As he did with 2016’s Jackie, director Pablo Larraín explores the life, image, and legacy of a woman publicly struck by tragedy in Spencer, a fabulistic biopic that imagines a Christmas holiday spent with the royal family at Sandringham, during which Princess Diana struggles with the knowledge of her husband’s affair and the watchful eyes of both the royals and the paparazzi.
We discuss our own relationships to both Larraín and Diana, and consider how the film draws on various aspects of the princess’s public image in painting a portrait of a woman losing her mind. The film is set squarely within that mind, and Mike argues that it uses several tropes and techniques common to horror in order to dramatise Diana’s fracturing mental state. José expresses his love for Kristen Stewart’s outstanding lead performance, one that doesn’t impersonate but evokes, and conveys differing stages of psychosis with subtlety.
We don’t agree on everything, and the film isn’t perfect, but Spencer is a really remarkable, expressive exploration of an iconic figure.
Aretha Franklin, an icon of American music, receives a dispiritingly by-the-numbers biopic in Respect, which takes this perfect subject for such a film and does nothing very interesting with her. We discuss, among other topics, the film’s dependence on clichés, its poor lighting, Franklin’s relationship with her father and upbringing in a prosperous household, Jennifer Hudson’s performance in the central role, and that scene, so common to music biopics, in which the signature song is developed.
If one of the functions of the biopic is to introduce newcomers to a person’s work and provide an insight into what made them worthy of their story being told… then the Queen of Soul needs another biopic. Respect certainly isn’t devoid of entertaining and engaging moments, but, ultimately, it fails its subject.
José hasn’t seen a worse film from David Fincher than Mank, a contentious biopic of Herman J. Mankiewicz, the screenwriter whose collaboration with Orson Welles resulted in The Greatest Film of All Time™, Citizen Kane. Mike had rather a good time, despite seeing numerous problems with the film, raising the question: How much background knowledge is the right amount for enjoying Mank?
Mank doesn’t even explain, for instance, that the film Mankiewicz and Welles would create is considered one of history’s greatest, so some knowledge of the subject is clearly necessary; too much, though, and its missed opportunities and purposeful alterations to and adaptations of the facts become evident and impossible to ignore. Mike finds that he’s just ignorant – or is that informed – enough to understand the film’s background and setting without going crazy, as José does, as it clashes with his knowledge of the history.
We discuss Mank‘s obvious inspiration in Pauline Kael’s discredited essay, Raising Kane, which argued that Mankiewicz deserved sole credit for Kane‘s screenplay; its flashback structure that shows us where the screenplay came from and why Mankiewicz is the only person who could have written it; its depiction of Hollywood in the 30s (not to mention Mankiewicz in HIS 30s); the parallels that it draws with Hollywood and, more generally, the state of the world today, and more. Almost every criticism José makes, Mike agrees with – but he cannot and will not deny that he had a good time, finding the film witty and energetic where José felt it musty and lethargic. It’s a poor showing from a filmmaker with a largely exceptional oeuvre – unless you’re in that Goldilocks zone with Mike.
Jim Thorpe — All American is one of three films Burt Lancaster did in the 1950s that explored discrimination against native peoples in the US and that in their modest way pushed the boundaries of representation in American popular culture. Apache (Richard Aldrich, 1954) and The Unforgiven (John Huston, made in 59 but released in 1960) are the others. ‘When white man lick Indian, he win battle’, one of Thorpe’s room-mates tells him, ‘Indian lick white man – ‘massacre’. The film’s very title harks back to Knute Rockne — All American (Lloyd Bacon, 1940), and the discrimination of native peoples, who should be equal by law, is the overt theme of the film, as indicated from the very first with Burt Lancaster’s star entrance (below):
The film is a sports biopic of Jim Thorpe, an Algonquin from Oklahoma Territory who went to Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania to keep a promise to his father. With the help of football coach Glen Scobey (“Pop”) Warner (Charles Bickford), Thorpe, whose native name is ‘Bright Path’, became one of the legendary athletes of the day, excelling in football, baseball and track, for which he won several medals at the Olympics. He was stripped of those medals for having played baseball ‘professionally’ during the summer, although he barely made enough to cover food and rent whilst playing, underlining the class underpinnings of ‘amateur.’ He recovers professionally, overcoming the debacle with the medals and racial discrimination, only to be brought low once more by the death of his only son and the subsequent dissolution of his marriage. Near the end of the film we see him in full cigar-store Indian drag, desultorily mc-ing a dance marathon in 1930. Burton is great at expressing a deadness in the eyes that speaks of struggles to maintain dignity in the face of alienation and humiliation.
