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Joan Blondell: Working Girl

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Joan Blondell: Working Girl

Fleshy, often blowsy and intrinsically good-humored, Joan Blondell was a Warner Brothers’ dame of all trades, where she made 54 films over a ten-year period in the thirties, seven with her best partner, James Cagney, and eight with the harder-boiled Glenda Farrell. She displayed what she cheerfully called her “big boobs” and batted her even bigger blue eyes in every variety of Warner Brothers’ picture, from comedies to gangster dramas to Busby Berkeley musicals like Footlight Parade (1933), where she memorably tells a rival girl, “As long as they’ve got sidewalks, you’ve gotta job!” In his third major biography of a worthy but nearly forgotten figure, Joan Blondell: A Life Between Takes, Matthew Kennedy makes a persuasive case for Blondell’s natural talent as an actress, and details the hard times of her life with sympathy.

Blondell was literally born in a trunk to vaudevillian parents, and was in their act as a toddler. She went to forty or fifty schools “for a week,” and her family struggled to survive as vaudeville began to slowly die. As a young woman, Blondell entered a beauty pageant and weathered a brutal attack by a man who had been promised her favors by the fellow girls in the contest; trying to escape his car, she broke her ankle. Worse was to come. While working at a library, she was viciously raped by a policeman, and kept quiet about it for most of her life. As Kennedy says, there were few resources for a rape victim in 1927, but it seems clear that Blondell refused to define herself by these horrible early experiences.

She made a hit in a play, Penny Arcade, with Cagney, and when Al Jolson bought it for movies and sold it to Warners, he insisted that Cagney and Blondell appear in the film. The title was changed to Sinner’s Holiday (1930), and when we first see a brown-haired Blondell, she is referred to as a “Tenth Avenue Cruiser.” Blondell already knows how to pop her big eyes even bigger for effect, and she’s helplessly likable, so that she can’t really play the mean side of her character (in later harridan roles, like the alcoholic aunt in Lizzie (1957), Blondell makes constant boozing and ignorance look like honest fun and good sense, respectively). Working her way up the Warners’ ladder in endless gritty programmers, Blondell developed crack comic timing as she dished out Pre-Code dialogue, often in her underwear: in William Wellman’s Other Men’s Women (1931), she tells her many admirers that she’s “APO,” which she translates as, “Ain’t puttin’ out!” Blondell played girls on the make who were somehow decent, and she became a classic wisecracking heroine for the 1930s.

What stands out most about Blondell’s style is her lack of self-consciousness; she has one scene in Three on a Match (1932) where she’s hooked up to a monstrous metal hairdressing machine in a beauty parlor. Stuck there for a while in extreme close-up, with little make-up on, Blondell offers herself to the camera with no protectiveness, as if she’s saying, “Well, kids, here I am… gee, my feet hurt, but what you gonna do? There’s a Depression on!” Opposite an impassioned Cagney in Blonde Crazy (1932), Blondell jiggles around and drives him nuts; she’s like an amiable, sexy cartoon goldfish. But there was endless drudge work for every good film like Blonde Crazy, and trouper Blondell was never a complainer, or a fighter for better parts like her fellow Warners’ inmate, Bette Davis. It was “hard, hard labor and gruesome hours,” Blondell later said. “The biggest treat was when you got time off to go to the bathroom.” Later on, Cagney stuck up for her usually wasted gifts: “She could have done much better things than the roles the studio gave her.” The proof is in a movie like Gold Diggers of 1933, where Blondell’s emotional immediacy and frank, romantic sexuality come through very intensely during her scenes with Warren William. But in the middle and late thirties, Warner Brothers threw her into nothing but formula films, knowing that she would give them her all regardless.

Blondell often emphasized that her home and family were more important to her than any acting work, but her private life was rocky. During her first marriage to cinematographer George Barnes, he insisted she have several abortions, to her increasing heartbreak. Finally, she refused to terminate her last pregnancy, and she had her first son, Norman. Blondell had her daughter Ellen with her second husband, crooner Dick Powell, and she reached the height of her popularity during her marriage to him, even though none of her films from the middle to late thirties were really first-rate. Her working conditions remained absurd: once, when Blondell was too ill in bed to come to work on I’ve Got Your Number (1934), Warners’ ordered the crew to report to her house, and the writers were told to compose a sickbed scene climax to the film! In a letter to producer Hal Wallis, Blondell let her fatigue be known: “Imagine yourself eating the same meal over and over again, accompanied by the same people and the same small talk calling for the same small answers from yourself. After about the sixth meal, you would become pretty weary, and your answers would cease to have any life to them what-so-ever.” Her plea for new material and directors fell on deaf ears.

