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Posts Tagged ‘Katharine Ross’

Once more unto the Ultimate Picture Palace (if this keeps up I shall have to consider buying yet another cinema membership card), where they are currently showing a season of classic westerns (and why not). To be honest with you, the collection of films on offer is a bit of a mixed bag – they have The Searchers, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, and The Wild Bunch, which obviously all qualify, but also Rio Bravo – I mean, it’s okay, but I prefer the John Carpenter semi-remake – and The Last Movie, which in addition to being fairly obscure also features in a book entitled The Fifty Worst Films of All Time. Also on the list is George Roy Hill’s 1969 film Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid – now, this I would say was an indisputably classic movie, one of my personal favourites, but a classic western?

On paper it looks like a fairly standard example of the genre. The film is set, we are invited to infer, in the very last years of the 19th century, with the charming and ingenious Butch (Paul Newman) and the taciturn but deadly Kid (Robert Redford) well-established as outlaw robbers of banks and trains, and happily ensconced in a not-quite-love-triangle with schoolteacher Etta Place (Katharine Ross). They are local celebrities, sort of, generally trying to avoid hurting people in the pursuit of their activities. The sun shines, the scenery is beautiful; Butch and Sundance barely seem to have a care in the world.

But the wheels of progress crush everyone, and what the duo fail to fully appreciate until too late is that their world is vanishing. They are virtually the last of their kind, and one irate businessman determines to complete the eradication of the old-west outlaw by hiring a crack posse of expert hunters and killers to chase them down and finish their careers permanently. It’s a nasty shock for the carefree duo, who only manage to escape through a desperate gamble and sheer good fortune. Butch and Sundance resolve to take the heat off by travelling down to Bolivia, where there are still opportunities for the old-fashioned banditry they love, and better days return – but only for a while…

Well, it’s always a pleasure to see a film like this back on the big screen, especially given the thick-headed TV edit currently in circulation. It’s actually a little discombobulating to realise that Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is celebrating its fiftieth anniversary this year, for it feels as fresh and engaging as it ever did (I guess it must: the UPP is also currently showing The Old Man and the Gun, in which a rather more grizzled Redford bids his adieu to the screen playing a role not a million miles away from the Sundance Kid). I first saw this film at a very early age and have lost count of the number of times I’ve seen it since; my appreciation for it has done nothing but grow, and it is on the list of those films which seem to me to be virtually perfect.

But is it strictly speaking a classic western? It might sound like an absurd question. I suppose it boils down to how you define the western as a genre – if you consider it to be any film predominantly set on the American frontier in the nineteenth century, then naturally it qualifies. Some people would be more rigorous and suggest that a classic western must deal with themes of honour, loyalty, individualism, perhaps even rugged masculinity. These are the same people inclined to dismiss Sergio Leone’s films as superficial nihilism, for all their critical and commercial success.

Certainly you could argue that Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid often feels much more like a comedy-drama buddy movie, as the title duo banter and squabble their way through the movie; part of its charm is that it is genuinely and consistently funny throughout. The soundtrack, provided by Burt Bacharach, is also hardly the stuff of a classic cowboy movie. Real purists might also take issue with the fact that the closing stretch of the film is set in South America, and the film did apparently struggle to get financed for a while as studio bosses objected to the fact that the heroes essentially spend much of the movie running away (‘John Wayne don’t run away,’ was the comment of one executive).

I think this is to miss the point of the film, which is essentially about the classic cowboy in retreat. It is, obviously, a deeply nostalgic film – there’s probably an interesting discussion to be had about the place of nostalgia within the western genre – fully aware of a world slipping away. The appearance of modern bank vaults and bicycles in the old west are just signs that things are changing on a deeper level, and there is no place for outlaws any more. The film is about the death of this romantic world, and due to the sheer charisma of Redford and Newman, you feel its loss keenly no matter how irrational this is.

