Saturday, August 28, 2010

Poison Peck Letter

One of the pleasures of my new job is working with interesting collections on the history of American film. Among these are the papers of Pauline Kael, which include several boxes of correspondence from her long tenure at The New Yorker to the last years of her life. There are offered snippets of work from aspiring young critics (e.g., Scott Foundas), letters from directors, screenwriters and actors (including a beaut from Henry Gibson immediately following Kael's celebrated rave for Nashville), and more than a few embarrassing mash notes along the lines of "I've agreed with everything you've ever written!" (Really, I would have asked, why?) There also is plenty of hate mail, most notably following her famous pan of Dances with Wolves, the response of which became so voluminous that The New Yorker actually sent a hand-wringing note of apology to readers with ruffled feathers. ("We are sorry that you did not like Pauline Kael's review of Dances with Wolves....")

One of the funniest and most fascinating poison-pen letters in the collection-- so good that it's in an exhibit display -- is a 1984 missive from Gregory Peck.
Kael, you see, never cared for the Peckster. For a pro-trash sensualist such as herself, he was the type of noble, dignified, widely-admired star all but asking for a mud-pie in the face. On The Keys of the Kingdom (1944), one of Peck's earliest films, she wrote: "The humble hero keeps telling people what an uninteresting sort of man he is, and with Gregory Peck in the role we believe it." On Moby Dick (1956): "Gregory Peck - the least demonic of leading men - is a disastrous Ahab; bearded, he looks like a stock-company Lincoln." To Kill a Mockingbird (1962): "Peck was better than usual, but in that same virtuously dull way." The Boys from Brazil (1978): "(W)hen an actor like Gregory Peck plays a sadistic Nazi geneticist and speaks in an arch-villain's sibilant German accent, you can't keep from laughing." Even for what would be non-archetypal part in Duel in the Sun (1946), Kael extends a hilarious backhanded compliment: "Peck actually manages to bestir himself enough to play of hunk of egotistic hot stuff - maybe the name Lewt McCanles got to him, or maybe the producer, David O. Selznick, used electric prods."

Her few kind words for his performances were always tinged with disdain: "Even Peck seems to blend into the atmosphere" in The Yearling (1946); or, he is "at his most animated and likable" in Roman Holiday (1953). No doubt Kael stuck to her guns to the very end. Still, she had to have been impressed by the actor's long memory when, in 1984, after what was evidently a special theatrical showing of The Keys of the Kingdom, her aforementioned hatchet-job was published (which also included a sweeping assessment that "(t)his is perhaps the most dignified and sexless performance ever given by a rising young male star"), and Gregory Peck followed with a reply.

He begins his letter by asking whether a forty-year-old movie "really merit(ed) that much space," piquantly adding that the film has been on television several times over the years and "there was no real danger of anyone paying to see it in a theater, if your intent was to spare your readers a misspent evening." Then Peck gets to the heart of the matter: "I rather think that you simply could not pass up the chance to get at me again and try to inflict some damage." Recalling Kael's "grudgingly favorable" review of Duel in the Sun, he responds to her crack about the electric prods by asserting that all he did was a takeoff on one of his cousins - "a small-town Lothario" -- and that King Vidor, who directed the picture, "told me to go ahead and play the whole part that way."

If Peck seems to be taking Kael too literally at her word here, that's because he's building a case that she uses her reviews to spread harmful conjecture:

Years ago you placed me.... in a picture called Ice Station Zebra. You had me in it, then you had me fired from it, or you had production stopped, one or the other, because I had the temerity (or so you said) to rewrite, or quibble over Paddy Cheyefsky's dialogue. All of this was false.

I have never seen Ice Station Zebra, a 1968 action-thriller starring Rock Hudson and Ernest Borgnine, and directed by John Sturges. But its IMDb trivia page (take that for what it's worth) notes that early ads were taken out in Variety confirming Gregory Peck's casting. Perhaps this is what Kael had referred to in her review. In any case, Peck vigorously denies it. "I did not work on Ice Station Zebra," he states, citing the filmmakers' refusal to change the ending as what terminated his interest. "There was no agreement, no contract, no tests, no wardrobe fittings, no filming, not with me." He then asks Kael why she "seized on that lie (or misinformation).... and print it as fact?" and why she retroactively pans his performance in The Keys of the Kingdom, "an undistinguished movie made in 1944?"

The closing of Peck's letter is funny enough, especially when imagining him speak it. ("I suppose one day we shall meet. We may have a civil exchange of a sort. Or not. I will make that determination.") But my favorite passage is a preceding paragraph, worth quoting nearly in full:

I know that you were at Berkeley in the late thirties, possibly as an English major. So was I. Forgive me, but your reviews do read like the earnest efforts of a bright girl still bucking (endlessly) for A's.... I have a nagging thought: Was there something between us that I don't remember? I sense it, but I have no recollection of having known you.

