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?

Embracing the Melodrama Part II #50: Hustling (dir by Joseph Sargent)


hustling21I have to admit that I had ulterior motives for reviewing the film Hustle as a part of Embracing the Melodrama.  I was already planning on reviewing another 1975 film about prostitutes, one that I had recently watched on Netflix.  That name of that film was Hustling and, for whatever reason, it amused me to imagine being alive in 1975 and going to see Hustle at a movie theater and then coming home, turning on TV, and finding myself watching a film called Hustling.

So really, if I was going to review one of those films, I had to review the other, right?  It made perfect sense at the time!

Anyway, as for Hustling, it’s a film about prostitutes in New York and the wealthy magazine writer who decides to interview them for an article.  Watching the film, what I immediately noticed was that, even though the film had a properly gritty feel to it, none of the characters ever cursed and, for a film about sex workers, there was no nudity.  Though the characters continually talked about getting beaten up by their pimps, all of the violence occurred off-screen.  Even more importantly, whenever something dramatic happened, the scene would fade to black.  It was almost as if the movie was pausing for an unseen commercial.

Which, of course, it was.  Hustling was made for television and, as I watched it, it was easy for me to imagine that I was actually watching the latest Lifetime original film.  It certainly followed a pattern that should be familiar to anyone who has ever watched a movie on Lifetime.  Wanda (Jill Clayburgh, giving an excellent performance) is a veteran prostitute who, after being arrested for the hundredth time, is told that the charges against her will be dropped if she allows herself to be interviewed by magazine writer, Fran Morrison (Lee Remick).  At first Wanda refuses but, after her pimp refuses to pay her fine and suggests that she should just accept spending a few months in jail, Wanda reconsiders and accepts Fran’s offer.

The rest of the film charts Fran and Wanda’s unlikely friendship.  Wanda tells Fran what it’s like to be prostitute.  Fran encourages Wanda and the other prostitutes to stand up for their legal rights.  Wanda deals with a society that looks down on her.  Fran deals with a boyfriend (Monte Markham) who can’t understand why she’s so concerned about a bunch of prostitutes.  Wanda considers going back to her pimp.  Fran considers exposing all of the “respectable” men who use prostitutes.

So, Hustling is pretty predictable and, not surprisingly, rather dated but it’s also a fairly effective portrait of life on the margins of society.  Lee Remick is stuck playing a one-note character but Jill Clayburgh is great in the role of Wanda. If nothing else, Hustling was filmed on location in some of the sleaziest parts of 1970s New York City and therefore, the film serves as a bit of a historical document.

For those wishing to check it out, the film’s currently available on Netflix.

Lisa Watches An Oscar Nominee: The Goodbye Girl (dir by Herbert Ross)


Goodbye_Girl_movie_poster

After I watched San Francisco, I decided to watch yet another film that I had DVRed during TCM’s 31 Days of Oscar.  I had several films to choose from and I ultimately decided to watch the 1977 best picture nominee The Goodbye Girl because, in general, I like movies from the 70s.  Add to that, the film was described as being a comedy and who am I to turn down the chance to laugh?

The Goodbye Girl asks the question, “What would happen if two of the most annoying people on Earth were forced to live together and then ended up falling in love with each other as a result?”  Paula (Marsha Mason) is recently divorced and is trying to raise her 10 year-old daughter, Lucy (Quinn Cumming), while also trying to relaunch the dance career that she put on hold when she got married.  As played by Marsha Mason, Paula is probably one of the most humorless characters to ever be at the center of a romantic comedy.  It’s not just that Paula is written to be a very angry character.  (For the most part, Paula has every right to be angry).  Instead, it’s that Mason gives such a totally sour performance that you get the feeling that Paula has probably never smiled once over the course of her entire life.  When, later on in the film, she does smile, it feels forced and unnatural.  You worry that her face is going to split in half.

In the course of one very bad week, she is abandoned by her actor boyfriend (he’s going to Italy to shoot a film) and she discovers that, before he left, her ex also sublet their apartment to another actor.  That actor is Elliott Garfield (Richard Dreyfuss), who is hyperactive, immature, self-centered, and very, very talkative.  He does things like play guitar in the nude and meditate in the morning.

Once Elliott shows up and barges his way into the apartment, a familiar pattern is established.  Elliott does something eccentric.  Paula yells at him.  Elliott yells back.  Paula yells in reply.  Elliott yells some more.  Even if you never quite buy the idea that the two of them would ever fall in love, you’re glad when they do because at least it gives them something to do other than yell.

(Of course, The Goodbye Girl was written by Neil Simon, which means that not only are Elliott and Paula yellers but they’re also very quippy yellers.  And while I guess we should be happy that Elliott tells the occasional joke, the constant barrage one liners is ultimately rather alienating.  Every time you think that the film is about to make an interesting point about human relationships, Elliott says something quippy and ruins the mood.)

Which is not to say that The Goodbye Girl is a terrible movie.  The scenes where Elliott rehearses and then appears in a terrible production of Richard III are brilliantly done and wonderfully satirize theatrical pretension.  As well, during its second hour, the film settles down a little bit.  Or, I should say, Richard Dreyfuss settles down and actually starts to give a performance that’s more than just a collection of nervous tics.  It helps that once Elliott and Paula are in love, they don’t yell at each other quite as much.  There’s even a rooftop dinner scene where the two actors finally show a hint of chemistry.

Ultimately, The Goodbye Girl is an uneven film that feels a lot like a sitcom.  It’s one of those films that you watch and, even though it’s not terrible, you still find yourself thinking, “This was nominated for best picture?”