Thursday, January 7, 2010

Willful Women of the World

For years, many people thought that a romance or marriage resulted from a man's choice of the woman best suited to become his spouse. Women who took the initiative to steer a romance toward the altar (much less propose to the groom) were considered shameless hussies.

As we all know, some men are completely clueless. How many marriages have you seen in which, if the woman didn't choreograph and micromanage her relationship with her husband, nothing would ever get done? There are times when a girl's gotta do what a girl's gotta do.

The suffragette movement was about a woman's right to vote. The women's liberation movement was, in many ways, about the fight for equality in the workplace and a woman's right to control decisions relating to her body.

While many a torch song has been written about a woman longing for a man's lost or unrequited love, the songs in which a woman boldly lays out a course of action to get her man form a much smaller repertoire. Consider this verse from Jule Styne and Bob Merrill's hit song, Don't Rain On My Parade, which comes at the end of Funny Girl's first act:
"I'm gonna live and live now!
Get what I want, I know how!
One roll for the whole shebang!
One throw that bell will go clang,
Eye on the target and wham,
One shot, one gunshot and bam!
Hey, Mr. Arnstein, here I am.

Get ready for me love, 'cause I'm a 'comer'
I simply gotta march, my heart's a drummer
Nobody, no, nobody, is gonna rain on my parade!"
Many songs from the Broadway literature capture a woman's determination to get her way. Consider the following:
One of my favorite songs from Jerry Bock & Sheldon Harnick's Pulitzer prize-winning musical, Fiorello! (1959), demonstrates Marie's determination not to end up a spinster. Here are the lyrics for "The Very Next Man."
"I shall marry the very next man who asks me,
You'll see.
Next time I feel
That a man's about to kneel,
He won't have to plead or implore
I'll say 'Yes' before his knee hits the floor!

No more waiting around.
No more browsing through True Romance.
I've seen the light
So, while there's a chance
I'm gonna marry the very next man who asks me.

Start rehearsing the choir
Tie some shoes on my Chevrolet.
Pelt me with rice
And catch my bouquet
I'm gonna marry the very next man.

If he adores me
What does it matter if he bores me?
If I allow the man to carry me off
No more will people try to marry me off.

No more living alone.
No more cheating at solitaire.
Holding my breath
For one special man
Why, I could smother for all he'd care.
I'm through being wary,
I'll marry the very next man.

No more daydreams for me.
Find the finest of bridal suites.
Chill the champagne
And warm up the sheets
I'm gonna marry the very next man.

And if he likes me,
Who cares how frequently he strikes me?
I'll fetch his slippers with my arm in a sling
Just for the privilege of wearing his ring.

New York papers, take note,
Here's a statement that you can quote:
Waiting for ships
That never come in
A girl is likely to miss the boat
I'm through being wary
I'll marry the very next man!"
Three new films offer a chance to examine how three powerfully-driven women have dealt with the challenge of finding the right man to suit their needs and temperament. What makes these films so interesting is the fact that each one is set in a different century, in societies that forced women to confront distinctly different issues of protocol.

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My primary reason for going to see The Young Victoria was my interest in the period costume work. Directed by Jean-Marc Vallée and produced by Sarah, Duchess of York, the film offers much more than a fairy tale about a royal romance. As its producer explains:
"The black-clad, diminutive figure who suffered racking headaches, and who had a tempestuously volatile temper, was simply not the beautiful, magical young woman who ran down the hills of Coburg with no shoes collecting wild flowers for her hair."
Not by a long shot. At the beginning of the film, we see Victoria (Emily Blunt) as a young princess who is not allowed to go up or down the stairs without holding onto someone's hand.

We see her mother, the widowed Princess Victoria, Duchess of Kent (Miranda Richardson) as a woman adrift who is being fiercely manipulated by the power-hungry comptroller of her household, Sir John Conroy (Mark Strong), who hopes to be named Regent until Victoria reaches the age of 25. Indeed, Victoria's tutor, Baroness Louise Lehzen ((Jeanette Hain), may be the only person truly looking out for the young girl's happiness while the Duchess and Conroy scheme to gain power over the throne.

Although the young Victoria has a passion for Bellini (she is seen attending a performance of I Puritani), and is deeply fond of her uncle, King William IV (Jim Broadbent) and aunt, Queen Adelaide (Harriet Walter), she has no true friends. Political vultures are quick to curry favor, knowing that when the King dies, Victoria will ascend to the throne.

Sarah, Duchess of York (who spent many years researching the period in which Victoria ruled over England with Albert by her side) was able to secure the use of several royal properties for filming. The script (written by Julian Fellowes) strives for historical accuracy. In a brilliant banquet scene, William IV loudly denounces and publicly humiliates Victoria's mother, stressing that he only prays he can live long enough for Victoria to reach her 18th birthday so that she can directly succeed him as England's ruler. According to Fellowes, about two thirds of the speech in the movie included the King's actual words.

