Thursday, February 28, 2019

Put them all together, they spell…: Huppert in ‘The Mother’

Huppert, official portrait for
The Mother (photo: Peter Lindbergh)
When you have the opportunity to see one of the finest actresses in the world in live performance, you should jump at the chance. Especially if she is Isabelle Huppert, and even if she appears in a play as obvious and belabored as The Mother, currently at the Atlantic Theater Company in Manhattan (now through April 13).

Huppert is a miraculous performer who seems to choose her roles on the basis of how much they will challenge her and how complicated — and tormented — these women are. In the process she has created an incomparable portrait gallery that gets better with each year, even when the films or plays she stars in are significant only because she is in them.

Such is the case with The Mother, a modernist empty-nester lament in which the titular character, portrayed perfectly by Huppert, has lost her mind because her children have grown up and left home. The unseen daughter isn’t that much of a loss to her, but her son… well, therein lies the drama (and dark comedy and sleek stagecraft).

The opening scene finds Anne (Huppert), a jumpy wife, greeting her husband as he comes home from work with accusations and insults. Then we see the same scene in a less contentious mode. That pattern continues for the whole play — first we view events from Anne’s shattered perspective and then we see a more sedate version. Anne is a Frenchwoman living in the U.S. (one assumes the change in the play was made to accommodate Huppert’s strong French accent) with a busy workaholic husband (Chris Noth), who may be having an affair or just stays overtime at work to avoid Anne.

Their daughter is never seen and barely referred to, but her son (played by African American actor Justice Smith) is her pride and joy — and she is overjoyed when he argues with his girlfriend (Odessa Young) and ends up back at the family home.

Anne’s version of things includes the characters making declarative statements about themselves that are remarkably unsubtle — this is one of the play’s surprises that rather quickly tires itself out. Anne tells her hubby “I’ve been had” (in reference to getting married and having kids), the son’s girlfriend proclaims “I’m young and beautiful,” and the son announces to his mother at one point that he will hug her very tightly (the second half of that declaration would constitute a spoiler — and is subsequently undone when we leave Anne’s mind).

One could blame the fact that The Mother is a translated play for the intermittently stodgy dialogue, but Florian Zeller is a critically lauded French playwright and the translator here is Christopher Hampton, who makes a specialty of adapting such things to English. One can take comfort in the fact that the play is only 85 minutes long and the central reason for attending, Huppert, is sitting onstage as the audience files in. (She is reading a book, hides her face behind said book, making mischievous faces and yawning every so often.)

The stagecraft adds to the play’s general air of discomfort. Drug vials and bottles of wine are hidden below and behind an ultra-modern couch, projected signs on the back wall give us the numbers of the versions of scenes (“un,” “deux,” “trois”), and a microphone is situated at the edge of the stage so that Anne can deliver a nervous speech about her son (useful here as a dodge to shift our attention from the movement of furniture on the set).

The cast of The Mother: Smith, Huppert, Young, Noth.
The performers make the most of the material and add emotion to what is an overly simplistic scenario. Odessa Young admirably plays the son’s girlfriend and two other fantasy figures in Anne’s visions. Justice Smith has the most difficult role, as the barely sketched son who primarily tries to avoid his mother’s overly Freudian embrace (at one point the very drunk Anne does indeed straddle her son on the floor). Chris Noth lends shading to the “Father,” who is alternately a caring husband and an adulterous prick.

Huppert has inhabited this terrain before, as an incestuous mom in Christophe HonorĂ©’s Ma Mere (2004). Here she works on several levels, being at once neurotic, stubborn, caring, cruel, schizo, and also very sexy. Huppert is one of the most fearless performers currently working, and here that includes playing a 47-year-old mother who dons a red dress and hose and garters onstage at one point.

As I noted the last time I reviewed Huppert onstage, she is the primary reason to see The Mother. In this case, the “queen of meltdowns” plays a woman who is already on the edge when the play begins.

As she has done so often onscreen, she exquisitely incarnates a woman who is on a downward spiral and in the process inspires admiration for her craft, if not deep sympathy for the character.

