In Tribute to Cinematic Giant, Sidney Poitier

Sidney Poitier was an iconic cinematic legend and artistic giant. In a career which spanned over 60 years, Poitier found success in some of Hollywood’s most memorable films like Blackboard Jungle (1955), The Defiant Ones (1958), Porgy and Bess (1959), A Raisin in the Sun (1961), To Sir, with Love (1967), In the Heat of the Night (1967), Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967), and winning an Oscar for his work in the 1963 film, Lilies of the Field. Poitier was a versatile actor who brought a regal majesty to his roles, imbuing a stylish dignity to the parts; but he also had a sly sense of humor which he was able to bring to his lighter work. In the 1960s, whilst cities across the USA were seeing protests, rebellions, and tumult, Poitier was enjoying his greatest success, becoming a major box office draw. Along with his career as an actor and director, Poitier used his celebrity to draw attention to important causes, the Civil Rights in particular. At the height of his fame, he was an outspoken advocate for racial equality and he was one of the few widely popular film stars of Hollywood during the 1960s.

The cover of Sidney Poitier’s memoir
Sidney Poitier: The Measure of a Man- A Memoir
(Harper San Francisco, 2000)

Though his screen persona and inherent elegance would sometimes limit him to roles that relied on his sleek looks and gravitas, he was able to transcend even the most idealized roles by giving them more depth, humanity, and tone than the scripts would have; Poitier was in an unenviable position: as being one of the few Black film superstars, he was saddled with a responsibility to be everything to everyone. It was unfair. White audiences didn’t want him to be a three-dimensional human being and Hollywood wanted him to be an emblem (and would treat him as a token at times), but Poitier overcame these constricts and created a filmography that is rich and varied.

Top 10 The Highlights of Sidney Poitier

Blackboard Jungle (1955) – an explosive and then-innovative film that looked to urban blight and racial tensions that arise in an inner-city high school in 1950s New York City. Much of the film’s legacy is wrapped in its unflinching look at the various struggles of city public schools; Blackboard Jungle is also known for its use of rock and roll on its soundtrack. As with most films that look to chronicle the various struggles that befall on the inner-city, Blackboard Jungle is rife with issues, namely a white savior narrative as well as exploitation of trauma. Poitier – in an early performance – plays a troubled teen who starts off as a rough antagonist to the film’s protagonist (Glenn Ford), before eventually growing and developing a truce and an allegiance. As with a lot of his roles, Poitier does deep, empathetic work.

Blackboard Jungle [DVD] [1955]
Blackboard Jungle
(dir. Richard Brooks) MGM, 1955

Edge of the City (1957) – an early part of Poitier’s career, Edge of the City is a moving drama that is at-once profound and, yet still has issues that date it. The film is an important of the construction of Poitier’s screen persona – particularly, the perception of his nobility. Edge of the City talks about race and friendship as well as violence and cruelty. The script – written by Robert Alan Arthur – makes Poitier’s character a combination of ideals and norms and is typical of the “issue films” of the 1950s. Director Martin Ritt, a veteran of FDR’s WPA, and an artist who was caught up in the Hollywood Red Scare, put together a film that ticked the boxes of white liberal popular cinematic art of the mid-century. Even though Edge of the City would have a hand in some of Poitier’s casting issues later on, he gives a complex performance, doing wonderful work.

Edge of the City
Edge of the City
(dir. Martin Ritt) MGM, 1957

Porgy and Bess (1959) – The tragic musical – composed by George and Ira Gershwin – was brought to the screen by Otto Preminger. The film is an important, if curious, entry in Poitier’s oeuvre, as it wasn’t initially successful and subsequently, it failed to find a home viewing audience as well (substandard copies of the film are available). The script – written by N. Richard Nash, based on the libretto by DuBose Heyward – has a troubled story that includes difficult topics, including rape, poverty, murder, and drug addiction. Though by 1959, the movie musical was about to enter a difficult period in the genre’s history, the stark tragedy of the opera made for a difficult subject for a Hollywood musical. Poitier gives an impassioned performance (despite being dubbed by Met opera star Robert McFerrin) and is matched with the luminous, yet tragic Dorothy Dandridge.

