Put The Blame On Mame, Boys: “Gilda”

Ever seen this clip?

It’s from Gilda, a 1946 black-and-white noir directed by Charles Vidor. It is perhaps the most famous clip of Rita Hayworth that exists—and for good reason. It is one of the sexiest scenes ever filmed, and Hayworth plays the sizzling temptress of the title in a movie that is as unique as Gilda is enticing.

The film begins ordinarily enough: Glenn Ford’s Johnny Farrell, a gambler, has just pulled a fast one on a group of sailors in Argentina—and, as Johnny says, he doesn’t know Argentina, but he does know sailors, and knows he’d better get out of there right quick. Unfortunately, he doesn’t make his exit quite quickly enough. The next thing Johnny knows, he’s got a gun to his back, and is being told to give up his recent winnings. Not at all by chance, a man stylishly dressed in black suddenly appears and rescues Johnny using a walking stick that doubles as a small dagger.
As it turns out, this mysterious man is Ballin Mundson, the wealthy owner of a high-end casino in Argentina, played by George Macready. Mundson has been watching Johnny, and, after seeing him trick the sailors out of money with a set of loaded dice, takes a liking to him.

(So the guy’s got strange taste. You want to take it up with him and his walking stick?)

After watching Johnny win a lot—and I mean a lot–of money in his casino, and realizing that he could be a useful “friend” to have around, Mundson makes Johnny the overseer of his casino so that he may jet around the world. On one of these trips, Mundson comes back with a little something extra: A wife. Who just so happens to be incredibly beautiful and irresistible, and sings like a “canary,” as Mundson so affectionately calls her. And since Mundson can’t be around all the time, he wants someone to make sure his little warbler “stays in line.”

Guess who gets the job?

Problem is, Johnny already knows this beauteous bird—a fact he only realizes once he’s already accepted the job as wife-protector. As it turns out, the woman in question is Gilda, Johnny’s old flame from New York. Johnny and Gilda just so happen to hate each other’s guts—and it shows. “Johnny,” says Gilda upon their unwelcome reunion, “is such a hard name to remember and so easy to forget.”

(OUCH. Sheath those claws, kitten!)

This animosity is not lost on Mundson, but he does not put two and two together, and is puzzled at his wife’s behavior towards a man whom he believes to be a stranger to her. While Mundson continues to wonder, Gilda and Johnny continue to actively hate each other.

But is it really hatred they feel for one another? Well, yes. But, at least for Gilda, that hatred is also coupled with love. Gilda goes out of her way to make Johnny jealous by dancing and canoodling with various attractive men on the casino’s dance floor, even going so far as to leave with one of them. And because it is Johnny’s job to watch over her, he always intervenes and pulls her away from these men. This is something Johnny is not at all unhappy to do, because it’s pretty damn obvious he doesn’t like seeing Gilda with other men—he just won’t admit it to anyone, least of all himself.

After weeks of intense emotion and frenzied, hurtful words, Johnny’s guard falls the night of a costume ball at the casino. He and Gilda end up kissing in her bedroom—and Mundson just happens to walk in right when it starts getting good.

Mundson has been having problems of his own with Gilda, especially after he learns that she and Johnny are former sweethearts. So you can imagine what seeing them locked in a passionate embrace might do to him. And that, in Mundson’s case, is suicide—or so it’s made to look. After storming out of the room in a rage, Mundson takes to the skies in his seaplane, and ostensibly flies it straight into the water, where it explodes into flames.

Gilda and Johnny, believing Mundson dead, marry. But, Johnny, as it turns out, is actually the cold-hearted son-of-a-bitch Gilda believes him to be. Does he love her? Maybe. Does he lust after and hate her at once? Absolutely. Not only does he leave her alone from the get-go on purpose, but he makes sure she can never ever see other men. He even goes so far as to hire a man to pretend to fall in love with her, and propose marriage to her—in another country! Quite simply, he takes pleasure in watching her suffer.

