Oklahoma! is one of the great scores of American musical theatre but not the greatest of musical films: the two often get confused, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s own South Pacific being the most obvious example (though it can be argued that even that isn’t the greatest of scores; the film, however, is dreadful).
The stage show, coming as it did in 1943, just after America’s entry into WWII, was thought, erroneously, to introduce American musical theatre to the integrated musical (Show Boat, produced in 1927 with music by Jerome Kern and lyrics by Hammerstein came considerably earlier and has a greater claim to the honour).
The Broadway show of Oklahoma did nonetheless revolutionise American musical theatre, showing as it did, how musical theatre was capable of bringing not only joy but also depth, seriousness, unity, and cutting edge inventiveness (with Agnes De Mille’s dream ballet in the show receiving particular praise for this. The dream ballet here inspired all the subsequent dream ballets in Hollywood musicals. So blame Agnes de Mille.). The show was thought so important it won a special Pulitzer Prize for literature to acknowledge its contributions. It was certainly influential, and from the mid-forties onwards, the integrated musical became the norm on Broadway.
The score is one of the great wonders of American musical theatre. Hearing the rising O’s in ‘Oklahoma!’ alone is enough to put a smile in my face. But the score also contains ‘Oh What a Beautiful Mornin,’ The Surrey with the Fringe on Top’, ‘People Will Say We’re in Love’, ‘Many a New Day’, ‘All er Nothing,’ and many more hits. It’s no exaggeration to say that it became the soundtrack of a generation throughout the forties and well into the fifties and is known to be a particular favourite of the Queen. The songs have been covered by pretty much all the great singers (from Sinatra and Lena Horne to Blossom Dearie) and are considered staples of ‘The Great American Songbook’.
Both the show and the film convey the way America liked to see itself in the middle of the last century: equal (‘I’m no better than anybody else but I’ll be danged if I ain’t just as good’), modern (‘everything’s up to date in Kansas City, they’ve gone about as far as they can go’), inclusive (Persian peddlers marry in, cowboys and farmers end up friends, a territory becomes a state), with a cornfed energy and open-air sexual innocence (‘People Will Say We’re in Love’) that often enveloped or was a front to more exciting things (‘I’m just a girl who can’t say no’). The tone throughout is one of homespun hickness layered in the common-sense toughness so prized by Americans.
But the film of Oklahoma! is a stately and ponderous affair, a dilemma for a show that’s got an exclamation point in its title. Zinnemann has no fun with this material. Everything is filmed to highlight the seriousness and importance. We get to see Curly (Gordon McRae) riding from a low angle amongst the corn so rendered majestic. Even Will Parker (Gene Nelson) jumping of a train onto a horse is rendered unexciting, from far away in a long take that emphasises the landscape rathe than the action. Many scenes are shot full-on frontal, in compositions that seem haphazard. And whilst songs are often shot in long takes from a fixed angle (see the clip below), Agnes De Mille’s great dream ballet is butchered so that sometimes all you see of the dancers is from the waist up. And often one notices how landscape is favoured over character, and though it is beautiful, and the show is meant to be about Oklahoma, it distances us from the characters.
The film was shot in two versions, the then new 70 mm Todd-AO process for select theatres and a CinemaScope 35mm version for wider distribution. They are in fact two different versions, made up of different takes. I saw the 35mm version, meant to be the weaker one, as the first takes where generally used for the Todd-AO version, and though the restored version is generally a handsome affair, some shots still look quite murky.
In spite of my reservations, there are many things I love about this version: It’s a treat to see James Mitchell, so important to Agnes De Mille’s work and indeed to the development of American dance, as the dream Curly actually dancing (unlike in Minnelli’s The Band Wagon where he merely plays Cyd Charisse’s Svengali choreographer); Shirley Jones had not yet learned to act but she’s got a delectable chocolate box prettyness; I love the tone of Gordon McRae’s voice even though his performance lacks the zest, energy and sex-appeal Hugh Jackman brought to the role of Curly in the Trevor Nunn production for the National Theatre in London (see above); Gene Nelson’s been thought one of the burdens poor Doris Day had to put up with in her Warners Days but I like his dim Will Parker very much.
