Tag: Shirley MacLaine

The Turning Point (1977)

The Turning Point (1977)

Two women struggle to have it all in a film that wouldn’t have looked out of place in the 1940s

Director: Herbert Ross

Cast: Shirley MacLaine (DeeDee Rodgers), Anne Bancroft (Emma Jacklin), Tom Skerritt (Wayne Rodgers), Leslie Browne (Emilia Rodgers), Mikhail Baryshnikov (Yuri Kopeikine), Martha Scott (Adelaide), James Mitchell (Michael Cooke), Alexandra Danilova (Madame Dakharova), Anthony Zerbe (Joe “Rosie” Rosenberg), Lisa Lucas (Janina Rodgers), Antoinette Sibley (Sevilla Haslem)

The demands of ballet are unlike any other artform there is. Complete physical and emotional commitment is needed to master it – so that means you got to make choices. The Turning Point is all about those choices. You might even call them ‘turning points’. DeeDee (Shirley MacLaine) and Emma (Anne Bancroft) were two young ballerinas who took radically different paths: DeeDee had a child with fellow dancer Wayne (Tom Skerritt) and left the profession behind; Emma remained with the company to become its prima ballerina. Now DeeDee’s teenage daughter Emilia (Leslie Browne) has joined the company: will she become the new prima ballerina? Or will she decide to focus on a relationship with playboy dancer Yuri (Mikhail Baryshnikov)? Will Emma and DeeDee resolve the tensions between them – and the conflict from their shared parental interest in Emilia?

The Turning Point was a big hit in 1977. That, and the fact that it was about (and featured a lot of) an artform as graceful as ballet seems to have convinced the Academy it merited a haul of eleven Oscar nominations. Come awards night, the film set a record for most unsuccessful nominations, converting none of them into Oscars. Perhaps that’s because, on closer inspection, The Turning Point is a fairly run-of-the-mill soap opera, that mixes in various clichés from backstage, traditional ‘women’s pictures’ and family drama to come up with a plotline that’s eventually very familiar.

For all its positioning as a female-led drama, it essentially boils down to the same old patterns that for decades such films have circled. Turns out women can’t have it all: you can have that successful career, but forever sacrifice the joy of being a mother or you can settle down and have the family but face a life of career unfulfillment. Twas ever thus, ‘tis one or t’other. Essentially the film boils down into a soapy drama about resentments and illicit backstage affairs and little more than that. It doesn’t even really double down on the fun this sort of set-up could provide, instead framing the whole thing as a very serious drama.

But then, the film was an autobiographical affair for those involved. Emma is based on Nora Kaye, who was married to the director Herbert Ross. DeeDee is based on Kaye’s childhood friend Isabel Mirrow Brown, who made the exact same choice as DeeDee, marrying a fellow dancer (just like Tom Skerritt’s character). Her daughter (and Kaye’s goddaughter) was Leslie Browne, who here plays a fictionalised version of herself based on her own experience of starting her ballet career. Characters based on Jerome Robbins, Lucia Chase and other leading figures from ballet and theatre appear. Only Mikhail Baryshnikov’s Yuri is purely fictional (although the character has more than few similarities with Baryshnikov himself, being a Soviet defector).

It does give an additional layer of interest to the film. Ross also mixes in a host of extended ballet sequences which showcase actual professional ballet dancers, with snippets from Swan Lake, Cinderella and The Nutcracker among others. The dancing is breath-takingly good. Not least from Baryshnikov and Browne, who are given multiple opportunities to showcase their skills. Baryshnikov in particular is at the height of his powers, a graceful artiste who moves with an astonishing finesse. Both landed Oscar nominations, one suspects largely on the basis of their dancing.

The acting is left to MacLaine and Bancroft as the leading ladies. There is something a little perverse that MacLaine, the former dancer, doesn’t so much as trot a step, while Bancroft (totally unexperienced) struts parts of Anna Karenina. However, the two actresses rip into these thinly written parts, giving them a lot more force than the film deserves. MacLaine balances motherly pride with bubbling feelings of something uncomfortably close to envy for her daughter’s success, spending time in New York trying to recapture some of her past (including a brief fling with Anthony Zerbe’s lecherous choreographer). Bancroft balances coming to terms with the end of her career as a ballerina with a growing regret that she has been left without a family. She becomes increasingly close to Emilia, mentoring her, dressing her and coaching her through a performance after relationship problems lead to Emilia getting roundly pissed in a bar before the show.

Needless to say, this unspoken squabble for ownership over Emilia – not helped by Emilia’s fury over her mother’s infidelity – only exacerbates tensions between the two women. It builds towards the film’s true climax (but unfortunately not its actual climax, as fifteen minutes remain for Emilia to be coached for her star-making performance) as the two women down drinks and exchange angry words and slaps, leading to a full blown cat fight outside the theatre. The fight later descends into cathartic giggling – and pity the two actresses who filmed it in ballroom dresses in what looks like a gale – but is acted with a great deal of attack by both, who bounce off each other (literally) hugely effectively.

