Review--Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds

I first heard of Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds when a local theater invited me to a free screening of the documentary in mid-December. Though I was not able to attend, the film is now showing on HBO and available on the channel's streaming service. Now that I have seen it, I've thought a lot about how differently it would have affected me if I'd caught that screening. The film focuses a great deal on Reynold's failing health and Fisher's fear for her well-being, a sad reversal of what would play out in the year after its filming.

In this documentary of perhaps the most famous mother/daughter actresses in modern history, you are presented with a loosely organized series of incidents in the lives of these two remarkable women. There's no great effort to dig deep into their lives or find any coherence in all of it. You are simply invited to observe: sometimes there is a great revelation, and bits of their history bounce around, but for the most part it simply offers the privilege of spending time with these women and the people who love them.

You see them interacting with their fans. Reynolds is shown giving her last performances in Las Vegas, barely able to walk, gingerly singing her classic songs and yet enveloping her audience in irresistible warmth and charm. Fisher attends a fan convention to sell autographs and photo ops, something which she initially found distasteful, but seems to have accepted as she carefully praises her fans for their devotion.

These public performances are juxtaposed with their private banter at the large compound where both women have homes. Their interactions in these scenes feel both like well-worn comic shtick played to the cameras and a demonstration of the genuine warmth and constant conflict bubbling between them, which is more playful now than it was in the past. As Fisher packs a bag for Reynolds, her mama cheekily reminds her not to turn her bum to the camera. In another moment Fisher barks at her mother about brother Todd, "what does he get in the will and what do I get?" It's all hilarious and deadly serious at the same time.

This affectionate push and pull is essentially what Fisher and Reynolds are willing to reveal about their relationship, though when Carrie quips to a reporter, "we are always on the red carpet," you wonder if there is much more to see. There's a busy, chaotic flow to their interactions: they will be quiet and intimate one moment, then suddenly break into song together and follow the moment with an argument. They're both clearly a lot to handle and they enjoy dealing with each other.

Before Reynolds and Fisher devastated their fans with their abrupt deaths, they had endurd plenty of heartbreak themselves. As much as they try to face life with humor, it is clear the entire family is hurt deeply by things like the lack of support for a Hollywood Museum to house Reynold's massive costume and prop collection. Todd tears up while talking about the eventual auction of the increasingly expensive-to-maintain artifacts, well aware that parting with these items broke his mother's heart.

It is also difficult to watch Fisher manage her varied relationships with her aging parents. In a 2010 clip, she is shown with her dying father, the singer Eddie Fisher, finally connecting with him as she has wished to her entire life, making the heartbreaking confession that she tried to be funny as a child so he would want to be with her more often. Where her mother is concerned, she struggles because of their lifelong closeness, anticipating the inevitable result of her declining health. Watching her collapse in tears because she fears for her mother's well-being and dignity as she accepts a lifetime achievement award from the Screen Actor's Guild, the acid-tongued superstar becomes painfully relatable and you see how much strain remains behind the scenes in show business.

Those moments of vulnerability are in great contrast to Fisher's wise-cracking, foul-mouthed persona. Her wildly decorated house, which features an impressively-endowed lion's rear end sticking out of a wall, joke signs on every surface, and even the massive image of a Prozac pill embedded in the kitchen floor, begin to seem like a defense against the pain she has faced and an expression of her own exhaustion with her intense personality.

Reynolds also allows the cameras to glimpse her at low moments. Though she seems hardwired to keep on smiling, she isn't afraid to admit to her grief, like when she barely holds off tears while presenting items in her memorabilia collection that are for sale. Though her body is giving out on her, she insists on living the life that her spirit craves, and as she shoots across a Vegas casino floor in her Little Rascal, a determined look on her face, you can't help but be impressed by the power she finds in sheer will.

It was often difficult to watch Bright Lights. I'm still getting used to the idea of these two being gone. It is heartbreaking to see the family and friends who love them and know the loss they would be experiencing a year later. But what a gift it is to have this film to remind us of why we love them.

