Suddenly Last Summer is another of those films i seem to have been aware of my whole life but had never seen until now. It’s an extraordinary work, like three extended arias, a medium one by Hepburn at the beginning, a long one by Taylor through most of the middle, and then a coda by Hepburn once again as she goes up the lift and into madness. Taylor throws herself into the role and is quite extraordinary. But it’s Hepburn who is thrilling, an acting lesson for anyone interested in the subject, her line readings a work of art on their own. Mankiewicz films most of it in clever long takes that have a rhythm and find increasing intensity in extraordinary close-ups. Clift is sad to see, like a distorted dissolve of his previous self, and is there mainly as ‘straight man’ to set the context and feed the lines so that two great actresses can soar. The dialogue is self-consciously poetic, beautifully stylised, and yet one is lulled into…cannibalism, rape, madness, exploitation, cruelty. It’s quite something.
The film is almost incantatory, like a hallucinogenic.; the language is extraordinary; Mankiewicz’ direction is under-rated. And Hepburn is really in a league of her own. I can’t imagine even Bette Davis doing something so fine.
As for Taylor, can anyone think of another box-office queen who at the peak of her stardom performed Shakespeare, Williams, Albee, Rattigan, Marlowe and Dylan Thomas in major motion pictures?
The image in this Indicator edition is lovely, rich, deep black and whites with a whole array of greys in between. A wonderful ‘print’.
The Greta Gerwig Little Women needs to be great because the Cukor-Hepburn one is perfect. Plus having the additional bonus of being, along with King Kong and Mae West, the sociological phenomenon of 1933. It´s a pity it´s not more seen:
Watching the ´49 version of Little Women only made me appreciate the 1933 Cukor-Hepburn version more. The 1933 version roots it in the Civil War, privation, self-sacrifice, kindness, family, sisterhood, complicated interpersonal relationships, and with a kind of yankee fierceness that is completely lacking in the sop of the ´49,. To see June Allyson after Hepburn is merely to see lack, where Hepburn was romantic, tomboyish, determined, longing to be an artist and a free woman, Allyson simply lowers her voice and juts her jaw. And even with that she´s better than Peter Lawford. A starry cast almost entirely wasted, Mary Astor certainly is, though Elizabeth Taylor and Margaret O´Brian have their moments (if only a few). Comparing the two is like comparing the illustrated comic of the novel to the novel itself. Same plot, more gloss, more shine, less depth and way less charm. I´d forgotten how important the Christmas setting is to all versions
Since you are reading this, I assume you’re interested in movies; and if you’re interested in movies, you’ll be interested in the wonderful ‘Night & Day: 1930s Fashion and Photographs’ exhibition at the Fashion and Textile Museum in London, which runs until the 20th of January 2019.
The title of the exhibition, ‘Night and Day’ is taken from Cole Porter’s superb song which Fred Astaire introduced onstage in 1932’s The Gay Divorce and on film in 1934’s The Gay Divorcee. It is also the title of the famously terrible biopic of Cole Porter directed by Michael Curtiz for Warner Brothers (1946), in which Cary Grant plays Cole Porter. But it is Fred Astaire who the song is associated with.
‘Night and Day’ was written for Astaire. His recording was an enormous success which topped the charts for ten weeks in the early thirties; and indeed the spirit of Fred Astaire haunts this exhibit. Firstly because of the evening dress he so casually wore, the glamorous and glistening Art Deco which was the background to his dancing the final number in so many of his films with Ginger Rogers at RKO, and the beginnings of a sporty elegance he is associated with. Well-cut clothes that enhance and adorn the figure but also allow one to move in them well enough to burst into dance. Fred who from the twenties was a superstar of both Broadway and the West-End, embodied the mid-atlantic best of both worlds: He was always associated with ‘ Top Hat, White Tie & Tails’ but wasn’t limited to that look. His clothes and how he wore them is analogous to the sentiment behind Coco Chanel’s great contribution to fashion. She made the combination of casual and elegant possible for women in the way that it was for men like Astaire: American men who were as free in their movements as in their outlook but were dressed by Saville Row.
