“THE GREAT GATSBY” (2000) Review

 

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“THE GREAT GATSBY” (2000) Review

I am amazed at how long I have ignored F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 opus, “The Great Gatsby”. I saw the 1974 movie adaptation of the novel years ago, but I found it difficult to appreciate the story. It was not until I saw Baz Luhrmann’s recent adaptation that my full interest in the story was finally ignited. After watching that particular film, I came across this adaptation that aired on the A&E Channel in 2000. 

Directed by Robert Markowitz and adapted by John J. McLaughlin, “THE GREAT GATSBY” is a 90 minute teleplay set in the early years of the Jazz Age. The movie told the story of a mysterious young millionaire named Jay Gatsby, who settles in a large house on the West Egg side (for the newly rich) on prosperous Long Island. Narrated by Gatsby’s neighbor; the well-born, yet impoverished Nick Carraway; audiences become aware of the millionaire’s desire to woo and win back the heart of Daisy Fay Buchanan, an old love he had first met during World War I, who also happens to be Nick’s cousin. However, standing in Gatsby’s way is Daisy’s wealthy and boorish husband and Nick’s former Yale schoolmate, Tom Buchanan; Daisy’s own uncertainty about a serious relationship with the lovesick Gatsby and the latter’s questionable origin of his fortune. This clash between class and romantic aspirations leads to an emotional clash in a New York City hotel suite and later, tragedy and death.

There are some aspects of “THE GREAT GATSBY” that I found admirable. The best aspect of this television movie proved to be the showdown between Jay Gatsby and Tom Buchanan for the love of one Daisy Fay Buchanan. I thought it was well-acted – especially by Mira Sorvino and Martin Donovan as the Buchanans. And director Robert Markowitz injected with a good deal of intensity. I was also impressed by Markowitz’s handling of the tragic hit-and-run of Myrtle Wison, Tom’s working-class mistress, near her husband’s Valley of Ashes gas station. This is the only version in which a distraught Daisy is briefly distracted by the infamous “Eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg” billboard before she avoids an oncoming car and kills Myrtle, while driving Gatsby’s white convertible. I suspect this was an addition created for this movie, not featured in the novel. By allowing the billboard to indirectly lead to Myrtle’s death struck me as inspired writing on McLaughlin’s part, or inspired direction from Markowitz. Who knows? And it seemed a pity that no one else – Fitzgerald included – never considered it. The Nick Carraway-Jordan Baker romance had never seemed as sexy as it did in this movie. In fact, this is the only adaptation in which their relationship seemed to radiate with any real sexuality.

But despite these virtues, “THE GREAT GATSBY” seemed marred by a great deal of flaws. Perhaps too many flaws. There is so much about this movie that seemed off. One could tell at first glance that this production was lacking in serious cash. I realize that “THE GREAT GATSBY” is supposed to be a television production. But I find it odd that a production financed by both the A&E Cable Network in the United States, and Granada Productions in Great Britain; could look like a poor man’s version of Fitzgerald’s novel. The costumes designed by Nicoletta Massone left me shaking my head in disbelief. The clothes worn by wealthy characters such as Gatsby, the Buchanans and Jordan Baker seemed more appropriate for middle-class characters of the same era – the early 1920s. In one scene, Tom Buchanan made a snarky comment about Gatsby’s wardrobe. Mind you, the latter was not wearing the infamous pink suit (much to my disappointment). But the cream-colored suit with the dark tie, white socks and dark shoes even made wince. Since the Nick Carraway character wore a similar outfit in the same scene, I found myself wondering why Tom did not extend his contempt to his cousin-in-law’s wardrobe. Although elegant, the Buchanans’ home struck me as more quaint than opulent. The exteriors of Gatsby’s home seemed more opulent, but it had an elegant quality that seemed beyond Gatsby’s tastes. And the interiors struck me as somewhat drab and middle-class. So much for the ostentation – and somewhat tasteless – mansion owned by the mysterious millionaire. I really enjoyed Carl Davis’ score for this movie. But it seemed more appropriate for a neo-noir movie like “L.A. CONFIDENTIAL” or “MULHOLLAND FALLS”, instead of a period drama like “THE GREAT GATSBY”.

