Topsy Turvy and more
Jim Broadbent, Ron Cook, Allan Corduner, Eleanor David, Shirley Henderson, Lesley Manville, Kevin McKidd, Martin Savage, Timothy Spall
(USA Films; US theatrical: 15 Dec 1999 (Limited release); 1999)
Topsy-Turvy is quite different than your garden variety musical biography film. Of course, director Mike Leigh—who trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and began his career in theatre—wouldn’t have it any other way. The Happy Go Lucky director helmed this look at a short phase in the long career of Gilbert and Sullivan back in 1999, and managed to create a compelling glimpse at both the nature of creative conflict and a vignette of British Victorian society.
Structured around the creation of The Mikado, Gilbert and Sullivan’s most popular and enduring comedic opera of the 19th century, Topsy-Turvy shows a highly successful and lucrative creative partnership in peril and disarray. Composer Sir Arthur Sullivan, suffering mightily from a kidney ailment and bed-ridden, is adamant about not continuing his work with librettist Sir William Gilbert.
Gilbert has concocted yet another improbable “topsy turvy” plot for their next opera following Princess Ida, and Sullivan is sick of the convention and wants nothing more to do with it. “It is impossible for me to do another piece of the character of those already written by Gilbert and myself,” said Sullivan. Richard D’Oyly Carte, the man who originally brought these two creative geniuses together and the manager of the Savoy Theatre—which was built explicitly for Gilbert & Sullivan operas—attempts to mediate.
In the end, it’s Gilbert’s wife who helps save the day by taking Gilbert, offended by Sullivan’s rebuff, to a showing of Japanese antiquities in Knightsbridge. As the film has it, a samurai sword falling off his office wall that he purchased at the exhibit gives Gilbert the idea for The Mikado. Of course, this is a theatrical device and an effective one for the film, but it’s patently untrue as the exhibition in question actually occurred well after work on The Mikado was underway.
Fresh with this new innovative plot, Gilbert is able to cajole Sullivan back into partnership. A good bit of the film is then spent detailing the development of the work and the roll-out of the production. So, from where we begin with the nugget of an idea, we are taken all the way through the development of a work—called an “industrial process” by Leigh—illuminating in no uncertain terms that any theatrical work is the result of massive effort by a large group of collaborators, not just the “artistic genius” who happened to write the words or the music.
Leigh acknowledged as much in a 1999 interview with The Guardian where he explained his ultimate motives in tackling the Gilbert & Sullivan subject matter: “I felt it would be a good thing to make a film about us, what we do, we who suffer and go to hell and back taking very seriously the job of making other people laugh… I just felt I wanted to turn the camera around on us and our problems. Though part of that are the creative problems of creative people.”
Topsy Turvy illustrates the growing conflict between high art and popular art that began brewing with more intensity in the 19th century as Industrial Age era city dwellers and growing ranks of the middle classes began demanding more popular comedic fare. It seems Sullivan would rather be regarded much like his contemporary, Richard Wagner; that is, considered a serious composer. Sullivan is tormented by the feeling that he is wasting his talent on popular art. On the other hand, Gilbert fully embraces the “popular”, knowing instinctively he can more effectively wrap clever skewering of Victorian mores into a witty, mass art form, and that’s far preferable to creating some rarified work for a small audience of elites.
Topsy Turvy seems a simple story on the face of it, but the film is packed with rich detail of the period as well as an engaging backstage look at the development of a popular masterpiece. Ultimately it also concerns issues of eternal concern to artists of all stripes: how to best communicate ideas to an audience; how to create something popular without “selling out”’ struggles in creative visions between partners and; that long divide between high and “low” art that Gilbert and Sullivan bridged better than anyone. Gilbert and Sullivan may indeed be the world’s first pop stars, as their works went on to be performed all over the world everyone from small community theatres to professional opera troupes, past and present. Sarah Zupko
Winona Ryder, Angelina Jolie, Whoopi Goldberg, Clea Duvall, Brittany Murphy, Jared Leto
(Columbia Tristar; US theatrical: 21 Dec 1999 (Limited release); 1999)
1999. The era of grunge is inching towards its demise, its icons and idols teetering or fallen. Generation X is about to succumb to Y2K, and the poster girl for 1990s quirk shines in one of her final major roles.
Winona Ryder, the pre-millennial queen of rebellious black dresses, scruffy hairdos and sardonic lip curls is Girl, Interrupted. Based on a true story, Girl, Interrupted is about Susanna Kaysen (Ryder), a young woman whose introspective nature and self-doubt don’t fit into the expectations of her 1967 middle class culture. On the precipice of the late 1960s rebellion but without access to the counterculture that would later burn up America, 1967 suburbia feels hollow and hypocritical to the likes of Susanna.
Think of the world of 1967’s The Graduate. Dustin Hoffman’s uncertainty after graduation leads him to sleep with an older woman and then run off with her daughter. Susanna Kaysen’s self-doubt at her high school graduation leads her to wash down a bottle of aspirin with a bottle of vodka.
Susanna’s attempted suicide embarrasses her family, who then ship her off to a respectable asylum where people of means go to “rest for two weeks,” as her doctor tells her. The asylum is her home for the next year. She is diagnosed with “borderline personality disorder;” the 1960s definition for this disorder includes uncertainty about goals, a contentious personality, and other traits that by the 1990s we considered typical of adolescents across the board.
