Thursday, December 25, 2014

YENTL: Blu-ray (United Artists 1983) Twilight Time

Few artists of the 20th century have been as universal in their appeal or as eclectic and diverse in their talents as Barbra Streisand. None who have risen through the ranks in the 21st can even hope to begin to compare. Streisand’s meteoric arc and enduring legacy is, perhaps, even more unique and staggering when one considers the singular deficit holding her back; chiefly, her unconventional looks, capped off by a prominent profile that would make even Toucan Sam blush. In an industry where female stars were – and are – expected to wear the mantle of sultry glamor as comfortably as an old pair of favorite slippers, Streisand’s striking features were undeniably a culture shock. Without a doubt, she almost single-handedly changed our perceptions of ‘star quality’. And Streisand certainly has that - in spades. No other star has managed to tap into the art of her dreams, the exploration of her own inimitable brand of femininity (a thematic quest in all her later movies) with such spellbinding versatility, transmitting her most intimate thoughts to an audience with blistering sincerity. Streisand didn’t simply ‘explore’ the various possibilities of her craft: she conquered them with skittish voracity, determined to succeed in spite of the odds. Alas, in tandem, she has oft been championed and vilified for these efforts.
Barbra Streisand is demonstrative. But then, all truly great artists are; especially those hell bent on ‘proving something’ to the world.  Can we really blame her for such blind-sided determination? Better still, should we? What is considered mere ‘get up and go’ if Streisand had been born with testicles has been distilled into the ‘bitch factor’ where she is concerned. The vitriol heaped upon this highly private person because of her public persona has made Streisand the subject of unfair scrutiny; hard to work with or for, unbelievably temperamental, demanding to a fault, and, generally, the sort of person you’d rather not be around, unless of course, the outcome to all her meticulous fussing is…well, perfection itself. Streisand’s track record, appearing in movies of the highest quality, some in which she has worn two hats, as both its star and director, is uncanny. She’s hit the bull’s eye with all the precision of an expert marksman; unapologetically taking pride and recognition for her record of kills at the box office while loyal fans continue to applaud her tenacity as well as her achievements.
Streisand, who effortlessly migrated from an explosive debut as a recording artist, to a prominently featured TV personality and then, with glycerin ease, became one of the last truly great all-time musical movie stars, before stepping behind the camera as an as accomplished director/producer, has proven she can do it all, do it at least as well as her contemporaries, and often, far better than any of them might have expected she could. Sour grapes to the critics who continue to nitpick at her methods and bash her reputation like a piñata. But Streisand reigns with guts while basking in the glory she has wrought, seemingly thumbing her nose at her detractors and laughing all the way to the bank. She’s her own person and largely, a spellbinding enigma by her own design.
The aura of la Babs as the consummate diva has endured, chiefly because of her awesome discipline. In hindsight, the tagline to Yentl (1983) seems to succinctly summarize Streisand’s own creed: ‘Nothing’s impossible.’  Partly to satisfy her need for absolute control and partly to procure better projects in which to morph and reinvent her star persona in the public’s estimation – leaving the milieu of the lighthearted musical comedy behind, Streisand made the aggressive, and then, wholly unconventional decision to move into the director’s chair with Yentl; this, at a time when there hadn’t been another high profile woman in the driver’s seat since Dorothy Arzner and certainly never one who ostentatiously deigned to work both sides of the camera. The film is very loosely based on Isaac Bashevis Singer’s story, ‘Yentl: the Yeshiva Boy’; a woman desiring more for herself in a restrictive culture and at a time (the year is 1904) when the fairer sex was expected to remain decorous and placid; mere accessories ordained to a man’s life. Streisand once glibly joked that the film’s thematic cross-dressing bro/romance was ‘very nineties’ and arguably, very much ahead of its time. To some extent, Yentl never quite achieves its primary objective; to tell an elemental story of its own socially restrictive and repressive times for women. The screenplay co-written by Streisand and Jack Rosenthal relies, perhaps just a tad too heavily, on Streisand’s star quality (and Michel Legrand’s very melodic, though decidedly contemporary musical score) to bolster and buoy the narrative simplicities – or rather, its complications.
David Watkin’s cinematography is gorgeous, and Streisand is undeniably at the pinnacle of her powers; if not directorially, then decidedly as both a movie star and singer. When she emotes, ‘Papa, Can You Hear Me’ or belts out the penultimate declaration of her own transformation with the heart-shattering powerhouse, ‘A Piece of Sky’ she pierces the hypocrisies of the story with such magisterial and sweeping bravura, transcending the limitations of the material and giving us the sort of razzamatazz we’ve come to anticipate in a Streisand vehicle, it is quite simply impossible not to fall under Streisand’s spell; to be entranced and teleported into this alternative universe Streisand has so fastidiously constructed. In hindsight, Yentl is very much a transitional piece for Streisand, thematically exploring her life-long obsession about the definition of female beauty. It’s a musical too, but one unencumbered by the big and splashy production numbers of yore. The songs are mostly going on in Yentl’s head, or emoted with a scorching sense of grounded clarity in moments when Streisand’s conflicted heroine is completely isolated on the screen.
Yentl (Streisand) disguises herself as a male student after the death of her father, Reb Mendel (Nehemiah Persoff); resolute to secure a better understanding of what the world outside her own cloistered community has to offer.  She enters an all-male Yiddish seminary determined to broaden her horizons, but winds up falling madly in love with fellow student, Avigdor (Mandy Patinkin) instead. He, of course, knows nothing of Yentl’s intensions and is very much in love with Hadass (Amy Irving). As both Avigdor and Hadass believe Yentl’s disguise as the prepubescent Anschel, Avigdor confides the male point of view about life and women to Anschel and Hadass, sensing a more intuitive nature brewing from within, begins to alter her course of affections for Yentl. Whoops! This, of course, obscures her once seemingly uncomplicated betrothal to Avigdor. Holy pseudo-lesbianism, Batman! But, I digress.
The chief impediment to embracing Yentl as an intensely dramatic work of self-exploration is, ironically its incredibly moving and highly theatrical pop operatic score by Michel Legrand. Streisand seems to recognize the irreconcilability in these two worlds, keeping them awkwardly separate; the film’s thematic search for self incongruously distorted by Legrand’s poignant, though Broadway-esque, introspection.  At age 28, Yentl is a spinster too old to marry, though her father continues to have his hopes. Mendel is a patient and benevolent patriarch. He coddles his daughter’s thirst for knowledge, teaching her life lessons from the Holy Scriptures, thus making her the intellectual equivalent of any man. This progressive concept does not bode well with the townsfolk. Hence, upon Mendel’s death, Yentl crops her hair, dresses in her father’s clothes and leaves home in search of a new destiny – one she intends to write for herself.
Almost instantly, Yentl finds solace in a nearby seminary where she is befriended by two scholars; Shimmele (Allan Corduner) and Avigdor. Both men believe Yentl as her rechristened self, Anschel. At first, Yentl revels in the luxuries afforded her in a man’s world. There is a certain sense of liberation at play, a belonging to the ideals she has always known as an educated woman, hopelessly anchored now to her masquerade in order to partake of the pleasures in these comraderies. Rather predictably, Yentl begins to have affections for Avigdor, who is engaged to marry Hadass, the wealthy daughter of Reb Alter Vishkower (Steven Hill). Unable to qualify or even share her true self with Avigdor, Yentl agrees to conspire with Avigdor in his plans to court Hadass after Reb Vishkower discovers Avigdor’s brother has committed suicide. By familial association, this has branded Avigdor a very bad prospect for Hadass to marry. From here the story only becomes more complex and convoluted as Avigdor plots to have Yentl marry Hadass; unaware of Hadass’ genuine affections for Yentl and, even more poignantly panged, Yentl’s own yearnings to possess him. Unable to consummate the marriage for obvious reasons, Yentl instead sets her mind upon a quest to re-educate Hadass; seemingly to make her a better wife for Anschel, but actually, to impart her own proto-feminist wisdom; thereby making Hadass a more complete and worthy companion for Avigdor. Believing Hadass and Avigdor will eventually find a way to be together, Yentl’s Svengali plan is thrown into a tailspin when she discovers their abstinence has made Hadass fall in love with her instead.