The Spirit of Fred Astaire
The movies in general and Fred Astaire in particular are everywhere evident in this exhibition. The sections are named after popular songs of the Thirties, which are either the names of movies or taken from movies of the period and which in turn evoke the period of The Great Depression (1929-1939): ‘Brother….can You Spare a Dime?’ (also written for the stage and made into a hit by Bing Crosby; ‘Whistle While You Work’ (taken from Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, 1937); ‘I’ve Got a Pocketful of Dreams’ (Bing Crosby again from Sing You Sinners, 1938); ‘Let’s Face the Music and Dance’ (Astaire again, this time from Follow the Fleet, 1936: you can see the marvellous excerpt below); ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’, eternally associated with Judy Garland and from 1939’s The Wizard of Oz;’Life is just a Bowl of Cherries’ ; ‘Happy Days Are Here Again’; ‘The Way You Wear Your Hat,’ which is a lyric from ‘They Can’t Take That Way From Me’ Astaire again, this time from Shall We Dance (1936).
Along with the glorious clothes, the exhibit also features movies stars, and shows them to us in the very collectible cigarette cards so evocative of a way of life and a structure of feeling in the Thirties. We also see how Madeline Carroll and Ronald Colman are featured in the Miss Modern magazine below, demonstrating how interlinked movies were with other mass media and how fashion was a thread which knit them together. Movie stars wore the clothes ordinary people dreamed of wearing and and manufacturers made sure they could, as for example with Joan Crawford’s famous Letty Lynton dress. The movie popularised the dress, the magazines popularised the dress and movie, the availability of the dress sanctified the star and increased the fandom for both magazines and movies.
Cecil Beaton: Thirty from the 30s: Fashion, Film and Fantasy
The exhibit also features a mini-exhibition within it with Cecil Beaton’s photographs of the famous: royalty, writers, society people but more than anything film stars (see below)
This being a British exhibition, royalty of course features:
But Hollywood’s influence dominates:
Sonja Henie, to left; Ruby Keller, top right; Tallulah Bankead bottom: From Cecil Beaton’s Scrapbooks
The exhibition is very good at contextualising the developments in fashion. The guide, for example, tell us: ‘Women’s fashions, which had reached giddy heights of youthful freedom (and brevity) during the Roaring Twenties, reflected the more mature and sober decade that followed. By the end of the 1920s the styles had already begun to change as the flapper grew up. Waits returned to a normal, rather than dropped, position. Skirts, which had begun to dip in the back by 1927-1928, fully descended to the knees and mid-calf for suiting, and the ankle for the afternoon and evening dresses. Structure infiltrated the relaxed shapes of 1920’s dressing: ‘hard chic’ became a watchword as couture houses such as Schiaparelli introduced a stylised and emphatic shoulder line.
As a decade the 1930’s presented the extremes: from the depths of poverty for many to a sparkling party-filled escape for the wealthy and international set’.
The exhibition’s great care with contextualisation really does pay off, though it also gives rise to moments of amusement, such as in the timeline below where Hitler’s rise is juxtaposed on the timeline right in between the drop of a hemline and the rise of the neckline.
The the main reason to see this exhibition is the clothes. No photos do them justice. You really need to see them in three-dimensions to see how they hang, to get a real sense of what the fabric is like, to walk around them and get the whole picture. I really recommend the exhibition. But for those of you who can’t go, here are some examples of what you are missing:
I’ve only just discovered Camera Over Hollywood: Photographs by John Swope 1936-1938, and a discovery it is. John Swope was a life-long friend of Henry Fonda, James Stewart and Josh Logan. They all met in their early twenties when they were part of the University Players theatre troupe in West Falmouth, Cape Code, Massachussetts; and they all found success: Josh Logan as a legendary writer and director in post-war Broadway (and a rather mediocre film director); Swope as a photographer and regular contributor to LIFE magazine; Fonda and Stewart need no introduction.
The book shows us photographs of Hollywood at work (extras waiting on sets, cinematographer James Wong Howe behind the camera, the building of entire cities on the lot) and at play (James Stewart on dates with Olivia de Havilland and Norma Shearer); in front of the camera (Anne Rutherford posing with her dog) and off-stage (Rosalind Russell reading the script for The Citadel in bed; Charles Boyer in his dressing room).
Swope had unparalleled access to the studios, not only through his friendships with Fonda, Stewart and Logan but also via his enduring marriage to Dorothy McGuire as well as his own considerable credentials as a photographer and theatrical producer. And he doesn’t just show us the insides of the studios. I was particularly interested in his documenting of film-going, the continued emphasis on sex (see two images below), and the changes in the fortunes of particular stars that narratives of their careers signal but don’t well convey.