There she encounters women with a hodgepodge of issues – Elizabeth Moss, now of Mad Men fame, as a burn victim trapped in her childhood, Brittany Murphy, later one of the Sin City hotties, as a deluded girl obsessed with chicken (yes, chicken), and a flurry of women struggling with anorexia, Tourette’s and lesbianism. And of course, in her Oscar-winning role as the ward’s resident sociopath, Angelina Jolie.
Oh, Angelina, all sultry lips and wild antics and sexy manipulations. This is America’s definitive introduction to the woman who would captivate the world for the beginning of this century. Her role on the screen is appropriate – an outsized personality too large for the institutions that hold her. She is fully committed to living life on her own terms. In the film, this adds up to fabulous gestures and cheap tricks to deny the institutions’ claim on her soul. In the tabloids culture of the 2000s, this means high-profile affairs and media speculation about her tattoos. But that’s all the norm – she cemented her role in celebrity royalty as the matriarch of America’s most beautiful and diverse family and a passionate representative of justice across the world, to which her film career is secondary.
Girl, Interrupted marks a changing of the guards. Angelina wins an Oscar for best supporting actress, burning Winona off the screen and into history. Only two years later, in 2001, Winona is a forgotten starlet of yore caught in a pathetic attempt at shoplifting, a deed that overshadows a decade of being every misunderstood teenaged girl’s idol. The same year, Angelina kills it as Lara Croft: Tomb Raider and then becomes a UN Goodwill Ambassador. Winona goes on to be an extra on shows like Friends, where Jennifer Aniston outshines her. We all know how Angelina outshone Jennifer and became the fabulous mother of six Jolie-Pitt children.
Girl, Interrupted is essentially a coming-of-age tale of a young woman who attempts to find her place – against or within the institutions of the day. Kaysen eventually chooses to work within the institution rather than fight it, whereas Jolie’s character Lisa fights till the end. Even though Ryder represented teenage rebellion and resentment for a decade, we all know who wins out in the new millennium. Anita Schillhorn
Man on the Moon
Jim Carrey, Courtney Love, Paul Giametti, Danny DeVito
(Universal; US theatrical: 22 Dec 1999 (General release); 1999)
Andy Kaufman’s cancer had gotten to the point that traditional treatment would no longer be worth it. So there he was in the Philippines, at a “healer”‘s shanty. Out of the corner of his eye, the healer’s trick is revealed and Andy smiles wryly. All of life is a gag. At his most serious moment, there was damn good reason to smile.
Man on the Moon came at an important time for a number of its participants. First and foremost, the role of Andy Kaufmann, coveted by Jim Carey, was the physical comedian’s chance to show that he was capable of more than slapstick. In many ways he accomplished this with Man on the Moon. Secondly, REM was at risk of becoming a relic when they were tapped to do the soundtrack. Finally, resurrected was the man himself; to a generation of college students Kaufman was nothing more than the funny talking mechanic from television’s Taxi. One of our greatest comedic geniuses was nearly lost to us. Man on the Moon saved him.
Released in 1999, Director Milos Forman seemed to play loose and fast with Jim Carrey who had spent months in character. His reincarnation of perhaps America’s best Elvis impersonator was eerie. While a great deal of time was given to the love angle with a less than adequate performance by Courtney Love, the real beauty and complexity of the film was delivered by lounge singer “ Tony Clifton”. Alternately portrayed by Carrey and sidekick Bob Zmuda, Andy’s partner in crime (a revelatory performance by Paul Giamatti) it was Clifton who genuinely made performance out of life. His appearance at a filming of Taxi is legendary. That Kaufman refused to acknowledge Clifton as his own – and to be fair, there is still some disagreement of this fact- made his post modern point; that identity and staging in life are all fluid.
At the apex of his fame, Kaufman suffered what we have gone on to see people like Tom Green or Ashton Kutcher experience. If the premise of your gag is to catch a real reaction in real time, fame can become an unconquerable barrier. As this became more apparent to Kaufman, his antics became more extreme, feuding with professional wrestlers and staging wrestling matches with women on his own. While we look back and acknowledge his act as groundbreaking, it was born out of the frustration that being famous brought. He could no longer play the angles he once had.
It’s like that Andy would have taken humor in the fact that the movie won a series of awards (a Golden Globe for Carrey) and was hailed as the “film of the year” but still lost money. The line between successful and unsuccessful would be just as blurry as every other line in Kaufman’s life. The cost of all of this reality blending is most evident in the film when Andy tries to tell his family and friends that he is dying. Like the crowd in the famous children’s parable The Boy Who Cried Wolf, his friends/audience were incredulous. If this struck the viewer as sad, then they have too missed the point. That none of these people could be sure may well have been Kaufman’s greatest accomplishment.
Kaufman was a carnival huckster with a brilliant vision of expanding the “act”. Stages, film screens etc were no longer the only place you might experience theater. In 1999, we were reminded that it was not safe to assume anything. Man on the Moon introduced a generation of “Latka” fans to Andy Kaufman and, in doing so, ensured that his legend would live on. Joseph Carver