Although I had complimented Markowitz’s direction in two sequences, I found most of his direction rather flaccid and uninspiring. There were moments I felt that he was simply going through the motions. And both he and McLaughlin did not do the audience any favors by including flashbacks of Gatsby and Daisy’s World War I courtship. Those scenes were not only shot in soft focus, but also nearly put me to sleep. My God, they were boring! The parties held by Gatsby disappointed me, as well. Most of it – with the exception of the party attended by the Buchanans – struck me as mediocre and a ghost of those parties featured in Fitzgerald’s novel and the other movie adaptations. And why on earth did McLaughlin’s screenplay begin with Gatsby’s murder? Was he and Markowitz trying to be different? Unique? It is bad enough that Fitzgerald’s prose, in the form of Nick’s narration, hinted that Gatsby was no longer around. Why wipe away the mystery altogether by starting the movie with Gatsby’s murder? But if there is one thing that nearly tripped up“THE GREAT GATSBY”, it had to be its casting.

Due to Granada Productions being a co-producer of the film, it was inevitable that a British actor or actress would be cast. That person turned out to be Toby Stephens, who was given the leading role of Jay Gatsby. Before I continue, I want to say that I have been a fan of Stephens for years, thanks to his outstanding work. Unfortunately, I cannot view Jay Gatsby as one of his best performances. He simply seemed so wrong for the role. Not only did he portray Gatsby with a stiff and unconvincing American accent, but also with a grin that threatened to form a smirk. Aside from a few emotional . . . or semi-emotional moments, I found his portrayal of Gatsby rather cocky. Paul Rudd could have made a decent Nick Carraway, if it were not for the bored expression on his face that occasionally marred his performance. I realize that Nick harbored some contempt toward Gatsby when they first met. But that contempt had disappeared by the time he arranged Gatsby and Daisy’s afternoon reunion. Unfortunately, Rudd’s Nick maintained that same contempt even throughout the reunion and did not really disappear until the blow up at the Plaza Hotel. What the hell? I wish I could simply blame Rudd, but I cannot. As the director, Markowitz should have realized what was going on and put a stop to it. He failed to do so. Martin Donovan gave an excellent performance as the brutish Tom Buchanan. However, he still proved to be the wrong actor for the role. Donovan’s Tom never struck me as an egotistical ex-jock . . . merely an ill-tempered Moaning Minnie with too much money on his hands. Not only did I also have great difficulty in viewing him as a ladies’ man, but also Nick’s classmate at Yale. Martin Donovan and Paul Rudd are a good deal twelve years apart. And it shows. Jerry Grayson’s brief portrayal of gambler/gangster Meyer Wolfsheim did not strike me as memorable. On the other hand, I will never forget William Camp’s portrayal of Myrtle’s loser husband, George Wilson. I found it incredible bad.

The three actresses in “THE GREAT GATSBY” fared better. Somewhat. I enjoyed Mira Sorvino’s performance as the very feminine and flaky Daisy Buchanan. She did an excellent job of recapturing Daisy’s warm, flirtatious personality and shallowness. My only problem with Sorvino is that she utilized a Northeastern accent to portray Daisy. And the latter came from the Upper South – Louisville, Kentucky. Thankfully, Francie Swift, who hails from Texas, used a soft Southern accent in her portrayal of Daisy’s Louisville friend, golfer Jordan Baker. Mind you, Swift’s Jordan did not strike me as a female athlete. But she gave a sly and sexy performance that I found satisfying. In fact, she might be the best Jordan Baker I have seen on screen – despite the Dutch Boy haircut and dull wardrobe. Heather Goldenhersh did a pretty good job of portraying the vulgar and ambitious Myrtle Wilson. I said good . . . not great. The actress portrayed a high, light voice that I would not associate with a character like Myrtle. And I did not find her desperation to escape from a life with the dull George Wilson particularly convincing. But I was impressed by Goldenhersh’s one scene in which she conveyed Mrytle’s account of her first meeting with Tom.

“THE GREAT GATSBY” had a few virtues – including some well done performances from the movie’s three leading ladies and two exceptional sequences. But the flaws overwhelmed the virtues – including lackluster direction from Robert Markowitz and the producers’ miscasting of Toby Stephens in the leading role. I have seen at least three versions of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel. I hate to say it, but this 2000 television movie has to be the least impressive I have seen.

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“THE GREAT GATSBY” (1974) Review

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“THE GREAT GATSBY” (1974) Review

Many years have passed since I last saw “THE GREAT GATSBY”, the 1974 adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel. Many years. I must have been in my twenties when I last viewed the movie on television. With the release of Baz Luhrmann’s new adaptation, I found myself curious to see how this 39 year-old movie still held up. 