Porgy And Bess (1959) (Region 2)
Porgy and Bess
(dir. Otto Preminger)
Columbia Pictures, 1959

A Raisin in the Sun (1961) – Lorraine Hansberry’s landmark stage drama was made into this important film that featured a searing, explosive performance as the troubled and complex Walter Lee Younger. The play is a pointed look at housing discrimination, economic and racial prejudice, and the importance of human dignity. Hansberry’s work remains a seminal piece of art that shines a much-needed spotlight social conditions that affirm racial and economic inequities. Poitier’s performance is truly magnificent in this film and he does personable work with his costars, Ruby Dee (as his wife, Ruth) and a truly towering Claudia McNeil (as the Younger matriarch, Lena). A Raisin in the Sun poses questions about the choices people are forced to make when they are desperate and in difficult situations and Hansberry refuses to offer pat, easy answers.

A Raisin In The Sun [DVD] [1961] [2003]
A Raisin in the Sun
(dir. Daniel Petrie)
Columbia Pictures, 1961

Lilies of the Field (1963) – This film won Poitier the Oscar for Best Actor in 1963. The Ralph Nelson film – based on William Edmund Barrett’s novella – is a sentimental story about a young man, Homer Smith (Poitier) who finds himself working with a group of nuns, helping them to build a new chapel. A wary, complicated friendship develops, particularly with Homer and Mother Maria (Lilia Skala), who believes Homer has been sent by God to help. Poitier deserves the Oscar for his performance, which is warm, funny, and deeply humane. Unfortunately, after 60 years, it’s clear that the role is somewhat one-note and reinforces the idea of Black people being dropped on this earth to help and serve others, particularly whites. Homer breezes into the nuns’ lives and because his empathy (as well as pride) is manipulated by the strong-willed Mother Maria, he sticks around to help the group, and then, just as quickly, he disappears after being of use. Lilies of the Field is engaging, mainly because Poitier’s warmth and multi-layered performance.

LILIES OF THE FIELD
Lilies of the Field
(dir. Ralph Nelson) United Artists, 1963

A Patch of Blue (1965) – like a lot of Poitier’s films, A Patch of Blue is another ‘issue’ film that tackles a topic and does so with a lot drama (though maybe this film can tip a bit into melodrama). Like many of his other roles, Poitier’s Gordon Ralfe is a kind, upstanding individual tasked to help save someone: this time a young, blind woman who is an abuse victim, nearly pushed to prostitution by her monster of a mother. The actor brings an intelligence to the role and though Guy Green’s script packs a lot of bathos to the proceedings, Poitier doesn’t let his work get buried by the seemingly dramatic plot. But what makes A Patch of Blue is the sensitive way in which Green tells this story of interracial friendship, maybe love, and Poitier gives a beautiful performance.

A Patch of Blue by Warner Home Video by Guy Green
A Patch of Blue (dir. Guy Green) MGM, 1965

To Sir, with Love (1967) – One of the best high school movies ever, Poitier seems to have closed a loop of sorts, playing a student in a troubled American high school in Blackboard Jungle and in middle age, he plays a teacher at an East London school in To Sir, with Love. It’s not a perfect film – it does dip into sentimentality at times, and there are some predictable beats – but again, Poitier elevates the material with his graceful work. Because of Poitier’s popularity and star power, the film is considered a popular classic and a big hit, one of his most successful movies of his career.