By the mid-forties, Blondell had broken away from Warners and signed with Twentieth Century Fox, where she gave her finest performance as Aunt Sissy in Elia Kazan’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945). Blondell’s lack of inhibition in front of the camera makes her a world-class actress under Kazan’s direction, and she lavishes all her warmth and energy on this perfect Aunt, a simple, good-hearted, happy hedonist who enjoys her popularity with men and says to “try everything once.” In one scene, the illiterate Aunt Sissy asks her niece Francie (Peggy Ann Garner) to read her a newspaper article about her former husband, who she never bothered to divorce. As Aunt Sissy weighs all the information she’s hearing, Blondell offers spontaneous, pure behavioral acting, charting this woman’s gutsy evasions, all the while munching on a pickle she’s picked up off a table. During this important moment, it’s entirely and lovably in character for Aunt Sissy, and Blondell, to grab at the pleasure of munching on that tasty pickle while she mulls things over; she practically uses it as a baton to conduct the scene according to her rhythms. Towards the end, after Francie has lost her father, Aunt Sissy brings the grieving girl to an empty classroom on the day of her graduation and says, “Let it go, baby, there ain’t a soul around to hear ya, let it go.” Blondell’s Aunt Sissy is the Aunt everybody would like to have, and she remains a testament to what Blondell could do when she had a part suited to her talent.

She followed this triumph with an even better movie, Edmund Goulding’s Nightmare Alley (1947), playing a former vaudeville headliner, a decent trouper who is nonetheless ruled by her lustful appetites, the dark side of Aunt Sissy. Blondell made this movie during her third and last marriage, a full-scale disaster with the theatrical producer Mike Todd. Kennedy reports Todd’s paranoia and jealousy and his brutal rages; after one fight, Todd even poisoned Blondell’s dog. He went though most of her money, and when he was done with her he gave some of Blondell’s jewelry to his last wife, Elizabeth Taylor. Blondell gave up on men after this catastrophe, and she found work scarce in the fifties, though she managed to be hilarious, with not-too-funny material, in Frank Tashlin’s Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (1957). She did a lot of TV, and endless bus-and-truck theater tours, scoring a particular success as William Inge’s faded Lola in Come Back, Little Sheba, an ideal role for her.

In her last years, Blondell continued trouping even under the strain of crippling rheumatoid arthritis. Outlandish as it may seem in retrospect, she had her final hurrah in a John Cassavettes movie, Opening Night (1978), one of his large, mysterious Gena Rowlands epics. As a playwright embroiled with the alcoholic, self-destructive antics of Rowlands’ actress, Blondell wears a blue-feathered hat in most of her scenes, so that she looks like a plump bird of prey. She was understandably confused at first by Cassavettes’ improvisational methods, but once she got used to them, this old pro took her gloves off and created a steely woman dripping with polite contempt for the star who is ruining her play. “I hate actresses!” snarls sensible Blondell, as she lights a cigarette after another impossible rehearsal. Those warm blue eyes are hard in Opening Night, clouded by years of accumulated physical pain, unrewarding toil, and family difficulties. Near death, Blondell lets her entertainer’s mask drop, and the cheerful Depression girl becomes a justifiably bitter old lady whose every utterance seems to be a muttered, “Fuck you,” no matter what she is actually saying. Blondell gave pleasure all her life, and in Kennedy’s scrupulously researched book, we see what it cost her personally, so that we can admire the woman just as much as we admire the performer.

House contributor Dan Callahan’s writing has appeared in Slant Magazine, Bright Lights Film Journal and Senses of Cinema, among other publications.

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Awards

Oscar 2019 Winner Predictions: Costume Design

Honestly, we’re so gobsmacked by AMPAS’s skullduggery that we can’t even see what’s right in front of us.

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The Favourite
Photo: Fox Searchlight Pictures

In less than a week, AMPAS has successfully stoked the anger of just about every creative in Hollywood, and perhaps sensing a widespread boycott of the Oscar telecast in response to the banishment of four awards to commercial breaks, the academy has now “clarified” its latest attempt to reboot the Oscars for the TL;DR generation. Yesterday, in a letter signed by the academy’s board of governors—which includes president, director of photography, and hater of cinematography John Bailey—members were assured that the four winning speeches will in fact be included in the broadcast, but with all the walking and talking that it takes to announce the winners edited out. Also, those four categories may or may not be given the short shrift in 2020, as apparently there’s a “rotation” system in place that will, I guess, leave the door open for us to not see Lady Gaga walk on stage next year to accept the best actress award for her performance accepting the Golden Globe this year for “Shallow.”