Directed by Jack Clayton and adapted by Francis Ford Coppola, “THE GREAT GATSBY” is a Jazz Age tale about a World War I veteran who becomes rich via bootlegging. His story is told from the viewpoint of another war veteran and Midwestern transplant, Nick Carraway, who happens to be his neighbor. Through Nick’s narration, audiences become aware of Gatsby’s obsessive love for his former paramour and Nick’s second cousin, a Louisville native named Daisy Fay Buchanan. Gatsby became rich, purchased a Long Island estate and befriended Nick in order to be near Daisy, who lived in the more socially elite part of Long Island with her husband Tom Buchanan and their daughter. With Nick’s help, Gatsby hopes to renew his romance with Daisy and convince her to leave the brutish Tom in order to recapture their romantic past.

So . . . what can I say about “THE GREAT GATSBY”? For one thing, it is an elegant looking film. And one can thank John Box’s production designs, which beautifully recapture the super rich of the Jazz Age. Box’s designs were aptly supported by the set decorations of Peter Howitt and Herbert F. Mulligan. Good examples of Howitt and Mulligan’s work can be found in the movie’s opening shot that feature the interiors of Gatsby’s Long Island home. Another aspect of“THE GREAT GATSBY” that contributed to the film’s elegance was Theoni V. Aldredge’s costumes. I must admit that they are gorgeous. Take a look:

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Aldredge had stiff competition for the Best Costume Design Academy Award, but in the end she won. Did she deserve that Oscar? I do not know. One of her competitors was Anthea Sylbert, who was nominated for her work on“CHINATOWN”. As much as I enjoyed Aldredge’s work, Sylbert’s work struck me as equally impressive. The two designers could have easily shared an Oscar. However, I did discover something interesting – although Aldredge did most of the work for the female leads and supporting characters, producer David Merrick hired designer Ralph Lauren to design the costumes for leading male characters – Jay Gatsby, Nick Carraway and Tom Buchanan. Although Lauren did not receive any recognition for his work, I must admit they looked great, even if I possess a bigger preference for Aldredge’s work.

Douglas Slocombe’s photography also contributed the elegant look and style of “THE GREAT GATSBY”. Mind you, Slocombe’s shots of the film’s locations – New York, Rhode Island and Great Britain – looked beautiful. But his photography also had that soft focus look that practically screamed PERIOD DRAMA!”. It was the kind of photography that was very popular in the 1970s and still annoys me to this day. Nelson Riddle won an Academy Award for the score he wrote for the film. I wish I could say that I enjoyed it and found it very effective. Actually, I found Riddle’s score to be incredibly boring. The music sounded as if it belonged in a television one-hour drama, instead of a Hollywood film adaptation of a classic novel. The only music that I managed to enjoy in the film were the 1920s tunes featured in the Gatsby party scenes.

What can I say about Francis Ford Coppola’s adaptation of Fitzgerald’s novel? Actually, I cannot say a word. According to Coppola, what he wrote and what ended on the screen proved to be two different entities. Even screenwriter William Goldman, who had read Coppola’s original screenplay, seemed indifferent to Jack Clayton’s changes to the script. I have seen at least three adaptations of Fitzgerald’s novel. This is probably the most faithful adaptation I have come across. Unfortunately, this close adaptation did not really help the movie. I have no idea what kind of movie “THE GREAT GATSBY” would have become if Clayton had adhered to Coppola’s script. But judging from the nature of Clayton’s direction, I suspect that it would not have helped in the end. Clayton’s direction proved to be incredibly dull. In fact, he nearly drained the life out of Fitzgerald’s tale. I think Clayton took the concept of period drama a bit too far. I got the feeling that I was watching a “MASTERPIECE THEATER” production that originated on the BBC, instead of a film adaptation of Fitzgerald’s novel. And honestly? I have come across “MASTERPIECE THEATER” productions that proved to be a lot more energetic.