Encouraging a ‘man’s outing’ to get Avigdor away from Hadass, Yentl confesses her secret identity to the man she has desired for her own all along – and furthermore – professes love to him with catastrophic results. At first understandably incensed, Avigdor believes the bond he has shared with Yentl has transgressed against male friendship and is a betrayal of genuine male/female affections. However, after some consternation, Avigdor comes to his own revelation. He is in love with Yentl. Alas, her outlook on love – like life itself- has now blossomed beyond ‘just this piece of sky’. Yentl sends Avigdor back to Hadass, recognizing their similarities in traditions and taboos she has so fervently desired to more fully explore on her own, departing for an uncertain destiny in America instead.
Yentl is often stirring; a first act in Streisand’s ever-continuing tableau of self-exploration outside the traditional movie musical; of a woman’s place and an even more unconventional artist’s purpose in a medium increasingly making very few demands on women either in front of or behind its cameras. While Streisand’s career has migrated into more purposeful soul-searching in the intervening decades (with the occasional misfire too) Yentl stands at the crossroads between Streisand’s early career as a musical/comedy star and her present day evolution into that more fully aware and well-rounded personality she has become with the inevitable ripening of time and stubborn perseverance.  In hindsight, there is a marginal awkwardness to the exercise; the movie stumbling in its attempts to straddle two sets of artistic principles at once – those belonging to the conventional Hollywood musical (herein, given over to more Broadway bombast than cinematic flair) and the introspective drama.
When Yentl had its theatrical release the critics were laudatory – in general. Yet, in hindsight, it’s the imperfections of the piece that seem to stand out. In retrospect, Yentl’s last act is badly conceived. Yentl insidiously manipulating Hadass into believing she cannot consummate their marriage until Hadass has rid her mind of impure thoughts about Avigdor reeks of some self-effacing and wicked manipulation; the supposed irony achieved by these machinations in the screenplay only underscoring what a cruel hoax Yentl has made of both her own affections toward Avigdor and the once meaningful relationship between Avigdor and Hadass. This might have endured without her meddling.  
Departing from their lives in the penultimate moment does not expunge this fact. Given the social climate these three fractured individuals must now cohabitate within, will any of them ever find satisfaction with just a ‘piece of sky’? Even more brutal is the perplexity as to why Yentl – having desired Avigdor in secret for so long, and then confessing her undying love for him to him – should inexplicably spurn his genuine reciprocation of this love by sending him back to Hadass. Yentl’s role, as Hadass’ teacher is one thing; as her own – quite another; but using these two people she supposedly has come to care deeply for and about – and presumably, enough to respect – thought now exploited as mere guinea pigs in her own life ‘experiment’, borders on some grand and misguided proclivity for genuine heartlessness.
Such miscalculations are mercifully counterbalanced, if not obscured, by Michel Legrand’s first rate musical score, sung to perfection by Streisand. There is longing – a note of genuine sadness and, even more remarkably, a ray of hope threaded through Legrand’s luminous and illuminating songs. Roy Walker’s production design, Judy Moorcroft’s costuming and Tessa Davies’ set decoration all contribute to a very palpable middle European feel. Yet, there remains a distinct disconnect between the film’s period and these melodic introspections. This is impossible to overlook or excuse. Streisand is in her element most and best when, as our hero/heroine, she eschews the pretentiousness of the dramatic material, somewhat softened by her own tenure as a musical performer on the stage. Streisand is well versed in both the art of stagecraft and cinema, instinctually knowing what works in one medium as opposed to the other. Her balancing act between these two worlds is impressive to say the least.  Too bad one can hardly – if ever - mistake Streisand - the performer - as the film’s inexperienced girl in her late twenties in search of herself. She is even less convincing as Yentl’s alter ego, Anschel.
Thus, the audience must be captivated by Streisand – the presence – to endure this masquerade. It is to Streisand’s credit that her own Teflon-coated personality is enough to carry the film to its mostly successful conclusion. Though we never buy into her act, we embrace her sincerity as an artist. This is quite enough to sustain our interests. It doesn’t make for the intangible and illusive believability in storytelling that the best movie-makers – including Streisand - are capable of, but it nevertheless provides a diversion against the impulse to dismiss Yentl outright or entirely as a badly mangled farce.  In the final analysis, Yentl is hardly a perfect entertainment. It is, however, a film stamped with Streisand’s own incandescence and something of a celebration of the human spirit, longing to cast off the shackles of convention, if only to rejoice in its own free will for the briefest of flickers in time.
Let us rejoice. Twilight Time’s Blu-ray is the pluperfect way to absorb the virtues of Yentl on home video at long last. After an overdue absence on DVD, MGM/Fox Home Entertainment gave us Yentl back in 2008.  But it seems MGM has gone back to the drawing board to further remaster these elements for Blu-ray. Right off the bat, we’re treated to the newer ‘platinum’ Leo the Lion logo; always a signifier that what’s to follow is better still. The old DVD was merely middle of the road. This Blu-ray is superb. David Watkins’ sepia-evoking cinematography is sumptuously resurrected herein. Flesh tones are gorgeous and fine detail pops even during the dimly lit sequences. Grain has been accurately reproduced for a very film-like presentation. Wow and thank you! We get a new 5.1 DTS audio too; dated by the shortcomings inherent in the original audio but masterfully represented nonetheless.
We ought to point out two things: first, that all of the extras featured on this disc derive from MGM’s 2008 DVD release, and second, that Twilight Time (for the first time I can recall) has neglected to favor us with an isolated score track. Given Yentl’s musical pedigree, this is indeed a pity.  We get two versions of Yentl: the original 1983 theatrical cut put out by United Artists and Streisand’s ‘re-envisioned’ director’s cut, barely ten minutes longer. Unfortunately, rather than restore this footage for the ‘director’s cut’ so that it seamlessly blends with the existing footage, MGM/Fox has merely dumped the rough cut segments into the finished film. The rough sequences are marred by excessive age-related artifacts and severe color fading. Personally, I don’t really see the point of including additional scenes without additional clean-up – particularly when original elements exist to do so. Worse, actually, is the rather slapdash way the extras have been featured; with sloppy snippets of Streisand waxing about the film, a brief intro to additional deleted scenes, deleted audio recordings of songs cut from the film, accompanied by storyboards and a truly bizarre ‘tribute’ to the cast and crew – basically, behind the scenes footage loosely strung together with an overlay of music from the film’s end credits. Bottom line: for the overall presentation of the actual movie, Yentl on Blu-ray comes highly recommended. The film has never looked or sounded better. As for overall presentation – this is hardly the 1080p disc of the year. Regrets.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


THE PRIME OF MISS JEAN BRODIE: Blu-ray (2oth Century-Fox 1969) Twilight Time

“Little girls, I am in the business of putting old heads on young shoulders, and all my pupils are the crème de la crème. Give me a girl at an impressionable age, and she is mine for life.”
The impressionable minds at Marcia Blaine all-girl’s preparatory academy are certainly in for an education, so long as the likes of Miss Jean Brodie (Maggie Smith) are in charge: Jean - the Scottish sensualist/liberal-minded rebel, sassy and impassioned, utterly infectious schoolmarm, who refuses to devote herself to any one man even though she readily acknowledges she is in ‘her prime’.  Miss Brodie’s girls will not receive any mid-Victorian slum prudery with their tutelage in this classroom; not when what ought to be known from life cannot be taught between its walls and the whole of history is to be appreciated rather than memorized. The purpose of schooling is to mold and encourage the mind in its innate predilections and métiers. To this end, Miss Brodie’s girls are decidedly ‘different’; this crème de la crème thinks for themselves, or rather, as Miss Brodie commands. 
