I am happy to come to this juncture where one of my long overdue articles on some pivotal films from the MGM stable is finally coming to fruition. Most of them I watched on the MGM channel on television almost five years back, some others on streaming platforms like YouTube and Netflix then and now. But ultimately what matters as an underlining fact is that from the first roar of the iconic MGM lion, I knew I will be watching qualitative works cut out for remembrance down the years.
So I once again share the bounty of films coming from the fabled studio’s catalogues, as I have done since the beginning of this blog, and each one is special to me. After reading, make sure to watch them( if you haven’t watched GONE WITH THE WIND yet, now is the time) and dig deep into the many facts and figures behind these essentially grounded works.
AT CLOSE RANGE(1986)
DIRECTED BY JAMES FOLEY
The poster of AT CLOSE RANGE is apt to encapsulate its uniquely damaged familial ethos. It’s a film that is untouched by the subverted grandiosity or long- windedness of stories with crime as their beating heart, a charge that is hardly lost on pioneers of cinema. Director James Foley designs potently realistic stakes to foreground a father-son relationship, based on a contemporaneous real-life crime family’s exploits from around the same timeline as its settings.
I will always look at this one with appreciation as it is restrained in its depictions of a violence that takes root in the mind and like a river running through an inhospitable environment gets flowing with blood ties. The way this lower class milieu is depicted is something I will never forget. Nor will I forget the purity of the bond shared between two lovers scarcely rescued from the clutches of this small town world and as played by Sean Penn and Mary Stuart Masterson. Or the sheer menace and glower present in Christopher Walken’s tight coil of toxic masculinity and patriarchal ethics.
As the cast also comprises of Penn’s mother and brother ( Eileen Ryan and Chris Penn) as well as a young Kiefer Sutherland ( another descendant of a famous lineage owing to his father Donald), it establishes this familial dynamic very well. AT CLOSE RANGE peddles nothing fake or gratituous in terms of its storytelling. In the performances, the starkness of lives imprisoned by limited resources get conveyed with integrity. The love at the heart of the tale, shared between two youngsters, is the one to remember as it posits a tragedy of its own; even then it endures.
MISSISSIPPI BURNING (1988), DIRECTED BY ALAN PARKER.
A DRY WHITE SEASON(1989), DIRECTED BY EUZHAN PALCY.
In the wake of George Floyd’s death instigated by racial precedents, we must not flinch when witnessing the horrors of its burning past from two late 1980s films, an era in which ‘non- whites’ had just begun to be integrated into the social fabric, especially within nations notorious for a skewed consciousness.
In MISSISSIPPI BURNING, that seething sense of injustice is seen through the imagery of hate and bigotry( burning crosses, Klan members on horseback, lynchings and bodies hanging from trees) as also in the sullen faces of African- Americans battling for dear life in the South of a civil rights era dominated by coercion and fear. It’s no different in the timelessly timely A DRY WHITE SEASON. From its title itself , it seems to paint a picture of the supposed supremacy of social and political power in apartheid-era South Africa. One one end is the truthful and justified anger of Zakes Mokae who has seen the original citizens of his nation crushed through eras by the colonialists and on the other are crusaders of justice like Donald Sutherland, Susan Sarandon and Marlon Brando who refuse to be defined by their skin colour and battle corruption and ingrained biases to correct the course of things in their own unflinching ways. For me, the greatest political and social revolution that this film brings to the table is its direction by EUZHAN PALCY, a rare South African female filmmaker then who utilised her creative powers to spotlight society as it is.
From the solemnity of hymns sung by ostracised residents of Mississippi in the former to the character of Donald Sutherland’s wife, played by Janet Suzman, justifying the white man’s complex in words that reek of internalized supremacy inherited through years in A DRY WHITE SEASON, both bring history of the developed world closer to the present reckoning. What’s most unfortunate is that in the fight for justice, like the films’ narratives themselves, the ‘white’ participants canvassing for civil rights have to be at the forefronts. That is a reality which still singes our soul, inspired as these works are by pure facts.
BUTTERFIELD 8(1960), DIRECTED BY DANIEL MANN.
CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF(1958), DIRECTED BY RICHARD BROOKS.
THE LAST TIME I SAW PARIS(1954), DIRECTED BY RICHARD BROOKS.
