Tag: Jessica Lange

Cape Fear (1991)

Robert De Niro terrorises his lawyer’s family in Cape Fear

Director: Martin Scorsese

Cast: Robert De Niro (Max Cady), Nick Nolte (Sam Bowden), Jessica Lange (Leigh Bowden), Juliette Lewis (Danielle Bowden), Joe Don Baker (Claude Kersek), Robert Mitchum (Lt Elgart), Gregory Peck (Lee Heller), Illeana Douglas (Lori Davis), Fred Dalton Thompson (Tom Broadbent), Martin Balsam (Judge)

Max Cady (Robert De Niro) is out of prison after 14 years. He went in as an ill-educated psychotic bum, sent down for the rape and assault of a young woman after his appalled lawyer Sam Bowden (Nick Nolte) buried evidence on her sexual history that might have lightened his sentence. He comes out as a self-educated, articulate and psychotic force of nature, not sorry for one minute and intent on making Sam and his wife Leigh (Jessica Lange) and daughter Danielle (Juliette Lewis) pay. 

Scorsese’s remake of J. Lee-Thompson’s deliberately Hitchcock-esque thriller sees the great director go one better by trying to channel Hitchcock’s style as closely as possible. Framing and editing decisions echo Hitchcock, its design apes as much as possible cinematographer Robert Burk’s lensing, Elmer Bernstein remixes the original film’s Bernard Herrmann score into something even more Hitchcockesque than the original. Scorsese throws in several of the master’s favourite themes, with sexual obsession and frustrated, working men forced to defend themselves in extreme situations. Combined with the sort of lavish violence and extreme imagery Hitchcock couldn’t use, we end up with something like an odd film-school experiment, by film students who have watched too many slashers. It’s grim, tasteless, overlong and troubling – and not in a good way.

The film adjusts Nolte’s character from a lawyer and witness against Cady into his corrupt lawyer (no matter that his corruption in this case was well intentioned). The film has a slightly unpleasant concern with modern worries about masculinity, with Bowden now concerned he is not “man enough” to defend his home – the film constantly passes subtle judgement against Bowden’s lack of physical prowess. It also readjusts Bowden into a weasel, corrupt at work and having an affair with a young attorney (whom Cady then beats and rapes later in the film, with a slightly queasy air that she is at least partly culpable by allowing Cady to pick her up in a bar beforehand). To be honest Bowden is hard to sympathise with, and his quest to assert his masculinity rather than rely on the law or hiring others to do his dirty work not really that pleasant. Frankly Nolte was never the actor to engage sympathies in the way original choice Harrison Ford (he wanted to play Cady) would do.

Cady himself is played by Robert De Niro, channelling heavily the original’s star Robert Mitchum (with lashings of The Night of the Hunter) as the sort of articulate psychopath so beloved by film. It’s fun to watch De Niro grandstanding as this sort of violent Tyrannosaur, weaving both psychological and shockingly violent games to unnerve and panic Bowden and his family. The film doesn’t give much scope to make Cady much more than a sort of comic-book monster, but De Niro does at least have moments of reflection in amongst his insanity. And there is a sort of admirable emotional intelligence in Cady’s knack of detecting the underlying tensions in the Bowden’s marriage and family life and exploiting these to torment the family.

The film’s most effective moments are the quieter ones, none more so than Cady’s quiet befriending/seduction of Bowden’s daughter Danielle behind her parents’ back. This culminates in a deeply unsettlingly seduction scene in Danielle’s school hall, where Juliette Lewis (extremely good) fascinatingly and bashfully becomes entranced with Cady’s interest in her teenage reading list and problems with her parents. The sexuality of the scene is possibly even more unnerving today and a highlight of the film – not least, ending as it does, with Danielle sucking Cady’s thumb before kissing him and leaving with the giddy, confused excitement of someone both scared and fascinated. Few other things in the film match this moment for psychological complexity – or the unsettling exploration of teenage sexuality overlapping with rebellion against domineering parents. 