Honestly, we’re so gobsmacked by AMPAS’s skullduggery that we can’t even see what’s right in front of us. Case in point: When I sat down to write this article, I thought this award was going to be a slam dunk for Bryan Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody, but as it turns out, the film isn’t even nominated for its costumes. Because sanity prevailed when voters decided they didn’t find any kind of magic in Brian May pulling out his old Queen outfits for the making of Bryan Singer’s film, maybe it will prevail again and AMPAS will take the Oscars off its planned keto diet. And if it doesn’t, we’ll take some solace in three-time Oscar winner Sandy Powell—who for the third time in her career has been nominated twice in the same year—collecting this award for her gloriously ostentatious, stitch-perfect garbs for The Favourite.

Will Win: The Favourite

Could Win: Black Panther

Should Win: The Favourite

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Berlinale 2019: Out Stealing Horses, A Tale of Three Sisters, & Öndög

These films suggest the cinema as another place where we can simulate and reflect on life within and surrounded by natural landscapes.

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Out Stealing Horses
Photo: Berlinale

On the way into Berlin from Tegel Airport, one of the first signs of the city you see is a large tract of land divided into rectangular plots, on each a shed in a variable state of repair. In fact, you can find such areas dispersed throughout the city. Visitors can easily mistake these colonies for third world-style shantytowns, but in fact they’re the bougiest things imaginable: privately owned allotments, known as kleingärten, that aren’t used as primary residences. It’s an institution that allows urban dwellers with enough money to simulate life “on the land,” a slice of rural life plopped down within the city.

As goes Berlin, so goes Berlinale. Several films in this year’s competition suggest the cinema as another place where we can simulate and reflect on life within and surrounded by natural landscapes. There’s a certain nostalgia in these films’ contemplation of the relationship between people and nature—in an age where our actions have precipitated an ongoing ecological cataclysm, the depiction of natural spaces almost immediately invokes the past.

A particularly wistful note is struck by Hans Petter Moland’s Out Stealing Horses, a film about—stop me if you’ve heard this before—sexual awakening set during a rural Scandinavian summer. The film begins in the dark, cold New Year’s Eve of 1999, as an aged and lonesome Trond Sander (Stellan Skarsgård) hides out in Sweden from his troubled recent past. When the 66-year-old Norwegian meets his closest neighbor, Lars (Bjørn Floberg), the film flashes back to the summer of 1948, which Trond spent at his father’s country house in Norway. In voiceover, Skarsgård’s weathered baritone guides us through his character’s reminiscences concerning the tragedy that befell a neighboring family, and how his relationship with his father (Tobias Santelmann) was altered forever when they both became entangled in it.

Although the bulk of its action takes place in the postwar Norwegian woods, Out Stealing Horses regularly brings us back to 1999, contrasting the gray-and-blue perpetual night of a Swedish winter with the variegated colors of summer. Such blatant romantic symbolism doesn’t initially detract from a film that seems at the outset to promise a thoughtful contemplation of mortality. But as the symbols start to multiply—winter for old age and impending death; summer for youth; flowers, birds, and bees for burgeoning sexuality; thunder for emotional turmoil; water for femininity—and the melodrama becomes conventional and bloated, Moland and co-screenwriter Per Petterson’s subordination of natural objects to human meanings becomes increasingly one-dimensional.

Emin Alper’s A Tale of Three Sisters opens with a car driving into a remote, mountainous area of central Anatolia in Turkey. The car, whose hood takes up the foreground of the frame, belongs to Mr. Necati, a well-to-do city dweller on whom Sevkit (Müfit Kayacan) and his three daughters rely for their livelihood. The four live in a small village nestled in the mountains, and since their mother’s death, each of the three girls has tried and failed to serve as Necati’s family’s maid in the city. Nurhan (Ece Yüksel) and Havva (Helin Kandemir) have just returned from their stint, one that ended because the irascible Nurhan was beating the Necati children, and Reyhan (Cemre Ebuzziya) was returned some years ago when she got pregnant, upon which her father swiftly married her off to Veysel (Kayhan Açikgöz).

Veysel, a reluctant and lazy shepherd by trade, is a hapless fool, the kind of guy who will accidentally piss on a grave, then worriedly pose to his village superiors the question: “Is pissing on graves a sin?” Sevkit and the other men regularly laugh at his expense, and Reyhan and her sisters have little patience for her husband-of-necessity. The village’s mistreatment of the earnest but perpetually outmatched Veysel will have tragic consequences.

Tale of Three Sisters isn’t interested in tidy narrative resolutions. Much of the film consists of evocative scenes set amid the glowing brown-red hues of the area’s mountains and the hearth of Sivket’s family home—one of the most memorable of which is a comic, sexually suggestive sequence involving a huge jug of ayran, a foamy yogurt-based drink popular in Turkey. The film works its way toward a kind of moral resolution, though at times the journey there is a bit of a slog. Sevkit is a domineering father, his words taking over both his home and the film, which occasionally feels as tedious as his daughters find it.

