Friday, 20 March 2015

Close Up: Marilyn Monroe

Marilyn Monroe is famous for her 'dumb blonde' roles, performances that influenced her public persona. She was seen as a unbelievably sexy and good-looking, but rather naive about it, with a sweetness of manner that avoided vulgarity. She was also notoriously difficult to work with, often coming late to set (if she turned up at all), and had many issues with alcohol and drugs (but hey, it's Hollywood, who doesn't!). However, Monroe was a fine comic actor, with a good sense of timing and she not afraid to look daft. These four performances show that while she was often typecast, she did bring subtle differences to these roles.

Some Like It Hot
This film is a great example of ensemble acting; everyone is on their game and each supports the other's performance. This is true for Monroe, who is the sexy and sweet Sugar Kane, a great foil for Tony Curtis' 'Joe-sephine' and Jack Lemmon's 'Gerald/ Daphne.' I am unsure about calling this a 'dumb blonde' role. Though Sugar tells us she 'not very bright,' her slight aura of melancholy gives her a bit of depth. The number 'I'm Through With Love' best captures this, as she sings about yet another heartache. Considering how difficult the shoot was for all involved, the polish and joy of the finished product, particularly Monroe's performance, is amazing.

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes
Lorelei Lee is a quintessential dumb blonde; she gets stuck in a porthole, does not know where to wear the diamond tiara ('I just love finding new places to wear diamonds'), and she accepts the diamond tiara as a gift without considering the consequences (the man's wife presses charges!). Gentlemen allows Monroe shows off her singing abilities; she was not brilliant, but certainly competent. Comedy is notoriously difficult to get right, and Monroe is very funny in this film. The porthole scene always makes me giggle. Jane Russell, as Lorelei's friend Dorothy, does a great impression of Lorelei, which is really an impression of the Monroe persona.

Bus Stop
It has been several years since I saw this, but I remember it being a change of approach for Monroe. Her character, Cherie is a rather poor singer working in a bar. Monroe gets the uncouthness of Cherie just right, while also giving her depth; she is determined to be respected by the next man she loves, and refuses to bow to cowboy Beauregard's bullying behaviour. When one considers the musical number early on, one sees the abilities of Monroe. Her rendition of 'That Old Black Magic' is terrible, her voice struggling to hit the high notes. Monroe can sing, as demonstrated in many of her other films; her deliberately bad performance is great piece of acting. 

The Misfits
Monroe plays newly divorced Roslyn Tabor who falls in with a group of mustang hunters in Nevada.  There is palpable pain in this performance, as Roslyn comes to terms with the anger and violence of the men she is with, particularly Clark Gable's Gay, with whom she is falling in love. The most striking moment in the film is Monroe running away from the men on the dried-up lake, calling them beasts in their treatment of the wild horses. Similarly to Some Like It Hot, there were many problems on set, one of them being the breakdown of Monroe's marriage to Arthur Miller. The pain and vulnerability of her performance is definitely inflected with this event.

Do you have a favourite Marilyn Monroe performance?

Tuesday, 10 March 2015

Double Feature: The Birds (1963) and Jaws (1975)
What would happen if birds suddenly began attacking a small town?

What would happen if a mega shark suddenly began terrorising a small island town?

Or, what would happen if nature began acting in a way that threatened our normal (human) way of life?

This question is the basis for Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds (1963) and Steven Spielbergs' Jaws (1975). These famous, pithily titled films focus on the sudden threat posed by previously unproblematic creatures: the bird population of Bodega Bay, California in The Birds, and Amity Island in Jaws. While behaviour such as attacking and killing people is expected of sharks, Jaws makes it clear that this shark is like none seen before: it's huge, highly territorial and most frighteningly, stealthy.

It is interesting to try and classify these films' genres. Wikipedia lists The Birds as a suspense/horror film, while Jaws is a thriller. However, Jaws is also a suspense/horror film, particularly when one considers the impact it had on audiences, making many think twice about going into the water again. If horror films take aim at our most primal fears then surely Jaws and The Birds are examples of the genre. Surely there is no greater primal fear than being attacked by wild animals, a fear that is rooted in our evolutionary history. It takes us back to hunting and gathering, where humans were at risk of being prey to other creatures. Personally, I find these types of horror films more scary than gore or supernatural pieces.

