Harlow (1965) ***

Harlow presents such a convincing picture of Hollywood abuse that I was astonished to discover that it was not entirely truthful where the title character was concerned.

Jean Harlow was a hugely popular star in the 1930s before her untimely death at the age of 36. This film depicts her as a virgin (not true) who turns neurotic (not true) after her impotent husband commits suicide (debatable) on their wedding night (not true) leading to her go off the rails and die from pneumonia (not true). But in terms of the Hollywood system a great deal rings true and if the Me Too movement had existed in the late 1920s the finger would be pointed at a huge number of men.

The film is at its best when dissecting the movie business. A five-minute opening sequence demonstrates its “factory” aspect as extras and bit players clock in, are given parts and shuffle through great barns to be clothed and made up, often to be discarded at the end of the process.

No sooner has this version of Jean Harlow (Carroll Baker) been given a small part than she encounters the casting couch, operated by a lowly assistant director, who bluntly offers five days’ work instead of one if she submits to his advances. When she turns him down, work is hard to come by and she resorts to stealing lunch before rescued by agent Arthur Landau (Red Buttons). After tiny parts that mostly consist of her losing her clothing, receiving pies or eggs in the face and displaying her wares in bathtubs, she geta a big break only for that producer to demand his pound of flesh – “I’ve already bought and paid for you.” Here she has “the body of a woman and the emotions of a child” and ends up choosing the wrong suitor which leads to a calamitous outcome.

However, the pressures of stardom are well-presented: she is the breadwinner for her unemployed mother Jean (Angela Lansbury) and lazy stepfather Marino (Raf Vallone) and soon box office dynamite for studio chief Everett (Martin Balsam) who sees in her the opportunity to sell good clean sex. The negotiations/bribery/blackmail involved in fixing salaries are also explored.

But the film earns negative points by mixing the real and the fictional. The agent and husband Paul Bern (Peter Lawford) existed but most of the others are invented or amalgamations of different people. MGM is represented as “Majestic” and among her films there is no Red Dust (1932) or China Seas (1935) but lurid inventions like Sin City

Director Gordon Douglas was a versatile veteran, with over 90 films to his credit, from comedies Saps at Sea (1940) and Call Me Bwana (1963) to westerns The Iron Mistress (1952) and Rio Conchos (1964) and musicals Follow That Dream (1962) and dramas The Sins of Rachel Cade (1961) and Sylvia (1965) which also starred Baker. The opening scene apart, which is a seamless construction, he is adept at this kind of helter-skelter drama. John Michael Hayes (Rear Window, 1954) has produced a punchy script based on the book by Arthur Landau and Irving Shulman.

In the title role Carroll Baker (Sylvia) has probably never been better, comedian Red Buttons (Stagecoach, 1966) excellent in a straight role while the smarmy Raf Vallone (Nevada Smith, 1966) is the stand-out among an excellent supporting cast that also includes Angela Lansbury (In the Cool of the Day, 1963), Peter Lawford (Sylvia), Leslie Nielsen (Beau Geste, 1966), Martin Balsam (Seven Days in May, 1964) and Mike Connors (Stagecoach, 1966).

Except that virtually none of the movie is true, I would have given it four stars for its portrayal of Hollywood but I have come to expect that biopics, while moving facts around for dramatic purposes, are required to be good more faithful to their subjects than this. 

Father Stu (2022) **** – Seen at the Cinema

If Benedict Cumberbatch or Leonardo DiCaprio or Brad Pitt had essayed this role Oscar voters would already be sharpening their pencils, especially as dramatic weight gain (Robert DeNiro in Raging Bull) seems to attract more sympathy than dramatic weight loss (Christian Bale, The Machinist). Although Mark Wahlberg (Uncharted, 2022) has a brace of Oscar nominations to his name, this movie seems to have struck out with most critics due to prejudice against organised religion. And that’s a shame because Wahlberg gives the performance of his career as a self-destructive boxer who finds redemption in becoming a rebel priest.

Atheist Stuart Long (Mark Wahlberg) is a whip-smart, charming, cocky loser. But when it comes to lifestyle choices he hasn’t the brains of a toad. Washed up as a boxer, he decides, as one does, that he has missed his vocation – he should be an actor. So off he hoofs to California, taking a job in a supermarket, on the basis (obviously) that one of the customers is bound to work in the movies and provide the lucky break. Instead, he falls for Carmen (Teresa Ruiz) only to discover she is an avowed Catholic, so serious about religion there would none of that sex-before-marriage nonsense.

So smitten is Stuart that he agrees to get baptised and then proving a holy hell of a parishioner questions priests about everything sacred, dropping F*** bombs left, right and center. But when he almost dies in a drunken accident, he decides to turn his life around the hard way and determines to become a priest. That’s another almighty battle in the acceptance stakes, and his take on religion is certainly not what the Catholic Church expected, but just when it looks as if he is going to achieve his ambition he is diagnosed with an incurable wasting disease.

