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
(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

A devoted fan asks ‘What Would Sophia Do?’

Because movie stars are omnipresent, we seem to know them. For many people, their favorite matinee idol is more than just a beautiful image, projected on the screen, but an emotional avatar. Richard Dyer writes about the power of film stardom, nurtured by public knowledge of a movie star’s live and how her image precedes any work on characters she plays, no matter how skilled an actress she is.

For New Jersey grandmother, Vincenza “Nancy” Kulik, it’s Italian icon Sophia Loren. The Oscar-winning film giant has an incredible career, marked by its longevity and Kulik as found Loren to be an inspiration. Kulik, an Italian-American woman, feels a deep connection to her Italian roots – her parents were immigrants from Naples, like Loren – and consumes Loren’s filmography, connecting to the films passionately. The question, “What would Sophia do?” would pop up from time to time in Kulik’s life as she navigated motherhood in the 1960s.

Directed by Ross Kauffman, What Would Sophia Do? is a short film that spotlights the importance of art and its comforting qualities. Kulik not only follows Loren’s career but also her personal life, as it was covered extensively by the media. Loren’s long life was marked by great success and joy, but also by adversity – she was born into poverty, her father abandoned her, she fled her small town near Naples during WWII when it became a target for bombing. Winning a beauty contest at 15, parlayed her good looks, great talent, and ambition to a success as a film star. And like every great movie diva, she’s distinguished as a survivor.

And though Kulik’s life is decidedly less glamorous, she also went through some tragedy in her life, finding succor in Loren’s art. We get to see Kulik gush about her movie idol with an open affection. We watch clips of films with the film subject, the camera steadily capturing the profound appreciation the New Jersey American has for the Italian bombshell. She’s joyful when watching Loren’s many comedies and farces (Loren was an underrated comedienne) and we see anguish on her face when she watches Loren’s searing, Oscar-winning performance in Vittorio De Sica’s 1962 classic war drama, Two Women. When Loren’s character and her onscreen daughter are brutally raped, Kulik is moved and devastated – she then offers an astute analysis of the film and Loren’s personal work.

Kulik makes for a personable subject. She’s sharp and witty and she’s very enthusiastic about her favorite movie star. Loren does appear in the film, as well, her queenly presence undimmed by her age. When the inevitable meeting takes place between Kulik and Loren, it’s satisfying and heartwarming and the two women find a kinship and connection in their shared adoration of film and cinema.

What Would Sophia Do? shows viewers the healing powers and properties of cinema. When we settle into our plush seats, room fading into black, we are pulled from our world and welcomed into a fictional world, one that is scripted and controlled, as opposed to the unpredictable real world outside the cinema (as evident by Kulik’s personal tragedies) It’s a small film that pays tribute to healing powers of fandom.


Albert Brooks finds Debbie Reynolds the role she deserved almost 50 years in her career

In 1996, two film legends enjoyed the some of the best reviews in their careers: Lauren Bacall starred in Barbra Streisand’s romantic comedy The Mirror Has Two Faces and Albert Brooks resurrected Debbie Reynolds career in his comedy Mother. While Streisand’s film used Bacall’s glamour and history, Brooks unearthed a little-seen side of Reynolds’ screen persona and underrated talents. In Mother, Brooks exposed a sly and hidden comedic talent that went unused for decades.

By 1996, Debbie Reynolds was a Hollywood icon, but a large chunk of her legend was tied up in her screen persona, her time as a refugee from the Golden Age of Hollywood, and her general razzle dazzle aesthetic. Aside from Singin’ in the Rain or maybe The Unsinkable Molly Brown, Reynolds film career was more of a busy blur. By the 1990s, she was more famous for being Princess Leia’s mother.

So Mother is an excellent vehicle for the actress. When Brooks was casting the film, he wanted a 50s film icon to play the titular character – a passive aggressive, somewhat repressed woman who has left emotional scars on her son’s self-esteem and his career. Former first lady, Nancy Reagan was Brooks’ choice. Before becoming a politician’s wife, Reagan was known as Nancy Davis – a 1950s Hollywood b-movie actress who would fall in love and marry the future California governor and POTUS, Ronald Reagan. Unlike Debbie Reynolds, Nancy Reagan never found much success as a film star. Though she was interested in the film, she ultimately passed because of her husband’s ailing health.