One of the most impressive things about William Goldman’s script is the way in which the tone of the film gradually but imperceptibly grows darker as it progresses – Butch and Sundance are never short of a wisecrack or put-down, even in the midst of their final encounter with the Bolivian army, but their exploits become progressively grittier and more violent as the film approaches its end. As bandits, they are presented as committing almost victimless crimes – it is their attempt at going straight that leads to them becoming killers. You could probably view the whole movie as a metaphor for the western genre’s loss of innocence – it opens with footage from a silent movie from the genre, and grows progressively darker and more ‘realistic’, as I’ve mentioned. The bodies of the Bolivian bandits killed by the duo tumble in slow motion very much like something from a Sam Peckinpah film, which the film in some ways begins to resemble. Is it stretching a point to suggest that, by killing off the lead characters at the end, this film is an example of the western anticipating its own imminent demise, in its traditional form at least?

We should also perhaps remember that this film came out in 1969, and there are surely echoes of the sunlit days of the summer of love in the film’s lighter moments. Butch and Sundance are obviously anti-establishment figures, not actively seeking to harm anyone, just to carry on the relatively carefree existence they enjoy – they are rogues rather than villains. Perhaps by the very end of the 60s it was already becoming apparent that the dreams of the counter-culture were part of a world as doomed to pass as that of the two outlaws, and this is why young audiences responded so strongly to the bittersweet mood of the film and the poignancy of its conclusion: we are spared the gory details, left with an image of our heroes frozen in a sepia-toned past, drifting off into the distance. This film is a joy, while never forgetting that all things must pass – but so far, at least, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid itself seems to be timeless.

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So, as you may or may not be aware, of a weekend more often than not I like to take in a movie. Just for a change, you know. Occasionally, most often in the summer, I do find myself in the awkward position of having already seen anything remotely promising. It’s a bit less common for this to happen in the middle of February, but there’s a first time for everything. Basically, I found myself facing the problem of the only two significant new films available being Fifty Shades of Grey and Shaun the Sheep.

So what’s the problem, you may be wondering. Well, I hate to say it, but sometimes I am perhaps a bit more concerned with the look of things than I ought to be, and I am fully aware that the only thing that looks worse than a spud-faced man in early middle age turning up to watch a children’s film, unaccompanied, is the same spud-faced man in early middle age turning up to watch a softcore bondage romp, unaccompanied. The nigh-on unthinkable prospect of chickening out of going to the cinema entirely loomed.

Luckily I was directed to the only cinema in Oxford I had yet to partake of, which gives us the opportunity for one of our increasingly-rare editions of New Cinema Review. I have to say that while the Ultimate Picture Palace near the St Clements end of Cowley Road is by no means the most basic cinema I’ve ever been to – that honour still goes to the Island in Lytham St Annes, where the ticket price of £3 a head is absolutely reasonable, given the general quality of the place – it is certainly not far off: only one screen, which opens directly onto the street, a concessions stand in the back of the theatre itself, and toilets under the screen. The seats are not exactly opulent, either, and I’m a little surprised the place hangs on, given it charges roughly the same for its tickets as the still-superior-despite-a-soulless-corporate-makeover Phoenix on the other side of town. But hey: I’m not going to knock the place too much, as it spared me an awkward flogger or fleece moment.

The film I went to see there was Mike Nichols’ famous 1967 comedy-drama, The Graduate. This is one of those movies which seems to have drilled its way into the public consciousness: certainly I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t aware of it, even though I didn’t properly watch it until just the other day. Everyone knows the famous shot of Dustin Hoffman, framed with Anne Bancroft’s stockinged leg, everyone knows the ‘Are you trying to seduce me?’ line, everyone knows the climax in the church, and – of course – everyone knows Simon and Garfunkel’s wonderful songs. But what’s it actually about? Is it really worthy of such fame?

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The film concerns Benjamin Braddock (Hoffman), a young man recently returned from college to the family home somewhere in suburban Los Angeles. His parents are delighted by his academic prowess; he is a credit to them, and his qualms about what he’s going to do next are casually brushed aside. A party in his honour brings him into the orbit of close family friend Mrs Robinson (Bancroft, who’s top billed, by the way), who executes a devastatingly clinical seduction on the lad. (In real life, by the way, the age gap was only about six years, rather than the twenty or so implied in the film.)

Benjamin finds his time with Mrs Robinson is the only thing that he enjoys and looks forward to, but things become much more complicated when the Robinsons’ daughter Elaine (Katharine Ross) returns from her own studies, and he finds himself obliged to take her out on a date. He finds himself very attracted to her, much to the fury of her mother. Is this true love? And, if so, can it find a way?

