14 May 2018

James Bond - The Phenomenon *REVISED AND REPUBLISHED*

"Bond. James Bond."

I once wrote a very glorifying post on this blog about the man of all men: Bond. James Bond

It was to be the end of my 'Bond-craze' years and I was simply gushing. There seemed no end to my blind adoration. Or rather, something did nag in the back of my mind during my countless reruns of the spy films whenever Bond carelessly flung ladies and villains aside, never bothering about the consequences of his actions as long as he got the job done. Violently, apathetically, cynically. I knew it was wrong; these set of values he so shamelessly demonstrated, and that it was problematic how it was treated 'just for kicks' through the film media. His misanthropy was kitschy entertainment. No more, no less.

And yet, I worshipped him. The whole package.

Rereading that old 'love letter' of mine (which I have deleted, for various reasons, in favor of a more critical piece), I can forgive that somewhat naive, impressionable kid I was. After all, I am not the first one to swoon at Sean Connery-Bond's deliciously rolling brogue and glinting, mischievous eyes. Obviously. The Scottish vortex of charm so easily sucks you in. 

Still, I have grown older and wiser. My eyes are opened and re-watching those iconic movies no longer brings me the same sort of thrilling adoration as it once did. Only silly nostalgia.

And I realized I had to revise my think-piece on 'Bond The Phenomenon' in order to clarify my radically changed standpoint and include the fact that James Bond is probably one of the most obvious subjects of gender-related film critique.

"Let's not forget that he's actually a misogynist," the latest Bond, Daniel Craig himself, said about his character. That pretty much nails it, I think. 

No matter what one has to say for the man, Bond is a bastard. Sure, a charming, funny and even silly bastard, but nonetheless a bastard. One cannot look past his blatant male chauvinism and basic disregard for human life, especially the opposite sex whom he uses and discards as often as he changes that impeccable white shirt of his (symbolic much?). Not to mention, the way he is being outrageously self-assured and downright smug about his own sexual prowess aka. that time he 'manages' to conquer Pussy Galore - when the woman's playing for the other team, for crying out loud, Bond!

The latter incident demonstrates the complete and utter arrogance and ultimate fantasy of that certain type of heterosexual male who thinks he is God - or rather that a certain part of him is so magical it can turn gay women straight...! Pffft! Or, really, that anything about female sexuality has to do with the man or revolve around him.

True, nothing about the Bond universe should be taken seriously, perhaps. I mean, just look at the villains, the gadgets and those godawful double entendre names the women have! 
And had Bond simply been a footnote in the entertainment industry, I'd agree. But I'd argue that his iconic status makes him a more ambiguous figure of 'worship' and one worth discussing instead of simply dismissing as 'pure silliness that is easily forgiven'. After all, Bond movies are still produced and watched by millions and thus his problematic imagery and values are kept alive. And thus the question is: Are the new movies aware of this? Are its audiences? And do the movies address it?

No, not really (to all three questions) because then the movies would most likely not be made or watched. To address the problems with Bond would be to take away much of his essence, if not everything. To dress him down to what he projects about the male fantasy and status quo of society in all its raw, horrible honesty. Craig has given us perhaps the realest version of that but it's still lacking the wider, critical awareness among the audiences, I believe: For them to fully come to terms with what Bond inhabits; something that should not be glorified or admired, because of its toxic emptiness

"Daniel Craig has not been given enough credit for taking a character who was a cardboard throwback even in the 1960s and playing him straight: as a wall-eyed, traumatised thug, a protagonist who is two-dimensional precisely because he is empty inside.

Craig animates the automaton that is Bond by asking just what it would take to make a person behave in this horrific way – and like any piece of well-done puppetry, the effect is sinister. Daniel Craig is the Bond we deserve, a Bond who takes seriously the job of embodying a savage yearning for a lost fantasy of the 1950s. It is about masculinity, yes, but also about Britishness, about whiteness and about heterosexuality, about the loss of certainty in all of these in a changing world."