These performers, though not quite of the top rank, are not the problem with the film. In fact, to me, Rod Steiger has never been better. He could be, in fact he usually was, a terrible ham. But here he brings a broody, hulking presence to the role of Judd. And he’s so restrained throughout most of the film, that when he does explode, it becomes powerful and meaningful, rather than an annoying characteristic of his style of acting. Likewise, whilst there are other performances of Gloria Grahame that I like at least as much (I love her in everything I’ve seen her in really but particularly in Human Desire, The Big Heat, and In a Lonely Place) her Ado Annie — all stylised and pitched high but soft — is a joy, as is her duet with Gene Nelson in ‘All ‘er Nothing’ (the former is from the 35mm CinemaScope print, the latter from the 70mm Todd-AO, for comparison)
From the 35mmm CinemaScope version
From the 70mm Todd-AO version
Fred Zinnemann has no feel for the homespun rural Americana the film idealises. His greatest hits (The Search, A Nun’s Story,A Man for All Seasons, Julia, and even — famously —High Noon) and his dream project that got away (a film of Malraux’ Man’s Fate) are indicators of how distanced his sensibility is from this material. The main lacks are pace and energy, which in fact should be the very motor of this material.
My main reason for seeing this, however, was Gloria Grahame (I’m on a bit of a marathon of her films at the moment). She did not disappoint, and in fact the film brought an increased appreciation of her talents and an increased understanding of why Rod Steiger once meant something as an actor. Plus the score is an undiluted joy in any version.
One of those all-star multi-strand melodramas so typical of the 1950s (Not as a Stranger, The Best of Everything, This Earth is Mine). But this one directed by Vincente Minnelli, and perhaps only he could get away with structuring all of the drama around the hanging of drapes: Mrs. McIver (Gloria Grahame) wants some chic ones from Chicago; Miss Inch (Lillian Gish) wants some practical ones, at a discount; and Doctor McIver (Richard Widmark) and Miss Rinehart (Lauren Bacall) have a project to get the patients at the psychiatric institute (Jon Kerr, Susan Strasberg, Oscar Levant etc) to design their own. Charles Boyer is Dr. Devanal, the former head, now usually too soused to do much except letch around between institute and motel room , spicing up the intrigue and thickening the plot as the drapes go up and down.
The standout performances are Grahame’s, all seething sexual frustration as the girl who every guy but her husband is hot for, and Gish who does something much deeper and complex with her performance of Miss Inch, the administrator desperate to be needed and hiding it all an aggression born out of a lifetime’s neglect.
The worst performance, and its worth mentioning because she spoiled so many 50s movies, is Bacall’s. She’s a sour, haughty and humourless presence here as in so many movies of this period (Written on the Wind) and later (Murder on the Orient Express). Here she looks great, which hasn’t always been the case when photographed in colour. But even her glossy tawny looks can’t hide a performance that is all attitude without emotion and seems composed entirely of poses.
In interviews, Bacall’s talked about how in this movie Minnelli cared only for drapes and the only thing he contributed to her performance was to move her knee from one side to the other. What she doesn’t mention is that that’s probably the best anyone could have done for her (See her performance in How to Marry a Millionnaire — at least *here* she’s photographed beautifully and looks terrific). Minnelli knew about drapes and about moving the camera and arranging people within the cinemascope frame in ways that are still tremendously exciting to watch. What Bacall accuses Minnelli of is in fact what she provides: great surface with nothing evident underneath.
Readers interested in questions of the representation of gays and lesbians in cinema might find it interesting to know that the character played by Oscar Levant, Mr. Capp, was a homosexual fixated on his mother in William Gibson’s original novel. The Hays Office prevented the character from being so characterised in the film. Perhaps because of that, Minelli visually coded the character of Mrs. Delmuth as lesbian in what for the 1950s passed as the strongest and most clichéd terms possible: with the short hair, the men’s shirts and in jodhpurs, wearing riding boots, and later on in the film, at the woodwork shop, working at her lathe. The title of Mrs. a cover and alibi for the visual representation where dress nonetheless trumps address. I at first and tellingly thought the part of Mrs Delmuth was played by Mercedes MaCambridge, one of the most vibrant and exciting signifiers of lesbianism in 50s cinema, but I see that the role is actually played by Jarma Lewis. The confusion is, as I hope you can see below, understandable.
James Dean was originally cast as the troubled young artist but studio politics prevented the casting. John Kerr, who would subsequently be cast as the homosexual youth in Tea and Sympathy, is dull in spite of all the histrionics his character is given to perform, rather a feat.