Some of the movie’s scenes turned out well. I was impressed by the party scenes at Gatsby’s house, even if screenwriter William Goldman found them vulgar. The scenes’ “vulgarity” did not bother me, because I found them entertaining and energetic. Those scenes, by the way, featured appearances by future star Edward Herrmann, who eventually starred in his own 1920s opus, “THE CAT’S MEOW” twenty-seven years later. I also enjoyed the party held by the adulterous Tom Buchanan and Myrtle Wilson at their own New York hideaway, even if it was nearly bogged down by Myrtle’s account of her first meeting with Tom. I also thought that Clayton handled the discovery of Myrtle’s death very well. It struck me as especially effective, thanks to a flashback of the hit-and-run that claimed her life. The movie’s best scene proved to be Gatsby and Tom’s confrontation over Daisy at the Plaza Hotel suite. This is not surprising, since this scene has proven to be the best in all of the adaptations I have seen and in the novel. My only complaint is that Clayton or the script cut it short by allowing Daisy to flee the suite before she could say anything or make a decision about her relationships with both Gatsby and Tom.

But the movie’s slow pace and reverent exploration of the Jazz Age wealth featured in the production designs nearly grounded “THE GREAT GATSBY” to a halt. I take that back. The slow pacing and obsession with the 1920s production designs proved to be impediments to the movie. But the Gatsby-Daisy love scenes nearly grounded the movie to a halt. I found them incredibly boring. Mindlessly dull. I had to hit the “fast-forward” button of my DVD remote every time Robert Redford and Mia Farrow appeared in a scene alone. They had no screen chemistry whatsoever. Between Redford’s silent intensity and Farrow’s over-the-top impersonation of Zelda Fitzgerald, there seemed to be no middle ground between them in order to form a believable romance. Daisy Buchanan was supposed to be Jay Gatsby’s “American Dream” – his final rung into the world of the American elite. But I had a difficult time accepting this, while growing increasingly bored over Redford and Farrow’s non-existent screen chemistry. Redford and Farrow are partially to blame, due to their performances. But I place most of the blame on Clayton who did not even bother to rectify this flaw.

“THE GREAT GATSBY” was also sabotaged by one particular scene in which Gatsby confronted Daisy over her decision to marry Tom and not bother to wait for his return from the war and France. I must admit that Redford did some of his best acting in this scene. Unfortunately, I found his efforts a complete waste of time. There was no need for this scene. Why would Gatsby confront Daisy on this matter? He knew why she had dumped him in the first place. Why else would he bother to get into bootlegging in order to quickly acquire a great deal of money and a mansion across the bay from her husband’s Long Island home? Even after Daisy finally admitted that “nice rich girls do not marry poor boys”, either Clayton, Coppola’s screenplay or both failed to explore the consequences of Daisy’s confession. Instead, the movie immediately jumped to the scene featuring the Buchanans’ visit to one of Gatsy’s Saturday night parties. In other words, this scene was a complete waste of time.

I also found the lack of African-Americans in this movie rather puzzling. “THE GREAT GATSBY” is set in Manhattan and Long Island, during the early years of the Jazz Age (although the movie changed the story’s setting to 1925). One would think some of the super rich had black servants. The movie did feature a few black characters in the scene at Wilson’s Garage, following Myrtle’s death in the Valley of Ashes. But that is it. I did not expect any major or supporting black characters in this story. But the servants featured in the Buchanans and Jay Gatsby’s mansions were all white. Even the jazz musicians who performed at Gatsby’s parties were white. Even more incredible, they were white, middle-aged men between the ages of 40 and 55. This sounds plausible in the post-World War II era in which one would find such bands engaged in musical nostalgia at some quaint nightclub or community event. However, we are talking about the 1920s. All white jazz bands seem plausible if the performers had been between the ages of 18 and 30. But these jazz musicians were middle-aged. White, middle-aged jazz musicians in 1925? Perhaps some did exist. But this is the only adaptation of Fitzgerald’s novel in which I have come across this phenomenon.

Jack Clayton’s direction did nothing for most of the performances in this film. As I had earlier pointed out, Robert Redford’s Jay Gatsby spent most of the film looking iconic and acting mysterious. What happened to the hopeful loser from Fitzgerald’s tale? Even Redford managed to beautifully portray a similar character with great success in 1973’s“THE STING”. Perhaps he simply lost interest, thanks to Clayton’s direction. However, I must admit that Redford had at least two great moments. Despite my dislike of the scene in which Gatsby demanded an explanation from Daisy regarding her earlier rejection of him, Redford gave a perfectly intense performance. But I was really impressed by that moment in which Gatsby met Daisy and Tom’s daughter, Pammy. Redford conveyed a perfect mixture of surprise and wariness. In fact, I would say it was his best moment in the entire movie.Mia Farrow has received a good deal of praise for her portrayal of Daisy Buchanan. She will not receive any from me. I found her performance rather strident and grating. Her performance reminded me more like the wild and unstable Zelda Fitzgerald than the seductive and flaky Daisy. Another over-the-top performance came from Karen Black, who portrayed the grasping and adulterous Myrtle Wilson. She had some nice moments. Despite its protracted running time, Black’s best scene featured Myrtle’s account of her first meeting with Tom. I found it very subtle. But most of her scenes found her nearly screaming at the top of her lungs. “THE GREAT GATSBY” featured Lois Chiles’ third screen role, in which she portrayed Daisy’s Louisville friend, Jordan Baker. Honestly? I really do not know what to say about Chiles’ performance other than I found it flat and dull. She looked good. That, I cannot deny. If one wants to see both Farrow and Chiles at their best, I would recommend 1978’s “DEATH ON THE NILE”, in which both actresses gave better performances.