It's quite interesting that these 'values' that seem to be the essence of Bond - clearly inseparable from the man and the myth - have managed to sell plenty of movie tickets throughout such tumultuous, radically changing socio-political decades that followed his arrival in the 1960s and, now, well into the 21st century. A time where critical awareness on these subjects - perhaps now more than ever thanks to new academic studies, not to mention various social and online media - has enhanced and pointed out just how outdated, unhealthy and misrepresentative these traditional, patriarchal and, frankly, stagnant views of how 'men are men' and 'women are women' truly are. Hidden or not, they have simply stayed this way far too long and need to be reckoned with.

"Mad Men" (2007-2015) dared to take up this challenge; to face this 'wolf in sheep's clothes' and call a bastard for a bastard in regards to Don Draper - who is basically a James Bond archetype in many ways. The show - in contrast to the Bond movies - manages to draw critical lines across the ways society in Bond's cinematic birth years actually looked like regarding the sexes and gender roles, more so than glamorizing them (though this scale of balance can be debated).

I'm not saying that James Bond from now on should be an icon for cultural and structural change in that regard - if that is even possible, since he is and probably always will be an archetype of his time and more camp and entertainment than diversity and politics. The books were never meant to be more than that and mainly served as Ian Fleming's own subjective/selfish and partly autobiographic outlet (although he laid it on pretty thick). 

But I'm still prone to see icons, no matter their various contexts, as partly responsible for what they represent in the end. Especially for the coming generations by asking what we want to leave on the map of legacy to guide them. And so I ask: Can Bond really work in the 21st century when he basically still sees women they way he does? Isn't he just too dated, too archaic in that aspect? 

Then again, name a blockbuster/cardboard action hero from prior decades that didn't play into the areas of toxic masculinity and actually showed true esteem and respect for women with no romantic/sexual attachments developing along the way... Nope, me neither. James Bond just predated them all and happened to have more class and style than the rest of them put together. Of course, he's the 'top dog'.

So. Can you change the stripes of such a, uh, tiger? I don't know. Again, Bond's essential cardboard-like qualities may just inhibit the figure from ever evolving and will remain a product of his time; a stagnant mindset, so aptly spoofed in the Austin Powers movies. 

I grew up adoring Bond partly dewy-eyed, partly aware of his obvious flaws, and I can still laugh at the utter campiness of the movies, but as I've grown older I've also been made aware of my previous blind spots. I cannot unsee them. That goes for several of my fandoms, in fact. It doesn't ruin them per se, since I accept I loved them blindly at the time. Then I learn and move on to find something that will suit my tastes, a bit more aware. I find that can never hurt.

And I'll end on that note by stressing that you can still let Bond stay the entertaining icon he's always been as long as you keep in mind what he's actually an icon for - other than Fleming's legacy.

30 June 2017

Underrated Actors: Richard Widmark

'Understated versatility and charisma of the unconventional, memorable kind' are the words that come to my mind when I think about Richard Widmark.

As a character actor, Widmark (1914-2008) had a great, solid, anti-heroic screen persona which thrived in the western and film noir genres; often typecast as the more pensive side- or main character with morally ambiguous, enigmatic characteristics and ambitions as well as interesting character developments (if the material allowed it which often wasn't much, especially in the western genre).

One of the main attributes of Widmark's trademark acting abilities was that whenever the camera would cut to him in-between dialogue, Widmark could tell us more about his particular character with his face alone (and oh, what an fascinating, expressive face!) than most. With him it became all the more important what he didn't say but rather showed between the lines. Just the way he observed his co-stars could tell the viewers everything and at the same time very little about how his particular character felt about the other characters around him. He acted and reacted just by looking, which, I'm sad to say as a longtime classic movie fan, was rarely seen otherwise in these types of genres and roles back then.

In my (albeit slightly biased) opinion, he excelled in this and rivaled the talents of that of Henry Fonda, Spencer Tracy, Burt Lancaster and Gary Cooper and many of his other more star-studded co-stars.