Curtiz symbolises the break-up of Jim Thorpe’s marriage via the bed, and Burt, star that he is, manages to find the pin-lights with his eyes before collapsing in grief:
Alex K. Rode, Cutiz’ biographer writes that ‘The picture received generally positive reviews and grossed nearly a million dollars over its cost. Jim Thorpe — All American was characteristic of Curtiz’ postwar Warner films: a well-made, profitable picture that quickly faded from the public’s memory’.
Curtiz was the top director at Warners in the classic period for a reason. The integration of stock footage into the banquet scenes that bookend the film and in the Olympics sequence are seamlessly integrated, and must have considerably cut down on the film’s budget. The editing of the sports sequence, often in mid-motion to give flow to Lancaster’s movement and whoever doubled for him, is also very fine. It has some lovely bits, such as here below with Burt, Phyllis Thaxter and the baby.
…and the compositions, superbly filmed by Ernest Haller, are original and striking:
In spite of all the above, the film also feels emotionally crude, pat, everything beautifully directed as to image and pacing but lacking in depth, understanding or delicacy. It vividly conveys the outline of feeling, but it always feels like it’s walloping the main point at the expense of the subtler, more complex, more contradictory dimensions of character and story. Burt Lancaster, who’s never given the credit he deserves, is superb.
Cars, business, and a big chummy Brummie combine in 1960s California as Ford sets itself the mission of beating the all-conquering Ferrari in the 24 Hours of Le Mans endurance race, in a film that has not one but two boring titles: Ford v Ferrari in the USA, and Le Mans ’66 in the UK. Mike had a good enough time to see it twice, even though it’s directed by James Mangold, for whom he has little love; José, incredibly, even welled up at the end.
Although one might expect clashes between the egos of our heroes, the Texan car designer Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) and Brummie racer Ken Miles (Christian Bale), their relationship is really one of friendship, common goals, and coping with the management at Ford, for whom Le Mans is about business opportunity and making their way into the increasingly deep pockets of the American teenager. José finds Ken’s family life of particular emotional interest, the support he receives from his wife a pleasure and their arguments complex, though Mike isn’t as complimentary, seeing the film as overall too slick for its own good, failing to generate real tension in the problems it depicts. This goes for the racing, too, for which he reserves some criticism, opining that while the races are good fun and entertaining larks, they don’t convey the stresses or feeling of endurance as they should. But José, a man who cares not a jot for cars or racing, enjoyed the heck out of them, and perhaps that is an achievement all of its own.
The film offers some rather crude comic representations of Italians, the Ferrari pit crew running around like cartoons, which despite only really showing up twice do stick in the mind; and lightly poses the competition as a continuation of the Second World War, the Allies at Ford battling the Axis Power of Italy (at one point, Henry Ford II, played to a T by the great Tracy Letts, brags to Shelby about the role his factory played in building planes for the American war effort, telling him, “Go to war”). It’s an American film about the greatness of America at the height of America’s cultural standing in the world; as José describes it, their empire.
And plonked in the middle of this American myth-making is a sarcastic showoff from Sutton Coldfield, unable to keep his mouth shut except when he’s got some tea in there. Mike responded with unbridled joy to the attention to detail shown to Ken’s origins, not only in the broad, charming accent Bale employs, but also in the dialect he brings with him, talking of cheese cobs and using the phrase “round the Wrekin”, something most of Britain probably has no clue about, let alone America. Peaky Blinders may have given Birmingham a platform in modern pop culture, particularly amongst Americans, but Mike enjoys Ken here much more, ecstatic that a $100m movie that’s going down well with audiences features a Brummie as one of its heroes.
Le Mans ’66 is an honest to god charm offensive of a film, with entertaining action, performances that do the well-written screenplay justice, and even an emotional sting in the tail. Get yourself to the cinema for it. It’s bosting.
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José reminisces about Judy Garland as a feature of his childhood, a constant presence on his family’s television, and as a person who took on different significance to him as he grew up. Whether he admits it or not, he’s been keen to see Judy since the trailers first appeared. Mike, predictably, neither knows much about her nor cares, although he has seen The Wizard of Oz about a thousand times.
The film’s greatest pleasure is Renée Zellweger’s performance, a pleasant surprise to José as he’s never liked her very much. We agree that the stage numbers leave something to be desired – the production seems to create a disconnect between Zellweger’s performance and singing, sounding artificial – but swoon at moments when it all comes together, particularly in the climactic rendition of Over the Rainbow. José suggests that this is when Zellweger most deviates from any of Garland’s true performances, and perhaps that relative freedom from imitation is what gives her the space to connect to the song here.