Though I think Reagan’s casting would’ve made the film very interesting, ultimately, it was good luck that Reynolds was available, instead. Though Reagan was a moderately gifted actress, she didn’t have the resources necessary to pull off a tricky role like Beatrice Henderson. I’m sure age and experience would have lent Reagan a gravitas and presence, but Reynolds wasn’t just relying on her star quality and her legend – she gave a fully- realized performance as Brooks’ emotionally icy mother.

Brooks’ script has him cast as John Henderson, a science-fiction author who is going through a midlife crisis. His career is stalled because he’s suffering from writer’s block, and his romantic life has hit a wall after two divorces. Trying to figure out where dysfunction came from, he looked toward his mother. Wanting to discover why his life is such a mess, he informs Beatrice that he’ll be moving in.

The film finds comedy in the Odd Couple dynamic between John and Beatrice. A middle-aged man, twice-divorced, and rather set in his ways, finding fault in everything his mother does. The script – penned with the late Monica Johnson – finds comic cold in highlighting the yawning gulf between John and Beatrice. The years apart had only hardened the differences between the two – John’s a vegetarian and Beatrice is a food hoarder. The first evening they’re together, she tries to feed him three year-old cheese, ensconced firmly in her freezer like the corpse of a wooly mammoth. She’s left nonplussed by his persnickety habits. His insistence on trying to unknot their relationship is confusing and threatening.

As Beatrice, Reynolds imparts the role with a tart mix of flinty steeliness and cheery obliviousness. There is also a great bit of daffiness. As John’s involved scheme gets stranger, she responds with a baffled deadpan. And Reynolds’ physicality – she’s very sweet-looking, makes her moments of passive aggression more powerful and painful. As John is mining his past, he brings up the various moments that Beatrice inadvertently hurt his confidence. She’s not an unfeeling monster – we see flecks of regret that she semi-successfully buried.

As an actress, Debbie Reynolds found greatest success in light comedies. In Mother, she uses that deft comic touch when playing Beatrice. Brooks does an excellent job of pulling out the comedian in Reynolds. Most of the uproarious moments come when the two are at odds, especially in a situation caused by Beatrice’s single-minded eccentricities. For example, the shopping sequence is a work of beauty. As the John and Beatrice stroll the supermarket aisle, he pesters her with his high-minded, armchair analysis of Beatrice’s idiosyncrasies, including her thriftiness. Their lack of understanding is perfectly encapsulated by their emotional tug-of-war over fancy, organic, $10 jelly. The frugal Beatrice, a Great Depression baby, scoffs at the notion of buying artisanal jelly, which John feels is an indication of her lack of self-worth. Resentful of being psychoanalyzed in the jelly aisle of a grocery store, she snaps, “Just because I don’t want to spend $10 for bullshit jam has nothing to do with what I feel about myself.” The image of wholesome-as-Apple-pie Debbie Reynolds hissing “bullshit” in a supermarket is an indelible one, but that is exactly what is so powerful about Reynolds’ performance.

Though Brooks isn’t as interested in engaging with Reynolds’ star history as Streisand was with Bacall, it doesn’t mean he can ignore the star baggage the actress brings to the role. He wanted an ideal 1950s actress – someone who projected warmth and sunniness, so that the casual cruelty feels all the more cutting and brutal. Her face – still cute – is sunny and open, but it can be clouded by confusion, hostility, and exasperation. When John expounds on some philosophical parental revelation, Beatrice is able to register the hurt and anger. Beatrice isn’t a woman who indulges in self-examination, as doing so would disrupt a carefully-constructed armor to shield herself from ugly truths – mainly, that she resent motherhood for interrupting her dreams of being a writer. Her angst and hostility were directed at John, a writer, who represented the kind of life and career she could have had if she didn’t get married and have children.

When Mother was released in late 1996, the film was warmly received, but Reynolds got unanimous praise for her performance, one that surprised many who saw the actress toil away in thankless supporting roles for years. To Brooks’ credit, he wrote a complex and complicated role for an older woman and made sure that the character wasn’t merely a plot device, but a character in her own right. It’s a rare character and one that should be celebrated and remembered fondly.