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

When the best disguise is age: Deceased Artiste Albert Finney

Although Albert Finney became a movie star around the time of his “hellraising” contemporaries, his desire to keep his private life private connected him more closely with other colleagues, like Alan Bates and Tom Courtenay (his later “dresser”). The “angry young men” definitely split into two camps: the first was comprised of the ones who closed down pubs and were very publicly drunk; the second were actors who generally hid from the public and paparazzi.

There was indeed a dearth of gossip about Finney on this side of the pond. Aside from the much-discussed affair that sprouted between Albert and Audrey Hepburn on the set of Two for the Road in 1967, his name was not a gossip column staple (like, say, Richard Burton).

With second wife Anouk Aimee.
According to a Daily Mail article that appeared after his death, Finney’s love life was a topic of much discussion in the British press. According to the article: “Gossip columns reveled in his liaisons with the likes of singers Joan Baez and Carly Simon, actresses Samantha Eggar, Jacqueline Bisset, Jane Asher, Jill Bennett and model Erica Creer.” Yet, on the other hand, Finney was such an intensely private person that no one knew he had developed cancer in 2007 until he came back to work in film in 2011 and mentioned it himself.

So, when discussing Finney, his work takes centerstage. One can speculate what turned his handsome face of the Sixties into the hardened mask he bore from the Eighties onward — he seemed to have lived a particularly hard life in those two decades — but he was not the kind of gent who manifested his vices publicly. An interesting take on this was part of Malcolm McDowell’s recent comments on Finney in The Hollywood Reporter: “He was quite a ladies’ man, and he loved food and he loved wine. He would gorge himself at restaurants, but when a part came, he'd check into a fat farm and get back into fighting weight.”

He began as a stage actor, studying at the esteemed Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts. His first big break came when he understudied Laurence Olivier in a 1959 production of Coriolanus and went on when Olivier was sick. Finney discusses the moment in this interview clip:

Two films turned him into a star. The first was the “kitchen sink” classic Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960). The film is the most stark (along with This Sporting Life) of the Angry Young Man pictures, although it does also adhere to the “you put a bun in her oven, lad!” plot twist that defined a lot of these films (as wonderfully pointed by “SCTV” in the sketch “SCTV British Film Festival: Look Back in a Bloody Rage”). 

Look Back in Anger (1959) might be the best written of this type of film, but Saturday Night and Sunday Morning has hard-hitting emotion that makes it a U.K. equivalent to Rebel Without a Cause (albeit with an older lead character). Finney’s Arthur Seaton is the perfect sympathetic antihero for the start of the Sixties, a young man who believes there’s something better than the world he inhabits, but he’s not sure how to get there, so a drunken spree and a quick shag will suffice in the meantime.

Tony Richardson’s Tom Jones (1963) made Finney a bona fide movie star (before appearing in it he had already turned down the lead in Lawrence of Arabia, which made Peter O’Toole a bankable box-office name). A charming, playful adaptation of a classic light novel by Fielding, the film set the pace for many sex comedies to come — it could be argued that it is one of the two most imitated British films of the Sixties (the other being A Hard Day’s Night).

The remake of Night Must Fall (1964) showed Finney stretching, as he played a monstrous killer (equipped with a never-to-be-forgotten hat box). The character, of course, is charming as well as homicidal.

As mentioned above, the only time Finney’s name heavily appeared in the gossip columns on these shores was when he had a real-life affair with costar Audrey Hepburn on Stanley Donen’s Two for the Road (1967). The film is an engaging study of a relationship that is unraveling. As is the case with so many celebrity romances, the love affair of Finney and Hepburn didn’t last much longer than the shooting of the film.

One of his finest pictures is Charlie Bubbles (1968), which he also directed. It’s a masterful character study of an author going through a mid-life crisis. He’s able to cavort in public with his best friend (Colin Blakely) and can get away with anything, but he doesn’t care. He feels affection only for his son and his ex-wife (the amazing Billie Whitelaw), both of whom are doing fine without him. 

