Sirk the Berserk

Not too long ago, a friend from London wrote to tell me that a new musical is in the works based on Todd Haynes’ “Far from Heaven.”  I can hardly imagine a musical I’d less want to see than “Far from Heaven,” which is my idea of “The Nearest Thing to Hell.”  I walk out of pictures all the time, but rarely as early as I walked out of that one — even though, now that I remember it, it meant walking home in a blizzard.  The whole point of that picture was to recreate the steamed up bathos and luscious silliness of the Douglas Sirk super-saturated Technicolor extravaganzas of the 1950s (“Magnificent Obsession,” “All That Heaven Allows,” “Written on the Wind,” “Imitation of Life”),  and to my mind, Todd Haynes’ picture failed on all counts.  (He also bungled HBO’s “Mildred Pierce” badly — totally faithful to the book, and equally inert.  I do wish some kind friend would tell Kate Winslet to wipe her nose and stop snivelling.)

What 'Far From Heaven' hoped to be; aim low & you still can miss.

What ‘Far from Heaven’ hoped to be:  aim low and you still can miss.

For one thing, “Far from Heaven” wasn’t shot in Technicolor, so the colors didn’t come close to the look of those Sirk pictures, which, along with the demented framing and lunatic lighting, gave those inane stories their special zest. For another, the acting was far too realistic and competent to capture that special Sirkian balderdash:  good acting is the ruination of Sirk’s style (aesthetic is too elevated a word for his kitsch). Think of the actresses in his pictures:  Jane Wyman, Dorothy Malone, Lana Turner — the best of them was extremely limited; the worst was hopeless. On her worst day, Julianne Moore can’t be as lousy as Jane Wyman was on her best — she’s too intelligent and sensitive.  The same goes for Dennis Quaid, who is by no means a great actor, but he’s not hewn from the same timber as that cigar store Indian named Rock Hudson. (I’ve always found it ironic that so wooden an actor should have been given the name Rock.  It would have been more accurate to name him Oak(land), Ash(ley) or Elm(er). It was doubly ironic that he should have played a tree surgeon in “All That Heaven Allows.”) Patricia Clarkson, likewise, can no more do camp than Agnes Moorehead could avoid it.

I confess to having a great relish for those mad Sirk pictures (especially “Magnificent Obsession,” whose Tinseltown piety — a sloppy sentimental version of Christianity — has often left me helpless with laughter), but I don’t kid myself that they’re good. If Sirk’s pictures were any better than they are, they’d lose their bizarre pizzazz. To take them seriously is to miss the point — if, indeed, they have a point. They’re all about cinematic style, and I can’t see how that sort of thing can be translated to the stage. Charles Busch would be the ideal guy to do a send up of Sirk’s pictures, but the pictures themselves are send ups, so it would be carrying coals to Newcastle.

Magnificent Obsession

You, Rock; Me, Jane: 'Heck, Helen, I'll write . . .'

Me, Rock; You, Jane: ‘Heck, Helen, I’ll write . . .’

My favorite Sirk picture is “Magnificent Obsession.” It’s rife with a specific type of bogus Hollywood piety that I find irresistible. Most of the Christian message is spoken by Edward Randolph (Otto Kruger). Because Kruger made such a suavely effective Hitchcock villain, I scream with laughter to hear him speak his platitudinous Beatitudes.  “Now wait, Merrick . . . Don’t try to use this unless you’re ready for it! You can’t just try this out for a week like a new car, y’know! And if you think you can feather your own nest with it, just forget it.  Besides, this is dangerous stuff. One of the first men who used it went to the Cross at the age of thirty-three . . .” [cue chorale from Beethoven’s Ninth] Every time Edward Randolph delivers one of his many homilies, he ends by sucking on his pipe. There’s something almost pornographic about the close association of Christian doctrine and tobacco addiction.

Kruger: 'You don't talk much about this belief . . .'

Kruger: ‘You don’t talk much about this belief . . .’

Edward Randolph is my favorite character in the picture; every moment he’s on screen is hilarious — the sunnyside-up eggs he serves Bob Merrick (Rock Hudson) look like the rubber eggs you buy in a joke shop (he serves ’em, salts ’em, but doesn’t touch ’em:  he’s too busy telling Merrick how to “establish contact with a source of Infinite power”); the cardigan sweater he wears, the way he purses his lips indulgently when listening to Merrick’s atheist poppycock, his hollow laughter, the supercilious melodiousness of his voice, and especially his truly ROTTEN paintings — they all make me laugh. If all these weren’t enough, there’s also Agnes Moorehead, cast against type as an all-wise, loving nurse/companion (and she does it up brown); there are the two incredibly terrible performances by Jane Wyman and Rock Hudson; there are huge, gleaming gas-guzzling automobiles and mansions a-plenty; there’s the hilarious backlot half-timbered, gingerbread Tyrol with its well-scrubbed, affable peasantry in their spanking clean dirndls and Lederhosen; and there’s a subplot that features what may be the single worst performance by a child actress ever captured on film. Her dialogue is impossible, of course, but the wretched little girl can’t even say “Hi, Helen!” without sounding as if she’d learnt it phonetically. And when her dialogue lapses, as it often does, into knowing, “adult” slang (e.g., “I’d say there’s about a ten knot blow . . . and a real gone daddy zooming around with his inboard.”), hilarity ensues. I also LOVE the staging of the big accident that sets the plot in motion, in which poor little Jane Wyman is blinded in a freak process shot. That slays me. Damn, I think I must go watch it again right this very minute.