“I know y’all keep me around for laughs” Tiffany Haddish’s transcendent performance in ‘Girls Trip’ is a masterclass in comedic acting

In Malcolm D. Lee’s 2017 comedy Girls Trip, each of the film’s four stars – Queen Latifah, Regina Hall, Jada Pinckett Smith, and Tiffany Haddish – has a standout comedic scene, one in which the actress distinguishes herself from the others. But Tiffany Haddish dominates the film with the kind of performance that would be called “star-making.” Though Girls Trip was a popular hit and received warm critical attention upon its release, it’s Haddish’s charismatic that sets the film apart and makes the film something more than just an above-average buddy comedy.

Before I continue, it must be pointed out that Haddish’s co-stars are very good in the film. Regina Hall and Queen Latifah both have proven track records as wonderful screen comediennes. Neither is a slouch when it comes to being funny onscreen. Hall, in particular, has an accomplished filmography of underrated comedic turns, and has finally got deserved critical acclaim for her work in the low key comedy Support the Girls (dir Andrew Bujalski, 2018)

But it’s Haddish who emerges from the film a movie star. She’s consistently stealing scenes from her co-stars. The film’s plot is brief and merely an excuse to string together sketches for the actresses to interact. Hall stars as Ryan, an Oprah-esque media/lifestyle mogul who is in a sham marriage. Latifah is Sasha, a Perez Hilton-esque gossip blogger who has hit hard times. Pinkett Smith plays Lisa, an exhausted single mother, still reeling from her divorce. And Haddish? Haddish’s Dina isn’t given a complicated backstory – in fact, her character is the most thinly written of the quartet which is a mighty testament to her performance that she’s the most interesting. At one point in the movie she slyly notes, “I know y’all keep me around for laughs” and on paper, it seems as if Haddish is on hand solely to inject the film with her sparkling energy.

There are a few key scenes that shine best. In an early scene, Dina, is being fired for her violent temper at work. It’s an incredible scene because it introduces both the positive and negative aspects of Dina’s personality: her ingenuity and her volatility. As her boss nervously tries to fire her, Dina expertly feigns ignorance to the purpose of the meeting and with upbeat ebullience, manages to steamroll him and even get a few extra days off, despite his insistence that she no longer works for him. The flashbacks show Dina walloping a coworker who stole her Go-Gurt. As he cowers in fear, Dina goes after him, slinging office supplies at him, and chasing him out of the break room.

The firing scene is brilliantly played by Haddish and Ricky Wayne, who plays the firing boss, Ted. When he tells Dina he has to “terminate” her, she remains unmoved. He tries again, “I’m letting you go.”

Her face immediately breaks into an easy smile, “Word? Good looking out, Ted. Thanks for letting me go, man. I appreciate that, you know, water under the bridge,” she quickly gets up “to get back to work.”

Confused – and about to be bamboozled – Ted tries for a more direct approach, saying the words “you’re fired” but Dina simply continues as a smooth operator, graciously admitting fault for her behaviour, owning that it isn’t appropriate to be throwing things at “a place of work” (punctuating her sentence with air quotes) With the adroit skill of the best grifter, she continues unabated maintaining the genial tone as if she was merely gently reprimanded; she asks for time off and when Ted sarcastically lets her know she can have all the time she wants, she pretends to take his words sincerely, and charges through by the sheer force of her personality, leaving smiling while Ted sputters in confusion.

The script – penned by Tracy Oliver and Kenya Barris – could’ve given Dina a deeper backstory to match the other characters. And though there are hints of Dina’s bravado merely shading some insecurities, over all, it’s safe to say that Dina’s the comic force of Girls Trip.

As with her firing scene, another scene that allows for Haddish crash through with overwhelming glee is when she spots Ryan’s cheating spouse, Stewart (Mike Colter) at a hotel bar. As soon as Ryan’s friends see Stewart they seeth, but Sasha and Lisa both know that Dina is prone to physical violence and ask her to maintain her cool. Dina gives the girls a soft easy smile and assures them that she’ll be cool, but as she does so, she calmly removes her earrings to the dread of her friends. As her friends pepper her with entrieties for calm, Dina quickly launches into a Wonder Woman-like dash (complete with fantastic slo-mo), grabbing a wine bottle and smashing that shit across the table, threatening to “end” him.