But the scene is also a further confirmation that what we are really watching is a sort of high-brow family soap, that uses ballet as a backdrop for family feuds, scuffles, sexual escapades and tear-filled reunions. And it boils down to that struggle between career and family, the sort of struggle Bette Davis and Joan Crawford films were dealing with in the 1940s. Which is possibly another reason so many took to The Turning Point: even in 1977 it was an old-fashioned piece of entertainment, that did very little new.

That carries across to its whole execution: Ross competently directs the film (this was his annus mirabilis as he directed two Best Picture nominees, this and The Goodbye Girl) but really it gets all the force it has (and more than it perhaps deserves) from the two leads and a fine supporting cast (Tom Skerritt is very good as DeeDee’s laid-back, understanding father who perhaps masks secrets of his own). It’s a soap opera, solid but not spectacular, that really outside its showcase of ballet, doesn’t stand out from several other films of the same genre.

Terms of Endearment (1983)

Debra Winger and Shirley MacLaine are tempestuous but loving mother and daughter in Terms of Endearment

Director: James L Brooks

Cast: Shirley MacLaine (Aurora Greenway), Debra Winger (Emma Greenway-Horton), Jack Nicholson (Garrett Breedlove), Jeff Daniels (Flap Horton), John Lithgow (Sam Burns), Lisa Hart Carroll (Patsy Clark), Danny De Vito (Vernon Dalhart)

Spoilers: If you can spoil one of the most famous tear-jerkers of all time.

I think its fair to say 1983 was a weak year at the Oscars. The finest film of the year, Ingmar Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander, was a four-hour Swedish saga (and arguably a TV series anyway), wasn’t nominated. The most lasting films of the year, Flashdance, ScarfaceWar Games and Return of the Jedi, were never Oscar bait. Terms of Endearment motored through to hoover up five Oscars – beating out The Big Chill (cut from a similar soapy cloth), The Dresser (a British stage adaptation), The Right Stuff (a slightly cold Mercury programme saga box office flop) and Tender Mercies (a low-key character drama about a Country-and-Western singer that won Robert Duvall an Oscar). By any measure that’s not a list for the ages.

And Terms of Endearment had the added bonus of being the second biggest hit of the year, after Jedi (yes, I know!). It’s a surprise, as this sort of female led drama rarely scoops the big prize – so at least it makes a pleasant change. Terms spools out a collage of scenes (there are sometimes time jumps of years between scenes), chronicling the lives of over-protective, domineering mother-and-free-spirit Aurora (Shirley MacLaine) and her daughter, defiant, at times highly-strung, Emma (Debra Winger). The two have a difficult, though loving relationship, often depending on each other for emotional support – especially in their relationships: Emma’s with feckless philandering English Professor ‘Flap’ Horton (Jeff Daniels) and Aurora’s with playboy retired astronaut Garrett Breedlove (Jack Nicholson). But both come together when tragedy and illness strike.

Watching Terms of Endearment today, it’s often hard to see what the fuss was about. Although it wasn’t the first film to jerk tears via last-act illness (see Love Story), this started a wave of films where illness to a key member of the family (usually a mother) has a devastating, tear-jerking (but often eventually heart-warming) effect on the rest of the family (especially young children). Terms of Endearmentprobably does this better than those that followed, but watching it today its hard not to see it as something a little more familiar than it might have felt at the time.

Brooks’ background was in TV (he had several successful shows on his resume, from The Mary Taylor Moore Show to Taxi – so he certainly knew what the masses liked) and this, his first film, often feels like a cut-down mini-series. It matches exactly the sort of soapy, family saga of several TV epics of the time, and Brooks shoots the film with an unfussy, visually flat series of TV angles (aside from his skill with actors, his directing Oscar is a travesty). With each scene effectively standing alone – its collage effect means the film covers at least 14 years minimum with often only the age of the children any indication that time has passed – it also has a slightly bitty air of something assembled for cutting into episodes or advert breaks.

Not that there is anything particularly wrong with this. But, it does mean the film feels like it meanders along through a series of small crises, designed to be easily digestible. The film has a whimsical lack of directness – not helped by its overbearing (and dated) musical score. It relies strongly on sparky dialogue delivered by a cast who all look like they are having a good time (although, allegedly, they really weren’t with Winger and MacLaine in particular barely on speaking terms when the cameras weren’t rolling).

