Saturday, 11 August 2012

Bhowani Junction (1956)

WARNING! Spoiler Alert.

George Cukor's 1956 picture Bhowani Junction takes place during the time where India no longer wanted to be ruled under the British after the Second World War. It follows the work of the British army trying to keep order (and not in the most humane ways) against the rebelling Indians who protest against the British rule.

Cukor tries desperately to make this a true telling of the plight of the Indian people's fight for independence, and in many ways he achieves this. There are some fantastic scenes which show hundreds of Indians protesting and being forced back by the British either by threat of violence, or, as in one scene involving a train protest, by throwing sewage water on the protestors. The scenes which highlighted the mistreatment of Indians were done well and being a Brit myself, I did feel embarrassed if this was actually true. However, like so many of Hollywood's films where they try to show a strong political or moral message, it slowly falls into the background of the film, whilst the focus centres on the two leading characters, and their romance.

I was looking forward to seeing Ava Gardner in this film as I knew it would be a more demanding role, that she says herself in her autobiography was emotionally exhausting (i.e. the attempted rape scene). She played Victoria - a woman born in India, to an Indian mother and a British father - you see where this is going don't you? All her life, Victoria has felt that she belonged nowhere due to her dual heritage - to Indians she is British, to the British she is India - and with the political situation in India at the time, she finds this conflict between both sides of her heritage inside her hit its peak. Gardner is convincing as being part-Indian/part-British, and she does convey the conflicting feelings she is enduring very well. I do not think this is her at her best however, I think she does better in Mogambo (1953). Some scenes were particularly strong from her, like when she cannot bare to watch the Indian protestors be covered in sewage, when she cannot go through with her Sikh wedding, and a good few scenes where she has a go at certain British officers - I would not want to have gotten on the wrong side of Ava Gardner after seeing this picture! The attempted rape scene is done very well, taking place on the night of backlash after the sewage incident, and many Indians begin rioting, causing chaos and setting fire to buildings. No British person is safe that night, but of course Victoria walks home alone anyway. It is very dark and she is completely alone walking by the railway line. There is total silence except for footsteps, and even I was scared for her - walking home alone in the dark is a horrible and scary experience, you feel totally paranoid and on edge, and I think Cukor and Gardner pulled this one off magnificently.

There are a few more of Ava's films from the late 1950s I want to see as I have heard that they are more demanding of her talents. She also looks lovely here but noticeably older. I know Ava loved to dance and drink all night around the clubs of LA, and I don't blame her for loving that lifestyle. But I do wonder if it's already beginning to show in her face in Bhowani Junction. She still looks strikingly beautiful, and we know that although Colonel Rodney Savage (Stewart Granger) is rude and dismissive with her at the beginning, that he will fall in love with her by the end of the picture.

Stewart Granger is not highly talked about in film today, but I must say I do like him a lot. I may have only seen him in the terrible Rita Hayworth picture Salome (1953) where he played a handsome Roman solider, even though he was not given the best part, he was definitely one of the better elements of the film. In Bhowani he is very good. He seems like a really strict, no-nonsense English colonel. He gives orders expecting them to be obeyed, and sticks to his plans without a care of whom objects. This is all given with great authority and a good deal of presence, which I hadn't seen in Granger before, also allowing for his harsh scenes with the Indian protestors all the more effective, because he is believable. Granger looks super handsome in this role as well.

Granger's character Col. Savage is very hostile towards Indians, including Victoria (Gardner), whom he is incredibly rude to during the first half of the picture. Of course, true to Hollywood form, when Victoria realises that she cannot be totally Indian or any single one of her nationalities, Savage is the one there who understands and comforts her. He even rescues her from interrogation surrounding her near rape. Even though this situation is very Hollywood-ey, it is not unrealistic at all, in fact, it is a very believable romance that builds nicely and steadily throughout the film. You can see straight from the beginning that although these characters are very different: one is very one-sided in his tactics and a total professional, whilst the other understands both sides and is from both sides, so they are inevitably going to clash. But at the same time, this enormous difference between them underlies huge similarities and a mutual understanding, and eventually they find each other. I did wonder whether Savage at the beginning was just being a professional and following his orders, and not letting a beautiful woman like Victoria distract him from his duty, however he gradually gets to know her, and her him, and so the romance blooms.