Jenny (Diane Grayson) is the great beauty. Her art will be devoted to sex – also to the admiration of artists relishing the opportunity to immortalize her portrait in oils and pastels. Monica (Shirley Steedman) shall become a great playwright, perhaps even a fine actress besides; her tastes prone to embellishment and drama; also the power of the imagination. Mary McGregor (Jane Carr), the lonesome, stuttering waif shall distinguish herself in time too. Of this, Miss Brodie has no doubt. But what of Sandy (Pamela Franklin); the suspiciously quiet and resourceful? Sandy is…well…as Sandy puts it – ‘dependable’. Alas, such dependability leans to mischief and jealousy; an exploitation and a betrayal of this select group’s confidences. Jean is perhaps leery and decidedly more critical of Sandy than the others; for she senses her pupil’s enterprising ambition; so nicknamed the ‘clever cat’ by art teacher, Teddy Lloyd (Robert Stephens); one of Jean’s jilted suitors.  
Ronald Neame’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1969) trends at the end of the cinema’s fascination with tales from academia; stories about the cyclical nature of inheriting shared knowledge and the complicated segue from youthful follies into adulthood, exemplified and glorified in To Sir With Love (1967) and the remake of Goodbye Mr. Chips (1969). The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is, encouragingly, unlike these films in several respects; first, in its feminization of the art of education, and second, in its proto-feminist protagonist; Jean Brodie - a self-destructing creature of habit. Jean Brodie is unconcerned with disseminating only the facts to her class. For Jean, it is more important these pupils feel their way through the annals of history, great literature and art. We get a sampling of Miss Brodie’s ability to manipulate the cold, concreteness of text book learning as she diverges from her lesson on Flanders’ Fields; relating to her class the loss of a lover, Hugh; a fairly lurid combination of l’histoire and l’amour. 
What both the play and the movie do spectacularly well is to illustrate for the audience the double-edged sword of Jean Brodie’s expert instruction. On the one hand, she has dedicated her entire life to the enlightenment of her young wards; this ability to instill in them passions for living that no amount of book learning could ever provide, superficially reeks of the highest ideals to which any educator might aspire. However, on the flipside, Jean’s own passion becomes all-consuming and fairly corrosive; maneuvering and manipulating these children’s futures in a sort of grand experiment meets voyeuristic and toxic second childhood. Just as Miss Brodie’s girls live vicariously through her scandalous adult experiences that inspire a sort of sycophantic worship, so too do these malleable, silly little girls stir some wicked ambition in Jean to relive her youth and satisfy her own wishes, desires and dreams for them, rather than allowing each girl to explore what might suit them best. 
As a harbinger of Jean’s tart defiance of authority, and her foolish placement of blind faith in unworthy subjects – Benito Mussolini and Gen. Francisco Franco among them – Jean pins a reproduction of Giotto’s painting ‘Flight into Egypt’ over the face of Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin, undercutting the staunch conservatism of her superior; the school’s head mistress, Miss Mackay (Celia Johnson) and the poster’s slogan of ‘Safety First’. By extolling the virtues of Mussolini’s fascistic government in their place, regarded by Jean as a splendid cultural renaissance for Italy, Jean has already taken to the extremes as a counterpoint to Marcia Blaine’s even-keeled educational precepts.  Only in retrospect can the audience know how utterly mislaid Jean’s devotion is. It will take the next 115 minutes for us to equally discover the disastrous influence of Miss Brodie’s credos or, as Jean puts it to Mary McGregor, “That is what I am for…to provide you with interests.”
Alas, those interests do not extend to Jean – or perhaps, do – though never for very long. Already her fear of commitment has resulted in the casting off of one married lover, art teacher Teddy Lloyd (actually played by Maggie Smith’s real-life husband, Robert Stephens); whom she publicly spurns, explaining her lack of taste for human imperfection, and her ongoing quest in search of beauty, truth and art. Teddy, however, is unimpressed by Jean’s faux piety, forcing her into the men’s bathroom to clarify for her, and crystalize for the audience, the unvarnished reality; that she “bounced into bed with an artist but was horrified to wake up with a man!”  Teddy is the demonstrative sort, betraying a wife and six children by carrying on his affairs with Jean, and later, presumably out of spite, with Sandy. On the flipside, is music teacher, Gordon Lowther (Gordon Jackson); a sort of emasculated inamorata, casually fancying the school’s ever-faithful Latin classics instructor, Miss Lockhart (Rona Anderson) yet unable to purge himself of his stubborn preference for Jean’s flickering flame. Indeed, Jean’s overt sensuality proves a destructive elixir for both men, one she is acutely aware of and uses indiscriminately to titillate.
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is, of course based on Muriel Spark’s novel of the same name, transformed by Jay Presson Allen into a Tony award-winning play; Presson Allen doing double duty by adapting her stagecraft for the movie screen.  It is important to remember the play differs considerably from the novel; the book’s philosophical and theological debates discarded in favor of a fairly straight forward melodrama about thwarted/perverted love. Gone are the experimental ‘flash forwards’ that offered fleeting glimpses into whatever became of Miss Brodie’s girls long after their departure from Marcia Blaine. For reasons of concision, Presson Allen condensed Miss Brodie’s girls from six to four, amalgamating certain character traits along the way.
The play’s Mary therefore became a composite of the novel’s Mary and Joyce Emily, the latter killed during the Spanish Civil War after taking Miss Brodie’s advice about the valiancy in sacrificing one’s self to a great cause. In the play, Mary later died in a house fire instead, the incident emphasized in the play to illustrate how Miss Brodie’s less than altruistic principles have doomed those who blindly embrace them without first considering their own hearts’ desires. Jenny was also composited from the novel’s Jenny and another girl, Rose, never mentioned in either the play or the movie. Interestingly, Jenny in both the play and the movie bears an uncanny resemblance to Rose, whom Miss Brodie attempts to orchestrate an affair with the married Mr. Lloyd to rid herself of his lingering affections.
In the movie, as in the book, Sandy – not Rose or Jenny – become Teddy’s lover; though not by his – or even Jean’s choice, but rather as cleverly orchestrated by Sandy, who has plotted unsuccessfully to expunge Jean’s memory from his heart. Barring her inability to achieve the impossible, for Jean has poisoned Teddy’s blood (even to the point where her likeness permeates every portrait he paints), Sandy’s jealousy grows toxic. The penultimate confrontation between Jean and Sandy is a complete fabrication concocted by Jay Presson Allen for dramatic effect. It has no counterpoint in Muriel Sparks’ novel; Sandy confessing she has become Teddy’s lover and the incubus for Jean’s dismissal from Marcia Blaine Academy. Sandy summarizes the importance of all that has transpired thus; Mary McGregor’s death paramount amongst Jean Brodie’s indiscretions, whereas Jean regards the revelation of Sandy as Teddy’s lover the polestar for her present disillusionment and spinsterish anxieties.
When Jean suggests to Sandy that Mary had no one, Sandy plainly reiterates, “She had you! That was her misfortune! To please you that silly stupid girl ran off to get herself killed!...I always used to wonder why you called Mary McGregor by her full name. I think it was because you had such a hard time remembering who she was!” When Jean suggests a ‘devotion’ to Mary, Sandy smites back that what Jean calls ‘devotion’ was merely ‘an attraction’ appealing to Jean’s own vanity; a chance to use a truly pliable mind and exploit Mary’s impressionability and Jean’s devious misuse of it. The indictment is harsh, but affecting to Jean. Perhaps, for the very first time, she has marginally realized the implication her influences on generations of young girls has been more corrupting than educational. 
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie begins with our introduction to the principle cast; director Ronald Neame contractually obligated to afford each character their accompanying screen credit in the order of their importance in the movie. Thus, we meet Jean Brodie first - pert, plucky and proud -astride her bicycle, cycling down Edinburgh’s quaint narrow streets toward Marcia Blaine Academy. Jean’s vanity is at its zenith in the classroom, where she commands absolute authority under the auspices of befriending ‘her girls’.  In this, Jean is not unlike her political heroes, Franco and Mussolini; the parallels of a true dictator rather ominously transparent; her ‘prime’ taking on bone-chilling meaning by the end.
