Tuesday, May 31, 2016

"Harry Potter" Cast Scavenger Hunt

One of the unquestionable joys of the Harry Potter films was the extraordinary cast of actors, which by the end of the eight films comprised nearly every major British actor of the generation, from Gary Oldman and Alan Rickman, Kenneth Branagh, Julie Walters, and Miranda Richardson, to Ralph Fiennes and Timothy Spall. Here are a selection of some of the cast members' other wonderful films, ranging from the well-known to the obscure, though naturally this is only a tiny sampling. PLEASE NOTE: Most of these films ARE NOT APPROPRIATE for children, no matter how passionately interested in seeing the actors of Harry Potter in other contexts they may be, since many include violence, sexual content, and mature themes.

Babe - Miriam Margolys (Madame Sprout) 
Obviously, this wildly popular Oscar-winning film is anything but obscure, but I would imagine that few people have realized that the voice of Fly, the maternal sheepdog who adopts Babe the pig as one of her puppies and helps train him to herd sheep, is also the voice of Miriam Margolys, or Madame Sprout. Babe is a small masterpiece, one that despite descents into cutesiness is so honestly engaged with the reality that humans eat animals even as we anthropomorphize them that it achieves a profundity one would hardly expect in a talking animal movie. Margolys is also the voice of the matchmaker in Mulan.

Belle - Tom Felton (Draco Malfoy)
Amma Asante's period drama embellishes a tiny set of vague historical clues with a moving story of overcoming racial intolerance in the midst of the bitterly contentious debates about the legality of the slave trade in Georgian England. Though still at its core a romance, as are most period films, Belle forces us to view history with complexity, neither as a flight of picturesque fantasy nor as an archaic world to damn for its prejudices. Tom Felton again plays a nasty villain, voicing the most disgusting thinking about race and assuming that Dido (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) is fair game because she is black. The cast also includes Miranda Richardson (Rita Skeeter).

The Butcher Boy - Fiona Shaw (Petunia Dursley) 
This deeply disturbing film follows Francie (Eamonn Owens), the son of a suicidal mother and alcoholic father, whose violent fantasies and obsessive friendship with another boy sparks an extreme hostility to the boy's mother, played by Shaw. With the very blackest of black humor, The Butcher Boy insists on the audience looking at the world from Francie's point of view, a bleak world where atomic apocalypse could occur at any moment and neither parents nor priests offer any protection. Fiona Shaw's brilliant performance is one among many here; other cast members in this film and the Harry Potter series include Ian Hart (Professor Quirrell) and Brendan Gleeson (Mad-Eye Moody).

Camelot - Richard Harris (Albus Dumbledore)
Sadly, Dumbledore would turn out to be Richard Harris's final role after a long, varied career on both stage and screen. For those who grew up on Harry Potter, it is a rather disorienting but nevertheless charming pleasure to see Harris, at thirty seven, singing (!), as King Arthur in the Lerner and Loewe musical film. He is joined by the perfectly cast Vanessa Redgrave, as Guinevere, and Franco Nero, a bit awkward but not unlikable, as Lancelot. The movie takes a generally lighthearted approach to Arthurian legend and the songs are catchy and fun. Best of all, this film has some of the best jousting scenes of cinema. 

Contact - John Hurt (Ollivander)
John Hurt pops up unexpectedly in many films and I considered instead listing one of the animated films to which he has lent his voice, including Watership Down and Ralph Bakshi's The Lord of the Rings, but Contact is my favorite science fiction film of all time. Based on the book by Carl Sagan, the movie stars Jodie Foster as a scientist fiercely devoted to making contact with extraterrestrials. John Hurt costars as offbeat millionaire with his own motives for furthering her cause. Part of what I love about this film is that it explores with such depth the implications of making contact, both spiritual and scientific. 

Matilda - Pam Ferris (Aunt Marge)
Pam Ferris appeared in only the third Harry Potter film, but her role as the aunt that Harry accidentally blows up into a tweed-clad balloon is memorable to say the least. Ferris played another gruesome grown-up in this film based on the beloved novel by Roald Dahl, the Trunchbull, headmistress of Matilda's school and archenemy of all children. Matilda doesn't quite have the ghoulish sense of humor of the original book, but it's especially difficult to adapt Dahl novels given their comically horrific content; even so, Ferris, Danny DeVito, and Rhea Perlman give wonderfully vicious performances as horrible grown-ups.

The Remains of the Day - Emma Thompson (Sybill Trelawney)
Emma Thompson in particular has been in so many wonderful films that it was difficult to make a choice; she gives an especially subtle and complex performance in this adaptation of the Kazuo Ishiguro novel about the relationship between a butler (Anthony Hopkins) and a housekeeper (Thompson) who must confront, or fail to confront, the pro-Nazi politics of their aristocratic employers. This collaboration by producer Ismail Merchant, director James Ivory, and screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala is one of their best, a brooding, melancholic film, each frame pregnant with rich textures and details. Game of Thrones fans should keep their eyes peeled for a teenaged Lena Headey.

