Friday, July 3, 2015

Vehicles: I’ll See You in My Dreams and Bessie

Blythe Danner in I'll See You in My Dreams.

If Blythe Danner had come into movies in the thirties instead of the seventies, she would have been a star. In Lovin’ Molly (1974) and Hearts of the West (1975), she was as elegant as Claudette Colbert, as funny-sexy as Jean Arthur (and with something like Arthur’s cracked alto) , as quicksilver as Margaret Sullavan, and a transcendent beauty. And, as her performances on the PBS series Theater in America, as Nina in The Sea Gull and Alma in Tennessee Williams’ The Eccentricities of a Nightingale, demonstrated, she had the talent of a young Katharine Hepburn. But though she’s had – and continues to have – a triumphant career as a stage actress, and though, early on, she played leading roles in some TV movies (she was remarkable in A Love Affair: The Eleanor and Lou Gehrig Story and especially Too Far to Go, based on some John Updike stories), this summer’s I’ll See You in My Dreams is her first starring role since Lovin’ Molly. She’s shown up in a lot of films in between, sometimes giving performances of glowing intelligence in bum roles (Brighton Beach Memoirs), sometimes lighting up a whole picture in a supporting part (The Last Kiss, where she played the role of the middle-aged woman terrified of growing older that Stefania Sandrelli had created in the Italian version). But only now, at seventy-two – and still a stunning camera subject – has she landed a film role that really seems to acknowledge what she is: America’s greatest living actress.

In I’ll See You in My Dreams she plays Carol, who leads a comfortable and contented west-coast life after two decades of widowhood. Her husband was the love of her life; when he died in a plane crash, she saw no reason to look for another partner. She raised a daughter who now lives across the country, and with whom she has a close but not an intimate relationship; as a young woman, before she met her husband, she sang in a band. She has a group of bridge friends who live in a retirement community, but she’s resisted their efforts to join them; she values her independence. Suddenly a series of occurrences shake her up in unanticipated ways. Her beloved dog gets sick and has to be put down. She becomes friendly with her pool cleaner, a single young man named Lloyd (Martin Starr) who’s stalled in his own life; he takes her out drinking at a karaoke bar and talks her into getting up to sing – and is knocked out by her performance of “Cry Me a River.” (So are we; it may be the best musical performance by an actress who isn’t strictly a singer since Diane Keaton sang “Seems Like Old Times” in Annie Hall.) And she attracts the attention of a divorcé named Bill (Sam Elliott) who is insistent that she go out with him and with whom she becomes, far too briefly, romantically involved. This isn’t the story of a lonely, unhappy woman who discovers that there’s still a chance for her to recoup her life before the parade passes her by. (That is, it’s not Gloria, which I found both banal and phony.) It’s the story of a woman who’s settled in an existence that satisfies her but finds that life still holds some surprises for her, including the capacity to lose her equilibrium.

Blythe Danner and Martin Starr in I'll See You in My Dreams.
The script by Marc Basch and Brett Haley is modest, perhaps to a fault, and the scenes where Carol hangs out with her friends (Rhea Perlman, Mary Kay Place and June Squibb) play a little too much like an episode of Golden Girls without the laugh track. Danner’s Carol seems too classy for those women, and though all four of the actresses have crack comic timing, the episode where they get baked on medical weed and are stopped by a young cop while hauling munchies home in a borrowed shopping cart is awfully dumb. (You may feel it is even when you laugh at some of it.) But in the current film market the script’s lack of melodrama is a boon, and there’s enough drama in the narrative to permit Danner to play it as a series of completely felt, in-the-moment scenes, beginning with the one where she has to say goodbye to her pooch, Hazel. Killing off a pet is a tried-and-true way to elicit tears in the audience, but that doesn’t mean that every filmmaker who includes one is just tugging at our heartstrings. Danner’s last scene with Hazel recalled to me one of the great exceptions: Art Carney with his cat in Paul Mazursky’s Harry and Tonto.