Jean’s exceeding of her boundaries as an educator; possessively regarding the pupils as ‘her girls’, to be taught life in lieu of history and literature, is contradictory to the time-honored precepts of the school; also in direct conflict with its present head mistress, Miss MacKay, who will make several failed attempts to have Jean ousted from her position; chiefly using the especially after a letter written by Sandy and Jenny, reportedly meant as a torrid tome to Mr. Lowther’s love-making, is discovered by Miss MacKay, tucked inside a library book. Alas, Jean holds morality in the highest regard – or, at least, her warped concept of it. Having momentarily disentangled herself from an even more tawdry affair with the married Teddy Lloyd, and moved on in her nobler pursuits with Gordon Lowther – a bachelor, Jean regards Miss MacKay’s recommendation that she resign as nothing less than slanderous.
“I will not resign,” Jean bitterly tells the head mistress with mounting contempt during one of the movie’s pivotal scenes of bravura for which Maggie Smith deservedly took home the Best Actress Academy Award. “…and you will not dismiss me!  You will not use the excuse of that pathetic document to blackmail me.  Mr. Lowther you are a witness to this. Miss MacKay has made totally unsupported accusation against my name and yours. If she has one authentic shred of evidence – just one – let her bring it forth. Otherwise, if one more word of this outrageous allegation reaches my ears I shall sue! I shall take Miss MacKay to the public courts and I shall sue the trustees of Marcia Blaine if the board supports her. I will not stand by and be crucified by a woman whose vetted frustrations have overcome her judgment. If scandal is to your taste, Miss MacKay I shall give you a feast!”
Jay Presson Allen’s screenplay affords Maggie Smith several such opportunities to exercise her brittle outrage in being tested by public figures of authority. Each is a tour de force in writing, given over to passionate and moody magnificence by Smith’s fanaticism in the role. While Gordon is ineffectual and unequal to Jean’s tower of strength, he can certainly recognize and appreciate it as a desirable quality in the woman closest to his heart. Alas, Jean will have none of Gordon’s weak-kneed lack of initiative. His resignation from the church choir outrages Jean. Indeed, she regards it as tantamount to a confession of guilt. Actually, this merely gives Jean the necessary excuse to discard Lowther, of whom she has already grown weary, despite the luxuries of his inherited wealth he has openly shared with Jean and her girls on weekend escapes to his family’s estate; respites from the rigidity of Marcia Blaine’s conservative enclave that have enriched all of their lives to a point, but also have directly led to the profligacy of these rumors.
It matters not to Jean these tittle-tattles are, in fact, true; only the indignation be quashed to spare her the humiliation of having to confess to them to Miss MacKay, whom she barely tolerates, and thus, so clearly regards as her prudish inferior. Curiously, Jean compounds the danger of being found out for her unorthodox behavior by plotting to ensnare Teddy with Jenny as his new lover. She throws the underage girl, who has obvious physical attributes, at his head, but to no avail. Jean even leads Teddy on with the suggestion Jenny has taken an interest in him, when in reality no such understanding exists. Teddy, however, is no fool, although he manages to be seduced by Sandy without Jean’s knowledge of the affair. Alas, Sandy has had quite enough of being Miss Brodie’s spy. She has, in essence, become Jean’s assassin; the girl to bring about the full wrath and humiliation of hell’s fury and a woman’s scorn, thereby providing Miss MacKay and the board with the necessary proof to have Jean dismissed from Marcia Blaine.
Pivoting on one of the iconic and undeniably outstanding performances from the decade, Maggie Smith’s unrelentingly vial and arched, yet exquisitely compelling schoolmarm, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie remains a brutal, often disturbing portrayal of an almost psychotically arrogant educator. Here is a true masterpiece of acting; Smith imbuing each inflection with its own syllabic melodrama. The hallmarks of a consummate grammarian are readily on display. When cornered, Smith’s face subtly contorts into a weighty pang of poignant agony. But when she is threatened, her entire demeanor is absorbed with a penetrating disgust, the lash of her tongue matched only by a telescopically emboldened and piercingly blank rage brewing behind the eyes. It is a thoroughly complex and compelling portrait; her Jean Brodie marked by hubris, yet plagued by vanity. 
The other notables in the cast are undeniably Celia Johnson, as the caustic Miss MacKay, and Pamela Franklin, who is nothing short of riveting in the film’s final moments. Franklin’s performance was overlooked for even a nomination at Oscar time; an unforgivable oversight, given her character’s exceptional transformation, from Miss Brodie’s precociously ‘dependable’ spy, morphed into her ruthless adversary.  In their penultimate confrontation, Franklin exudes a cruel bitterness and ruthless resentment of her mentor; also an atypical and discriminating sense of compassion and yes, even sorrow. Toppling Miss Brodie from her ensconced perch of self-importance brings no satisfaction to Franklin’s Sandy; merely immense disappointment at having put this decidedly tormented devil of a woman out of her misery. It marks Sandy’s liberation from Miss Brodie’s tutelage, but it is nothing if not bittersweet, and Franklin, who runs the gamut from soulless vitriol to wounded tears quite simply rips one’s heart out. In the final analysis, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is quite unlike any movie about educators and their place in the pantheon of shared experiences in our lives; it truly is the crème de la crème.
There’s good and indifferent news about Twilight Time’s newly minted Blu-ray. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie has never looked stellar and certainly, this new 1080p rendering improves on the atrocities committed on Fox’s old ‘Studio Classic’ DVD. In 1.85:1, Jean Brodie doesn’t quite sparkle with renewed vibrancy. In fact, there is a slight detection of color fading, most noticeable in the ruddy flesh tones and overall muted palette. On the audio commentary accompanying this disc, director Ronald Neame makes mentioned of his subdued choice of hues. We do get a few striking moments where colors are robust; particularly during the all too brief outdoor sequences. Otherwise, this disc lacks the usual hi-def ‘pop’ and ‘wow’ factor. It also tends to favor a more blue-beige palette than Fox’s DVD. Actually, we can overlook both, since the image crisps up when directly compared to its old and obsolete DVD counterpart. Minor hints of edge enhancement as well as virtually all age-related speckling on the DVD have been eradicated on the Blu-ray. This is a generally smooth, mostly sharp and occasionally striking visual presentation.  Alas, it continues to underwhelm. Personally, I'm troubled by this.
The film gets a brand new DTS mono clean-up. Jean Brodie is dialogue driven, although the score and Rod McKuen's wistful song, ‘Jean’ (inexplicably excised from the DVD but heard on the Blu-ray) are understandably undernourished and rather flat sounding with minimum distortion.  As mentioned above, Ronald Neame gives us a solid audio commentary, well worth a listen; and TT also sweetens the pot with an isolated score that rectifies the shortcomings in the integrated score/dialogue and effects of the film proper. Bottom line: recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


Monday, December 15, 2014

TOOTSIE: Blu-ray (Columbia Pictures 1982) Criterion Home Entertainment

Can an unemployed actor find his true calling in a slip and red sequin gown? According to director, Sydney Pollack, the answer in Tootsie (1982) is a most emphatic ‘yes’. Tootsie is a rare flower, indeed. Like Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot (1959) it uses the proverbial ‘fish out of water’ premise of a man in drag merely as its crutch rather than the crux of its' story. Therein lays the movie’s great sincerity and its enduring legacy as a truly remarkable piece of cinema: also in Dustin Hoffman’s monumental performance – playing it ‘straight’ as it were - as the guy who reaffirms his manhood by getting in touch with his feminine side…literally! 
Hoffman, who has proven his chameleon’s skin on numerous occasions and has had one of the most enviable careers in Hollywood, delivers us a bungler of life, inadequate, inept and grotesquely awkward in his own sex, yet effortlessly liberated and fortified each time he straps on the war paint and brassier. It’s a delicious transgression; the strong-minded woman who comes to understand not only the power of the feminine mystique but can also admire what it means to be a woman in the proverbial man’s world from the male point of view; Hoffman realigning this convoluted quagmire of sexual politics as witnessed from both sides of the looking glass and coming away with a far richer appreciation. 