To Sir, with Love
To Sir, with Love
(dir. James Clavell) Columbia, 1967

In the Heat of the Night (1967) – Norman Jewison’s atmospheric, tense, and taught drama that has political and social relevance still today, particularly when we look at the relationships between criminal justice, the police, and Black Americans. Poitier is Virgil Tibbs, a talented police officer who is racially profiled in Sparta, Mississippi, but agrees to stay in the town to help the local racist police chief (Rod Steiger in an Oscar-winning performance) solve a murder. Jewison captures a simmering, terrifying Mississippi in which Tibbs is tasked to do his work in a hostile environment, continuously reminded of the town’s antipathy for his presence. It’s a great film that doesn’t aim to show redemption or happy answers about race – instead, it’s a suspenseful thriller that works as a backdrop to social commentary about the corrosive effects of racism and bigotry.

In the Heat of the Night (The Criterion Collection)
In the Heat of the Night
(dir. Norman Jewison)
United Artists, 1967

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967) – Director Stanley Kramer was known for his social critique films. For Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, Kramer looked to interracial marriage (it’s important to note that during the film’s production, interracial marriage was illegal in 17 states). The film is a solid comedy that is notable for being the final pairing of Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn (who won an Oscar for her work). Poitier is very good in this film – though to be honest, his role is somewhat thin. He was posited as the ideal man with little-to-no flaws, so Poitier has to work hard to make his character interesting and stand out – which he does with some charming aplomb. More so than any other performance of his career, this role relies almost exclusively on his star power and movie star charisma.

Guess Who's Coming To Dinner? [DVD]
Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner
(dir. Stanley Kramer)
Columbia Pictures, 1967

For Love Ivy (1968) – Sidney Poitier put together this story and worked with Robert Alan Arthur, with whom he worked on Edge of the City for this romantic comedy that paired him with jazz virtuoso, Abbey Lincoln. The film was another popular hit for Poitier and it was a charming film, far lighter than most of much of his work during the 1960s. It showed that the actor as funny and very appealing; he’s a breath of fresh air.

For Love of Ivy [DVD] [US Import]
For Love of Ivy
(dir. Daniel Mann) Palomar Pictures

The Owl and the Pussycat is a dated but charming comedy

The Owl and the Pussycat (dir. Herbert Ross), 1970, Columbia Pictures

You’d be forgiven if when watching the beginning of The Owl and the Pussycat that you think you’ve slipped into some weird, dark, alternate universe. When George Segal’s nebbish writer Felix meets Barbra Streisand’s prostitute Doris, she accuses him of being a peeping tom and a pervert. But she also hurls some intense homophobic abuse. Yes, we’re hearing Barbra Streisand, the woman for whom the phrase gay icon, was coined, screech “fag” and “fruit” at the top of her voice – and it’s not musical. It’s a jarring experience, like seeing Santa Claus burn down a Christmas tree.

The Owl and the Pussycat is a 1970 comedy based on the stage play by Bill Manhoff. Adapted for the screen by comic genius Buck Henry (The Graduate) and directed by Herbert Ross, a veteran of stage and film, the movie is a romantic comedy that explores a kacked odd couple in the intellectual Felix and earthy Doris. Like in most romantic comedies, our two protagonists can’t stand each other when they first meet: Felix is forced to room with Doris when he drops a dime on her hooking; thrown out of her flat, she invades his, throwing his life in a mess by getting him kicked out of his apartment, too. The two are then forced to find shelter at Felix’s pal, Barney (Robert Klein), and as Felix and Doris get to know each other, their sharp differences threaten any moments of growing tenderness. Their relationship goes through some thaw but quickly revert to hostility when Felix’s innate snobbery rubs against Doris’ defensiveness.