In the image above, note how the cinema’s main feature is Stage Door but how they’re also showing Ellis Island and a Mickey Mouse cartoon as part of the bill. Note also how over the box office Ginger Rogers and Katharine Hepburn are both billed above the title, though Hepburn’s name is misspelled. In the film print I saw Hepburn was billed first, probably a contractual obligation. But the manager of this particular theatre clearly thought Rogers was more of a draw in 1937. Moreover, if you look closely at the lobby cards and posters roughly pasted together between the two men, you’ll note that Ginger Rogers gets much bigger billing and that Hepburn and Adolf Menjou — immediately underneath her name — are barely discernible. A much clearer sign of the descent of Hepburn’s stardom with the filmgoing audience, in what is historically seen as one of her few hits of this period, and before she is officially designated box office poison, than any account I’ve ever read.
It’s a marvellous book of insightful photographs at a key period in Hollywood’s history. The introduction is by Dennis Hopper who credits Swope with getting him into pictures,
Katharine Hepburn on ‘silent’ movies from her famous interview with Dick Cavett:
‘Everything becomes different. They don’t look silly to me. Lillian Gish, Mary Pickford, a lot of those pictures, a lot of the comedies…You look at Silent Pictures with a different point of view because they are different but some of them are thrilling’
A lovely byproducts of visiting Athens was its open air cinemas. I now see that it’s famous for them, with over sixty still remaining. But I had not known. I’d gone to Athens for the Parthenon, classical sculpture, Melina Mercouri and sunshine. Once made aware, however, I had to go, and we went every night of the short long weekend we were there. Each time was special: magical, incantatory, hypnotic. Each time was also different. All were a reminder that filmgoing was always about so much more than the movie being screened: it was a bout courtship and friendship, leisure and rest, a ritual taste of the luxurious; a context for engaging more senses than just sight and sound.
The first cinema we went to was the Thysion. As you can see above, the view of the Parthenon is marvellous and, as the evening progresses, you might find your head wavering as in a tennis match between it and the movie. It has a very friendly staff, with a bar in which every nook and cranny seems pasted with film posters from the Fifties; Burt Lancaster and Gina Lollobrigida feature prominently. Wine is cheap enough to guzzle. And you can sit in one of the dozens of tables printed with iconic photographs of movie stars of yore, bask in the sights, smell the bougainvillea, delight in the cool wine on a hot day and just feel grateful you’re alive.
The movie playing was Truth. It had something to do with Dan Rather, and news being clamped down in the US by the Bush administration and corporate interests. Cate Blanchett looked very chic being very worthy and I thought Robert Redford rather good as Rather. I enjoyed it very much but I really couldn’t tell you if it was any good. It was definitely secondary to the cinema itself, one of the earliest Open Air ones, which opened in 1935.
The second evening, we went to the Cine Paris, with an equally spectacular view, this time, as you can see above, of the back of the Acropolis. Here drinks were a bit more expensive but they do cocktails and it’s worth it. The film was better too, Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe in The Nice Guys. The cinema is upstairs from a fantastic poster shop where you can get Greek posters of your favourite films, Hollywood and International Art House. It has several levels and it’s worth exploring them as the higher up you go, the better the view. The Cine Paris also overlooks a central square in Plaka, teeming with a range of dining options which we made full use of.
On our third evening we went to the Zephyr. This one offered classic programming instead of a view. We arrived early and ate in a restaurant just opposite that fulfilled every fantasy of Mediterranean communities: A baby passed around for everyone to kiss. The waiters seemed to be part of the same family: they’d serve and then go off across the street to chat with the lady from the cinema’s box office or other merchants from across the street but were quick to return should you need anything. Every so often a car would drive by, stop, the driver would shake hands with one of the waiters, chat for a while and move on. Those in the cars behind didn’t seem to mind waiting. Everyone seemed to know each other.
The film we saw was Bringing Up Baby; all the films we saw were in original version. Baby was in a 16mm print that had seen better days but on a lovely big screen. Seeing Grant and Hepburn at their best, on a balmy night, with an audience that got every joke and appreciated every nuance was a thrill.
We also went to the Dexamini, which ostensibly has the very best view of the Acropolis. But here they were also showing Truth, and we had already seen Truth and….well…it was a reminder that whilst cinema-going has traditionally been about so much more than just the movie; the movie’s still the central component of filmgoing. We ended up not going into The Dexamini and opted instead for sitting in a terrace outside, guzzling more wine, and taking full advantage of the calamari.
