Sunday, March 19, 2023

SXSW: Being Mary Tyler Moore


Directed by James Adolphus and co-produced by Lena Waithe, Being Mary Tyler Moore is a new documentary that shines a spotlight on one of the most influential and iconic women of the 20th Century. The impact of Mary Tyler Moore on the entertainment industry cannot be understated. She really molded the image of the modern American woman with her performances in The Dick Van Dyke Show and The Mary Tyler Moore Show. She became a household name and a role model for independent working women. Behind the scenes, she struggled with the tragic deaths of her sister and her son, a miscarriage and diabetes. She maintained a sense of optimism despite her struggles and found much joy in her later years with her third husband Dr. Robert Levine and her animals that she tended to on her sprawling estate in Greenwich, Connecticut.

I had the pleasure of attending the world premiere of Being Mary Tyler Moore at the 2023 SXSW Film and TV Festival. This documentary was the third I had seen at the festival in which the entire film is comprised of archival footage. The other two were The Lady Bird Diaries (my review) and Love to Love You, Donna Summer (my review). In Being Mary Tyler Moore, the viewer is treated to clips from Moore’s television shows and movies, home video and one particular long-form interview she did in which she discussed her career and personal struggles. The documentary also features audio of interviews with her husband Robert Levine as well as Rob Reiner, Ed Asner and several of her friends and colleagues who knew her well. I think it would have been nice to have talking heads and to actually see the interview subjects discuss Mary Tyler Moore. There was a bit of a disconnect seeing so many visual elements but not actually putting faces to names. From the post-film discussion, it was said that the decision was made to lean into the archival footage, much of which showcases Moore's unique personality and talents while also more intimate moments. Because Mary Tyler Moore is no longer with us, the footage was a way for her to tell her own story.

All three archival documentaries I watched had several things in common—one in particular was that the respective families was involved in the making of the films. While this will ultimately lead to some bias in the other two documentaries, I didn’t feel it affected Being Mary Tyler Moore. The film really didn’t shy away from the darker elements of Moore’s life. It also felt more celebratory than protective. For those who are interested in Moore’s work outside television, her films Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967), What’s So Bad About Feeling Good? (1968), and Ordinary People (1980) were all discussed to some extent. The documentary also covers her stage work and her early career as a dancer.

Being Mary Tyler Moore is an intimate tribute to a legend. A must-watch for Mary Tyler Moore fans as well as anyone who enjoys biographical documentaries about interesting women.

The film is distributed by HBO and will be released later this year. You can find more information about on HBO's official website

A big thank you to SXSW for the opportunity to attend the world premiere!

The Classic Film Collective: Olivia de Havilland: Lady Triumphant

 This was originally published in the former The Classic Film Collective Patreon.

Olivia de Havilland: Lady Triumphant
by Victoria Amador
University Press of Kentucky
Paperback ISBN: 9780813154657
404 pages

Olivia de Havilland lived 104 glorious years and was the last of the great movie stars from the golden age of Hollywood to shuffle off their mortal coil. There’s something quite romantic about De Havilland’s life story. She lived gracefully, embracing age and change while remaining true to herself. 

De Havilland starred in one of the most celebrated and most controversial films of all time, Gone With the Wind, fought Warner Bros. for her freedom, earned 5 Academy Award nominations including 2 wins, evolved as an actress, raised two children and lived out the majority of her final decades in her adopted country of France. De Havilland had a penchant for champagne, flowers, and pups and would often be seen in a flowy caftan and with her hair in an elegant chignon. She had her share of adversity. She was the child of divorce, divorced twice herself, saw her son battle Hodgkin's Lymphoma and had a long feud with her actress sister Joan Fontaine. De Havilland had maintained an air of mystery throughout most of her life. She was fiercely private and independent. She made decisions that best suited her even if it meant her legacy would not equal her acting peers. She was her own person through and through. With all of her achievements and the strife that came with living, Olivia de Havilland proved to be a “lady triumphant.”

This is the nickname author Victoria Amador gives to Olivia de Havilland in her biography on the late great star. Olivia de Havilland: Lady Triumphant is now available in paperback from the University Press of Kentucky, updated to acknowledge de Havilland’s death in 2020. It’s a critical look specifically at de Havilland’s acting career but also goes into depth about her early years in Japan, life with her parents Walter and Lilian, her step-father, her fraught relationship with her sister Joan, her many romances, her living legacy as a star and her transition to a quiet life in France. The book begins with what I think is one of the best introductions I’ve ever read. Victoria Amador recounts her 40+ year correspondence with the star which began when the author was a young and curious fan in the late 1960s and eventually led to their meeting several times in Paris. It’s a thrilling story and the highlight of the book. 