This love story is ruined slightly by the film's very abrupt ending. After Savage has successfully stopped an Indian rebel 'bad guy' who tried to blow up the train Mahatma Gandhi was travelling on (a pretty serious and interesting addition to the narrative) he is sent back to England. The love story then takes on a cheesy and highly unbelievable turn when we take into account the characters journeys we just witnessed for two hours. I think it would have been more realistic if Victoria went back to England with Savage, as India hadn't worked out for her, and he was the only person she felt she belonged with. Instead, she says that she has to stay (even though she doesn't fit in there, surely try some place else?) to which Savage, who has shown himself to be a strong character goes all gooey and dah-dah, declaring that he will come to India for her and how happy they will be. After saying goodbye to her on the train platform, he tells a fellow colleague of this romance, to which the colleague says he will put in a good word so that he can move back to India sooner. All of this happens in the space of five minutes by the way, and I think it's quickness is so that we cannot dwell on the fairytale and unbelievability of it all.

All in all, a decent film - I'd give it 3.5/5 - between worth a watch and very good. Many critics will disagree with me, but I enjoyed it more than I expected too (perhaps Granger's handsome face had something to do with that!). A lovely and believable romance until the finale, with two solid leads, and a good telling of the fight for independence by the people of India during that time. If it's on television one afternoon and you have nothing else to do, give it a go, I'm sure you will enjoy it.

Sunday, 5 August 2012

Marilyn to me.

Shining platinum blonde curls, porcelain white skin, big light blue eyes, full red lips, and a million dollar smile. This is the face of Marilyn Monroe, the most famous woman of the 20th Century, and one of the most idolised people the world has ever seen. So many have tried to emulate her, and are still trying to emulate her - whether it be donning her hairstyle or copying one of her iconic photographs. There has been so much written on her in biographies, magazines, and so much said about her in documentaries, and yet the world still cannot get enough of Marilyn Monroe. Today is the 50th anniversary of her death on 5th August 1962, and the year building up to this date has included an Oscar-nominated film on the star, not to mention countless advertisements using her image, as well as many celebrities donning the Marilyn 'look.'

I am not a fashion giant, and I am not a film director, but I am a fan of Marilyn, and have been since I was 15 years old. My tribute to Marilyn is in the following words, instead of a video like I usually do...

Six years ago I was a self-conscious young girl, like many teenage girls are, and I was just starting to take interest in classic Hollywood. I had been watching the films of Audrey Hepburn, Rita Hayworth, and Marlene Dietrich, and one Christmas day, after catching Some Like It Hot (1959) on television, I decided to start watching the films of Marilyn Monroe. I bought two big boxsets, as well as individual DVDs, and watched them all.

What struck me first about Marilyn was that she was even more beautiful than everyone had made out. But what really amazed me about her was her talent for comedy. I could not stop laughing at her performance in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953) where she plays gold-digger with a heart of gold, Lorelei Lee. She was so superbly innocent, but adorably crafty in finding rich husbands for herself and her best friend Dorothy Shaw (Jane Russell - who is also brilliant here). Fabulously glamorous and elegant, she walked with a poise and attitude that lit up the room - every inch the movie star. I personally loved the points in the film where she was angry with either her fiancee Danny, or Dorothy's love interest - Gus. She would always retort to their remarks and accusations in a fierce and superior way, that was authoritative but subtle at the time.

My favourite Marilyn performance has to be in The Seven Year Itch (1955). I hate that people describe her as playing the blonde bimbo because there was so much more to Marilyn's characters than that, especially here. Her performance was an incredible mix of naiive and innocent, but sensual too. Not many could have played a convincing performance of the world's sexiest woman not understanding the Tom Ewell was making romantic advances towards her. Like Marilyn said, 'If I play a stupid girl, and ask a stupid question, I've got to follow it through. What am I supposed to do, look intelligent?' Marilyn played every character as they were supposed to be played, so to call her performances in Blondes and Itch stupid is basically commending her on her convincing portrayals. What I really love about Marilyn here is she makes it look so easy - she is effortlessly sexy, alluring, and more radiant than anyone else could be. The majority of actresses who I have seen playing the "blonde bimbo" role all look like they are trying too hard, like they are trying to do what Marilyn did, but the difference is they are playing a bimbo, Marilyn was not, and I think anyone who says differently has completely misunderstood Monroe's performances, or they just don't like her. To put it plainly, Marilyn was naturally talented and alluring.

