For this year’s annual update, we are abiding by the weird and wacky Hollywood Foreign Press guidelines for this historically-debatable category of Musical or Comedy, which has often included some eyebrow-raising choices that range from appropriate, inspired nominees and winners to head-scratchers that sorta make sense and to the utterly perplexing.
(Blake Edwards, 1982)
“A woman pretending to be a man pretending to be a woman?” Preposterous, except in Julie Andrews’ comedic hands. As down and out singer Victoria Grant in 1930’s Paris, Andrews delivers what is her best musical comedy performance. Transformed from the pitiful and weak wanna-be (best line: “I’ll sleep with you for a meatball.”) to the toast of gay Paree nightlife, Grant finds that her life grows increasingly more complicated as her attempts to deceive the world about who she truly is begin to unravel. Although easily dismissed as light-hearted comedy, Andrews’ performance is incredibly complex, requiring Andrews to assume multiple personas while still projecting the innocence and purity of the central character. Further, she has to keep up the façade while her character undergoes multiple changes in her life. Not only does the role require Andrews to show greater depth in her character development, it allows her to show a broader range in her musical repertoire than previous films had, including the Latin flavored “The Shady Dame of Seville” and the New Orleans influenced “Le Jazz Hot”, while still letting Andrews do the types of song she does best, with the ballad “Crazy World”.
The film also marks a resurgence for Andrews, reclaiming her status as Musical Royalty. After being the darling of ‘60s musicals, Andrews found her career in a slump when musicals stopped being big box office in the ‘70s. By aligning herself with her husband, director Blake Edwards, Andrews was able to reinvent herself, however, showing a more mature and worldly side of herself in films such as 10 and>
S. O. B., in which she bared more than just her worldly side, flashing her breasts to a shocked public. Edwards’ Victor/Victoria was her first musical in 12 years, and even then, all musical numbers were stage performances, not woven into plot development. Still, it’s evident that Andrews is grateful to be signing on screen again.
If singing was the easy part for Andrews, navigating the sexual politics within the film must have been the true work. Whether playing a woman, a woman pretending to be a man, or a woman pretending to be a man pretending to be a woman, Andrews is able to add sufficient layers to each characterization to make it unique. The film’s love story requires her to be both a woman in love in private and a man in a gay relationship in public. It all sounds terribly convoluted, and it is, but Andrews make every moment completely believable and wholly entertaining. ~ Michael Abernethy
(Ken Russell, 1975)
Throughout the ‘50s and early ‘60s, this Swedish born singer and performer was seen as the stuff of glitzy, superficial Las Vegas show business, a kitten with a whip who made the King sing “Viva” whenever he thought of Sin City. If there was such a thing as a female teen idol, she was one. Her entire professional demeanor, polished by handlers who knew how potent her sex appeal could be, was based around hip hugging pants, suggestive dance moves, and a personality that practically shouted sensuality. As the Peace Decade progressed, however, Ann-Margret (it’s one name, thank you very much) wanted to be taken more seriously. She was through with such shallow onscreen roles as Kim in Bye, Bye Birdie. Then, in 1971, she costarred alongside Jack Nicolson, Art Garfunkel, and Candice Bergen in Mike Nichol’s controversial Carnal Knowledge and the Academy Awards came calling (with a Best Supporting Actress nomination).
From there, she struggled to find roles that downplayed her pin-up good looks. In 1972, a fall from an elevated stage platform left her with a broken arm, shattered cheekbone and jaw. It took meticulous cosmetic surgery to rebuild Ann-Margret’s damaged face, and by 1975, she was ready to prove her musical mettle again. In one of Ken Russell’s characteristically odd casting decisions, he made this glamour gal the worn out, workaday mum to Roger Daltry’s deaf, dumb, and blind boy Tommy, and the rest is rock opera history. Oscar once again couldn’t ignore her near nuclear performance (another nomination, this time for Best Actress) while the Golden Globes gave her their highest honor. Watching the film, it’s easy to see why. Everything the sexpot firebrand brought to her previous personas was encapsulated in a woman who, after psychologically damaging her impressionable child, spends the rest of the story trying to right a repugnant wrong.
While others in the cast had the more memorable tunes from Pete Townshend’s groundbreaking album, Ann-Margret became the glue that held it all together. While Tina Turner was screeching about her “Acid Queen” royalty and Who drummer Keith Moon played a lovable old pervert, the blond bombshell literally exploded across the screen, offering up a range of emotions that few could fathom artistically, let alone sing about with abject conviction. But Ann-Margret made it look easy, even if she was rolling around in a pool of chocolate pudding and baked beans (don’t ask, it’s Ken Russell). By then end, when she’s traded her role as a murderess (or co-conspirator for same) for high society mother of the post-modern messiah, her work came full circle… almost meta. Everything Ann-Margret struggled to escape from during the previous decades finally catches up with her character in the film, turning a standard leading lady role into the stuff of movie myth. It’s an amazing turn from an equally astonishing show biz survivor. ~ Bill Gibron
(Gene Saks, 1974)
Decked out in a severe, black pageboy wig, martini glass firmly in-hand, Bea Arthur utters a singular, monosyllabic “yes” as her first line as Vera Charles in Mame, setting the tone for a memorable performance in an otherwise cringe-worthy film. It’s not hard for Bea Arthur to shine, even when thrown into what she herself dubbed “a disaster”. Yet, Arthur managed to turn in a dynamo performance, reprising the role that earned her a 1966 Tony Award for Best Featured Actress in a Musical. Although she smelled a dud a mile away, the actress took part in the film adaptation of Mame to work alongside her husband, director Gene Saks.
While the 1974 film adaptation featured two of the same supporting actresses as the Broadway musical (Arthur and Jane Connell), Lucille Ball replaced Broadway star Angela Lansbury in the lead role since Warner Bros. felt that Lansbury would not be as big a box office draw. As aging boozehound / “First lady of the American theater” Vera Charles, Arthur plays best friend to Lucy’s Mame. Her grande dame of a character is often the butt of jokes and jabs at the hands of (in this instance, a fairly unlikeable) Mame, yet, the role of Vera gives Arthur a chance to not only deliver not only biting one-liners, but some of her patented reactions.
Comedy as an art form requires not just impeccable timing with delivering a line, but also calls for an actor to react to the delivery of his or her cohorts. It’s not just standing around, waiting to toss out your line and garner laughs. Comedians of the highest order know when to hold ‘em and when to fold ‘em. As Vera, Bea Arthur demonstrates her formidable comedic prowess, using her height and deep voice to great effect, along with an expertly raised eyebrow and a sustained, withering glance that could flatten not just the village idiot, but the entire village in a single take.
Fans of Arthur who know her primarily through her work on sitcoms Maude and The Golden Girls are afforded a glimpse of her singing chops in two of the film’s numbers. Her rendition of “The Man in the Moon”, which features Vera-as-a-Lady-Astronomer in one of her (destined to flop) stage plays, sees Arthur somehow managing to create a dignified form of slapstick.
The second production number, “Bosom Buddies”, is a frenemy-themed duet featuring Vera and Mame. In it, the two now-middle-aged friends celebrate their decades-long friendship and their ability to speak with catty candor to one another since, that’s what real friends do. The song is easily a highlight of the film and Arthur more than capably holds her own, even managing to steal the scene from the great Ball herself. Arthur’s singing voice is equally as expressive as her speaking voice, modulating her pitches to sound bright and chipper before dealing a crusher of a basso blow. ~ Lana Cooper