The first thing that must be said about The Graduate is that it is a very well-made piece of entertainment: what could have been a slightly insipid comedy of sexual manners is given real heart and soul by a combination of elements – the strong performances of all three leads, especially Hoffman, Nichols’ creative direction, and the songs. It’s the latter which give the film its distinctly dreamy quality, although Nichols’ work is also a factor. This is quite an overtly directed film – Nichol’s use of effects like a handheld camera, almost subliminally fast cutting, and fast fades are eye-catching – but this doesn’t feel intrusive. In a strange way this isn’t really a naturalistic film at all, but a kind of fable, and Hoffman’s work reflects this – he starts off as an almost-comically hapless stooge for the other characters, before slowly evolving into more of a rebellious figure. When all three of these elements come together, as in the superbly impressionistic sequence where Benjamin’s summer basically devolves to his stumbling back and forth between the family swimming pool and his trysts with Mrs Robinson, the results are spellbinding.

That said, I have to say I found the first half of the film, concerning Benjamin’s affair with the mother, to be rather stronger and sharper than the second, which depicts his romance with the daughter. Several elements of this are just a bit too contrived to be convincing. The ease with which Elaine is coerced into getting married is rather convenient, as is the way in which Benjamin manages to track her down to the church.

Nevertheless it does feed into the theme of the film, which is probably why it has lasted: The Graduate does capture the feeling of a moment in time like few others, that moment of incipient rebellion which was to lead to the hippie movement, the summer of love, and a thousand acts of dropping out. At the start, one gets the impression that never in his life has Benjamin been considered as a person in his own right: his education appears to have been entirely geared towards starting him in the right sort of career, rather than allowing him self-discovery. His parents parade him as a kind of exhibit or trophy, disregarding his own concerns about his life. Even Mrs Robinson exploits him as a kind of toy – tellingly, we never learn her first name, the implication being that Benjamin has to remain deferent to her on the grounds of her seniority, despite their supposed intimacy.

In short, the first part of the film is about youth being controlled by convention and orthodoxy, with no thought that there could be any other state of affairs. The rest of it is about breaking free – and while Benjamin doesn’t grow his hair or become a stoner, his revolt is pretty comprehensive: he rebels against his parents’ expectations and the idea of graduate school, he rebels against Mrs Robinson’s desire to control him, and, in the climax, he rebels against religion and the convention of marriage by breaking into Elaine’s wedding.

Yet the film is not quite as straightforward as it first appears – endorsing this kind of anarchic behaviour would be a bold step for a studio release in 1967, after all. The film ends on a finely achieved note of ambiguity, as Benjamin and Elaine’s joy at their escape abruptly fades, replaced by – well, it’s hard to say. There is, perhaps, the faintest echo of the earlier idea that Benjamin is really happiest only when living in the moment. As another famous piece of pop culture suggested at around the same time, there is some truth in the notion that it is often better to want than to get, and for me The Graduate seems to suggest that dreaming of something is often preferable to having it. This film may be a crucial piece of 60s pop culture, but it is remarkably down-to-earth, and very cynical, for all that it remains a very funny and entertaining film.

 

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It is a widely remarked-upon fact that, for one of the great storytellers of the modern age, Stephen King’s success rate when it comes to film adaptations of his work is not enviable. There is, of course, The Shawshank Redemption to consider in the plus column, but apart from this, the quantity of dodgy or frankly substandard King adaptations in circulation is formidable. This is thrown into sharp relief when one considers the startling run of form enjoyed by a horror writer from an earlier generation, Ira Levin.

King has written around fifty novels, of which about half a dozen have been made into genuinely good, memorable films. Levin, on the other hand, wrote only seven novels, but their screen versions include at least two classics, and several other very decent stabs (also the Sharon Stone potboiler Sliver, but you can’t have everything), amongst them Rosemary’s Baby, The Boys from Brazil, and the film I’m going to write about now, Bryan Forbes’ 1975 version of The Stepford Wives.