Restoration - David Thewlis (Remus Lupin) 
This period piece set during the decadent reign of Charles II (Sam Neill) stars Robert Downey, Jr. as a philandering physician who throws over his profession when, having saved the king's beloved spaniel, he is invited to court where he can array himself like a peacock, drink himself into oblivion, and have his pick of a half dozen girls at any hour of the day or night. David Thewlis plays his Quaker friend, who urges him to renounce his debaucheries and practice his gift for healing. The movie begins as a delightful romp, each costume more absurd and feather-bedecked than the last, but it acquires an edge of bitter seriousness as it begins to grapple with the fact of human mortality. Restoration offers everything one might wish from a period film, from exquisite costumes and wigs to forbidden romance and a window into the strangeness of the past.

The Secret Garden - Maggie Smith (Professor McGonagall)
Agnieszka Holland's adaptation of the Frances Hodgson Burnett classic has flown under the radar, perhaps because it takes a rather adult approach to a book intended for children. Maggie Smith plays Mrs. Medlock, the sour housekeeper whose deference to duty has through long habit become a self-satisfied martyrdom to her work. From Smith one expects, and always gets, a brilliant performance, but the child actors in this film, especially Kate Maberly as Mary Lennox, are extraordinary and the cinematography by Roger Deakins and Jerzy Zielinski is stunning, rendering the gloomy moors and overcast skies of England exquisitely lovely in their moodiness.

Sense and Sensibility - Gemma Jones (Madame Pomfrey) 
Ang Lee's exquisite film is the very best Jane Austen adaptation, its screenplay by Emma Thompson a literary masterpiece on its own merits. The story of the bereaved Dashwood family, the matriarch played by Gemma Jones and the daughters by Thompson, Kate Winslet, and Emilie François, and their thwarted attempts to get the two elder daughters married to the men they love is told with a rare mixture of wittiness and melancholy. Also worthy of note: the soft and yet richly toned cinematography of Michael Coulter and the intimate, melodic score by Patrick Doyle. Besides Jones, other cast members in this film and the Harry Potter series include Emma Thompson (Sybill Trelawney), Robert Hardy (Cornelius Fudge), Imelda Staunton (Dolores Umbridge), Elizabeth Spriggs (Fat Lady, in the first film), and Alan Rickman (Severus Snape).

St. Ives - Jason Isaacs (Lucius Malfoy)
This rather obscure period film proves an unexpected delight with a story that blends madcap adventure, witty and flirtatious amours, battles and duels, a suspenseful tale of villainy thwarted, and more twists and turns than an episode of Game of Thrones. Based on a lesser (and unfinished) novel by Stevenson, the movie is a jolly romp through the Napoleonic Wars starring Jean-Marc Barr, Miranda Richardson (Rita Skeeter), Anna Friel, and Jason Isaacs, again playing a villain with panache. This film is more reminiscent of the period pieces of old Hollywood than those of today, expertly ranging from slapstick humor to tear-jerking tragedy in the tradition of The Scarlet Pimpernel or The Adventures of Robin Hood.

Stardust - Mark Williams (Mr. Weasley) 
Mark Williams's part in this fantasy adventure film is small and easy to miss, but it's such fun when you recognize him that I had to include it. Williams plays Billy the Innkeeper, a billy goat transformed into a man by the hand of an evil witch, and he proves his comic acting chops. Stardust was neither a commercial nor critical success when it came out in 2007, which is a pity because it's a funny, fast, beautifully and colorfully designed fantasy replete with wit and unusually astutely applied CGI in a sea of bloated, boring, dark epics. The cast includes Claire Danes, Charlie Cox, Michelle Pfeiffer, Robert De Niro, and an unrecognizable Henry Cavill wearing a blond mustache. 

Suffragette - Brendan Gleeson (Mad-Eye Moody)
This long-overdue dramatization of the English suffragette movement, suitably written, directed, and produced by women, is a salutary reminder of both how far we've come in a short time and how fast we could regress if we are not attentive. The film concentrates on working class women who had to risk far more than their upper class comrades and yet had far more to gain in order to obtain the vote and it fully succeeds in illustrating those risks - the loss of children, homelessness, the loss of a job, sexual violence, prison, starvation - and the gains - rights to divorce and child custody, a claim to equal wages, access to education, to state just a few. Gleeson plays the inspector assigned to infiltrate the suffragettes, destroying the movement, and his performance adds depth to a role that could have been simply that of a villain. The cast also includes Anne-Marie Duff, Carey Mulligan, and Helena Bonham Carter (Bellatrix Lestrange).

