British Invaders Blogathon: A Touch of Class (1973)

This post is part of the 4th Annual British Invaders Blogathon, hosted by Terry at A Shroud of Thoughts. Read the rest of the jolly good posts in this event HERE!

When we think of British actress Glenda Jackson, the types of films she did that come to mind first are serious dramas, such as Sunday, Bloody Sunday and Women in Love. Or, we remember her superb performances as Queen Elizabeth I in the TV series Elizabeth R and Mary, Queen of Scots.

She received her first Academy Award for the drama Women in Love, but won her second Best Actress award for the romantic comedy A Touch of Class. The film is a superb showcase for her comedic talents.

Recently divorced Vickie Allessio (Jackson) meets married American Steven Blackburn (George Segal) by chance one day in the park. They meet again while hailing the same taxi and agree to share it. They meet for tea and then for lunch. Vickie is not interested in what Steven appears to be interested in, a “quickie” while his wife is out of town. However, she is open to a weekend in a sunny clime with Steven.

Instead, Steven proposes a week in Spain. Everything that can go wrong does go wrong, including Steven meeting a friend (Paul Sorvino) at the airport, who wants to share his rental car. While Vickie looks on, Steven agrees to take a much worse and smaller car. Unschooled in driving a stick shift, Steven drives the sputtering car to their Costa del Sol hotel.

At the hotel, there are various mix-ups about their room, and they are forced to drag their luggage around. Finally settling in a room, their first attempt at making love ends up with Steven’s back going out. When that is resolved and they finally do the deed, Steven is crushed and infuriated by Vickie’s assertion that it wasn’t all that.

Stuck with each other, the tension builds until they end up having a knock-down, drag-out fight. They end up laughing at their own absurdity, and make love again. Apparently, this time it’s all that and they stay for the week. By the end of it they regret their time together is over.

At first determined to leave the affair in Spain, they find they can’t do that. They set up a lover’s nest in a remote area of London and meet whenever they can. There are various mishaps as Steven must try to hide his affair from his wife Gloria (Hildegard Neil). At one point he pretends he’s going out to walk the dog and must dash back to the apartment when he forgets it.

Over time, it becomes obvious to both Steven and Vickie that they are in love. Unwilling to break up Steven’s family, they part for good.

The storyline sounds sad, even bittersweet (there’s one point where Steven and Vickie sob uncontrollably while watching Brief Encounter), but this is mostly a frenzied comedy, with snappy dialogue and frantic mishaps.

Jackson plays a character that is obviously meant to echo the kind Katharine Hepburn played: smart, independent, acerbic, talented, with a dash of kookiness thrown in. She is a clothing designer, but one that steals from other designers to provide cheap knock-offs. Steven seems to care for his wife but sees nothing wrong with stepping out on her occasionally. In fact, Vickie does not seem very concerned with the feelings of Steven’s wife. (It was the early 1970s; I guess this was considered a modern attitude then.)

There is plenty of chemistry between Jackson and Segal—her dry, British wit and his frenetic American energy play off each other successfully most of the time. The role of Steven was originally offered to Cary Grant, who was retired from movies at the time. He eventually declined to come out of retirement. Though Segal did not win the Academy Award, he did take home the Golden Globe for the role.

Co-screenwriter/director Melvin Frank had not initially thought of Jackson for the role of Vickie until he saw her on a TV comedy sketch. Realizing she was also talented at comedy, he offered her the part.

After she won the Academy Award, Frank sent her a telegram: “Stick with us and we will get you another one.”

She never got another one (perhaps because she eventually retired from acting to enter politics), but certainly deserved it for this one.

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The Kubrick Masterpiece Missed by the Critics: Barry Lyndon (1975)

This post is part of the 3rd Annual British Invaders Blogathon, hosted by Terry at Shroud of Thoughts. Read the rest of the jolly good posts in this event HERE!

(SPOILERS)

After wowing film lovers and critics with revolutionary films such as 2001: A Space Odyssey and A Clockwork Orange, many received Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon with a collective yawn. (Due to technical awards, however, it became Kubrick’s most awarded film since Spartacus.) In a decade full of seminal films, it acquired a reputation as pretty to look at, but not remarkable otherwise.

Continue reading “The Kubrick Masterpiece Missed by the Critics: Barry Lyndon (1975)”

A Fish Called Wanda: an English/American Love/Hate Story

This post is part of the 2nd Annual British Invaders Blogathon, hosted by Terry at A Shroud of Thoughts. Read the other great posts HERE!

ARCHIE: So you robbed the jewelers, turned one of your lovers over to the police, kept the other one on to help you find the diamonds, and when he does, you commit perjury in the High Court, right?

WANDA: Come on, Archie. Everybody does it in America.

ARCHIE: Well, not in this country, they don’t!