This is a film which has entered the popular lexicon despite, I was surprised to learn, not being a notable hit on its original release. Certainly the numerous sequels (and execrable 2004 remake) would seem to indicate that this is a film which has made an impact in the popular imagination. Writing about the remake, I found myself going to enormous lengths to avoid spoiling the original film’s central twist – I don’t think I can do the same writing about the original itself, so caveat lector.

Joanna and Walter Eberhart (Katharine Ross and Peter Masterson) are a fairly typical, affluent couple, in the process of moving out of New York City to the quiet country town of Stepford. (It is, of course, something of a genre movie trope that whenever people from the city move to, or even just visit, the peaceful and beautiful countryside, unutterably horrible things are sure to happen to them before very much time has elapsed.)

Stepford is very pleasant, but Joanna is uneasy: Walter joins the Men’s Association and spends all his time there, while she and her kooky new best friend Bobbie (Paula Prentiss) are simultaneously disturbed and frustrated by the behaviour of the women of the town. They all seem to aspire to be domestic goddesses of the first rank, spending all their time cleaning, cooking, baking and gardening, utterly devoted to their husbands and seemingly utterly heedless of their own happiness and fulfilment. Joanna and Bobbie try to introduce Women’s Lib to Stepford, but their first meeting quickly turns into an exchange of good housekeeping tips.

Events take a more sinister turn when Joanna and Bobbie notice that women who move to Stepford abruptly start conforming to the local stereotype after a few months in town, abandoning their previous interests and becoming vapid, obsessive home-makers. It even happens to Bobbie, leaving Joanna alone and increasingly frightened. Is she just imagining the sinister influence she sees everywhere in town? Or her own time running out as well?

It seems very strange to think that The Stepford Wives was criticised on its original release for somehow being a chauvinistic, anti-feminist picture. For this interpretation to work you would really have to be rooting for the men and eagerly anticipating Ross and Prentiss getting their just desserts – and the film doesn’t work this way at all. There’s barely a single sympathetic male character in it – Walter is weak, while the leader of the Men’s Association, played by Patrick O’Neal, is cold and sinister (and frankly a barely two-dimensional character). The two women are the characters you’re rooting for – this is very far from being a chauvinist film; to call it a feminist diatribe would probably be closer to the mark.

It’s also another one of the great exercises in cinematic paranoia – not unlike Rosemary’s Baby in some ways, but it seems to me that this film has much more in common with Invasion of the Body Snatchers, in that both share the same small-town setting and a preoccupation with the loss of identity. Invasion of the Body Snatchers treats this broadly, as a general political issue, but with The Stepford Wives the politics are sexual. Certainly it works as a paranoid horror-fable much more convincingly than it does as a plausible drama – the plot falls to pieces as soon as you breathe on it, to say nothing of the fact that it requires every noteworthy man in town to be some kind of high-functioning psychopath.

The film is really about the male desire not just to possess women, but to make possessions out of them, regardless of their own identity as individuals – the film doesn’t handle this especially subtly, giving Ross’ character a prominently arty photographic hobby mainly so she can later make a speech about how ‘There’ll be somebody with my name, and she’ll cook and clean like crazy, but she won’t take pictures, and she won’t be me!’ But, if nothing else, the film does include a brilliant final scene in which the wives of Stepford glide serenely up and down the aisles of the supermarket in a strange ballet of the trolleys, and the sense that this is a film with as much to say about consumerism as the first Dawn of the Dead is almost inescapable.

For a horror film – which is what The Stepford Wives really fundamentally is – it’s a strangely charming and beguiling confection, to begin with at least. The sunny setting in conventional suburbia is well realised. The pace is, shall we say, rather languorous to begin with – a modern editor would probably be able to chop fifteen or twenty minutes from the movie without much difficulty – but this allows plenty of time for the slow accretion of tiny details that suggest that something very strange is occurring without beating the audience about the head with it.  And Katharine Ross, an actress with an enviable record in the late 60s and early 70s, is very good in the lead role.

Well, well: I seem to have got to the end of the review without spoiling the plot of The Stepford Wives after all, which I’m rather glad about. The idea at the heart of this film is a bit too grotesque and outlandish for it to really be credible as a proper piece of SF, but it’s still the driver for a very accomplished and affecting movie, and one not without chills in the right places. If it has entered the public consciousness, then it’s done so on merit.

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