Tootsie is so rife with moments of sheer comedic brilliance and self-revelation that it catches the viewer almost by surprise. Oh sure, we’re expecting a comedy. And Larry Gelbart and Murray Schisgal’s screenplay never disappoints. But the origin of our laughs derives from the most unlikely places, rather than periodically escaping from under the wig and girdle. Tootsie strikes at the heart of virtually all male/female relationships, while tapping into our hero’s awkward desperation to fit in and grapple to understand the opposite sex on their terms. Hoffman’s struggling actor, Michael Dorsey (a.k.a. Dorothy Michaels) says it best when, in the film’s penultimate confession to costar, Jessica Lange’s Julie Nichols, he astutely points out, “I was a better man with you as a woman than I ever was as a man. I just got to learn to do it without the dress.” Therein the lesson and/or message behind Tootsie remains, remarkably hitting home for Dustin Hoffman too.
What is quite miraculous about Tootsie is Hoffman’s ability to so completely immerse us in his alter ego that somewhere along the way we can still forget this is Hoffman playing a part. George Masters’ impressive makeup can only take the actor so far. The rest of the assimilation comes entirely from within, Hoffman’s ability to get inside Dorothy Michaels transferring the best elements of his own star presence and actor’s acumen into a re-conceptualized sense of self as the unattractive female most men would find threatening to their own fragile sense of masculinity.
The die is cast early on in the Schisgal/Gelbart screenplay when Michael - as Dorothy - auditions for the part of the new hospital administrator on the popular daytime soap opera, ‘South West General’. Given the briefest and most dismissive once over by the program’s chauvinistic director, Ron Carlisle (Dabney Coleman), Hoffman's Dorothy challenges this judgment call at its face value. “Yes,” Dorothy defiantly tells Ron, “I think I know what you all want. Some gross caricature of a woman…to prove some idiotic point. Like power makes women masculine. Or masculine women are ugly. Well, shame on you and any woman that lets you do that. Shame on you – you macho shithead!”
Throughout the movie, the Schisgal/Gelbart screenplay repeatedly informs and reinforces its pro-feminist agenda, yet never becomes preachy or detracts from Tootsie’s innate entertainment value. The film's best moments help establish something greater than just another man in drag farce and confront us with our own perceptions about female attractiveness. Consider the moment from a scene within a scene, supposedly taking place on the South West General set. Dorothy deviates from the teleprompted script to respond to a battered woman's pleas. Wielding a flower pot at the wall to reference her response to any man who would raise his hands to her, Dorothy informs Ron that to tell any woman with children, no money and a ‘bashed in face’ to seek counseling is a lot of “horse shit”.  In another of the film's most fondly recalled moments, Hoffman brilliantly articulates to his roommate, Jeff (Bill Murray), “I think Dorothy’s smarter than me”, catching himself in this self-revelation before falling back on “It also happens to be one of the great acting challenges of any career.”
Dustin Hoffman would later acknowledge a divining force in making Tootsie. In an interview conducted for the AFI, the actor confessed his bias to women he had found physically unappealing, a realization spoken with humility, crystalized when he first saw himself in drag. "I wouldn't date me…and I started to wonder why?" Hoffman reasoned, before adding, “That was never a comedy for me.” Indeed, Tootsie aims at loftier ambitions; its social critique of men who judge women as sex objects is fueled by Hoffman’s inspired ‘take charge’ gal with an agenda. The screenplay touches off a powder keg of issues: gender inequality, mixed messages about basic human attraction, a near rape situation, transgender confusion, and, transsexualism; hardly the expected fodder for a frothy ‘light’ romantic/comedy. At the heart of these probative explorations is Dustin Hoffman’s potent morphing into the title role. Not only does his conversion from starving actor, Michael Dorsey to popular television personality, Dorothy Michaels serve as the crux of the comedy, it also explores social issues in a palpably engaging, educational, but ultimately, entertaining way; a fascinating tightrope never breached under Sidney Pollack’s masterful direction.
Some thirty plus years after its debut, Tootsie remains as fresh and unvarnished as ever. Part of the reason is the Schisgal/Gelbart screenplay never strains for laughs. Tootsie isn’t a movie looking to fabricate ‘funny situations’ but rather unearth something quite ironic and ‘sadly’ humorous about the state of the sexes in the contemporary every day. Finding the perfect outfit to wear with an imperfect body concealed underneath, or balancing on a set of high heels is good for the thirty second chuckle. But when Dorothy speaks, her words have a naked authority that never stoops to patronize either sex. The complications arising from Dorothy really being a man in love with a woman he’s only met socially as a woman are, decidedly, the cream of the jest. Yet, the movie’s great strength lies in Dorothy’s unapologetic delivery of these more deeply felt truths, disseminated from a national platform as the new cast member of the movie’s fictional soap to her millions of adoring TV fans; also, by way of Tootsie’s potentially sobering voice for changing social mores.  
Somewhere along the way, Hoffman's transformation becomes so believable we easily forget Dorothy is actually a guy wearing a push up and heavy foundation. In fact, it’s almost as shocking to the movie viewer when Hoffman’s supreme queen lets down his wig in front of South West General’s principle cast to a live TV audience no less; unraveling his hoax with a desperate confession. It’s Tootsie’s pièce de résistance, culling together all of the parallels between Hoffman's character on the soap and the part he has been forced to play in life, most detrimentally deceiving Julie and her father, Les (Charles Durning), who has come to have affections for Dorothy too. Hoffman draws on some inner intuitiveness and makes this revelation genuinely heartfelt. We feel Michael's angst and can empathize with his predicament.
We can sense his desperation at having to dissolve all the good his personal growth has achieved along the way because it has been predicated on a grand deception that cannot be allowed to go on. And we cry out to the object of Michael's affections – Julie – praying she can see through his masquerade. What began as a cruel joke for personal gain is now the greatest of sacrifices made by one man for the only person he truly loves better than himself.  The old cliché, that if you can fake sincerity you have it made, resonates with renewed redemptive qualities. We understand just how awkward and awful Michael Dorsey’s life has been, prior to his assimilation into womanhood. He was a frustrated, compassion-less actor with an ax to grind and a general contempt for human frailty beyond what it could do for him. Now he is someone who has found himself, albeit in the unlikeliest of places. Tootsie continues to work its magic because it forces the audience to question many personal failings, opinions and attitudes. It isn’t often movies can make us look inside ourselves; even more uncommon when they do without being preachy diatribes, beating us over the head with their ‘message’. But Tootsie neither shrinks from making its points, nor does it indoctrinate us with them and that’s refreshing.
Our story begins in earnest with harried actor Michael Dorsey (Hoffman) unable to find suitable employment in his chosen profession. Nevertheless, he’s a brilliant layman who breathes the craft by day, holding workshops in the loft he shares with roommate, Jeff (the sublime Bill Murray) while the two work diligently to craft a play they hope to independently produce and co-star in, along with their good friend, Sandy Lester (the hilarious, Terry Garr). Michael loves to act. But he’s also fed up with taking direction from talent he perceives as less than his own. His lack of pliability has branded the scarlet letter of ‘D’ for ‘difficult’ across his forehead; something Michael refuses to accept until his agent George Fields (Sydney Pollack) points out that he can’t even set Michael up for a commercial. “Do you mean to tell me nobody in New York will work with me?” Michael asks. “That’s too limiting,” George replies, “No one in Hollywood wants to work with you either!”
After Michael’s surprise birthday party, Sandy confides her anxiety over an early morning audition for the soap opera, South West General. Michael runs Sandy’s lines for her all night to prepare for the audition. Alas, only a few moments  at the studio Sandy is rejected and Michael inadvertently discovers one of the show’s major stars, Terry Bishop, has since departed to do a revival of The Iceman Cometh on Broadway – the role Michael was supposed to be up for. Meanwhile, Jeff’s new play – Return to Love Canal – has hit a funding snag. To kill two birds with one stone, Michael decides to disguise himself as a woman and try out for the part on the soap. After an initial confrontation between Michael and the show’s director, Ron Carlisle (Dabney Coleman) Michael is signed as the forthright, if matronly, Dorothy Michaels; the hospital’s new administrator. As the latest addition to the venerable cast, Dorothy will find – true, pure and haplessly misguided love thrice; first, with Ron’s playmate, Julie Nichols(Jessica Lange), cast as the hospital slut, Nurse Charles; love unwillingly reciprocated from Julie’s amorous widower/dad, Les (Charles Durning) who thinks Dorothy is the right kind of woman he could settle down with and marry, and, sexism exploited to the point of near rape by John Van Horn (George Gaynes), the wily, womanizing ham who also stars on the soap as the frisky and ferocious chief of staff, Dr. Melville ‘the tongue’ Brewster.  
