Friday, 8 February 2013

Six Feet Under

I admit that that writing about Six Feet Under now, nearly eight years after it was taken off the air, may be a somewhat redundant undertaking (no pun intended). However, at the time the series hit the screens in the US, and subsequently across the globe, and was swiftly met with wide acclaim, I was unable to watch it for personal reasons. I was afflicted at the time, with a strange condition, an obsession, a fear of death, or to be more precise: I was haunted by the constant presence of death, so to speak, by the awareness that death may occur at any given moment, and that there was nothing I could do about it.

Though I'd never seen Six Feet Under, I was well aware that death - in all its shapes and sizes - was very much its predominant theme, and watching it in the condition I was in would only have aggravated it. As a result, I had to skip the whole thing, however, watching it now, now that I've overcome my irrational fear of death, more or less at peace with the fact that it simply is something that's out of my hands, it's suddenly dawned on me what I've missed. But thanks to modern technology, I'm able to catch up!

The reason why I decided to write about Six Feet Under today, years after the fact, so to speak, and with its brilliance having been widely praised and lauded, is simply because I myself needed to go somewhere with my emotions, as nothing I'd read about it prepared me for the real experience. Rarely, if ever, have I seen characters on screen that are so three-dimensional, in other words: so real, so alive, so multi-faceted, so torn, as in Six Feet Under. Every character, even the ones you thought you'd hate, have some redeeming quality. Every single one of them moves in a sort of grey area with the occasional shift into the whites or, depending on the event, into the black. But no character is just one or the other. This is one of the reasons why they offer so much room for identification. It does help, of course, that the actors portraying them more than live up to their task. This is especially true in the cases of Frances Conroy, Lauren Ambrose, Michael C. Hall, and Rachel Griffiths. They really make you forget that you're watching a film. And I deliberately employ the term film here, for Six Feet Under is much more than ordinary TV series, even by HBO standards.

I knew that Alan Ball was the initial creator of Six Feet Under, and it doesn't take much to detect parallels with American Beauty, which he scripted, based on his original idea. Some of the characters of American Beauty even have an afterlife in Six Feet Under. For instance, Alison Janney's Barbara Fitts has a lot in common with Six Feet Under's Ruth Fisher. On the same token, Thora Birch's Jane has her equal in Six Feet Under's Claire. And even the opening sequence bears some resemblance to that of American Beauty - think of the wilting flowers - and the same goes for its score. Moreover, the overall topics of both films are similar as by and large they concern, simply put, life and death and how we deal with the one and confront the other.

The location, too, bears some resemblance to American Beauty. Although in American Beauty the location is never disclosed, set as it is, in Anywhere, USA, the same could be said about Six Feet Under with the one difference that we know, that LA is where it's set. That said, however, I have never come across a film or television series that looks less LA than Six Feet Under. It is so stripped of any glamour, so down to earth, and hardly ever are any of the things that we've come to associate with Southern California mentioned: no one visits a gym, no one has plastic surgery, no one attends drama school or wants to become an actor, and apart from Catherine O'Hara's character (which doesn't appear until well into season 2 and by season 4, is fully out of the picture), no one works in the movies. This non-stereotypical approach is a case in point for the series' creators refusal to bend to any clichés or stereotypes, defying them on every level, which is another reason that puts Six Feet Under in a league of its own.

Speaking of Catherina O'Hara's character, however, it needs to be mentioned that she's part of a string of female characters in Six Feet Under who, in the hands of lesser writers, may have ended up as caricatures but who are, in fact, fully fleshed out, if slightly on the camp side, women-on-the-verge-of-a-nervous-breakdown who add some comic relief to the series otherwise more or less grave (pun intended) narrative. These women also include Bettina (played by the incomparable Kathy Bates), Mitzy Dalton Huntley (unforgettably portrayed, replete with a thick Texan accent, by Julie White, an actress who's been shamefully ignored by the Big Screen, never mind that she's got oomph and  talent to boot!), and Dina Spybey's Tracy Montrose Blair, who out of sheer loneliness attends funerals of people she never even knew and who's constantly on the search of a suitable husband.