Least of all the film’s overblown and final confrontation between the Bowden family and Cady, in which Cady rises from death no  less than three times and which stretches on forever, jettisoning all the small stock of goodwill the film had built up in its quieter moments. But then this is just part of a film that chooses the graphic and the overblown over calculated and chilling, every chance it gets. It’s a shame as there is a more chilling, psychological terror film – with Cady as a demonically clever opponent – struggling to come out here, but which keeps tripping into slasher territory with Cady as an invulnerable Michael Myers.

Perhaps Scorsese just thought of the whole thing as a sort of cineaste’s private joke? All the Hitchcock references, the careful apeing of styles, even the casting of the original’s leads in small roles (a joke further amplified by casting Mitchum as the police officer, while ultimate straight arrow Gregory Peck plays a lawyer even more corrupt than Bowden). But jokes like this don’t really make for long-term entertaining films, and Cape Fear is so full of basically horrible people doing horrible things to each other (in an increasingly Grand Guignol fashion) that after a while you more than cease caring about it. You start getting actively annoyed by it.

Tootsie (1982)

Dustin Hoffman plays somewhat against type in the marvellous Tootsie

Director: Sydney Pollack

Cast: Dustin Hoffman (Michael Dorsey/Dorothy Michaels), Jessica Lange (Julie Nichols), Teri Garr (Sandy Lester), Dabney Coleman (Ron Carlisle), Doris Belack (Rita Marshall), Charles Durning (Les Nichols), Bill Murray (Jeff Slater), Sydney Pollack (George Fields), George Gaynes (John van Horn), Geena Davis (April Page)

It sounds like a movie idea from hell: “We’ll get Dustin Hoffman to play a struggling actor who can only get a job when he dresses as a middle-aged woman and auditions for a daytime soap. Hilarious misunderstandings will follow…” But you’d be wrong: Tootsie is an absolute delight: not only a wonderful comedy, but a touching love story and an acute commentary on sexism and the compromises women are forced to make to get the same opportunities as men. It’s a wonderful, smart, thought-provoking film.

In a role that draws on more than a little self-parody, Dustin Hoffman plays Michael Dorsey, a dedicated, demanding, difficult actor who has alienated so many people across Broadway and Hollywood with his unwillingness to compromise that he can’t land a job. When his friend Sandy (Teri Garr) flunks an audition on a General Hospital-style daytime soap, Michael thinks “what the hell” and puts himself forward for the role under the disguise of the middle-aged “Dorothy Michaels”. Surprisingly he finds he lands the job: and realises that women’s lot on the masculine film-set is not a happy one, evading sexual approaches, treated like idiots and generally encouraged to not pipe up. Intelligent, clever fellow-cast member Julie Nichols (Jessica Lange) hides her light under a bushel. At first Michael enjoys the respect he wins, but as Dorothy increasingly becomes a feminist icon he’s plagued with guilt at the lies and deceptions he’s practising.

It’s the sort of idea that should be either patronising today (a man learns about feminism by walking in a woman’s shoes!) or inadvertently toe-curling. The fact that it isn’t (and I’ve watched this film with women who have enjoyed it a great deal, so I’m not completely guessing here!) is a tribute to the film’s lightness of touch, combined with a neat sense of the ridiculous, along with the emotional truth and genuineness that the film is handled with. It neither preaches nor mocks but simply focuses on telling the story and allowing us to draw our own conclusions. It also has a script packed through with some absolutely cracking jokes, all of which are delivered straight.

Central to its success is Dustin Hoffman, who plays the entire role completely straight. His Michael is a neat self-parody in his abrasive difficulty – but he’s also shown to be a concerned and genuine friend to Teri Garr’s delightfully ditzy Sandy, urging her to have more confidence (little realising how difficult it is for women to impress male casting directors if they behave with the confidence of men). Sure he’s not above clumsy passes to women at parties, but he’s no dinosaur or sexist. And becoming Dorothy Michaels is an opportunist moment of eagerness to show he has range and can get work if severed from his terrible reputation, rather than having any cruel or mocking motivations.