Vera Drake - Imelda Staunton (Dolores Umbridge)
Mike Leigh's intense drama, which comes as close to seeing a play in a theater as any film I've ever seen, was, according to interviews, largely improvised by the cast, who developed their characters with Leigh and were only told what they were characters would know about the situation unfolding. Imelda Staunton stars in an outstanding performance as a giving, kindhearted working class woman who unbeknownst to her family performs abortions illegally. The camera is utterly nonjudgmental, it focuses on a face, a pot of boiling water, a shy couple on a sofa, with a serious open-mindedness that is rare in films on such subject matter. Jim Broadbent (Professor Slughorn) has a small role as a judge.

Willow - Warwick Davis (Professor Flitwick/Griphook)
Warwick Davis has had more success than any other actor who has dwarfism ever has (though Peter Dinklage is fast catching up), but he has had few opportunities to play a lead role. Only a teenager when he starred in Willow, Davis proved himself more than capable of leading the cast of a major fantasy blockbuster. Willow Ufgood, a Nelwyn, discovers a Daikini baby and, realizing that the child is the prophesied savior of their world, he sets out on a journey to protect her from the forces of evil led by the Queen Bavmorda (Jean Marsh). He is aided by the greatest swordsman who ever lived, played Val Kilmer with a ragamuffin charm. Willow is, hands down, one of the best fantasy films of all time. 

A Young Doctor's Notebook - Daniel Radcliffe (Harry Potter)
Lastly, I couldn't finish out this list without highlighting the quirky continuing career of Daniel Radcliffe, who seems to make films solely according to his own happily unconventional tastes. A Young Doctor's Notebook, based on writings by the Russian master Mikhail Bulgakov, is actually a television series, and not a film, but as it is comprised of only eight short episodes of about twenty minutes each, one could easily watch it in one longish evening. Radcliffe plays the younger version of a doctor, certainly convinced of his own brilliance and miserable at being assigned to an isolated country hospital, while Jon Hamm plays the older version, looking back at his younger self, and horrifically addicted to morphine. The series has a very black sense of humor, blending British and Russian sensibilities into a thorny brew of the bitter and ridiculous. 

Saturday, May 28, 2016

The Real Problem with "The Big Bang Theory"

Sitcoms are fairly straightforward in terms of conception. A central premise is established in the pilot episode, one that that usually has an obvious end goal. The episodes essentially riff on this premise, following a meandering progress to that end goal by prodding the characters towards it. The best sitcoms end when the premise runs its course, but the financing of such shows usually works against good structural plotting. This is what's happened to The Big Bang Theory, though from a network perspective, it's still profitable and therefore who cares?

To explain what I mean, I'll take a look at some other successful sitcoms. There's the ur-sitcom, I Love Lucy, which ran for six seasons, and was funny to the end, though it might not have been if Lucy and Ricky hadn't moved to Connecticut, opening the way for situations impossible in New York City, like a lawn mower run amok on prize flower beds. The series ends abruptly - there essentially is no finale, but that's because the show didn't so much end as morph into The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour, hour-long specials that aired over three years. It was a forum for Lucy to interact with movie stars, while Ricky, Fred, and Ethel, although still part of the series, participated far less. The second incarnation, though successful at first from a financial perspective, was ultimately a lackluster shadow of the original sitcom. The reasons for the change were myriad, but a primary reason was that Desi Arnaz was having health problems (quite obvious in many of his scenes, especially the later ones). I Love Lucy remains an iconic show, still laugh-out-loud funny almost sixty years after its final episode first aired. Its reputation was cemented during syndication and it's important to note that the The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour was edited into half hour segments, shedding much of the bulk. I Love Lucy transformed television comedy and was one of the most-watched shows in American history. It's exceptional by nature. But its continuation was lousy because the central premise had fallen apart. With Ricky, Fred, and Ethel sidelined, the show faltered and began to feel repetitive and dull.

The Nanny, Fran Drescher's take-off of The Sound of Music via Flushing, Queens, achieved a great deal of popularity while it was airing and even more so in its dubbed versions abroad in countries like France and Italy. The show ran for six seasons, what seems to be the magic number for sitcoms. The premise - streetwise Jewish-American nanny falls in love with her millionaire British boss - tended towards the obvious conclusion - streetwise Jewish-American nanny marries millionaire British boss. The show's pacing was impeccable. At the end of the fourth season, when the tension began to wear thin, it was clear that the relationship between Fran and Maxwell was heating up. They were married at the end of the fifth and had twins at the end of the sixth, moving to California and leaving behind the mansion set that had been a constant throughout the show. Accordingly, the show never had a chance to falter or wander off into too many episodes that turn out to be dreams or fantasies. Although Fran Drescher has since said that she was pressured into wrapping up The Nanny before she thought it necessary, frankly the show has survived as well as it has because it didn't wear out its welcome.

