Essential Film Performances 2013 Update: Part 7


Margaret O’Brien — Meet Me in St. Louis
(Vincente Minnelli, 1944)

Like many film musicals from the early studio era, Meet Me in St. Louis features the beginning of something great. The Smith family and neighbors anticipate the 1904 World’s Fair, situated in the eponymous city. And yet with beginnings come fearful endings. The family’s immediate concern is their possible move to New York, from which middle America’s westward journey, to such a small city with a big heart, had saved them. This anxiety emerges in Margaret O’Brien’s Tootie, who acts out in moments of unexpected terror.

Cut out as a comic relief, Tootie becomes an integral aspect of the film’s psychology, as the repressed middle-class anger rearing, if innocently. Progressive critic Robin Wood, in his lesser known but essential essay, “The American Family Comedy”, revealed how the traditional family unit, the source of security in early Hollywood’s conservatism, was actually the source of horror. According to Wood, as the nuclear family represses outsiders to the bourgeois, they reemerge as monstrous. In Tootie’s actions Wood saw horror coming out of an otherwise tight family comedy, in which normality is disrupted then restored. (The culmination of the family comedy that arrived in the 1970s, according to Wood, was the Texas Chain Saw Massacre, in which the family — Leatherface’s — shows it monstrous nature, not the “outsider”.) Concerned with all outsiders, Wood noted that children, who are frequently misrepresented in society, fall into the category; hence, Tootie’s actions. (No wonder that children would emerge as a fuller monstrous presence in 1970s horror, post-Rosemary’s Baby.)

Tootie centers a Halloween night sequence, in which, pre-consumerist practice of buying and distributing candy, children use a handful of powder in a symbolic ritual of “killing” a disliked neighbor. This macabre moment breaks the gleeful tone like similar scenes in It’s a Wonderful Life, which Wood detailed in “Ideology, Genre, Auteur”. When coming home, Tootie claims that John Truett (Tom Drake), a neighbor and hopeful suitor for sister Esther (Judy Garland), attacked her. Such a child-borne lie would grow into a scandal in the post-Classical age (see The Children’s Hour, 1962, which did it first on stage in 1933). Though here, it’s righted: we learn John helped her after her prank went really wrong. His honor assures the courtship and happy resolution.

With news of the move upsetting Tootie, Garland’s Esther sings “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” to pacify her sister and make holiday music history. The moment does little for Tootie, resulting in the film’s other horrifying sequence, when she raids her snow-covered backyard at night, hacking at snowmen (another seasonal festivity proving monstrous). The scene disquiets father, who decides against the move and toward classical closure at the World’s Fair. The horror (via another genre) looms, nonetheless. ~ Matthew Sorrento


Dolly Parton — 9 to 5
(Colin Higgins, 1980)

In 1980, Dolly Parton was already one of the most recognizable (and caricatured) celebrities in the world, a musical force in both country and pop fields but an unproven commodity on the silver screen. But with 9 to 5, one of the most successful comedies in film history, Dolly’s fame exploded by way of a performance that accumulated the essential appeal of Dollyhood: backwoods sweetness, the divide between over-the-top physical embellishments and genuine modesty, and firecracker sass.

As Doralee Rhodes, the sexually harassed secretary of her “sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigot” of a boss (Dabney Coleman as Mr. Hart), Dolly is a heartbreaker — earnest and compassionate but misjudged as all the other girls assume she’s sleeping with the no-good sumbitch. Dolly knew the role well: In the ‘70s everyone assumed she was sleeping with Porter Wagoner, her musical mentor who provided her first big break on his weekly television show and whom she would later describe as a “chauvinist pig”. Early on, Dolly knew well what her cartoonishly overt sexuality — the boobs, the hair, the nails, the waist, the heels — could do for her career (Dolly’s marquee spot on hit TV shows; Doralee’s head-secretary position despite the seniority of Lily Tomlin’s Violet Newstead) and to her reputation (George Jones joked that Dolly had “two reasons that she’s well known”, a typical jab at her physique and reduction of her accomplishments; Violet and Judy (Jane Fonda) treat Doralee like a “bastard at a family reunion”). In the ‘70s and ‘80s, Dolly overcame all the jokes, the double standards, and the priggish ridicule through her unmistakable lovability and her towering talent — everyone who worked with her ultimately adored her and the brilliance of her singing and songwriting was unstoppable.

