Saturday, August 9, 2014

Neglected Gem #59: Masquerade (1988)

Rob Lowe and Meg Tilly in Masquerade.

The title of the 1988 film Masquerade suggests an association with the exotic thrillers of the sixties (Charade, Arabesque), and it certainly is stylish. But it’s actually more of a cross between Hitchcock’s Suspicion and The Heiress, William Wyler’s 1949 film of the Henry James novella Washington Square. In the first, Joan Fontaine plays a mousy bride who suspects her husband, Cary Grant, of scheming to eliminate her; in the second, Olivia De Havilland, a homely heiress belittled by an embittered widower father (Ralph Richardson), is wooed by a fortune hunter (Montgomery Clift). In Masquerade, which was written by Dick Wolf and directed by Bob Swaim, Meg Tilly plays Olivia Lawrence, a rich orphan who lives in the Hamptons with her alcoholic, lecherous bully of a stepfather, Tony Gateworth (John Glover). When she meets Tim Whalan (Rob Lowe), a handsome playboy sailor who has been hired to captain a yacht belonging to one of her neighbors – he’s moonlighting as a bedmate to his boss’s attractive wife (Kim Cattrall) – Olivia falls for him, and he rises to the bait of her irresistible fortune. (Masquerade is the name of Olivia’s boat; Obsession is the vehicle Tim works on. Both names acquire a sinister resonance as the story unfolds.) At this point Wolf’s ingenious plot takes the first of several twists, and difficult as it is to discuss the movie without revealing any of them, I don’t want to spoil any of its considerable narrative pleasures. Suffice it to say that there is a death, followed by an investigation, and that the cop on the case is Mike McGill, Olivia’s childhood friend (and one-time suitor), played by Doug Savant.

Swaim hadn’t displayed much more than a taste for chic in his earlier movies (La Balance); here, working from a crisp, well-engineered script, he shows not just an affinity for film noir but a talent for it. He’s also partnered with a great photographer, David Watkin, who gives Masquerade a silky-cool, sun-hazy look. There’s wit in the way Swaim exposes the grasping behind the characters’ summery, honeyed fa├žades. Even Olivia isn’t exempt from the lacerating subtext he and Wolf lend the actors, though she is definitely the movie’s heroine, the character who draws our sympathy (and for whom we feel afraid). Liv gets to reveal her spirit much earlier than De Havilland’s Catherine Sloper in The Heiress, and Meg Tilly shows us what De Havilland never had a chance to: the way this shrinking violet blossoms when Whalan releases her sexuality. Swaim and Watkin shoot the loss of Olivia’s virginity in a sequence that has all the noirish lyricism Coppola was trying for in the Richard Gere-Diane Lane love scene in The Cotton Club a couple of years earlier, but without the affectation (the Gere-Lane pas de deux looked like it was shot through a stocking); it’s a truly erotic encounter. And Tilly does her best work as Olivia. Her hairstyle at the party where she meets Tim is a clear homage to De Havilland (as, of course, is her character’s name), but unlike Catherine, Liv is no ugly duckling; with her quiet wide eyes and her dark, soft voice – velvet, with a catch in it you can hook your heart on – she has a deep-water bloom, and she knocks you out when she smiles. It’s a classic brink-of-womanhood portrayal. And as in The Heiress, the surprising force of the heroine’s anger is the final kicker.

Rob Lowe, Meg Tilly and John Glover. 

The actors, including Dana Delaney as Gateworth’s suspicious girl friend, are just about as good as they could be; each one makes a distinct impression. Rob Lowe gives a deft, economical performance with creepy fine shadings. When he boasts to Liv, “I was the youngest clipper on the southern racing circuit,” his blushing vanity is perfect. No one took Lowe seriously in the late eighties, but here he explored a dark undercurrent to the pretty-boy persona his detractors claimed was all he could ever project. (Wolf’s screenplay let him go much farther than Grant could in the truncated, uncourageous Suspicion.) Excellent as Lowe is, though, when he’s on screen with John Glover, it’s Glover who holds the camera; his upfront nastiness is riveting.

Masquerade sank at the box office, but it was very entertaining and more than twenty-five years later it holds up. A number of the people involved in it became much better known on television. Looking back at the movie, it’s fun to see Kim Cattrall before she co-starred on Sex and the City and Doug Savant before he showed up on Desperate Housewives. In his memoir, Stories I Only Tell My Friends, Lowe says that Wolf confided to him that if the picture bombed he was going to try to make it on TV. Two years later he created Law and Order.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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