Three hankies at the ready? No way. This is not one of the lovestruck teenager dying of cancer pictures, but a thoughtful and hilarious account of, effectively, stoicism. I knew nothing about the story on which this is based and half-expected either a miracle cure or that Carmen would announce herself pregnant, having done the whole sex-before-marriage thing, and scupper his chances of a life of chastity helping others.

Instead, Stuart is the kind of guy whose suffering infuses others with a dynamic to accept their own, often as miserable, life. And he’s so far from a saint that nobody could be lobbying the Pope on his behalf. I’ve no idea why this has been tagged “faith-based” which seems to spell box office doom especially Stateside. Anyone wanting to know what religion means to someone for whom religion means a lot would learn a huge amount from this picture. Stuart challenges everyone – and that includes the Almighty – but in a very real and often very funny way.

Yes, there is discussion of doctrine, but this part is fascinating, as Stuart pulls apart long-held tenets and tackles one of the apparent hallmarks of the faith in the U.S. – that no disabled person is allowed to stand on the altar. That he’s not the one who personally mounts a campaign to change this, since he’s so accepting of the will of God, and that it’s left to others, helps make this movie character-based rather than virtue-signalling.

This is best I have ever seen Wahlberg, not just because of how far he goes, body-wise, but because it is an incredibly assured performance, the fast-talking screen persona given the bullet, and in its place a realistic human being who begins to understand the benefits of humility over brashness. If it wasn’t for religion Stuart would have been one of life’s washed-up characters, ending up like his father Bill (Mel Gibson) at the bottom of a bottle.

Mel Gibson, now firmly in the Nicolas-Cage-straight-to-dvd league, turns in a superb performance as the bitter father and the Oscar-nominated Jackie Weaver (The Silver Linings Playbook, 2012) is excellent as the buttoned-down lost mother.  Teresa Ruiz (The Marksman, 2021) is every bit as good. Cody Fern (Eden television series, 2021) as a buttoned-up priest who doubts his faith is one to watch and you might spot, under all his priestly garb and smug expression, Malcolm McDowell (A Clockwork Orange, 1971).  

Given the emphasis on equality I’m surprised writer-director Rosalind Ross has not received more acclaim, if any at all from what I can gather, for what is a very assured debut. And I can only hope this is not because she committed the terrible sin, apparently, of attempting to make a sincere picture about the effect of religion on peoples’ lives.  In Hollywood’s Golden Era all sorts of unlikely priests, step up Bing Crosby et al, and stars like Gary Cooper (The Pride of the Yankees, 1942) died of incurable diseases and the crowds would line up, but somehow this kind of storyline has become a box office affliction rather than carrying a banner for the kind of character-based straightforward story audiences used to love.

The Electrical Life of Louis Wain (2021) *** – Seen at the Cinema

Contender for worst title of this and any other year, this old-fashioned biopic covers both too much and too little of the life of the eponymous cat illustrator who ended up in a mental asylum. In addition, it’s afflicted by a breezy voice-over that you think belongs to one of the participants until all potential suspects have been killed off and you realise that for no apparent reason the narrative is being delivered by the ubiquitous Olivia Colman. The voice over also serves to cover up what director Will Sharpe fails to properly dramatize.

These deficiencies aside it’s a captivating story with some brilliant acting. Both Benedict Cumberpatch as Wain and Claire Foy as his wife Emily avoid the “strained seriousness” that they fell prey to in potential award-winning projects The Power of the Dog (2021) and a Very British Scandal (2021) in favour of more natural performances that bring both characters to charming life.

As well as inventor, all-round illustrator and amateur boxer Wain became the unlikely poster boy for an emerging generation of cat lovers. The movie also touches on some aspects of Victorian society which provide an interesting contrast to today’s more gender-equal times.  For although the man was the undisputed master of the household, the entire financial burden of bringing up a family fell to him. In Wain’s case, this was inherited, his father having died and left him in charge of a widow and five sisters, with expectations of maintaining a certain standard of middle-class life, and none of the siblings having the decency to get married to alleviate the financial strain.

And all very well from a male perspective if you could take advantage of such a position, with females on hand to meet your every need and never challenge your opinions. Not so easy to maintain if you were of an easy-going disposition with poor business skills and scandalized your siblings by marrying someone below your class, in this case an impoverished governess.

The strain of meeting family obligations, especially with a sister only too willing to remind him of his shortcomings, clearly proves too much for Wain, his earning power diminished by  interest in many other non-remunerative activities. Quite where or when electricity entered the equation is never quite made clear though ongoing nightmares about drowning and imagining he can overhear cats speaking certainly jeopardised his mental health.

By pure accident, at a time when dogs were the prime household pets and cats kept only for the purpose of catching mice, Wain’s cat illustrations became a phenomenon. He would have been wealthy had he retained the copyrights. He fell in love with the thankfully more direct governess and for a time they lived happily together. Ever after was not on the cards once she contracted cancer. The film takes on a different hue once she departs the scene. But eventually his obsession with electricity overcomes him and he ends up in a mental asylum.