In Theaters: La La Land (2016)

La La Land deserves awards, perhaps not all the awards, but it is worthy of praise. As a classic movie fan, it's amazing to be able to see a nicely-executed new musical with a passion for the productions of the past, filmed on 35mm, splashed across the screen in a theater. With a score reminiscent of the wistful and dreamy music Michel Legrand wrote for Jacques Demy films like The Young Girls of Roquefort (1967) and The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964), and the colorful production design of MGM and Fox musical classics, it does scratch that nostalgic itch to a great degree.

It is a love story, starring the charismatic if not sizzling duo of Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling. She is Mia, an aspiring actress slogging through disappointing auditions for small parts in cop shows and cheesy dramas. He is Sebastian, a jazz pianist who dreams of opening his own club, though he currently pays the bills playing Christmas carols in a restaurant. They meet ugly in a brief moment of road rage, but after several more encounters, they give in to their respective charms and become deeply smitten with each other. They love deeply, but struggle to keep their relationship strong as they pursue their dreams.

Mia and Sebastian live in a pretty LA, free of garbage and sidewalk encampments. Gosling dances down a sparkling clean pier, remarkably free of bird droppings. It's all bathed in soothing shades of blue, green and pink. No one is supposed to have money, but everyone is impeccably dressed. It is the setting of one of those strange, but peaceful dreams you might have before waking.

I didn't go into La La Land expecting Gosling and Stone to perform at the level of the artists in classic Hollywood musicals, but it was hard not to feel let down nevertheless. While I realize the golden age of musicals has passed, are there really no triple threats out there anymore? It is possible to act your way through a song though, even with vocal limitations, and that is what these two have done to satisfying effect.

Dancing is trickier, and it is here where Gosling and Stone are weakest. Watching them, I was reminded of a fantasy sequence in Pal Joey (1957) where Kim Novak and Rita Hayworth are dancing side-by-side. The identical choreography makes the difference in their skill levels clear. Novak executes all the moves and stays on the beat, but there's no artistry. On the other hand, trained dancer Hayworth writhes with sensual fluidity, feeling the dance as much as she is following choreography. This is where our leads fall short: you can hear them counting in their head, doing their best to simply pull it off. There's no extension of the arms, no emotion within the movement; they don't have the posture or bearing of dancers. There's just no faking the work that goes into that kind of technique.

La La Land is tidy and precise to an almost excessive extent. There's never a true sense of peril; no feeling that if these characters don't find their way, they are finished. You always see they have a wide safety net, and at the very least they will end up okay. Living their dreams isn't a matter of life or death for them. Their quarrels even seem to glide along familiar, near reassuring rails. Even the glossiest of classic musicals had that passion of do or die.

As a fan of classic Hollywood it is impossible to ignore these shortcomings. Despite them, in many ways I felt La La Land spoke my language. There's the posters of Ingrid Bergman looming over Mia in her apartment, the first date at a repertory theater to see Rebel Without A Cause (1955) and the progression of that meeting to the observatory that was featured in the film. Getting lost in it is pleasurable, particularly for those moments that speak to lovers of the classics.

Ultimately, I succumbed to the beauty La La Land had to offer. The music is lovely; the production design is colorful and sensuously appealing and Gosling and Stone give their characters more depth and emotion than is on the page. To enjoy it, you essentially have to give yourself up to it and accept it on its own terms. Then the romance blooms, and the world it creates becomes a place to live the dream of the perfect artistic life. I found it to be a lovely escape, though I admit that when I went home and bought the soundtrack, I also purchased a few tunes from Michel Legrand's score for The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.

Deanna Durbin Sings Silent Night

I watch this scene from Lady on a Train (1945) every year, because it gives me a feeling of peace that I feel should be a part of the season, but because of the chaos of celebration and preparation often isn't. Now in an increasingly chaotic world, I find it even more comforting and inspiring. I hope Deanna Durbin knew how much joy she spread by simply sharing her voice.

Happy Holidays, Solstice, New Year or whatever it is that inspires you to eat, drink and be merry. Thank you for reading.