In general terms, the film is none too exciting, shot effectively but inexpressively and ticking off the normal plot points of a star-on-the-decline biopic, with money and family worries, substance abuse problems, temper tantrums and assorted other clichés making appearances, and authentic as it may be, there’s only so many times Judy can be late for a gig before the drama wears thin. Her relationship with her children is an emotional wrench, though, and the film builds to an effective ending, powered by that fantastic final number.
There’s a subplot about Judy’s encounter with a gay couple that recognises her importance to the gay community and contrasts her glitz and stardom with the inhumane oppression to which gay people were and are treated – homosexuality was decriminalised in the UK only two years prior to when the film is set. It’s a plot strand that could fall on its face through cheesiness or clumsiness, particularly considering the couple’s role in the final scene, but it arguably succeeds through periphrastic, sparing dialogue, and by tying everything back to Judy’s songs. Everything comes back to those, ultimately, and despite some lacklustre direction here and there, it all comes together when it absolutely needs to.
The podcast can be listened to in the players above or on iTunes.
Adam McKay brings the confrontational, fourth-wall-breaking style he employed in The Big Shortto a story of lust for power, hidden agendas, opportunism, and as near as makes no difference a coup d’état of the American government, engineered from inside the White House. Christian Bale plays Dick Cheney as he transforms from a brainless layabout into the de facto President of the United States, operating with scary, virtually boundless power to do whatever he wishes. It’s energetic, interesting, self-aware, and makes statements and accusations as bold as you’re likely to see in mainstream cinema. But it’s difficult to trust, says only what you’d like to hear, narrates where there are obvious opportunities to dramatise, and, fundamentally, fails to do what a biopic should: develop and convey an understanding of who its subject is and why. We weren’t impressed with much more than the makeup, unfortunately – though it is brilliant makeup.
We also have a browse through the Oscar nominations, why not.
The podcast can be listened to in the players above or on iTunes.
The road to banal and disappointingly homophobic biopics of rock legends is, as they say, paved with good intentions. The Queen story/Freddie Mercury biopic has been in the works since 2010, with creative differences amongst the filmmakers made public and Brian May and Roger Taylor apparently exercising tight control over how the story would be told. What they apparently wanted was sanitised, bowdlerised, pasteurised, inoffensive to the delicate sensibilities of an audience that would rather not look too closely at the sexuality of a gay icon. Which sounds absurd, but considering the old man sat near us in the cinema who audibly said, “oh dear”, when Freddie was shown kissing a man… Jesus, they might have had a point.
José expresses his disappointment at seeing yet another gay story in which being gay leads to isolation and unhappiness: ‘the sad young man’ trope evolving into the ‘dead queer’ one. Freddie is lonely, surrounded by cats in a vast empty house, pining for a woman. His gay relationships are chaste and the one openly gay character, comfortable with who he is, is cast as a snake, a villain. Freddie’s sexual drive bursts out of his music; are we supposed to believe he experienced no joy in being gay? Brian May – the character – is depicted as a particularly annoying pest, clean, perfect, and forever commenting on Freddie’s lifestyle and behaviour as if to vet it; or perhaps as if to ensure the audience is comfortable. The more we think about it the more homophobic it is.
Our discussion of the film’s attitude to and portrayal of Freddie’s sexuality is central, but two other key aspects to his life also come under criticism – his music, and his death from AIDS. The latter is skated over almost entirely, sympathetically included right at the end to help you feel good about feeling bad for him. The music can’t be hurt, of course, and it’s a pleasure to hear banger after banger, but as Mike says, you may as well go home, read the Queen Wikipedia page and put on the Greatest Hits. What drives the band, what drives Freddie, aren’t things the film appears to have even considered might be interesting questions. Things just… happen. In chronological order. Mainly.
Ultimately we ask ourselves who this film is for. We watch it at a distance, wondering why it is the way it is, not really involved in it until that final act in which Live Aid provides Freddie with the opportunity to make the entire world his own for twenty glorious minutes. And once we get there, everything else becomes insignificant for a while, because it all comes together, the music, the character, and the best parts of Rami Malek’s performance – his physicality and stage presence – and we get to watch Queen for a while. (Or at least a very good tribute act.)