Frances Conroy as Ruth Fisher: probably the most complex of all of Six Feet Under's complex characters. She's as prim and proper as she's full of contradictions and unexpected reactions, as loveable as she can be annoying.   

Lauren Ambrose as Claire Fisher: 17 years old at the start of the series, Lauren's character is undergoing  some crucial changes throughout the 5 seasons Six Feet Under lasted. From an angry young girl, Claire mutates and matures into an intelligent woman who thinks outside the box, ready to brave whatever life's got in store for her. 

Michael C. Hall as David Fisher: still more or less in the closet in season one, David's very much his mother's son but also goes through some major changes, triggered by a series of events starting with the demise of his father. 

Peter Krause as Nathaniel (Nate) Fisher: described once as "the series most spiritual character", Nate really is constantly on the search for, what lack of a better term, is best circumscribed as the meaning of life. Trying to make sense of it all, he goes from vaguely believing in some God to toying with Quakerism at the series end - and his. 

Rachel Griffiths as Brenda Chenowith: Nate's on-and-off girlfriend before they finally tie the knot, she's psychologically scarred by her parents, who are both shrinks (!). Brenda's got a disturbed brother, Billy, with whom she shares a relationship that's bordering on the incestuous. No surprise, then, that she also has serious commitment issues which are only slowly resolved, and when they are - it's too late. 

Freddy Rodriguez as Rico: A member of LA's huge Latin community, Rico's been put through mortuary school by Nathan Fisher Senior, whom we only get to know as a sort of ghost, as he's the first of Six Feet Under's many fatalities. An employee at first, Rico is eventually being made a partner by Nate Junior and David, changing the name of their funeral home from Fisher and Sons to Fisher and Diaz. 

Mathew St. Patrick as Keith: David's partner, a gay cop, with serious anger management issues which more than once get in the way of his life and career over the course of the series.

Needless to say, with Six Feet Under spanning several years - in reality as well as on screen - the character development could be taken a great deal further than in American Beauty. And unlike most films or television series of today, Six Feet Under is more character driven rather than plot driven, and that precisely is something else that makes this series so uniquely outstanding, for each and every one of the principal characters develops organically, which is to say realistically and comprehensibly, and whatever happens to them happens to them for a valid reason, as it were, a reason which is equally realistic as it is comprehensible, always making sense within the context of the overall narrative. In Six Feet Under, a character's reaction is never out of character. And where a more conventional television show would have opted for the unexpected just for the sake of the ratings - Six Feet Under successfully avoids that approach throughout its whole run, always keeping it credible and in keeping with the character. 

The same goes for the use of graphic violence whose inclusion nowadays is seen as must in order to get  enough people to care to even turn on the telly. But here, too, the writers never deviated from the unconventional path they chose to take. The few times violence does occur, it may occasionally be suffused with black humour, but it is never gratuitous or exploitative.

Something else that deserves to be pointed out is the taboo breaking nature of the series, touching, as it did, on well nigh every existing television no-go from female masturbation to abortion to the war in Iraq, not just in American television, but in television as a whole. And even topics that are not exactly tabooed such as gay marriage or the right for gays to adopt children or the consumption of drugs, are tackled in the same tasteful and realistic manner as everything else. Never just in an overt politically correct way, let alone in a simplified black and white one, but rather such that it effortlessly blends into the overall narrative.

The last episode of Six Feet Under has been widely praised as being one of the best finales in television ever. It reminded me of Michael Cunningham's novel Flesh and Blood, in which Cunningham also reaches way ahead into the future to let the reader know what life has in store for his characters in the years to come and how and when exactly they will meet their maker. As such, the series' last episode very much ties in with the theme of Six Feet Under as a whole - death - which, when it comes, is when we're all confronted with the one question that's forever hovering above us: how we lived our lives and if it was worth our while - and that of the ones around us.