And what Hoffman does so well here is that Dorothy becomes her own personality. And that Michael immediately recognises that Dorothy, with her assurance, her kindness, her unwillingness to take nonsense, but her serene confidence, is a much better person than he is. She refuses to be trapped into either of the two roles the director intends for her (love interest or shrew) but insists her role in the hospital soap be treated like a dedicated professional, not defined by her sex – which makes her exactly the sort of role-model women around her (and eventually across America) have yearned for. Somehow as well, the film gets us to invest in what a great person Dorothy is, even as we know it’s really Michael in disguise – and Hoffman never, ever plays the part for laughs.

The casting allows the film to get a number of hilarious shots at the fast-paced, poorly-written, cheaply sexist nonsense that goes into daytime soaps. The director of the show is a roving lothario (played with all the smarm at his command by Dabney Coleman), who opposes Dorothy’s casting because she is not attractive enough, talks over the women in the cast and expects affairs as part of his salary. The show’s leading man is an aged actor (played with an oblivious sweetness by George Gaynes) who expects to kiss every woman in the show and is totally unable to learn lines. The plots of the soap are a joke, and the actresses are frequently placed into demeaning situations that real nurses and administrators (the only roles of course women can play in a hospital!) would never do.

Becoming horrified by this, Dorothy/Michael encourages the other women in the cast to break out from this – not least Julie Nichols, beautifully played by Jessica Lange as an intelligent, sensitive woman forced into pretending to be an airhead so as not to disturb the men around her. Lange is superb in this role, and so radiant that of course Dorothy/Michael finds himself falling in love with her – a complexity that constantly intrudes on the sisterly bond that Julie increasingly feels for Dorothy…

And that’s another source of guilt for Michael, who is (despite it all) a good guy, and slowly works out that there is no way of extracting himself from all this without hurting people’s feelings (not least when Julie’s sweetly charming widowed dad – played wonderfully by Charles Durning – starts to have feelings for Dorothy). Michael doesn’t want to hurt anyone – not even Sandy, with whom he finds himself stumbling into a one-night stand that he can’t work out how to reverse out of because he’s so desperate not to damage their friendship (something that he of course ends up damaging anyway). It’s a film that brilliantly balances these personal struggles with wider pictures.

Because, as Michael is aware, he’s himself guilty of using women by stealing the cause of feminism by pretending to be a woman. He’s perpetrating a con on the whole of America, and can’t work out a way to back out. The solution he does finally find is a comic tour-de-force – while finding time to still focus later on the real, emotional impact on those who have come closest to Dorothy – and gently indicates how lives can move on.

Sydney Pollack has probably never directed a film as smart, touching and wise as this one (he also puts in a hilarious cameo as Michael’s frustrated agent). It’s a film that could have been just a comedy about a man in drag, but in fact ends up raising profound issues about sexism, feminism and relationships that still feel relevant today. It’s almost certainly Hoffman’s greatest performance – honestly, he’s sublime here, it’s a once in a lifetime performance – and there is barely a wrong beat in it. The cast fall on the great script with relish – Garr was never better and Bill Murray has a superb unbilled supporting role as Michael’s acerbic, playwright housemate. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll think and you’ll want to watch it again. Can’t say better than that.

All That Jazz (1979)

Roy Scheider plays the director Bob Fosse in a barely-veiled-at-all autobiographical film All That Jazz

Director: Bob Fosse

Cast: Roy Scheider (Joe Gideon), Jessica Lange (Angelique), Leland Palmer (Audrey Paris), Ann Reinking (Katie Jagger), Cliff Gorman (Davis Newman), Ben Vereen (O’Connor Flood), Erzsebet Foldi (Michelle Gideon), David Marguiles (Larry Goldie), Michael Tolan (Dr Ballinger), Max Wright (Joshua Penn), William LeMassena (Jonesy Hecht), Deborah Geffner (Victoria Porter), John Lithgow (Lucas Sergeant)

It’s revealing when a director makes an autobiographical film. There are insights to be found about the sort of person they are – and the sort of person they want to present themselves as to the world. And All That Jazz is possibly the most striking autobiographical film ever made. You have to have a towering amount of ego to make a film showing yourself as a deliriously talented polymath, generally liked by everyone. And then you have to have a giddy self-awareness to give your semi-fictional doppelganger all your titanic faults, selfishness, cruelty and flaws. Let’s not even get into the psychology of turning your own death into a musical number, eight years before it happened.