Charlie is the perfect end to the “kitchen sink” cycle of films, in that its working-class hero has risen up in society and is an empty shell (he only seems alive when challenged by his best friend or his ex). It was noted in some online bios and obits for Finney that, while he wasn’t in love with acting in the movies, he did like the wealth it provided. The film seems to reflect this, and its beautifully poetic finale says that “escape” is the only thing that one wants when one has it all.

While the film strikes one as a “guy’s movie,” Finney’s key collaborators were women. Whitelaw is terrific as Charlie’s down-to-earth ex-wife and (the polar opposite of Whitelaw) Liza Minnelli is quite good in her grown-up movie debut as Charlie’s American secretary.

The woman whose contribution to the film was most important wasn’t onscreen. Shelagh Delaney, who scripted the 1961 kitchen sink classic A Taste of Honey, wrote the screenplay. Thus making Charlie one of the two greatest male mid-life crisis movies written by women, the other being Five Easy Pieces (1970), scripted by “Adrien Joyce” aka Carole Eastman. 

Both films in fact end the same way — with an “escape” sequence in which our antihero takes off and seems to have left an American/British character study and entered a very European art film.

It’s a shame that this was Finney’s only work as a director (besides a telefilm), because Charlie is an accomplished piece of work. And in case one wonders whose films exerted an influence on Finney, Charlie is seen reading The Films of Antonioni at one point.

He appeared in a few movies in the Seventies, continuing his intermittent pattern from the Sixties – working on films when they offered him a very interesting role while also appearing with some regularity on the British stage. He only did two plays on Broadway, Luther and A Day in the Death of Joe Egg; he never appeared in American theater after 1968.

The Daily Mail article contends that Finney had a “lazy” side, which meant he took time off from acting because he preferred laying around. When you think about it, though, what better moment to take time off from your work than when you’re young, handsome, rich, and having a busy love life?

At this point he started assembling a portrait gallery of odd-looking characters — he was still quite handsome at this point, whereas in later years he was a dyed-in-the-wool character person, as his face was a hardened mask. The first instance of this change in his movie work was the musical Scrooge (1970), one of the best post-Sim adaptations of A Christmas Carol.

Finney makes a perfect Scrooge, and the makeup augmented his exquisite acting. His singing isn’t perfect, but it’s certainly good and the songs are not spoken, in the manner of Burton, Harris, and Rex Harrison. Perhaps the high spot — besides the scary Ghost of Xmas nightmare and Alec Guinness’s turn as Jacob Marley’s Ghost — is this sublimely pre-punk anthem of misanthropy.

Following that, Finney recorded an album that was released in 1972 on Motown Records (!). I have the LP and it’s fairly listenable, but Albert lacked Jimmy Webb to supply him with material and so the record sank without a trace.

His two finest “made-up” roles were most certainly Winston Churchill in the telefilm The Gathering Storm (2002) and his amazing incarnation of Hercule Poirot in Murder on the Orient Express (1974). The film was perhaps the best — along with And Then There None (1945) — Agatha Christie adaptation, thanks to several factors: the insanely perfect ensemble gathered for the picture, Sidney Lumet’s deft direction (proving that he wasn’t just a “New York director”), and Finney’s sublimely sharp (and somewhat grotesque) performance as Poirot.

Finney did consent to interviews but purely for purposes of promotion, Thus, there is no record of him addressing the fact that the Eighties saw him dive headfirst back into movies — in fact, working in so many that he began doing genre pictures in addition to A-level “prestige” productions.

So, for every Annie (eh), Shoot the Moon, and The Dresser, there were several movies like Wolfen, Looker, and Loophole (all 1981!). I have fond memories of some of the genre titles, but it is fascinating that Finney starred in these films while turning down major honors — he refused royal titles not once but twice and didn’t care whether he got an Oscar nomination.

On never turning up to the Oscars, Finney reasoned: “It seems to me a long way to go just to sit in a non-drinking, non-smoking environment on the off chance your name is called. It’s as if you are entered into a race you don’t particularly want to run in.” Yet he was fine with acting in sub-part movies and an increasing amount of TV works, both in the U.K. and the U.S. 