If the film is a visual treat, the sounds are no less of an achievement: According to Laurence E. MacDonald in The Invisible Art of Film Music: A Comprehensive History, the score for The Cobweb is ‘basically atonal’ and is considered to be ‘the first Hollywood film score to contain a twelve-tone row. The main-title music features two elements that return throughout the score: agitated figures for strings and glissandos on the kettledrums. These elements account for much of the imapct of this score, which is understandably a difficult listening exercise for viewers’ (p. 157′)
In spite of extraordinary performances from Jamie Bell and Anette Benning, we didn’t like the Film Stars Don’t Die In Liverpool much, so the discussion ranges from the why of this to who Gloria Grahame was, film noir, why so many fading film stars marry gay men, and what it’s like to watch films at the Electric Cinema.
Caught up on The Accountant, which I missed at the cinema and found great fun though not quite good. There’s something slightly sordid and underhanded about tying the support of people with autism to wanton destruction. Ben Affleck is very good as the accountant/killer who can’t express any emotion; one only gets to know how he feels about people by seeing whether he helps them pay less tax or shooting them some bullets, usually two, one in the head to make sure they’re properly offed. Jon Berthal is Afflec’s opposite: expressive, graceful in movement, sexy. Just as deadly, a lot more expressive with it. I wonder if his performance here led to The Punisher? Anna Kendrick, J.K Simmons and John Lithgow are also in it, the latter excellent as a vainglorious philanthropist billionaire who gets the finale he deserves.
Lots on Minnelli’s being ‘effeminate’ and on his wearing of eyeshadow in public places but still interestingly inconclusive on his sexual orientation. I find it so interesting how in current discourse anything other than ‘queer’ is kind of looked down upon, and yet there is this desperate insistence on claiming anything slightly effeminate as homosexual, which to me is almost the opposite of the fluidity ‘queer’ is supposed to espouse. I find it intriguing and amusing in equal measure.An enjoyable book that’s illuminating on his life and career; there are better — though not yet enough — books on his films.
Paddington 2 wins us over in the end. We found it accomplished, lovely to look at, and with Brendan Gleeson and Hugh Grant giving career-best performances. The film sent us home on a high with a final, gloriously campy musical number that has Grant tapping down a staircase à la Stairway to Paradise to delight his captive audience in borstal (think pink!).
The beginning of the filkm irritated both of us: Its cosy, idealised version of England as a large, racially inclusive community of upper middle-class toffs with clipped accents and impeccable manners; its view of London neighbourhoods as small villages where everyone knows each other; the way all of it seems encased in the same cloud of amber-tinted nostalgia so familiar from Ms Marple films — perhaps it’s depicting the way we would all like it to be and perhaps it’s asking us to measure the distance between what we see and what we know. But it veered dangerously close to sap-land and brought out the ornery in me. This feeling disappeared once the film tossed in some acidity to brighten up proceedings.
We discuss the film’s glorious visuals, with various styles of animation seamlessly incorporated into the film’s clear but complex storytelling; the similarity to Wes Anderson; we diss Peter Capaldi, Julie Walters, Jim Broadbent. It’s not as perfect as everyone seems to say — offering us plenty of scope to criticise — but we both left the cinema in admiration and in a cloud of good feeling. A feel-good, Brexit Paddington (and negotiations would be going much better with him at the helm). Mike mentions the word masterpiece.
Sean Baker’s The Florida Project incites ruminations on the representation of underclasses in cinema; the emergence of a new American neorealism; clichés of slice-of-life and childhood films; what audiences owe to films that are truly reaching, even beyond their grasp; and why a man who can cry at Toy Story can’t open himself up to stories of genuine human pain. One of us finds the colour lilac revolting.
Delon, cigarette dangling, stops to play the piano. Deneuve steps out to look. He’s the object of her gaze but it’s her the camera lingers over. She catches his eye. He smiles knowing that she’s been looking. A third person enters and he’s called away. He blows her kisses. She does the same. But she’s already betrayed him. All this smokey perfection wafts through on a gentle jazz piano, sound and image masterfully conceptualised by Melville. It’s hard to think of who and what’s more perfect: he, she or the direction that’s orchestrating all of it.
The costumes are atrocious, the look busy and garish, few of the jokes land, Wonder Woman is reduced to mothering the boys: there’s little to love in Justice League. We, however, have a hoot pointing out its many, many faults. Join in the laughter.
I didn’t know Anthony Rapp had written a memoir until a friend recommended it to me the other day, for which I’m grateful. I was interested in reading it because I wanted to know what kind of man it was that broke the Kevin Spacey story. It turns out he’s the kind of actor for whom it was important to be out quite early on (from when he was a teenager to his mother; and from the early nineties, when he was in his early twenties, to the world at large) and who somewhat made his career out of being so: until, possibly, the new Star Trek: Discovery, Rent remains what he’s best known for.
