Rewatched and Reconsidered: Sabrina (1954)

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Sabrina is one of a few films that continue to benefit from Audrey Hepburn’s ongoing popularity. There are a few “classes” of classic film – ones that everyone knows like The Wizard of Oz, ones that are loved by die-hard classic aficionados, and ones like Sabrina that find an appreciative modern audience of people who are open to classic films but aren’t necessarily big film buffs in general. These people gravitate toward Audrey Hepburn as a style icon, and certain films of hers (especially this one, Roman Holiday, Funny Face, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Charade and My Fair Lady) stay perennially popular because they highlight her effortless style, effervescent screen presence, and ineffable wide-eyed innocence.

Perhaps my own struggles with loving Sabrina stem in part as a personal backlash against its popularity, the assumption of certain classic film watchers that it’s a great and classic film.

Karina Longworth has a great podcast called You Must Remember This, an exploration of stories from classic Hollywood, and she has an episode devoted to Audrey Hepburn and specifically the making of Sabrina – what it meant for Hepburn’s career, how it solidified her style (it was her first time wearing Givenchy, whose Parisian couture became inextricably linked to Hepburn for the rest of her career), and how it really established her career and her persona. I suspect that has a lot to do with its endurance in the popular imagination. Those aren’t the things that bother me in the film, either.

Would you like to know more…?

Hidden Treasures – Week of July 6th

Now, the latest installment of Hidden Treasures.

Atlantic City (1980)
When it came to playing intense, charismatic characters, Burt Lancaster was one of the best there was. In a career that spanned five decades, he took on such notable roles as Wyatt Earp in 1957’s Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, and J.J. Hunsecker, a columnist with an entire city under his thumb, in Alexander Mackendrick’s Sweet Smell of Success. So it stands to reason that an actor of Lancaster’s talent and standing would be the perfect choice to play Lou Pascal, the aging gangster at the center of Louis Malle’s 1980 film, Atlantic City. Only a performer of Lancaster’s strength could bring a character as weak and cowardly as Lou so convincingly to life.

From what we can gather, Lou was once a big man in Atlantic City. That is, before the casinos came to town. Nowadays, he’s been reduced to acting as manservant for former beauty queen Grace (Kate Reid), who is also the widow of one of Lou’s former partners. Sally (Susan Sarandon) is a casino worker who lives in the same building as Lou, and Lou is smitten with her. When Sally’s estranged husband, Dave (Robert Joy), comes to down with some drugs he stole from the mob, it’s Lou who helps him find a dealer willing to buy them. Before long, the mob catches up with Dave and murders him, leaving Lou as the sole owner of a fortune in drugs. He will use the drug money to help out Sally, but when the mob eventually connects Sally to Dave, Lou finds himself in the middle of a dangerous predicament, with no idea how to handle it.

Lou Pascal remains an enigma through much of Atlantic City. He carries himself at all times with an air of respectability, yet lives in a run-down apartment building, just upstairs from Grace, who riddles him with insults as he fixes her supper and runs her errands. When the drugs enter the scene, Lou suddenly has more money, and more confidence, than he’s had in a long time, yet his newfound self-assurance goes right out the window when the mob starts hassling Sally. In a key scene, when Sally is being accosted by two thugs, all Lou can do is stand back and watch in abject fear, doing nothing as they slap her around. Throughout the entire movie, Lou Pascal is seeking a return to the glory of his younger days, yet as the movie progresses, we begin to wonder whether or not he ever possessed such “glory” in the first place.

Lancaster is one of the few actors who can swagger in one scene, cower in the next, and make both totally believable. With Atlantic City, he and director Malle have constructed a character that is a perplexing mystery, and we have a difficult time getting a handle on either Lou or his shadowy past. He is a relic in the modern world, and like most relics, it takes some digging to finally bring the truth to light.
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The Deep End (2001)
Margaret Hall (Tilda Swinton) is a very busy woman. Her husband, a naval aviator, is away from home for months at a time, so it’s up to Margaret to care for their three children, not to mention a live-in father-in-law, all while trying her best to maintain a beautiful Lake Tahoe home. Recently, things have grown quite chaotic for poor Margaret. Along with helping her youngest son find his baseball mitt and talking with the dry cleaners about her father-in-law’s pants, she’s busy trying to raise $50,000 to pay off a pair of blackmailers and keep her eldest son out of jail. Where does she find the time?