That '70s Show, on the other hand, which premiered as The Nanny was wrapping up, stayed strong until its seventh season. It ran for eight. The show's pacing was marred by a (frankly rather psychedelic) stretching of time in order to accommodate additional seasons while keeping the characters in the 1970s. In the seventh season, the premise - group of high school friends centered around Eric Forman hang out, date each other, and get high in his parents' basement - had begun to collapse. The characters had graduated from high school and the plots were increasingly scattered and unconnected with each other. The show could have ended on a high note in season six, and it could have ended with a certain sentimentality and end-of-the-road feeling in season seven. Instead, it continued for an eighth season, an appallingly bad one. The anchor of the plot was Eric because all of the characters in one way or another relate to each other through him. Once Topher Grace left, the show completely foundered. Eric's father became a mouthpiece for the audience, crankily wondering why the show's remaining cast members insisted on continuing to hang out in his basement. What really shredded the show beyond redemption was the addition of a love interest for Donna, Randy, played by Josh Myers and perhaps one of the most irritating characters of all time.

Friends ran for even longer, reaching a full ten seasons. The show had one strength in the extreme openness of its premise - six friends live their intertwined lives as young twenty- and thirty-somethings in New York. The humor was character-based and the plots, though heavily engaged in the romantic entanglements of the characters both with each other and with guest stars, also focused on career and parenting problems, which gave the show a wider scope than, for example, The Big Bang Theory, which hyper-focuses on the romantic. It also helped that each of the characters had unique, developed relationships with all of the other characters, so it was unnecessary to lean on romantic couples as basic units to drive forward plots, even as the basic end goal for the show was to finally get Rachel and Ross back together. Friends certainly got pretty tired by the end and probably should have ended after the ninth season, but it's one of the few such shows to survive so many seasons without imploding. It descended into sentimentality at the end, as had The Nanny, though both shows had loyal followings involved enough in the characters' fates that it mattered less when those final episodes first aired.

The most painful casualty of having too many seasons, as far as I'm concerned, is Will and Grace. It ran for eight seasons and truly ran itself into the ground. The premise of the show - straight woman and gay man are best friends in a marriage-like relationship - was aiming at, like most sitcoms about single people, settling its characters romantically. When Grace married Leo in the fifth season, it should have signaled the end of the line, since from there, the end goal established at the beginning had been half fulfilled. From there, Will needed to find a stable relationship. However, the show was still attracting high viewership, so it kept getting renewed. The quality of the show got so bad that it was nearly unwatchable. In order to keep the show going, Grace's marriage had to be broken up, introducing a painful, and very, very unfunny plot about infidelity and divorce. It morphed from a consistently funny comedy to a soap opera with occasional chuckle-worthy moments. A sixth season was always going to be stale, but a seventh and eighth? Will and Grace ultimately deteriorated so badly because the original premise, the foundation of the show, was violated.

Even my favorite sitcom, Parks and Recreation, fell into the trap of too many seasons, though every episode through to the finale was well-written and hilariously funny. The sixth season finale didn't tie up all of the loose ends, but it reached a satisfying and natural conclusion. The Parks and Recreation department had splintered apart, for good reasons, but nevertheless had done so and the basic story had come to an end. The seventh season was essentially a season-long finale, wrapping up every storyline in laborious detail. There was something slightly sad in such a clear wrap-up because it carefully boxed each character into a definite future, limiting the scope of their future possibilities. For the sake of the story, an extended bonus finale in lieu of a full season would probably have been better.

In the case of The Big Bang Theory, about to begin its tenth season, the show is suffering terribly from the pacing problems of too many seasons. The essential premise of the show is four nerdy guys who have to grow up enough to be able to sustain long-term relationships with women, but three of the four characters had already achieved those relationships by season three. The end goal of the show, similarly to Friends, is for Leonard and Penny to make a serious commitment to each other - that was established in the pilot - and both Sheldon and Howard were set up with Amy and Bernadette early on, leaving only Raj to go through the motions of romantic entanglements. This issue has meant that the writers have had to repeatedly break up the couples to sustain the arc of the show. The show's biggest weakness is that, despite having a stable central cast of seven characters by season four, not all of the potential relationships have been fully exploited. Though Sheldon's friendships with Leonard and Penny and the friendship between Howard and Raj have had significant attention, Amy and Bernadette continue to be satellites, relating to the other characters via their respective boyfriends or Penny. A greater focus on friendships and careers might enliven the show and help it along. But, by the seventh season, the series was already feeling pretty tired; at this point, it's about time to mercifully put these characters to rest.

In the end, it seems that the vast majority of well-written sitcoms have a healthy life of about six seasons, seven at a stretch. The Big Bang Theory doesn't really deserve the intense critical backlash it's received in the wake of insane numbers of awards and nominations. It's a pleasant, sunny comedy, peopled with characters that range from gently annoying to ineptly endearing. It's not going to make profound political points because it studiously ignores politics. It's cotton candy, but like cotton candy left out too long, it's quickly calcifying.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

"Madame Butterfly" in Hollywood

Operas were a natural source of adaptations for cinema from the beginning of narrative film, for they provided dramatic plots that could be easily rendered in gesture, unlike the dialogue-heavy plays of nineteenth century theater. Opera also offered meaty roles to actors and occasion for exotic, aristocratic, or fanciful costumes and set design. Opera also gave early cinema, which from the very earliest years inspired debate about its status as an art form, a veneer of high class. Puccini's tragic and perennially popular opera Madama Butterfly, especially famous for the aria Un bel dì, vedremo and the Humming Chorus, was adapted at least three times during the silent era, both Mary Pickford and Anna May Wong trying their hand at the iconic role of Cio-Cio-San.