The sexual relationship that blossoms between Sandy and Michael stems from a misunderstanding Michael is unwilling to admit, further fueled by Sandy’s neuroses best left untapped, but probably stemming from her general mistrust of all men. This relationship is played strictly for laughs. Still, the tenderness in Michael’s appreciation for Sandy’s insecurities is oddly touching and sincere. Meanwhile, Michael transforms himself into a crusading feminist/actress on the show; the delightfully opinionated Dorothy Michaels.  No one, least of all George can understand Dorothy’s appeal. But Michael’s proactive Dorothy is an instant hit with female viewers, even if Michael (as Dorothy) repeatedly runs into conflict with the show’s chauvinistic director. As Michael begins to fall for Julie, Les starts to have feelings for Michael’s Dorothy. Of course, no one knows Dorothy is really a he, resulting in all sorts of riotous confusion after Michael (as Dorothy) spends the weekend with Les and Julie at Les’ upstate farmhouse. Michael is proposed to by Les, and later, forgets himself by attempting to kiss Julie (still, as Dorothy) to prove his love for her. Julie mistakes Dorothy to be a lesbian. Michael reveals to George he is distraught. His love life is a shambles. There’s only one way out: quit the show. Too bad for Michael, it’s a one way contract with the option defaulting to the producer, Rita (Doris Belack). Dorothy is a rating’s bonanza. Her contract is renewed. Michael is trapped.
Unable to get out from under his ironclad contract, Michael makes a fateful decision; to reveal his true identity during a live broadcast of South West General – thereby forcing its producers to fire him. Julie is incensed and punches Michael in the stomach before storming off. But Les is more understanding. Try as he might, he cannot bring himself to hate this man he once thought he could not live without as a woman. Waiting for Julie – as himself – outside the studio, Michael is momentarily disturbed when Julie simply ignores him and hurries off down the sidewalk in the opposite direction. But as Michael pursues he quickly discovers Julie is more wounded than mad. “I miss Dorothy,” Julie confesses. “You don’t have to,” Michael explains, “She’s right here.”
Tootsie is self-effacing, probative entertainment; its cerebral debates brought to the forefront by the genius of its comedy. Everyone in the cast is given their moment to shine and each is playing their scenes ‘for real’ rather than for the perceived comedic value. As such, the comedy seems neither canned nor rehearsed. Reportedly, Sydney Pollack had cast an actor to play Michael's agent, George Fields when Dustin Hoffman suggested the director play the part himself instead. Pollack resisted. Hoffman insisted and the results clicked with antagonistically genuine camaraderie; the only real buddy/buddy friendship featured in the film. Two scenes exemplify Michael and George’s strained, but ultimately devoted friendship. The first is George’s initial surprise introduction to Dorothy inside New York’s famed Russian Tea Room (without George first let in on the masquerade). 
Michael as Dorothy attempts to pick up George, silencing his worrisome objections by grabbing his scrotum and then by dropping the gentile falsetto from his charade. “Oh God,” George exclaims in a state of complete shock, “I begged you to get therapy. You’re insane!” to which Michael as Dorothy coyly replies, “No, I’m not. I’m employed!” The other bromantic between George and Michael comes late in the movie, the pair debating Dorothy’s future on South West General; the disguise having outlived its usefulness and begun to grate on Michael’s sanity and sexual frustrations. In this latter scene the two old friends debate Dorothy/Michael’s sexual confusion. Sandy thinks Michael’s lack of renewed affection after their initial flagrante delicto means he is gay. Julie thinks Dorothy is a lesbian. Yet, Julie is strangely attracted to Dorothy on some maternal level. Finally, Michael desperately wants Julie as a man. After Michael’s live confession to the world reveals Dorothy’s true self to the world, Dr. Brewster has the penultimate ‘last laugh’, quietly exclaiming, “Does Jeff now?”
It really is difficult to objectively critique a film as well-rounded as Tootsie. It's as real and as perfect as movies get. Owen Roizman's cinematography captures the grit and glory of New York City circa 1982. Dave Grusin's original score, and Stephen Bishop’s Oscar-nominated, 'It Might Be You' add another layer of poignancy to a movie already brimming with an embarrassment of riches: heart, class and something meaningful to say. Comedies tend to date. But Tootsie remains the gold star standard bearer by which most any other before or since can or ought to be judged.
Criterion Home Entertainment’s Blu-ray appears to be the same hi-def transfer Sony is peddling in Europe with minor additional clean-up performed somewhere along the way.  The Sony/German ‘region free’ Blu-ray release of Tootsie was fairly impressive with minor caveats; mostly an exaggerated grain structure during the optically printed montage sequences depicting Dorothy’s rise to prominence on the cover of various magazines.  The pluses on this Criterion disc are a sparkling 1080p transfer with some gorgeous color and a stunning amount of fine detail evident in both close-ups and long shots.  Truly, you won’t be disappointed.
At some level, however, this hi-def transfer is at the mercy of less than stellar existing film elements. The color, processed at MGM’s labs, occasionally fluctuates from vibrant to less so. While some scenes exhibit very fine tonality, contrast and a good solid smattering of film grain accurately rendered, others suffer from wan colors and heavier than usual grain. Age-related artifacts are a non-issue. Montages suffer from weak contrast brought on by inferior optical printing methods. Sony could have gone back to the drawing board from original elements for a re-composite as they have done on their Bye Bye Birdie (1963) Blu-ray (available through Twilight Time). Regrettably, they didn’t spend the extra coin. Criterion gives us a monaural PCM audio; the German Blu-ray contains a 5.0 stereo track. 
Criterion carries over an audio commentary recorded by the late Sydney Pollack from their ancient 1991 laserdisc. It’s to Pollack’s credit time has not diminished his introspective reflections on the film. They hold up very well and are definitely worth a listen.  Criterion has sweetened the pot with nearly forty minutes of new interviews featuring Dustin Hoffman and comedy writer, Phil Rosenthal. The 5 minute deleted ‘interview’ between Dorothy and Gene Shalit is cloying and silly. But Criterion also gives us a half hour vintage ‘making of’ as well as A Better Man: The Making of Tootsie. This latter effort is more comprehensive and was part of Sony’s 2007 25th Anniversary DVD edition. There's a lot of overlap in coverage between the aforementioned 3 featurettes; Hoffman more introspective - and emotional - in his new interview. Extras round out with 6 minutes of screen and wardrobe tests done for Hal Ashby, initially approached by Dustin Hoffman to direct the picture.  We also get nine deleted scenes, three trailers and a critical essay by Michael Sragow. 
Bottom line: Tootsie is a seminal comedic gem. It remains head and shoulders better than your average ‘romantic comedy’ and a superior example of the sort of genius Hollywood used to foster: low brow humor made palpably highbrow and extremely clever.  Hey, Tootsie – it might as well be you! Very highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)


Friday, December 5, 2014

ANNE OF THE THOUSAND DAYS: Blu-ray (Universal Pictures 1969) Feel Films

The Tudor drama, with all its political/palace intrigues, was to experience something of a minor cultural renaissance on film in the 1960’s. It’s interesting to note that the decade generally known for big, often bloated, all-star screen spectacles, tricked out in the vast expanses of 70mm Super-Panavision, were also brought to heel under the wordy perplexities of literate adaptations of some highly celebrated stagecraft; 1966’s multi-Oscar-winning, A Man for All Seasons and 1968’s The Lion in Winter among such offerings. Pennsylvanian dramatist, Maxwell Anderson had long been a favorite of Hollywood. Famous for his intricate construction and blistering dialogue (also, for calling Ingrid Bergman a ‘big dumb goddamn Swede’ after she and director, Victor Fleming changed much of his carefully written prose for the film version of Joan of Arc, 1948…and, a colossal failure). Anderson’s plays are more frequently – and comfortably – situated in the courts of England’s past kings and queens; a delicious potpourri for the crass and the sycophantic, unapologetically hiding in plain sight beneath their Elizabethan collars and cuffs.