Part of Haddish’s comic prowess is her ability to ramp up her energy from 1 to 10 in a split-second. She does so to persuade her friends that she’ll behave herself – and it heightens the comic payoff to see Dina calmly assuage her nervous friends, before launching into a Flo-Jo-like sprint. In the spirit of sisterhood, Dina is outraged on the behalf of her best friend and doesn’t think twice about resorting to physical violence to avenge her friend. When the woman Stewart is with turns out to be his aunt, instead of retreating, chastened, she turns to the older woman, warning that her nephew is “nasty” and that their shared bloodline is “nasty.”

The other scene I want to write about comes at the climax of the film when the four friends have a dramatic falling out. Past resentments surface as the women turn on each other and the scene is uncharacteristically dramatic and intense. When Dina lashes out at her friends, Haddish does a tricky thing of acting out the frustration and anger – but not abandoning the flamboyance that marked her performance, so far. The fight scene turns funny – hilarious, actually – when Dina aims her aggression at Ryan. As she leaves, she turns around multiple times, returning items she was holding in her purse for her friends, before reiterating that Stewart is “nasty” – she’s so disgusted with her friends that when she repeatedly calls him nasty, she stretches the word out in a contemptuous growl. As she marches away, she’s still hurling insults over her shoulder, stumbling a bit on her mile-high stilettos, her ankles rolling, as she attempts a grand exit. Haddish is a prime physical comic, and handles this scene beautifully. Though the women’s gripes with each other feel real, it’s Dina’s hurt that speaks loudest – because she’s the libertine of the group (the Samantha Jones or Blanche Devereaux, if you will) she does arrive with some baggage. Her braggadocio deflects a certain amount of judgement that she receives – even from her best friends as well as the script (in the beginning of the film, she joyfully announces she has Chlamydia at a clinic, relieved she has a “treatable” STI – her friends respond with cheers as if she announced a wanted pregnancy).

Because Dina is the only working class member of the group, she’s a bit of an outlier. She’s a college graduate like her friends, but doesn’t have a career and isn’t defined by her work or family life like the other three. Instead, she’s presented as a cheery, perennial party goer. That’s why the line “I know y’all keep me around for laughs” is so devastating. Her friends easily write off Dina as a two-dimensional laugh machine who’s on hand to make outings just a bit more fun and outrageous. The film’s script also doesn’t do much to challenge this issue (save for these glimpses) Again, Haddish’s delivery of the line is what sells it; it’s a moment when Dina drops her outlandish persona. And Malcolm D. Lee does a great job in letting Haddish modulate her performance after nearly an hour-and-a-half of over-the-top clowning.

When Girls Trip was released, the film was well-received by critics but Haddish received critical acclaim for her performance, many comparing it with Melissa McCarthy’s brilliant turn in Paul Feig’s Bridesmaids (2011). Feig’s film – written by Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo – was a surprise box office hit and the film industry saw it as a turning point for female-driven comedies. Though comedies aren’t justly appreciated by critical associations or awarding bodies, Haddish was nominated for a number of awards and received major Oscar buzz for her role (she was unjustly snubbed) Haddish has been able to take the success of Girls Trip and parlay it into movie and TV stardom as well as giving her stand-up work a larger audience. Girls Trip probably won’t be remembered as a great film but Tiffany Haddish’s performance will be remembered as one of the best comic turns of the 2010s.

The Glamorous Life: The Significance of Hollywood Glamour and History in Lauren Bacall’s performance in ‘The Mirror Has Two Faces’

Lauren Bacall in her Oscar-nominated role Hannah Morgan

Lauren Bacall never had it so good as when she starred in Barbra Streisand’s 1996 directorial effort The Mirror Has Two Faces. At that point, Bacall had logged over 50 years in the film industry, yet of the major Hollywood greats, Bacall’s career always felt somewhat unfulfilled. Though she had one of the most exciting debuts in film history in Howard Hawks’ To Have and Have Not (1944), Bacall was forever linked with her husband, Humphrey Bogart. Their collaborations were legendary, and though Bogart – a major star when To Have and Have Not was released – was regarded as a significant performer, Bacall was somewhat dismissed.