Just like Bob Fosse, Joe Gideon (Roy Scheider) is a hugely influential choreographer and director who has changed the face of Broadway musicals before going on to become the Oscar-winning director of a string of critically acclaimed films. He is also a workaholic, addicted to a string of prescription drugs, a never-ending smoker, with a strong of failed marriages and affairs behind him. Just like Bob Fosse, in 1975 Gideon is staging his ground-breaking original production of a musical (Fosse was directing Chicago which clearly inspired the unnamed musical here), starring his ex-wife (and mother of his daughter) Audrey Paris (Leland Palmer, a frequent Fosse collaborator), living with his girlfriend Kate Jagger (played by Ann Reinking, who was Fosse’s real life girlfriend at the time). At nights and weekends he is editing The Stand-Up (a version of Fosse’s film about stand-up Lenny Bruce titled Lenny starring Dustin Hoffman). When he has a near fatal heart attack part way through this, Gideon starts to sink. Fosse on the other hand used the experience to write this movie. 

All That Jazz is an electric piece of film-making, full of Fosse’s dynamism. It’s not only crammed with fabulous song and dance numbers (some of the best Fosse work you’ll see) but it’s beautifully edited and paced. Fosse holds it all together so brilliantly you never feel the thing teeter on the tightrope like Gideon does (the first image of the film is appropriately Gideon walking a tightrope). It perfectly captures the high intensity, killer pressure of maintaining this constant state of activity, and suggests how much Fosse (clearly) believed his own life was a performance, every moment constructed and staged for maximum impact. 

And that’s what you wonder about the film. Does Fosse hate himself, love himself or some combination of both? It’s something the film just teases, with Gideon indulged in a series of fantasy-tinged cryptic conversations with Jessica Lange (another Fosse conquest allegedly) as some sort of angel dressed in white. Here Gideon of course flirts and charms as only he can, while answering with ambiguous amounts of truthfulness a series of questions about love, his background, his wishes and dreams. But even when he says these things, there is the half smile that suggests it’s only part of the story. Or maybe Gideon himself doesn’t even know where life ends and the story begins.

Fosse’s film is just about perfectly structured. Repeatedly we see Gideon going through the same daily ritual when he wakes up: Vivaldi, shower, cocktail of prescription drugs, eye drops, slap hands, “It’s a show time!” (with an ever increasing struggle to keep the energy up). As the tempo of this repeated introduction changes through the film, you get a perfect idea of the state of Gideon’s mind and mood – and his relentless attempt to turn his own life into a perfect performance.

In among all this, perhaps no film has ever showed a better understanding of the pressures of creating a Broadway musical. The opening sequence follows a series of exhausting auditions from literally hundreds of dancers desperate for a role in Gideon’s show, slowly being whittled down to the chosen few. The rehearsals are a punishing series of deconstructions as the dancers strive to match Gideon’s perfectionism. Rehearsal rooms are crammed, sweaty and uncomfortable. The money men hover over every scene, with an eye on protecting their investment. And then, we see the results suddenly of Gideon’s work with a Chicago-ish dance routine so sexually charged it is positively indecent. It’s genius on at least three levels.