I don't really have a point to sharing all of this beyond personal amusement. Yet I am curious about what everyone thinks about Kael's criticisms compared to Peck's argument. Is Kael's opinion of Peck's acting valid, or is he correct that she is "strident," "embittered," and goes "overboard"? Do Peck's claims of "falsification, clouding my professional reputation" have merit, or does he go a little overboard himself accusing Kael that she "may well have cost me some good roles during the productive years of my career"? Finally, is it more than a bit surreal to recall a time when a film critic may have actually wielded that much power? Thank goodness we have the evidence, or film historians of the future might never believe it.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Women in Love (Ondine and Vincere)

The early passages of Neil Jordan's Ondine (2010), the new Irish fairy tale from our contemporary Brother Grimm, are enchanting. A hardscrabble fisherman, name of Syracuse (Colin Farrell), finds a woman caught in his net. What could have been the start of a grim Stieg Larsson thriller becomes, in Jordan's hands, The Girl Who Sings to Fishes. Calling herself Ondine (ahn-DEEN), the mystery woman (Alicja Bachleda) brings Syracuse unexpected luck on his fishing expeditions and attracts the attention of his physically disabled daughter, Annie (Alison Barry), who comes to believe that Ondine is a selkie -- a mythological creature who can shed her seal skin and take the form of a human being.

An erratic filmmaker but never an uninteresting one (e
ven his misguided last film, The Brave One, had a repellent fascination), Jordan is an exceptionally skilled conjurer of the fantastical in the everyday. His best movies (Mona Lisa, The Crying Game), are romantically bighearted, tinged with menace, with secrets hidden in plain sight. For a while, Ondine comes close to matching them, its landscape a lyrically enveloping blend of water and mist. (Insert obligatory praise of DP Christopher Doyle here.) Unfortunately, the entire film pivots on a late twist into "reality" that's interesting to think about in retrospect (Jordan's sleight of hand is as cunning as ever) but is a bit like investing in the world of Snow White only to find out that the Seven Dwarves run a meth lab. And a couple of performances are problematic: Bachleda's presence barely registers; while young newcomer Barry's character is precocious to eye-rolling extremes. (Joining Ondine in a clothing store, she's forced to utter lines like, "This town is sartorially challenged.") The highlight is Farrell, whose recent experience working with Jeff Bridges must have done him a world of good. Between his fine cameo in Crazy Heart and stellar work here, Farrell has dropped the twitchy fussiness that's plagued his career and become a quietly magnetic star.

Vincere (2009), which tells the little-known tale of the secret wife and estranged son of Benito Mussolini, is one of those experiences that may say more about my blind spots as a viewer than what I perceive to be the flaws of the film itself. Many reviews were ecstatic, trumpeting the picture's entwining of history and myth-making, huzzahing the creative renaissance of veteran Italian director Marco Bellocchio, and repeatedly cross-referencing one of his early successes, Fist in the Pocket (1965). Having never seen anything by Bellocchio prior, I can only compare Vincere ("Win") to what I know; and to these eyes, the movie's awkward mishmash of lingering shadows and newspaper headlines popping across the screen resembles a bastard hybrid of Francis Ford Coppola and Jean-Pierre Jeunet. The departure from biopic staidness is admittedly a welcome change of pace, as is the initial depiction of Mussolini (Filippo Timi) as the visual equivalent of Omar Sharif in his vital, smoldering Doctor Zhivago days. (After taking power, Timi vanishes and the character becomes the iconic, buffoonish Il Duce taken entirely from newsreel footage.) But the film is unwieldy and hyperactive to the point of distraction. It's so hellbent on eliminating the cliches of the genre that it forgets to put anything in their place.

In the central role of Ida Dalser, the woman who fell obsessively in love with young Benito, gave him financial and emotional support, then covertly married him and produced an heir, Giovanna Mezzogiorno gives a whirlwind of a performance that's been compared to the unwavering intensity of Maria Falconetti in The Passion of Joan of Arc. (Unsurprisingly, since Bellocchio all but connects the dots for us.) Mezzogiorno gives her acting chops a full workout as Mussolini dumps Dalser on his climb to power and she spirals into madness. Both mother and child wound up in insane asylums, and Vincere becomes more involving once it slows down long enough to invest in Ida's desperate efforts to reunite with her son. Up to then, however, the overheated style and frenetic pacing of Vincere plays less like myth or history than a bad movie musical. An even more unflattering comparison comes to mind: Alan Parker, Evita-bad.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Smooth Move

In a couple of days, I'll be uprooting from NE Ohio and moving out-of-state to a new home and a new job. I resigned from my previous place of employment a few weeks ago, which may explain why you've seen more posts from me than usual lately. It was a much needed break. (In the immortal words of Ron Livingston from Office Space: "I did nothing...and it was everything I dreamed it would be.") But I'm grateful to be returning to the ranks of the employed and am excited about the move (as generally stressful as moving can be).

The Man From Porlock, however, isn't going anywhere. I'll be on- and off-line for the remainder of the week; and once I start work my posting may be not quite as pervasive as it's been this summer. But I will be here, I will post, I will respond to comments. And I will continue reading the excellent blogs so many of you contribute. I've lost track of how many times I've read from so many of you a review of a film I've never seen or even heard about, then promptly went to the nearest theater, ordered it from Netflix or picked it up at the library. All of you have deeply enriched my moviegoing experience, so I need to scope out the cinemas near my new residence, give Netflix my change-of-address and get a new library card as soon as possible.

To hopefully return the favor, I highly recommend the great Winter's Bone (in theaters) and the very funny Smiley Face (on DVD). For stimulating film analysis, check out Paul Brunick's perceptive review of Salt, Stephen Altobello's hilarious and insightful series on the history of the Wilhelm Scream (at a blog new to me, Peel Slowly), and the outstanding video essay series by a few of our friends at The Museum of the Moving Image. Last but not least, don't miss this week's John Huston Blogathon, hosted by Adam Zanzie at Icebox Movies. I'll be in transit, followed by unpacking boxes and dealing with a high-maintenance cat, but will certainly check it out when I can. Keep the comments coming around these parts too, if you have any.