Seeing Meet Me in St. Louis (Vincente Minnelli, USA, 1944) again yesterday brought to mind a half-remembered anecdote from some long-forgotten biography where, in the mid forties, L.B. Mayer fired a writer in a fit of pique for giving the wrong answer to the question: ‘who are the greatest actors on the MGM lot’? ‘Spencer Tracy and Judy Garland’ seemed to Mayer a wiseass answer when Greer Garson was the reigning queen of the lot. But who wouldn’t side with the writer now? By then, Garson was doing ‘great lady parts’ in a way so ripe for satire that Garland did just that in the ‘The Great Lady Has an Interview/aka Madame Crematon’ sequence of Ziegfield Follies (various directors but Minnelli is credited with this Garland sequence, USA, 1945). Garbo was long gone; Katharine Hepburn was on the lot but the only good material she got was the material she brought to the studio earlier (The Philadelphia Story in 1940, Woman of the Year in 1942) and later (Adam’s Rib in 1949, Pat and Mike in 1951); the mid-forties is one of the low-points in Hepburn’s career: Dragon Seed (Harold S. Bouquet and Jack Conway, 1944), Undercurrent (Vincente Minnelli, 1946), The Sea of Grass (Elia Kazan, 1947), Song of Love (Clarence Brown, 1947), etc.
What tends to be regarded as great acting is often extremes of emotion in extreme situations (Daniel Day Lewis in My Left Foot [Jim Sheridan, UK, 1989); Charleze Therzon as Aileen Wuornos in Monster [Patty Jenkins, USA, 2003]) and more subtle, more complex, more humane, mundane but no less affecting realms of emotion – the kind Garland so beautifully depicts — are often ignored. But look at what she’s able to accomplish in a few shots of the Christmas Ball sequence of Meet Me in St. Louis extracted above.
Esther Smith (Garland) and her sister Rose (Lucille Bremmer) have planned an evil tease on Lucille Ballard (June Lockhart) because their brother Lon (Henry H. Daniels Jr.) had planned to attend the ball with her but she instead came with the boy Rose had set her eyes on, Warren Sheffield (Robert Sully). As revenge, they’ve filled her dance-card with the least desirable men at the ball. But it turns out that Lucille really wants to be with Lon and Warren Sheffield wants to be with Rose. The plans have been changed, Esther is left holding the bag, her grandfather discovers what they’ve been up to, and Esther chooses to take over Lucille’s dance-card and suffer the punishment they’d planned for her so as not to impede the other couplings and so that the social niceties may be maintained. Their last Christmas in St. Louis, planned as a triumph has derailed into self-sacrificial torture.
Ignore if you can Minnelli’s gorgeous and complex mise-en-scene, the compositions, the way the couples are paired off or enter the frame (though I have in the past written here, and on this film in particular, as to why you shouldn’t); ignore if you can how purposefully and beautifully staged it all is. But let’s not bypass every element. When evaluating acting, the long take is a consideration. Not all actors can do them and it has become a test of a film actor’s skill. George Cukor famously observed that whilst Joan Crawford could act any emotion, she was incapable of showing transitions from one to another; she could only do one at a time; but then her whole face would scrunch up like Dr. Jekyll to Mr. Hyde when transitioning. Thus there always had to be a cut between one emotion and another. She couldn’t do it in long take. But see what Garland does here.
We first see her enthusiastic entrance into the group, kind of gleeful at the plans afoot, ‘I’ve been very anxious to meet you’. Then there’s a cut to the three girls where she explains that they’ve taken the liberty of filling out her dance card. Note the look Esther gives her sister and note the laugh Garland achieves in that look as if indicating ‘Ha, she doesn’t know what’s in store!’ Then note the change in Garland’s expression, all within the same take, as Lucille responds with extraordinary kindness, offering to give them a party when they arrive in New York. Garland’s face is transparent, first we see a hint of guilt, her mouth opens, she’s bewildered. Her sister nudges her, ‘The plans have been changed’. Then the couples pair off, leave the shot, Garland still slack-jawed with bewilderment and then her grandfather enters the shot. She’s been caught, she hides the dance-card, attempts to laugh away the situation and flee. Then look at her expression as her grandfather reads out the names. ‘Clinton Badger’? She nods, it’s brutal and she’s been caught. She doesn’t respond to the next one, it’s unbearable. Then see what she does with her face when Sidney Gorsey’s mentioned. We see shame, embarrassment, the sense she now deserves everything that’s coming to her.