Widmark's iconic, Oscar-nominated role as
Tommy Udo in Kiss of Death, 1947.

Despite his typecasting and underrated stardom, Widmark's subtle versatility as a character actor never wavered. With conviction, he could play giggling maniacs (Kiss of Death), obnoxious racists (No Way Out), Indiana Jones-like adventurers (Run for the Sun) or reluctant anti-heroes and unconventional love interests (Don't Bother to Knock, Pickup on South Street), but at the same time also display characters in conflict; of integrity and great vulnerability, and even then not always play by the ultra-macho-superhuman-hero-playbook (Warlock, Cheyenne Autumn).

To me, he always represented more brain than brawn, more depth than cardboard in his characters. In any case and despite not always having much material to go with. He was just that good.

Widmark playing smart-mouthed pickpocket in
Pickup on South Street, 1953.

And once you've noticed Widmark, you'll notice him again. He was never just the faceless, characterless side character, if he ever was one. Good or bad or in-between. Never just the mindless lackey either. His characters were often hardbitten loners and not always the rule-abiding ones. He seemed to seek the roles that rebelled in some form or another during the plot; in their own sly, quiet ways. There was an arc to his stories, however small, where he tried to make his characters more full-bodied. Or at least give them some sort of voice and character.

Once I noticed Widmark, I started to get invested in every character he played; even his sometimes short-lived and thinly-written roles as another sidekick or villain, easily disposed off. I was rarely this invested with other actors.

Widmark opposite Marilyn Monroe (the latter in a rare role, 
playing against type) in Don't Bother to Knock, 1952.

Part of why he is underrated may be because he could blend in and stand out at the same time; make certain types of characters seem real, believable and human - especially gunslingers whereas other stars often came to immortalize and mystify the latter into the superhuman, unflinching cardboard personas which are most frequently associated with the western genre.

That may sound a bit too generalized, but, honestly, Hollywood made sooo many westerns at the time (late '40s-'60s), with practically everyone jumping on the bandwagon (How the West Was Won and its all-star cast, including Widmark, is a pivotal example of this), and though there were loads of opportunities for an actor to practically play different versions of the same role in multiple westerns (hint to Leone's ingenious meta-films, the Dollars trilogy), the truly great material was few and far between. It's rather clear with many of them that cash surpassed content which subsequently was reflected in the production value of the script (all the big bugs seemed to be gambled on the stars and the elaborate settings) and since westerns were crowd-pleasers at the time, the genre became an easy money machine for all parts.

My point is that I've seen 'a couple' (*coughs* a hella lot) of westerns from that period and with many big (and slightly has-been) stars roaming the frame and riding the horses across the canyons and carelessly plugging one Native American after another and tossing around the women, repeating the same narrative over and over again, with little tweaks here and there, making the genre quickly quite jaded and campy. The trick to truly stand out and give one's own to the sparse material seemed to become an unwritten art - for the actor (who was still very much owned and dictated by the studios) as well as for the viewer; to spot these hidden gems in the haystack.

Widmark is one of these gems, you'll soon discover. His subtly expressive, contemplative face, at times with a hint of vulnerability, stubbornness, hesitance and integrity, is a breath of fresh air among the many wooden faces of the gunslinging actors in old Hollywood. Always a solid performance and though typecast like so many others of that time, Widmark gives his special trademark looks that makes you stop up and watch the screen extra attentively; waiting to see what he's going to do next although you may already guess it.

Yet, coming full circle, the sheer privilege of getting to observe Widmark observing - or simply acting - is award enough in itself!

Widmark as reformed-gang-member-turned-deputy-sherif in Warlock, 1959.