WANDA: Oh, right. Like nobody lies in England. Like Margaret Thatcher never lied.

This exchange, towards the end of 1988 heist comedy, A Fish Called Wanda, pretty much sums up what, deep down, the movie is really about: the mutual admiration and disgust the British and Americans feel for each other.

Co-written by John Cleese (Monty Python, Fawlty Towers) and Charles Crichton (The Lavender Hill Mob) and directed by Crichton, A Fish Called Wanda is sometimes called a “late Ealing comedy.” Crichton, who made what is considered the first Ealing Studios comedy (Hue and Cry), directed A Fish Called Wanda when his career was basically over. Already in his 70s and suffering from severe back problems, Crichton found himself helming not only a critical success, but a massive commercial one, as well. The film was nominated for three Academy Awards, winning one for Best Supporting Actor (Kevin Kline).

The idea for the story originated with Cleese, who hand-picked the four leads: himself as Archie Leach (the name itself is a joke–it’s Cary Grant’s real name) a hen-pecked barrister, Kevin Kline as Otto, the world’s stupidest ex-C.I.A. agent, fellow ex-Monty Python member Michael Palin as Ken, an animal loving crook with a profound stutter, and Jamie Lee Curtis as Wanda, American femme fatale extraordinaire.

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(SPOILERS)

The story hits many familiar notes found in the heist genre: it starts off with a very successful robbery in the first act, followed by set-backs and betrayals among the robbers. Lead by George (Tom Georgeson), the team includes his loyal friend Ken and American girlfriend Wanda. In need of a weapons man, Wanda introduces into the group her brother Otto–who is actually her lover.

Wanda plans to betray both her lovers from the beginning. Wanda and Otto turn George into the police. When Otto breaks into the safe where George left the jewels, they find it empty. Wanda, who was ready to sandbag Otto and take off with the jewels, quickly regroups. She discovers Ken has hidden a safe deposit key and lifts it from him, hiding it in her locket. She decides the best way to find out where George stashed the jewels is through his barrister, Archie.

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Archie is married to the cold and snobbish Wendy (Maria Aitken). When the sexy and outgoing Wanda introduces herself to him, he is immediately captivated by her. Even so, it’s not easy to get information out of Archie. He soon realizes Wanda is a witness in George’s case and insists he can’t discuss it with her. Wanda’s various attempts to seduce information out of Archie are invariably interrupted by the jealous Otto. During one of these encounters, she loses the locket. Wendy mistakes it for a gift from Archie. He later stages a robbery in his house so he can pretend it was stolen and gives it back to Wanda.

Both Ken and George suspect Otto has turned George in. To keep them from finding out Wanda is his lover, Otto pretends he is gay with a crush on Ken, even as he mercilessly mocks Ken’s stutter.

Meanwhile, George commands Ken to kill the only witness to their escape from the robbery–a little old lady with three small dogs. Ken succeeds–in killing each of her dogs. Ken is heartbroken (and badly injured) after each doggy death. Finally, the old lady succumbs to a heart attack and dies.

All are (or pretend to be) thrilled that the one person who can place George at the scene of the crime has died. When Wanda betrays George on the witness stand, Archie finally catches on to her game. He grabs her and takes her to see Ken, who knows where George has hidden the jewels.

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Unfortunately, Otto has beat them to it, slowly eating Ken’s beloved tropical fish to force the information out of him. Ken tries to tell Archie, but has a difficult time due to his stutter. They finally figure out that they have to go to a hotel at Heathrow. In the meantime, Otto drives away with Wanda, who was waiting outside in the car.

At the airport Otto makes Wanda open the locker with the jewels. She hits him and take the jewels from him, shutting him up in the locker. Otto shoots his way out and is caught by Archie. He turns the tables and holds a gun on and humiliates Archie. Ken shows up driving a steamroller. He runs over Otto, who sinks into a bed of wet cement. In his triumph over Otto, Ken discovers he has lost his stutter.

Archie gets away and finds the plane Wanda has boarded with the jewels. They reconcile. As the plane takes off, Otto, covered in cement, looks through the plane window and sees Archie and Wanda kissing.

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The story went through a significant evolution during its development process. The original ending implied heavily that Wanda would betray Archie the same way she betrayed her other lovers. But at some point, the filmmakers recognized that the emotional center of the film was the unlikely romance between Wanda and Archie.

The movie goes to great pains to contrast and compare the British and American characters. In an early scene, Wanda and Otto have sex. Wanda’s one quirk is that she’s turned on my men speaking Italian. Otto throws out a jumble of Italian words to get Wanda in the mood and occasionally sniffs his underarm to get his own juices flowing. The scene culminates in what has to be one of the most hilarious orgasm scenes in film. (Jamie Lee Curtis claims she had to bury her face with pillows to keep the audience from seeing her laugh while shooting the scene.)