Garland is extraordinarily transparent through a range of emotions, often conflicting or contradictory, and often played for laughs, she seems to pluck them out of thin air and achieve effects few actors are capable of. It’s quite remarkeable in quite a low key way. Then in the next shot, when Lucille goes to get her dance card and Garland says she’s made a mistake, note her reading of the line ‘This is mine’. She’s achieving laughs facially, vocally, and in the series of dances that follow she proves herself a superb physical comedienne; all whilst simultaneously evoking a range of feeling, sometimes complex and contradictory, that is emotionally recognisable as truthful.
Anjelica Huston’s A Story Lately Told (London: Simon & Schuster, 2013) is her memoir of growing up in an unconventional, bohemian and artistic household; first in Ireland, then London, and later, by the book’s end, in New York, where she starts her first serious love affair with fashion photographer Robert Richardson. She is of course the daughter of the legendary film director John Huston, the maker of classics such as The Maltese Falcon, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Fat City, The Man Who Would be King, and many others. Her mother too was famous, ‘the youngest member to join the best dance company in the nation, Ballet Theatre,’ (p.13), gracing the June 9, 1947 cover of Life as ‘Young ballerina, Ricky Soma’ and under contract to David Selznick when she met John Huston.
The story is told with great generosity of spirit, a flair for conveying the drama of incident and a sharp eye for a telling detail that readers appreciate knowing, like her father’s wearing Guerlain’s lime cologne or his middle name being Marcellus – who knew? Huston evokes through naming flowers, animals, the different kinds of colours one finds in Ireland, the obstacles to a hunt. She’s got the vocabulary to convey a range of places things and experiences — and she writes vividly and well.
Anjelica Huston is not only an iconic 1970s model, Academy Award-winning actress (for Prizzi’s Honour in 1985, directed by her father), and a director (Agnes Brown); she’s an American aristocrat. She likes to tell us that she’s descended from Civil War generals and the State Attorney of Ohio on her father’s side; a yogi and owner of the famed showbiz speakeasy Tony’s Wife on her mother’s; that she was born whilst her father was making The African Queen and that Katharine Hepburn was the first person to ask whether her father had had a boy or a girl.
Any film buff will know about her father, or that her paternal grandfather was Dodsworth in the movies and introduced Kurt Weill’s beautiful ‘September Song’ on stage; or that she herself is the third generation of Oscar winners in her family. But like all Twentieth Century aristocrats, though they might derive their power from a particular genealogy grounded in the history of a specific country, they themselves are not rooted to a particular place. The world is their arena of action and the great capitals and fashionable vacation destinations their playground. The ‘jet set’ was the term developed for the late twentieth-century variant of the rich and /or famous to which Anjelica Huston and her family belonged.
In the acknowledgment section of A Story Lately Told, Huston thanks her ‘darling sister Allegra, whose own memoir was an inspiration’ (p.253). And one can understand how that would be the case: Allegra Huston’s book, Love Child: A Memoir of Family Lost and Found (London: Bloomsbury, 2009) is also a coming of age story that deals with many of the same places and people. But it is a truism that each child has a different upbringing even when raised in the same family by the same set of biological parents; parents become more experienced, they change, or circumstances change, or each child may bring out a different aspect of the parents’ personality.
Plus, Allegra Huston had a more dramatic story to tell: growing up thinking that she shared the same set of parents as Anjelica she later discovers that her real father was Viscount Norwich, son of Great Britain’s postwar Ambassador to Paris — Duff Cooper – and Lady Diana Manners, daughter of the Duke of Rutland, one of the great beauties of the 20s, and under her married name of Diana Cooper, a sensation on stage in The Miracle for Max Reindhart. There are enough books by or about the Norwich’s to fill a small bookshelf. Their names also appear in the memoirs and letters of Evelyn Waugh, Noel Coward, Cecil Beaton and other luminaries of the era. Norwich himself appears as a fictional character guiding tourists through the great sights of Europe in Nancy Mitford’s Don’t Tell Alfred; it was whilst undertaking such tours that Norwich met Allegra’s mother and thus the ‘Love Child’ in the title of Allegra’s book.