Although I believe Marilyn's strength and talent was in comedy, she was a very good dramatic actress. Of course she wasn't Bette Davis or Barbara Stanwyck, but they weren't Marilyn either. In an early film of hers called Don't Bother To Knock (1952) she plays a mentally fragile babysitter and although there are parts of her performance where she isn't quite polished (revealing the infancy of her craft) there are many moments where she genuinely seems like a troubled, lost young woman trying desperately for some normality. Later in the film Bus Stop (1956) she has really developed as an actress. Her character is a young saloon singer trying to make her way to Hollywood but her plans are ruptured when she meets a young cowboy who wants to marry her. Marilyn is so moving in her portrayal of this character and in the scene where Bo (Don Murray) apologizes and makes his feelings known to her, we have a close-up of Marilyn's face and the look in her eyes is absolutely breathtaking. She slowly looks up, eyes filling with tears, and she takes a small gulp - showing that she is ready to take a chance on Bo, give up her dreams of stardom, and have a stable, happy life with him on his ranch. It is a big decision for her character, and Marilyn is solidly convincing in the role. It doesn't sound like much with my terrible phrasing but if you watch that film you will see the moment I am speaking of and be moved to tears.

Considering how much stick Marilyn has gotten for her acting ability over the years, when you actually look back at her roles you can see what a lot of rubbish those jibes were. She played the femme fatale character very commendably in Niagara (1953) and gave an unusually intriguing performance to her saloon singer Kay Weston in River of No Return (1954) -  the way Marilyn sings the title song is heartbreakingly full of depth and emotion, she sounds like she has lost the love of her life for good, like her character. Even in the Oscar-winning masterpiece All About Eve (1951) with a cast abundant with acting greats like Bette Davis, Ann Baxter and George Sanders, she held her own and stood out - an unknown actress then. And as for the disastrous The Prince and the Showgirl (1957) she is the only good element about the film, not even Sir Laurence Olivier's acting and directing could save it.

As I just mentioned, Marilyn shone in her singing as much as her acting. Many praise Audrey Hepburn for her singing of 'Moon River' in Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961) - she didn't have the strongest voice in the world but she sang that song better than Frank Sinatra or Andy Williams ever could because she understood the song and was born to sing it. Marilyn had her moments like this too, with 'River of No Return' and the song she sings at the end of Some Like It Hot, 'I'm Through With Love'. There is something about the way she sings these songs that is true for every song where a singer gets it so spot on - they sing it from the heart, singing the words as if they lived through them. Marilyn could perform her big numbers like 'Diamond's Are A Girl's Best Friend,' and 'I Wanna Be Loved By You' fantastically and was a real show-stopper, but this applies to her slower numbers too.

There is one gift Marilyn possessed that I think people don't give her enough credit for - she was the most photogenic woman that ever lived. I don't mean that she always looked pretty and that the camera loved her (yes she was those things) but what is truly remarkable was that her face revealed so much inside her. If you look at some of Marilyn's photos with Ted Baron or Milton Greene, or anyone else, some show this voluptuous, smouldering siren, and others show a very different Marilyn. Some are of her at home in her garden, smiling and looking completely happy, almost childlike. Others are of her with a very serious expression, where the eyes reveal a lost girl, unhappy and lonely behind the smiles we usually see. Again, my attempt at describing the phenomenon of Marilyn and photography just sounds like jibberish, so I'll include some photos in this post to see if you understand what I mean. Her face was a sort of supernatural beauty (as Lee Strasberg once said) where the camera would click and capture the most intense shot of her and reveal her inner troubles and emotions. The only other I have known to possess this is Greta Garbo, but she is different to Marilyn. With Garbo there is a lot of mystery and unknowing, with Marilyn it's all about unmasking the star and revealing the woman. A work of art.
(Below are examples of what I mean, the blogpost continues underneath.)