Because the film is based on a stage show, it feels stagey and episodic, despite the great effort by Henry to expand the story and adapt it to the big screen. The romantic relationship between Felix and Doris seesaws back and forth, becoming somewhat tedious and predictable. Too much time is spent on the shared ugliness of the characters’ worst traits and it’s unclear why exactly the two end up together. Though Felix grows to appreciate Doris’ dignity and emotional intelligence and Doris comes to appreciate Felix’s intellect, their consummation of their union doesn’t feel truly earned (nor does the happy ending)

But The Owl and the Pussycat works more often than not because George Segal and (especially) Barbra Streisand sell the hell out of the somewhat meager material. Segal is a blustery coil of anxiety and tension; and in a relaxed and natural performance, Streisand is hilarious and delightful. Ross’ vision of New York City is gritty and kind of ugly, an apt representation of the pre-gentrification of Manhattan that turned New York into a adult theme park. It would a few years before films by Nora Ephron, Rob Reiner, and Woody Allen would turn New York City into a romanticized, idealized playground for rom-coms. The streets are littered, the shops all are dingy pawn ships, there are hookers prowling the streets, hoods threaten people with violence, and the sidwalks are lined with nudie bars. Despite the grit of the settings, there is still a whimsy to the film – a weird thing to say about a movie in which our lead characters have to escape a band of marauding thugs – and the inevitable happy ending (prefaced by an indulgent and not-too-successful back and that turns physical in Central Park) seems appropriate enough. Though the sexual politics are kind of all over the place, Streisand’s Doris is surprisingly autonomous and with a solid, three-dimensional characterization. She tries to improve herself (a threadbare trope, of course, but still), and though she’s a take on the hooker with a heart of gold, Streisand’s gregarious comedic persona adds a depth and humanity to the role. Her good work, along with the strong performance by Segal make for a charming – if very dated – diversion.

Charlie Brooker offers a hilarious – but deeply depressing – take on this past year with ‘Death to 2020’

Charlie Brooker – the brilliant essayist and the creative mind behind Black Mirror has done the seemingly impossible: he’s created a work of mainstream art that is simultaneously hilarious and depressing. The uproarious mockumentary, Death to 2020 takes a barbed look at the disgusting  year we’ve had – and though it’s a fantastic work, it’s incredibly distressing to watch. I laughed a lot, but I cannot say that I enjoyed the film. It’s a thoroughly 2020 film, one that perfectly encapsulates the year it mocks.

Narrated by Laurence Fishburne, Death to 2020 features a cast of comedic pros – Hugh Grant, Leslie Jones, Lisa Kudrow, Tracey Ullman, Kumail Nanjiani – as well as the epitome of class and cool, Samuel L. Jackson. The actors are given ample opportunity to lampoon some of the archetypes that have emerged from 2020: Grant, in old-age makeup, plays an obtuse historian; Kudrow takes on the Kellyanne Conway GOP mouthpiece role; Ullman does her usual spotless impersonation work, this time playing Queen Elizabeth II; and Joe Keery and Cristin Milioti score sour laughs as the stereotypical white “woke” millennial and the entitled white “Karen,” respectively. These characters are too familiar given the ubiquity of their presence on social media and their real-life counterparts are so absurd that Brooker’s parody hews startlingly close to reality.

Because the pandemic has dominated our lives for the past few months, what with endless series of lockdowns and ascending levels of tiers, it’s easy to forget that there were other horrifying events in 2020 that made it such a terrible year. Thankfully, Brooker is here to remind us of them. The film barrels through the list of calamities including the Australian bushfire, the blasts in Beirut, and the aftermath of the December 2019 snap elections. Of course, events such as the George Floyd murder and its ensuing eruptions of rebellion throughout the globe, the exhausting and torturous 2020 presidential election, and President Trump’s disastrous response to the racial and civil unrest in the States have left a lasting impact as enduring as the pandemic and it’s understandable that the three historical events dominate Death to 2020.