The movie did feature some good performances. Sam Waterston gave a nice, subtle performance as Gatsby’s neighbor and Daisy’s cousin, Nick Carraway. He managed to project a good deal of emotion, while being subtle at the same time. My only complaint is that both he and Redford failed to generate any kind of chemistry as two neighbors who become friends. Scott Wilson gave an emotional, yet textured performance as Myrtle’s cuckolded husband, George Wilson. The actor did a very good job in conveying both the character’s passionate love for Myrtle and whipped personality. I also enjoyed Howard Da Silva’s performance as Gatsby’s bootlegging colleague, Meyer Wolfsheim. Although brief, I found his performance very entertaining and charming. By the way, Da Silva portrayed George Wilson in the 1949 version of Fitzgerald’s novel. If I had to give an award for the movie’s best performance, I would hand it over to Bruce Dern for his portrayal of Daisy’s brutish and elitist husband, Tom Buchanan. Mind you, Dern did not exactly convey the picture of a sports-obsessed ex-jock with a powerful build. But he did an excellent job in portraying Tom’s obsession with social position, warm passion for Myrtle and possessive regard for Daisy. More importantly, he managed to inject a great deal of energy in all of his scenes – especially the one featured at the Plaza Hotel suite. I must admit that I found one of his lines rather funny for two different reasons. Tom’s complaint about Gatsby’s pink suit struck me rather funny, thanks to Dern’s delivery. But I also found it hilarious that Tom would complain about the color of Gatsby’s suit, while wearing a purple one. If you doubt me, take a gander at the following image:

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If the purple in Tom’s suit had been any deeper, one would think he was a gauche social climber . . . or a pimp. Frankly, Dern’s line would have been more effective if the actor’s suit had possessed a more conservative color in that scene.

Overall, “THE GREAT GATSBY” is a beautiful looking movie to behold. And I believe it could have become a more energetic and interesting tale if the producers had hired a better director. I realize that Jack Clayton’s reputation had been made due to his work on 1959’s “ROOM AT THE TOP”. But he really dropped the ball some fifteen years later, thanks to his dull and lethargic direction of “THE GREAT GATSBY”. Cast members such as Bruce Dern and Sam Waterson managed to overcome Clayton’s direction. Others failed to do so. This was especially the case for Robert Redford and Mia Farrow, who portrayed the movie’s two main characters. And because of Clayton’s poor direction, this version of “THE GREAT GATSBY” proved to be a big disappointment for me.

“RED-HEADED WOMAN” (1932) Review

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“RED-HEADED WOMAN” (1932) Review

According to Hollywood legend, at least a handful of movies made during the period known as the Pre-Code Era (1929-1934) had pushed the boundaries of on-screen decency so deeply that they may have been responsible for the stringent enforcement of the Hays Code between the mid-1930s and the late 1960s. One of those movies happened to be MGM’s 1932 comedy called “RED-HEADED WOMAN”

Based upon Katherine Brush’s 1931 novel, “RED-HEADED WOMAN” told the story of Lilian “Lil” Andrews, a young secretary at the Legendre Company who uses sex to advance her position there by instigating an affair with William “Bill” Legendre Jr., the son of her wealthy boss. During the course of the film, Lil engages in pre-marital sex, breaks up Bill’s marriage to his ladylike wife Irene. After Lil marries Bill following his divorce, she finds herself shunned by high society due to not only her home wrecking, but also her lower-class origins. Lil tries to force herself into high society by seducing the Legendres’ main customer, wealthy coal tycoon Charles B. Gaerste and blackmailing him into sponsoring her own party. But the plan backfires and a humiliated Lil sets upon a course that ends up threatening her tenuous marriage.