Öndög, by Chinese director Wang Quan’an, is a film that takes an elemental approach to the human condition. A good portion of its running time is made up of long exterior shots of the Mongolian plains held for minutes at a time, the frame cleanly divided between the elements of earth and sky. The action, such that it is, often takes place at dusk, which flattens the silhouettes of the diminutive human figures against the blue-orange twilight sky; at times they look like shadow puppets inching their way across an ersatz, cardboard stage. The film’s aesthetics are grandiose in the same measure that they are playful.

Naturally, Öndög is concerned with life and death, and in a manner that evokes cyclical time. It opens with a pair of deaths—a woman’s body is discovered in a field, and a sheep is slaughtered on camera—and it closes with a pair of births (no spoilers here, but, then again, it’s doubtful spoilers can exist in cyclical time). Landing upon the same symbol of eternal recurrence as Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life, Wang evokes dinosaur life: One character shares with another that the ancient reptiles were first discovered in Mongolia, making Mongolians their descendants, destined in millions of years to be discovered again, by dinosaur scientists.

Though the film opens with police discovering the aforementioned woman’s body and a young officer (Norovsambuu) left alone in the field to guard it until it can be retrieved, it leaves this plot thread unresolved, subsuming itself in the anti-drama of the herdswoman (Dulamjav Enkhtaivan) who’s asked to keep the officer company. Roaming around the plains on her distinctive camel and tending to her livestock with only the occasional help of a neighboring, motorcycle-riding herdsman (Aorigeletu), the herdswoman is a model of autonomy and self-determination. She’s faster and better with a gun than the police, and flat-out ignores the herdsman’s constant suggestions that she needs to find a man.

Quan’an addresses eternal, cosmic themes through a portrait of rural characters living in a desolate setting, but even if his interest is in the primeval, he doesn’t make his characters “primitive.” They live closer to death and to birth, but they still play Elvis songs on their cellphones, call the police when they’re in trouble, and have medical abortions. And Öndög’s portrait of the human condition also isn’t portentous or overly self-serious; for one, this is a film that will give you a new appreciation for the inherent humor of camel sounds. Slow but never tedious, set under sky and stars but not in the least bit sentimental, Öndög is the festival’s most profound story of human life on the land.

Berlinale runs from February 7—17.

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Awards

Oscar 2019 Winner Predictions: Actor

Throwing questions of artistic merit out the window, opponents of a Rami Malek win have dutifully cast doubt on his ideological purity.

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Bohemian Rhapsody
Photo: 20th Century Fox

Given how this accursed Oscar season has thrown one obscenity after another at everyone who has any investment whatsoever in the institution of the Academy Awards, it’s as though AMPAS is inviting the world to burn the Dolby Theater down on Oscar Sunday, as Mélanie Laurent’s Shosanna does to the Cinema Le Gamaar at the climax of Inglourious Basterds. And at this point, considering that one of the four awards being banished to commercial breaks is cinematography, and that AMPAS president John Bailey is himself a cinematographer, the presumption of self-sabotage seems credible.

Such are the affronts to progress toward anything other than ABC-Disney’s maniacal bottom line to reverse the show’s declining ratings, and the deadening effect every bad idea has had on our souls, that Rami Malek winning the best actor Oscar for leading with his teeth throughout Bryan Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody slots toward the bottom of our shit list. Malek, who cemented his frontrunner status with a BAFTA win last weekend, may be taking a page, if not the whole ream, from Eddie Redmayne’s shamelessly charming campaign playbook. But in the category’s absence of Ethan Hawke, who ran the table with critics for his performance in First Reformed, is anyone’s reserve of outrage bottomless enough to howl about the inevitable results here, beyond wounded fans of A Star Is Born? (Though, don’t get us wrong. We’re happy to give Bradley Cooper the award if it keeps him from going behind the camera again.)

Throwing questions of artistic merit out the window, opponents of a Malek win have dutifully cast doubt on his ideological purity. You don’t have to flash back to Casey Affleck to regard this tack as a grisly mistake, even if you don’t happen to believe Malek got Bryan Singer kicked off of Bryan Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody for preying on underage boys. This is an Academy that nominated Green Book for five awards. Good intentions are still more than enough, and what you say is still as important, if not more so, than what you do. And if portraying Freddie Mercury as a misguided homosexual who just needed to find Britain’s one good gay somebody to love leaves a pretty foul taste in our mouths, at least Malek has managed to avoid letting the N-word slip from his mouth on the promotional circuit.

Will Win: Rami Malek, Bryan Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody

Could Win: Christian Bale, Vice

Should Win: Any actor willing to publicly stand up in support of airing all 24 categories.

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