Amador references de Havilland’s letters, which she kept over the decades, throughout the book as source material. There are also references to many sources including other biographical texts, DVD commentaries, information from de Havilland’s bestie TCM’s Robert Osborne and de Havilland’s own memoir Every Frenchman Has One. In the last four decades of de Havilland’s life, she had been chipping away at her own autobiography. Her memoir only captures a bit of her story and this would be more encompassing. It wasn’t published in her lifetime but maybe someone will be able to cobble together a book worthy of the star in the future. In the meantime, this biography is as close as we’ll get for now.

The biography follows de Havilland’s journey as an actress from her debut in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, to her contract with Warner Bros., her triumph as Melanie in Gone With the Wind, being subsequently miscast in many films at her studio, breaking free and venturing out as an independent player. The author discusses each film at length demonstrating how she fared in her performance and what significance the film had both personally and professionally. I do recommend going into this book having seen the majority of de Havilland’s films. There are spoilers galore and I found myself skipping a few sections so I can watch those films later. Some films discussed at length include her eight films with Errol Flynn, Gone with the Wind, Hold Back the Dawn, In This Our Life, Government Girl, The Dark Mirror, The Snake Pit, Light in the Piazza, Hush... Hush, Sweet Charlotte and more.

As far as personal matters go, the book does clarify details about her romantic relationship with frequent co-star Errol Flynn and with other beaus including John Huston, Howard Hughes, Jimmy Stewart and more. The author does go into depth about her sibling rivalry with Joan Fontaine, which was more like sibling ambivalence. A whole chapter is devoted to that subject. I was particularly interested to learn more about de Havilland’s later years. I was thrilled to learn that Oscar, her pug puppy, gave her so much joy that he may have extended her life. She was a great lover of books and at the end she was having classic film biographies read to her.

This is a wonderful book. If you don’t mind spoilers, a bit of repetition and some inherent bias, it truly is a gem of a biography.

Here are some of my favorite quotes from the book. Enjoy!

“Olivia’s contract with Warner was the pathway to everything she desired–an intelligent career, an opportunity to learn, exposure to the wider artistic community, financial security, and self-determination.” — Victoria Amador

“For her part, Olivia was through having her career controlled by men. In fact, “on discovering that studio policy required that a script designated for production be first sent to makeup where the department head estimated the number of makeup people required for the project . . . [Olivia] would casually enter the department and sneak out a script or two at a time. She would read them overnight and surreptitiously return them the next morning.” — Victoria Amador

“It was the character of Melanie that attracted me most, because of her admirable qualities and the values that meant so much to her and meant so much to me. I wanted to perpetuate these values. And the perfect way to do that of course would be to play the part of Melanie.” — Olivia de Havilland

“I was not really interested in playing either in French films or in the French theatre, because doing so would have changed the strictly personal life I had made here, one for which I had a profound need.”— Olivia de Havilland

“‘Motion picture acting is a marvelous way for women to have careers. Without understanding what they were doing, they stood as a kind of symbol of women’s liberation, I suppose. They were totally self-reliant, self-sustaining women." — Olivia de Havilland

Sunday, March 5, 2023

The Classic Film Collective: Laura by Vera Caspary

 This was originally published in the former The Classic Film Collective Patreon.

by Vera Caspary
The Feminist Press
Paperback ISBN: 9781558615052
256 pages

“You have so many friends, your life is so full, you’re always surrounded by people.” – Mark McPherson 
Laura: “It’s when you have friends that you can afford to be lonely. When you know a lot of people, loneliness becomes a luxury. It’s only when you’re forced to be lonely that it’s bad.” – Laura Hunt

Any film noir enthusiast will attest that Laura (1944), is one of the finest noirs of the era. It offers viewers an engrossing story, an air of sophistication, a couple of delicious plot twists and plenty of wit. Then there is the quartet of main players: Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb), the bored aristocrat, Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews), the sensitive police detective, Shelby Carpenter (Vincent Price), the spoiled Southern gigolo, and caught in the middle is the least femme fatale of all the femme fatale: Laura Hunt (Gene Tierney). Laura is the murder victim until she’s not and through both her absence and her presence we learn a lot about her as an individual and the men who want to possess her.

