Essential Film Performances continues with show-stopping turns from Terence Stamp, Jane Russell and Roy Scheider, as well as comic classics from Alicia Silverstone and the incomparable Barbra Streisand.
(Howard Hawks, 1953)
Although Marilyn Monroe is captivating and iconic in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, she is matched with energy and brassiness by top billed star Jane Russell. Howard Hawks’s sparkly musical follows a pair of showgirls (“two little girls from Little Rock”), Dorothy (Russell) and Lorelei (Monroe) and their luxury liner escapade to France. Dorothy is into the buff Olympic team aboard their ship while trying to thwart off a clingy detective (Elliott Reid); Lorelei, a lover of bling, has sights set on Sir Francis Beekman (Charles Coburn), a diamond mine owner. This seems like a slight, silly, bubbly film, with its glitzy sets, but the dialogue, provided by Charles Lederer’s script, adapted from the flapper-era novel by Anita Loos, is clever and canny. You get the feeling, as in Hawks’s other pictures, that it’s more-than-meets-the-eye, an eye, that here, is often distracted by the magnetic leads and Technicolor splash.
The music is a fun, light-hearted bouquet of numbers, mostly by Hoagy Carmichael and Jule Styne. The most famous part of the movie is Monroe’s version of “Diamonds Are a Girls Best Friend”, a scene that’s been endlessly refigured, most famously in Madonna’s “Material Girl” clip. It’s a stunning moment, with that valentine-red background a lit, clashing vibrantly against Monroe’s hot pink satin dress with matching sleeves, Monroe cooing out the number, amongst a group of tuxedoed men. But even despite Monroe’s showstopper, the film is notable for Russell too, who offers a lot of memorable moments as well, while also providing some sharp comedic timing with a laid-back, unaffected style.
With sly charm, Russell adds a particular zest to the picture. Confident and beguiling, she advances the story along with a salty earthiness that keeps the movie from getting too sugary and airy. All of her numbers are great, vividly handled. In her finest moment, wearing pastel blue earrings and ditching her yellow-lined plaid jacket for a killer black jump suit, she slinks and squats among her shirtless Olympic team hunks while waving tennis rackets (“Doubles, anyone?” she coos) and singing ain’t there “Anyone Here for Love?” She even goes for a quick pool-dip (supposedly an accident that Hawks kept in the film), before ending the tune with a joyful smile and a raised glass of champagne, her buxomy body held up by her athletic admirers. It’s cheeky, cute and fairly titillating for 1950s cinematic standards.
Russell is funny too when she dons a blonde wig and impersonates Monroe, and ends up covering “Diamonds” with a little more bite and less flash in a drab courtroom setting. It’s a brilliant mock, without being mean-spirited or too sassy; in fact, while gently making fun of Lorelei, she is trying to help her. Russell is able to be energetic without being cloyingly over-the-top as she dances about and acts with a clever, relaxed and amused expression.
The chemistry between Russell and Monroe scintillates and is aided by some of the film’s elements notably the amazing costuming by Travilla. It’s unexpected in many ways—Monroe is dressed failry buttoned-up with little pieces of emblematic flair (that leopard-skin cape, a stolen diamond tiara). There’ a visual tension with that pink dress too—it isn’t slutty, in fact it’s floor-length and the shock is in the pink, not in how much skin it reveals, which is very little. Travilla contrasts Lorelei and Dorothy throughout by colors and shapes. Russell’s attire, like her character, is looser and bold yet astute. The movie begins and ends with the pair in identical (and very different) dresses, with a sort of knowing irony in its denouement. Both in red sequined dresses, Russell dominates the opening, taller and more effortless, even though Monroe is given some solo moments. And yet, throughout the film, while the two are very different, these gal pals are never combative.