The story of the opera is a classic melodrama, one that echoes many of the themes and plot elements of other such operas in the tragic mode, such as La traviata, Norma, and Aida. Cio-Cio-San is an innocent, wide-eyed girl, with an absolute belief in the power of love within marriage. Pinkerton, an officer in the U.S. navy, marries her, secure in his belief that he can simply leave her and consider himself divorced, since Japanese laws on divorce are forgiving. Pinkerton indulges Cio-Cio-San's romantic ideals, fathers a child with her, and leaves her behind, considering himself free. The girl never loses her faith that he will come back, but she is stunned when he does return, married to an American woman who wants to adopt the child Pinkerton fathered. Agonized, Cio-Cio-San agrees to give up her son and commits suicide, with a harakiri blade, as Pinkerton, struck with remorse, rushes to her side too late.

The opera's first sound adaptation was released in 1932, starring Sylvia Sydney and Cary Grant. Sylvia Sidney was a known quantity, popular enough that she could headline a fairly high-budget film, though she wasn't a star on the scale of Norma Shearer, Kay Francis, or Jeanette MacDonald. Cary Grant, on the other hand, was up-and-coming, but not yet a star. He made his motion picture debut in 1932, and made eight different movies, including Madame Butterfly just in that first year. The two actors had already worked together, in Merrily We Go to Hell, along with Fredric March, a racy film about a married couple embroiled in tit-for-tat adultery (Cary played the "other" man) and they would work together once more in 1934 for the fluffy, but very sweet and appealing Thirty Day Princess, in which Sydney played a double role as the mumps-ridden princess and the struggling actress hired to impersonate her and Grant played a suspicious newspaper publisher out for a scoop. While Grant obviously went on to be one of the most beloved and recognizable movie stars of Hollywood history, Sydney gained a reputation for being "difficult" and was declared box office poison less than a decade later (though she continued to act for decades).

Casting Sydney as Cio-Cio-San (Madame Butterfly) made a great deal of sense, given her star image. She typically played sweet, naive girls drawn into unsavory situations by brothers, boyfriends, or lovers, though she rarely lost a certain moral purity at her core. Her enormous eyes and heart-shaped face were exploited for a baby doll-style that was both chic and angelic, even in sordid surroundings. Grant's casting as Pinkerton is similarly appropriate, as in the beginning of his career he was often the rogue, handsome, charming, irresistible, and a womanizer, though not in the end a bad guy. He misbehaved, but the selfishness of his characters was framed as excusable, as the women who took their downfall with him were usually judged far more harshly.

The film is lushly romantic, the music essentially a heavily adapted, instrumental arrangement of the opera score and the sets and costumes are exquisite, a sort of late Art Deco rendering of a Japan straight out of fairy tales, more oriental than actually Japanese. The acting is overwrought and intentionally operatic, a style that fits Grant poorly, though he doesn't acquit himself as badly as one might expect for an inexperienced actor who had up until that year made his career primarily in vaudeville. Sydney's performance has aged very badly, though this is not entirely her fault. Mercifully, she doesn't fake a Japanese accent, but the screenplay, credited to Josephine Lovett and Joseph Moncure March, has the Japanese characters speak a sort of pidgin English, reflective of how Americans incorrectly imagined Japanese was spoken. Between the casting of white actors in Asian roles and the extensive use of this pidgin English, the film, no matter its merits, has no possibility of rehabilitation, ineluctably a product of its time.

Unsurprisingly, Hollywood never attempted another adaptation of Madame Butterfly (though there have been Hollywood films that have referenced the opera or drawn self-conscious parallels). During the production code era, the story was impossible to produce: interracial marriage was absolutely verboten, even when a white actor played a character of another race, though such stories were actually fairly common in the pre-code era - examples include The Bitter Tea of General Yen, starring Barbara Stanwyck and Nils Asther, and Broken Blossoms, starring Mary Pickford and Richard Barthelmess. Abroad, a co-production between Italy and Japan produced an opera film adaptation in 1954, which used both Japanese and Italian actors, dubbed by Italian singers; I haven't had a chance to see it, but this was typical of the opera films which were a staple of Italian cinema for decades. Although the opera remains a standard in the repertoire, regularly produced at all the major world opera houses, today melodrama in the movies has gone out of fashion and current politics surrounding race make it a dicy proposition for mainstream filmmaking. Plays, films, and musicals have been produced instead, critiquing the Madame Butterfly story as an orientalist fantasy, the product of white imaginations at play with an othered culture in the realm of the exotic.