“RED-HEADED WOMAN” proved to be a difficult movie to make for MGM production chief Irving Thalberg. One, he did not care for F. Scott Fitzgerald’s first draft, viewing it as too serious. Thalberg believed that the movie would be more of a success if it presented Lil’s antics from a humorous bent, so he replaced Fitzgerald with Anita Loos as the movie’s screenwriter. He hoped she would provide a story that was more fun and playful. And he proved to be right. Thalberg and associate producer Paul Bern originally hired Clara Bow for the role of “Lil” Andrews. Although she originally agreed to participate in the movie, Bow changed her mind due to her objections to the long-term contract that MGM wanted her to sign for the role. Thalberg and Bern then turned their attention to the studio’s new contract player, Jean Harlow, whose contract they had recently purchased from Howard Hughes. Studio contract employee Jack Conway directed the film. Four weeks after production ended, the movie was released in late June 1932.

In a nutshell, “RED-HEADED WOMAN” is a funny and sexy movie that holds up surprisingly well, even after eighty-one years. For me, “RED-HEADED WOMAN” is a humorous reminder at how little human nature has changed over the years, especially in regard to sex, gender issues, ambition and class bigotry. Used to the idea that single women eighty years ago (or even fifty years ago) never had pre-marital sex, “RED-HEADED WOMAN” must have seemed like a shock to the system to modern viewers. This makes me wonder how present moviegoers would view “RED-HEADED WOMAN”, if it had been made in recent years. Think about it. “RED-HEADED WOMAN” featured pre-marital sex, extramarital sex, and rough sex (all which were featured off screen). If made today, most of Lil’s sexual encounters would have made it in the final cut . . . along with some on-screen nudity. But for me, it is the story itself, along with actress Jean Harlow’s amoral portaryal, that struck me as both sexy and lurid. I suspect that any on-screen sex and nudity would have very little impact on the movie. But I cannot help but wonder if today’s writers would have given Lil her happening.

Thalberg was right to dump Fitzgerald’s serious screenplay in favor of Loos’ more risqué tale. I believe the latter served the story a lot better. Realistically, Lil Andrews is not a sympathetic character. And I suspect that if her tale had told in Fitzgerald’s more serious style, the general moviegoers would have been turned off by her antics. And I doubt that the emotional crisis that Lil had suffered from Bill Legendre’s first rejection of her following their first tryst or the class bigotry she had faced from her father-in-law and the Legendres’ friends would have garnered any sympathy for her. A good number of morality groups from the early 1930s were up in arms over Lil’s fate at the end of the movie. If Thalberg had chosen Fitzgerald’s script over Loos’, I suspect those moviegoers that had made “RED-HEADED WOMAN”such a big hit would have felt the same.

I did have a few problems with the movie. I realize that Thalberg, Loos and director Jack Conway thought it was best to introduce Lil Andrews’in a brief montage that featured Harlow spoofing the “Gentlemen prefer blondes” quote from Loos’ famous 1925 novel and the actress wearing a see-through dress (honestly, not much is shown other than her legs). Frankly, I found this introduction rather amateurish and stagy. I think Loos could have done better. Also, the movie seemed to permeate with class prejudice. I realize that Lil was supposed to suffer from such bigotry. But the movie fails to generate any real sympathy toward her situation, due to Lil’s role as a home wrecker. Even Lil’s best friend, Sally, did not seem particularly repelled by Lil’s antics. And it did not help that the movie’s most sympathetic female turned out to be the gentle and well-born Irene Legendre. Even Bill Legendre seemed to be viewed in a sympathetic light as a mere victim of Lil’s feminine wiles, instead of simply a cheating spouse. If Lil had not emerged triumphant in the movie’s last reel, I believe this movie would have turned out to be a real turn off for me . . . despite the comic tone.

The cast proved to be the best thing about “RED-HEADED WOMAN” . . . at least for me. Although Jean Harlow had become a star two years earlier, thanks to her co-starring role in Howard Hughes’ wartime opus, “HELL’S ANGELS”; her career had eventually suffered through a series of questionable roles. Thankfully, Paul Bern saw her potential and convinced the MGM brass to purchase her contract from Hughes. And she was perfect as the amoral and sassy Lil Andrews. She was not the first or would be the last actress to portray a woman who used sex to advance her social position. But thanks to a performance that featured not only perfect comic timing and some surprisingly emotional angst, her Lil Andrews proved to be one of the most memorable female roles not only from the Pre-Code era, but also from 1930s Hollywood.

