Saturday, April 22, 2017

Classics: A Review of Victoria by Lauren Ennis

As today’s child stars will attest to, growing up in the spotlight is far from easy. With awkward stages and impulsive mistakes on full view, life in the limelight often proves the most difficult for the youngest celebrities to bear. Combining the pressures of an adolescence in the public eye with the responsibility of governing an empire seems an impossible task to imagine. In 1837, however, one teen not only assumed that daunting task, but did so with a grace and gumption that paved the way for her to become one of England’s most admired and renowned monarchs. The ITV series Victoria chronicles the life and reign of Queen Victoria, with its recently completed first season focusing exclusively upon her earliest years on the throne. In the first season’s eight episodes viewers are treated to watching the young Victoria grow up before our eyes as she evolves from resourceful but experienced teen to a young woman worthy of the title of Queen.

Heavy is the head that wears the crown
The story begins in 1837 as sheltered Victoria (Jenna Coleman) is thrust into the spotlight after her uncle, King William, dies leaving her next in line to ascend to the throne. Like most teens, she initially relishes her newfound power and independence and refuses to take the advice of the duplicitous adults surrounding her. After a series of political scandals threaten her reign, however, she quickly learns that there’s more to being a queen than giving orders and holding balls. Fortunately, she finds a true ally amidst the sycophants and conspirators surrounding her in Prime Minister Lord Melbourne (Rufus Sewell), who becomes her closest confidante and mentor. Just as she becomes accustomed to her position, however, she is faced with the challenge of choosing a husband, a difficult choice that brings her political goals and personal feelings into conflict. As she continues to overcome one personal and political obstacle after another Victoria begins her journey to becoming one of England’s most successful sovereigns.

While accounts of royal lives have flooded television and cinema for decades, Victoria stands out from its counterparts by lending equal focus to Victoria the woman and Victoria the queen. Rather than portraying her as the poised monarch she is best remembered as, the Victoria of the series is a living breathing teenager who alternates between willfulness and impressionableness and naiveté and shrewdness as she struggles to come to terms with her new role. Utilizing her actual letters and diary entries, the series crafts a portrait of a complex heroine who has flaws and quirks to spare, making Queen Victoria one of the most relateable monarchs ever put to cinema.

Lord Melbourne restoring faith in politicians since 1837
Victoria’s relationships with her family, friends, and love interests are portrayed with an equal nuance, which allows each character to develop into three dimensional and compelling roles. Her relationship with Prince Albert, for instance, is striking in its realism and subtlety as the couple first clash, only to later obtain a begrudging respect for one another, which eventually develops into a romance. Even after the couple marry, their relationship continues to evolve as Albert struggles to adjust to life in a new country where he is expected to take a secondary role to his wife and Victoria attempts to juggle the dual roles of wife and queen. Her relationship with Lord Melbourne is equally complicated as the two strive to maintain a professional relationship, even as their feelings threaten to grow into something more. Rather than an understandable schoolgirl crush, her infatuation is portrayed as an effort to fill the void left by her lack of close family ties, while his attraction to her is presented as an effort to cope with his grief after the loss of his wife. This insight into the pair’s mindsets leaves viewers with a clear understanding of what draws them to each other, all while reminding us of why a romance cannot develop between them. The conflict between their feelings for one another and their duties to their country is truly heartfelt and lends the series some of its most poignant moments. Even the supporting characters such as Victoria’s loving but overbearing governess, and Albert’s roguish but well-meaning brother are portrayed with a depth and intelligence that brings each character to vibrant life.

The uniformly excellent performances of the cast transport viewers into the gritty world of the nineteenth century. Through his combination of world weariness, idealism, and amiable charm, Rufus Sewell nearly steals every scene that he appears in as the honorable and conflicted Lord Melbourne. Tom Hughes is the ideal romantic hero in his role as Prince Albert and perfectly captures the passion and moral courage that define his character. Nell Hudson and Ferdinand Kingsley are engrossing in their roles as cynical laundress turned queen’s dresser Eliza Skerrett and ambitious chef Charles Francatelli and bring a charm and realism to their roles that keeps viewers engaged their characters’ downstairs romance even in the midst of upstairs intrigues. Despite the outstanding performances surrounding her, the series belongs to Jenna Coleman in her turn as the newly crowned queen. With a fire and steely resilience befitting Scarlett O’Hara, Coleman portrays her Victoria as a dynamo who is truly ahead of her time, bringing a modern edge to her historical role.

A historical drama for modern times, Victoria is equal parts informative and entertaining. Through its insightful script and superb performances the series brings nineteenth century England to vibrant life and provides viewers with an enthralling glimpse into the tumultuous life of one of history’s most famous monarchs. In its portrayal of Victoria as a passionate and assertive woman, the series transcends its genre trappings to tell a story that is at once relevant and empowering. For a royally fascinating journey into the past look no further than Victoria.

Be still, my girlish heart

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Classics: Three Epic Hollywood Feuds By Lauren Ennis

It is often said that there is no business like show business, and perhaps there is no business that is quite so turbulent, unforgiving, and ultimately ruthless. With select few parts to be filled and innumerable hopefuls to fill them, it is little wonder as to why Hollywood is infamous for its hostile working environments. By the same token, it is no surprise that tinsel-town in all its toxic glory treated audiences to some of the most gritty, malicious, and utterly outrageous feuds in modern history. This week I’ll be turning the spotlight on three Hollywood feuds that were so vicious, vindictive, and venomous that they continue to fascinate viewers even in today’s era of Twitter tirades and social media scandal.

