Singin’ in the Rain (1952)

Films About FilmmakingAmong the more lauded Hollywood films that takes filmmaking as its subject is this classic musical, which casts a wry look back at the transition from silent to sound film. It’s not exactly the most accurate about how a film is made, but it includes some nice period detail nonetheless.


I’m sitting here in front of a blank computer screen wondering what there is, usefully, that I can write about this film, which as far as musicals from (and indeed, about) the Golden Age of Hollywood go is surely as classic as they come. If you haven’t already seen it then you’re missing out, and moreover you probably know perfectly well that you’re missing out and intend to rectify that at some point. Which is just as well, because even after all this time it remains a delightful motion picture, thanks in no small part to Gene Kelly’s athletic hoofing (a quaint term for dancing which appropriately puts the focus on footwork), the spry Comden & Green songs, and its self-referential story set in Hollywood’s own (at this point, relatively recent) history.

As a film about Hollywood’s mythmaking practices, one of the things the film does best is to dance on the line between make-believe and genuine feeling. Debbie Reynolds as Kathy enters the film as a high-minded young woman apparently resistant to the play-acting of (silent) film, rehearsing the actor’s dumb-show masks by contorting her face into clownish expressions of ecstasy, terror and surprise, as she drives Gene Kelly’s big star Don away from his overly adoring fans. Of course it’s clear even at this point that she’s baiting Don’s overinflated ego, but for much of the early part of the film, Kelly is seen almost permanently wearing one such mask — the widest of rictus grins, baring his startlingly white teeth — in a gratingly disingenuous way. Then again, as a big star he is always on show, and in this movie every new location is a film set on which he can perform, so it’s no wonder that it takes Kathy so long to figure out how he really feels.

As a film about performance, it’s suitable that it’s filled with excellent ones, particularly a number of duos between Kelly and Donald O’Connor as Don’s piano-playing accompanist friend Cosmo. Even though “Make Em Laugh” is conspicuous by the lack of laughter it engenders with its outrageous slapstick pranking (maybe I’m just hard-hearted), it nevertheless beautifully showcases O’Connor’s acrobatic agility, while “Moses Supposes” quickly returns a voice coach’s office into the dance studio set it clearly originally was. We also get to see some actual filmmaking taking place, for this is above all a story about Hollywood’s transition to sound films in the late-1920s (hence the voice coach). Being a musical, it’s naturally somewhat biased against the silent era, though its comedic points about the melodramatically affected acting style has some basis in truth. We also get an archetypally domineering yet ineffectual director and some hilariously inept early sound technology.

If the film has a misstep for me, it’s the treatment of Don’s acting partner Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen), who is constantly ridiculed and humiliated for the temerity she shows in presuming to speak, for she is the very definition of the dumb blonde stereotype. She is a manipulative figure of negligible talent and a shrilly grating Brooklyn accent, and she seems created to emphasise the homely charms of Kathy. And yet Jean Hagen sort of steals the film with her, and in many ways (perhaps in spite of the filmmakers’ mean-spirited intentions) she is a rather transgressive character, outspoken and perfectly aware of the patriarchal way things work in Hollywood. It’s at the hands of this chummy band of old boys pulling on almost-literal strings that she gets her comeuppance at the end. I’m still not sure if we were meant to cheer, but it manages to feel quite nasty.

On the whole though, the film has much to recommend it, not least the extended “Broadway Melody” ballet sequence with the delightful Cyd Charisse, its own little silent film-within-a-film (at least, as far as I can recall, the only words are “Gotta dance!”) which seems to be more of a showreel for the transformative power of glorious, saturated Technicolor than sound, while Charisse’s vamping would not have been out of place on the silent screen. It all takes place on the same soundstage where earlier we’d seen Kathy and Don, not to mention the wind machine, and in its baroque wonder it’s an advert for the craft of the set designers and costume department, not to mention being the best showcase for the talents of both dancers. A Hollywood classic that continues to deserve that status.

Singin' in the Rain film posterCREDITS
Directors Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen; Writers Betty Comden and Adolph Green; Cinematographer Harold Rosson; Starring Gene Kelly, Debbie Reynolds, Donald O’Connor, Jean Hagen; Length 98 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Saturday 8 February 2014 (and years before in Wellington).