That being said, the surface of 1932's Madame Butterfly discomfits far more than its deeper meanings. Puccini's opera centers Cio-Cio-San not only as the heroine, but as the moral ideal of the story. In good faith, she loves and welcomes and hopes; her tragedy is the result of selfishness and the fulfillment of utilitarian lust on the part of Pinkerton, who uses her as a sexual object (and, frankly, a fetishized sexual object) to placate his desires before marriage to someone of his own race. The opera's tragedy lies precisely in the colonial attitude. Had Pinkerton been able to see past race (and past gender), perhaps he would not have treated Cio-Cio-San like a mixture of prostitute and trophy and recognized that she is a person, as complicated as he is. Naturally, given the time that has elapsed (the opera premiered in 1904 and the sound film was released in 1932), the stylization of Cio-Cio-San has become objectionable - especially the casting of a white actress in the part - but to dismiss the character as inherently racist, I think, necessitates removing her from her context within the traditions of melodrama.

The diva of melodrama can meet two possible ends: 1) she can die a tragic death, having lost the man she loves, often in his remorseful arms, or 2) she can be reunited with her lover and attain unqualified bliss. Cio-Cio-San, like Violetta in La traviata or Manon in Manon Lescaut, meets the first end. She dies, an excusable suicide, just as Pinkerton is struck with a knowledge of his own cruelty, when it is too late. Italian diva films, wildly popular in the silent era, similarly offer these two possibilities. In Ma l'amore mio non muore (translated in English as Love Everlasting; the title in fact means But My Love Doesn't Die), the heroine takes poison and dies on stage, having become an opera singer (she appears to be playing Violetta), just as her lover who has abandoned her rushes to her side, while in Assunta Spina the heroine condemns herself to the prison sentence her lover merits, when she takes responsibility for the murder he has committed in jealous rage. Examples of the second type exist too: in Tigre reale, the much-suffering heroine survives a literal inferno, losing her cruel husband in the process and reunited with her lover. In other words, Cio-Cio-San is typical of the heroines of melodrama, whether in opera or in the diva films that established melodrama as a marketable genre.

That being said, inevitably, the racial subtext effects our understanding of the story, but it's essential to recognize that Madame Butterfly can be reconfigured for the twenty-first century. One could read the doomed romance of Cio-Cio-San as a critique of colonialism, or as a nihilistically feminist protest against the domination of women in the patriarchal structures of marriage, a structure all the more damaging when the man dominates because of his race as well as his gender. Or, one could read it as a racist, or anti-feminist, story, though, such a critique seems to rest at least partially on an insistence that tragedy is somehow, in and of itself, misogynistic. Aspirational feminism demands happy endings; it's worth remembering that such endings are equally the domain of the most misogynistic of genres, the fairy tale. Tragedy permits a critique without fantasizing a world better than one that exists or existed in the past. What if Pinkerton had honored his marriage vows to Cio-Cio-San? In that case, no critique is possible; a fantastic, sugar-coated version of a past reality (mediated through theatrical conventions) is instead posited, one in which obstacles created by systemic inequalities of race and gender can simply be overlooked. What if Cio-Cio-San tells Pinkerton he can stuff it and chooses to reinvent herself as a single mother, defiantly rebellious? This is, of course, what would seem the obviously desirable outcome from the perspective of today, but such an outcome denies several realities, most importantly, the fact that Cio-Cio-San must live in the same world that allowed a man to simply pick her up and toss her - and her child - aside, consequence-free. Cio-Cio-San has no money, is not trained to any profession, and would most likely end up, if she was lucky, a prostitute, or if not, on the street. What we want for her and what is possible are two entirely different things; aspirational feminism tends to enjoin us to ignore that gulf.

As such, perhaps it's time for Hollywood to revisit Madame Butterfly, make it anew. Precisely because the story yields such a richness of subtext, like a fairy tale or a myth, it has endless possibility, its characters and themes are elastic, and a brilliant film could be made, one that takes on the complexities of power as it intersects with race, gender, colonialism, economy, national identity, and parenthood. The attempt could fail, but it could also open up a space to revisit the relics of our collective pasts, relics that both frighten and anger us.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

A Tour Through the Best-Selling Novels of the 1950s

The books that sell and the books that last through the ages are only rarely the same. Out of curiosity, I sought out a list of the best-selling novels of the 1950s, a decade I chose because it was long enough ago that the authors would no longer be writing and thus, I could assess the impact of their entire body of work and whatever cultural presence or cachet they might have today. There were several notable commonalities among the books on this list: many were made into major Hollywood films, the vast majority were written by Americans and set in America, and the majority of the best-selling authors were male - out of ten best-sellers per year, the highest number of women writers in any year of the decade is five. I was also very much surprised by the number of best-selling novels with Catholic themes.