Much of the book is concerned with family acceptance, with community service in New York, with trying to do the right thing whilst his Mom is dying of cancer and he’s enjoying his biggest triumph on Broadway in Rent. The AIDS crisis which is the subject of Rent is layered onto the cancer his mother is dying from; art illuminating and helping make life and its loss bearable. The bohemians of the musical, and the busy and glamorous life he’s leading in New York always put in tension with what’s happening back home in Illinois. His attempts to find love and not be alone is also played against the very large and relatively oppressive extended family which nonetheless is present to varying degrees in order to help and to ritualise important moments.
Reading the book, one can see why there might be a soupçon of ressentiment from an actor who takes all the risks of being out during the height of the AIDS crisis (Rapp goes right from an AIDS memorial service to his audition for Rent) to one who arguably, by not being so, went on to greater and greater fame. Rapp recounts an anecdote of going out with an actor and breaking up with him because he wouldn’t accompany him on the red carpet thus marking himself as a ‘gay partner’ due to his career.
An interesting and illuminating theatrical memoir from a sincere, sensitive and well-intentioned person that, as is expected of anyone whose star gets a chance to shine in the Great White Way, is somewhat self-absorbed and self-indulgent and relatively unfocussed on any subject that isn’t himself. I’m very glad to have read it.
The ”Slap in the Face’ exhibition at Vivid Projects is excellent. Twiggy is a performance artist who has been making ‘happenings’ for the last 30 years primarily in Birmingham but also in almost every major city in Britain, and quite a few abroad (from Barcelona to Moscow). He’s also a conceptual artist and a designer of costumes and looks ‘none-pareil’, each look different, each one uniquely his. The exhibition shows how the looks change over the years, how they interact, interrogate, critique, and play with the dominant culture of the day.
It’s work that takes place underground, in or in front of gay or alternative clubs, on the margins where the permissible and forbidden are constructed; and its taken place on those margins even as those margins shift from year to year as those boundaries of the acceptable and the shocking and surprising get re-drawn through social change. Here’s an artist steeped in drag but who does something quite different; the looks he conjures are neither male nor female: they’re sometimes ironic, always playful, excessive, immensely expressive and always his.
Gender always gets displayed, performed but always fluidly, no end of the binary is ever arrived at. I’ve been to see so many performance artists in galleries who don’t express anywhere near what Twiggy had done every weekend for thirty years and on his own dime. Moreover, unlike most performance artists, Twiggy knows not only how to question, ironise and play — formally and conceptually–, he also knows how to delight.
He’s a living history of Birmingham gay culture as well. Almost everyone who’s gone out in the gay or alternative clubs of the city for the last thirty year has encountered, bantered, posed with Twiggy. And the exhibit also gives this element of Twiggy’s career its due: there he is with girls on a night out, goths, ageing mothers, young boys newly venturing on the gay scene, old geezers, other drag performers who can’t quite compete because they know only Twiggy rules the roost in Birmingham. There too is the Lord Mayor and every gay parade since there’s been one.
Twiggy has brought joy to thousands, maximum inventiveness and expressiveness within his own art, he’s been part of a community and helped build it and was engaged in changing it even as he embodied and expressed those changes weekly in performance. And until now he’s done this all alone with no institutional help of any kind from anyone in the art world. I’m really grateful that Trevor Pitt had the foresight to curate this great show with Twiggy and Dave Remes and also to Yameen Baig-Clifford for giving it a home at Vivid Projects and to Adam Carver of Shout Festival of Queer Arts and Culture for helping to commission it.
Maybe if he’d been doing this in London, he would be better known, and probably have been given his due as a major interstitial artist long ago with the V&A bidding madly on rights to his costumes and archive. Certainly the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery should. They’re beautiful objects on display even if like most clothing or theatrical costuming it’s not fully alive until it’s inhabited in performance. There are also documents that point to a long, vivid and textured history of an artist intricately engaged with a language and a form constantly expressing and interacting with changing communities for the last thirty years.