Jim Broadbent as the aging King William IV

Meanwhile, young Victoria's other uncle, King Leopold I of Belgium (Thomas Kretschmann) has been desperately trying to find a way to exert control over the young woman. Essentially, he needs England's money and political power to shore up his own fortunes. When all else fails, he starts to train his son, the handsome Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha (Rupert Friend) to ingratiate himself with Victoria so that he can spy on the young girl.

Queen Victoria (Emily Blunt) on her coronation day

As William Lamb, 2nd Viscount Melbourne (Paul Bettany) maneuvers himself into position to become Victoria's mentor (and make sure that her household staff is comprised of partisans from his own political party), she begins to gain confidence and mature, determined that as soon as she is crowned Queen of England she will get rid of the obnoxious Conroy.

Lord Melbourne (Paul Bettany) with Victoria (Emily Blunt)

When Victoria and Albert are introduced, they quickly sense each other's loneliness and share their resentment at being treated like pawns on a political chess board. Although Albert offers his help should Victoria ever be in need, at that point she is still young, proud, and not used to having someone around who is genuinely interested in serving her desires. By the time she and Albert start to grow closer, Lord Melbourne is becoming a bit of a nuisance.

The odd piece of trivia which I did not know before seeing this movie is that once Victoria became Queen of England, no one could ask for her hand in marriage. She, instead, had to propose to the man she wanted to wed.

Albert's growing devotion soon becomes obvious and, once they are married -- Victoria starts to royally assert herself, strongly objecting to Albert;s "treating her like a woman." As the Prince Consort, he must find a way to be Victoria's husband, rather than merely being perceived as another one of the queen's "guests" in her palace.

There is much to admire in this film, particularly the costume design by Sandy Powell,production design by Patrice Vermette, and cinematography by Hagen Bogdanski. I found the scenes in which the young Queen Victoria is counseled by the Dowager Queen Adelaide to be quite touching, allowing the audience to see some of the true spine behind William IV's reign.

While much of the movie revolves around Emily Blunt's portrayal of Queen Victoria, I especially liked the performances by Rupert Friend (Prince Albert) and Harriet Walter (Queen Adelaide). Even if you come to The Young Victoria only expecting two hours of eye candy, you will be impressed by the acting, writing, and cinematography. Here's the trailer:

* * * * * * * * *
Moving from the 19th to the 20th century and across the Atlantic Ocean, the next film is based on a short story by one of the American theatre's most famous queens: Tennessee Williams. As directed by Jodie Markell, The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond clearly demonstrates that even a lesser work by Williams is better than many major works by lesser dramatists and screenwriters.

The movie begins with a flashback in which we see some men dynamiting a stretch of levee (an unfortunate move which results in the deaths of several locals). The action then jumps ahead in time as the young, beautiful, and obviously very spoiled Fisher Willow drives home from a party in Memphis.

The film's small cast of characters are all battling ghosts of their past in ways reminiscent of other Williams creations.
  • Mr. Dobyne (Will Patton) was once a very powerful figure in Mississippi. Now a disgraced alcoholic, he lives with his son in near poverty on the Willow plantation.
  • Mrs. Dobyne (Barbara Garrick) has lost her mind (she is probably suffering from Alzheimer's) and is in a state mental care facility.
  • Jimmy Dobyne (Chris Evans) is young, poor, handsome, and has a surprisingly high level of integrity. As such, he is a total misfit in polite Southern society.
  • Fisher Willow (Bryce Dallas Howard) is a rebellious young Southern woman who has just returned to Mississippi after spending a year studying abroad (while in Paris, she may have had a nervous breakdown). Fisher's return to her late father's plantation has left her feeling totally out of sync with her old way of life.
  • Cornelia (Ann-Margaret) now rules the Willow family and her brother's estate with an iron thumb.
  • Miss Addie (Ellen Burstyn), a beloved relative, has returned from the Orient after years of being addicted to opium. Now diagnosed with cancer, she is desperate to find someone who can assist her in committing suicide.
  • Vinnie (Jessica Collins) is an old friend of Jimmy's from school who still has the hots for him.
As she has grown more worldly, Fisher has been haunted by the memory of her greedy father's crimes. Polite members of Memphis society still refer to her as "the murderer's daughter." But, in order to avoid being disinherited by her aunt Cornelia, Fisher must find a young man who can accompany her to society events.

Feeling like an outcast, she determines that Jimmy Dobyne (another outcast) can fill the bill. Whether or not he is ready, willing, or able to become her escort is totally beside the point. Jimmy has nothing better to do and Fisher already knows that she can never be a typical Southern belle. She's too smart and has already sensed that, although many men may like her, no one will ever truly love her.