I wager Russell, the more seasoned actress at the time, is the reason for why they click. It’s reported that Monroe and Russell were good friends and worked well together on the film. Their amicability is palpable watching the movie. I believe it’s a testament to Russell’s gifts that after all these decades of Monroe iconography, still today in Blondes, Russell is never upstaged—in fact, warmly and generously, she makes both her and her co-star shine. ~ Jeffery Berg
(Bob Fosse, 1979)
Films don’t come more over-the-top than All That Jazz, Bob Fosse’s 1979 self-portrait of a choreographer for whom too much was never enough. In fact, were it not for the steady, understated presence of Roy Scheider as Fosse stand-in Joe Gideon, the whole thing might well do up in a burst of spontaneous combustion, spraying sequins and feather boas in all directions.
Scheider, who was nominated for an Oscar for his work in All That Jazz, doesn’t seem like the most obvious casting choice to play one of America’s greatest choreographers—he was a successful amateur boxer before taking up acting, and his most notable prior roles were as pimp in Klute, a detective in The French Connection, and a small-town police chief in Jaws—but the grounded, unfussy nature of Scheider’s on-screen persona offered the viewer a way into the foreign world of big-time musical theatre. Scheider also captured the contradictory combination of arrogance and vulnerability, of moral blindness and absolute clarity, which made Fosse the unique artist (and exasperating human being) that he was.
Although All That Jazz is rightfully honored for its exuberant fantasy sequences (they make Liberace’s death scene in Behind the Candelabra look positively stingy by comparison), Scheider’s best work comes in a pair of scenes in which he appears to not do that much at all, and yet perfectly conveys two central aspects of Fosse’s character. These scenes come at the film’s midway point, serving as a sort of calm center after we’ve had ample introduction to Fosse the work-obsessed director/choreographer, Fosse the womanizer, and Fosse the abuser of prescription drugs, but before his life spirals entirely out of control.
In the first scene, set in Fosse’s loft, his daughter Michelle (Erzsebet Foldi) and sometime girlfriend Kate (Ann Reinking) perform a dance routine they’ve worked up to “Everything Old is New Again”. It’s the sweetest thing you ever saw, and although Scheider does little more than recline on a couch, cradling a glass of wine, his love for these two women absolutely shines through. The scene immediately following takes place in a rehearsal studio, where Fosse’s new show is receiving its first table reading. As the actors proceed through the script, indulging in their actorly mannerisms and yucking it up in a manner not supported by the sample of dialogue we hear, Scheider withdraws into his own mind, his face revealing the awful truth—his show is a dog. It’s the second moment of truth in as many scenes, and is all the more powerful because Scheider conveys his realization with little more than facial expression and one snapped pencil. ~ Sarah Boslaugh
(Amy Heckerling, 1995)
1995 was the year that gave us two of the best Jane Austen film adaptations of all time, in the more traditional Sense and Sensibility, director Ang Lee took the source material and represented it in the way Austen would’ve envisioned it. Amy Heckerling on the other side, took Emma and gave her a makeover 180 years in the making, changing the setting from 19th century England to 1990’s Beverly Hills. Alicia Silverstone plays Cher Horowitz, a high school student obsessed with the idea of finding partners for everyone around her, from her friends, to her schoolteachers and even her stepbrother.
Silverstone took the part and turned Cher into a decade-defining icon that changed the way young women talked, dressed and thought. She gives herself into this seemingly shallow young woman who ends up being more than meets the eye. Silverstone’s embrace of the Valley Girl personality is a lesson in comedic acting, with every line delivery being absolutely spot on. As she accuses a new girl of “dressing like a farmer” we see that Cher isn’t truly an airhead, she just lives her life the way she was raised. By the end of the film she obviously matures as a character, but not for one second do we pity her, in fact she is so charming, we wish she would deign us worthy of calling us farmers. Silverstone made Cher so personal, that watching her we forget that someone else wrote these lines but perhaps most important of all is her legacy without her, we would’ve never had an Elle Woods, an Olive Prendergast or a Cady Heron. Silverstone’s iconic comedic creation paved the way for women in a genre where they’d been relegated to being supporting characters and helpless romantic fools. Feminists might not agree with her narrow world views and obsession with looks, but in her fearlessness and love for herself, Cher was a beacon of “girl power”. ~ Jose Solis Mayen
(Stephan Elliot, 1994)
“And so I found myself atop that perilously narrow bar. A harsh ginger wig with detachable pigtails, laddered tights, star-spangled knickers, high heeled dancing shoes, amongst a room full of out of work miner’s who’d been plied with beer to keep them from leaving.”