By the time she was filming The Mirror Has Two Faces, Bacall was in the midst of late career resurgence of sorts. Though she had aged out of leading lady roles for over 20 years by that point, she still had the aura of a Hollywood legend, and was always on hand to lend some project – no matter how slight – with some dusty glamour. But none of the film projects she worked on in the 1980s or early 1990s really engaged with her as an actress. That is until Barbra Streisand cast her as the mother, Hannah Morgan, in The Mirror Has Two Faces.

In the film, Bacall not only uses her gifts as an actress but also her screen legend and persona. The film’s main theme is beauty and because Bacall has been an icon of cool beauty for much of her career, she brought a lot of that luster to the film, as well. Unlike many directors, though, Streisand was more intent on pushing Bacall, and challenging her, to wring out a great performance. And she did.

Bacall’s role in The Mirror Has Two Faces is the smallest of the leads, but she leaves the biggest impact. Streisand and her leading man, Jeff Bridges, while appealing, do little more than rote rom-com acting. They don’t do anything that Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks have done. They don’t do anything new to their roles, and though Bridges is very charming, there’s little reason to remember their work. The other actors: Mimi Rogers, Brenda Vaccaro, Pierce Brosnan, and George Segal act as little more than window dressing – attractive window dressing, to be sure, but window dressing nonetheless.

But Bacall is used more carefully and purposefully in the film. Though Streisand has tried to imbue the film with far more depth than it deserves, she does successfully manage to create poignancy and candor when directing Bacall, who had rarely been given the opportunity to do such personal work.

Bacall makes a dramatic entrance, emerging from the shadows

We first see Bacall in an early scene, emerging from the shadows. The setting is a church, and Claire (Mimi Rogers) is getting married, with sister Rose (Streisand) as her frumpy bridesmaid. Claire is fuming at Hannah’s tardiness and hisses that the Morgan sisters should have had their mother committed. When Rose laughingly counters that people can’t be committed for excessive vanity, we suddenly hear a whiskey-stained voice call out, “Thank you, Rose,” before we see Hannah move out of the shadow to deliver the rest of her line, “How wonderful to have two compassionate daughters.”

Hannah Morgan is selling the garment, honey in an imitation Scaasi

She steps into the light and shrugs off a large cape to reveal a beautiful purple ensemble that defies the traditionally self-effacing mother-in-law dress. Immediately we’re clued into the kind of character Bacall is playing – one who is defined by her beauty and elegance. Claire, who is beautiful and resplendent in her wedding gown is fuming because she’s in danger of being overshadowed by the dashing Hannah.

Hannah and Claire (Mimi Rogers) crowd out poor Meeskite Rose (Barbra Streisand)

The scene that follows has the three characters march through a narrow hallway, hurrying to get to the wedding, while fussing at each other. Actually, Streisand does something interesting because she positions herself in the background, letting Bacall and Rogers dominate the scene – it’s a clear why to position the dominance of the characters in the film. The dynamic of the three women is heavily reliant on the women’s assertiveness (which is tied to their physical beauty and confidence). Rose is a shrinking violet, and lets herself, literally shrink in the scene, as the more obviously glamorous Bacall and Rogers march up front. When they bicker, they are presented as equals, each with a personal agenda that meets together: the desire to be the center of attention.

Hannah finds her light

When they finally do make it to the ceremony, Hannah struts up to the alter and preens for the cameras, while the congregation murmurs in approval. Bacall’s introduction to the film is at her most glamorous and beautiful, recalling her image during her Hollywood heyday. This representation is important because the character’s vanity is based on her aging beauty. We’re reminded periodically about Bacall’s days as a modelesque stunner with strategically placed portraits around Hannah’s apartments that are actually old head shots of Bacall from the 1940s and 1950s.

This isn’t the first time in Bacall’s career that she has fallen into a role that is so referential. In 1981, she starred in the slasher pic, The Fan (dir. Ed Bianchi), in which she played a fictional version of herself named Sally Ross. The film’s script – based on Bob Randall’s novel – is a thinly-veiled homage to the Lauren Bacall of 1981 (Broadway Lauren Bacall). But when we see Sally’s stalker in his home environment, it’s a virtual shrine to her – and his flat is wallpapered with old studio stills, lobby cards, posters, and head shots. It’s convenient for both Bianchi and Streisand that they have access to so much material that depicts their characters at a younger age.