Though Brooker’s point of view is left-of-centre and he clearly sympathises with progressives and liberals, he doesn’t spare the supposed cancel culture, woke culture, and performative nature of liberalism in the 21st century. Keery’s millennial is a composite of the self-righteous, uninformed lefty bros who espouse supposedly progressive views to virtual signal (in one hilarious scene, his character drives through a Black neighborhood in the middle of the night, pestering sleeping residents by spouting PC nonsense through a megaphone). And Leslie Jones, as a pop psychologist, offers her theory about the great divide in our culture, assigning equal blame to both left and right extremism. Though there is a faint whiff of bothersiderism in this effort (I mean, really, there’s no comparison at this point), none of this is bad because it’s hilarious. Keery’s character is so eerily on point and accurate it feels as if Brooker simply turned on a random YouTube video of some liberal dumdum.

But the bulk of Brooker’s ire is directed toward the alt-right populism that has landed us in the quagmire of 2020. He’s especially withering of the president of the United States and the prime minister of the United Kingdom. He finds the two men as grossly unqualified and incompetent. Their shared ineptitude in the face of the pandemic is exposed and Brooker’s contempt is unsparing and full of righteous anger.

As mentioned earlier, all of Death to 2020 is very funny. Samson Kayo plays a scientist working on the pandemic vaccine is a joy, especially when he expresses consternation at having his very serious words trivialized by goofy graphics (including the rather lavish defecation of a rhinoceros).  -Grant does a fantastic job playing the sort of talking head who tries to contextualise the events of 2020, but is hopelessly out of his depth – he grasps at straws in hopes of sounding intelligent and masterful. Kudrow does her patented sly, acrid work as an amalgam of Kellyanne Conway, Ivanka Trump, and Kayleigh McEnany. And possibly funniest of all, Diane Morgan does as the “average citizen” a woman so incurious, indifferent, apathetic, and uninformed, that each time she spouts of some inane gobbledygook, it becomes increasingly clear just how we got into the gigantic mess of 2020.

So Brooker’s sharp writing and the game staff makes for very funny viewing. But it’s still a rough watch. It’s a depressing film but one that does what it sets out to do: roughly shake viewers out of their lockdown-induced stupor. It’s not the kind of escapist entertainment that people signed up for Disney+ in huge numbers. It’s deliberately disconcerting and discomforting because it’s meant to stir thought.

But I wonder if Death to 2020 is necessary. Do we need to be reminded – even if through expertly-written satire – that 2020 was a garbage year? After all, saying 2020 is hell has become a cliche. I finished the film wondering who is it for? Who was the intended audience for this film? It’s a great film but one that is hard to watch. Brooker has done a magician’s trick in being able to create a work that is at once a knee-slapper and a major downer.

Kate Novack’s ‘The Gospel According to André’ is a moving, thrilling celebration of Black queer excellence

Kate Novack’s The Gospel According to André was filmed throughout 2016, tailing its subject, and was released in 2018. The 2016 elections loom over the film in more ways than just the obvious: it’s not just that the calamitous day comes up later in the film (with the tense days leading up to that day), but so much of André Leon Talley’s narrative in the film is about the difficult place Black queer people find themselves in American culture. Born in the Jim Crow South, subject to abuse (he had rocks thrown at him as a teen), and witness to some of the most turbulent times in the 1960s, Talley ascended into a highly stylized world that is defined by fantasy and a divorce from the ugly realities of the real world. Early in the film, Talley says that fashion magazines like Vogue, helped him escape his harsh world, and gave him a view of a world marked of style, sophistication, and intelligence. This poignant and difficult journey is lovingly displayed in The Gospel According to André.

The film opens with shots of Talley’s beautifully – if elaborately – decorated White Plaines home. Among his possessions is a framed photo of the Rev. Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr., an important figure in Talley’s life. There are also shots of beautiful slippers, monogrammed Vuitton luggage, and a shot of Talley, young, trim, and dapper, strolling down a New York street, resplendent in a suit, juxtaposed with a more contemporary Talley regal in a turquoise caftan. The first glimpse we have of Talley is a joyful Talley unwrapping an obviously expensive tchotchke, before the scene dissolves into a flickering scene and we see a thirty-something year-old Talley in Paris, reporting about a fashion show held in a couturier’s apartment. He’s trailing a young Karl Lagerfeld (his famed ponytail not yet bone white). In less than two minutes, Novack is able to encapsulate the theme of her film: a fabulous and important look at a pioneering trailblazer.