Saturday, 4 August 2012

Marilyn Monroe, June 1, 1926 – August 5, 1962

Exactly fifty years ago, Marilyn Monroe died in what I consider to be one of the most unnecessary and avoidable, and consequently also one of the most tragic deaths in Hollywood history.

As Donald Spoto has exhaustively and plausibly demonstrated in his highly commendable study on Monroe, at no point did Monroe have any intention to kill herself. Nor was she killed; that is, at least not intentionally. The ultimately fatal overdose of barbiturates and other drugs was administered by her irresponsible housekeeper who acted under the instruction of Monroe's equally irresponsible psycho-analyst.

Had both acted with greater care and the amount responsibility that befits a housekeeper, not to mention a psycho analyst, for all we know Monroe might have celebrated her 86th birthday this year.

Marilyn Monroe's grave site at the Pierce Brothers Memorial Park in the Los Angeles neighbourhood of Westwood.

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Furious Love, Sam Kashner & Nancy Schoenberger

I love pictures to adorn on my walls, I love beautiful picture frames, what's more - I love the pictures ... so, a lifetime ago, when I had a little money to spare, I had an image I'd found in Interview magazine photographed and blown up to eventually adorn my bedroom wall. That, however, had to wait as having spent the little dough I had at the time on having the magazine image blown up, there was no money left for the frame.

The photograph was of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. It's a black and white double portrait taken by Albert Watson some time in the mid 1960s. I still have it, to this very day, and whenever I moved house (which, being a serial house mover, was often) the - long since beautifully framed - photograph was taken along.

I can't say if the original photograph was taken during a sitting or if it's a snapshot, though my guess is, that it's probably the result of a sitting. I've been obsessed with Taylor and Burton by varying degrees ever since I was a little boy when I read about them in the many tabloids my mother used to be a subscriber to. As I grew older and my sources of information on Taylor and Burton became more reliable, my erstwhile obsession turned into fascination and eventually admiration. I realised that behind the undoubtedly glamorous façade of their affair there was a couple deeply devoted to each other, both hailing from backgrounds that couldn't possibly be any more different, both extremely talented each in their own way, and both of a superior intelligence which, in Richard, manifested itself in a supreme, often self-deprecating wit, while in Elizabeth, it expressed itself in a rare, razor-sharp, sense of self and in an equally rare ability to laugh at herself.

Taylor was also full of contradictions who felt equally at home at London's Dorchester Hotel as she did in a Welsh pub, feasting on beer and rarebit. That's precisely part of what won over Burton's large family and endeared Elizabeth to them, even though they blamed her at first for breaking up Burton's marriage to Sybil. Taylor, for all her extravagance and her notorious love for diamonds and jewels, probably was one of the most unpretentious and simple movie stars imaginable. Perhaps, it's because she was born into wealth that, although used to it, didn't mind not having it - on occasion. In any case, though her display of wealth would occasionally be ostentatious, she was never pretentious, or worse, arrogant.

Moreover, in the 1950s and 60s, Elizabeth was a worldwide trailblazer in making homosexuality socially acceptable. Much later, and more admirably still, she would be the first A-list celebrity to publicly stand up for people with HIV and AIDS. Eventually, her efforts to raise funds to combat the deadly disease, would wash millions into the coffers of many an organisation, not least of which her own, the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation.

But back to the photograph.

Needless to say, there are thousands of photographs of Taylor and Burton, her probably being the most photographed woman of the 20th century bar none. However, what intrigued me about this particular one is the expression on the faces of both, Taylor and Burton. It's perhaps the only photograph of a (married) couple I can think of that manages to perfection to capture their love for each other, making this love very obviously and believably visible, if not palpable.

Taylor's face seems to say, "See, that's us, we're an item and always will be, and nothing and nobody will ever come between us", while his expression is one of complete devotion - perhaps even submission - to her. I have no idea, of course, how long it took Watson to take the photograph, let alone if its end result is what he was after in the first place. All I know is that it's an outstandingly beautiful photograph - in all its simplicity - and that no matter how deep the feelings are between two people, I suppose that it still takes a highly skilled photographer to get these feelings across in one single image.

