Embracing the Melodrama Part II #54: Mandingo (dir by Richard Fleischer)


Mandingo_movie_posterUp until last night, I was under the impression that James Mason never gave a single bad performance over the course of his long career.  Oh sure, I knew that Mason had probably appeared in his share of bad films.  But I figured he was one of those actors who was always better than his material.  Just watch Lolita, The Verdict, Julius Caesar, Odd Man Out, Bigger Than Life, or Murder By Decree and you’ll see that James Mason was a great actor.

But then, last night, I finally got around to watching the 1975 film, Mandingo.

I’ve actually owned Mandingo on DVD for a few years.  I bought it on a whim, the result of having seen it listed as one of the worst films of all time in several different reference guides.  But I have to admit that I did not have any great desire to actually sit through the film.  Instead, it was one of those films that you buy just so your very ownership of it can be a conversation piece.

(“Oh my God, Lisa, what’s this?”  “Oh, that little old thing?  That’s my copy of Mandingo…”)

However, when I decided to do Embracing the Melodrama, Part II, I realized that this would be the perfect time to actually watch and review Mandingo.

Mandingo deals with life on a sordid plantation in pre-Civil War Alabama.  Warren Maxwell (James Mason) owns the plantation and he spends most of his time sweating and complaining about his rheumatism.  When a Satanic slave trader named Brownlee (Paul Benedict) suggests that Warren can cure his rheumatism by always resting his feet on the backs of two little slave children, Warren proceeds to do just that.  Seriously, this is a 127 minute film and, nearly every time that Mason appears on screen, he’s got his feet propped up on the children.

Warren’s got a son named Hammond (Perry King).  Hammond walks with a limp, the result of a childhood pony accident.  Warren expects Hammond to sire an heir to Maxwell family legacy but Hammond is only comfortable having sex with slaves.  Finally, during a business trip with his decadent friend Charles (Ben Masters), Hammond meets and marries Blanche (Susan George).  Blanche assures Hammond that she’s a virgin and, on their wedding night, she asks Hammond how to have sex.  “We take off our clothes…” Hammond begins.

However, the morning after, Hammond is convinced that Blanche lied about being virgin because she enjoyed having sex.  Once they return to the plantation, Hammond refuses to touch Blanche and instead ends up falling in love with a slave named Ellen (Brenda Sykes).  When Ellen gets pregnant, Blanche beats her until she miscarries.

And meanwhile, James Mason keeps popping up with two little kids resting underneath his feet…

But that’s not all!  Hammond has purchased a slave named Mede (Ken Norton).  Mede is a boxer and wins Hammond a lot of money.  In order to “toughen up” his skin, Mede is also forced to bathe in a cauldron of very hot water.  “Shuck down those pants!” Hammond shouts before Mede gets in the cauldron.

Blanche, who is now an alcoholic, gets her revenge on Hammond by having sex with the the legendarily endowed Mede.  Soon, Blanche is pregnant and Hammond and Warren are both excited.  Then the baby is born and all Hell breaks loose.

And, meanwhile, James Mason rests his feet on the back of two little kids…

Mandingo is one of those films that you watch in wide-eyed amazement, shocked that not only was this movie made but it was also apparently made by a major film studio and directed by a professional director.  (Before he directed Mandingo, Richard Fleischer directed everything from 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea to Doctor Dolittle to Soylent Green.)  I know that some would argue that Mandingo used the conventions of exploitation cinema to expose the sickening inhumanity of American slavery but let’s be honest here.  Mandingo is not Django Unchained.  Instead, it’s a slow-moving soap opera that is occasionally redeemed by some over-the-top dialogue and histrionic performances.

And it’s also proof that James Mason was capable of giving a bad performance.  According to the imdb, James Mason described Mandingo as a film that he did solely for the paycheck.  From his terrible Southern accent to the way that he always seems to be trying to hide his face from the camera, Mason gives perhaps one of the worst performances ever given by a legitimately great actor.

But really, can you blame him?

Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: Bound for Glory (dir by Hal Ashby)


Bound_for_glory_Poster

One of my favorite online film reviewers is Mitch Lovell of the Video Vacuum.  The thing I like about Mitch is that he doesn’t worry about how many Oscars a film has been nominated for or whether or not a film’s politics are currently in fashion.  Unlike a lot of online reviewers, he doesn’t worry about whether or not he’s going against the “accepted” views of the critical establishment.  Instead, he’ll watch a film and tell you exactly how he felt about it.