All That  Heaven Allows

Rock, Jane & Lyme Disease

Rock, Jane and Lyme Disease on four hooves.

I particularly like the sylvan doe in the last shot, who peers in the window as the Widow Wyman nurses Rock Hudson, who lies happy and in love . . . and with his back broke. I quite like the whole picture, especially the Thomas Kincade landscapes and architecture. I love the insufferable kids (college boy Ned’s a prig, co-ed Kay’s a hypocrite psych major in cat-eye glasses) who never stop finding fault with their timid mother, whenever she so much as moves an ashtray or puts an old trophy into a less conspicuous place or doesn’t feel up to taking care of a big empty house by herself. (Ned:  “Father had that cup for I don’t know how long!” “We’ve lived in this house for I don’t know how long!”) I also love the elderly, eunuch-like Conrad Nagel with his aches and pains and nervous stomach: he’s a walking erectile dysfunction who hopes to marry the recently widowed Cary Scott (Jane Wyman) — and her kids approve. (His timorous courtship of the Widow Scott brings to mind Jimmy Fallon’s joke about Carol Channing’s second marriage, when she was eighty: “The ceremony was simple and tasteful, and the wedding night was disgusting.”) The way Nagel sips the martini gingerly and says, “Excellent, my boy, excellent!” also amuses me.

Nagel: 'Excellent, my boy, excellent!'

Nagel (back to camera): ‘Excellent, my boy, excellent!’

Then there’s the masher at the country club, Howard Hoffer (Donald Curtis), who ought to be locked up.  And the garrulous television salesman, Mr Weeks (Forrest Lewis), who acts like a raving lunatic. There is a staggering lack of decent people living in that little bedroom community. Everyone we meet is either a snob, a busybody, a hypocrite, a drunk, a fink, a golddigging tramp, a bearer of false witness, a sex fiend or all of the above. Worst of the lot is Mona Plash, one in whom all evil fancies cling like serpent’s eggs together. Jacqueline deWit’s exaggerated performance is outrageous, misogynistic and coarse beyond imagining: a drag queen’s Queen Bee.

Jacqueline deWit: Snob, busybody, hypocrite, drunk, all of the above.

Jacqueline deWit: Snob, busybody, hypocrite, drunk, all of the above.

Except for Dr. Hennessy (Hayden Rorke — Dr Bellows from “I Dream of Jeannie”), every person in that burg is a swine.  I suppose the town motto must be “Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch’intrate.”  I also love la vie de bohème sequence.  What it’s missing, however, is the silly piety of “Magnificent Obsession.”  Still, it’s great fun.

Imitation of Life

Lana Turner and Dan Herlihy. Imitation is a polite word for fake.

Lana Turner and Dan Herlihy. Imitation:  a polite word for fake.

Annie:  How’d it go today?

Lora:  Oh, Annie, it didn’t.  I’m exhausted.  Walked my feet off today trying to see every agent on Broadway . . . I even tried some . . . Off-Broadway . . . Way Off . . .

I’ve been laughing about that line ever since I first heard it.  The self-pity in that “Off-Broadway” is great . . . and the way Lana mutters “Way Off” makes it sound not only like “Off-Off” and “Off-Off-Off-Broadway,” but also like it’s a criticism of her own performance.  It’s the only time in her entire career that Lana Turner managed to get a hint of subtext into a line of dialogue — and it’s at her own expense.

For “Imitation of Life” (Universal International, 1959), Douglas Sirk apparently took considerable pains to make Lana Turner look ridiculous.  What he does to her is quite bizarre and modern:  it’s a motion picture equivalent of deconstruction.  Sirk is like a double agent:  he gives her the full star treatment with a huge collection of expensive clothes and ropes of jewels, flattering lighting, plenty of close-ups — but at the same time, he turns these emoluments against her:  they’re used as devices to attack her empty blandness.  Far from mitigating his star’s awesome lack of talent, Sirk conspires to expose her limitations in every way he can.  In the picture, Lana, who hasn’t a scrap of wit in her, plays Lora Meredith, who (after five minutes of terrific struggle and setbacks) becomes the finest light comedienne in America, which is a cynical joke in itself — and Sirk caps his derision by preventing us from seeing a minute of her stagework:  “Take it from me, folks — you don’t VANT to see ziss broad act!”  Instead, Sirk gives us a montage of her curtain calls, which are more than enough to display her amateurish lack of poise.