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I’ve often wondered why Lauren Bacall was a film star for so long. She’s often stiff, mannered, and really not very good. Of course she’s very beautiful. But, as we can see in later films like Written on the Wind (Sirk, 1956), she didn’t photograph that well in colour. I suppose that her performances for Hawks in To Have and Have Not (1944) and The Big Sleep (1946) sparked a life-time’s interest from several generations of heterosexual men. And I know from personal experience that a certain generation of lesbians became devoted to her on the basis of her performance as Amy North in Young Man with A Horn (1950).
The film is loosely based on the story of Bix Beiderbecke with Harry James dubbing the trumpet. It’s narrated by Hoagy Carmichael as piano-player Willie Willoughby. Nobody does tortured artists like Kirk Douglas, who’s great here as Rick Martin. The film has a wonderful father/son relationship between Rick Martin and black trumpet player Art Hazzard (Juano Herandez). Doris Day sings. And there is great work from Michael Curtiz and cinematographer Ted McCord: there isn’t an image that isn’t worth looking at. The first half-hour of the film charting the background of Rick Martin, how he grew up and how he learned to be a trumpet player must count amongst Curtiz’s best post-war work.
Lauren Bacall only appears 47 minutes into the film but gets a star entrance and definitely makes an impression, the ‘duality’ in her nature rendered visible and contrasted to the ‘normality’ of Joe Jordan, the character played by Doris Day, already being edged out of the frame here and shortly to disappear from the rest of the picture until the end, once Amy/Bacall disappears from view .
We know from the beginning that she’s not ‘normal’ because, as we can see in the clip below, she’s rich, highly educated, ‘always talks like a book and likes to analyse everything,’ and speaks of jazz and mass culture like she does here:’there’s something about jazz that releases inhibitions; it’s a cheap mass-produced narcotic’: probably exactly the thing Amy needs. By the terms of American cinema of the period (and now), she’s already a weirdo.
Bacall’s thoughts on Doris are a favourite moment in the film. Bacall’s lit so only half her face is showing: ‘Jo’s interesting isn’t she? So simple and uncomplicated. It must be wonderful to wake up in the morning and know just which door you’re going to go through’. Amy/Bacall is constantly contrasted with Jo/Doris: Amy’s not so simple, her identity is at least dual, and yet to be discovered by Ricky and maybe herself.
When Kirk/ Ricky starts to get involved with Bacall/Amy, Doris/ Jo comes to warn him, ‘She’s a strange girl, and you’ve never known anyone like her before…inside, way inside, she’s all mixed up’; ‘precisely what I told him myself but he wouldn’t take no for an answer’ says Bacall/Amy as she enters the picture. It’s too late they’re married (see below):
But it’s not just the contrast to Jo/Day, or all that the characters speak about her being ‘mixed up’ and ‘strange’. There’s her apartment, even, actually especially, after Kirk/Ricky marries Bacall/Amy. We’re shown how female-centric the house is, and not just because her florid cockatoo is called Louise. Look at the number of statues that are female Grecian figures, the painting inside and outside her bathroom door that are naked women bathing, even her paintings are of women.
Rachel Mosely pointed out to me something I hadn’t noticed: If you click to a closer look on the image of Bacall playing the piano above, you’ll see that the ancient goddess who is the base of the lamp has an extended broken arm that looks more than a little like an extended phallus, as if to indicate that women provide the only sex and power she needs and Kirk can go blow his own trumpet.
Bacall/Amy doesn’t really like men. We can see it in the clip here below where they embrace. She doesn’t like the kiss, it’s the last time she’ll be honest with him. It ends with him saying ‘call you what?’. I think lesbian audiences knew the answer to that one.
‘How do you know about anything until you try it?’ she tells Kirk/Ricky, presumably about heterosexuality:
At the end, she finds a girlfriend, an artist. She loves her sketches and they’re going to go to Paris together. Kirk finally clocks it and calls her as ‘filth’, ‘dirty’ a ‘sick girl who needs help and better see her doctor’; you can also read the bit about him almost ‘forgetting about his trumpet’ but now ‘getting it back’ metaphorically:
When Bacall disappears from the picture, the film starts getting sanctimonious and goes downhill and for a phoney happy ending with Jo/Doris.
Movies of the time couldn’t represent lesbianism directly; and Young Man with a Horn certainly offers mixed messages that could be disavowed to the Hays Office. But it offered enough so that a generation of lesbians clocked and treasured it. The representation is laced with the typical homophobic language and perspective of the period but, as embodied by Bacall, it also evoked beauty in looks, intelligence, and attitude.