In one particular scene in Warlock, Widmark's character relays a personal, traumatizing story about reluctantly killing Mexicans while being in the gang of ruffians from which he has departed, to Dorothy Malone's empathizing character. It's only a few lines but Widmark's subtle acting makes the scene seem all the more poignant and telling of his conflicted character arc. It is very moving and all too short before the movie roughly cuts to a long, boring scene between Fonda and Dolores Michael's respective characters elsewhere. (I say this because I find the side-love story of the latter utterly boring and not nearly as interesting as the quiet sparks that fly between Widmark and Malone. I wanted to stay with them!).

The scene in Warlock in which Widmark's character recalls a traumatic memory.

So far, I've watched about 18 of his films and I continue on my journey to discover more Widmark magic. Needless to say I have a slight infatuation with this man as an actor. The fact that he seemed to be a right gent off-screen certainly doesn't hurt the appeal of him. Of the few things I can mention: He married former actor and screenwriter Jean Hazelwood in 1942 and claimed never to have even flirted with another woman. "After I was married I thought, 'well, that's it'. I never thought beyond that. I happen to like my wife a lot." And despite his longtime career handling guns in films, he abhorred violence and was an ardent promoter of gun control. Furthermore, he formed a lifelong friendship with Sidney Poitier after playing opposite each other in the latter's feature debut No Way Out:

"He was the first person in this town to invite me to dinner,” Poitier said. “I was always grateful for that because this town at that time was new to me. Widmark softened that for me. It was a reaching out. It was an embracing. He chose to let me know that I was welcome.”  
Filming, however, was a tense experience for Widmark, who recalled, “I had to say these horrible things to him in the movie and immediately afterward I’d go to him and say, ‘I-I’m sorry, Sid. It’s not really me’,” which Poitier would laugh off.  
“He was always apologizing to me about it, you know? And I tried to get across to him that I’m an actor too and that’s what we do as actors. But he really went deep into that character….he’s a good man…a good good man.”

And as a small bonus:

Aww, how sweet is that!

Anyways, I can highly recommend watching his films and look out for this wonderful and far too underrated actor. Let's hope it will further spark the fandom and appreciation of him.

Widmark being cute with Jean Peters in
Pickup on South Street.

20 March 2017

Dream Cast: Classic Actresses as Disney Heroines and Princesses

There are already several takes on this dream casting out there, but I just wanted to add my own list of suggestions though many may coincide with those previously suggested. These choices are based on similar looks as much as personality and acting characteristics between each actress and character. (I've deliberately chosen not to include any female antropromorphic protagonists in this post.)
Hope you'll enjoy and please leave a comment if you agree or disagree with some of my choices. :)

Anna May Wong as Mulan

Esther Williams as Ariel

Eleanor Parker as Belle

Elizabeth Taylor or Simone Simon as Snow White

Lauren Bacall as Megara

Dorothy Dandridge or Ruby Dee as Tiana

Grace Kelly as Aurora

Debbie Reynolds as Cinderella

Veronica Lake as Rapunzel

Joanne Woodward as Eilonwy

Mala Sinha or Faten Hamama as Jasmine

Sacheen Littlefeather as Pocahontas

NOTE: Sadly, classic Hollywood was practically devoid of Native American actors/actresses in leading or supporting roles, way too fond of the racist 'red face' option (let's not forget their frequent use of 'black face' and 'yellow face' as well). 
As much as I love the classic Hollywood fandom this is just atrocious! It still has a huge problem representing their own native people faithfully. Why, they kept saying and made us all believe for decades that it was a hoax when Sacheen Littlefeather famously appeared on behalf of Marlon Brando to reject his Oscar in 1973 and that she was a fake Native American...! Which was a lie! Omg Hollywood, you can be such a nasty piece of work sometimes!

Vivien Leigh as Jane

Rita Hayworth as Esmeralda

Judy Garland as Wendy

Joyce Bryant as Kida

Rita Moreno as Audrey

Maureen O'Hara as Merida

Shirley Temple as Alice

Olivia de Havilland and Joan Fontaine or June Allyson and Elizabeth Taylor 
as Anna and Elsa

Deborah Kerr as Giselle

Mamo Clark as Moana