As you might imagine, poor Gilda is less than pleased about this. She is a prisoner everywhere she goes, and cannot, even for a minute, experience real freedom. But that’s what makes this movie so interesting to watch. Usually, the gorgeous woman of a Hollywood flick will have some savior, some rescuer of some sort, to help her get out of a terrible situation, or will be able to make her way out by herself. Gilda has neither a rescuer, nor can she escape the many eyes of Johnny’s hired men who happen to be wherever she is.

(Hint: That’s not a coincidence.)

What I simultaneously loved and hated about this film is how quickly the tables turned on Gilda. One minute, she was making Johnny jealous and amusing herself with any man she liked, completely independent, regardless of the fact that she was married; the next, the entire world is her prison. By loving Johnny, Gilda has unwittingly sacrificed her freedom. And, little by little, this sacrifice kills her naturally feisty nature, until Gilda is left a broken, insecure woman.

While this film may seem as though it is about the tumultuous relationship between a gambler and a siren from his past, it is actually more of a tutorial about how to break a confident, independent woman. Granted, to do it with Johnny’s particular touch, you need a lot of money and power, as well as underground connections, but the basic principle is still the same: Make her believe she has nowhere to run, and can’t function on her own. If you’re successful, she’ll come crawling back to you, and submit to your will without a fight.

(Man, this guy’s practically Hitch.)

So while this film may feature a beautiful, interesting, self-reliant woman in the title role, it is all about making sure you understand just how ironic it is that the title is the name of the very woman the movie sets out to break. This is not a film about sexy independence and love experienced by the film’s (supposed) main character. It is about the various ways in which an angry ex-lover may exact revenge on said main character. In fact, Gilda is actually quite a secondary character; she is only the main character in the perverse sense that tormenting her is the entire motivation and drive behind the plot.

And you thought Chinatown was messed up.

I’m sure you saw this coming, but I loved Hayworth in this film. She was absolutely stellar. Not that either Macready or Ford were terrible, by any stretch of the imagination; but they were far outshone by the radiance that is Hayworth. And though her wardrobe is jaw-droppingly lovely—I desperately want this outfit, along with many others I could not find on Google Images—it is Hayworth’s natural sex appeal and clearly strong off-screen personality that makes her glitter. Hayworth’s characterization of Gilda seems to stem from a trait already inherent in herself, which makes her ideal for the part, and makes it easy to understand why this is arguably her most famous, and most fabulous, role.

Oh, notice how I didn’t mention what happens with the whole Mundson-faking-his-death aspect of the plot. Now you’ll have to watch the film.

Yours in confidence,

Film Bitch

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Try That in the Key of Sex Flat: “The Piano”

If the only impression of Jane Campion’s directorial work you’ve ever gotten is Bright Star, then you are severely missing out. The slow, relatively boring romance that is Bright Star is far from reflective of her early work, namely The Piano. And by “far from reflective,” I mean far from the intensely erotic, almost tangibly sensual composition that is The Piano.

Released in 1993, The Piano is the story of Ada McGrath, a mute English widow played by Holly Hunter. Because it is the 1850’s, women are still treated like property; and because Ada is still young and attractive enough to be “profitable,” her father marries her off to a man she has never met, and she and her young daughter, Flora McGrath, played by a pint-sized Anna Paquin, are shipped off to live with him on his plantation in New Zealand.

Ada hates the place from the outset. It is wet and cold a good deal of the time—though, being from England, you think she’d be used to that by now—and she feels like an alien, both inside and outside her home. To his credit, her husband Alisdair Stewart, played by Sam Neill, does try to make Ada feel welcome and comfortable; but the fact that she can’t speak, coupled with Alisdair’s somewhat stiff demeanor, distances them, and makes their interactions awkward.

Ada’s only comfort is her beloved piano, which she has had shipped over from England. To say Ada loves the piano would be an understatement: It is as much a part of her as her own beating heart, and is one of the only ways she may audibly express herself. So when Alisdair decides to leave the piano on the beach, because it is so heavy, it is as if Ada has lost a part of herself.