Flicker Alley: Clara Bow and Gary Cooper in Children of Divorce (1927)

To contemplate Clara Bow and Gary Cooper together onscreen is to fear these irresistibly watchable stars will cancel each other out. After all, what else could happen when two performers who consistently steal scenes in other films appear with each other? In the 1927 silent Children of Divorce, nothing quite that dramatic happens, it's pure pleasure to see them together. Now the film is available in its DVD/Blu-ray world premiere, in what is also the 50th release for the always meticulous Flicker Alley.

Bow, Cooper and Ralston are Kitty, Ted and Jean, childhood friends who have all suffered because their parents divorced and then essentially abandoned them, both physically and emotionally. They grow up fragile, but determined to avoid the mistakes of their progenitors. Instead, they make entirely different, more complicated missteps.

Kitty is in love with Ludovic (Einar Hanson), but he hasn't got enough money to keep her the way she pleases. Ted has money, but he and Jean are in love. Disregarding her friend's happiness, Kitty tricks a drunken Ted into marriage, and while he is disgusted by her actions, she eventually has the child that the more maternally yearning Jean desires. Of course there are consequences for her actions.

It's a lousy plot, but you don't realize it until the film is over. This is mostly due to the mesmerizing presence of its stars. With Cooper, you can't look away because you always wonder what thoughts are fluttering beneath those bashful giraffe eyelashes. When it comes to Bow, the opposite is true; every flicker across her face tells you exactly how she is feeling. Sometimes it is enchanting; occasionally it makes you feel like you've been socked in the gut.

This is not to short-change Ralston either. While she clearly doesn't have the charisma of her costars, she is charismatic. Her reassuringly thoughtful presence perfectly suits her role as a woman who yearns for a peaceful, maternal life.

The film is visually in tune with the emotions of its core trio, primarily due to a switch in vision. Credited director Frank Lloyd (Cavalcade [1930]) started with the production, but didn't draw compelling performances from his leads. The uncredited Josef von Sternberg was enlisted to film a sort of remake after hours, and was particularly effective in getting a heart wrenching performance from Bow, leading the director to speculate on how well she could do if Paramount Studios gave her better material. But that was not to be.

Children of Divorce has been restored by the Library of Congress from an original nitrate negative and a 1969 fine grain master in its holdings. While there was too much deterioration for a pristine restoration, it's impressive how sharp and clear the image generally is. For a brief moment in one scene the damage to the film was too severe to be repaired, and you are reminded of how fragile film is and how fortunate film fans are to have access to it at all, let alone an often quite beautiful print.

Special features include a booklet with an excerpt from David Stenn's biography of Bow, and notes about the music, making and restoration of the film. Also included: the 1999 television documentary Clara Bow: Discovering the "It" Girl, which is heartbreaking, but inspires a greater appreciation of what the actress had to offer.

Many thanks to Flicker Alley for providing a copy of the film for review.

Top 7 Favorite Classic Film Books of 2016

I reviewed twenty-three classic film books this year, and I found something to love about all of them. It wasn't easy to pick favorites! These seven were true stand-outs, because they brought something new to the table or elaborated on familiar stories and legends about the golden age of cinema in an interesting way.

The titles for each pick link to my original reviews, each of which are excerpted below:

Harlan Lebo helps you to understand just how astounding the circumstances surrounding this legendary film were, from its filming to the controversy that surrounded its release. Welles' RKO contract gave him freedom that few filmmakers before or since have had and he also faced greater pressures when his masterful debut offended one of the most powerful men in the nation....If there is any film that begs for an in-depth examination, it is Citizen Kane, and Lebo has been thorough in his research. It should please any fan of the film, Welles or the art of filmmaking, and fans of outrageous stories about the studio age. 