The film revolves around Gideon, and the amount of time squeezed out of his personal life by his never-ending, passionate work commitments. Leland Palmer is excellent as his loving but deeply frustrated wife, supportive but all too aware of Gideon’s selfishness. The bond between them feels strong, real and above conventional marriage. Ann Reinking is equally marvellous as his lover, protégé, partner and you name it. Between these three characters there is a hugely warm performance from Erzsebet Foldi as Gideon’s shrewd but loving daughter. Fosse isn’t afraid to sprinkle real moments of family warmth in, as if trying to show Gideon all the things he is missing out on – one particularly outstanding moment is a song-and-dance routine Reinking and Foldi perform for Gideon after the premiere of his film The Stand-Up, as entertaining as it is charming.

But the film’s secondary motor, after Fosse’s directing brilliance (seriously, there are few Hollywood directors so undervalued, the man is a genius) is Roy Scheider as Gideon. I can’t really imagine a more bizarre sounding bit of casting: Jaws Chief Brody as a song-and-dance man, the world’s greatest (even slightly camp) choreographer. But Scheider is simply sublime in this role. It’s a towering, landmark performance of total commitment. He’s achingly human, supremely sad but also overflowing with warmth, humanity and humour while also being repeatedly selfish, difficult and demanding. It’s a performance of total absorption.

By time of the finale number (a truly bizarre version of Bye Bye Love, renamed Bye Bye Life, in which Gideon lives his final moments in a fantasy world, singing and dancing his way towards death in front of an audience of faces from past and present) the whole thing is so wonderfully overblown it doesn’t really matter. The film’s passage into the surreal and fantasy as Gideon gets increasingly ill (while showing less and less regard for his own health) will be a bit much for some, but I was honestly so into it that I didn’t care. 

Because the film is about this acute piece of self-analysis from the director, a Fellini-inspired sort of musical , in which the understanding (or lack thereof) we get of Gideon, and which he gains about himself, is most important. His conversations with Lange’s angel of death are intriguing and as informative about the man he really is as the man he wants to be. 

Fosse’s film is simply supremely well directed (Kubrick called it one of the best films he ever saw). Fosse’s editor (playing himself in the film as the editor of The Stand-Up) said if Fosse had actually died during the making of the film, he would have made sure his death was filmed and edited into the movie. I can believe it. The only musical you’ll ever see which doubles as a confession and a condemnation, which turns death and surgical procedures into wham bam musical numbers, and which never becomes maudlin or sentimental about the self-inflicted disaster the director is putting on himself – it’s brilliant.

Rob Roy (1995)

Tim Roth and John Hurt are the villainous aristocrats taking advantage of Liam Neeson’s honour in Rob Roy

Director: Michael Caton-Jones

Cast: Liam Neeson (Rob Roy MacGregor), Jessica Lange (Mary MacGregor), John Hurt (Marquess of Montrose), Tim Roth (Archibald Cunningham), Eric Stoltz (Alan MacDonald), Andrew Kier (Duke of Argyll), Brian Cox (Killearn), Brian McCardie (Alasdair MacGregor), Gilbert Martin (Guthrie), Ewan Stewart (Coll), Jason Flemyng (Gregor), David Hayman (Tam Sibbalt), Shirley Henderson (Morag)

In the mid-1990s there was one of those bizarre Hollywood coincidences that saw two similarly filmed Scottish-based dramas head into production at the same time: Braveheart and Rob Roy. Braveheart stole the headlines, and the Oscars, and turned William Wallace from a footnote in history into an icon of Scottish independence. However, it’s arguable that the over-looked Rob Roy is the better, richer, more involving film.

In 1713, Rob Roy MacGregor (Liam Neeson) is the Chief of the Clan MacGregor, in a loving marriage to Mary (Jessica Lange), and supports his clan through protecting the cattle of the gentry. Knowing that this is not enough to help their poverty, Rob borrows £1,000 from the Marquess of Montrose (John Hurt) to start a cattle trading business. However, on collecting the money, his friend Alan MacDonald (Eric Stoltz) is murdered by Archibald Cunningham (Tim Roth), a foppish playboy and ruthless fencer, who is staying with Montrose and wants the money to clear his debts. Montrose demands Rob falsely testifies that his rival the Duke of Argyll (Andrew Keir) is a Jacobite in return for forgetting the debt – when he refuses, he is named an outlaw and a rebel.

