Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene The Turn of the Screw

A second superb Henry James adaptation.

By Donna Bowman, Noel Murray, and Jim Ridley

DECEMBER 15, 1997:  Recent releases show two approaches to filming the novels of Henry James. Jane Campion's The Portrait of a Lady emphasizes theme over character and production design over all else, and the result is cold and lifeless. Iain Softley's The Wings of the Dove emphasizes character over theme, and it succeeds in finding the chilly tragedy at the heart of its romance.

Of the two models, director Agnieszka Holland and writer Carol Doyle wisely choose the latter for their adaptation of Washington Square, an exploration of the struggle between familial and romantic love. Its unforgiving close-ups of Jennifer Jason Leigh, Albert Finney, and Ben Chaplin communicate the essence of the expectations and pressures that bind these very ordinary people. If the production lacks the emotional sweep and passionate fire of Softley's interpretation, it is because Holland consciously refuses to cast beautiful people on a grand stage. Instead, her clinical camera records warts and all, leaving it up to us to allocate our sympathy among the characters--and to realize, soberingly, that we cannot judge any of them by their actions alone.

James' novel was previously filmed by William Wyler in 1949 as The Heiress. Those familiar with that version will barely recognize Leigh as Catherine Sloper, the socially inept and terminally nervous young woman whose father (Finney) has never forgiven her for living through the childbirth that killed her mother. When handsome Morris Townsend (Chaplin) courts the plain, unaccomplished girl, her father denounces the penniless orphan as a fortune hunter and threatens to disinherit Catherine if they wed.

Washington Square's early scenes play up Catherine's comic clumsiness and mouth-breathing terror in casual conversation. Her father's callous assessment of the girl as without charm, wit, or beauty seems entirely warranted, especially when Holland places Leigh's sharp, unadorned features next to natural beauties. The romantic illusions of Catherine's aunt (Maggie Smith), who wants to manage the young lovers' assignations, warp her own weird attachment to Morris while Catherine and her father travel in Europe. And Morris himself seems sincere, but the film encourages us to ask what, in fact, draws him to the colorless heiress. At various times, every character is able to justify him or herself in our eyes, allowing the construction of a remarkably balanced portrait that keeps us interested throughout.

It's tempting, when a movie is more difficult and demanding on an audience, to attribute more depth to it. But Holland's shadowy, tightly buttoned New York is no more revelatory a stage for James' obsessions than Softley's golden, dishabille Venice. Perhaps Softley's material has greater inherent depths; the plot of Washington Square is the by-now familiar Austen-esque tale of a woman who thinks love is denied her. But Holland's exercise in the omniscient point of view, which forces us into loyalty with first one character, then another, is a fascinating technique in its own right, and uniquely appropriate to this material. A double feature of The Wings of the Dove and Washington Square has enough first-rate acting and incisive characterization to last, in memory, through the long, looming winter of epics and billion-dollar budgets.--Donna Bowman


Czartoon

Hollywood has a notorious herd mentality, illustrated by the rush to cash in on other studios' successes. When Star Wars hit, every sci-fi script at the bottom of every slush pile in L.A. was dragged out and green-lighted; and when Disney started raking in megabucks with its animated musicals, just about every Hollywood studio hired a staff of in-betweeners and started inking cels. Unfortunately, animation is a time-consuming process, and now that these big-budget cartoonaganzas are poised to hit the screen, Disney's box-office magic has started to dull.

Into this climate comes Fox's Anastasia--the first serious competition for Disney's monopoly, and the first in what will be a string of rival animated features from Dreamworks, Warner Bros., and others. Anastasia is helmed by Don Bluth, who has been cranking out such modest and mediocre features as The Land Before Time and Rock-a-Doodle since leaving Disney in the '70s. Given some real money to throw around this time, Bluth splurges on computer effects and "name" actors' voices.

Bluth has Meg Ryan as his amnesiac Anastasia, who is unaware of her royal Russian lineage. He also has John Cusack as Dmitri and Kelsey Grammar as Vlad, two con artists who--equally unaware of Anya's past--coach her to play the missing princess so that they can collect a reward from Anastasia's grandmother, voiced by Angela Lansbury. Working to foil the scheme are the ghost of Rasputin (Christopher Lloyd) and his loyal bat Bartok (hilariously voiced by Simpsons vet Hank Azaria).

Frankly, even with the extra money, Bluth's team doesn't have the pizzazz of Disney. The blending of cel and computer animation is far from seamless, and the constant, pointless fidgeting of the characters is distractingly showoffy. There is a compelling, romantic story here, with decent songs, but aside from a thrilling train chase and a haunting sleepwalking sequence, nothing is as resonant as Beauty and the Beast or The Lion King.

The biggest problem is one of purpose. The only real reason to make Anastasia a cartoon is because the story is well-served in a musical format, where complicated emotions can be captured by a pretty melody. Sadly, musicals today are acceptable to a mass audience only if they feature cartoon animals. Thus we end up with a muddle like Anastasia, which hedges bets by forcing an interesting romance into the narrow slots that Disney has carved for animated musical features. This story doesn't really need a villain, let alone a villain with a helpful bat (no matter how cute he may be).

If studios really want to challenge Disney, they need to go in different directions, especially now that Disney has wandered into a creative dead-end. However, since most of the big cartoons that will be released in the next three years were begun when Timon and Pumbaa still had no worries, we'd better just wait for the Western to come back.--Noel Murray


Bette Davis ayes

For a movie regarded as the best ever made about the theater, the surprise is how little of Joseph L. Mankiewicz's 1950 classic All About Eve takes place onstage. It's always hard for movies to convey the greatness of stage performers, because the intimacy of film clashes with the larger scale of theatrical acting. Mankiewicz spared us what usually passes for great theater in the movies--garish overwriting, hammy acting, absurdly elaborate sets--and shrewdly placed the action backstage. To compensate, he made his frame a proscenium arch and allowed his characters to perform constantly--in duets, in quartets, even in the full ensemble.

But All About Eve isn't just a great movie about the theater, it's a great movie about talent. Talent has nothing to do with being a nice person; if it did, Celeste Holm's long-suffering wife would be center stage, not catty Margo Channing. It used to be, in old musicals, the snooty star would break her foot, and the sweet, plucky understudy would be vaulted to stardom. Mankiewicz's tale is a variation on that chestnut--in this case the ingenue, Anne Baxter's Eve Harrington, is a snake, and she still gets pretty much what she wants.

The reason? She may not be good, but she's good at what she does. Ability beats virtue any day. Which is why Mankiewicz can't bring himself to punish Bette Davis' glorious Margo for her ego, her temper, and her insecurity. As George Sanders' deliciously wicked theater critic Addison DeWitt tells her, "You're maudlin and full of self-pity. You're marvelous."

Even if you've seen All About Eve a dozen times, there's always something new to catch in Mankiewicz's sumptuous, spiked plum pudding of a script--the knowing banter between Margo and her director boyfriend Bill (Gary Merrill), the way Margo smirks at hateful Addison before chomping down hard on a stalk of celery. Every character has been blessed with a viper's tongue, down to Margo's skeptical maid (the perpetually underrated Thelma Ritter), and it's a pleasure to hear them bicker: No other movie makes being smart and cynical look like more fun.

All About Eve shows one night only, Sunday at Sarratt; you should see it on a large screen while you've got a chance. The idiot box wasn't made that could hold the likes of Margo Channing.--Jim Ridley


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