It is an indictment of Norwich, and a compliment to Huston, that in spite of her three other siblings having slightly different parentage, she remembers that ‘We were brothers and sisters, and Dad was our father. I never felt I was second best to him. I was as much his child as any of us (p. 218). This couldn’t be said for the Norwich’s; and in her own book Anjelica remembers that, ‘Mum told me that when she was pregnant with Allegra, John Julius’s mother, Lady Diana Cooper, had come by the house with a bunch of violets. Mum was ambivalent about the gesture, feeling that there was something condescending about it, particularly in Diana’s choice of flowers, like a bouquet a grand person might present to a poor relation she said (p.150)..
Part of the great pleasure one experiences when reading A Story Lately Told is the account of the places and people that form the context of a kind of upbringing that might have seemed exceptional in the middle of the last century but might no longer seem so: people travel a lot more and families made up of different baby-daddies and indeed different baby-mommies would, if one believed daytime television, be the norm rather than the exception today.
The first part of the book deals with Ireland as Anjelica’s first memories are of growing up there, or more precisely at St. Clerans, a 110-acre estate in Craughwell, Co. Galway. Jean-Paul Sartre who went there to write a script for John Huston’s film of Freud wrote Simone de Beauvoir, ‘Through this immensity of identical rooms, a great Romantic, melancholic and lonely, aimlessly roams. Our friend Huston is absent, aged, and literally unable to speak to his guests…his emptiness is purer than death.’ But that’s not how Anjelica remembers the house and that’s not how she remembers her father. For her, the house is full of the music of Montand, Sinatra, Holiday, Piaf and Moloudji; it’s full of art books and Penguin Classics. It’s a house where the rugs are Aubusson, the posters are by Toulouse Lautrec, the crystal is Waterford, the silver is Georgian, the couture is by Dior and Balenciaga, and there are Greek marbles, Venetian glass, Imperial jade, Etruscan gold, Louis XIV furniture. Anjelica knows both the price and value of such things. Her father, who gambled for and won a Monet, taught her. But the people she grew up with are the servants, the nannies, the Creaghs who were cook and butler; and she remembers them not only with fondness but with enough feeling to have kept up with them and revel in their successes: the Creagh’s daughter, Karen would later be ‘and All Ireland Champion céili dancer’ Anjelica recounts with warmth and pride (p. 54).
If the chapters on Ireland sketch out a childhood, the chapters in London sketch out her teenage years. It’s Hyde Park and Carnaby Street, crushes on the Beatles, shoplifting at Biba. Part of the pleasure of reading this book is the anecdotes about the famous; Carson McCuller’s visit to St. Clerans where she was taken around the house the first day and then didn’t leave her room for the rest of her stay; Anjelica’s first sighting of Mick Jagger when she was understudying Marianne Faithfull in a play; feeling slightly used by James Fox.
Huston has a storyteller’s gift. I love her evocations of place. But I also love how she dramatises her anecdotes: the story of the Irish lady she met at one of the country hunts who won a paternity suit against the husband she had not lived with for seven years because she claimed they were once guests at the same country house and accidentally ‘shared a sponge’. There are many more like that. The chapter in New York, where she finds herself in fashion, meeting Diana Vreeland, being photographed by Avedon and Bailey, modeling for Halston and Zandra Rhodes. It’s a rich life that Anjelica Huston shares.
A Story Lately Told is a beautifully told tale, one that honours both her mother and her father as well as the three countries in which she grew up. It’s the story of an artist as a confused but interested young woman; and it’s proof that Anjelica Huston is an artist in more than one medium.
Seeing the live National Theatre broadcast of Coriolanus last Thursday brought home once again how we’re all glued to screens now: our eyes rarely far from and seemingly hypnotized by the lure of the light emanating from our phones, tablets, computers and TV’s. But the screen that has always meant most to me – a big one with a movie projected onto it– is decreasing in significance, at least socially. Arguably, movies are better than ever. But we watch them through many outlets other than the cinema – computers, TV, DVD — and when we go to the pictures it’s not always movies we go to watch.
What ‘cinema’ is, where we see it and how we see it is all in flux. Theatre, ballet, opera — even boxing — are only some of the events we can now see as live transmissions onto big screens at cinemas. The picture-houses themselves are evolving to meet the different functions they’re required to fulfill in order to survive. The Electric in Birmingham is now the type of trendy venue where people pay premium prices for the privilege of sinking into big leather sofas to drink in their art with their cocktails. I tried to get tickets for Coriolanus there but they were sold out.