The main dramas are romantic. Aurora doesn’t quite know how to respond to her feelings for gnarled playboy Garrett. An early date between them hilariously contrasts her ludicrously over-formal clothes and his scruffy indifference. Its a difficult dance between two people who, for various reasons, are scared of commitment. But then Emma has made her own mistakes. She’s married Flip (is there a worse name in cinema?) for independence, but really they have nothing in common – and Flip’s eye quickly goes roving. Emma responds in a way her mother would understand: a potentially ‘first strike’ affair with John Lithgow’s meek bank manager (Lithgow and Winger have a wonderful scene at a diner, where he is almost too scared to touch her hand). You can see both mother and daughter teeing themselves up to make the same mistakes: the generations never learn from each other.

At the heart of the film is the mother-daughter relationship. But for me, this often lacks focus and never really coalesces into something that feels real or emotionally coherent. Now you could say that’s like life – and that’s a fair point – but several of the events feel heightened (particularly those featuring Aurora) and the characters are mutually dependent when the story demands it, and barely in touch when the opposite is needed. It’s easy to feel some connecting thread is being lost in those massive time-jumps. I found it hard to escape the feeling several times that people behave like this in the movies but never in real life.

But then, you get the final thirty minutes which revolves around the cancer diagnosis and eventual death of Debra Winger’s character. Here is where Brook’s flat, unobtrusive style comes into its own, his simple, restrained staging of these scenes making them surprisingly moving and affecting – especially considering the artificiality of some of what we’ve seen so far. For the first time, emotion, truth and earnestness – without too much blatant heart-string tugging – comes into play, and these simple scenes of two mothers saying goodbye to their children and each other end up having real emotional impact – as do the slightly stunned scenes of grief of those left behind.

It’s a shame then that most of the rest of the film before that doesn’t quite connect with me. The film was festooned with Oscars, but naturally the person most responsible for it working – Debra Winger – missed out. Winger is superb here, the only character who feels genuinely true, tender and also flawed in natural ways. She is slightly impulsive but also frightened of change, a character who can shout and rage but also is weak and dependent on emotional bonds. She’s totally believable and I would have loved to see more on her troubled relationships with her kids, and how her eccentric mother has impacted her ability to form bonds with her kids. The film doesn’t go there.

The Oscar went through to Shirley MacLaine who gives a big, showy performance as Aurora – and nabs the “Oscar Clip” moment as she bellows at nurses to give her daughter her medication. MacLaine’s Aurora never for one moment feels like a real person, but instead a novelistic invention of an eccentric mother, thrown on screen. MacLaine plays her to the hilt, but it’s a performance that feels mannered. But she gets the film’s fun moments – and gets to spark off Jack Nicholson who coasted to another Oscar as the sort of horny scoundrel he would play again and again for the much of the next thirty years on screen.

Terms of Endearment has enough in it that, if you like this sort of thing, you’ll love it. Perhaps it does mean more to mothers-and-daughters. I found it at times overly twee and laboured. But I can forgive it a fair bit for how effectively it displays grief – and how brilliant Debra Winger is in it. Over honoured? Sure. But, for its genre, a high point.

Around the World in Eighty Days (1956)

Around the world header
David Niven and Cantinflas head Around the World in Eight Days in this Oscar-winning epic

Director: Michael Anderson

Cast: David Niven (Phileas Fogg), Cantinflas (Passepartout), Shirley MacLaine (Princess Aouda), Robert Newton (Inspector Fix), Charles Boyer (Monsieur Gasse), Joe E. Brown (Stationmaster), John Carradine (Colonel Proctor), Charles Coburn (Steamship clerk), Ronald Colman (Railway official), Melville Cooper (Mr Talley), Noel Coward (Roland Hesketh-Baggott), Finlay Currie (Andrew Stuart), Marlene Dietrich (Hostess), Fernandel (Paris coachman), Hermione Gingold (Sporting lady #1), Cedric Hardwicke (Sir Francis Cromarty), John Gielgud (Foster), Trevor Howard (Denis Fallentin), Glynis Johns (Sporting lady #2), Evelyn Keyes (Paris flirt), Buster Keaton (Train conductor), Beatrice Lille (Revivalist), Peter Lorre (Steward), Victor McLaglen (SS Henrietta helmsman), John Mills (London coachman), Robert Morley (Gauthier Ralph), Jack Oakie (SS Henrietta captain), George Raft (Bouncer), Frank Sinatra (Piano player), Red Skelton (Drunk), Harcourt Williams (Hinshaw)

In the 1950s, cinema struggled to encourage people to come out of their homes and leave that picture box in the corner behind. Big technicolour panoramas and famous faces was what the movies could offer that TV couldn’t. This led to a trend in filmmaking that perhaps culminated in 1956 with Around the World in Eighty Days triumphing among one of the weakest Best Picture slates ever seen at the Oscars. Around the World had everything cinema knew it could do well: big, screen-filling shots of exotic locations filmed in gorgeous colour; and in almost every frame some sort of famous name the audience could have fun spotting. It’s perhaps more of a coffee table book mixed with a red carpet rather than a narrative film: entertaining, but overlong.

