Moulin Rouge and the Shadow of the Past
Georges Seurat: Drink your drink, Henri, and then we will go to the Louvre and refresh our souls, eh?
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec: The Louvre. That graveyard.
Gauzi: Graveyard! The home of the Mona Lisa, and he calls it a, a graveyard!
Anquetin an Artist: Ah, the Mona Lisa. Only the greatest painting in the world. At this moment I could kneel down and give thanks to Leonardo.
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec: And how do you know it is the greatest painting in the world? And how do you know it was by Leonardo?
Anquetin an Artist: Because I feel it! I feel it here, in my heart.
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec: I feel in my heart that you are a pompous ass, but that does not make it so.
Gauzi: Only Leonardo could have painted that smile. She smiles with her eyes!
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec: I don't care if she smiles with her navel, that still doesn't say that Da Vinci painted it.
It has long been my habit when trying to sleep to confront the question of how to film a scene from a work of fiction or a historical event on which I've done some reading. Frequent sources from literature have been Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's The White Company, Willa Cather's Death Comes for the Archbishop, William Faulkner's short story Turnabout, Alfred Bester's The Stars My Destination and Frank Herbert's Dune. Historical events have included Athens during the Peloponnesian Wars, the Punic Wars and the subsequent disintegration of the Roman Republic, the last week in the life of Jesus Christ, the Hundred Years War, the War of the Roses...and the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin. Then there are most things having to do with The Once and Future King.
I fall asleep and when next I lay me down I confront the same question or a new/old one. Recently there were long stretches (I was sick) where I was unable to confront the question and the dazed and sleepless hours piled up. During those hours I twice watched the John Huston directed 1952 release, Moulin Rouge. It's a movie I've always liked because of both its look and its dialogue, and because it's better than most movies of its type in respecting the life and the times of the historical personage (Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec) whose story is, supposedly, being told. The real truth though is that there is something deep within me which responds with unbridled joy to some of the music (from Jacques Offenbach's Orpheus In The Underworld) to which the can-can is danced (all no doubt having to do with its use as background music in radio and television programming I heard and watched when I was young) and Huston uses that music beautifully within this movie.
John Huston writes in his autobiography, An Open Book:
Jimmy Woolf gave me a copy of Pierre La Mure's Moulin Rouge, a highly romanticized novel about Toulouse-Lautrec. After I read the book, I had an idea for the end that made me want to make a picture of it. I imagined Lautrec on his deathbed in the chateau at Toulouse, his mother and father watching the priest administer extreme unction. He smiles and his eyes open. He is hallucinating: the shades from his beloved Moulin Rouge enter the room, come there to bid farewell to their departing friend. The music of the can-can starts and Lautrec breathes his last. It would be a truly happy ending.
Huston ended up thinking Moulin Rouge "kind of interesting physically." This had to do with the fact that they drove the Technicolor people crazy with what they did with the process in that as Huston writes, Moulin Rouge "was the first picture that succeeded in dominating the color instead of being dominated by it." But Huston also said, "It just wasn't Toulouse-Lautrec, that's all." When he said this in 1965 he explained that by then you could put Toulouse-Lautrec on the screen, but in 1952 you couldn't because of the Production Code.
DVD reviewers seem to be very happy with the transfer in terms of the look of the movie. I think I'll rent it and see for myself.
Okay, that's the mini-review. Onto some recent and not-so-recent movie history.
Not all that many days ago I actually prayed that a movie I care nothing for or about was going to open well enough to stop the fingers of the seemingly endless parade of know-nothing interpreters of movie box office who for over a year have displayed their stupidity again and again with savage glee while an industry (whose product, for all its many failures, I love) adjusts to a changed and changing marketplace. Things looked good for them. Mission: Impossible III hadn't opened particularly well and Poseidon had opened poorly. The reaction at Cannes had been mixed at best. The reviewers were decidedly negative. And then, on Friday afternoon, the reports were the equivalent of the most joyful music I know [Friedrich Schiller wrote the words, Ludwig von Beethoven set them to music, it's in another movie I saw while too ill to sleep, the line in that movie that still most delights me, the way I hear it, is: We're gonna need some more FBI guys, I guess and it was no doubt used again and again as background music in radio and television programming I heard and watched when I was young.] People were going to see The Da Vinci Code.
In 1952, U.S. box office receipts fell for the sixth consecutive year. It was the ninth consecutive year in which they'd fallen as a percentage of U.S. personal, recreational and spectator recreational spending. The effects were beginning to be felt. The number of U.S. produced releases dropped from 391 to 324.
