffed with decency, innocence and honesty into an actually compelling and endearing character. A protégé of David O Selznick (whom she later married), Jones earned her place in the film with her ability to invest Bernadette with humanity, avoiding any hint of cynicism in her performance while never becoming grating either.

It contributes to a beautiful telling of the story, backed by a series of excellent supporting performances. Charles Bickford landed an Oscar nomination as the kindly, decent priest whose initial scepticism and concern that the crowd is being manipulated is washed away by growing belief. Lee J Cobb is very good as a stoutly rationalist doctor. Anne Revere (also nominated) has a protective warmth as Bernadette’s mother.

The film’s finest supporting roles though come from Vincent Price and Gladys Cooper. Price is superb as the man of science and reason who worries over the implications of fanaticism and the damage hysteria can cause, but is never simply prejudiced or Dawkinsish in his religious doubts. King’s film treats his concerns with a genuineness that makes both the character more interesting and the film more balanced. Cooper is brilliant as a Salieri-like nun, enraged with envy and jealousy that after years of devotion and suffering it is not she but Bernadette who gets the visions.

And why did Bernadette get those visions? The film is not crude enough to suggest why – Bernadette herself apologises for the trouble she has caused and her unworthiness – but it’s clear that it’s her very innocence and sincerity that makes her worthy of them. The design – and impressive score by Alfred Newman – helps to make the film feel as profound as it does, but it’s the balance that the film handles its characters with that makes it engrossing. There are no simple heroes or villains, just as there are no simple solutions. Like the film says at the start, it’s a question of faith. Those who do not wish to believe can marshal as many arguments in their favour as those who want nothing more than to trust in faith. It makes for a fine, balanced, engaging and well-made classic.

Tuesday, 27 August 2019

Tootsie (1982)

Dustin Hoffman plays somewhat against type in the marvellous Tootsie

Director: Sydney Pollack
Cast: Dustin Hoffman (Michael Dorsey/Dorothy Michaels), Jessica Lange (Julie Nichols), Teri Garr (Sandy Lester), Dabney Coleman (Ron Carlisle), Doris Belack (Rita Marshall), Charles Durning (Les Nichols), Bill Murray (Jeff Slater), Sydney Pollack (George Fields), George Gaynes (John van Horn), Geena Davis (April Page)

It sounds like a movie idea from hell: “We’ll get Dustin Hoffman to play a struggling actor who can only get a job when he dresses as a middle-aged woman and auditions for a daytime soap. Hilarious misunderstandings will follow…” But you’d be wrong: Tootsie is an absolute delight: not only a wonderful comedy, but a touching love story and an acute commentary on sexism and the compromises women are forced to make to get the same opportunities as men. It’s a wonderful, smart, thought-provoking film.

In a role that draws on more than a little self-parody, Dustin Hoffman plays Michael Dorsey, a dedicated, demanding, difficult actor who has alienated so many people across Broadway and Hollywood with his unwillingness to compromise that he can’t land a job. When his friend Sandy (Teri Garr) flunks an audition on a General Hospital-style daytime soap, Michael thinks “what the hell” and puts himself forward for the role under the disguise of the middle-aged “Dorothy Michaels”. Surprisingly he finds he lands the job: and realises that women’s lot on the masculine film-set is not a happy one, evading sexual approaches, treated like idiots and generally encouraged to not pipe up. Intelligent, clever fellow-cast member Julie Nichols (Jessica Lange) hides her light under a bushel. At first Michael enjoys the respect he wins, but as Dorothy increasingly becomes a feminist icon he’s plagued with guilt at the lies and deceptions he’s practising.

It’s the sort of idea that should be either patronising today (a man learns about feminism by walking in a woman’s shoes!) or inadvertently toe-curling. The fact that it isn’t (and I’ve watched this film with women who have enjoyed it a great deal, so I’m not completely guessing here!) is a tribute to the film’s lightness of touch, combined with a neat sense of the ridiculous, along with the emotional truth and genuineness that the film is handled with. It neither preaches nor mocks but simply focuses on telling the story and allowing us to draw our own conclusions. It also has a script packed through with some absolutely cracking jokes, all of which are delivered straight.