This, often referred to as Marriage of the Century, has become the subject of a book by Sam Kashner and Nancy Schoenberger, aptly titled Furious Love. Of course, you may argue that with theirs having been such a highly publicised affair - their excesses having been covered by the international press to a heretofore unprecedented degree - what can there possibly be that we don't know already?

Well, for one thing, this, shall we say, Anatomy of a Marriage, was undertaken with the approval of none other than Dame Elizabeth Taylor herself. She even gave the authors unprecedented access to love letters by Richard Burton to her and the excerpts of these alone make the book worth reading. For it is one thing to know that theirs was indeed a furious love, but it's another to be presented with first-hand evidence, making you realise, for instance, that besides being a great actor, there also was a gifted poet hiding inside Burton.

Furious Love is a monument - a celebration - to two of the most fascinating and talented, figures in film history, accurately retracing their affair, marriage, and collaborations, down to their excessive, fascinating, sometimes lurid, detail.

Indeed, reading the book made me hanker for a different world, the world of yesteryear, a world beyond the false morality and political correctness of today where, instead of attending yoga class followed by a macro-biotic meal, only to be in bed by ten, two newly weds - after an excessive shopping spree on Via dei Condotti - would booze on champagne until dawn before passionately making love, looking much the worse for wear on the set the next day but couldn't care less ...

Sadly, Elizabeth Taylor died not that long after the publication of Furious Love. Rumour has it, that Martin Scorsese has since optioned the movie rights and that the film is slated to be released in 2014.

Furious Love was published by Harper Collins in 2010. It is available on Amazon.

Monday, 2 July 2012

Heat: 3 Hot Classics To Watch

As entire parts of the planet are currently suffering under enormous heat-waves (Mid-West, Central Europe, etc.), it made me think of some movies where heat - or indeed heat-waves - are at the centre of the story or a crucial part of it.

Unsurprisingly, perhaps, in movies heat, high temperatures, and heat waves are frequently used as metaphors for the sexual tension and chemistry between the main characters. Similarly, heat in movies also often symbolises - or leads to - violence, rightly suggesting that suffering heat-waves may wreak havoc with our emotions, in one way or another. Or with both, as is the case in Billy Wilder's Double Indemnity, where the physical attraction between Phyllis Dietrichson and Walter Neff is such that they decide to bump off Phyllis' husband. The references to the outside heat are few, however, in Wilder's film, but they are there. Equally in
Roman Polanski's Chinatown - incidentally also set in Los Angeles - where the persistent heat is being mentioned several times throughout the film as the violence increases and the film's main characters, Jake Gittes and Evelyn Mulwray, embark on their doomed love affair. Polanski's cinematographer, the brilliant John A. Alonzo, expertly managed to make the heat almost palpable using very bright key lights and medium close-ups, thus creating a claustrophobic atmosphere not dissimilar to how one feels when suffering under a heat-wave.

Yet, the heat is not at the centre of the story and the references to it are subtle.

They're a lot less subtle, however, in Lawrence Kasdan's Bodyheat, a quasi remake of Double Indemnity, shot almost 40 years later, showing everything Wilder couldn't show at the time due to the restrictions of the Hays Code, including some steamy sex scenes between Kathleen Turner and William Hurt which caused quite a stir, even in 1981, when Bodyheat was first released. There are numerous references to the unusually hot weather - even for Florida, where the film is set; having read Turner's autobiography, however, I remember her talking about shooting Bodyheat on location in Florida and the terrible experience of pretending it to be scorching hot when, in actual fact, it was freezing cold as Florida suffered under an unusual cold spell at the time.


This - be warned: raunchy - scene below is followed by one of Turner and Hurt trying to cool off in the bath tub:


Wilder's 7-Year Itch is set in the blistering heat of a New York summer where Tom Ewell's character is going through the 7-Year Itch, in other words, having been married for 7 years, the hot and sultry New York summer throws up heretofore unknown feelings in Ewell, especially as far as his new neighbour, an aspiring motion picture actress, is concerned. 