Rob Roy works so damn well because it is thrillingly told, well-scripted, shot with a romantic sweep in some terrific Scottish locations and uniformly excellently acted. It’s perfectly constructed as a classic melodrama, because the heroes are pretty much completely upright, admirable and inspiring (without ever being tiresome or sanctimonious), while the villains are intriguingly shifty and vile, running the gamut from cowardly opportunist to vicious sociopath. Chuck this in with a tightly focused plot, and it works extremely well.

Liam Neeson is perfect casting as the upright Rob. Few people do nobility and decency better than Neeson, and Rob is just about the most stand-up guy you can imagine. You can totally understand why every one of his clan seems to worship the ground he walks on. Neeson’s classical physicality and stance totally sell him as the ultimate highlander, while his kindly eyes and gentle manner make him an obvious fit as an inspiring leader. 

Caton-Jones directs the action with zip, even if the film does perhaps go on a fraction too long. He sets Rob’s decency and honour at the centre of the film, and brilliantly builds the thematic story around the shifting world where old-school honour and decency is being left aside for the more ruthless realpolitik of Montrose. Rob’s old-school decency makes him the kind of hero figure you see in a traditional Western – and Caton-Jones is clearly inspired by the scope and sweep of John Ford Westerns, making excellent use of the mist and the hills. 

The Scottish highlands are our wild plains, the traditional values are those of the homestead – and the communities Rob protects are presented with a warmth and glow that is never galling. A lot of this is due to Jessica Lange’s excellent performance as Mary, a woman of warmth, tenderness but also hard-hearted realism mixed with a sharp strength of will. Lange (and her lilting accent is quite lovely to listen too) handles the events that occur to her as the wife of a rebel with a dignity, but also a fierce rage just below the surface. If Rob is defending honour, she represents it.

But the real strength the film has is its villains. It has three very different but terrific antagonists, each of them brilliantly brought to life by three very good actors. John Hurt brings Montrose a brilliant sense of slightly perverted corruption, the arrogant insouciance of a man who works out there is more going on than he is being told, but not caring so long as he can turn it to his advantage. Brian Cox is excellent as the cowardly, greedy, shallow and bullying land property manager, snivelling and timid beneath his bluster. 

The real swagger through comes from Tim Roth, who is quite superb as the flamboyant sadist and sociopath Archibald Cunningham. Roth marches off with the film, pitching it just right as a man who presents (and lives) a performance to the entire world: a foppish playboy who seems light and disposable, but is in fact a ruthless, dangerous man with no principles and a horrifying capacity for violence. The character has enough humanity to prevent him from becoming a caricature – he’s bitter at being a bastard, he has a strange affection for his mother. He’s aware that he’s the baddie – he just doesn’t care. In fact he loves it. He invites people to underestimate him – and takes a sadistic delight in proving them wrong. He’s a perfect dark reflection to Rob.

The film introduces him demonstrating his terrifying skill with a sword in a sporting duel: and you don’t need a PhD in storytelling to guess that the film is heading towards a second, closing sword duel between our noble hero and his sadistic opposite. When it comes, it’s a belter of a sword fight, brilliantly choreographed, that sums up the whole movie: Rob fights with a broadsword (and the film demonstrates how exhausting swinging one of those can be) and depends on directness and fairness. Cunningham fights with a rapier, is quick, indirect and gleefully delights in inflicting a number of glancing wounds. It’s one of the best sword fights (and uses of combat to communicate character) on film – and it’s engrossing.

Rob Roy is easily overlooked – but it’s a fine film, full of memorable moments and above all stuffed with terrific performances. Caton-Jones shoots the film very well, and works brilliantly with the actors. You’ll remember them all – and you’ll invest in their stories. Yes it is a little too long, and yes sometimes it’s a little too in love with the romance of the highlands – but it’s a smashing, exciting and engrossing film and you’ll certainly find plenty in it to enjoy: not least Roth’s showboating menace.