The Age of Shoddy: Marilyn, Hitchcock, FDR and Lincoln

bio

My Week with Marilyn
Written by Adrian Hodges, based on the books My Week with Marilyn and The Prince, the Showgirl and Me by Colin Clark
Directed by Simon Curtis
2011, imdb, Josh Slater-Williams’ review, William Bitterman’s review

Hitchcock
Written by John J. McLaughlin, based on the book Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho by Stephen Rebello
Directed by Sacha Gervasi
2012, imdb, Josh Spiegel’s review

Hyde Park on Hudson
Written by Richard Nelson
Directed by Roger Michell
2012, imdb, Josh Spiegel’s review, Kenneth Broadway’s NYFF review, Lane Scarberry’s Telluride review

Lincoln
Written by Tony Kushner, based in part on the book Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin
Directed by Steven Spielberg
2012, imdb, Josh Spiegel’s review, The Mousterpiece Cinema Podcast on Lincoln, The Almost Arthouse/Sound on Sight podcast on Lincoln, Jeremy Caesar’s article on Lincoln‘s score, Darren Ruecker’s Introverted Perspectives column on Lincoln

*****

The world has seen its iron age, its silver age, its golden age, and its brazen age. This is the age of shoddy.
-The New York Herald, October 1863

Thank God for Lincoln. If it wasn’t for Steven Spielberg’s masterful collaboration with Tony Kushner, Daniel Day-Lewis, Janusz Kaminski, John Williams et al, 2012 would have been a terrible year for bio-pics. It seemed like every one that I saw this year was dreadful, beginning with My Week with Marilyn – a late 2011 release that I saw in theatres in early 2012 – films about genius that were afraid to stare greatness in the face, as though afraid that staring directly at genius would permanently blind like staring into the sun, but unafraid to root around in the closets of great men and women looking for skeletons. They were films co-written in spirit by Smoking Gun and TMZ; shoddy stories, shoddily told, shoddily directed from shoddy scripts, featuring shoddy characters shoddily stealing the spotlight to upstage genius.

Frustratingly, all these films featured wasted great acting performances: Michelle Williams in My Week with Marilyn; Anthony Hopkins and Helen Mirren in Hitchcock; and Bill Murray in Hyde Park on Hudson. Admittedly, none of these fine performances were in the same class as Daniel Day Lewis’ portrayal of Abraham Lincoln, but that spooky incarnation is the kind of pantheon performance that actors will be measured against for decades, like Brando in On the Waterfront or DeNiro in Raging Bull.

Curiously, all of the films were about the creation of media events: My Week with Marilyn revolves around the disastrous filming of The Prince and the Showgirl; Hitchcock centers around the challenging, but much more successful filming of Psycho; Hyde Park on Hudson is built around a photo opportunity, perhaps the most important photo opportunity in the history of the special relationship between the United States and Britain, from the weekend where the term “special relationship” was coined. Even Lincoln, in a sense, is framed around the creation of a media event, and with Lincoln’s conviction that for a successful peace after the conclusion of the Civil War, it was imperative that the 13th Amendment banning slavery be passed by the House of Representatives before Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address.

The Achilles’ heel of My Week with Marilyn, Hitchcock and Hyde Park on Hudson is the same for all 3 films: built around a fascinating media event, instead of actually exploring that media creation in full, the films veer into a scurrilous and irrelevant digression on the private lives of the main characters.

The Prince and the Showgirl is one of the great culture clashes of cinema history, pitting America vs. Britain; Method acting vs. pure technique; instinct vs. work ethic; Marilyn Munroe vs. Lawrence Olivier. The idea seemed like a no-brainer at the time: combine the world’s greatest actor with the world’s most beautiful woman (and possibly its greatest comedian.) The play the film was based on (The Sleeping Prince) was one that Olivier had had success with on stage, playing a Carpathian prince sparring with a British showgirl played by Laurence Olivier’s wife Vivian Leigh. Making the showgirl an American and casting Marilyn Munroe in the part seemed like a great way to elevate the culture clash central to the play’s conflict.