(And Alisdair wonders why she doesn’t take to him…)

The plot takes a turn for the romantically complicated when a former Englishman named George Baines, played by the stellar Harvey Keitel, is introduced. George works for Alisdair as a translator for the Maiori laborers, as well as a sort of handyman/overseer on the plantation. As luck would have it, George takes an interest in this queer mute woman and her yappy, but adorable little daughter. I probably don’t even need to say it, but, for the sake of the review, I might as well: This interest quickly develops into lust after, at Ada’s insistence, he takes Ada and Flora down to the beach so that Ada may play her piano. And that’s when George realizes two and two equal sex.

George moves the piano from the beach to his home on the island; and when Ada asks for it back, he says that she may have it back—key by key, and only if she agrees to give him piano lessons.

Piano lessons. Right.

Needless to say, the lessons swiftly develop into Ada basically whoring herself out for the piano. Of course, this is not to say she does not enjoy George’s attentions—they are certainly better, in her mind, than the advances of her stiff (no pun intended) husband—and it is not long before she looks forward to the “lessons.” But George suddenly grows a conscience, and tells Ada he does not want to make a whore of her for her piano.

A little late there, buddy.

Still, Ada insists on seeing him. But what would a good, steamy romance be without the lovers getting caught? Alisdair notices the positive change in his wife, also puts two and two together—though, in his case, it does not equal sex—and literally boards up Ada and Flora in their home.

Being without George is torture for Ada; and when she can stand it no longer, she uses certain, ah, “tactics” to convince Alisdair that she loves him, and will not see George if allowed out of the house. Alisdair subsequently takes the boards off the house—and hot, passionate sex between George and Ada ensues.

Despite all the sex this movie has to offer, it is also surprisingly romantic and tender. You can tell George and Ada actually care for each other. And what makes this movie so fantastic is that you can see how Ada’s love for her piano is slowly transformed into love for George. This is not to say that she loves the piano any less; however, because she associates George with the piano, she falls in love with him, which personally led me to wonder if she would have fallen in love with him at all, had he and the piano not been connected in a romantic, physical manner in her mind.

Another thing that really struck me is how there are no clearly defined “good guys” and “bad guys” in this film. The lovers certainly aren’t “good”: Not only are they sneaking around behind Alisdair’s unsuspecting, trusting back, but their entire affair began when George decided it would be a good idea to coerce Ada into sleeping with him. Ada is no better, as she leaves poor little Flora to fend for herself when she and George are making the beast with two backs; and, after the love affair begins, her motherly interaction with Flora is reduced only to necessity, such as when she needs Flora to be her “voice”—she and Flora communicate with hand signals, and Flora “translates,” if need be—or when she wants Flora to perform some task for her.
Alisdair is to be pitied—somewhat. In his defense, Ada does not make his life any easier: She arouses him, but will not let him touch her; she ignores him; and she glares at him. I mean, how much can one guy take? However, this does not excuse the times—yes, plural—Alisdair decides it would be a good idea to try to rape Ada. Enough said.

Surprisingly, the acting in this movie is all pretty much on an even keel. Everyone’s very good, but no one particularly shines, save perhaps Paquin—but that may be due to her age, and the fact that she had to remember so many lines (‘cause, man, does that kid talk!). I feel as though the actors did not have to work very hard to make the film good, because it was good from the outset. Having a great cast helps—and I’ll admit, I am a sucker for both Neill and Keitel—but, in the end, the film’s premise was interesting enough not to require amazing actors. Neill, Keitel and Hunter are just an added benefit.

Yours forever,

Film Bitch

Caught in a Bad Romance: “9 1/2 Weeks”

So remember how my first impression of 9 ½ Weeks was that it was going to be a sexy, wonderful movie? Well, I wasn’t too wrong. I just missed the part where it was incredibly painful to watch.

The fact that 9 ½ Weeks was directed by Adrian Lyne, famous (infamous?) director of Fatal Attraction, probably should have tipped me off right away that this movie was going to be no sexy, but happy, walk-in-the-park romance. But it didn’t, and I began the movie, blissfully unaware of what awaited me.