Harlow received admirable support from Chester Morris, who proved once again his talent for roles that projected a male ideal corrupted by man’s inner lusts and other flaws. He did a very good job in combining both Bill Legendre’s superficial decency and inner bestiality. Both Lewis Stone and Leila Hyams gave solid support as Bill’s snobbish father Legendre Sr. and long-suffering first wife Irene. And I was somewhat surprised to see Charles Boyer in a small, yet charming role as Lil’s eventual lover, Albert. But the two performances (other than Harlow and Morris) that really stood out for me came from Una Merkel and Henry Stephenson. Merkel was a delight as Lil’s equally sassy friend, Sally, who seemed to enjoy a voyeuristic thrill from Lil’s sexy love life. Also, she and Harlow managed to generate a strong chemistry as the two best friends. I wonder if they had made any further movies together. And Henry Stephenson, whom I remember from two Errol Flynn costume swashbucklers, provided some great comic moments as the Legendres’ wealthy customer, who ends up in a tawdry affair with Lil.

“RED-HEADED WOMAN” is a comic gem from the early 1930s, despite a few kinks, including a class bigotry that nearly tainted the film. It featured a sexy tale and fine performances from a cast led by the incomparable Jean Harlow that still holds up after eighty years or so. As far as I am concerned, I consider it one of the highlights of the Pre-Code era. Producers Irving Thalberg and Paul Bern, screenwriter Anita Loos and director Jack Conway took on an improbable project and transformed it into a minor classic.

“THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON” (2008) Review

“THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON” (2008) Review

Based upon F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1921 short story, ”THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON” tells the story of a New Orleans man named Benjamin Button who ages backward from 1918 to 2003 with bizarre consequences. The movie was directed by David Fincher and starred Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett and Taraji P. Henson.

Judging from an article I had read, it is clear that this movie was more or less a loose adaptation of Fitzgerald’s short story. Aside from the premise of a man aging backwards, there are many differences between the two versions. The main differences center around the fact that in the literary version, Benjamin Button is born physically and mentally as an old man (asking for a rocking chair), and dies physically and mentally young. In the film, Benjamin is born physically old, but with the mental capacity of a newborn; and dies physically young, although his mind aged normally throughout his life. Aside from the dynamics of the main character, the setting changes from mostly late nineteenth century Baltimore in the novel, to mostly twentieth century New Orleans. Also Benjamin’s literary wife is named Hildegarde Moncrief, the daughter of a respected Civil War general, to whom he eventually becomes less attracted. Benjamin’s love in the movie is Daisy Fanning, the granddaughter of one of the tenants at the elderly nursing home where he lives with his black adoptive mother, Queenie.

I found ”THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON” to be a technical wonder. I was very impressed by the film’s use of the CGI effects created by a team supervised by Burt Dalton. The movie’s other technical aspects – costume design by Jaqueline West, the art direction, Victor J. Zolfo’s set decorations, and the cinematography by Claudio Miranda – were first-class. I was especially impressed by how Miranda photographed New Orleans in the movie. With the movie’s art direction, the cinematographer did an excellent capturing the rich atmosphere and charm of the Big Easy. And I was especially impressed by the way he filmed 1918 New Orleans through the use of a sepia color for the movie’s prologue that centered on a clockmaker. And director David Fincher did an excellent job in utilizing the movie’s New Orleans setting and technical effects. If only he could have done something about the script . . . and the movie’s pacing.

Do not get me wrong. I am not saying that ”THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON” is a bad movie. Far from it. Not only can it boast a first-class production design, but also an excellent cast led by Brad Pitt. I have been a fan of Pitt’s since I first saw him in a movie I would love to forget – ”COOL WORLD”. But I do feel that he has a tendency to be slightly theatrical. It almost seems as if his acting style was more suited for the stage than in front of a camera. However, he does know how to be subtle when the role calls for it. And his portrayal of Benjamin Button is quite subtle. The character does not seemed to develop much – even following the deaths of his blood father, Thomas Button (Jason Flemyng) and his foster mother Queenie (Taraji P. Henson). It took his romantic problems with Daisy (Cate Blanchett) between the mid 1940s and the 1950s, and the realization that he would soon be too young to help raise his daughter Caroline that led his character to assume dimensions that were lacking earlier in the film. Despite this last minute development of the character, I must admit that Pitt gave one of his better performances in his career.