A Thousand Cuts is essentially a series of interviews with various collectors, each of them given a spotlight in which to tell their story. While many of the (mostly) men in this community know each other, and refer to one another in their talks with the authors, it is interesting that they are profiled separately, each providing their own unique take on the phenomena of collecting and its decline.... It was interesting to get a closer look at the collector side of Leonard Maltin, who is best known for his books and reviews, and the chapter in which Robert Osborne reminisces about the film collection of his friend Rock Hudson had some wry insights that made me miss his presence as a TCM host. It was also wonderful to learn more about the fastidious Kevin Brownlow and his quest to rescue Abel Gance's silent epic Napoleon (1927). These three are among the less eccentric characters in a book full of people so devoted to film that they will lie, steal and screw each other over to get the prints they want.

Elizabeth Taylor: A Private Life for Public Consumption, by Ellis Cashmore

Cashmore is an academic who writes with the zest of a seasoned entertainment reporter. His well-researched, engaging text covers several decades of popular culture, making a case for Taylor's influence and exploring other groundbreaking public figures in the rapidly changing landscape of 20th century public life, like Jackie Onassis, Princess Diana, Madonna and Michael Jackson. He follows her from screen stardom through her years as an AIDs activist and perfume mogul, and on to the actresses' continued influence after her death in 2011.

King of Jazz: Paul Whiteman's Technicolor Review, By James Layton and David Pierce

One of the best aspects of the book is that it does translate the meaning and importance of the stars, traditions and style of the film for modern audiences.Understanding these elements can increase the enjoyment of a film that otherwise can seem to zip along with little reason or form. It goes into the history of its players, placing the studio, band, performers, and Whiteman especially, in their various industries and explaining how they all came together....The book is modest in its assessment of the film. There is no claim that this rather jumbled spectacle is a universal classic in need of enormous revival. It makes a strong case for its appeal though, from the cheerful skill of its performers and the fun of seeing Bing Crosby in his first film role to the stunning designs of Herman Rosse, who won the Oscar for best Art Direction for his work on the production.

Dolce Vita Confidential: Fellini, Loren, Pucci and the Swinging High Life of 1950s Rome, by Shawn Levy

When I learned of the publication of Shawn Levy's Dolce Vita Confidential, my first thought was, "Please let him write about the time Anita Ekberg threatened the paparazzi with a bow and arrow!" Levy does chronicle this brief, amusing episode and many other sensational tales of the wild life in 1950s Rome. However, these bits of dolce indulgence sit on a solid foundation, one where I found even more intriguing storytelling and a fascinating history of a city, and country, pulling itself out of the devastation of World War II and glittering more brightly than it had before....Many of these stories were retold through Fellini's unique lens in La Dolce VitaA significant portion of the book is devoted to this influential, controversial film. The director was stunned to inspire such anger with his film and perhaps also a bit amazed by the extent of the acclaim it won as well. Upon exiting the premiere, Sophia Loren said to him, "Poor you: What do you have inside of you?"

Mary Astor's Purple Diary: The Great American Sex Scandal of 1936, By Edward Sorel

The Purple Diaries: Mary Astor and the Most Sensational Hollywood Scandal of the 1930s, By Joseph Egan

It has certainly been the year of the Purple Diary....Of the two books, Sorel's is dancing around with a lampshade for a hat; Egan's is sitting by the fireside, with a strong cocktail in hand. I love both, but if you're looking for details, the latter is where you'll find them.


These are just a few of my favorites. It has been a great year for classic film books. What are your top picks for 2016? Please share in the comments; it doesn't have to be a book published this year!

Warner Archive Blu-ray: It's Always Fair Weather (1955)

Billed as "a gigantic and joyous musical," part of the appeal of MGM's Stanley Donen-directed It's Always Fair Weather is that it often isn't that way at all. In contrast to the cheerful optimism of the studio's typical output, this film admits that life can be disappointing and that one time friends can turn out to be insufferable, though somehow it ends up shuffling away with a smile anyway. Now this television-age take on the Hollywood musical is available on Blu-ray from Warner Archive.

Gene Kelly, Dan Dailey and Michael Kidd star as Ted, Doug and Angie, a trio of soldier buddies who emerge from World War II full of hope and optimism. Downing drinks at a New York bar, they vow to meet there again in ten years, determined to keep the connection they have made.