Bryce Dallas Howard as Fisher Willow

As one watches this film, it becomes very clear that The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond was a total labor of love. As Markell explains:
"I was intrigued by the fact that, although Williams wrote this screenplay in 1957 at the peak of his creativity and fame, he chose to set the story in the 1920s, when America was first adjusting to the modern age and the Old South was being replaced by the New South. I grew up in Memphis, Tennessee and was always intrigued by the mysterious, ephemeral beauty that haunts the South. There are still remnants of its individuality and of its old idiosyncratic ways and I wanted to capture them on film before they are lost forever.
Tennessee Williams once said that everything he ever wrote was about loss. Sometimes the South still feels haunted by the sins of the fathers. Williams also said that so much of his work takes place in the South because he wanted to explore those vices, (the "mendacity" he explores in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, for example) which ultimately lead to the destruction of a culture. Fisher and Jimmy are trying both to define themselves apart from their respective families, and to understand who they are in this new world. Their search for something true in a provincial society is what eventually drives them together and yet sometimes pushes them apart. Their longing to connect is universal and timeless."
The performances are uniformly excellent, with kudos going to Bryce Dallas Howard, Ellen Burstyn, and Chris Evans for their finely layered characterizations of complex Southerners. Special mention should be made of the lush cinematography by Giles Nuttgens, which adds a haunting glow to many of the film's settings.

One can't help but wonder, however, whether Fisher and Jimmy (had they been transported out of rural Mississippi) might have fared much better in a larger and more liberal environment like New Orleans where they could have found happiness and thrived as an ebullient fag hag/beard and her extremely handsome gay friend. Here's the trailer:

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Fast forward to the 21st century and a world in which technology has allowed us to overschedule ourselves, be constantly interrupted by calls on our cell phones, and generally lose sight of what's important in life. Meet Anna (Amy Adams), a young Bostonian who stages real estate properties in order to improve their chances of selling. For the past four years, Anna and her cardiologist boyfriend, Jeremy (Adam Scott), have been "an item."

When one of Anna's friends sees Jeremy leaving an upscale jewelry store, she jumps to the conclusion that he has purchased an engagement ring and is about to pop the question. As the two women rehearse Anna's "surprised" look, they're thrilled that Jeremy has finally "gotten the message."

A quick meeting with Anna's father (John Lithgow) in a local bar allows the scriptwriters to plant the seed of their plot: an old Irish tradition that on February 29th of any leap year, a woman can propose to a man.

Later, over a romantic dinner, Anna is eagerly awaiting Jeremy's proposal when their meal keeps getting interrupted by one of his fellow surgeons. Called to the hospital (try not to cringe at the series of aorta puns), Jeremy gives Anna a beautiful pair of diamond earrings and informs her that, because he is headed to Dublin for a medical conference, he'll probably just go straight from the hospital to Logan Airport.

What follows is highly predictable. Nor would you be a major cynic if you examined the plot of Leap Year and concluded that it is essentially a mash-up of Planes, Trains and Automobiles and certain parts of Brigadoon with the main body of the film moved from Scotland to Ireland and a dash of the British humor that made such romantic comedies as Four Weddings and a Funeral and Notting Hill into major hits added in for good measure.

It doesn't take long for Anna (a miserable control freak and the kind of self-serving technobrat you'd like to smack six ways to Sunday) to decide to surprise Jeremy in Dublin and propose to him on February 29th. With that decision, things start to go horribly wrong.

First, Anna's transatlantic flight is diverted to Cardiff, Wales due to a raging storm. Determined that nothing will stop her, she manages to charter a fishing boat to take her across the Irish Sea, where she is deposited on the Dingle peninsula (which, curiously enough, is on the coast of Ireland that faces the Atlantic Ocean rather than Wales).

Standing on a deserted beach with her rolling suitcase, fashionable high heels, and cell phone, Anna is very much out of her element. She's also a selfish little bitch with lots of attitude. One of Anna's most annoying character traits is an all-too-familiar American talent for insulting and alienating people and then trying to buy them off when in need of their help.

Declan (Matthew Goode) and Anna (Amy Adams)

As soon as she locks horns with Declan (Matthew Goode), a disgruntled, shaggy-looking innkeeper, the race is on to see if Anna can make it to Dublin in time to propose to Jeremy without falling in love with Declan. Trust me, if you had any brains you'd ditch Anna in a minute and run off with Declan yourself.

As directed by Anand Tucker, Leap Year is designed to be a comfortable audience pleaser in which Anna's sense of entitlement is steadily undermined by Declan's pragmatic sarcasm while the emotionally wounded Declan feels his heart coming back to life. Eventually, the severely mismatched pair start to develop feelings for each other while cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel does his best to turn the film into an infomercial for the hardy people at Discover Ireland.

Matthew Goode as Declan

As appealing an actress as Amy Adams may be, she can't hold a candle to Matthew Goode's Declan. Goode (who recently appeared as Colin Firth's lover in A Single Man) is equally adept at playing straight and gay romantic leads. The bottom line is that he's a much more interesting actor than Adams, a factor of raw talent that nearly allows him to walk off with the film.

That's not meant to suggest that Leap Year isn't worth your time. This is a very entertaining film that's gorgeous to look at and filled with moments of misguided romance, schadenfreude, and human weakness. Like too many dinners of Chinese food, you'll feel hungry for more substance shortly after leaving the theatre. Here's the trailer:

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