Juanita Moore as Annie: A room for one night turns into a lifetime of unpaid labor. We're supposed to be happy for her.

Juanita Moore as Annie: A room for one night turns into a lifetime of unpaid labor. We’re supposed to be happy for her.

Conversely, Sirk adored Juanita Moore, who plays the long-suffering black mother, Annie Johnson (years later, he said she was his favorite American actress).  Moore has to speak a lot of terrible dialogue and some of the paces she’s put through are awfully sticky, but she has immense dignity and gravitas.  Until recently, I had never grasped how fine her performance really is.  In some ways, the picture was ahead of its time in its look at mid-century American racism, but unfortunately, there’s no escaping the condescending tone of its liberalism — mostly, I believe, because the studio was simply too timid to go all the way.  Nevertheless, it’s notable that Moore (who had never played a major role before this one) was given the opportunity to steal the big, expensive picture completely — not just because she’s a fine and subtle actress, but because Sirk saw to it that her role was made the most important:  she is the heart of the picture.  But then, in stark contrast to Moore’s superb and subtle performance, there’s the stolid, unimaginative, stale Hollywood construct known as Lana Turner, who manages to be completely sincere and totally artificial  — simultaneously!  She suffers, she simpers, she arches one eyebrow; she pouts, she strikes poses and pantomimes like mad in an endless array of expensive gowns and glittering jewels.  She’s not lazy; she takes no short-cuts; she commits herself whole-heartedly to every moment — no passing emotion is too small or brief for her to pantomime . . . and you never believe a word she says.  She’s The Compleat Mangler — the single worst major movie star of all time — a black hole surmounted by a helmet of peroxide blond hair.  To be fair, she does, however, possess one talent that borders on genius:  it’s her uncanny ability to stress the wrong word in nearly every line she speaks.  That ought to count for something . . .  According to www.imdb.com, Lana suffered three still-births, due to her having the Rh factor.  This number fails to take into account the 59 roles she played.

Sandra Dee, Lana Turner, John Gavin: Banality cubed.

Sandra Dee, Lana Turner, John Gavin: Banality cubed.

Lana Turner was a product of the Hollywood star system:  her bad acting was not really her fault.  She was taught by studio “experts” — acting coaches — to give all those lousy performances.  No good actor ever was a product of studio coaching:  the good actors in Hollywood pictures either already knew how to act (from stage experience), or they survived the bad coaching by following the example of the good actors they worked with.  But Lana was the studio coaches’ cat’s paw.  Besides, what launched her career and charted its course had nothing whatever to do with acting or talent.  Her very first role, in Warner’s “They Won’t Forget,” made her famous overnight.  Everything about the role was small, including the sweater she wore.  Only her tits were big.  That was enough.  Within a year, she was signed at Metro, where she co-starred as Cynthia Potter (a coy nympho) in “Love Finds Andy Hardy.”  Louis B. Mayer treated her like royalty, while at the same time, he referred to her phenomenally talented co-star, Judy Garland, as “the little hunchback.”  (So much for L.B.)

So Lana never really had a chance.  She was a star before she learnt how to act, and once she was a star, she believed all the lousy stuff the studio acting coaches taught her to do must be the key to her success.  Uh, no . . . it was those tits.  The closest she ever came to acting was what is known among professional actors as “indicating.”  Indicating is a form of exaggerated pantomime used by an actor to show the audience what he wants to convey, and usually involves a physical activity that nobody ever does in real life.  To take an obvious example, when the script calls for Lana to think, she will “indicate” the act of thought by squinting (very slightly — mustn’t develop wrinkles) and scratching her temple with her forefinger.  (If you want a Master Class in the crude art of Indicating, check out any episode of “The Honeymooners” and watch Joyce Randolph as Trixie.  She indicates so outrageously, she’s in a class all by herself.)  Indicating is the semaphore of bad actors:  you get the communication, but lose the poetry.

Take a look at the two pictures below.  You’ll see the difference between indicating and acting.  If you don’t, then never mind.

Lana 'indicates' full attention.

Lana indicates her full attention. 

Juanita Moore gives her full attention.

Juanita Moore gives her full attention.

There’s also a nice irony in the title song.  You’d swear it was Nat “King” Cole singing, but it’s not.  It’s Earl Grant . . . doing an imitation.

3 thoughts on “Sirk the Berserk

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