There are also elements of the disaster movie: the problem that besets these towns is natural (of nature), and there is a moral undertone to the story. The birds first attack Melanie, who is the beautiful outsider and threatens to disrupt a part of the town's life. They don't kill her, but she is left severely disturbed. The iconic last shot, where Mitch and his family take her away is terrifying for its stillness; the birds don't react, but let the group leave, almost as if they have achieved their wish: Melanie is going.

My favourite film critic Mark Kermode maintains the argument that Jaws is not about sharks, but adultery. This is because in Peter Benchley's source novel, Hooper has an affair with Brody's wife; he is subsequently killed by the shark in the third act. In the film, Hooper doesn't and survives the third act along with Brody. Though Kermode's argument is rather tenuous (it may be about sharks, but it is not primarily about adultery), the shark's first victim is rather typical of a disaster film: a young person (here a woman) who foolishly goes swimming at night. Her companion is too drunk to make it into the water (his punishment is discovering her body).

We never learn why the shark or the birds have started terrorising the towns. Presumably the shark is acting on its instincts, looking for food, but it continues to pursue the town and its inhabitants with a relentlessness that implies this is not about food. The birds don't kill for food, only attacking people's eyes, leaving the blind corpses as warnings to others. Is it man's hubris that is being attacked?

Jaws and The Birds employ tropes from several different genres and subgenres, creating thrilling and frightening stories that unsettle our ideas about our place in nature. On a side note, it is interesting to compare their soundtracks. Jaws features possibly the most recognisable theme tune ever put to screen (identifiable from its first two notes); The Birds famously features no non-digetic music (out of world).

What other nature-based horror thriller films fill you full of dread?

Saturday, 7 March 2015

These are a Few of My Favourite Ladies

The 8th of March is International Women's Day and to celebrate here are some of my favourite characters who happen to be women.

1. Eve Harrington, played by Barbara Stanwyck in The Lady Eve
'See anything you like?'
I have already written about my love for this movie (see here) and a large part of that love is for this lady. Eve is smart, funny, a bit devious, sports a great wardrobe, surprisingly romantic, and altogether lovely, despite being a con artist. She is also a women we don't see in films any more: she makes fun of her man, teaches him a lesson about women, and still gets him in the end. Eve knows what she likes (money and 'Hopsy'), but isn't above getting revenge for slights against her. She may be considered a 'bad girl' by some, but really, she can do no wrong! 

2. Nora Charles, played by Myrna Loy in The Thin Man series
As one half crime-busting husband and wife duo the Charles, Nora sees her fair share of adventure and excitement. She has been knocked out (by her own loving husband!), held hostage (several times), hosted a dinner of suspects, had a baby, has the baby stolen, and of course, helped solve many crimes. While dealing with all this death and devilry, Nora trades witty one-liners with her husband 'Nicky,' and matches him drink for drink (though sometimes suffering from the results). Courageous, clever, gorgeous and incredibly funny, Nora shares in one of the most equal and happy marriages ever portrayed on screen.

3. Ellen Ripley, played by Sigourney Weaver in the Alien films
When people think of strong female characters, Ripley is often top of the list, and it is easy to see why. Faced with an alien running rampant on her ship in Alien, Ripley watches the whole crew of the Nostromo killed trying to destroy the creature. She comes into her own in Aliens when she must face the alien again, still time seeking it out. Though she has her authority usurped in Alien and her story viewed with disbelief in Aliens, Ripley stays true to what she think is right. She also cares about other people, spending much of her time in Aliens being a mother for 'Newt,' a mother in the lioness-protecting-her-cub way.

4. Julie de Courcy, played by Juliette Binoche in Trois Coleurs: Bleu
Julie spends the majority of Bleu caring the burden of her grief after the death of husband and daughter in a car crash. She leaves everything about her old life behind and enters a period of reclusivity, interacting with almost no one, even herself. Julie's reaction, though arguably selfish,  is completely understandable considering her loss. Julie has strength, and even in her grief reaches out to strangers who she thinks need help. She is freed from this grief by reengaging with the past, learning facts about her husband that, despite changing their relationship, allow her to move on in her life.

5. Wadjda, played by Waad Mohammed in Wadjda
Young girls don't come more ambitious, enterprising or spirited than Wadjda. All she wants is a bike so she can race her friend Abdullah; only problem is she lives in Saudi Arabia, where women are essentially policed for being women. This doesn't stop Wadjda; she decides to raise the money herself to buy the bike, even entering a religious contest for the prize money. Her female teachers and her mother constantly chide her for her wishes, and try to police her behaviour. Thankfully, Wadjda is a brave soul, and remains committed to achieving her goals.

Who are some of your favourite female characters?