Intercut with this scene are Archie and Wendy getting ready for bed, hardly looking at each other, taking off bits of clothing while keeping others on so they remain mostly covered up during the process.

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One of the biggest running jokes is Otto’s belief he is an intellectual in spite of his epic stupidity. Otto could be a prototype for The Big Lebowski’s Walter Sobchak: loudmouthed, opinionated, reactionary, unnecessarily violent, contemptuous of most people–and a total idiot. (However, we have to give Walter some points for knowing the difference between a nihilist and a Nazi–a distinction that would be completely lost on Otto.)

Wanda is also no intellectual (she has to look up Otto’s misstated political and philosophical beliefs to find out they are wrong) but she is clever in a devious way. A 1980s American woman, of course she’s money-mad, regretfully seeing little value in Archie when she discovers his wife is the one with the money.

In spite of herself, she still falls for Archie, because not only can he speak Italian, he can speak RUSSIAN, which drives her mad with passion.

Otto–and to a lesser extent, Wanda–are portraits of Americans who believe a little too much in their own exceptionalism. One of my favorite scenes is when Wendy arrives home early and almost catches Archie with Wanda. Otto charges in and pretends he’s helping British intelligence hide a defecting Soviet in the neighborhood. Wendy is not fooled.

“Don’t call me stupid,” says Otto.

“Why on earth not?” asks Wendy.

Even though you’re supposed to hate Wendy, she’s kind of an amazing character, cutting through Otto’s B.S. with little more than a sneer. (In spite of appearing in only a handful of scenes, Maria Aitken is the unsung hero of this movie.)

Archie and Wendy are a more upscale version of Basil and Sybil Fawlty, though Archie is much, much nicer than Basil. Sick of the constraints put upon him because of his culture, profession, and class, he longs for passion, falling for Wanda because of her overt sexuality.

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Like much of the comedy in Fawlty Towers, Archie’s character is based in fear–of saying/doing the wrong thing at the wrong moment. This is brought home when Archie is talking Russian to Wanda while undressing and prancing around. A family walks into the apartment he is using for his assignation with Wanda. Turns out, the surprised couple has met Archie–and Wendy–before.

“What a coincidence!” cries Archie, totally naked except for a photograph covering his private parts.

One of my favorite aspects of the movie is that Wanda is an unapologetic anti-heroine, who not only gets everything she wants at the beginning of the film, she even finds true love.

This is completely awesome, even when we’re talking about a crass American who thinks a wee too much of herself.

The film was not beloved by all critics and audience members when it was released: some were turned off by the violence against animals in the film, and Otto mercilessly making fun of Ken’s stutter. Michael Palin based Ken on his own father, who had a stutter. There’s a hint of soulfulness mixed in with Ken’s ridiculousness. He suffers from an unrequited love for Wanda, but unlike the other male characters, doesn’t expect or demand a return of his affections.

Plus, by the end of the film, we’re all waiting for SOMEONE to run a steamroller over Otto.

A Fish Called Wanda is a delightful madcap comedy, which manages to be a throwback, iconic to its era, and classic, all at the same time

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The British Empire in Film Blogathon: Young Winston (1972)

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This post is my contribution to The British Empire in Film Blogathon, hosted by The Stalking Moon and Phantom Empires.

The 1972 film Young Winston is based on Winston Churchill’s book My Early Life. A fan of the 1961 film The Guns of Navarone, Churchill himself suggested to the producer Carl Foreman that his book would make an excellent film.

It took more than a decade, but Foreman eventually made the film (he wrote as well as produced it). He offered both directorial duties and the role of Lord Randolph Churchill to Richard Attenborough, who had previously directed only one other feature film (Oh! What a Lovely War). He declined the acting role, but agreed to direct the film.

Played as a young adult by Simon Ward, Churchill’s life is covered from the age of seven to his first election to the House of Commons. It moves back and forth in time, opening with his first sojourn to India as a war correspondent and his initial taste of battle. Then it flashes back to his arrival at school with his mother Lady Randolph (Anne Bancroft). It later covers his experiences in the Sudan and South Africa during the Boer War. Continue reading “The British Empire in Film Blogathon: Young Winston (1972)”

The British Invaders Blogathon: The 1960s Royal Costume Dramas

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This post is part of the British Invaders Blogathon hosted by Terry Towles Canote at A Shroud of Thoughts. Click HERE for a list of all the entries!

When I was a kid, my mother rarely took me to see children’s movies. Partly because at the time (the late 1960s) there weren’t that many children’s movies made, partly because, well, she just didn’t like sitting through children’s movies.

So I was taken to see grown-up movies from a very young age. My mother has always been interested in history, and loved the royal costume dramas coming out of Great Britain at the time. She imparted this love to me. Continue reading “The British Invaders Blogathon: The 1960s Royal Costume Dramas”