Is Marilyn a good role model? People tend to think not because she was apparently promiscuous - to the people that say that, Marilyn was doing what every other actress in Hollywood was doing, and to be honest some of the iconic actresses from then who are praised for their innocence were even more "promiscuous" than Marilyn and that is a fact. There's nothing wrong with what she or anyone else did, everyone did it, but anyone who singles Marilyn out as some sort of cheap nothing could not be more wrong.

What I admired in Marilyn when I was growing up was her courage and determination. Being self-conscious and lacking in self-esteem, I read biographies on Marilyn and her achievement really inspired me. She was so nervous and self-conscious, she had no stability growing up, and no one took her seriously as an adult - but she went ahead and tried for roles in Hollywood, she became a star, she became the world's biggest star. For someone to do that against all odds is truly remarkable. When people keep trying harder and harder after every rejection or loss, and to finally achieve their dreams from their sheer determination and courage, is one of the most admirable achievements for any human being. It shows integrity and self-belief. As a young girl Marilyn's story that I read in biographies was (forgive me for sounding cheesy but it's the truth) beyond inspirational. I didn't admire Marilyn for her beauty or fashion style (although I do give her credit for her style and think she was a stunning woman) I admired her as a woman, and still do.

What is really tragic about Marilyn is not that she died young (although I do wish she had lived a long, full, and happy life), but that she lived in a time where no one gave her credit for her work. Yes she won the Golden Globe for her role in Some Like It Hot but by then it seems it was too late. The criticisms, jibes, and the fact that she did not have a stable family of her own yet, I believe, had gotten to her by the time she was finally critically acclaimed for her acting. Everybody has a breaking point, and I think post-Some Like it Hot was that point for her.

"I knew I belonged to the public and to the world, not because I was talented or even beautiful, but because I had never belonged to anything or anyone else." - This quote by Marilyn really sums up why she is the star and icon she is. She was for us. A woman who had nothing and no one, who became the world's biggest star and the most adored woman of the century. For those final years where she felt alone and unhappy, I really wish that she had been able to see the phenomenon that she became after her death. Millions of people worship her and she had inspired so many to conquer their demons and achieve their goals. There are tribute websites, groups, gatherings - everything in memory of her and they just keep getting stronger.

This is probably the most poorly written blogpost in the world right now and I'm sorry Marilyn but I think that that is a credit to you and how you are just too big for my small words. I really wish that I could phrase my feelings and thoughts on how you have helped me what a joy you are to watch on-screen, but it's impossible.

I just want to finish on this final photo (right) - my favourite photo of Marilyn. It's on the set of The Seven Year Itch - that famous scene that was cut from the movie because the crowd noises were too loud. I don't know whether it was taken before or after the iconic photo of her skirt billowing up (the most famous one, as seen in The Shawshank Redemption 1996) but if it was taken before then it makes the photo massively interesting and magical. This photo is haunting - it's mostly black but still revealing the shape of crowds and photographers. Marilyn is alone in the middle, looking beautiful, glamorous and ethereal. For me this photo is of the moment where Marilyn became an icon - it's as if a goddess was born at the moment this picture was taken - with the strange lighting, the way she shines so brightly against everything else. I see this photo as the moment Marilyn transformed from screen siren, to movie goddess and cultural icon - but with that I also think it sort of signifies her premature death. She looks so alone in the midst of everything, but she also looks angelic, to me this photo shows that she was not meant to be here long, she was too perfect and too wonderful. Put simply, she is a star that shone too brightly for this world.

This may all sound like childish drivel of an obsessed fan but this is what Marilyn means to me. She was not the best actress in film and she is not my favourite actress, but she was a gifted actress, and an inspirationally strong woman. I hope that wherever she is right now, she can see how loved she is and how inspiring she has been to so many people. You helped me get through my latter teen years Marilyn. I wish I could go back in time and thank you personally - from the bottom of my heart.

This is Marilyn, to me.