Cecil B. DeMille's The Greatest Show On Earth premiered on January 10th. Zoltan Korda's Cry, the Beloved Country, Sidney Poitier's second movie, debuted on January 23rd. Elia Kazan's Viva Zapata!, with Marlon Brando in the title role and Anthony Quinn as Eufimio, the role that would win him his first Supporting Actor Oscar, opened on February 7th. Jacques Tati's Jour de Fete made it to the U.S. on February 19th. Luis Bunuel's great Los Olvidados arrived on March 24th. My favorite musical, Singin' in the Rain, premiered on March 27th. Alec Guinness, as The Man in the White Suit, made it onto screens in the U.S. on March 31st. Orson Welles's The Tragedy of Othello: The Moor of Venice premiered at Cannes on May 10th. It co-won the top prize, the Palme d'Or, and three years later it was released in the U.S. The Powell-Pressburger production of Jacques Offenbach's The Tales of Hoffmann made it to the U.S. on June 13th. Fred Zinnemann's High Noon, with Gary Cooper in his Best Actor Oscar-winning performance, debuted on July 24th. Ivanhoe opened on July 31st. John Ford's The Quiet Man, with John Wayne and Maureen O'Hara, premiered on August 14th. Ford won his fourth and final Best Director Oscar for his 119th directing credit. This Is Cinerama debuted on September 30th. Yasujuro Ozu's Ochazuke no Aji (Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice) and Akira Kurosawa's great Ikiru opened in Japan on October 1st and 9th respectively. Ikiru made it to the U.S. in 1956. Ozu's movie arrived on November 20, 1964. Charlie Chaplin's Limelight premiered on October 23rd. Chaplin went to Europe and his re-entry permit was revoked. He didn't come back until 1972. David Lean's The Sound Barrier debuted on November 6th. The Road To Bali opened on November 19th. Jeux Interdits, the Golden Lion winner at Venice, first played in the U.S. on December 8th. The Importance of Being Earnest, Moulin Rouge, My Cousin Rachel, The Bad and the Beautiful, with Gloria Grahame in her Best Supporting Actress Oscar-winning performance, and Come Back, Little Sheba, with Shirley Booth in her Best Actress Oscar-winning performance, opened at the end of the year to become Academy Awards eligible.
The members of the Academy nominated The Greatest Show on Earth, High Noon, Ivanhoe, Moulin Rouge and The Quiet Man for Best Picture.
Here's what Danny Peary wrote in Alternate Oscars:
In 1952 Cecil B. DeMille's The Greatest Show on Earth, entertaining junk about the circus, was voted Best Picture for no discernible reason, other than that most voters probably knew somebody in the all-star cast or huge production crew.
And here's what Tim Dirks wrote at his fantastic web site, www.filmsite.org:
This was the first year that the Academy Awards ceremony were televised (on March 19, 1953), on black and white NBC-TV, with Bob Hope as host. It resulted in the largest audience in commercial television history. Hollywood had to admit and succumb to the competing pressures from the burgeoning home entertainment medium. The show was telecast throughout the US and Canada.
The Best Picture Award was another surprise and is forever considered one of the Academy's worst choices for the top prize. 1952 has been considered one of the years in which the Academy blundered the greatest in its choice of Best Picture. The bloated, lumbering, melodramatic epic The Greatest Show on Earth was one of the Academy's biggest gaffes.
This year also marked the first time in Oscar's history that all of the top six prizes (Best Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, Supporting Actor, and Supporting Actress) went to six different films. This would occur again in 1956, and then 49 years later in 2005.
An American in Paris was the surprise Best Picture in 1951. Singin' in the Rain, made by the same people, received two nominations a year later. Jean Hagen lost for Supporting Actress and Best Music, Scoring of a Musical Picture went to With A Song In My Heart. Limelight won for Best Music, Original Dramatic Score in 1973. It didn't become Academy Awards-eligible until Chaplin returned to accept an honorary Oscar in 1972 and, in conjunction with that, it finally opened in Los Angeles.
How bad a year was 1952? How bad a year was 2005? Well, as www.filmsite.org says 1952 and 2005 are two of the three times in which the top six Academy Awards went to six different movies with 1956 being the other and, interestingly enough, 1952 and 1956 have other things in common. See if you can spot them.
The members of the Academy nominated Around the World in 80 Days, Friendly Persuasion, Giant, The King and I and The Ten Commandments for Best Picture.