Annie (1982) is a lopsided movie musical, primarily because John Huston was not a musical director. Shoot the Moon (1982) had some beautiful moments but is an oddly paced drama. The Dresser (1983) is the best picture in this period of his career and, curiously, is the only time he did Shakespeare on screen. (He did a lot of it onstage in his early years and was branded “the next Olivier” by some critics.) As “Sir” in The Dresser he had to ham it up heavily, as his character is anything but subtle.

The single best role he had in the “later” part of his career (acknowledging that he kept acting for nearly 30 years after it) is the lead in Huston’s Under the Volcano (1984). He’s superb in the role and the film is an example of Huston at his best, depicting a man at the end of his rope. Death hangs over him throughout the picture and there’s never a false note from Finney.

When genius teleplaywright Dennis Potter was devising his final work — a pair of interlocked miniseries called Karaoke and Cold Lazarus (both 1996) — while suffering from terminal cancer, he found his alter-ego in Finney, who plays a Potteresque writer in the series. The two shows are not as utterly perfect as Pennies from Heaven and The Singing Detective (then again, what is?). 

Cold Lazarus contains one of Potter’s ultimate images of the writer’s place in the pop culture hierarchy: the head of writer Daniel Feeld (Finney) has been kept alive so that his thoughts and memories can provide new programming for TV. When he asks to be disconnected and finally die, his request is denied because his memories are getting such excellent ratings.

One of his forgotten performances is a masterstroke of casting that was unfortunately in a film where the star was miscast. Alan Rudolph’s Breakfast of Champions (1999) starred Bruce Willis, who was outshone by both Nick Nolte as his transvestite employee (a used car salesman) and a grubby Finney as Vonnegut’s greatest creation, the pulpsmith Kilgore Trout, who has the answers to cosmic questions hidden in his short stories, published only in men’s magazines.

Trout is a sublime character — a workaday Joe whose fiction contains transcendent truths. Finney is wonderful in the role, to the extent one wishes the whole film were about him (and Nolte).

Finney’s last movie role was a supporting part in the Bond film Skyfall (2012), but his last significant part after a productive decade where he had scene-stealing supporting roles on British TV and in films like Miller’s Crossing and Erin Brockovich —  was as the vengeful father in Sidney Lumet’s terrific last picture Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (2007). Albert could definitely be a scary guy onscreen, and in Devil, he is that indeed. As the dad of Ethan Hawke and Phillip Seymour Hoffman, he looks to find the people behind the killing of his wife, not realizing that his sons were responsible for the death.

As if his nearly five decades of fine acting wasn’t enough, we can also be grateful to Finney for investing in several films that might not have been made without his help. He was an uncredited producer on a few films he starred in, such as Night Must Fall and Gumshoe. Even more importantly, the man who starred in one of the seminal kitchen sink films was a financial backer of two of the filmmakers who pointed the way to the next movement in rebellious British cinema.

He invested in Lindsay Anderson’s If... (1968) and O Lucky Man! (1973), which together served as farewells to the Angry Young Man character in U.K. cinema. He also was the key investor in the first feature from another native son of the town of Salford, filmmaker Mike Leigh.

The aptly titled Bleak Moments (1971) is far from Leigh’s best, but it served as a “calling card” of sorts for the many Leigh telefilms that followed, which crystallized his style and themes. From a wonderful reminiscence that Leigh wrote for the Guardian: “As a backer, Albert’s behaviour was impeccable. No interference of any kind, only full support and warm enthusiasm. He would visit the rehearsals occasionally, quietly watching improvisations, murmuring with excited amusement. Similarly, he would show up now and again on location, spreading his unique bonhomie and goodwill to a tired and overstretched young cast and crew. In post-production, he was gently encouraging at all times.”

Leigh was a significant member of the “next generation” of filmmakers who chronicled the lives of working-class characters, echoing the concerns of the films of the late Fifties and Sixties but also addressing the nuances of urban (and suburban) life in the Eighties and Nineties.

There is no other way for me to end this piece than to include the very quiet and beautiful ending of Charlie Bubbles (apologies for the crap visual quality). This finale resounds through the years.