Faithfully following Jules Verne’s original novel (with added balloon trips), Phileas Fogg (David Niven) is a punctilious and precise Englishman of the old school, whose life is run like clockwork and whose only passion is whist. Nevertheless he accepts a challenge from his fellow members of the Reform Club (among them Trevor Howard, Robert Morley and Finlay Currie) to circumnavigate the globe in 80 days or less. Setting off with his manservant – the recently hired, accident prone Passeportout (Cantinflas) – Fogg races around the world, from Paris to Cairo to India to Hong Kong to Japan to San Francisco. Along the way he rescues Princess Aouda (Shirley Maclaine) from death by human sacrifice in India and has to confront the suspicions of Inspector Fix (Robert Newton) who is convinced that Fogg is responsible for a huge theft at the Bank of England. Can Fogg make it back to the Reform Club hall on time to win his bet?

Around the World was the brain-child of its producer Michael Todd. A noted Broadway producer, Todd had been looking to make a similar splash in the movies. Perhaps it’s no surprise that he decided the finest way to do this (after the mixed success of a movie version of Oklahoma) was to produce something that‘s pretty much akin to a massive Broadway variety show. Around the World – as you would expect – is an incredibly episodic film, seemingly designed to be broken down into a number of small sequences either to showcase the scene’s guest star or to provide comic opportunities for Cantinflas to display his Chaplinesque physical comedy.

That and lots of opportunities for some lovely scenic photography. Nearly every major sequence is bridged with luscious photography capturing some exotic part of the world – from the coast of Asia to the Great American Plains. It’s pretty clear this is a major attraction of the film: come to the movies and see those parts of the world you’ve always dreamed of, just for the price of a movie ticket! Surely introduction of a hot air balloon to allow Fogg and Cantinflas to travel from Paris to Spain was purely to allow lovely aerial shots of the French countryside and chateaux. It’s the sort of film that proudly trumpeted in its publicity the number of locations (112 in 13 countries!), the vast number of extras (68,894!) and even the number of animals (15 elephants! 17 fighting bulls! 3,800 sheep!). It’s all about the scale.

That scale also carries across to the guest cameos. Between enjoying the scenic photography, viewers can have fun spotting cameos. Can that really be Noel Coward running that employment agency! The chap who owns the balloon, I’d swear that’s Charles Boyer! Wait that steward: that’s Peter Lorre! Good lord that’s Charles Coburn selling Fogg tickets for the steamer! Oh my, Buster Keaton is helping them to their seats on the train! Marlene Dietrich is running that saloon – and good grief that’s Frank Sinatra playing the piano! Most of the stars enter into the spirit of the thing, even if they frequently start their shots with backs to the camera, before turning to reveal their star-studded magnificence. Sadly time has faded some of the face recognition here, not helped by David Niven (perfectly cast as the urbane and profoundly English Fogg, so precise that his idea of romantic talk is to recount past games of whist) probably today being one of the most famous people in it.

Todd marshals all this with consummate showman skill. It’s handsome, very well mounted and generally entertaining – even if it is painfully long (it’s not quite told in real time, but can feel like it at points). The film is nominally directed by Michael Anderson. However, I think it’s pretty clear his job was effectively to point the camera at the things Michael Todd had lined up (be they location or stars) – Todd had already dismissed the original director, John Farrow, after a day’s shooting for not being sufficiently ”co-operative”. To be honest it’s fine as this is an entertainment bereft of personality, instead focused on being “more is more”.

Part of its extended runtime is due to the long comedic sequences given to Cantinflas. A charming performer – and possibly the most famous comedian in Latin-America at the time – Cantinflas can be seen doing everything from bicycle riding, to bull fighting (for a prolonged time), to gymnastics to horseback riding. (Far different from the unflappable and spotless English gentleman Niven is playing.) Your enjoyment of this may depend on how far your patience lasts. I’m not sure mine quite managed to last the course. Sadly one of Cantinflas’ greatest comedic weapons, his Spanish wordplay, was completely lost in translation.

There are some decent sections. The iconic balloon flight is well mounted and gives the most impressive images (the famously vertigo-suffering Niven was replaced by a double for much of this). Others, like the bullfight or an interminable parade in San Francisco go on forever. The casting of Shirley MacLaine as an Indian princess is an uncomfortable misstep (even at the time MacLaine felt she was painfully miscast), made worse by an offensive “human sacrifice” storyline – that got cut when the film was screened in India. Robert Newton though is very good value as the misguided but officious Inspector Fix.