The film's - if not film history's - most famous scene is the one where, in order to cool off, Monroe catches the breeze coming up from a subway grate, causing her skirt to twirl up.   

Yes, here, the heat is also what does Ewell in - sort of ... - though this being the 1950s, the scenes between the Monroe and Ewell character are very tame and nowhere near as steamy as the ones in Bodyheat. In fact, the film version of George Axelrod's play doesn't even go as far as the Broadway play, where Ewell and the girl -remaining nameless throughout play and film - at least get the chance of a hot and steamy one-off.

Betty Blue, Jean-Jacques Beneix' classic French film from 1986 has a subtitle in the original version which - sadly - was deleted from the US and UK versions, Betty Blue, 37,2 degrees in the morning, referring to the sweltering temperatures that pervade almost throughout the picture. Beneix' amour fou is as disturbing as it is beautiful, revolving as it does, around the obsessive love of a young woman, played by Beatrice Dalle, for an odd-jobs man, played by Jean-Hugues Anglade. Their - at the beginning at least - reciprocal love is set against the rugged beauty of the Languedoc region in the South of France where the mid-summer heat is matched by the violently passionate love scenes between Dalle and Anglade. 

However, as Dalle's character slips ever deeper into self-destructive madness, and the heat gives way to somewhat cooler temperatures, the otherwise mesmerising film gets ever more painful to watch.

  Bodyheat, The 7-Year Itch, and Betty Blue are all available on AMAZON. So are Double Indemnity and Chinatown

Friday, 22 June 2012

Johannes Vermeer, 1632 - 1675

  Girl with a Pearl Earring, Mauritshuis, The Hague 

The paintings of Johannes Vermeer have fascinated me ever since I was a child. I suppose that back then I was primarily drawn to them by the quietude and peace they exuded as well as, of course, by their sheer beauty. Moreover, I was quite simply awestruck by the way Vermeer managed to make his paintings look real, to the point where it became well nigh impossible to tell whether they're paintings or photographs. Photography, of course, had yet to be invented; nevertheless the fact that Vermeer in his paintings excelled at imitating reality and came as close to photography as anyone could get in the 17th century, surely is part of their attraction - then and now. 

  A Lady Writing a Letter, National Gallery, Washington 

Years ago, I embarked on several trips around the world to see those of Vermeer's paintings that I hadn't yet seen. Since there are a mere 36 paintings of his that have survived, all in various museums spread across exactly 13 cities in 6 countries (USA: New York, Washington, Princeton; France: Paris; UK: London, Edinburgh; Ireland: Dublin; The Netherlands: Amsterdam, The Hague; Germany: Frankfurt, Brunswick, Berlin, Dresden), the term around the world is, I suppose a slight exaggeration. But it was nonetheless nothing short of a revelation to finally lay eyes on each and every actual painting of his instead of just looking at their reproductions.

  A Lady Reading a Letter at an Open Window, Gemaeldegalerie, Dresden 

A revelation indeed - for looking at Vermeer's paintings up-close (or as up-close as museum security will let you), what becomes evident is that the effect of imitating reality and making his painting look like a photograph (though they wouldn't of course have called it that, since photography hadn't yet been invented) is one that is only discernible at a certain distance. If scrutinised, his paintings will appear pixelised, so to speak, with their true and intended effect best coming across when stepping back a foot or two. According to Anthony Bailey's intriguing study on Vermeer - A View of Delft, Vermeer Then and Now - decades later, the technique Vermeer used would be admired and emulated by the Impressionists. Interestingly, one of Vermeer's contemporaries, Diego Velazquez, would also influence the Impressionists, particularly Edouard Manet, though Vermeer and Velazquez apparently never met, nor did they use the same technique. 