Douglas Breen (Michael Biehn) is Sally Ross’ number one fan in Ed Bianchi’s 1981 thriller ‘The Fan’

The fact that Hannah lives in a stately Manhattan apartment with glamour shots of herself, carefully placed throughout the apartment is an interesting detail that tells us a lot about this woman. The first time we see this vainly eccentric tic is in a dinner scene between Rose and Hannah. It’s a short scene in which a lot about the dynamic is revealed: namely that though the two women seem codependent with each other, there’s also hostility. Hannah snipes at Rose, the two play tug-of-war with the remote control and when Hannah tries to boast that a customer at her beauty salon couldn’t believe how old she was, Rose quipped, “How old were you?”

Hannah flanked by an old publicity still

While this scene is playing out, just over Hannah’s left shoulder we see a framed, black and white head shot of Bacall – probably from publicity for To Have and to Have Not or The Big Sleep (dir. Howard Haws, 1946) Streisand does a smart trick in that we see the contrast whenever there’s a close up of Hannah grousing at Rose.

Rose’s parents

The next time we see an old glamour shot of Bacall is in a striking example – very quick – after Rose marries Greg Larkin (Bridges) in a civil ceremony and the two have moved in together. When Rose is making herself at home, she places a faked portrait of her parents together – a doctored photo which has an old Bacall head shot spliced with a photograph of Streisand’s late father, Emanuel.

Rose, flanked by a glamour shot of Hannah, asks her mom what’s it like being beautiful

The next scene that includes an old Bacall picture is the most significant instance. After Rose leaves Gregory because the two had an awful row, she comes back to her mother’s hoping, but not expecting, some sympathy. She had a fight with Gregory because she was feeling unattractive. Vulnerable and sensing that she wasn’t pretty, she reaches out to her mother, but her mother’s standard guard is up. When Rose finally sits down, she asks her mother a straight question: “what was it like to be beautiful?” Next to Rose is yet another picture of Bacall at her physical peak.

This instance of including a head shot is important because Rose is not only confront her mother about a childhood of aloofness and distance, but she’s also forcing her mother to confront her aging. When she asks her mother about being beautiful, she talks in past tense as if all that were over. And it’s not difficult to see that Hannah’s hauteur is a way to mask her insecurities over being an aging beauty. It’s here that Streisand really gets some beautiful work from Bacall, as she zooms in for a close, tight close up, and Bacall recalls being a young beautiful starlet. Her face – worn with time, but still gorgeous – seems to summon up that time when she was at her plummy youth, and she’s in constant reminder of that anytime she wanders around her apartment. “It was wonderful,” she says through moistened eyes as she remembers being the belle of the ball.

It’s at this moment that Streisand, Bacall, and screenwriter Richard LaGravenese elevate the movie into something special. The three conjure magic by exploiting Bacall’s storied history, and she in turn can reference what it was like to be fêted as a great beauty. The memories of those great times (when she was a magazine cover girl) wash over her face. Streisand’s close up is unforgiving and Bacall’s wearing a minimum of makeup (it’s supposed to be the middle of the night) and so it’s a terribly vulnerable moment because not only is the normally reserved and stoic Hannah indulging in a moment of such bruising candor, but she’s also doing this without makeup, which is part of her arsenal.

The next scene with Bacall and Streisand takes place the next day. Hannah hasn’t slept all night after her talk with Rose – it’s a moment of redemption and reconciliation for the two as Hannah realizes the damage she caused by her withholding affection and praise. Over a kitchen table, an exhausted Hannah is reflective. “It’s a terrible thing you’ve done to someone my age. Leaving me alone with my thoughts.” Like the confrontation scene before, Streisand lingers on Bacall’s face, again, raw and barely made up (though still beautiful, but in a rougher way) It’s in this scene that the actress makes the case that she was robbed of that Oscar everyone thought she was going to win. It’s not a scene with a gigantic, cathartic cry. Instead, Hannah talks about regret and “settling.”

