There’s a quaint stiffness to the early Merchant Ivory adaptations of Henry James novels that can be only partly blamed on their American settings. The yearning, august period films they’d make later - adaptations of books by James, E.M. Forster and Kazuo Ishiguro, set in Britain and Italy - have a lot more momentum than these two prototypical films, set in and around Victorian Boston.
The best of the two is 1984’s The Bostonians, with two remarkable performances by Vanessa Redgrave as a neurasthenic suffragette, and Christopher Reeve as a bigoted, chauvinist lawyer. The two of them battle for the heart of Madeleine Potter, a charismatic young woman whose speaking talents are considered the best weapon Boston’s protean feminists have on hand.
Redgrave inhabits her character utterly, making her both unlikeable and fascinating, while Reeve, fresh from Superman, does something even more incredible, making his character sympathetic despite his politically despicable worldview. You can almost forget the rather lacking performance by Potter as the objective of their fantastically mannered battle. And, perhaps despite themselves, the Merchant Ivory team make it possible to understand that the excesses and contradictions of later feminism were rooted in the movement from its birth.
The Europeans, made five years earlier, is an even more mannered affair, set in a luminous New England autumn where a brother and sister, raised in decadent Europe, return to find sanctuary with their upright American relations. The film is about manners and class and courtship, plays more like Jane Austen than Henry James, and features Lee Remick as an estranged Baroness whose sophistication does her no good in a world of plain talk and rectitude.
Both packages include revealing interviews with the principals of the Merchant Ivory team - director James Ivory, screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, and producer Ismail Merchant - while The Europeans adds Sweet Sounds, a documentary they made about their future composer, Richard Robbins.
All That Jazz
Once you get past the dated glam rock set design, with its love of face paint, silver mylar and lurex, the grim humour and style of Bob Fosse’s cinematic, autobiographical deathwish film is still powerful today.
Roy Scheider plays a famous choreographer and filmmaker keeping himself going on pills, booze, and serial infidelity while burning his creative candle at both ends. In other words, he plays Fosse, who has the unique, perhaps dubious pleasure, of imagining his own death onscreen.
Made in 1979, when no one looked askance at gross substance abuse by creative people, and the sexual revolution had made fidelity seem like cultural treason, All That Jazz is a reflection of Fosse’s own unfortunate conviction that the work was everything, the human cost of little account. And so as Scheider-as-Fosse lunges toward an early coronary, he leaves behind stunning set pieces like the “Come Fly With Us” sequence, and inspires little tributes like the dance performed by his daughter and girlfriend (played by real-life lover Ann Reinking). The real Fosse would die on a park bench hours before an opening night.
Includes clips of Fosse at work, and interviews and commentary with Scheider.
Vittorio De Sica’s film about the hardships of a pensioner in postwar Rome was a rare flop at home, mostly because Italians didn’t want to be reminded of the poverty and hardship that remained despite their newly booming economy. The film is considered one of his greatest, however, mostly because of the unrelenting pathos with which he tells the story.
Both of the film’s affecting leads - Carlo Battisti as Umberto, and Maria Pia Casilio as his landlady’s kindhearted maid - were non-professionals, while Umberto’s little Jack Russell mutt, Flike, was played by Napoleone, a total pro. The little dog was the engine of most of the film’s heart-tugging scenes, and their blatant appeal to audience sentiment probably irritated critics who expected more of De Sica’s harsh but skilful neorealism.
It would take a heart of stone, however, not to be touched by this simple but beautiful story. Includes a nice vintage Italian TV documentary on De Sica, and an interview with Casilio.
Rita Hayworth plays the prettiest girl in New York City in this wartime showbiz musical about young lovers torn apart by a big break. Hayworth is never hard to look at, but it’s had not to notice the worried look that passes over her face at least once a scene, a look that’s only more affecting if you know anything about the tragic life ahead for this great beauty.
The story, with Hayworth as a young dancer whose big break is a high-profile magazine cover, Gene Kelly as her dancer boyfriend and Phil Silvers as their comic relief pal, has some decent if not spectacular songs by Jerome Kern, but the big deal is an amazing solo dance Kelly does with a ghost image of himself, a technical marvel that was the apparent inspiration for his solo umbrella dance in Singin’ In The Rain. No extras.