Though it’s easy to dismiss Talley’s world as frivolous, choked with money – not a totally unfair assessment – but there is a lot of craft, work, study, and passion that goes into fashion. Yes, celebrities like will.i.am, Sean Combs, and Isabella Rossellini, populate his world, there is a lot of toil that goes into this industry. When a journalist asks him if fashion is art, Talley bristles at the suggestion and insists that fashion is the result of grueling hard work. The climb to his career high started with a fantastic relationship with legendary fashion editor Diana Vreeland, who singled him out for work whilst she was working on an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Becoming not only a mentor, but a mother figure, Vreeland’s influence got Talley his first important gig, working with Andy Warhol. From this, came gigs with Women’s Wear Daily in Paris, before finding himself at the holy grail of fashion writing, Vogue. His writing and vision proved to be invaluable. He combined a vast knowledge of history with an imperious love of fashion and style. He also had developed and crafted an engrossing persona that translated fantastically on television.

Scenes of a younger Talley are contrasted with contemporary scenes of the man, older, swathed in gorgeous capes and caftans. In these moments, we learn about Talley’s hard road to success. He also talks about the importance of Black representation in the fashion industry and how he struggled with ugly sexualized stereotypes in his career, being accused of sleeping his way to the top or being saddled with the racist and homophobic sobriquet, Queen Kong. He applies this theme to the parallel problems the country was seeing itself in. He is immensely proud of the election of the Obamas and sees Michelle Obama as an important figure of hard-won progress. The theme of race, gender, and class is an important thread that is laced throughout the documentary. Many of Talley’s friends tackle the incongruity of being among the 1%, but coming from humbler backgrounds. “You can be aristocratic without having been born in an aristocratic family,” Talley insists. In a poignant moment, journalist Tamron Hall is with Talley in her apartment as she’s trying on a gorgeous evening gown for President Obama’s final state dinner. As she’s gliding elegantly in her drag, she asks “Would you believe I was born in a shotgun house, two rooms, my grandfather was a sharecropper, and today,” she says, striking a queenly pose, “look what happened.”

So much of the film is about overcoming obstacles. Talley’s position as the sole Black voice in his world makes his work more important because he becomes a role model and a figure of inspiration for other Black people who would feel alienated from an industry that is predicated on standards of white, Euro-centric beauty. But so much of Talley’s point of view when it comes to style comes from a familial source, as he points out that all of his relatives – especially the women – were stylish. He lovingly recounts trips to church, where female congregants would arrive in arresting creations. Talley saw this as not only beautiful, but correct: “it’s a moral code to dress well,” he intones.

Because so much of his life is a mass of contradictions, achievements, and eccentricities, it’s only fitting that the documentary purporting to represent his ethos be that way too. Yes, there are the fun, thrilling moments of gorgeous clothes being paraded down a catwalk; juicy moments of seeing celebrities like Naomi Campbell and Gianni Versace pal around with the influential Talley; and peers like Anna Wintour, Tom Ford, and Valentino, testify to the incredible power of Talley’s talents (Lagerfeld, once a close friend, refused to participate after a falling out, as per Talley’s memoirs The Chiffon Trenches) But there are also moments of sadness and introspection, as the seemingly lonely Talley navigates a world that he’s doesn’t seem to recognize. Being an elder statesman of fashion is an honor, but it’s clear from the film that the busy and ambitious Talley is slowing down a bit – this is highlighted by scenes of him at a nutritionist to address his significant weight gain (he likened himself to a manatee at one point) Health and age are starting to change Talley’s world and the film hints at this development.