Behind the Candelabra (2013)

If Side Effects earlier this year was billed as Soderbergh’s last film, it seems as if Behind the Candelabra may actually turn out to be [EDIT: it was not]. Perhaps it didn’t ‘count’, what with being made for the cable subscription channel HBO, but it holds up well as a cinematic work. By the nature of the central characters’ lives, it’s a bit of a chamber piece, being restricted largely to interior sets — Liberace’s stage at Las Vegas, and his ornately kitsch home — but like all Soderbergh’s films, it boasts an excellent ensemble of actors.

At the heart of the ensemble is a two-hander between Matt Damon as Scott Thorson, and Michael Douglas as the flamboyant pianist and entertainer Liberace (called ‘Lee’ by most), who takes a shine to the young Scott in the late-1970s and moves him into his palatial Las Vegas mansion shortly thereafter. Like many biopics, then, it looks on its famous central character through the eyes of an outsider: at the start of the film, Scott is living with foster parents and working as an animal wrangler on a small-time movie somewhere near Los Angeles. He hooks up with Bob (Scott Bakula) in a bar in the very first shot of the film, slowly resolving into focus, and it’s Bob who introduces him into the company of Liberace.

There’s plenty of broad comedy at the start as Liberace and his entourage (and his mother, played by Debbie Reynolds) is introduced, but even here — as in all the scenes featuring Liberace — there’s a sort of quiet awkwardness suffusing everything, as if no one really knows how to relate to him. A lot of this comes from the focus on Scott: he is an ingenue, certainly, but not stupid, and finds himself frequently tongue-tied. The camera focuses on him, often to the exclusion of other actors in the scene, as their voices on the soundtrack are matched to his blandly confused face. The progression in his character from dazed outsider to embittered cast-off is nicely paralleled with Liberace’s ‘protégé’ at the outset, Billy, who is seen stalking about the mansion grumpily, and scowling in close-up while eating his food (shots largely repeated later in the film, substituting Scott for Billy).

Indeed, the film is tightly structured and filmed by Soderbergh (who as ever acts as his own cinematographer and editor). There are certainly quiet stretches (longueurs even) in the film, but these seem to be reflective of the way the script (and Scott) is trying to get a sense of Liberace in all his outré regalia. Michael Douglas does well in conveying all his moods (loving and sweet for much of the time, but also at times petulant and tempestuous, not to mention manipulative), and the script never judges him or goes for easy laughs at the expense of his lifestyle and tastes. It’s also admirable that he’s not then portrayed as a tragic character exactly, just one who has to work hard to balance the conservative demands of his audience with the attentions of the media as well as the dissipated society he lives among, with all its hangers-on (and Rob Lowe as a very plastic plastic surgeon is a particular delight).

The film deftly controls its emotional register without the jarring shifts of tone that, say, Side Effects displayed — though for a film dealing with pharmaceuticals, perhaps that was a match of form to subject. There are plenty of pharmaceuticals here too (the “Californian diet” gets a hollow laugh), but even when they are fuelling Scott’s paranoiac rages, the main recollection I have of the film is in a mellower register, of a film punctuated by awkward silences. There’s a sense that no one, least of all Liberace himself, really knows what they’re doing or what it all means. Like that opening shot fading in from blurriness, the characters seem to just find themselves in places (quite often a hot tub with a flute of champagne), and the film is hardly championing any vague ’cause’ (it’s certainly not a ‘disease of the week’-style TV movie either). Nobody is hiding their sexuality because, at some level, everyone is trapped in the closet.

This, after all, like so many, is a film about that rarefied and sealed-off entertainment world — whether Los Angeles or Las Vegas — and its nebulous effects. With their fertility conjured artificially from the desert, these have always been productive locations for films about artifice, and more than many, Liberace’s life was one of artifice, whether his flamboyant tastes or his propensity for plastic surgery. Scott’s story stands in for all those earlier stories of ingenues sucked into and abused by the system. Soderbergh’s film isn’t angry about it. It prefers just to quietly look in through the cracks (or should that be, the candelabra).


CREDITS
Director Steven Soderbergh; Writer Richard LaGravenese (based on the book Behind the Candelabra: My Life with Liberace by Scott Thorson and Alex Thorleifson); Cinematographer Steven Soderbergh [as “Peter Andrews”]; Starring Matt Damon, Michael Douglas, Scott Bakula, Rob Lowe, Debbie Reynolds; Length 118 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Fulham Road, London, Tuesday 11 June 2013.