Central to its success is Dustin Hoffman, who plays the entire role completely straight. His Michael is a neat self-parody in his abrasive difficulty – but he’s also shown to be a concerned and genuine friend to Teri Garr’s delightfully ditzy Sandy, urging her to have more confidence (little realising how difficult it is for women to impress male casting directors if they behave with the confidence of men). Sure he’s not above clumsy passes to women at parties, but he’s no dinosaur or sexist. And becoming Dorothy Michaels is an opportunist moment of eagerness to show he has range and can get work if severed from his terrible reputation, rather than having any cruel or mocking motivations.

And what Hoffman does so well here is that Dorothy becomes her own personality. And that Michael immediately recognises that Dorothy, with her assurance, her kindness, her unwillingness to take nonsense, but her serene confidence, is a much better person than he is. She refuses to be trapped into either of the two roles the director intends for her (love interest or shrew) but insists her role in the hospital soap be treated like a dedicated professional, not defined by her sex – which makes her exactly the sort of role-model women around her (and eventually across America) have yearned for. Somehow as well, the film gets us to invest in what a great person Dorothy is, even as we know it’s really Michael in disguise – and Hoffman never, ever plays the part for laughs.

The casting allows the film to get a number of hilarious shots at the fast-paced, poorly-written, cheaply sexist nonsense that goes into daytime soaps. The director of the show is a roving lothario (played with all the smarm at his command by Dabney Coleman), who opposes Dorothy’s casting because she is not attractive enough, talks over the women in the cast and expects affairs as part of his salary. The show’s leading man is an aged actor (played with an oblivious sweetness by George Gaynes) who expects to kiss every woman in the show and is totally unable to learn lines. The plots of the soap are a joke, and the actresses are frequently placed into demeaning situations that real nurses and administrators (the only roles of course women can play in a hospital!) would never do.

Becoming horrified by this, Dorothy/Michael encourages the other women in the cast to break out from this – not least Julie Nichols, beautifully played by Jessica Lange as an intelligent, sensitive woman forced into pretending to be an airhead so as not to disturb the men around her. Lange is superb in this role, and so radiant that of course Dorothy/Michael finds himself falling in love with her – a complexity that constantly intrudes on the sisterly bond that Julie increasingly feels for Dorothy…

And that’s another source of guilt for Michael, who is (despite it all) a good guy, and slowly works out that there is no way of extracting himself from all this without hurting people’s feelings (not least when Julie’s sweetly charming widowed dad – played wonderfully by Charles Durning – starts to have feelings for Dorothy). Michael doesn’t want to hurt anyone – not even Sandy, with whom he finds himself stumbling into a one-night stand that he can’t work out how to reverse out of because he’s so desperate not to damage their friendship (something that he of course ends up damaging anyway). It’s a film that brilliantly balances these personal struggles with wider pictures.

Because, as Michael is aware, he’s himself guilty of using women by stealing the cause of feminism by pretending to be a woman. He’s perpetrating a con on the whole of America, and can’t work out a way to back out. The solution he does finally find is a comic tour-de-force – while finding time to still focus later on the real, emotional impact on those who have come closest to Dorothy – and gently indicates how lives can move on.

Sydney Pollack has probably never directed a film as smart, touching and wise as this one (he also puts in a hilarious cameo as Michael’s frustrated agent). It’s a film that could have been just a comedy about a man in drag, but in fact ends up raising profound issues about sexism, feminism and relationships that still feel relevant today. It’s almost certainly Hoffman’s greatest performance – honestly, he’s sublime here, it’s a once in a lifetime performance – and there is barely a wrong beat in it. The cast fall on the great script with relish – Garr was never better and Bill Murray has a superb unbilled supporting role as Michael’s acerbic, playwright housemate. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll think and you’ll want to watch it again. Can’t say better than that.