Around the World in Eighty Days is grand, handsomely mounted entertainment. But to consider it as a Best Picture winner feels very strange. It’s not a lot more than an entertaining variety show, its plot impossibly slight (made to feel even more so by its vastly over-extended run time). While you can enjoy it in pieces, it finally goes on too long for its own good. Entertainingly slight as it is, it’s still one of the weakest Best Picture winners ever.

Being There (1979)

Peter Sellers is a void in the satirical Being There

Director: Hal Ashby

Cast: Peter Sellers (Chance, the gardener/Chauncey Gardiner), Shirley MacLaine (Eve Rand), Melvyn Douglas (Ben Rand), Richard Dysart (Dr Robert Allenby), Jack Warden (The President), Richard Basehart (Ambassador Vladimir Skrapinov), David Clennon (Thomas Franklin), Fran Brill (Sally Hayes), Ruth Attaway (Louise)

In movies honesty and simplicity often hide a deeper truth – a more pure view of the world, unaffected by cynicism. Being There takes these ideas and inverts them. What if we were so desperate to see a higher meaning in the words of the unaffected, that we kidded ourselves that even their blandest utterances carried deep meaning. It’s the central idea of Being There, proving again that a delusion only works when those affected are also those most invested in sustaining it.

Chance (Peter Sellers) is a child-like innocent. He works in the garden of “the old man” (implied to be his father). He has never in his life left the confines of his self-contained home. He can’t read, he can’t write. His meals are prepared for him by the old man’s staff. Apart from gardening his only other interest is television – and even that is a mute, hypnotic interest with Chance meekly watching anything screened in front of him. When the old man passes away, Chance (of whom there is no record at all) is asked to leave the house by the old man’s lawyers. He finds himself in a modern 1970s world, but still dressed (and with the manners) of a 1930s gentleman.

Accidentally hit by the chauffer driven car of Eve (Shirley MacLaine), the younger wife of wealthy businessman Ben Rand (Melvyn Douglas), Chance (his name mistakenly overheard as Chancey Gardiner) finds himself in the home of Ben where his manners, dress and polite comments about gardening are interpreted as being deep, intellectual musings on society and the economy. In a few days Chance is advising the President (Jack Warden) and his opinion is being solicited by the media. Will anyone notice that Chance is a harmless but basically empty man?

Being There is not just a hilarious satire of the capacity of the rich and powerful to persuade themselves of things. It’s also a satire on the Capraesque notion of the innocent seeing a truth that the rest of us can’t see. It throws in more than enough social commentary on the edges as well – Chance is revered because he looks right: well-dressed, courtly manners, softly spoken, polite and above all white. The film gets a few pointed blows in on this that look more and more central to the film the older it gets. Seeing Chance’s earnest musings on gardening being interpreted as deeply meaningful economic commentary on the television, the woman who bought him up in the old man’s house – a black servant Louise – announces “It’s for sure a white man’s world in America. Look here: I raised that boy since he was the size of a piss-ant… Shortchanged by the Lord, and dumb as a jackass. Look at him now! Yes, sir, all you’ve gotta be is white in America, to get whatever you want.”

And she’s right. Interpreted by the rich, white, entitled men of America as one of their own, it never occurs to them that Chance might be something else. And his statements carry such bland emptiness – precisely because Chance is merely stating genuine gardening tips – that it becomes easy to invest them with whatever depth they like, because they have no depth themselves. While in Capra, Chance would stumble upon some of the corruption at the top or make these people rethink their lives, here he drifts through, barely understanding what is happening around him, allowing these powerful men to interpret him as something that reassures them about their own lives.

In the 1970s the film was seen as a satire on the television generation. But watching it today – despite Chance’s mute, unengaged smile while watching TV – this isn’t about a mindless cabbage potato being seen as a sage. He’s a completely empty vessel that can have meanings poured into him – and then can all stick because not for a single second is Chance trying to get anything out of it. He would be as happy returned to the street as he is in the palaces of the mighty.

The film works due to the success of Peter Seller’s performance. Seller’s had pitched long and hard for the role: he had always believed himself a void beneath the mad-hat comic personas he had inhabited, and believed himself uniquely placed to understand the neutrality of Chance. That’s what he brings here. It takes true skill to play a character as blank as this one. Chance never responds to the situation he is in – and seems to have no understanding at all of the situation. He’s completely genuine and honest – exactly what gives his comments weight to people, because he is not even remotely trying to add any weight to them – and meekly accepts all the things that happen to him. He is honest on every question he is asked – that his only interests are gardening and TV – and sits quietly, smiling, until finally saying or doing things he has frequently copied from TV.