A decade later, they keep their promise, but find they can't stand each other. Ted has stayed in New York, never settling down and barely making it as a boxing promoter; Doug has given up his artistic dreams to draw cartoon mops for television and pop pills for his stomach issues and Angie has open a restaurant called the Cordon Bleu, which despite the polish of its name is a small town burger joint. The three leave each other in disgust, but eventually find that they are ready to give their friendship another chance.

Aside from the novelty of its bitter edge, It's Always Fair Weather is special because of the variety and classic virtuosity of its musical numbers. Choreographers Donen and Kelly are clever in their use of props, enlisting garbage can lids, the curbs of set-bound city streets and even a taxi cab in a high-powered number with Kelly, Dailey and Kidd. Kelly is also exhilarating dancing on roller skates; he didn't get there first (see Astaire and Roger in Shall We Dance [1937]), but his vigor and athleticism are astonishing. And then there's Cyd Charisse dropping her mysterious leggy lady persona to be light, fun and even a little silly with a crowd of boxers in Baby, You Knock Me Out, one of her most impressively athletic dances.

All of these numbers could make a film a classic on their own, so it is amusing that it is actually Broadway star Dolores Gray, in a supporting role as a slick television hostess, who steals the show. In the show stopping, Thanks, But No Thanks, she is so charismatic and insouciantly sexy that you wonder how she could have gotten away with only making a handful of films in Hollywood. In her later years the actress herself wondered if she should have preserved more of her legacy on film, but she chose the stage, and at least we have this amazing number to console ourselves.

In 1955, studio executives were ill-at-ease about the rise of television. They responded to the phenomena by stretching films across the screen in brilliantly-colored Cinemascope, and making productions bigger, bolder and completely unlike anything television could accomplish. Here MGM tackles TV head on, trying to make it look ridiculous, from the idea of a talking mop, to the oily ways of a soda pop pitchman. That brightly-lit box wasn't going anywhere though and even on this production the studio would have to cut costs.

One number that was trimmed for budgetary reasons was a light-spirited Charisse and Kelly duo, which gives the film an odd feel since it is customary for romantic leads in a musical to pair up at least once. A rough version of that number is included in the special features on the disc, along with several other scenes, and you can see why it was cut. Instead of a sinuous coming together of lovers, it's a goofy, if utterly charming romp through a room filled with costumes. Lots of fun, but not crucial to the film. That said, it was amazing to see these two being silly together.

Other special features on the disc include a featurette about the film, two segments from the MGM Parade featuring Charisse and Kelly, a pair of cartoons (Deputy Droopy and Good Will to Men), audio of the cut song I Thought They'd Never Leave and a trailer.

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.

Book Review--The Purple Diaries: Mary Astor and the Most Sensational Hollywood Scandal of the 1930s

The Purple Diaries: Mary Astor and the Most Sensational Hollywood Scandal of the 1930s
Joseph Egan
Diversion Books, 2016

In 1936, Mary Astor was in the process of filming what was arguably her best performance in the William Wyler-directed drama Dodsworth (1936). She was a few years away from her Academy Award win and the role for which she would be most famous. She had been twice married, once widowed and once divorced. She had had many love affairs; all a part of her continuous quest for romantic sensation to compensate for a lack of emotional maturity.

Astor also had a four-year-old daughter named Marylyn and the actress's battle that year to win custody of her from ex-husband Dr. Franklyn Thorpe was front page news. This was because the Dr. had swiped Mary's candid, and steamy private diaries and hoped to use them as evidence against her. In a new book, Joseph Egan explores this explosive trial and the events surrounding it.

It has certainly been the year of the Purple Diary. Back in September I reviewed artist Edward Sorel's saucy, heavily-illustrated take on the trial.  His is a more personal, playful perspective. Of the two books, Sorel's is dancing around with a lampshade for a hat; Egan's is sitting by the fireside, with a strong cocktail in hand. I love both, but if you're looking for details, the latter is where you'll find them.