In practice, the production was unhappy. Marilyn’s recent marriage with playwright Arthur Miller was shaky and Laurence Olivier’s marriage with Vivien Leigh was stressed by Marilyn playing the part in the film that Vivian had played on stage with her husband. Munroe’s late arrivals on set and her commitment to Method acting tried Olivier’s patience as actor and director. Ironically, the resulting film has issues, but Marilyn Munroe’s performance is not one of them. The film is slow and stagy – an unsuccessful adaptation to the screen of the play.

A film about the making of The Prince and the Showgirl could be fascinating, but instead My Week with Marilyn is about the (claimed) relationship between Marilyn Munroe and Colin Clark, a production assistant who worked on the film. The problem is that for Colin Clark, that week was worthy of two books, but for Marilyn Munroe that relationship (if there was one) is not worthy of a footnote in her life. To put it another way, if you are making a film that includes 20th Century’s greatest actor (Laurence Olivier) and its greatest playwright (Arthur Miller) and your main male lead is a production assistant, you are making the wrong film.

Hitchcock suffers from a similar inappropriate focus. Psycho was a huge creative risk by Alfred Hitchcock and his wife Alma. When the film tells us the story of the making of Psycho and the creative collaboration between Alfred and Alma, it sings. The problem is that the film feels compelled to give us a (working) relationship between Alma and and hack writer Whitfield Cook, so that there can be a conflict between Alfred and Alma, almost as though the filmmakers were trying to inject Robert McKee Story beats into the film. The relationship between Alma and Whitfield Cook feels forced and ahistorical.

This artificial relationship and conflict is a self-inflicted wound for multiple reasons. It distracts Hitchcock from the story that it should be telling, the making of Psycho. It also ensured that Pat Hitchcock, Alfred and Alma’s daughter (who appeared in Psycho in a small part) would not cooperate with the film, forcing the filmmakers to make a movie about Psycho without actually using any elements of that movie. Sacha Gervais and his crew do a fantastic job of emulating Psycho, but the level of difficulty required is completely unnecessary.

While My Week with Marilyn elevates Colin Clark and Hitchcock elevates Whitfield Cook, Hyde Park on Hudson elevates Margaret Suckley, the “fifth or sixth cousin” of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who claimed in her diaries (found after her death) to have been one of FDR’s many mistresses. Again, the problem is that Suckley’s relationship with FDR is nowhere near as interesting as FDR’s “special relationship” with King George VI – the best scene in the film is one in which the two men bond in private over each other’s handicaps, FDR’s legs crippled due to polio and the King’s stutter. (A lesser but real problem is that the film is supposed to be from Stuckey’s point of view and based around her diaries, but all of the best scenes were ones she was not present for and could never have been told about.)

The film is mainly set during the June 1939 weekend that King George VI came to FDR’s summer home at Hyde Park on Hudson, the first time that a British monarch had visited the United States. The special relationship that formed between the King and the President became the special relationship between Britain and the Unites States.

Like Hitchcock, the other problem with the film is a conflict between husband and wife that feels artificial and forced, in this case between King George VI and his wife Elizabeth. In the film, they argue about Elizabeth’s constant references to what George’s brother Edward VIII (who abdicated his kingdom to marry the American divorcée Wallis Simpson) would have done in George’s place. They also argue about whether or not George should eat a hot dog during the picnic being organized by Eleanor Roosevelt during their last day visiting the President.

The problem with those arguments is that they are impossible. Elizabeth hated Edward and would never have compared her husband unfavourably to his brother. Elizabeth was also renowned for her common touch. While a member of British nobility, Elizabeth was not a member of the Royal family, not a princess – until she married Edward. In a sense, she was Princess Diana decades before Diana was even born. Elizabeth frequently created protocol by breaking protocol like laying her marriage bouquet down at the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior. Once, while shaking hands of official guests in Fiji, she stopped to shake the paw of a stray dog who wandered into the ceremony. If anyone would have understood the symbolism of her husband eating a hot dog, it was the woman described by Hitler as “the most dangerous woman in Europe” who declared after Buckingham Palace was bombed during the war, “I’m glad we’ve been bombed. It makes me feel I can look the East End in the face.