Seller’s restrains himself utterly in the role and eventually his very tame, sweet blankness makes him endearing. The performance would fall apart if even for a split second there was a tip of hat or wink to the camera. There’s none of that. Compare Chance to say Forrest Gump. Gump is the quintessential example of the cliché man who really understands the world better than all of us. Chance is the reality, a simple man, harmless but incapable of really engaging with the world. In Hal Ashby’s skilled and restrained hands this becomes crucial to the awe he is treated with by the rich. He’s a mystery we get no answers to and someone we know as little about at the end as we did at the start. But yet Sellers is mesmeric.

Melvyn Douglas’ provides a superb (Oscar-winning) performance as Ben Rand. How much does Rand really believe in Chance? He’s charismatic, determined and driven – but also nearing the end of his life. Does he want to believe in his faith in Chance, because it makes him feel better? Is Chance almost a sort of advance satire of movements like scientology – faiths that make rich people feel better about themselves, because it affirms their views and place in the hierarchy? It’s possible – and why not when they can craft an idea of Chance that is far superior to their nervy (and literally impotent) President (Jack Warden in a smart little turn).

Ashby at time overplays his hand a little. The final image – a benign Chance literally walking on water on the Rand estate lake – is famous, but its meaning is unclear. Does it imply that Chance is some form of second coming? Or does the naïve and clueless Chance simply walk across water because he doesn’t understand that he can’t? I feel the latter myself – the idea of him being a Jesus figure is so out of keeping with the film, I see it as a final physical representation of his own lack of knowledge about the world. Some hated the final flourish (visually wonderfully done as it is) – although not as much as the bizarre outtake of Sellers cracking up that plays over the credit (Sellers in particular loathed this, believing it shattered the magic of his performance and cost him an Oscar).

Being There isn’t perfect – it’s too long and Shirley MacLaine gets rather a thankless part as the wife who becomes infatuated with Chance (more could perhaps have been got out of her seeing the truth of Chance, rather than being as arrogantly deluded as the rest). Moments have dated less well than others. But it’s got a sharp idea at its heart – and its satire of the rich, Hollywood sentimentality and society feels sharper every day. Rather fittingly as well the film has an autumnal quality about it in Ashby’s coldly reserved shooting: Sellers and Douglas both died shortly after its release, the book’s author Jerzy Kosinski would be plagued after its release with accusations of plagiarism and Ashby’s (after a drug fuelled but successful 1970s) career would collapse almost immediately after its release. But it’s a smart, mysterious, witty and profound film that gains greater meaning with age.

The Apartment (1960)

Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine in an unusual relationship in the brilliant The Apartment

Director: Billy Wilder

Cast: Jack Lemmon (CC “Bud” Baxter), Shirley MacLaine (Fran Kubelik), Fred MacMurray (JD Sheldrake), Ray Walston (Joe Dobisch), Jack Kruschen (Dr Dreyfuss), David Lewis (Al Kirkeby), Edie Adams (Miss Olsen), Hope Holliday (Mrs Margie MacDougall), Joan Shawlee (Sylvia), Naomi Stevens (Mrs Mildred Dreyfuss)

How do you get ahead in business (without really trying)? Well a good way of going about it might be just farming your New York apartment out so your bosses can take ladies who aren’t their wives there. It works for CC Baxter (Jack Lemmon) – known to all his superiors as “Buddy” – who makes his apartment freely available on rotation to a host of executives as bolt holes for their mistresses. Just arrange a start and finish time, pick up the key from under the mat, and Baxter will keep out of the way. However, things get complex for Baxter when the Head of Personnel, Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray), demands exclusive use of the apartment – and when it turns out his mistress is none other than Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine), the lift attendant Baxter himself has fallen in love with.

The Apartment is a brilliant mix of bitter social satire and comedy. It’s striking that the film is remembered as a sort of dark romantic comedy, as I think I’d be hard pressed to think of a film with as bitter a view of America and its values. Baxter and Kubelik make for a sweet couple (eventually) but the pair of them are in awe of the American dream. This working dream is however a complete fake, one in which the rich and powerful take what they want and those at the bottom bend over backwards to assist them, praying that the next big job or the next big marriage is round the corner. 

Wilder’s film skewers the ambition and manipulation behind the American dream. Baxter, a down-trodden schmo, works in an office where hundreds of workers sit in lines entering data like worker ants. (The sequence was Wilder’ visual tribute to King Vidor’s 1928 The Crowd). Acclaimed French art director Alexander Trauner (thegenius behind Les Enfants du Paradise) created the effect with intelligent use of false perspective (those at the back are little people made to look far away), and Baxter’s office is a triumph of capitalist indifference made flesh. The big wigs (the only ones with individual offices) are interested only in getting what they want and value nothing more than the keys to the executive bathroom.