Egan takes Mary's story from the beginning, which makes sense, because in understanding her life, it is easy to see how she ended up on a witness stand begging for her child. The actress didn't have a strong family foundation. Her father was overbearing and abusive; her mother cold. Once they realized they could make money off of their pretty daughter, they pushed her into the movies and lived richly off her salary.

An affair with Beau Brummel (1924) costar John Barrymore introduced Astor to sex as a way to fulfill her emotional needs. The actor could not tear her away from her overbearing parents, but he planted a seed and eventually she freed herself, sneaking away in the middle of the night and eventually greatly reducing the amount they skimmed from her paycheck. Many affairs would follow, and eventually a sexually bland marriage to director Kenneth Hawkes, who died in a plan crash after two years of marriage.

Astor's second marriage, to Thorpe, would ultimately be even less satisfying, with both relying on affairs with others to satisfy their needs. Turned off by her husband's cruelty and dependence on her salary, the actress found solace in a steamy romance with playwright George S. Kaufman. She shared her experiences and emotions in detailed diary entries, written in brown ink that would look like purple from a distance, hence the name it got in the press.

Astor with baby Marylyn
After months of fighting, threatening divorce and relenting, Astor finally decided she had to be free. Thorpe didn't take it well. He stole the diary, hypocritically threatened to expose her affairs and bullied her into giving him full custody of their daughter Marylyn. Due to a busy studio schedule, Mary had little time to spend with her child, but she loved her desperately and was heartbroken to lose control of her upbringing, despite the fact the Dr. gave her extensive physical custody.

Astor bided her time, and a year after the divorce she decided to go to court. She was aware that the potential exposure of her diaries could ruin her career, but she didn't care. The actress wanted her daughter more than anything else.

Astor with Marylyn and son Tono (from her marriage to playboy Manuel del Campo) in 1944
Egan tells Astor's story with smooth efficiency. He captures important nuances, facts and emotions, but he doesn't weigh his narrative down with unnecessary details. The players in this drama are fleshed out like characters in a play, among them the angry Dr.; the brave, but emotionally damaged Astor; her Dodsworth co-star Ruth Chatterton, who risked her own reputation to sit near her in support at the trial; and Mary's clever lawyer Roland Rich Woolley, who read people so well they could never tell he was manipulating them until it was too late.

The trial and the surrounding drama makes up the bulk of the book, and it is exhausting in its twists and turns. It is astounding to think that for most of the trial Astor was working on Dodsworth during the day and in the courtroom in the evening. No wonder she looks so weary in photos from that time.

Egan takes you into that courtroom, describing the spectators so determined to keep their seats that they would bring lunches to eat on breaks, the expressions of Thorpe, Mary and those who supported them as revelations were made and the exasperation of presiding Judge Knight, who felt the whole thing undignified, overextended and an enduring threat to the sanity of young Marylyn. He writes about Mary's friends sitting with her, Ruth Chatterton chewing gum and Florence Eldridge (wife of Fredric March) smoking a cigarette and you really get a sense of how it felt to be in that room.

I also loved the way the photos in the book were arranged for maximum enhancement of the text. Often when I'm reading, I find myself going online to find images to clarify the text. I never had to do that while reading this book. Every time I wondered what somebody looked like, or even how they looked in a certain moment, I'd flip the page and find the image I wanted. When visuals are approached effectively, they can increase the power of a book exponentially.

This was an interesting read, revealing as much about the people involved as the trial they endured. And Astor did endure. In a few years she played her most memorable role as Brigid O'Shaughnessy in the Maltese Falcon (1941), she'd win an Academy Award for The Great Lie (1941) and there were several years of movie and television roles to come. She tried marriage two more times, and emotionally she would always struggle, never completely finding her way to true human warmth and affection, but she knew how to take care of herself and ultimately came to a graceful end.

I understand and respect Mary Astor a lot more than I did before.

Many thanks to Diversion Books for providing a copy of the book for review.

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