The neglect of his work by the art-world to now is evidence of how hermetic it is, how reified its structures and how commodified its product. An oligarchic neoliberal system pulling strings in a transnational context to exclude all but a few and fix their price has no space for someone like Twiggy, who in fact does all that art should do (amongst other things: express, conceptualise, critique, give form to, delight). Here’s is someone local, someone great, committed to plowing his very particular furrow for a long time and constantly creating on his own dime with not formal institutional recognition until now. He’s been doing all things we prize in artists but on the street and in the clubs. I’m glad he’s finally gotten his due in a gallery, though not yet to the extent he deserves. I hope that this great show is only a long overdue beginning of the acknowledgment and appreciation Twiggy’s art deserves in an art-world context.
Mike hadn’t seen Sidney Lumet’s classic version of Murder on the Orient Express so we saw it together and basically compare the two but keep the focus on the original. We discuss which performances we prefer in each version, what we make of the differences in style and tone between the film, which film was better directed and who was the better Poirot? We also ask whether the action sequences in the new film were quite necessary. We don’t agree but Mike mounts a good defence.
Mike and I discuss the form of these Agatha Christie film adaptations, how Agatha Christies’s types in the novels here intersect with star personaes; we disagree about Kenneth Branagh as a film star though agree on him as an actor and director; we praise Michele Pfeiffer above all but also Johnny Depp, Lucy Boynton, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Derek Jacobi). Has Branagh beefed up his part at the expense of the other stars? We disagree. Is the film a successful whodunnit? Are the action scenes necessary? Is the film suspenseful? Is it too CGI? Does the end bring out moral ambiguity? We did not discuss how collective revenge in the absence of justice connects to modern times though we should have. We did agree that it’s a film we’d happily watch again if shown on ITV on a Sunday afternoon.
My favourite of the recent art exhibitions I’ve seen, the one where I feel I learned the most. One forgets that Picasso was already a figure in Belle Epoque Paris. He painted the same people as Lautrec (La Goulou, Jane Avril), was obsessed by the same themes and milieus (Bohemianism, the Underworld, Brothrels, The Circus). Picasso also undertook advertising in this period. Seeing the work side by side on the same themes, with Picasso painting in a style that seems a combination of the recent Post-Impressionism mixed in with the emerging style seen recently in the Portrait in Vienna style at the National Gallery (Klimt, Schiele, Kokoschka), was a revelation. Brilliant exhibition, which will surely travel and which I urge you to see if you get the opportunity.
A delight to sit down and talk to Christopher Twig (aka Twiggy) on the occasion of the forthcoming retrospective of his work — Twiggy Birmingham: Slap in the Face — curated by Trevor Pitt as part of the forthcoming ‘Shout’ Festival from the 9th-19th of November. To the LGBT community, Twiggy is as much of an icon of Birmingham as Selfridges or the Library: everyone who’s been to an LGBT club or to a gay pride parade in the city will have at least walked past and usually had their photo taken with him. His evolution as an artist is also the city’s evolution in respect to LGBT cultures. A maker of ‘Happenings,’ a performance artist non-pareil, a constant designer of unique and iconic looks, he’s conjured up a space for himself and his art where one didn’t exist before. The ‘Twiggy Birmingham: Slap in the Face’ exhibit on his work, curated by Trevor Pitt, is long overdue recognition of his achievements as an artist. As Pitt describes it, ‘Twiggy Birmingham is an ongoing creative project spanning over three decades that takes the body, costume, adornment and performance to the level of an art form. From androgynous punky Goth, to energy fuelled Club Kid to flamboyant event host and walkabout artist, to outrageous stage performer, Twiggy Birmingham has documented their experiences through photographs, video, costume and memorabilia. An unmissable figure in pop, club and drag culture of Birmingham and beyond’. The experience will be open to the public from 10-18th November at Vivid Projects, 16 Minerva Works, 158 Fazeley Street Birmingham.
Jigsaw’s back after a seven year absence, with new traps and twists and torture. One of us is very excited about this. The other has never seen a Saw film. Guess which one felt sadistically bludgeoned? What are the pleasures on offer? How do the films in the series connect? What is the basic structure. How good a Saw film is Jigsaw? A Trumpist film or merely Old Testament Religiosity?
Will Cineworld will ever get film screenings right? This time they started off showing Geostorm instead of Thor: SINeworld is what we should call, says Mike. I’m never seeing a film in 4X-3D again, says I. We discuss Marvel’s practice of cameos, the limits of what a director like Taika Waititi can bring to a Marvel film, whether action needs to be conceptualised differently in CGI films, the developments in 3-D, and the performances of Cate Blanchett, Anthony Hopkins, Chris Hemsworth, Jeff Goldblum. We also linger on the very particular type of humour Waititi brings to this project.