Anne of the Thousand Days had, in fact, been written by Anderson more than a decade earlier; a miraculous hit in 1948, considering the climate on Broadway then was more attuned to the socially conscious musicals of Rodgers & Hammerstein than wordy costume dramas. Alas, success went to ‘Anne’s head’ (pun intended) – or rather, to it being repeatedly delayed as a movie, despite several major studios vying for the rights to produce. Eventually, independent producer, Hal B. Wallis (known for his illustrious and staggeringly prolific hit-making tenure at Warner Bros. and later, Paramount) courted the honor to transform Anderson’s caustic and confrontational battle royale into a costly costume epic. Anderson’s best stagecraft is usually characterized by its willful female protagonists, espousing historical platitudes laced with a highly developed and wickedly keen sense of sexual double entendre. The dialogue featured in a Maxwell Anderson play goes well beyond expected eloquence; part Shakespearean and partly an acidic/astute observation on the hypocrisies of contemporary social mores.
Depending on one’s critical predilections, Anderson’s perceptions of life at court may either be construed as devilishly handsome odes to these bygone eras or mere bastardizations made under the rubric of ‘artistic license’.  In point of fact, director Charles Jarrott’s Anne of the Thousand Day (1969) is a little of both. There are many discrepancies between the historical record and the conspiracies played out for dramatic effect on the stage and later, in this movie. For starters, Anne Boleyn’s actual age may have been closer to thirty than eighteen when she began her affair with Henry VIII. Also, there is virtually no documented evidence to suggest the real Henry VIII deliberately dissolved the romance between Anne and Henry Percy to pursue her for his own. Finally, the bittersweet parting between the condemned Anne and Henry likely never happened. The King was many things – but compassion was decidedly not one of his more finely honed attributes!
Yet, setting aside these and several other minor quibbles about accuracy and Anne of the Thousand Days is a richly textured drama, enveloping and engrossing in its courtly maneuvers regarding royal succession. Hal Wallis’ unrivaled abilities as producer assume a mantle of quality herein.  Georges Delerue’s gorgeous underscore is a melodic compliment, as are Maurice Carter’s production design, Lionel Couch’s art direction and Margaret Furse’s exquisite costuming; all of it lensed to perfection by cinematographer extraordinaire, Arthur Ibbetson. And then, of course, there is the cast to consider: French-Canadian actress, Geneviève Bujold, uncommonly commanding and forceful in this, her Golden Globe-winning and Oscar-nominated debut in an English-speaking role as the enterprising heroine of the title – much too smart for her own good; Richard Burton, appropriately sullen, steely-eyed and authoritatively mad in the part of England’s most notoriously lascivious liege; taking over the part from Broadway’s formidable, Rex Harrison (Burton then considered something of Harrison’s successor anyway); Irene Papas, poignantly subdued as the tragically lovelorn, Queen Katherine; Anthony Quayle (an intriguingly complicit orchestrator of the mayhem as Cardinal Wolsey); John Colicos (effectively plotting as the usurper, Cromwell), and  Michael Hordern (a cruelly uncompassionate patriarch, Thomas Boleyn).
The strengths of the production are, arguably, also its weakness; Maxwell Anderson’s articulate exchanges infrequently teetering on the brink of longwinded byplay but, mercifully, never going over this precipice into stultifying melodrama. Anne of the Thousand Days is an engrossing achievement on so many levels it continues to stir the pot of history with little jabs of pleasure scattered along the way. Anderson’s reflections, made in the play and movie, are, of course, predicated on the momentous assessments made about Henry’s reign, long since analyzed by scholars to the point of absurdity. But Anderson’s impressions are fortified by the solidity of the performances within, particularly Bujold’s. When, at the end of our fateful story, not long before Anne loses her head, she bitterly declares to Henry, “Get yourself a son off of that sweet, pale girl if you can - and hope that he will live. But Elizabeth shall reign after you - child of Anne the Whore and Henry the Blood-Stained Lecher… and remember this, Elizabeth shall be a greater queen than any king of yours. She shall rule a greater England than you could ever have built. Yes – ‘my’ Elizabeth shall be queen and my blood will have been well spent!’ we are privy to all the historical hindsight interjected since 1536, the bulk of which could not have been known at the time our story is taking place.
Indeed, the film’s greatness rests on the slender, though ever-capable, shoulders of Geneviève Bujold who delivers a towering performance as the impenitent, enterprising, but ultimately forthright Boleyn sister, who would be neither bought nor had for the price of a crown. Anderson affords Bujold an unprecedented scale of cheek in her frequent verbal sparring with the King. When Henry asks for her impressions on a ballad he has composed expressly to impress her, she coolly replies “I would ask him first how his wife liked it, Your Grace”.  Shortly thereafter, Anne further goads Henry by haughtily informing him that his lyrics are sour to her ear. She projects that he “makes love” as he eats …with a great deal of noise and no subtlety!” These are bitter barbs to be sure. But Bujold delivers them with the glacial serenity of a well-orchestrated ice princess. Arguably, she is already a queen, long before the crown has been affixed to her temples.    
Richard Burton’s performance is as impressive, though arguably, not nearly as durable; a stately scuffling between love-struck sovereign, plying Anne with naughty hints of his libidinous intensions, and, direct in his commanding rage when she refuses to be impressed by his more courtly polish and sly innuendo. Understated, and underrated honors must also go to Irene Papas, typecast as the olive-skinned, childless Mediterranean; alas, incapable of satisfying Henry’s obsession for a male heir to the future throne of England. Papas is undeniably a very fine actress and usually a domineering presence in the movies. Herein, she subverts our expectations for another strong-willed female; impresses with the subtleties in her panged, delusional love, shattered by Burton’s rich villainy; a man who quite obviously does not – and, arguably never has – desired her. “England married Spain,” Henry tells Anne, while wasting no opportunity to remind Katherine of what a colossal disappointment she has remained for him these many years. “Our marriage is a curse in heaven and hell, madam!”     
Anne of the Thousand Days begins in the twilight of King Henry VIII’s marriage to Katharine of Aragon. Originally an affair of state, (the marriage thrust upon an eighteen year old Henry by his late father to secure an alliance between England and Spain) the King, now a man in his late thirties, is beside himself with sexual frustration. Katharine has been unable to bear Henry a son. At court, Henry eyes the young maiden, Anne Boleyn, newly returned from her tutelage in France. But his dalliances with her older sister, Mary (Valerie Gearon) have toughened this young girl’s resolve. Apart from her obvious disdain for this man who has impregnated her sister in trade for the family’s present appointments in wealth and property, Anne is much in love with Henry Percy (Terrence Wilton), son of the Earl of Northumberland. The couple has received both sets of parents’ permission to marry. Alas, Henry will not permit it, sending Cardinal Wolsey as his mouthpiece to intervene on his behalf. Percy is sent away. Anne bitterly resents the King’s manipulation; in tandem, brashly defying and even challenging him to make good on his threats to reduce her family’s fortunes to bedrock if her behavior so displeases him.  With clever barbs, Anne continues to test the resolve of the King’s lust and patience until Henry can endure no more. Not long thereafter, Anne receives word Percy has married another.
Anne now invests all of her venom to refuse the King. At one point, Henry strikes Anne full on the cheek, sending her tumbling to the floor. But he is almost immediately remorseful and she begins to realize the gravity of importance she truly wields upon his heart. When Henry professes his genuine affection, Anne seizes the opportunity to make her own edicts known. She will bed Henry for his pleasure, but only when he secures a papal annulment of his first marriage to Katherine. She will bear him a child, but one legitimately entitled to the throne of England. Determined to prove his loyalty to her, Henry attempts to move heaven and earth to receive an annulment. He is repeatedly thwarted in his attempts; first by Wolsey’s stalling, but also by Cromwell’s plotting.