The Deep End, a thriller from co-writers/co-directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel, is the story of one woman’s struggle to maintain a normal existence under incredibly abnormal circumstances. As played by Tilda Swinson, Margaret is a courageous, intelligent woman who must tap all of her resources to protect her family. Unfortunately, she will also have to break the law.

It all begins when Margaret’s seventeen-year-old son, Beau (Jonathan Tucker), a closet homosexual, begins an affair with Reno nightclub owner Darby Reese (Josh Lucas). Margaret disapproves of Darby’s lifestyle, and tells him in no uncertain terms to stay away from her son. When Darby secretly drives out to the Hall’s one night to meet Beau, it leads to a violent argument between the two. A few punches are exchanged, and Beau storms off. Darby, exhausted from the fracas, leans against a fence post, which breaks and sends him plunging to his death. While out for a stroll the next morning, Margaret finds Darby and, fearing her son may have murdered him, spends the morning quietly disposing of the body. Shortly after Darby’s remains are discovered by the authorities, Margaret receives a visit from Alek Spera (Goran Visnjic), a one-time business partner of Darby Reese. Alek shows Margaret a video of Darby and Beau having sex together, and threaten to turn it over to the authorities unless Margaret can come up with $50,000 by 5 p.m. the next day.

The Deep End convincingly blends melodrama with the seedy world of film noir, telling the tale of a normal, Middle-American mother who has no alternative but to deal with some very shady characters. Yet when it comes to the welfare of her family, Margaret is prepared to do just that. Even Alek, who instigated the blackmail, comes to respect Margaret as she tries to balance his extortion with the everyday demands of raising a family. Thanks to a superior performance from Tilda Swinton, Margaret is both strong and believable, a woman doing her best under impossible circumstances.
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S.O.B. (1981)
S.O.B. is the cinematic equivalent of a scathing bit of hate mail, which director Blake Edwards has addressed to every producer, actor, agent and publicist working in the motion picture industry. Yet despite its damning representation of the Hollywood system, S.O.B. also manages to be quite hilarious, leading one to conclude that, while Hollywood may be rotten to the core, it hasn’t lost its sense of humor.

Producer Felix Farmer (Robert Mulligan) suffers a nervous breakdown when his latest film, an overpriced children’s movie titled Night Wind, bombs at the box office. When his numerous attempts at suicide fail, Felix does the next best thing: he buys Night Wind back from the studio so that he can transform his kiddie failure into a million-dollar pornographic extravaganza. Of course, for his plan to succeed, Felix will have to convince his estranged wife, squeaky-clean family film icon Sally Miles (Julie Andrews), to shoot a nude scene. Against the advice of good friend Tim Culley (William Holden) and family doctor Irving Finegarten (Robert Preston), Felix goes ahead with his crazy plan, causing a buzz that resonates throughout Tinsel Town, threatening to turn all of Hollywood upside-down in the process.

The javelins that director Edwards tosses at the filmmakers and professionals who populate the Hollywood system often hit their mark, and usually with deadly accuracy. David Blackman (Robert Vaughn), the president of Capital pictures, is a bottom-line executive who expects every film to not only turn a profit, but come in under a certain running time. If a movie’s too long, Blackman, who fancies himself an editor, will personally cut it to shreds. Along with the executives, Edwards takes a poke at the agents as well, who are here shown to be little more than blood-sucking parasites. When Sally announces her intentions to divorce Felix, her agent, Eva (Shelley Winters) and press agent, Ben (Robert Webber), far from offering any personal consolation, advise their client that divorce may hurt her sugary-sweet public image. As a parallel to this lack of professional ethics, S.O.B. reveals time and again the moral bankruptcy of Hollywood itself, where sex and debauchery are used to seal million-dollar contracts. Amidst its tangled web of deceit and treachery, S.O.B. also manages to offer up a barrage of hilarious jokes and sight gags.

It’s been said that Blake Edwards made S.O.B. in response to the horrible experience he had directing his 1970 film, Darling Lili, a movie that went way over budget and bombed at the box-office. Perhaps S.O.B. was a form of therapy, a way for the longtime filmmaker to release all of his pent-up frustrations. If you listen closely, you might even catch the sound of Edwards’ teeth gnashing in the background.

That is, if you can hear it over the laughter.