Just so, Doralee turns persecution into power, winning over her co-workers and turning the tables on Mr. Hart. The film might be best-remembered for its revenge-fantasy sequences, visualized as the three women smoke a joint and Dolly giggles and eats fried chicken with three-inch nails. In Doralee’s version, her sweet, shy persona morphs into a tough-talking spitfire who heel-struts after a terrified Mr. Hart and gleefully hog-ties him in record time. Later in the film, versions of these fantasies play out for real, as Doralee binds Mr. Hart with a telephone cord and threatens him with the pistol in her purse: “I’m gonna change you from a rooster to a hen with one shot!” Millions of beleaguered, overworked, underpaid secretaries — just a steps on the boss men’s ladders — screamed hallelujah at the whole scenario, and Dolly’s original title song to the film became a battle cry for female nine-to-fivers everywhere, waiting for their ships to come in and the tide to roll them away. In the meantime, they were willing to derive vicarious pleasure in listening to Dolly, as only she can, offer her suggestion on how to handle the boss: “I say we hire a couple of wranglers to go upstairs and beat the shit out of him.” ~ Steve Leftridge


Prince — Purple Rain
(Albert Magnoli, 1984)

With the recent spate of putrid film musicals — Rock of Ages, Burlesque, Pitch Perfect, Nine — it’s hard to give the genre the cred it deserves. The key to a great musical has always been the songs, so even if the acting suffers (like 2007’s Across the Universe), the film still hits home. And no American film musical has ever done more with less than Prince’s cult classic, Purple Rain.

To say that Prince was the star of Purple Rain is an understatement — it is a semi-autobiographical biopic of a struggling Minneapolis singer known only as “The Kid” whose wild stage antics and underground sound alienate him from the mainstream synth-funk of the time. Sound familiar? But what makes Purple Rain such a good movie is that despite the mediocre acting talent of everyone involved, it shows us the inner struggle of an artist who does not want to sell out — even if he risks losing everything. When the club owner tells the Kid, “Your music makes sense to no one but yourself,” one has to believe that similar statements were probably used against Prince over and over again. What would have happened if he had given up? Purple Rain thus achieves the impossible and makes us belief in ourselves against all odds — it’s Rocky but in skin tight-jeans, eyeliner and a cross between a Bouffant flip and a Jheri curl.

Prince is a triumph in this film because he is able to play so many different roles: the Freddie Mercury-like diva, the sadistic band leader, the abusive boyfriend mimicking his father’s behavior, and the iconoclast who believes in his own talent. Viewers who expected a love story were probably shocked to see the grief and turmoil the Kid experiences in an abusive home and then the sheer rage he embodies after his father’s suicide attempt. Prince is not the boy genius played by Tom Hulce in Amadeus — he is the raging, pensive, and petty Salieri played by F. Murray Abraham.

Purple Rain was Prince’s greatest contribution to film and it allowed people the world over to believe in themselves. To see Lady Gaga sing now about being “Born This Way,” one has to think that Prince was the first person to make it cool to be different through his music, attitude and perseverance. As Alicia Keys said at Prince’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, “There have been many kings … but there is only one Prince.” ~ Shyam K. Sriram


Ginger Rogers — Roxie Hart
(William A. Wellman, 1942)

On Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, Katharine Hepburn famously quipped, “She gave him sex, and he gave her class” — the alchemical equation for Hollywood’s most iconic of cheek-to-cheekers. So if the Astaire persona wasn’t exactly dripping with animal magnetism, neither could anyone accuse Rogers (as the backwards-and-in-heels half of the pairing) of putting on airs of refinement. From her film debut (in 1930’s Young Man of Manhattan, where she uttered the immortal line, “Cigarette me, big boy”) through her lovely-if-overrated turn in Kitty Foyle, Rogers exhibited a charm that was distinctly working class. She inhabited the out-of-work shop girl, the tart-tongued flapper, the hard-hoofing chorine — good-time gals with names like Puff Randolph and ‘Anytime’ Annie — and enchanted them with her fizzy comic gifts. (Was it her Midwestern upbringing that lent these dames so much sunshine? Her Brooklynese counterparts from the wrong side of the tracks, Hayward and Stanwyck, played tough cookies too, after all — with cyanide filling.)

