Robert Morley flashed by on the TV yesterday and I remembered how much I loved him. Does anyone remember him in Who´s Killing The Great Chefs of Europe? Since I had a rare day with no other commitments I went on to read Sheridan Morley´s biography of him, very funny and well-written. You certainly get to know more about him but you don´t get to know him any better. After I read Morley´s biography of his father, I went on to read that of his grandmother, Gladys Cooper. And the same thing. It´s like eating brioche, satisfying and delicious but without much substance.
John Lehr is a contemporary of Sheridan Morley´s and he also wrote a biography of his father Bert, which makes for an interesting comparison, both as works of biography but also about cultural differences. John´s bio is all about finding interiority, psychological complexity, motive. Sheridan´s is all about jokes, attitudes, ways of being. Very enjoyable reading nonetheless.
I carried on with Sheridan Morley´s book on James Mason, and cumulatively the biographies led me to reflect that there once was a market for light, brief books, written by someone seemingly in the know, on film stars. This book is on James Mason but like most of his others it´s a bare outline of a life and career; very well-written but critically deficient; peppered with interesting anecdotes from people who knew the subject and who were willing to contribute to a portrait the subject would be happy with. ´Research´in Morleyland is having tea or cocktails with interesting people willing to share a piquant story that doesn´t cross the boundary into potential embarrassment. This one, like the others, provides 250 odds pages that make an afternoon disappear in a vague haze of pleasure and leaves no residue, rather like afternoon tv now. No wonder they could be churned out annually at considerable profit.
The story of the tragic queen, a kind of contextual preamble to the French Revolution, shot as a tragic teen film. The film is a sumptuous, lively production, amongst the most beautiful and entertaining films of the last decade, distinguished by its use of music, its beautiful mise-en-scène and its evocation of a long-gone world in a way that makes it timely and relevant. Sets, props, and costumes have to be amongst the loveliest ever. Clearly, a lot of that is due to the period itself, but credit must also be given to the filmmakers in having the wit and knowledge to see the value in conveying it in a way that allows a contemporary audience to understand and appreciate it. The film is wonderful at showing the enervated obsessions with lifestyle, entertainment, shopping and consumption, so similar to that of our own epoch, as a frenzied refusal of unshakeable anomie, one doomed to failure. Everything about the film evokes a delicious dialectic between luxe and loss. Kirsten Dunst, at the peak of her melancholic beauty, is peerless as the tragic queen, doing her dutiful best to please other, and when failing, which is most of the time, at least striving to please herself; but Dunst’s face palpably evokes a foretaste of doom, as if all the palaces, clothes and jewels with which she tries to shoo away boredom and the burden of duty, will not keep her from her fate. Jason Schwartzman as Louis XVI is almost as good, though he doesn’t erase the memory of Robert Morley as she does that of Norma Shearer in the 1938 version directed by W.S. Van Dyke. Yet another masterpiece from Sofia Coppola.
Worth noting that as Rosalind Galt in her great Pretty: Film and the Decorative Image (Film and Cutlure Series: New York: Columbia University Press, 2011) rightly points out ‘Sofia Copppola’s Marie Antonette (2006) addresses precisely the relationships among rococo style, radical politics, and gender, but its deconstructive deployment of the Versailles decorative regime prompted critical response to view the films as equally clueless as its protagonist. If we regard the film as something other than a discourse on girly frivolity, it is possible to read its emphasis on the decorative image as precisely the location of its political intervention’ (loc 336 on the Kindle edition).