The Ladykillers, with Alec Guinness, made it to the U.S. on February 20th. Laurence Olivier's Richard III first played the U.S. on March 3rd. John Ford's great The Searchers, with John Wayne, opened on March 13th. Forbidden Planet debuted on March 15th. Akira Kurosawa's great Ikiru made it to the U.S. on March 25th. Georg Wilhelm Pabst's Der Letzte Akt, also known as Hitler: The Last Ten Days, arrived on April 11th. Jean Renoir's 35th director credit, French Cancan, first played in the U.S. on April 16th. The Harder They Fall, with Humphrey Bogart in his last role, premiered on May 9th. Alfred Hitchcock's remake of his own The Man Who Knew Too Much, "Que Sera, Sera", debuted on June 1st. The blacklisted Julius Dassin's great Du Rififi Chez les Hommes made it to the U.S. on June 5th. Stanley Kubrick's The Killing opened on June 6th. John Huston's Moby Dick, with Gregory Peck as Ahab, debuted on June 27th. The screen adaptation of Rodgers and Hammerstein's The King and I, with Deborah Kerr and Yul Brynner in his Best Actor Oscar-winning role, premiered on the 28th. Frederico Fellini's La Strada first played in the U.S. on July 16th. High Society, the musical version of The Philadelphia Story, debuted on July 17th. Vincente Minnelli's Lust For Life, with Kirk Douglas as Vincent Van Gogh and Anthony Quinn as Paul Gauguin, the role that won him a second Supporting Actor Oscar, opened on September 17th. The winner of the Palme d'Or, Le Monde du Silence, a documentary directed by Jaques-Yves Cousteau and Louis Malle, arrived in the U.S. on September 24th. Tea and Sympathy, also starring Deborah Kerr, premiered on September 27th. Cecil B. DeMille's The Ten Commandments, with Charlton Heston as Moses, debuted on October 5th. Giant, starring Rock Hudson, Elizabeth Taylor and the late James Dean (he'd died on September 30th), opened on October 10th. It's director, George Stevens, would win his second Best Director Oscar without the movie also winning Best Picture. He won in 1951 for A Place in the Sun. Around the World in 80 Days premiered on October 17th. Frederico Fellini's breakthrough effort, I Vitelloni, first played in the U.S. on October 23rd. Elvis Presley made his movie debut in Love Me Tender on November 15th. Akira Kurosawa's great Shichinin no samurai (Seven Samurai) made it to the U.S. on November 19th. William Wyler's Friendly Persuasion, starring Gary Cooper, premiered on November 29th. The Rainmaker, starring Katharine Hepburn and Burt Lancaster, and Anastasia, starring Yul Brynner and Ingrid Bergman in her second Best Actress Oscar-winning role, debuted on December 13th. Douglas Sirk's Written on the Wind, featuring a Supporting Actress Oscar-winning performance by Dorothy Malone, came out, though no one seems to know exactly when, in December.
As far as U.S. box office receipts were concerned, 1956 marked the third year in a row that box office improved, but the numbers would start going south again the next year and a sustained turnaround, though not in terms of percentages of U.S. personal, recreational and spectator recreational spending, wouldn't begin until 1962. The percentages would begin to improve in 1973. The number of U.S. produced releases was down to 272 in 1956. It would hit 300 the following year and then not hit 300 again until 1975.
The most hyped picture of the year, it [Around the World in 80 Days] was strategically released as a theater "event," with higher prices and limited screenings. For his only film before his death in a plane crash, [Michael] Todd wisely offered cameos to almost every actor in the universe. How could the Academy members vote against their friends? Around the World in 80 Days, escapist entertainment at best, won the Best Picture Oscar. Lost among the epics was John Ford's unnominated, unnoticed The Searchers, the year's best picture, my choice as best movie Western, and an influence on such diverse pictures as....
This was also the first year that all of the five Best Picture nominees were in color..
Another possible trend, signaled by the victory of Marty (1955), toward simpler, shorter, intimate dramas, did not occur again in 1956. Instead, there was the splashy emergence of wide-scale, expensive super-epics (colorful dramas, musicals, comedies, and costume pieces) all at least two hours long - mostly to compete with the resurgence of television.
All of the major awards winners were gigantic - Mike Todd's Around the World in 80 Days, The King and I, Anastasia, Giant, De Mille's The Ten Commandments - the highest grossing film of the year, King Vidor's War and Peace, and Wyler's Friendly Persuasion
In 2005, domestic box office grosses fell for the first time since 1991 and the top six Oscars went to The Constant Gardener (Best Supporting Actress Rachel Weisz), Syriana (Best Supporting Actor George Clooney), Walk the Line (Best Actress Reese Witherspoon), Capote (Best Actor Philip Seymour Hoffman), Brokeback Mountain (Best Director Ang Lee) and Crash (Best Picture—great campaign and huge cast. How could the Academy members vote against their friends?)
King Charles II: Give me a major work of literature and I'll give you 500 guineas.
Rochester: When would you like it? Friday?
So, is there a 2005 release, currently under-appreciated, which will come to be regarded as great over time? Singin' in the Rain and The Searchers did the tenth biggest domestic box office of 1952 and 1956 respectively. Hitch was tenth in 2005. The movie that was eleventh on December 31st would overtake it on January 5th. King Kong was Peter Jackson's follow-up to his award-winning adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings Trilogy. Oh, yeah. I used to consider the question of how to adapt the expositive chapters of the first book, but then Jackson botched it so badly that I haven't been willing or able to take up the question since I wrote about it elsewhere in December of 2001. King Kong received almost universally good reviews, won three technical Oscars and didn't make my list of 2005 favorites. Then there's Ron Howard's box office non-contender, Cinderella Man. It did make my list. Or how about Batman Begins, also on my list, which is most responsible (aside from my editor) for my participating here and not elsewhere these days. Another movie not on my list starred Johnny Depp and featured John Malkovich as King Charles II. Why not The Libertine? 546 movies (domestic and international) released in 2005 were tracked by www.boxofficemojo.com. I've seen, at most, a fifth of them. Here's hoping we'll all be around long enough to raise our voices in shock and/or outrage and cry: "Sin City!?!?"
When next I write on movies it'll be on my favorite 1982 release: Mel Gibson is The Road Warrior.