The difference between Fred and Ginger is this: while the early Astaire performances are somewhat marred by stiffness in the time between time-steps, it’s precisely her lack of, shall we say, breeding that ignites Rogers’ best work. In 1942, she stretched the limits of her persona to include the title character in William A. Wellman’s Roxie Hart. Yes, this is the same merry murderess that originated in Maurine Dallas Watkins’ 1927 play Chicago and was later immortalized in Bob Fosse’s musical of the same name, an amoral chorine who shoots her lover full of holes and becomes an overnight media sensation. But unlike Fosse’s Roxie (embodied first by Gwen Verdon and, on film, by Renee Zellweger) who glimpses the dark side of the American judicial system and is (momentarily) shocked into good behavior by the execution of a fellow inmate, the Wellman/Rogers Roxie remains an unrepentant bulldozer. She chews her gum like cud; she calls her attorney ‘Daddy’; and, whenever she senses opposition, she charges her enemy and rams them in the chest with the top of her head, billy goat-style.

Though not a musical in the strict sense, Roxie Hart does offer Rogers the opportunity to dance — just twice — and it’s a testament to her skill as a comedienne that, even though she moves like a dream, her Roxie never comes off as anything other than tacky and talentless. Coaxed by a roomful of overindulgent reporters, eager to reshape her into a tabloid princess, Roxie demonstrates for them the latest dance craze — the Black Bottom. She mooches to the left and mooches to the right and, gradually, her eyes begin to glow with long-simmering ambition. To us, she may be the American Dream’s worst nightmare: a white trash glamour-puss, shuffling on the grave of her lover and leaving scuff marks all over the Constitution. In her own imagining, however, she is the perfect intersection of sex appeal and piss-elegance — Fred and Ginger, as seen through hussy goggles. ~ Ray Dademo


Diana Ross — Lady Sings the Blues
(Sidney J. Furie, 1972)

Diana Ross was never the best singer on the Motown roster; in fact, she wasn’t even the best singer in The Supremes. Yet, her musical career has certainly eclipsed her shaky movie career. Still, all of her talents came to a zenith with Sidney J. Furie’s 1972 biography of Billie Holiday, Lady Sings the Blues. The film follows Holiday from the age of 14, working as a maid in a brothel, to her triumphant concert at Carnegie Hall in 1948, when she was 33, and Ross is completely convincing in reflecting the growing wisdom of a growing woman, including learning the vile lessons of racism that plagued her career.

The film takes considerable detours from the truth, particularly in sanitizing the lives of her mother and boyfriend Louis, and overlooks Holiday’s numerous recordings and film and tv appearances. What it gets right, though, is the divisive pull Holiday felt between her career and her drug addiction, and the film doesn’t sugar-coat the depth of that addiction. It isn’t surprising that Ross masters the sound of Holiday, if not the earthiness of her voice then the melodic qualities and timing, but it is shocking to see her delve into the scenes of drug use and withdrawal with complete abandon, disheveled and manic. In one scene, Ross must go quickly from giddy and silly to horrified when drug dealers show up after she and her piano player have shot up, killing him for skipping out without paying, and she is absolutely believable. Perhaps Ross was channeling the turmoil of her own life, having just ended her affair with Motown CEO Berry Gordon and leaving The Supremes for a solo career.

More amazing than her ability to play strung-out or jonesing is that she ultimately makes this mess of a woman endearing. Viewers root for Holiday to have the happy ending that never comes, in large part because Ross projects Holiday’s innocence and naivety even as she witnesses a Southern lynching or deals with the publicity after Piano Man’s murder. Naturally, Ross is the epitome of glamour when Holiday is on stage, and it is in these scenes, as she sings, that the weariness of Holiday’s life comes through, just as it did in the real Holiday’s recordings. While Ross’ film career never lived up to the promise of her first film, Lady Sings the Blues features an extraordinary performance and a loving tribute to one’s of music’s most tragic figures. ~ Michael Abernethy