Haley also directed; he has a limited cinematic vocabulary (he’s made several shorts, but this is only his second feature), but understands how to shape a scene and give a moment the right emotional weight without wringing it dry. (Ira Sachs, who directed last year’s much-praised Love Is Strange, another small movie, couldn’t manage it: scenes always seemed to go on too long, and he kept losing control of the tone.) The first time we see Carol wake up in bed, Hazel is lying at her feet, and after the dog’s death Haley returns several times to the image of Carol awakened by the alarm; he doesn’t make a big deal about it, but each time we’re acutely aware of Hazel’s absence. But Haley’s best quality as a director is that he knows how to shoot and edit to frame the actors’ performing rhythms. Danner’s exchanges with Elliott, with Malin Akerman as Carol’s daughter Katherine, and especially with Martin Starr are often confined to simple shot-reaction shot set-ups, but he knows instinctively how long to hold a moment and when to cut away, so you stop paying attention to what the camera is doing (or not doing) and get drawn into the conversation, as if you were in the room with the characters. You get a sense for each of these relationships – like Katherine’s unresentful awareness of her mother’s tendency to become self-involved (in the way, probably, that anyone does who has live alone for so long) and her own need to push Carol to reveal things about herself. Elliott and Danner are marvelous together; the characters get a kick out of each other, and you can see the actors do too. They also make a sexy, great-looking couple; it’s a shame they don’t get more time together on screen, but you’re grateful for the time they do have. But Akerman is good too, and Starr, whose warmth is filtered through self-deprecating humor, is excellent. There’s more to Lloyd than initially meets the eye. In some ways he’s like an older version of the young musician Anton Yelchin played in Rudderless, who seems to have given up on himself but whose capacity for reaching out to others indicates exactly the opposite. And the friendship he forms with Carol is complicated. They don’t sleep together or even come close, but you can feel the erotic energy simmering under his surface when he watches her sing at the bar, and his embarrassment when he stops by Carol’s house unannounced one morning and finds her having breakfast with Bill is tinged with disappointment that perhaps he can’t even explain to himself.

It’s no exaggeration to say that Danner makes every moment of this performance count – not in a grasping, Oscar-begging way (that’s what I thought Pauline Garcia was doing in Gloria) but in the way Method actors are trained to do and that the best ones can be geniuses at. Carol’s story isn’t unusual, but Danner makes it an extraordinary one.

Queen Latifah as Bessie Smith in HBO's Bessie.

Queen Latifah’s portrayal of the blues singer Bessie Smith in the HBO movie Bessie has such ferocity and immensity that she provides a complete reason to watch it. Who could have been a better choice to play the Empress of the Blues? Latifah has a honky-tonk presence – knowing, sardonic, with a sashaying sexual self-awareness and a bitter worldliness. She comes out swinging, but she looks like she wants to devour the world, not just knock it over. When Latifah’s Bessie auditions young singers for her show, tossing out the “high yaller” girls and making fun of their names – she’s emulating the M.O. of her mentor, Ma Rainey (Mo’Nique) – her satirical take on black pride (years before such a thing officially existed) is hilarious. When a drunk at a speakeasy calls her a fat bitch and she attacks him physically, her nerve is staggering – also rather frightening, because you know she’s just put herself in mortal danger because this macho jerk isn’t going to settle for being bested by a woman. When she sashays onto the stage crowned with a spangly headdress, moving her big body around under a hip-hugging gown, and starts to bark out the blues in an alto like a growl, she’s spellbinding. Latifah strides purposefully through the film, letting nothing gets in her way.

And that means the movie itself, which is terrible. It begins with Bessie’s early days as a hoofer in black vaudeville houses, with artsy, inchoate flashbacks to her miserable, deprived Tennessee childhood, where her tyrannical sister Viola raised her and their brother Clarence after their mother’s death. The storytelling is incoherent in places, not just because of the scrappy screenplay – credited to Christopher Cleveland, Bettina Gilois and the director, Dee Rees, from a story by Horton Foote that may have been lying around for decades before Rees revamped it (Foote died in 2009 at ninety-two) – but also because of Rees’s sloppy direction. She goes in for a lot of visual clichés that filmmakers tend to resort to when they don’t really know what they’re doing, like slow-mo and repeated footage, and in the ramped-up showy scenes, like the fights between Bessie and her husband-manager Jack Gee (Michael Kenneth Williams), the staging ranges from clunky to hopeless. Jeff Jur’s cinematography doesn’t so much try to evoke the twenties and thirties as enfold it in a generic golden haze; the movie looks like dozens of TV movies set in those epochs. It took me several scenes to get some of the relationships straight; Viola comes back into Bessie’s life at one point and the sisters reconcile, but then suddenly she drops out of the picture again with no explanation. Khandi Alexander gives a fascinating performance in this role, suggesting a mysterious mix of spite and tough love, working hard to make sense of a figure the writers haven’t worked through.