Pitt was ably supported by Cate Blanchett, who portrayed the love of his life – Daisy Fanning. Mind you, I found her character rather shallow at first. I could dismiss this simply as a case of her being young at the time. But there seemed to be lacking something in Daisy’s character that Blanchett’s excellent performance could not overcome. Quite frankly, I did not find her that interesting. Screenwriter Eric Roth (”FOREST GUMP”) tried to inject some angst into her character by having her fall victim to a car accident in Paris that cut short her dancing career. But I could not buy it. I am sorry, but Daisy did not really become interesting to me until she was forced to raise Caroline without Benjamin, and later take care of him before his death. But Blanchett gave it all she could. Without her, Daisy could have been a disaster – at least for me.

The other supporting characters were excellent. Oscar winner Tilda Swinton gave a poignant performance as Elizabeth Abbott, the wife of a British spy whom Benjamin meets and has an affair with in Russia before the Pearl Harbor attack. Jared Harris was colorful and funny as Captain Mike, the commander of the tugboat that Benjamin works for during the 1930s and early 40s. Julia Ormond, whom I have not seen in ages, gave solid support as the adult Caroline. So did Mahershalalhashbaz Ali as Queenie’s husband, Tizzy and Jason Flemyng as Thomas Button, Benjamin’s brother. But I have to say something about Taraji P. Henson. She portrayed Queenie, an attendant at the New Orleans nursing home who adopts Benjamin as her own. I loved her performance. She was colorful, tough, funny, sharp and pretty much the emotional center of the whole damn film. And it seemed a shame that she did not receive a Golden Globe nomination for her performance.

The first thing I had noticed about ”THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON” was that it strongly reminded me of the 1994 Oscar winning film, ”FOREST GUMP”. In fact, I even nicknamed the movie, ”a backwards ”FOREST GUMP” . And judging from the fact that this movie’s screenwriter, Eric Roth, had also written the 1994 film, I should not have been surprised. But whereas the main tone for ”FOREST GUMP” seemed to be one of historical whimsy, ”BENJAMIN BUTTON” seemed melancholy – especially in the movie’s last hour. The themes of aging and mortality seemed to permeate the movie like a black shroud. Considering the movie’s theme and the fact that Benjamin spent his early years in the company of the elderly, it seemed surprisingly appropriate. And at least it gave the movie its main theme. Without this theme of aging and mortality, the movie could have easily been reduced to a 166 minute film with nothing but a gimmick.

But as much as I liked ”THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON”, it has some flaws. The movie’s main flaws, at least for me, turned out to be – ironically – the script by Eric Roth and the movie’s pacing. Now I realize that movies that cover a span of years or decades tend to run up to at least two-and-a-half to three hours. But did the pacing of this film have to be so goddamn slow? I realize that Fincher wanted to give the movie a Southern atmosphere, considering its setting, but I feel that he went a bit too far. By the time Daisy gave birth to Caroline in the movie’s second half, I found myself screaming for the movie to end. As for the screenplay, Roth filled it with moments and plot points that dragged the film needlessly. I never understood why the movie’s ”present day”, which featured a dying Daisy telling Caroline about Benjamin, was set during the outset of Hurricane Katrina. What was the point? In the end, the hurricane had nothing to do with the story. And although I found Benjamin’s affair with Elizabeth Abbott rather charming at times, I had some problems with it. The sequence started out well with the circumstances of their first meeting. But the buildup to their affair and eventual parting seemed longer than necessary. The one sequence that really irritated me featured Daisy’s accident in Paris. All Roth had to do was featured her encounter with a Parisian taxicab, Benjamin’s trip to Paris and their meeting in a hospital. But . . . no. Instead, Roth wrote this contrived scene that featured little moments from various strangers that led to Daisy being struck by the taxi. It seemed so ridiculous that I nearly groaned in agony.

Despite its flaws – and this movie certainly had plenty – ”THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON” turned out to be a first-class period piece with an interesting premise of a man aging backward. Although this premise could have reduced the movie to nothing more than a gimmick, the topic of aging and mortality lifted the movie to an interesting, yet sad tale filled with emotional moments, great cinematography and solid acting, especially from Brad Pitt.  The movie ended up receiving both Golden Globe and Academy Award nominations during last year’s award season.  I still do not know whether it deserved these accolades or not. But I must admit that it was one of the top twenty (20) movies I had seen in 2008.