  The Lacemaker, Louvre, Paris 

However, Vermeer's paintings recall photographs on another level, inasmuch as virtually all of them show people - mostly women - in motion, as it were, in the middle of doing something, such as weighing pearls, putting on a necklace, reading or writing a letter, and so on. Ad such, his paintings are not unlike snapshots, or put differently, they are the 17th century equivalent of a snapshot. While painting his subjects once the deed was done (meaning, after the pitcher had been put down, the pearls put on, etc.) would seem the obvious thing to do, Vermeer practically always chose to paint them as they were in the process of finishing a task. Doing the opposite, I guess, would have made his paintings quite simply portraits, which is what many - though by no means all - of his contemporaries tended to do. Even what, perhaps, may be called his most famous painting - Girl with a Pearl Earring - the one that comes closest to be classified as a portrait, rather than simply looking straight at the viewer, the girl is also seen in motion as she seems to turn around, looking over her left shoulder.

  The Love Letter, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam 

Vermeer was what I'd call an economic painter, a master of composition. Besides his subjects, the objects that surround them are few and, I would argue, carefully chosen. And while their arrangement looks ever so haphazard, I'm sure Vermeer took great care arranging them the way they best fitted the composition he had in mind. A far cry from the - often very cluttered - paintings of some of his peers, Vermeer's seem downright empty. Yet it is this purity and clarity that make his paintings so elegant. That, and the exquisite use of colours. Again, I am convinced that what seems to random and incidental was, in fact, the result of careful deliberation on his part. But it's not just the way he used colours, it is also the colours themselves - especially the blues and the yellows - that are so much more alive, and so much more intense, than the same (or rather: similar) colours in the paintings by his peers. 

  Woman with a Pearl Necklace, Gemaeldegalerie, Berlin 

Part of our ongoing fascination with Vermeer's work is the fact that so little is known about him or the women in his paintings. Who were they? Why did he paint them? Were the paintings commissioned? Much of Vermeer's background and the genesis of his paintings is shrouded in mystery. This, needless to say, contributes not a little to why we're so captivated by them. This paucity of information regarding Vermeer's life and work has also inspired a great deal of speculation, resulting in a number of novels, and even films. The best known example may be Tracy Chevalier's Girl with a Pearl Earring, in which she cleverly traces - or rather: imagines - the genesis of this, Vermeer's most famous painting. In so doing, Chevalier, also goes into much detail concerning the paint Vermeer used and in everything she describes, including Vermeer's studio, his patrons, and his family life, it is obvious that she did her homework, immersing herself in 17th century Dutch history, resulting in a meticulously woven and carefully constructed story that is as compelling to read as it is instructive. 

 A Woman with a Water Pitcher, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York 

As with every bestseller, this one, too, was soon picked up by a film studio, though as with most great books, they usually turn into bad films. Or rather, get turned into bad films. But bad is perhaps too strong a word. Peter Webber's film isn't bad, it's just uninspired and inconsequential, and a far cry from being as spellbinding as the book it is based on. Let alone the painting!


For those about to head for Tokyo, visiting the exhibition From Renaissance to Rococo - Four Centuries of European Drawing, Painting and Sculpture currently shown at Tokyo's National Museum Of Western Art, is a great opportunity to see a few of Vermeers paintings, among them Woman with a pearl Necklace, on loan from Berlin's Gemaeldegalerie.  

Thursday, 14 June 2012

Fashioning Fashion


Fashioning Fashion is an exhibition on European fashions between 1700 and 1915.

The exhibition has been jointly put together by the Los Angeles County Museum and Berlin's German Historical Museum, which runs a series of films to accompany the show.

Its subtitle - European fashion between 1700 and 1915 - is rather a misnomer for what it actually does show, are French and English fashions of that period as the overwhelming majority of exhibits are from those two countries, begging the question if Italian, Swedish, Austrian or German women went naked ... Well, they didn't, of course, and my guess is, that because the influence and power wielded by those two countries was so strong that the rest of Europe also looked to them with regard to everything concerning etiquette, architecture - and apparel, and giving the visitor some background information and historical insight to that end, including a word about the choice of dresses, certainly would have benefited the exhibition.