Queen Latifah and Mo'Nique. (Credit Frank Masi/HBO)
The script doesn’t provide much of an arc for Bessie’s character either, but at least it covers everything – her bisexuality, her stormy marriage to a man whose capacity for explosions of rage matches her own, her love affair with her bootlegger, Richard Morgan (Mike Epps, who has a soulful sincerity), her mercurial temperament, her slugger’s bravado and unassailable pride, her voracious appetite for food and liquor (a holdover from her childhood, when Viola locked up the family’s food supply), her affection for the little boy she adopts on a whim and Jack takes away with him when he finally walks out on her, claiming with some justification that she’s not a fit mother. Latifah’s approach is to play the hell out of every narrative detail, so even though the movie tends to lurch from one to the next, this portrait of a woman of outsize talent and outsize needs has its own consistency. Some of her scenes practically leap off the screen, like the one where KKK thugs harass a tent show she performs in North Carolina, threatening to set fire to the venue, and she marches fearlessly outside to confront them, or the one where she deals with her anger by demanding more food and liquor while she’s still wolfing down what’s on her plate. It’s no surprise to anyone who’s seen Latifah as Mama Morton in Chicago that her musical performances in Bessie are dynamic and charismatic; she gets at Smith’s blues style from the inside – the earthiness, the raunchiness, the gospel-shouting element, the plain-speaking psychology reality of it. Rees doesn’t give her nearly enough stage time, and he makes the stupid mistake of cutting away in the middle of some of her numbers, but she’s such a potent musical actress that the image of her on stage is imprinted on our minds even after he’s gone on to something else.

Williams’s introduction, where Jack shows up backstage to tell Bessie she’s the most beautiful thing he’s ever seen and proposes himself as her lover off the cuff, is funny and outrageous and sets him up as a figure with as much chutzpah and power of personality as she has. But the screenwriters don’t do enough to develop his character. Similarly, Tika Sumpter, as Bessie’s svelte lover Lucille, is both foxy and tender in the early scenes, but once Jack enters the picture she’s reduced to a hanger-on. The movie wastes Charles S. Dutton as Pa Rainey, and though a number of celebrities from the era make brief appearances – Carl Van Vechten (Oliver Platt), Langston Hughes (Jeremie Harris), John Hammond (Bryan Greenberg), Benny Goodman (Levi Erik), Fletcher Henderson (Calvin Swanigan) – they’re merely tossed into the movie. Van Vechten and Hughes, at least, show up in probably the most effectively directed scene, where Smith sings at a gathering of Harlem intellectuals whose response to her music is so estheticized that it seems practically numbed out. (There’s a satirical point here: that except for Hughes, who is awed by her, these representatives of the Harlem Renaissance don’t have any idea what to make of a black artist utterly without intellectual pretensions who presents the African American experience unfiltered. It’s a reductive depiction, but it doesn’t seem completely unfair.) Aside from Alexander, the only supporting player who does truly memorable work is Mo’Nique. She’s ideally cast as Ma Rainey, whose show train Bessie joins and who befriends her and tutors her in the blues. These two are kindred spirits, down to their bisexuality. (When a bare-breasted cutie kisses Ma goodnight and Bessie smiles with amusement, Ma demands, “What you know about it?” and Bessie replies, “Same thing you know.” It’s a tasty moment.) Though they have an inevitable falling-out when Bessie gets too big to play Ma’s second, Ma’s style is imprinted on her own; she even gets her own show train (courtesy of Jack). And though we only get to see one duet between these two irascible, carnal blueswomen, it’s a knockout.

In the last half hour Bessie fades into nostalgia, and though Latifah doesn’t tone down her performance (she would seem to be constitutionally incapable of it), there aren’t many scenes left for her to dominate. Smith endures the Great Depression; she visits Rainey after many years and they hang out; she and Richard become a permanent couple. The movie ends with him and Bessie resting by the roadside while she makes a trite symbolic allusion to still wanting to know what’s around the next hill. That’s the movie’s way of hinting at without actually dramatizing the way Smith died, in 1937, as a result of injuries sustained in a car crash (Richard was driving). It’s not a very satisfying ending, but then it’s hardly a satisfying movie. What it does provide is a long overdue vehicle for the formidable Queen Latifah.

– 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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