LaGravanese’s script isn’t great in the movie – and neither is Streisand’s directing, frankly – but they manage to conjure some movie magic in that one scene with Bacall’s assistance. When Hannah tries to verbalize just why she allowed herself to “settle” she expresses not only a lifetime of regret (the sort of “coulda, woulda, shoulda” regret) but also the cold reality of aging. The dialogue is moving – as is Bacall’s work, particularly in how she modulates her tone, shifting from dreaminess, to incredulity, and finally to acceptance.

As she absently plays with a lock of her hair, she begins the soliloquy with the devastating assertion that “It’s an awful thing to look back at your life and realize you’ve settled. The problem was that I always thought I had more time. ” It’s at this point, that Bacall’s delivery pivots from a sleepiness to an urgency – she wants her daughter to understand where some of their shared hostility came from. She searches for the right words to say, she stumbles as she tries to articulate her feelings: “I was…I mean, now…Inside, I feel young, like a kid, like it’s just the beginning…I have everything ahead of me.” And then she answers her equivocation with a firm, “But I don’t.” She then admits that she’s jealous of her daughter.

It’s a sterling scene – a excellent gem in an otherwise mediocre film. After this confrontation, the two women seem to patch things up, and Streisand’s Rose goes on a major diet and exercise kick, remaking herself into a glamazon. Bacall’s character after that is somewhat marginalized, and she doesn’t have much to do anymore. She has one final scene in which she is on a date with an old gentleman who is flipping through a photo album. With her early hauteur and vanity returned, she asks the old man which photo he liked best. He shrugs and admits that he finds her most beautiful now, in her old age. “Good answer,” she purrs.

Lauren Bacall with costar Jack Lemmon in Peter Segal’s 1996 comedy, ‘My Fellow Americans’ released the same year as Streisand’s ‘The Mirror Has Two Faces’

It’s interesting to note that in the same year that Bacall was in The Mirror Has Two Faces, she also had a supporting role in the comedy My Fellow Americans (dir. Peter Segal). The film was part of a then-popular formula of pairing Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon after their successful comeback films Grumpy Old Men and Grumpier Old Men. Matthau was too ill to participate, so Hollywood and TV veteran, James Garner took his place. Bacall played Jack Lemmon’s onscreen wife. The role was exceedingly small and more typical of the kinds of roles Bacall was getting up to that point – essentially, glorified cameos that traded on her style, wit, beauty, and history. She was always on hand to class up a scene or two, and her role as former first lady Margaret Kramer was no different.

But Bacall’s role as Hannah Morgan brought the actress some of the best reviews of her career, and she was clearly a highlight of the film. It also generated Oscar buzz – something that roles like Hannah often do. There’s a minor tradition in the film industry, in which an older, veteran performer – often an actress – is seemingly plucked out of late-career obscurity to play a supporting role, usually of a mother or grandmother. Many older actresses found late career renaissances in that trope: June Squibb, Gloria Stuart, Rosemary Harris, Joan Plowright, Jessica Tandy, Ann Sothern, Peggy Ashcroft, Kim Stanley have all benefited from this renewed affection. Bacall was nominated for an Academy Award – the first time in a 50-year career, and though she was a favorite to win, she lost the award to Juliette Binoche for The English Patient.

In an interview with Barbara Walters on the night of the Oscar ceremony, Bacall was asked whether the nomination was a lifetime achievement award. Bacall briefly bristled at the thought and insisted that it was about the work. But it was about both, because the role itself is a lifetime achievement role. If the role had been played by another actress – even one that is better, more skilled, than Bacall – the role would’ve had a different impact, a lesser one, and I don’t think it would felt as singular as it did. Maureen Stapleton – a far more resourceful actress than Bacall – played Streisand’s mother in the courtroom drama Nuts, and predictably was excellent, but it lacked the unique impact that Bacall’s Hannah had (even though Stapleton had far more screen time in her film) What made Hannah Morgan such a plum role is that it was a perfect combination of right star, right time, right director, right writer. It’s important that when we’re introduced to Bacall’s Hannah, she makes an entrance. If nothing else, one could say that Lauren Bacall’s film career was all about impact. She was a star first and actress second, and The Mirror Has Two Faces was the only film in which the script understood that.