—Terence Stamp, Rare Stamps: Reflections on Living, Breathing and Acting (Escargot Books, 2011)
Long before Terence Stamp showed up in the music video for Hot Chip’s 2012 single “Night & Day” to lip-synch the line, “Do I look like a rapper?” he made an even more unconventional appearance in 1994’s The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. Prior to taking on the role of aging transsexual drag superstar Bernadette, Stamp had been known for tough-guy roles in films like The Hit and he even wandered along the supervillain path with an appearance as General Zod in 1978’s Superman. The initial shock of seeing Stamp as Bernadette, a grieving, dignified, tasteful—and feminine—figure, is a great one. Fortunately, Stamp brings such caliber to the role that any potential misdirection of efforts quickly dissipates.
Throughout Priscilla, Bernadette appears as a world-weary voice of reason, a no-bullshit counterpoint to Hugo Weaving’s apprehensive Tick/Mitzi and Guy Pearce’s gregarious Adam/Felicia. The restrained cattiness Stamp brings to the role is detected early on, when the trio—who are traveling to perform at a resort hotel in Alice Springs as a favor to Tick/Mitzi’s former wife—run into adversity at a small-town bar in the mining town of Broken Hill. When a bigoted bar crone let’s it be known she doesn’t want this new type around, Bernadette shoots her down with the seething reproach, “Now listen here you mullet. Why don’t you just light your tampon and blow your box apart, because it’s the only bang you’re ever going to get sweetheart.” The line could be delivered in an overwhelmingly bitchy tone, but Stamp’s terse way of stating it makes the insult all the more shocking and funny. Bernadette later drinks the laggard under the table with quiet determination.
The real marvel about Stamp’s performance, apart from the quick-tongued airs, are his mannerisms in the role. While hand gestures and hair flips are intrinsically feminine, Stamp’s movements are never wide nor overdone. Likewise, Bernadette’s “done it all” aspect is never lost during Priscilla’s stunning performance scenes. No matter the outlandishness of the costumes employed or the campiness of the song being mimed, Bernadette’s movements are always contained and reserved. The smallness of the character’s movements somehow enhance the once-in-a-celluloid-lifetime sight of seeing Terence Stamp—with a sliver of that threatening Stamp glimmer still shining in his eyes—dressed as an Australian flower and lip-synching CeCe Peniston’s “Finally.” ~ Maria Schurr
(Peter Bogdanovich, 1972)
If you’ve ever wondered what a live action version of a Looney Tunes cartoon would be like, look no further than What’s Up, Doc?, the film—directed by the masterful Peter Bogdanovich—was intended to be an homage to Warner Bros.’ famous animated shorts and the wonderful screwball comedies of the 1930s. Bogdanovich drew inspiration from Bringing Up Baby to device a story in which four identical pieces of luggage help unleash chaos. At the center of this mess is a free spirited young woman named Judy (Streisand) who attracts disaster wherever she goes. Her path crosses with that of doctor Howard Bannister (Ryan O’Neal) and his fiancée Eunice (Madeline Kahn) and soon, they find themselves as part of a hilarious love triangle.
Watching Barbra onscreen usually demands our entire attention. She is a diva by excellence after all and whether she’s playing Fanny Bryce or Dolly Levi, we often see the entire universe of the movie revolve around her. This isn’t the case in What’s Up, Doc?, here she allows herself to become a part of the Altman-esque ensemble and doesn’t shy away from letting others around her do superior work. We often catch her ogling at how beautiful O’Neal is, or marveling at Kahn’s legendary gift for comedy. Even more surprising, we see Babs making fun of herself; the movie is filled with countless references to other of her works and she embraces this self-mockery like a very good sport. This performance isn’t usually thought of as one of her strongest works, precisely because of its effortlessness. We fall in love with Judy, in a way we never fall for any of her other characters, watching her act here is the equivalent of drinking champagne, it’s bubbly fun until it gets us truly drunk with pleasure. ~ Jose Solis Mayen