It’s Mad Men before its time. A drunken Christmas party is a picture of debauchery, a hotbed of drinking and sex. Kubelik can hardly operate her lift without getting her bottom pinched by an executive. At the apex is Sheldrake the personnel manager, brilliantly played by Fred MacMurray as a heel who thinks he’s reasonable. Sheldrake is the personification of selfish indifference, interested only in getting what he wants all the time. He strings along both Kubelik and Baxter with empty promises (of marriage and promotion), constantly with the fixed smile of the uncaring professional, glancing at his watch during illicit dates with Kubelik and interested in Baxter only as long as he can gain access to his apartment.

As the owner of that apartment, Jack Lemmon is superb as the nebbish Baxter. No one could look or sound more like a struggling nobody like Lemmon, the film brilliantly playing on his relatable every-dayism. With his head jutting forward, his voice and manner always too eager to impress, to ingratiate, he’s the American dreamer ground down by the reality of having to get ahead. It works so brilliantly due to Lemmon’s charm, even though many of the things Baxter does in the film are slightly unpleasant. He’s ambitious, but only because he feels like it’s the only chance he has. But deep down Baxter is kind, he’s playing the role that he thinks he needs to play to make a success of life – so you never stop kind of loving him, even as he enables cheating spouses and good-time girls (at least one of whom is a not-even veiled spoof of Wilder’s bette noir, Marilyn Monroe).

But Baxter is one of us, he’s a down-trodden, a bit clueless and so his good intentions are constantly misdirected. So we care about him, just as we care about Kubelik, wonderfully played by Shirley MacLaine. She’s sweet and endearing, full of quirky charm and endearing sparkiness. But it covers the pain of all misused mistresses, constantly being strung along by their lovers with the promise that yes, eventually, they will leave their wives. The film heads into dark territory with the impact this has on Kubelik but even after all this, she still gives Sheldrake yet another chance. Because, in Wilder’s world, it’s hard to turn your back on how the world works.

It’s the same rules of the world that leave Baxter sitting outside his apartment in the rain, waiting for his boss to “finish”, or spend the night walking the streets or being stood up at the theatre because his prospective date is his boss’ mistress. But despite all this, the film is funny, partly because the set-up is in itself funny and Wilder laces the cynicism with plenty of humour (acidic or otherwise). There are hilarious misunderstandings – all of Baxter’s neighbours think he is the ultimate party animal – and relatable comedy of the lonely, with Baxter’s TV dinners and imaginative use of tennis rackets to strain spaghetti.

The film also throws together a neat romantic plot between Baxter and Kubelik that’s underplayed, endearing and feels truthful. Many people have criticised the ending as feeling tacked on and betraying the coldness of the film’s social satire. But I think it’s there throughout – this is a film that has a fury for the cruelty of capitalism and people like Sheldrake, but no end of affection for the real people who are trapped at the bottom of it. Baxter and Kubelik are never the film’s targets and always the film’s heart. Their eventual happy ending – with the film’s famous closing line of “shut up and deal” – might seem like it flies in the face of the acid of the film, but that’s to overlook the heart that underpins all their interactions.

The Apartment is a near perfect mix of both comedy and drama, dealing with deep and dark themes with an assured and gentle touch, with a wonderful script by Wilder and IAL Diamond. With its two lead roles filled with a brilliant aplomb by Lemmon and MacLaine, plus superb support from MacMurray and Oscar-nominated Jack Kruschen as Baxter’s next-door neighbour, it’s still a superb treat.

The Children's Hour (1961)

Audrey Hepburn and Shirley MacLaine are victims of scurrilous rumours in The Children’s Hour

Director: William Wyler

Cast: Shirley MacLaine (Martha Dobie), Audrey Hepburn (Karen Wright), James Garner (Dr Joe Cardin), Miriam Hopkins (Lily Mortar), Fay Bainter (Mrs Amelia Tilford), Karen Balkin (Mary Tilford), Veronica Cartwright (Rosalie Wells), Mimi Gibson (Evelyn), William Mims (Mr Burton)

The Children’s Hour was William Wyler’s second stab at directing an adaptation of Lilian Hellman’s play of the same name: a story about  two young teachers at a private girls’ school, and the destruction wreaked on their lives when a malicious pupil spreads rumours the two are in a secret lesbian relationship. His first attempt from 1936, These Three, kept as many of the themes as possible but carefully deleted every single reference to homosexuality in the script. This second film version restores this core theme in a carefully structured, well directed, respectful film adaptation that, with its careful analysis of the danger of rumours and snap judgements, still feels relevant today. 