It’s no surprise that when Talley is tasked to talk, the film is at its most alive. He has a remarkably self-assured and individualistic point of view. And he’s developed a witty and astute persona, that of the worldly dandy. He’s sharp and brilliant and able to throw around funny quips with amazing alacrity. At times, he’s got a naughty sense of humor (he jokingly anticipates the backlash he’ll receive after praising Melania Trump’s inauguration outfit) and is able to entertain those around him with funny anecdotes of his times down in the, as he calls it, “chiffon trenches.” But it’s the more introspective and ruminative moments that really make this movie special. When musing about his innate ability to weather difficult obstacles, he says that he’s able to find the strength to move forward “Through my faith and my ancestors. They put up with slavery for so long. Lynching. Voter suppression. Beatings…dogs being let on people. Fire hoses. White cops kicking women. It all impacted me, too. But I had to move on. I had to get on with my career.” It’s a stirring moment and a fascinating insight into a man who for so long had crafted the media image of a chatty bon vivant.

A pre-I Love Lucy Lucille Ball charms and engages in the film noir curio ‘The Dark Corner’

Lucille Ball as the intrepid Kathleen

Before finding television success as a comedienne, Lucille Ball paid her dues starring in a series of B-movies, earning the moniker the Queen of the B’s before she became known as the Queen of Comedy. As a working actress, she appeared in a variety of genres, including dramas and thrillers, including the little-known film noir The Dark Corner (1946). Directed by Henry Hathaway and co-starring Mark Stevens and Clifton Webb, The Dark Corner is a winding mystery about murder, infidelity, and vengeance.

Stevens is Bradford Galt, a private detective who is based in New York City. We learn that Galt is an excon with a shady past. His secretary Kathleen (Ball) is a recent hire and the two take an instant liking to each other. Taking her out for dinner one evening, the two realize that they are being tailed by a man in a white suit and Galt convinces an initially reluctant Kathleen to help him figure out who the guy is. What the two discover is that Galt is the pawn in a mysterious plot with a shadowy figure who has access to his past. When Galt is framed for a murder, Kathleen helps in trying to unravel the mystery and discover who is working to get Galt arrested as well as what the motive is. Whilst Galt and Kathleen dash through the gritty streets of New York City, dead bodies appear, people with secrets are being blackmailed, and the police are closing in on our heroes.

Director Hathaway has a knack for creating tension in his films. He uses all the conventions of film noir in The Dark Corner – the chiaroscuro effect of street lamps on dark streets, fast-talking dames, looming shadows, the use of an urban setting, a cast of mean-looking character actors. He doesn’t do anything novel or groundbreaking with this effort, but the film still is effective due to the engaging script and spirited performances. He employs some interesting shots throughout the film, particularly during scenes in the dark, with figures silhouetted against lit windows, vertical blinds casting shadows across the walls. It’s a stylish film that makes great use of moody lighting and deliberate use of shadows.

Ball and Stevens make for a great pair and share an easy chemistry. The script gives Ball something to do besides being a damsel in distress, a femme fatale, or the girlfriend. Kathleen is a major asset for Galt and isn’t define by her attraction or love for him. As Galt gets deeper into trouble, she becomes an important ally. And though Stevens’ role is a standard noir protagonist: tough-talking, a smart aleck, who sees himself as a loner – he responds to the more emotional moments in the film with an affecting performance . Galt is written as something of a cliche but slips easily into the role making the character more than just a stock character.

The Dark Corner isn’t an extraordinary film but it’s a very entertaining one. Its charm lies in the engrossing plot and the likable leads. Once the mystery presents itself, the story draws viewers in.