For as I said, this is merely my guess, for let's not forget that Austria was a very powerful country, too, at the time, and so were a handful of other European nations, which is why putting the exhibition in some basic historical context would have been helpful, if not fundamental. And even though France and England may have been the countries everybody else took their cue from, it still might have been interesting to see some examples of dresses from other (European) countries, if only to identify variations in craftsmanship or national adaptations and modifications, if indeed there were any.

It may well be that period dresses from countries other than France and England weren't available or the respective museums unwilling to loan them out, in which case this information should have been passed on to the visitors.


That said, the exhibition itself has been beautifully put together by Belgian scenographer Bob Verhelst, who was in charge of the overall look, such as the the colour scheme and the design, of the show. However, to make the show more dynamic and to put the garments into a historical and cultural context, including paintings, drawings and sketches pertaining to the fashions of that time and period, might have helped. As it is, there are simply the - albeit beautifully dressed - mannequins and next to them explanations as to the fabric, trims, and tailoring of the dresses and suits on show. 

And there are, of course, the films

There, one wonders what Gone With the Wind is doing in the film section (entitled costume films) of an exhibition that's supposed to be about European fashions while, for instance, any version of Dangerous Liaisons is sadly missing. It's a bit of a random mix that includes films like Room With a View as well as, believe it or not, Muenchhausen.

A(ny) link between the selection of films and the actual exhibition would certainly have been beneficial.

Also missing is an explanation of the genre of the costume film - if indeed it is one - and defining of what makes a film a costume film - is it just the fact that a film's costumes are fancy? Or because it's a period drama? 

Regardless of all that, it nonetheless is a delight to be able to see Gone With the Wind on the big screen again! 

Saturday, 9 June 2012

AFI Life Achievement Award For Shirley MacLaine

Last night, Shirley MacLaine was the 40th recipient of the American Film Institute's Life Achievement Award.

In a glamorous gala ceremony at Hollywood's Kodak Theatre, Maclaine was seated amidst Julia Roberts and previous Life Achievement Award recipient, Meryl Streep, who later bestowed the award upon MacLaine.

Other presenters included MacLaine's brother, Warren Beatty, her sister-in-law, Annette Bening, and her co-star in the film that won her the Academy Award for Best Actress, Jack Nicholson, who played her love interest in Terms Of Endearment (James Brooks, US 1983).

Looking at MacLaine's recent output it's easy to forget that she participated in a number of milestones in cinema history, for instance Being There, Hal Ashby's much underrated masterpiece from 1980, Sweet Charity, or Vincente Minnelli's best film, Some Came Running, from 1960.

She was fortunate enough to collaborate with Hitchcock, who offered her her first part in movies, in his black comedy, The Trouble with Harry, back in 1955. MacLaine arrived in Hollywood at the cusp when the studio system was about to disintegrate, yet the so-called New Hollywood that would soon emerge, had little to offer her, perhaps because she was still somehow identified with the old system. As a result, directors like Alan J. Pakula, Michael Cimino, Francis Ford Coppola or Sydney Lumet seemed to have little use for her - with the exception of Hal Ashby, who, however, recognised Maclaine outstanding comic talent which substantially contributed to make Being There the hilarious, dark, way-before-its-time, media satire that it actually is.

That MacLaine isn't identified with a specific era in film history may be part of the reason that she's had such a long and successful career, avoiding the fate of so many actresses who, for instance, rose to fame in the 1970s, collaborated on a number of New Hollywood movies - only to subsequently disappear into oblivion. Think of Jane Alexander, Karen Black, Katherine Ross, or Genevieve Bujold, to name but a few.

Other reasons are her staying power and - quite simply - her talent. Difficult to label or classify as she's as convincing in musicals as she is in comedies or dramas, Maclaine, now pushing eighty, is still regularly offered work. One of her upcoming appearances include the part of  Elizabeth McGovern's wealthy  mother in the British television series, Downton Abbey. Rumour has it, that her scenes with Maggie Smith are bringing a new meaning to the word hilarious, something which I can easily believe.

Congratulations, Shirley!