I was luckier at Cineworld because Corolianus was showing on two different screens. Of course, I could have waited to see it on DVD later but it would have lost the dimension of ‘liveness’, the size of the screen would have shrunk, and it would have meant wresting control of ‘time’ from the show’s makers: on DVD, I could pause at any time, make myself a cup of coffee and possibly wreck all the filmmakers’ carefully considered attempts to realise effects that rely on suspense, timing, rhythm.
But what are we watching when we see Corolianus at the ‘pictures’? It’s for sure we’re not watching a movie. There was no evidence of the care with choice of camera angle, camera movement, design, décor and editing that would have gone into conceptualising Corolianus as a movie, evidence clearly visible in, say, Ralph Fiennes 2011 film version. During the live transmission there seemed to be no rhyme or reason for camera set-ups or movement except following the actors. Even the focus on some of the close-ups was poor; and for cinema, that’s as basic as it gets.
It was also clear that the actors had not designed their performances for a big screen. The pitch of their voices and the size of their gestures were aimed at the audience in the Donmar Warehouse, which however cozy in relation to other theatres, is not as intimate as a close-up. The actors’ movements seemed too outsized and their speaking seemed oddly stylized on a big screen. Though I loved some of the performances (Hiddleston’s Coriolanus and Deborah Findley’s Voumnia were particularly memorable), they weren’t designed for the big screen.
If the Coriolanus I saw was not a movie it was also not live theatre. The staging seemed marvelously inventive for theatre but pretty ‘blah’ for the movies, or at least so I deduced from what I could see. For example, one can imagine how the fight sequence must have been thrilling on stage but here it just seemed like a phony, rather well-choreographed little tumble. Tom Hiddleston’s shower and his being hung up near the end must have seemed equally dazzling theatrical moments at the Donmar but didn’t quite thrill through a lens. One could imagine the effects but one didn’t feel them. Moreover, in the cinema even a ‘live’ transmission does not convey presence and one also loses the ability one has in the theatre of letting the eye wonder, of picking and choosing where to lay the focus of one’s attention.
One of the reasons for these live transmissions is to see the great actors of the day perform in great plays old and new. That was the rationale for the old BBC ‘Play of the Month’, which ran from 1965-1983 (Janet Suzman and John Gielgud in George Bernard’s Shaw’s St. Joan from 1968 is but one example), or the series of filmed plays to be sold and screened at cinemas that Ely Landau produced from the 1960s onwards, two of them starring Katharine Hepburn: Eugene O’Neill’s Long Days Journey into Night (Sidney Lumet, 1962)and Edward Albee’s A Delicate Balance (Tony Richardson, 1973).
What these live transmissions offer that is new and valuable is the combination of a large screen, a communal and social viewing experience, and the sense of occasion that attends to the ‘liveness’ of the transmission; although these events are recorded and sometimes shown in cinemas later, whenever there seems to be a demand for it (the NT’s production of Frankenstein with Johnny Lee Miller and Benedict Cumberbatch played in cinemas long after it ceased its run at the National).
Though I find nothing as boring as seeing ballet on television, I love seeing live broadcasts of ballet on a big screen. Size really does reveal the athleticism and control of the dancers in a way that is impossible on TV or sometimes even on stage. Seeing Sergei Polunin in a live transmission of the Royal Ballet’s production of Sleeping Beauty was for me an unforgettable experience, one I’d not had in a theatre for a long time. But I’ve still to experience anything remotely close to that when watching a play broadcast at the cinema.
I enjoyed Coriolanus. The language is glorious. It felt it a privilege to be able to see Tom Hiddleston so close up, to see how Mark Gatiss’ Melenius compares to his Mycroft, to evaluate how Brigitte Hjort Sørensen, the lovely Danish reporter from Borgen, spoke Shakespeare. The live transmission is not a replacement for theatre and it’s not a replacement for cinema as we knew it. It is however an addition to an audio-visual ecosystem that is helping to transform and redefine the visual culture that we live in.
Seen Thursday, 30th January at Cineworld Cinemas, Birmingham
A Shorter version of this was published in The Conversation at https://theconversation.com/screening-shakespeare-coriolanus-doesnt-captivate-at-the-multiplex-22682