Jane Fonda tells her compelling story in ‘Jane Fonda in Five Acts’

Though Madonna and David Bowie have been acclaimed for their innate ability to change, evolve, and reinvent themselves, actress Jane Fonda has had to do the same in her 60+ year career. Starting out as a child of a celebrity, she grew up to be a sex symbol, before morphing into an activist, while nurturing a critically-lauded film career. She then let acting lose precedence to her career as a fitness guru and exercise video pioneer, before settling for over a decade as the ultimate trophy wife, until finally embarking on an amazing late-career era a comeback queen. In the last decade or so, since her exit from retirement, Fonda has been able to do some of the most interesting and compelling work of her Oscar-winning career. All of this is chronicled in the excellent – and moving – documentary Jane Fonda in Five Acts.

The Jane Fonda presented in the film is one of contradictions. Though a staunch feminist, she talks about deferring to the men in her life, and defining herself by her relationships, including the one with her father, Hollywood legend, Henry Fonda. And though she is unwavering in her commitment to social causes, she winces at the infamous photograph of her sitting on a North Vietnamese anti-aircraft gun on a visit to Vietnam during the Vietnam War. The picture, in which we see Fonda grinning – the photograph condemned her to the epithet “Hanoi Jane” – a sobriquet that follows her to this day (just read the comment threads of any articles about her online…actually don’t)

A large part of Fonda’s screen persona and public image is that of a confident, beautiful woman – no shrinking violet. It’s interesting to see the contrast between the public Fonda with the unguarded woman that appears in the film. Though her past as an actress is unequivocally successful, the other parts of her life plague her with insecurity. She regrets a lot – she feels she failed at motherhood (her children are on hand to describe their unconventional upbringings) and her relationship with Henry Fonda is a source of a lot of angst.

For many viewers, it’s the Fonda family saga that will be the most affecting. Jane Fonda was a Hollywood princess, her father being a legendary movie star and her mother, a beautiful socialite. The perfect family is far from that – Fonda’s mother Frances Ford Seymour was a troubled and sad woman who struggled with mental health and would eventually take her own life. Father Henry wasn’t willing to provide the emotional support Fonda needed, and therefore their relationship was fractured and troubled. And Fonda recognizes that she’s repeated some of her dad’s mistakes with her own children, as well.

Her series of high-profile marriages also provide the film with heft. Her first husband was French film director Roger Vadim (with whom Fonda collaborated on Barbarella); her second husband was political activist Tom Hayden; and her last husband was billionaire businessman Ted Turner. Both Turner and Hayden appear on the film to talk about Fonda and overall, both men pay tribute to their ex-wife – Hayden, especially honours Fonda’s commitment to social causes. Her relationship with these men is interesting because despite Fonda’s strong personality, she allowed herself to be dwarfed by her husband’s personality. Her marriage with Hayden was especially fraught because she came off as an intellectual lightweight compared to his “important” work.

Director Susan Lacey is obviously in love with her subject – it’s not a hagiography, exactly, but this is told through Fonda’s point of view. She doesn’t shy away from the darker, unattractive aspects of her personality or behaviour, but any negative moments are shared on Fonda’s terms. It’s admirable that the actress is willing to open up and is frank and candid – she’s especially moving when she talks about her mother – but she’s also fond of clichés and has a propensity to sum up large chunks of her life in seemingly profound statements that tend to flatten and reduce a life that is complicated and exciting.

The parts of the film that truly click are when Lacey presents Fonda, the activist and artist. All her adult life has been marked by a desire for social betterment, and it’s interesting to see the span and breadth of Fonda’s interests. So much of her work and image has been reduced to simply exercise tapes and Hanoi Jane, but she’s a vital, compassionate woman who still marches for a fair wage, women’s rights, queer rights, anti-war rallies. What these last few years have shown is that she’s as passionate as ever about causes. Jane Fonda in Five Acts rallies beautifully at the end, when we see that despite the valedictory tone of a film like this, Jane Fonda is as alive as ever, not content on resting on her legend or iconic status. In the voice over, Fonda muses that she’s entering the beginning of her final stage – even if that sentiment sounds grim, it’s clear that Fonda’s not going gentle into that good night.

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