These three films toplining one of the greatest superstars of all time ELIZABETH TAYLOR hail from an era where social truths were unveiled with a dose of classic era’s penchant for sentimentality. But it was done with heart and Ms. Taylor was the perfect choice to infuse them with her blessed reserves of screen presence and sensuality that actually allowed for bolder examinations of a moral culture with damning judgements and no easy resolves as on BUTTERFIELD 8, where the enigmatic title and her protagonist invite the same kind of personal ambiguity as Holly Golightly retiring to the ‘powder room’ in BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S. It was also her first Oscar winning role.
On the engrossing CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF, based on the classic Tennessee Williams play, she joins a gifted ensemble comprising the likes of PAUL NEWMAN, BURL IVES and JUDITH ANDERSON to look at entrails of childlessness, tussle for money, sexual inhibitions and denial as also the ‘smell of mendacity’ governing all relationships, in a family drama that burns with acerbic words and repressed desires. I still recall how impressed my mother and I were when we watched it on the TURNER CLASSIC MOVIES (TCM) channel few years ago.
The final in the series is THE LAST TIME I SAW PARIS, based on a cautionary short story BABYLON REVISITED by F. SCOTT FITZGERALD. Set in the heyday of the post war expatriate experience, it brings the luminous talents of Liz Taylor along with screen partner Van Johnson, in a screenplay that integrates the heady charms and poignancy brought by romance and riches with a classic yarn. I watched this one after reading the short story and suffice to say, it warmed my heart owing to its simplicity and innocence, a kind of wistfulness which this era of smartphones can often brush off as too melodramatic. Also watch out for a young and dashing Roger Moore ( now immortal as one of the best James Bond avatars) here.
In all of these, Elizabeth Taylor shines as a common link. It is the right kind of introduction for her fans and cinephiles.
GONE WITH THE WIND (1939), DIRECTED BY VICTOR FLEMING.
There came a point in my young adult life when everybody, including all my friends and relatives, save I, had watched this all-time classic . But it’s never too late to visit milestones and in 2017, it happened when the ever expansive library of Netflix fulfilled my life-long dream.
GONE WITH THE WIND is a proper classic in every sense of the way, from its production, sweeping visual panorama, faultless performances, screenplay bursting with impassioned dialogues and scenes galore to its singular agency of hope and courage evinced by SCARLET O’ HARA /VIVIEN LEIGH.
In 2020, the film has come under renewed scrutiny for its depictions of antebellum American South. In my opinion, it was never meant to be a corrective on America’s racial history. It ,to me, depicts the very real picture of the world as it was in its attitudes and mannerisms but nevertheless never stooped to the vehement propaganda that films of its timeline could offer. In the process, it gave us the inestimable Oscar winning breakthrough by HATTIE MCDANIEL as Mammy, a cinematic staple even though we are informed constantly at how that didn’t help her stereotypical career trajectory or her treatment at the 1940 ceremony where she received her honour.
The thing with GONE WITH THE WIND is that it continues to echo the good and the bad of human endeavours without losing its overall impact. For me, Ms.Hattie is as unforgettable a fixture as Ms. Leigh and together, they are firebrands who define this canonical MGM work that still retains its power to impress. Their collective contributions to cinematic history find its apex here.
STELLA(1990), DIRECTED BY JOHN ERMAN.
STELLA is an ode to motherhood incorporating its sentiments and bravery like the true old-fashioned tale it is, charming, funny, emotionally accessible and held together by the complex and loveable bond shared by BETTE MIDLER and TRINI ALVARADO as mother and daughter.
Look out for a young BEN STILLER here as well as STEPHEN COLLINS, MARSHA MASON and of course JOHN GOODMAN as a friend for life. What STELLA beautifully gets right is the confusion for Stella’s daughter brought on by opposing sides of class differences to which her parents belong, her father being an affluent man while her mother is a working class woman who gives it her all to make ends meet. That teeming point of intersection makes STELLA opt for a great sacrifice, a pathway not lost on us and on single mothers of the world. For her daughter’s good, she opts to let the other side on her father’s part take precedence for her kid’s bright future. I am certain by the time end credits roll, this film will win you over and leave you moist- eyed.