9 ½ Weeks follows a recently-divorced New York art gallery assistant, Elizabeth, played by Kim Basinger. Though we never really get the full backstory, you get the feeling her divorce wasn’t only recent, but that it wasn’t pretty, either—then again, what divorce is?
Though her divorce hurt her deeply, Elizabeth is tired of being alone. So when she makes eye contact in—appropriately, for those of you who know your Shakespeare—a fishmonger’s shop with the young, handsome John, played by the not-yet-disfigured Mickey Rourke, something in her stirs to life. But before she can say anything to him, he leaves the shop, presumably never to be seen again.

But there wouldn’t be a movie if he didn’t show up again, now would there?

A few days later, Elizabeth runs into him at an antiques flea market, and things…progress…from there.

(Ladies, here’s a tip: When a man you don’t know buys you a three hundred dollar scarf, you know you’re about to be a kept woman.)

Elizabeth and John’s relationship is brutal from the outset. Though they do not sleep together the same day they meet in the flea market, John does take Elizabeth to a small cabin close to the water. There, he tells her that they are totally alone. No one could hear her, even if she called out. Elizabeth becomes (understandably) frightened, and asks to leave. John assures her he was only kidding, but you get a rather uncomfortable, queasy feeling that he really wasn’t.

When they do get around to doing the deed, it is an erotic, sadomasochistic spectacle. John and Elizabeth experiment with everything, from food play to cross-dressing to humiliation and violence. Predictably, it is John who suggests and initiates everything, since Elizabeth is, as we realize through her actions and reactions, a novice in this particular sexual field. Elizabeth becomes more and more disconnected from her professional life, and is often distracted at work. She begins to look wilder and more disheveled, and her friends begin to notice the change in her.

But, aside from a brief scene that establishes him as a successful, wealthy man of Wall Street, we have no idea what John’s life is like outside his sexual encounters with Elizabeth. And that’s what makes him so darn creepy. You see, all we get of him is the side that comes out during sex play with Elizabeth, which is to say we see him as a cold, domineering son-of-a-bitch who gets off on hurting Elizabeth emotionally. The little he reveals about himself—that he’s had many other women, hinting that he treats them all in much the same way—only reinforces this image.

So it’s kind of weird when Elizabeth falls in love with John—and he with her.

(Or so he says.)

Rourke is excellent in his role as, well, an unfeeling asshole. Yes, he is extremely attractive, but he also gives off a very unsettling air. And this doesn’t just have to do with what we see on screen during the sex scenes between him and Basinger. Something about the way Rourke carries himself, and the way he looks at Basinger with guarded, but hungry eyes, makes the hair stand up on the back of your neck. It’s truly creepy—yet you can’t help but see how Basinger’s character is attracted to him, because he also exudes the promise of excitement, and something more and different.
Basinger plays a bit more of a three-dimensional character, but this is not to say she is necessarily any easier to read than Rourke. Yes, she is much more vocal about her feelings during the dialogue of the film, but, oftentimes, one of the only ways we understand what she is really feeling is during sex play, and only then through her physical cues. And because her words sometimes do not match her actions, Basinger’s Elizabeth is as almost as unreliable a source of truth as Rourke’s character. Basinger plays her role beautifully, and though we do get more of Elizabeth’s backstory, we get only slightly more of her inner self than of John’s. Much like Rourke’s eyes, Basinger’s facial expressions are guarded; but, unlike Rourke, every now and then, she allows emotion to surface in her eyes—but only for a few seconds.

The film itself is primarily composed of John and Elizabeth’s various sexual encounters, and doesn’t actually have much of a plot outside the sex. But that’s the point of the film. The action does not and should not revolve around the characters’ lives outside their sex play. The point of this film is to show the dirty (in the worst sense of the word) side of romantic involvement. And it does this excellently. By the time the film ends, all you want to do is watch a Disney movie, and pretend that there is such a thing as a happy ending for everyone, and that love and pain don’t ever actually go together. But don’t be fooled. Sure, Elizabeth and John “love” each other—but why? In the end, it is all about the emotion. They are both in need of feeling. And isn’t it better, says the film, to hurt than not to feel at all?

(I am now going to go watch Mulan.)

Yours always,

Film Bitch