Anne is vengeful – ultimately, to her own detriment. But for a time, her slyness supersedes even Wolsey, whom she repeatedly undermines in Henry’s presence. When she reminds Wolsey of the fact he holds more titles in England than the King, the embarrassment of this discovery causes Wolsey to piously recant all rights to his possessions and property. Wolsey, who once thought of Anne as merely another passing fancy for the King, now begins to suspect she may lead to his own undoing if he is not careful.  In the meantime, Henry appeals to Katherine to publicly declare she has been unfaithful to him, thereby granting the legal grounds for the annulment. Alas, Katherine – knowing Henry has never loved her – is nevertheless compelled to admit she continues to bitterly adore him. As such, she refuses to submit to his lies.
Enraged, Henry endeavors to force Wolsey’s hand in getting the Pope to agree to a divorce.  Again, he is thwarted and again, Anne haughtily declares she will not be his mistress by default. Henry now petitions a separation of England’s reliance on the Catholic Church. He further dismisses Wolsey from his court and makes Anne a present of Wolsey’s magnificent palace in London. Ensconced there, Anne comes to a genuine affection for Henry of her own accord and, at last, permits him into her bed chamber. The couple consummates their relationship and is secretly married. Discovering she is with child, Anne is given a resplendent coronation to legitimize her presence at court. Alas, the people are not so easily fooled or nearly as accepting, jeering in abject disgust. Anne is “the king’s new whore.” Nevertheless, Henry and Anne await the royal birth with baited anticipation. Tragically, Henry’s joy turns to vinegar when the child is a girl Anne names the Princess Elizabeth. Although Henry is disillusioned, Anne manages to convince him of Sir Thomas More’s (William Squire) treason against the state, because of his opposition to their marriage. She further demands Henry must put More to death for treason against the state. Despite Henry’s initial misgivings, Anne gets him to see things her way and More is wrongfully accused and summarily executed.
Sometime later, Anne and Henry try for a son. Alas, like all of Henry’s male offspring conceived with Katherine, this new babe – also male – is stillborn. Already begun to believe his second marriage as cursed as his first, Henry now turns his attentions to Anne’s lady in waiting, Jane Seymour (Leslie Paterson). Cromwell, who once believed the best way to manipulate the throne was by ingratiating himself to Anne now, instead, turns on her with all his enterprising venom, forcing Henry to reconsider his loyalties and simultaneously turning the people against Anne and the King’s favor. Discovering Jane Seymour’s affair with Henry, Anne has her lady in waiting banished from court.
Henry appoints Cromwell his new minister, his first order of business to discover a way of excommunicating Anne from the court. Cromwell succeeds beyond Henry’s wildest dreams, torturing a loyal servant into confessing to an adulterous relationship with the Queen. Cromwell then has several other courtiers arrested on similar trumped up charges. Finally, he has Anne’s devoted brother, George (Michael Johnson) imprisoned in the Tower of London along with Anne; claiming brother and sister have shared in an incestuous relationship. Disbelieving the severity of these charges at first, Anne now breaks down, declaring Henry mad and herself doomed to suffer a horrible fate. Indeed, pressured by Cromwell’s manufactured evidence, the court finds Anne guilty of incest and treason. However, at trial, Anne manages to cross-examine Mark Smeaton (Harry Fiedler); the servant whom Cromwell had tortured into a confession. Unable to remain silent, Smeaton fervently declares his testimony given to be false and all of the allegations against Anne duly unfounded.
Pressed to reassess the case, Henry implores Anne to reconsider annulling their marriage. It would make Elizabeth illegitimate, but such a sacrifice would also spare Anne’s life. Anne refuses to entertain the notion and Henry is forced to affix his signature to the court’s legal decision to have her put to death. Awaiting her fate, Anne hypothesizes on the future of England; one in which Elizabeth shall rule as its first Queen. Anne is taken to the gallows and beheaded; Henry riding off to pursue and eventually marry Lady Jane Seymour. In the movie’s penultimate and prophetic moment, we witness the child, Elizabeth, obtusely at play in the palatial gardens – seemingly unaware of her mother’s fate and most assuredly unprepared for her own as England’s future Queen; Anne’s declaration of Elizabeth’s succession echoing in the breeze as the credits begin to roll.
Anne of the Thousand Days is an intense and fairly captivating costume drama. Producer, Hal B. Wallis delivers a formidable cinematic feast. Along with David O. Selznick, Wallis’ career ought to be a textbook example of the producer as guiding influence on movie art. The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), Dark Victory (1939), The Maltese Falcon (1941), Casablanca (1942), Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942), White Christmas (1954); with such credits as these, Wallis could literally do it all. And further to the point, Wallis had already proven his mettle with costume period drama on another movie based on a Maxwell Anderson play, The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939).
Interestingly, Richard Burton’s Henry VIII is the most sincerely flawed and human of all movie incarnations of the king.  Most films portray Henry as a one-dimensional gluttonous demigod. I confess, there are elements to this trademarked image represented herein. But Burton manages to make something more of the part; perhaps, as written by Anderson, he slowly evolves into a more complex and tragic figure. And Burton ought to have been the movie’s star, if not for the magnificent Geneviève Bujold who, almost through a miraculous will of grace manages to refocus the picture back onto the plight of her doomed heroine. Lost in the shuffle is Irene Papas’ empathetic and long-suffering Queen. Critics at the time were rather harsh on Papas, made up to embody stereotypical Spanish nobility, complete with cocoa-tan skin and widow’s peaked hair, tightly pulled beneath a restrictive bonnet. In fact, the real Katherine of Aragon was an Auburn-haired beauty of very fair complexion.  
Anne of the Thousand Days ought never be misconstrued as a literal history lesson. What it remains is a very finely acted, highly literate, and intimately compelling portrait of the human complexities and frailties surrounding these towering figures from history. Anderson’s prose breathe renewable life into the antiquity as few playwrights of his time or since have been able to manage. Anderson may fudge on the particulars, but he strikes like a firebrand into the overall framework and essence of the piece, the period and its human foibles, follies and societal conundrums. Personally, that works for me.  
I’ll simply go on record herein with what does not; namely having to search the foreign markets for catalog classic movies like Anne of the Thousand Days on Blu-ray, only to discover them made available abroad in substandard hi-def transfers that belie the formidable efforts put forth by everyone involved in their initial creation. So, where to begin? Well, in 2002, Universal Home Video released a 2-disc movie collection in the U.S. on DVD featuring Anne of the Thousand Days and another Hal B. Wallis production: 1971’s Mary, Queen of Scots. The Universal transfer was severely flawed with copious edge enhancement that inexplicably crops up without rhyme or reason, but queerly, is more prominently featured in long shots. Nothing has changed for this Blu-ray release; culled from the same flawed elements. I am still trying to figure out the rights reverting to an, as yet unheard of, distribution label – ‘Feel Films’. Nowhere on the packaging of this disc is there a Universal Home Video logo, even though the digital elements used in this transfer are quite obviously derived from the aforementioned 2002 standard release.
The pluses are as follows: the brightly colored image razor-sharpening considerably, revealing exquisite amounts of fine detail in hair, skin and costuming. With only a few scattered age-related artifacts to momentarily detract; Anne of the Thousand Days is a movie tailor-made for Blu-ray; meant to show off its sumptuous production design. Tragically, with this crispness, the edge effects that were marginally distracting on the DVD are now glaringly obvious to the point where they become the focal point of any scene in which they appear. Yuck, and who needs it?!? Contrast is solid, and film grain seems – at least on the whole – naturally reproduced. But gate weave is another problematic issue; the image horizontally lunging back and forth. Honestly, what we have here is a very fine film given over to an utterly disastrous 1080p rendering in desperate need of restoration and remastering. Will it ever get its just desserts? Hmmmm. I wouldn’t hold my breath on this one, given Universal didn’t even think enough of the movie to release it state’s side. At least, this Spanish imported disc, orderable on, is region free. It will play anywhere. The audio defaults to Castellano, but can easily be switched over to 2.0 DTS English with removable subtitles. There are no extras. Bottom line: I really wanted to recommend this, but have to say – pass - instead.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)