Wednesday, April 30, 2014

façade: Glenda Jackson

The Great Glenda with Peter Finch and Murray Head in John Schlesinger's lacerating masterwork, "Sunday Bloody Sunday" (1971)

My previous essay on ”Stevie” brings something to mind.  Or, rather, someone...

Watching Meryl Streep giddily go through her "She Can Do No Wrong" phase brings to mind two major actresses from the 1970s who enjoyed the same free pass - Liv Ullmann and Glenda Jackson.

But my mind is really on Jackson. Ullmann still works in movies - occasionally as an actress, more often as a filmmaker herself - but Jackson, always something more of an activist than an actress, made a crucial decision to walk away.

And when she did, people - her fans, the critics - seem to have walked away, too. In the opposite direction. Jackson's name is rarely invoked these days in movie reviews or film essays. I don't know why - because when she was active, she was positively electric. There was always this unquenchable hunger in a Glenda Jackson performance. It was as if she wanted to make acting so much more than what it was.

In retrospect, she was far too serious for what is essentially a silly profession - play acting. At least Streep seems to be aware of the joke (see her performances in "Mamma Mia!" and "Julie & Julia") but Jackson couldn't really make light of it. And so she left.

It was during her last few years of acting that Jackson became actively involved in politics in her native Great Britain and she formally and officially retired from acting in order to enter the House of Commons in the 1992 general election as the Labour Member of Parliament for Hampstead and Highgate. She is currently Labour MP for the constituency of Hampstead and Highgate in the London Borough of Camden.

I feel fairly confident that she is giving an on-going passionate performance in her new role. It would be nice to once again witness that no-nonsense Jackson drive - that sometimes frightening energy that she brought to not only the aforementioned "Stevie" by Robert Enders, but also such Ken Russell films as "Women in Love" (her Oscar winner) and "The Music Lovers" - as well as John Schlesinger's "Sunday Bloody Sunday," Charles Jarrott's "Mary, Queen of Scotts" (opposite Vanessa Redgrave!), John Irvin's "Turtle Diary" and even her wicked cameo in Russell's "The Boy Friend" and her romcom turn in Melvin Frank's "A Touch of Class." I could go on.

Thinking about her makes me long for her once again. Glenda Jackson will turn 78 on Friday (May 9th). It is unlikely she will ever make another movie.  It is also unlikely that we will never see the likes of her again.

But thank heaven for film!

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

cinema obscura: Harvey Hart's "Fortune and Men's Eyes" (1971)

Aficionados of the unapologetically harsh HBO series, "Oz," may be under the impression that Tom Fantana's creation was mining something new in its uncensored depiction of the homoerotic tensions that seemingly permeate every inch of the prison system.

But the fact is, John Herbert's play, "Fortune and Men's Eyes," produced in the late '60s, got there first, and Harvey Hart's extremely faithful 1971 film version took the piece one step further, depicting things that eluded the constraints of the stage. Herbert's title is taken from a Shakespearean poem entitled "When in disgrace with fortune and men's eyes".

As up-to-date as the material was - and is (even with the passage of time) - the plot of "Fortune and Men's Eyes" is simplistic, almost following a forumula. Call it Prison Film 101. In it, an innocent - the naïve Smitty (Wendell Burton, that's him in the photo, caged) - lands in jail for six months for possessing drugs and is immediately exposed to the horrors of the place. The familiar denizens are all there - the brooding, quick-trigger Rocky (Zooey Hall), the sensitive, sonnet-spouting gay man Mona (Danny Freedman) and the more flamboyant Queenie (Michael Greer, the Rupert Everett of his day), whose name says it all.

Rocky offers Smitty his "protection" - but for a price. The sequence in which Rocky rapes Smitty, in seemingly real time, in the showers was a cause celebré in its day and probably still packs a punch. That's if you can see the film. Which you can't.

I'm not sure who staged that sequence. The film's original director, Jules Schwerin, was replaced nine weeks into the shoot by Harvey Hart ("The Sweet Ride" and "Bus Riley's Back in Town").

The cast is exemplary. Greer, one of the original actors in the Los Angeles stage production of the play (which starred Don Johnson and was directed by Sal Mineo) is postively electric. And whatever happened to him anyway? Both Burton and Hall, who also disappeared, were fresh late '60s faces at the time, both having made their movie debuts in 1969 - Burton opposite Liza Minnelli in Alan J. Pakula's debut movie, "The Sterile Cuckoo," and Hall in a crucial yet curiously uncredited performance in Gordon Parks' debut movie, the autobiographical "The Learning Tree."

The film, incidentally, is a French Canadian production and, in its homeland, was known as "Aux yeux du sort et des humains."

Monday, April 14, 2014

indelible moment: "Mean Girls" (2004)

Gretchen Weiners: "That is so fetch!"

Regina George: "Gretchen, stop trying to make 'fetch' happen! It's so not going to happen!"

Rachel McAdams as the alpha mean girl of The Plastics setting Lacey Chabert straight on her phraseology in Mark Waters' delightful teen comedy.