Monday, November 24, 2008

In Praise of Three Movies

Sydney Pollack directed some mediocre movies, some fair movies that are overrated, and a couple that are flat-out gems. One, in fact, deserves to be on anyone’s “ten best” list. It is Out of Africa, and it is so good that, despite its length, it wears well with a second or third viewing. How Pollack put it all together staggers the imagination, but one factoid illustrates his determination to get it right: Though the film was shot in Kenya, Pollack wanted animals that were not available locally, so he shipped them in by air from Europe!

Meryl Streep as Karen Blixen owns the picture, but the supporting cast is brilliant, especially Klaus Maria Brandauer as Karen’s husband. And Pollack gives us one terrific scene after another, set against the majestic African landscape. The story and script are solid, and John Barry’s score, like so many of his scores, is luscious. The tale is a sad one, ending with Blixen returning to Denmark, leaving behind her dead lover (Robert Redford) and her beloved native servants. But some sad (a better word would be “poignant”) stories leave you somehow uplifted, moved by the knowledge that you’ve just watched larger-than-life characters doing important things. Directing this movie must have been a Herculean undertaking, and off this one project Pollack ranks among the very best.

Most critics have given Out of Africa its due, and it deservedly won a Best Picture Oscar, but another Pollack film came and went without much notice, which is too bad because it, too, is Pollack at the top of his game. This was the 1995 remake of Sabrina.

Usually, I don’t see the point of remakes unless the original was a bad telling of a good story. But good movies are often recycled even though the original was just fine. I liked Judy Garland and James Mason in A Star Is Born, but I liked their predecessors, Janet Gaynor and Frederic March, at least as much. I thought Showboat with Irene Dunne was better than the later extravaganza with Katherine Grayson and everyone on the MGM lot. Marlon Brando, good as he is, couldn’t match Clark Gable in Mutiny on the Bounty, nor could the talented Steve Martin compare with Spencer Tracy in Father of the Bride. The list goes on, but you get the idea.

But the original Sabrina was a badly flawed reworking of a witty Samuel Taylor play (Sabrina Fair), and it deserved another chance. All right, the original had Audrey Hepburn, but that is all it had. Humphrey Bogart and William Holden, two excellent actors, were horribly miscast as a tycoon and his playboy kid brother – just how miscast you realize when you see Pollack’s 1995 version. (I rewatched both versions recently.) Here Harrison Ford is believable as a captain of industry, and Greg Kinnear, a TV actor making his film debut, is a more than a believable playboy; in fact, he’s perfect.

Julia Ormond is no Audrey Hepburn, but she is a fine Sabrina – pretty and vulnerable, as she should be, in this Cinderella story of the chauffeur’s daughter and the millionaire. The color cinematography is a feast for the eyes (Paris, Long Island, Martha’s Vineyard). Best of all, Pollack resisted the temptation to “sex it up” for the juveniles in the audience and played it straight. You can poke a few holes in the plot, but so what? This is a romantic comedy, where you don’t analyze, you sit back and enjoy.

Another Samuel Taylor play that must be mentioned here is Avanti!, directed not by Sydney Pollack but by Billy Wilder. In fact, this may be the best of all the Wilder movies, if the least known and the most underrated. The plot: Important Businessman Wendell Armbruster, Jr. (Jack Lemmon) flies to Italy to collect the body of his father and bring it back to Baltimore for a big funeral. The old man, who died on vacation in Ischia, was head of Armbruster Industries, a major corporation, and the funeral will be sized accordingly (the Secretary of State will be among the dignitaries). En route to Ischia, Lemmon meets Pamela Piggott (Juliet Mills, of the theatrical Mills family), who is headed to Ischia to claim her mother’s body. It develops, to Armbruster’s (a) disbelief and (b) horror, that the two dead people have been trysting for years in Ischia and died together in a car crash.

That much alone is a pretty good framework for a play, but there’s much more to savor. The unctuous hotel manager (played wonderfully by Clive Revill) is one of several characters who will stick with you long after you’ve seen the movie, along with a valet who is shot by a housemaid because he done her wrong, a family of farmers who steal the bodies for ransom, an officious mortuary clerk with his ever-ready rubber stamp, the restaurant maitre d’ (who, when the dieting Pamela orders an apple for dinner, asks, obsequiously, “Shall I peel it for you?”).

In fact, it’s a hugely enjoyable movie, with gorgeous scenery and evocative Neapolitan music. Unfortunately, Lemmon is as miscast as a business big wheel as Humphrey Bogart was in Sabrina. He is too edgy, sort of like the kind of irritable scold he played in The Out of Towners. Wilder should have informed Lemmon that not all successful businessmen are pathological cranks (see Ford, Harrison, in Sabrina). But that minor complaint aside, this is one delicious movie, not to be missed.