The story was born out of the imagination of Vera Caspary, a writer who was no stranger to Hollywood. In her lifetime she wrote 19 books and out of her novels, original screenplays, theatrical plays and other writing contributions, 24 film adaptations were made. Some of these include: Working Girls (1931), Letter to Three Wives (1949), The Blue Gardenia (1953), and Les Girls (1957). Caspary was particularly interested in writing about working women, like herself, and her stories dealt with themes of identity, romantic relationships, personal independence and crime. She didn’t consider herself a mystery writer and preferred to focus on character development and plot structure than genre form. According to writer A.B. Emrys, “Her novels revolve around women who are menaced, but who turn out to be neither mere victimized dames nor rescued damsels. Independence is the key to survival of such protagonists as Laura…”

Laura was written during WWII but its decidedly not at all influenced by the war. In fact, Caspary had spent much time exploring her political beliefs (she dappled in Communism which led her to be graylisted during the red scare), and decided she wanted a break from politics in order to return to writing. Laura started as a theatrical play and an original screenplay. When neither of those sold, Caspary wrote Laura as a novel. It was serialized in seven parts in Collier magazine and then published by Houghton Mifflin. Otto Preminger learned about the novel and presented it to Darryl F. Zanuck, with whom he had a long time feud, in order to get 20th Century Fox to acquire the film rights, which they did.

Caspary’s novel is divided into five parts, each giving the perspective of one of the four main characters before returning back to the police detective’s investigation:

Part 1 - Waldo Lydecker’s POV
Part 2 - Mark McPherson’s POV
Part 3 - Shelby Carpetner’s POV - as told through a police interrogation.
Part 4 - Laura’s POV
Part 5 - Mark McPherson’s POV

The film adaptation follows the book quite closely with some key differences. Lydecker is described as a middle-aged man who is overweight, pale and has lost his appetite due to the stress of the criminal investigation. He’s decidedly more biting with his remarks in the book than in the film. Clifton Webb really steals the show with his performance as Lydecker. Laird Cregar, who would have fit the novel’s characterization of Lydecker more closely, was considered for the role but Preminger thought his ominous presence would give away a key plot point.

Gene Tierney is as exactly as Caspary has Lydecker describe her in the book: “She was a slender thing, timid as a fawn and fawn-like, too, in her young uncertain grace. She had a tiny head, delicate for even that thin body, and the tilt of it along with the bright shyness of her slightly oblique dark eyes further contributed to the sense that Bambi had escaped from the forest and galloped up the eighteen flights to this apartment.” Her POV is strong and definitely the highlight of the book.

Mark McPherson isn’t much different than Dana Andrews’ role except that he’s more imaginative and his investment in Laura comes more from his thought process than his actions. The biggest different in characterization can be seen with Shelby Carpenter, who they indeed softened in order to give Vincent Price a much more friendly on-screen part. The novel’s Shelby is an insufferable cad. In fact, when I got to his POV I groaned loudly but lucky his part is reduced to a single chapter. Diane Redfern, the story’s true femme fatale and ultimate victim, plays a stronger part in the novel but like in the film, is never actually seen.

Caspary does a wonderful job exploring the male-female dynamic. She tackles misogyny, gender roles and obsession with clarity and confidence. It’s clear that each of the men sees Laura as an extension of themselves and their individual quests to gain complete control of her all fail in some respect. At several points in the novel, Caspary explores how a woman evolves into herself by her relationship with others, particularly men. But this also happens to men too. Laura is being molded by the men in her life but she is also molding them. It’s as though it takes group effort to blossom into the person you’re going to become. And because these characters are so dependent on each other for personal growth, there is a possessiveness that comes from that.

Laura by Vera Caspary is currently available as a stand-alone book from The Feminist Press or part of the Library of America’s Women Crime Writers anthology. You can borrow the stand-alone book from your local library through Overdrive. It’s a fantastic read and I highly recommend you check it out if you can.

I leave you know with a few of my favorite quotes from the book:

“Her flatter was never shallow. She found the real qualities and made them important. Surface faults and affections fell away like false friends at the approach of adversity.” – Waldo Lydecker
“I thought of my mother and how she had talked of a girl’s giving herself too easily. Never give yourself, Laura, she’d say, never give yourself to a man… That is why I have given so much of everything else; myself I have always withheld.” – Laura Hunt
“You are not dead, Laura; you are a violent, living, bloodthirsty woman.” – Waldo Lydecker

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