For example, Mitch Lovell’s review of the otherwise critically acclaimed 1976 best picture nominee Bound for Glory can be summed up in three words: “boring as fuck.”  Every other online review that I’ve found for Bound for Glory offers up polite but rarely inspiring praise for this rather lengthy film about the folk singer Woody Guthrie.  Most of those reviews do acknowledge that the film moves at its own pace but we are told that we will be rewarded for being patient.  If the review was written after 2010, you can be sure that the reviewer will be sure to say that Bound for Glory reminds us of why labor unions are still important and need to be protected from the Tea Party.  (The idea apparently being that, if a film has the right politics, it doesn’t have to actually be all that interesting.)  It’s all rather predictable and that’s why we’re lucky to have reviewers like Mitch Lovell around.  Whether you agree with him or not, it’s good to have a reviewer who will go against the conventional wisdom.

I recently watched Bound for Glory as a part of TCM’s 31 Days of Oscars and, to a large extent, I have to agree with Mitch Lovell’s review.  This is a movie that is not only long but which moves slowly as well.  It’s not that the film has a deliberate pace.  It’s just slow!  (If you want to see a film that makes good use of a deliberate pace, check out Barry Lyndon.)  David Carradine plays Woody Guthrie, a sign painter who, during the Great Depression, abandons his family in Texas and, by hopping trains, makes his way to California.  He works with fruit pickers.  He tries to convince his fellow workers to form a union.  He gets beat up a lot.

And he plays his guitar.

If there’s anything that remains consistent about Bound for Glory, it’s that Woody is always playing his guitar and that every time he starts to play, something terrible either has happened or does happen.  There’s a huge dust storm.  Woody plays his guitar.  A fight breaks out at a union meeting.  Woody plays his guitar.  A bunch of hoboes on a train get beat up.  Woody plays his guitar.  Woody shows up at a textile mill and starts to play his guitar.  He gets beaten up by a bunch of thugs.  Woody impresses Pauline (Gail Strickland) by playing his guitar and soon, he’s cheating on his wife.  Woody partners up with another folk singer, Ozark Blue (Ronny Cox), and they get their own radio show where Woody plays guitar.  Woody promptly gets fired.

It quickly became apparent to me that Woody Guthrie’s guitar was cursed.  Whenever he played it, poor people ended up getting oppressed.

In many ways, Bound for Glory is a prototypical example of what it means to be an acclaimed-at-its-time-but-subsequently-forgotten best picture nominee.  It’s a big epic film that tells a fictionalized account of a real person’s life story.  Woody Guthrie is best known for writing This Land Is Your Land, which is a song that I mostly associate with pretentious super bowl commercials.  As Bound for Glory details, Woody was also a union organizer and political activist but what’s odd is that the film keeps the exact details of what he believed rather vague.  We’re given the general idea of what Woody believed but we’re not given any specifics.  As a result, Woody just comes across like another part-time social protestor as opposed to being a true political thinker (much less a revolutionary).

On a positive note, Bound for Glory is impressive to look at.  The film’s cinematographer was the famous Haskell Wexler (who also directed Medium Cool, a film that was as upfront about its politics as Bound for Glory is vague) and Wexler captures some hauntingly beautiful images of the American wilderness.  The scene where a gigantic wall of dust crashes down onto a small Texas town is especially memorable.

Otherwise, though, Bound for Glory is pretty much a snoozefest.  It was nominated for best picture of 1976 and, when you compare it to fellow nominees like All The President’s Men, Network, Taxi Driver, and even RockyBound for Glory does feel a bit out of place.

Then when you consider some of the other films that came out in ’76 — Carrie,  Face to FaceThe Front, God Told Me To, Logan’s Run, The Man Who Fell To Earth, Marathon Man, The Omen, The Outlaw Josey Wales, Lipstick, Robin and Marian, The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea, and The Town That Dreaded Sundown — the nomination of Bound for Glory feels like even more of a mistake.

Oh well.

Occasionally, the Academy gets it wrong.

Shocking, I know.