Monday, March 8, 2021

Older Women, Younger Men: Devil in the Flesh, A Cold Wind in August, The Stripper

Gérard Philipe and Micheline Presle in Devil in the Flesh (1947).

If you ask movie fans to come up with a classic drama about a romance between a young man and an older woman, the one they’re most likely to mention is The Graduate (1967), which, coming back to back with Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, led Mike Nichols from celebrity as a Broadway director to (premature) celebrity as a moviemaker. But it wasn’t the first movie to dramatize this sort of relationship, and it’s far from the best. What keeps it in the memory is the interplay between Dustin Hoffman as the anxious, confused twenty-two-year-old Benjamin and Anne Bancroft as Mrs. Robinson, whose pretty daughter Elaine (Katharine Ross) he thinks he’s in love with but whose mother has already seduced him. Hoffman is hilarious and sympathetic, and despite the fact that Calder Willingham and Buck Henry’s script can’t resist demonizing Mrs. Robinson, Bancroft is sensational. She was at the end of her too-brief great phase as a film actress, when she also starred in The Miracle Worker (opposite Patty Duke as Helen Keller) and The Pumpkin Eater (opposite Peter Finch). In the eighties and nineties, when she turned out one scenery-chewing performance after another, one wondered what the hell had happened to that complex, unpredictable actress, who could convey ferocious strength or fragility or a mixture of cynicism and melancholy with equal conviction.

The good movies in this genre don’t make the same easy judgment on the older woman character as The Graduate. In the forties the French art-house film that set the standard was Devil in the Flesh (1947), directed by Claude Autant-Lara, which, unhappily, has been forgotten.  So has Autant-Lara, an elegant, intelligent filmmaker who had a gift for working with actors and a fine touch with literary adaptations like The Game of Love (out of Colette) and The Red and the Black (out of Stendhal). Devil in the Flesh (Le Diable au corps) is based on a somewhat autobiographical novel, shocking in its time, by twenty-three-year-old Raymond Radiguet, set during the First World War and published in 1923, about a sixteen-year-old boy who has an affair with a woman in her twenties while her husband is at the front. The year it was published, Radiguet, a prodigy at twenty, died of tuberculosis. Devil in the Flesh is a slender novel but it engages in that obsessive, pitiless, almost clinical psychological stripping away that makes you think of Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther or of Dostoevsky. Autant-Lara softens the material without altering the narrative, mostly by casting two of the most emotionally transparent actors of the period: Micheline Presle, whose gentle face seems to belong in a cameo, as Marthe Grangier and the extraordinary young Gérard Philipe – whose last role had been Prince Myshkin in The Idiot, opposite Edwige Feuillère – as François Jaubert. Devil in the Flesh made Philippe a star, and he stayed one for just over a decade; he died in 1959, at thirty-six. The movie is a series of remarkable sequences, some of which feature Jean Debucourt as François’s father or Denise Grey as Marthe’s mother, but it’s the love scenes above all that remain in your imagination. Unfortunately, the movie isn’t easy to see. I have a rare copy but the print is scrappy and the actors are dubbed. You can view it on YouTube but without subtitles. (Of the two later versions, Marco Bellocchio’s, from 1986, is updated to 1980s Italy and enjoyed a short notoriety for its hardcore oral sex sequence. The movie is worthier than that detail makes it sound – but not very good.)

Lola Albright in A Cold Wind in August (1961).

You can rent A Cold Wind in August on Prime, and you should. This little indie movie from 1961, directed by Alexander Singer, was adapted by Burton Wohl (via a screen treatment from John Hayes) from his effective novel about a burlesque dancer in her thirties who falls hard for a seventeen-year-old kid; his father is the superintendent of the Manhattan apartment building where she lives. The boy, Vito, is played by Scott Marlowe, whose post-James Dean Method style makes it easy to underrate him; his subsequent career was undistinguished and mostly on TV. But he feels his way into Vito’s adolescent restlessness and shows you the way his unexpected affair with Iris throws him into an un-worked-through combination of awkwardness, jealousy and sexual pride. (After they’ve slept together for the first time, he asks her to go steady with him.) Iris is played by Lola Albright, who was just coming off three seasons as Edie Hart, the jazz singer who was Craig Stevens’s main squeeze on the TV series Peter Gunn. She’s lovely on the show (and her singing is charming), which was one of the genuine pleasures of its era.  But what she does in A Cold Wind in August has an intensity and a boldness that her breezily sexy scenes as Edie couldn’t prepare you for. The movie is secondarily the tale of Vito’s loss of innocence, but Iris is the protagonist, and it focuses on her plunging, eyes open, into a sexual adventure she knows can’t sustain itself and can only break her heart. (What ends it is his discovery that she dances in a seedy venue, turning men on in the audience.) This is no teen melodrama; it’s strictly for adults, and it contains scenes unlike any you’ll see in other movies, like the one where Vito’s kind, widowed father (Joe De Santis) warns him not to act like a pig with Iris and especially the one where Iris’s wealthy, generous friend Juley (Herschel Bernardi) struggles with his own sexual desire for her. Both Bernardi and De Santis give fine supporting performances.

Richard Beymer and Joanne Woodward in The Stripper (1963).

The Stripper, released in 1963, sounds like the same movie as A Cold Wind in August, and there is some plot overlap, like a scene where the young man watches appalled while the woman he’s been sleeping with does a striptease. The source material is an unsuccessful 1959 stage play by William Inge called A Loss of Roses that starred Carol Haney as Lila Green, who goes home to St. Louis after her paltry show-biz career collapses, and Warren Beatty as the teenager she used to babysit and winds up in bed with when his mother offers Lila a place to stay. The screenplay is by Meade Roberts; Franklin Schaffner directed it. It’s not a good movie, and it’s pretty heavy on the Freudian subtext. But Joanne Woodward gives an indelible portrait of Lila – it’s not just her best work but, I’d say, a great American performance. Inge was clearly thinking of Marilyn Monroe, who had been so wonderful as Cherie in the movie version of his Bus Stop, and among the many pieces of acting that spin off Monroe I can think of only two that are worth discussing alongside Woodward’s work here: Debra Winger’s in Everybody Wins and, naturally, Michelle Williams’s as Monroe in My Week with Marilyn. Iris in A Cold Wind in August knows the extent of her folly when she goes full-bore for an adolescent virgin; Lila’s downfall is that she’s naïve enough to romanticize what happens between them. And when the boy, Kenny Baird (played by Richard Beymer, as uninspired here as he was two years earlier in West Side Story), in the enchantment of his first sexual experience, declares he’s going to marry her, she believes it. The scene where he slips out of it – like a noose – the next morning makes your heart break for Lila. The cast features Claire Trevor in the impossible role of Kenny’s mother, Carol Lynley in the empty role of the girl across the street (who’s the real object of his desire), Louis Nye, Gypsy Rose Lee (!), and, recreating the parts they played on stage, Robert Webber as Lila’s manager and sometime lover and Michael J. Pollard as Kenny’s best pal. The Stripper is a more prestigious studio project (20th Century-Fox put it out), but it’s Woodward who makes it worth seeing.

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 Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.


No comments:

Post a Comment