The problem with all of these films is that they approach greatness not from the front, but from its reflection in the eyes of others. Afraid of greatness, they try to drag it down by engaging in gossip and innuendo rather than simply telling us what happened.

Fortunately, this is not a problem for Lincoln. While Tony Kushner does indulge in the speculation that Abraham Lincoln slept with men, he does so with such subtlety that the inferences are easily missed.

Lincoln follows the President’s efforts to pass the 13th Amendment to abolish slavery, through the lame duck Congress of January 1865. Since so many anti-slavery Republicans had won seats in the 1864 election (and so many anti-emancipation Democrats had lost) the amendment’s passage was assured once the new Congress was sworn in, but Abraham Lincoln did not wait. Lincoln’s great political gift was timing. He understood that if he could convince enough lame duck Democrats to vote for the Amendment, he could give his Second Inaugural Address with Emancipation as a fait accompli. (Admittedly waiting for the States to ratify it – when Lincoln gave his Second Inaugural Address on March 4th, 1865, 18 states had already ratified the 13th Amendment out of the 27 states necessary to make it constitutional, the remaining 9 joining in before the year was over.)

For Lincoln, the 13th Amendment secured the peace that would follow the end of the Civil War. Having it passed before his Second Inaugural Address allowed him to make that a speech that set the stage for Reconstruction and a national reconciliation. While he would not live to see his plans come to fruition, Lincoln’s call for “a just and lasting peace” is the engine of hope that drives the United States to this day.

The genius of Lincoln begins with its script, constructed like a series of ellipses. The film starts with the Gettysburg Address and finishes with Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address; begins in war and ends in peace; opens with a sleepy Tad Lincoln clutching his father and closes with a grieving Tad clamped to a theatre railing. This mirrored pairing continues through the film: the white and black gloves; the telegraph used to report the results of war and the results of the vote; the male Congressman who opposes the amendment because his brother died during the war, and the black female servant who supports the amendment because her son died during the war; the complaints that Lincoln needs to do more to promote black men to officers in the army and the complaints that Lincoln needs to do more to promote black men to be able to vote.

The biggest mirror is that between Abraham Lincoln and Thaddeus Stevens. Both committed to ending slavery, both masters of language and of legislature, of politics and public speaking, but where Lincoln is cautious, Stevens is reckless; where Lincoln cultivates allies, Stevens creates enemies; and where Lincoln’s marriage is public and unhappy, Stevens’ marriage is secret but content.

Lincoln like Hitchcock and Hyde Park on Hudson features a squabbling, unhappy marriage, but that unhappiness is both plausible and built on historical fact, not a dramatic contrivance. Within the film, there is the sense that when Mary Todd Lincoln gives her husband his marching orders, “I believe you when you insist that amending the Constitution and abolishing slavery will end this war. And since you’re sending my son into the war, woe to you if you fail to pass the amendment,” the moment feels earned in a way that the conflicts and resolutions between Alfred and Alma or King George VI and Elizabeth do not.

The central moment of the film comes when Stevens (in order to guarantee passage of the 13th Amendment) publicly renounces his previously stated belief in the equality of races, “I do not believe in equality in all things, only in equality before the law.” In so doing, Stevens not only sublimates his own beliefs to achieve the greater goal, he also becomes a more perfect mirror of Lincoln’s beliefs – that equality before the law is the only true equality, the one true right from which all other rights spring.

Most importantly, in Thaddeus Stevens, Lincoln gives us a reflection of greatness who is himself great. A man from the “Age of Shoddy” who was not himself a shoddy man and a man who deserves to share the stage with greatness unlike the shoddy Colin Clark, Whitfield Cook and Margaret Suckley.

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By Michael Ryan

Michael Ryan is the Festival Director for the YoungCuts Film Festival (www.YoungCuts.com) Every year, we present our Top 100 Great Short Films by the World's Best Young Filmmakers 25 and under. We are now accepting submissions for the 2013 Festival. On his blog (www.Llakor.blogspot.com) he very sporadically writes about YoungCuts, films, comics and his odd involvement in professional wrestling.

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