The movie covers way too long a period, from his emergence as an artist in 1880 to his commitment in the 1920s. Although Emily features large in the trailer, she is gone too soon and the picture struggles to dramatize his later life. That said, that these shy human creatures emerge from their complicated circumstances to fabricate their own cocoon in the countryside with their beloved cat Peter is a touching tale. The madness that afflicts him may well run in the family, not just in their rampant entitlement, but with one sister carried off to the asylum and the older one a tad neurotic.

Cumberpatch is far better here than in The Power of the Dog where I found his character already too set. Both charming and lacking the guile required to maximize his earning potential, but with a manic nature he can no more soothe than his hair, he dominates the screen so well you are almost taken in by his bizarre theories. As good as he is in love, he is devastating as a man adrift on his own demons. Foy is excellent as the governess doomed to a lifetime of loneliness save for chance encounter with Wain.

Andrea Riseborough (Possessor, 2020) also strikes a chord as the neurotic sister determined to keep family and errant brother together. Toby Jones (Dad’s Army, 2016) plays Wain’s benefactor. The sisters include Sharon Rooney (Dumbo, 2019) and Hayley Squires from television series Adult Material (2020). Putting in a surprise turn as H.G. Wells is musician Nick Cave.

King Richard (2021) **** – Seen at the Cinema

Absorbing sports biopic mixing feel-good and a no-holds-barred approach to the titular subject with a terrific performance from Will Smith. Some commentators complained the film was too long but I was so caught up in it I was surprised when it suddenly came to an end. Beyond recognizing the achievements of the Williams sisters, I had no foreknowledge of the Williams story. The movie follows their early years until the professional debut of Venus (Saniyya Sidney).

Although following a traditional triumph-over-adversity narrative, this is as concerned about the intricate workings of U.S. tennis where the odds were so stacked against black players, saving Arthur Ashe, that club members were taken aback to register the boldness with which Williams Snr, entered their arena. For most of the picture what we see is struggle, Richard Williams (Will Smith) trying to interest coaches in his two daughters. The tennis system is laid bare, the need for funding and then big bucks sponsorship the ultimate goal, the Jennifer Cipriani case quoted as the downside of a system where parents push their children to the limit, setting aside any interest in a normal childhood in a bid to break into the professional game.

Williams is both inspiration and a complete pain in the neck. He comes across as warm and awful at the same time, a whole set of rigid rules getting in the way of the happy family he seeks to establish. His arrogance takes some beating. Having devised a business plan to turn his kids into superstars he finds it difficult to change his tune even when his methods result in zero success. He wants to correct the coaches, on occasion cheat them, but is so determined that Venus and Serena will not become tennis brats that he holds back their leap up the junior tennis circuit in case it prevents their development as people, impacts on their education and denies them a childhood.

The tennis matches are well handled. My ignorance about the Venus sisters’ career path meant that I found the actual tennis riveting. And the fury of children beaten by the upstart Venus tells you all you need to know about the pressures facing prodigies.

Zach Baylin’s debut screenplay is terrific, finding time to fill us in on Williams’ checkered past, professional and romantic failure. Prejudice isn’t limited to white people, he is beaten up by local hoods while a neighbour calls in social services. Charting the family dynamics allows wife Oracene (Aunjanue Ellis) an occasional turn in the dramatic spotlight. The relationship between Venus and Serena (Demi Singleton) is well nuanced as they move from giggling kids to more mature teenagers, loyalty to each other tested when Venus receives preferential treatment, each with their individual battles, until in specific ways they take charge of aspects of their careers.

Will Smith (Bad Boys for Life, 2020) is a sure thing for an Oscar nomination, but the supporting cast is exceptionally strong. Aunjanue Ellis takes a giant step up from television (Lovecraft Country, 2020) and as the sisters Saniyya Sidney (Fences, 2016) and in her rmovie Demi Singleton – just 15 and 14, respectively – are both delightful and convincing. Jon Bernthal (Those Who Wish Me Dead, 2020) and Tony Goldwyn (The Mechanic, 2011) play real-life coaches, the former frustrated to the point of torture by Williams’ antics.

Reinaldo Marcus Green (Joe Bell, 2020) delivers on several counts: drawing sterling performances from the actors, allowing the screenplay to breathe so the picture doesn’t feel cramped or rush, and setting genuinely exciting tennis matches.

This is already a certified box office flop, in part because of Warner Brothers’ hybrid release, in part I guess don Richard Williams polarising public attitudes, and that’s a shame because it is thoroughly enjoyable and despite misgiving about Williams as a person it is a truly astonishing achievement that against all odds a security guard and his nurse wife should have achieved such success.

Discover WordPress

A daily selection of the best content published on WordPress, collected for you by humans who love to read.

The Atavist Magazine

by Brian Hannan

WordPress.com News

The latest news on WordPress.com and the WordPress community.