Martha Dobie (Shirley MacLaine) and Karen Wright (Audrey Hepburn) run a private girls’ school. Karen is engaged to Dr Joe Cardin (James Garner), and this prolonged engagement is part of the arsenal used by a bitter, bullying student Mary (Karen Balkin) when she decides to start spreading innuendo about a scandalous relationship between the teachers, painting Martha as consumed by sexual envy. Mary’s story is believed whole-heartedly by her grandmother, doyen of the social scene and Joe’s aunt, Amelia Tilford (Fay Bainter). Thoughtless words from Martha’s aunt Lily Mortar (Miriam Hopkins) make things worse. In no time, the school is ruined, the children all gone and Martha and Karen face a desperate battle to prove that there is nothing to this but gossip.

Wyler’s film is a strange mixture at times, in part a commentary on prejudice, and also a scorching condemnation of jumping to judgements. The film plays out all this with calmness and a general careful avoidance of histrionics and lecturing. The removal of the children from the school is brutal and cowardly – with none of the parents having the guts to say why they are doing what they are doing until finally confronted by Karen. Amelia Tilford goes about her campaign of moral righteousness with a holier-than-thou superiority while constantly stressing that she takes no pleasure in this. In the latter half of the film, the abandoned school seems to be constantly surrounded by smirking men.

The film carefully outlines that this sort of moral judgement is inherently wrong, and it brings out some true moral judgement on many of the people involved. It draws out a brilliant Crucible-like indignation at the rigidity and hypocrisy of how those who are judged to be different are treated. The film’s finest sequence is at the centre of the film, where Martha and Karen make a (failed) attempt to nip the scandal in the bud by confronting Mary at her grandmother’s house. The scene zings with a burning sense of injustice, as Mary’s lies are believed, doubled down on and then confirmed by a blackmailed fellow student, all while the audience knows that everything that is being spun is florid, innuendo-filled rubbish.

Mary is a bitter, twisted, angry little girl whose face seems permanently screwed into a furious frown. She also has the sharpness and ruthlessness of the natural bully, successfully blackmailing a sensitive, kleptomaniac student to endorse all her lies at every turn. Wyler carefully demonstrates that she has a natural manipulator’s deviance and that half-facts and muttered comments carry more conviction and force than carefully stated arguments ever would.

But Mary’s actions partly stem from Karen’s own forceful treatment of her – and Karen’s moral inflexibility and personal certainty is just one of the many character flaws that this lie brings closer and closer to the surface. Well played by Audrey Hepburn, using her occasional slight imperiousness to great effect, Karen’s lack of compromise, her domineering personality and her own moral superiority help to make her both an unsympathetic victim to many, and a person who manages to drive wedges (inadvertently) between herself and her two closest friends, Joe and Martha.

That wedge spins out from the fact that the more sensitive Martha (a sensitively delicate performance from Shirley Maclaine) does have romantic and sexual feelings for Karen, feelings that she has carefully suppressed (or perhaps not even understood) and confesses to late on in a wave of guilt and shame, mixed with an almost unspoken hope that Karen might respond to this confession with more than silence and a quiet assurance that it won’t change anything. Neither of which is what Martha wants (or needs) to hear. 

MacLaine was critical of Wyler for removing from the film scenes that showed Martha’s love and affection for Karen in a romantic light. Perhaps Wyler was still slightly squeamish about the likelihood of America accepting a lesbian character presented honestly and sensitively. –But MacLaine has a point for, while the film does suggest it is reprehensible to  make judgements about other people’s private lives, it falls well short of suggesting that a lesbian relationship is as normal and valid as a straight one, or that Martha’s feelings for Karen are the equal of Karen’s for Joe. Karen will let the idea slide, but she is hardly thrilled by it, meanwhile Martha is made the more passive and hysterical of the two women, and her feelings for Karen are a source of tragedy in the story. While it’s of its time, the film still shies away from the idea that a lesbian relationship could ever be without a tinge of scandal. Unlike, say, Dirk Bogarde’s gay barrister in Victim, there is always something “not quite right even if we shouldn’t judge” about homosexuality in the film.

It’s why the film is at its strongest when showcasing its outrage for the many selfish and self-appointed moral guardians who ruin lives with sanctimonious self-regard. Miriam Hopkins is eminently smackable as Martha’s appalling aunt, whose love of gossip pours fuel on the fire. Fay Bainter is very good (and Oscar nominated) as Amelia, whose reluctance and unease about her self-appointed role as the moral police, only partly tempers her rigidity and inflexibility. Words of support and encouragement from others are noticeable by their absence, and even the long-standing loyalty of Joe (a rather charming James Garner) is eventually tinged (forever for Karen) by a moment of doubt. 

Rumours and innuendo are dangerous and cause real and lasting damage to people’s lives. It’s a fact the film enforces strongly – and it’s an idea that perhaps is even more relevant today at a time when social media sends moral judgements that ruin lives around the world even faster than Amelia Tilford’s phone can. A well-made film with moral force, that could have gone further, but still went further than many others dared at the time.