Jean Hagen is the underrated hero of ‘Singin’ in the Rain’

Singin’ in the Rain will always be remembered for individual musical numbers featuring members of the cast. The starring trio – Gene Kelly, Donald O’Connor, and Debbie Reynolds – are song-and-dance professionals and are made immortal by sequences in the film that take advantage of their hoofing skills. Kelly will be forever known for the title sequence, in which he sings and dances with abandon as it’s pouring; O’Connor, on the other hand, is heralded for his comedic “Make ‘Em Laugh” number, in which he throws himself – literally – into an energetic and athletic dance routine that has the guy running up the side of a wall; and Kelly and O’Connor join Reynolds for the jaunty “Good Morning” in which the three stars extoll the virtues of staying up late with your pals.

Because Singin’ in the Rain is a musical comedy, the most potent images of the film are the songs. That means one cast major cast member, Jean Hagen, is unjustly swept up in the film’s legend. Her character, the villain of the piece, is rather unlikable, especially when compared to the three protagonists of the film – who are so cuddly, they practically look like teddy bears, and as a result, Hagen becomes a footnote when discussing the film and its merit.

That’s a shame. Hagen’s Lena Lamont is a refugee of the silent movie era, who is trying her best to survive the advent of talkies. Like many silent movie stars, Lena succeeded because she is beautiful and had charisma. But when sound was introduced, she, like a lot of stars, was suddenly in trouble because she had an ugly, screech of a voice that was thickened with a gun moll accent. Unlike Kelly’s Don Lockwood, she wasn’t able to make the transition smoothly because she lacked his smooth vocals and nimble moves.

As a result, like most people who are panicked and in danger, she lashes out and engages in destructive behaviour, namely bullying Reynold’s contract player Kathy Selden, and terrorizing those around her with her mercurial attitude. Because she’s a movie star who has been coddled and pampered during her career, she feels entitled to be protected by the studio.

And she’s not wrong. At her peak, Lena made millions for the fictional Monumental Pictures and was integral to the success of the Lockwood and Lamont films which made her and Don superstars. So it’s understandable that Lena feels the studio owes her loyalty and protection. When the studio hires an elocution coach (Kathleen Freeman) to smooth out and iron out Lena’s supposedly wayward vowels, we see a fight to make Lena more palpable for film audiences.

But what that really means is that the suits behind Monumental are trying to tamp out any remanence of Lena’s working class background, because that’s what actors have to do to succeed in Hollywood: lose their ethnicity or evidence of modest, whether that means changing their names, getting rid of their accents, concocting fake background stories, even shaving down their noses.

The film doesn’t really examine the inherent ways how this custom is fucked up. We’re meant to sympathise with the studio heads. When Don deadpans to the camera at the sound of Lena’s honking voice, we laugh at her ineptitude and thin, “Man, they’re so fucked.”

And Hagen works all of this wonderfully in the film. Unlike O’Connor and Kelly, she doesn’t merely work off of star power and charisma, but creates a fully-realized comic portrayal, an homage to Judy Holliday’s work in Born Yesterday, but without Holliday’s sweetness. Hagen steals all her scenes as she barrels through, nearly operatic. Though the film executives in the film wince at her harsh voice, it’s what makes the portrayal so memorable. Hagen uses the voice to assert herself, to ensure that she makes an impact, as she doesn’t have the opportunities that her costars do.

At the time of its release, Hagen’s performance was justly lauded and she was rewarded with an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress (which she lost to Gloria Grahame for The Bad and the Beautiful). As the film’s reputation and legend grew, attention to Hagen’s performance shrank. The film’s iconic status now lies in its music – especially Kelly and O’Connor. Obviously, they deserve the critical acclaim they receive for the film, as without them, it’s unclear whether the film would be as successful or entertaining. Both Kelly and O’Connor are not only great song-and-dance men, but they are also skilled comedians (especially O’Connor), and can handle the films moments of mirth beautifully: “Moses Supposes” – the musical number which depicts Don’s elocution lessons – is easily one of the funniest musical performance captured on film. But Hagen isn’t gifted with a musical number or set piece designed around her. Instead, she’s doing the heavy lifting in the acting department, matching Kelly and O’Connor with a comedic performance that is funnier and more authentic in its motivation and range. And therefore, repeated viewings of Singin’ in the Rain should once again restore Jean Hagen’s reputation as giving one of the funniest performances in one of the greatest movie musicals of all time.

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