The Turning Point is a strange hybrid of dance/backstage and Golden Age Hollywood “women’s” movies. In a year that saw film going through a major transition, with the release of seminal films such as Star Wars and Annie Hall, it seemed a bit of a throwback, even though it had a strong feminist vibe. The script by Arthur Laurents is highly flawed in certain ways.
And yet I love it. It had such a strong impact on me when I first saw it during its original theatrical release. It opened up the world of ballet to me.
Because of it, I became a regular subscriber to New York City ballet, and each year would try to see whatever visiting ballet companies came to town. Because of it, I was privileged to see Mikhail Baryshnikov, as well as many other extraordinary dancers of that era, perform live. Because of it, I was able to experience the final years of George Balanchine’s career as a choreographer and the director of New York City Ballet.
The film’s story concerns DeeDee Rodgers (Shirley MacLaine), a former dancer who is married and raising three children in Oklahoma. She and her husband Wayne (Tom Skerritt), who is also an ex-dancer, now run a ballet school.
When their old ballet company hits town, DeeDee is both happy and conflicted about seeing her old friend Emma (Anne Bancroft). Emma went on to have a spectacular career. DeeDee can’t rid herself of resentment because Emma has the fame and artistic respect she never achieved.
DeeDee’s daughter Emilia (Leslie Browne) is a talented young dancer. She is invited to join her parents’ old company. They travel to New York for the company’s summer season.
Emma has trouble facing that her dancing career is almost at an end. Emilia has an affair with fellow dancer Yuri (Mikhail Baryshnikov) but finds out he a womanizer. DeeDee’s resentment grows as she sees Emma and Emilia become closer as Emilia’s star within the company begins to rise.
It all leads to a confrontation where DeeDee accuses Emma of deliberately sabotaging her career by convincing her not to get an abortion when she was pregnant with Emilia. After a physical fight, the two women break down and embrace each other, laughing hysterically. As they recover from the fisticuffs, Emma admits that she would have said anything back then to get the part in the ballet that made her career. DeeDee is grateful to hear that she had been talented enough to be a threat to her friend. It was all she ever wanted to know, she admits.
Yes, the plot is on the thin side, and some of the dialogue is overwrought and trite. The movie was criticized for having dance scenes that did nothing to advance the plot or reveal character—which I TOTALLY disagree with. It’s that very thing that gives a strong portrait of how difficult it is to be a dancer.
The movie alternates showing the magical moments on stage with the pain, blood, sweat, and tears that make those performances happen. It’s triumph one night and right back to ballet class the next morning. A dancer will leave the stage to applause and double over from exhaustion, only to have to dance back on the stage moments later as if nothing is wrong.
It also illustrates how a dance company can be surviving by a slender thread, with constant money worries. It’s a career you have because you can’t imagine doing anything else. It’s a career that, for women especially, means sacrificing many other areas of your life.
MacLaine has claimed in interviews that she gets fan letters from male athletes who tell her they strongly identify with both Emma and DeeDee. Either they have had to give up their career before finding out how good they were, or they have hit a certain age and realize they have to find a way to reinvent themselves.
More than anything, this is a story about regret, and how it’s a part of everyone’s lives no matter what choices one makes. Both women envy aspects of the other’s life, and will probably always wonder at least a little bit about what might have been if they had taken a different path.
Director Herbert Ross was married to former American Ballet Theatre dancer Nora Kaye, which may explain why much of the backstage aspect of the film feels so authentic. He also did a stellar job of filming the dance scenes. Supposedly, the relationship between DeeDee and Emma was based on Kaye and her friend Isabel Mirrow Brown. Brown was the mother of Leslie Browne, who plays Emilia in the movie. Essentially, Browne played a fictionalized version of herself. (Very meta!)
The film is rather notoriously known for being one of the biggest losers in Oscar history because it was nominated for eleven awards and didn’t win one. (That record was eventually tied by The Color Purple.)
For all its flaws, it’s a film that brought ballet to a more mainstream audience and helped make Baryshnikov one of the most famous dancers of all time.
The final scene, with the two reconciled friends celebrating Emilia’s success, always chokes me up a bit.
“Oh, Emma, if only she knew what we know.”
“It wouldn’t matter a damn.”
Underneath all the soap, there’s quite a bit of truth to that. Instead of making a statement one way or the other (it’s worth it, no, wait, it’s not worth it!) the film leaves the future uncertain, because life is uncertain. In the meantime, Emilia dances, and dances with joy.