Of the best-sellers of 1950, I have read only one - The Parasites by Daphne du Maurier, one of my favorite of her novels, and one of her strangest. It tells the weirdly fascinating story of three siblings, whose insular lives and interdependence make for a scandalously titillating read, and it's no wonder it was a best-seller. Also on the list are Ernest Hemingway's Across the River and into the Trees, a novel about the Warsaw Ghetto under the Nazis by John Hersey, two novels with Catholic themes (the top sellers), two historical fiction doorstoppers set in medieval Europe and nineteenth century California respectively, two semi-(auto)biographical novels about writers, and a historical novel by Frank Yerby, who I had never heard of, but who was the first African-American writer to have a book optioned by a Hollywood studio.

In 1951, the top seller was From Here to Eternity by James Jones, which I have never read, though I have seen the Hollywood film, with its iconic scene of Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr kissing passionately in the Hawaiian surf, numerous times. Also on the list were two adventure novels about sailors in peril (including The Caine Mutiny, made into a film starring Humphrey Bogart), a short story collection by James Michener, the sequel to the aforementioned historical fiction tome set in medieval Europe, two books with Catholic themes one of which was written by Cardinal Spellman who was the ostensible lightly fictionalized subject of the other, a religious novel by the well-regarded Yiddish writer Sholem Asch, another novel by Frank Yerby, and a novel by John P. Marquand about publicists covering up a general's philandering. Marquand is largely forgotten today, but he is a fine writer, if not especially ground-breaking in either technical or topical approach and I would compare him at a slight disadvantage to John O'Hara. This was an especially bad year for women writers; nine of the ten writers were male.

In 1952, a larger number of well-regarded and remembered classics appear, including East of Eden by John Steinbeck, The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway, and The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger. Edna Ferber's Giant, the basis for the epic Hollywood film starring Rock Hudson, Elizabeth Taylor, and James Dean, one of the best of the decade, made the list as well, as did yet another novel by Frank Yerby, The Caine Mutiny by Herman Wouk, two more religious novels - one about the Holy Grail and the other about a Pennsylvanian Calvinist congregation, a historical novel by Howard Spring that views English history through a child's eyes, and lastly a gothic romance by Daphne du Maurier, My Cousin Rachel, of all the best-sellers of the decade the one I'm most anxious to read. Most of these books were developed into films.

Religious novels were again prominent in 1953, with Lloyd C. Douglas's The Robe, about the crucifixion, topping the list, followed by The Silver Chalice. The other novels of that year range from a historical novel about a Swedish queen, another set in the post-bellum South, a third about a Venetian ne'er-do-well, two semi-autobiographical novels set in the macho realms of war and aviation, a book about a man reconnecting with his imprisoned father, and the last novel of James Hilton, famous for his rosy portraits of uppercrusty English life and his novels Goodbye, Mr. Chips and Lost Horizon. Though stereotypically manly fare of the sort that Hemingway pioneered held its own this year, that particular style was overtaken by historical works with a more romantic sensibility.

1954 was a year for historical romance, though one comedic book made the list as well. Lesser known novels by Daphne du Maurier, Mary Anne, and John Steinbeck, Sweet Thursday, made the list, as did a pulpy melodrama about ambitious doctors, another pulpy historical novel set during Andrew Jackson's presidency, a romantic novel about Abraham Lincoln's marriage by Irving Stone (best known for Lust for Life), a comedic and much-adapted novel about a yokel in the army, a mystery, and most interestingly a novel based on the life of ancient Egyptian pharaoh Akhenaten, by Mika Waltari. Akhenaten, considered by some to be a proponent of monotheism, fascinated many writers and made appearances in novels by writers as diverse in approach as Thomas Mann, Philip K. Dick, and Dmitri Merezhkovsky.

I've read two of the best-sellers of 1955. Auntie Mame by Patrick Dennis is a purely delicious novel, about a boy's decidedly unconventional upbringing in the home of his eccentric, spectacularly theatrical aunt, which I highly recommend, along with the film adaptation starring Rosalind Russell, who was born to play the role. The other I've read is Ten North Frederick by John O'Hara; though it's not one of his absolute best, the saga of a politically ambitious Pennsylvania family is engrossing and well worth a read. Other books that made the list include several holdouts from the previous year, the salacious megahit Bonjour, Tristesse written by then-nineteen-year-old Françoise Sagan, a romantic historical novel, some hard-hitting war fiction set in a Confederate prisoner-of-war camp and the Kenyan Mau Mau Uprising, and two novels about ambitious Americans, one an actress and the other a businessman.

Sexy novels about misbehaving women are conspicuous on the list for 1956: Peyton Place by Grace Metalious and another teenage romance with an older man by Françoise Sagan (its heroine is apparently described as "young, thin, and cynical") made it onto the list, and Auntie Mame, with its more comic take on a sexually liberated woman, held its own. The four other novels written by men deal with a prisoner-of-war camp, a shipwreck in 1710, diplomats in colonial Africa, the American navy (apparently with instances of parody), and a mayoral election in an era of changing technologies. Far more interesting are two books by women, both of which I've read and the presence of which proved a gratifying surprise. One is The Mandarins by Simone de Beauvoir, coming out in the United States just one year after the English translation of The Second Sex came out; the novel is a brilliant reimagining of the author's life immediately after World War II, and grapples not only with existentialism and feminism, but also with survivor's guilt, political disillusionment, and parenthood. The second is Eloise by Kay Thompson, the superb picture book about the fabulous six-year-old who lives at the Plaza with her nanny, her pug, and her turtle. I think it's quite remarkable that a picture book, even such a great one, made the best-seller list.

Small town America dominates many of the best-selling novels of 1957, including Peyton Place, a novel about an ambivalent attorney, a comic novel about the misery of a husband whose wife goes to civic meetings (not a joke - this is a strong contender for the least promising best-seller of the decade), and a historical novel set in Louisiana as it transitions from undeveloped swamp to rice farms. In addition, the list includes Kay Thompson's second Eloise book, a novel about a senator who travels back in time to England during the period of the writing of the Magna Carta, a torn-from-the-headlines thriller based on the Leopold-Loeb case by Meyer Levin who had covered the case as a journalist, and most interestingly, a rare science fiction novel, about the aftermath of nuclear apocalypse. Daphne du Maurier made the list once again, this time with The Scapegoat, an especially good mystery with supernatural overtones about a man who meets his perfect double. Lastly, Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged squeezed into the tenth spot, grotesquely popular from the year of its publication.

1958 is a year of familiar names. Boris Pasternak's romantic epic, Doctor Zhivago, smuggled out of Soviet Russia, was number one, followed by Anatomy of Murder by Robert Traver (adapted by Otto Preminger with Jimmy Stewart starring as the lawyer caught up in a sensational trial), Nabokov's still-controversial Lolita, Patrick Dennis's sequel to Auntie Mame, another family saga by John O'Hara called From the Terrace, and a third Eloise book. Two romantic historical fiction novels, set in colonial Massachusetts and the dance halls of New Orleans, awash with distressed damsels, a novel set in Alaska by Edna Ferber, and an autobiographical novel about the anti-semitism faced by a Jewish man married to a Christian woman finish out the list.

In 1959, both Doctor Zhivago and Lolita stayed on the list, but the most popular novel was Exodus, Leon Uris's controversial novel about Jewish immigration to Palestine and the beginning of Israel. The novel both bolstered American support for Israel and attracted criticism for its racist depictions of Arabs. Political novels, in fact, dominated the list, with James Michener's Hawaii, which traces the islands' history from the first human inhabitants to its designation as a state, an inflammatory anti-communist novel about a "red" politician, and a deeply critical semi-autobiographical novel about the failures of American diplomats. After a brief respite, a religious novel, this one about the life of Saint Luke, made the list, as did what sounds like a bitter story about the rise and downfall of a tycoon and a comic novel by Paul Gallico, a wonderful writer who deserves to remembered more often (I'm very fond of his novel Jennie, narrated from the perspective of a little boy transformed into a cat). The most interesting book on the list for 1959 is D.H. Lawrence's 1928 novel, Lady Chatterly's Lover, which was banned on charges of obscenity until that year, along with Fanny Hill (originally published in 1748) and Tropic of Cancer.

A number of prominent and beloved novels of the 1950s did not make the best-seller list, some of them quite surprising, such as The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien, Charlotte's Web by E.B. White, Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith, and Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe. The books that did become best-sellers tell us the genres that were popular in that era, strikingly in contrast to the best-sellers of today. While historical fiction and political novels, explicitly religious novels, and two especially gendered genres, the romantic melodrama and the military/naval/aviation adventure novel, dominated the cultural landscape in the 50s, today post-apocalyptic science fiction, mystery and horror, legal thrillers, and soft erotica dominate. The preoccupations of the reading public are made manifest in the most popular novels: colonialism, whether viewed positively or negatively, whether in the United States and its territories or abroad, the election process and the integrity of politicians, sexualized teen girls and young women in relationships with older men, and Christianity, ancient and modern, were some of the most salient principal themes. If this exercise demonstrates any one fact, however, it is that the books that have the greatest cultural impact in the moment of their publication are hardly guaranteed to stand the test of time, or even be remembered as products of their respective eras. I had read only ten of the best-selling novels of the 1950s; I had heard of less than half of the rest. Thus, while we may moan about the state of literature when Fifty Shades of Gray and junky conspiracy theory-driven pseudo-historical books by Bill O'Reilly make the best-seller list, it's worth remembering that Rally 'Round the Flag, Boys! - the comic novel about committee meetings  - was the fourth best-selling novel in 1957, the same year that Elsa Morante's Arturo's Island, Vladimir Nabokov's Pnin, Naguib Mahfouz's Sugar Street, and Iris Murdoch's The Sandcastle, none of which were best-sellers, were published. The great writers are still writing - it just takes us time to give them their due.