The feud to end all feuds
Bette Davis and Joan Crawford: Perhaps the most infamous feud on this list, the ongoing battle between Bette Davis and Joan Crawford is almost as legendary as the stars themselves. The ultimate throw-down that culminated in the 1963 Oscar race had relatively humble origins, however, with struggling character actress Davis resenting glamor-queen Crawford’s success, which she was commonly said to have achieved by sleeping her way through the ranks at MGM. Similarly, Crawford came to begrudge the critical acclaim that theater-trained Davis began receiving which had always eluded her. This dislike escalated in 1935 when Davis began a flirtation with her Dangerous co-star Franchot Tone, only to later learn to her dismay that he had begun a relationship with Crawford during filming. Making matters worse, Davis was forced to face her romantic rival on a regular basis, as Crawford visited Tone daily on the set for the remainder of the shoot. Crawford and Tone married later that year, but ultimately divorced in 1938. Relations failed to improve between Crawford and Davis, however, as Davis’ star steadily rose throughout the remainder of the 1930’s, while Crawford’s gradually declined. By the 1940’s Davis had become the undisputed queen of Warner Brothers, until she faced competition with the arrival of Crawford, who had been released from her contract by MGM in 1943. In an effort to reign in the fiery and independent Davis (who had sued the studio in 1936) Warner Brothers began pitching scripts that had once been strictly Davis’ territory to Crawford. Matters went from bad to worse for Davis after Crawford won the 1945 Best Actress Oscar for Mildred Pierce, a role that Davis had previously rejected.

Both stars continued to turn in exemplary performances into the 1950’s, but as the 1960’s approached found it increasingly difficult to find work in a youth-centric industry. It was at this time when both women were facing career lows that they collaborated on what would become one of their most beloved hits, the 1962 horror cult classic, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?. Initially, the two women attempted to put their differences aside, but eventually manipulations by the studio and the press (including private conversations from both actresses leaked in an effort to draw publicity) reopened old wounds. By the time that filming wrapped, their working relationship had completely deteriorated with Davis infuriated by admitted alcoholic Crawford’s inebriated on-set antics and discrediting interviews with local gossip columnists and Crawford incensed by Davis’ abrupt manner and disparaging comments. After shooting finished the real war had only just begun when Davis was nominated for a Best Actress Oscar and Crawford launched a smear campaign to ensure her rival’s loss. When the Best Actress award went to Anne Bancroft Crawford took to the stage and eagerly accepted on her behalf, as Bancroft was performing on Broadway and unable to attend. While Davis was understandably bitter, she still put her work first when she was approached to re-team with Crawford in the follow-up horror film Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte. Almost as soon as filming began, however, the old flames reignited, prompting Crawford to withdraw from the project and her role to ultimately be recast with Davis’ long-time friend Olivia de Havilland in the part. The pair rarely spoke publicly of their infamous animosity, although Davis would tantalizingly advise curious reporters to, “Meet me in private if you want to know what I really think”.

Olivia, Olivia, Olivia, why is it always Olivia?!
Olivia de Havilland and Joan Fontaine: Speaking of Olivia de Havilland, she was also half of another legendary feud, one that lasted virtually from cradle to grave with her professional rival and sister, Joan Fontaine. Born just fifteen months apart, the two reportedly engaged in what might be the most bitter sibling rivalry this side of Downton Abbey (yes, I’m looking at you Mary and Edith), which ultimately resulted in an estrangement which lasted until the end of Fontaine’s life. The feud began as a textbook case of sibling rivalry as both girls scrambled for their mother’s affection after their parents divorced shortly following Joan’s birth. According to Fontaine’s memoir, No Bed of Roses, the rivalry quickly developed into abuse as de Havilland bullied, intimidated, and allegedly assaulted her younger sister. In one particularly disturbing passage, Fontaine even describes an incident in which de Havilland allegedly fractured her collarbone. As the sisters grew older, they continued to compete with each other in school, romance, and eventually their careers. Both sisters pursued careers in acting, but de Havilland was the first to score a contract when she signed with Warner Brothers in 1935. Fontaine stated that she was interested in auditioning for Warner Brothers as well, but eventually signed with RKO in 1937 after their mother insisted that they should work for separate studios. She also began work under their stepfather’s surname after their mother warned her that “two de Havilland was too much for one marquis”. De Havilland built a substantial resume in a series of feisty girl-next-door roles, with particularly notable performances in adventure films opposite her friend and frequent co-star Errol Flynn. Meanwhile, Fontaine began building her own career in a series of comedic parts including The Women and Gunga Din. De Havilland earned the family’s first Oscar nomination for her role as Melanie Wilkes in Gone with the Wind, but it was her co-star, Hattie McDaniel who took home the award for Best Supporting Actress. Interestingly, Melanie Wilkes was a role that Fontaine claimed to have auditioned for. According to her memoir, Fontaine arrived to audition for director George Cukor (who was later fired from the project), but was rejected on the grounds that she was, “much too stylish” to play Melanie. She then goes on to write that when she learned of the reasoning behind her rejection she suggested that the director audition her sister if he needed a less stylish actress, inspiring him to eventually cast de Havilland. Regardless of the truth of her account, the way in which Fontaine takes credit for de Havilland’s landing her most famous role and her comments regarding de Havilland’s fashion sense speak volumes about their relationship.

Fontaine went on to earn her first Oscar nomination for her role as the second Mrs Dewinter in Rebecca in 1940, but it wasn’t until the following year in 1941 that she won the first Oscar in the family for her role in Suspicion. While de Havilland was reportedly supportive of her sister’s win, relations between the sisters remained strained they continued to engage in a series of crosses and double crosses in their personal lives. In breaking with one of sisterhood’s golden rules, Fontaine married de Havilland’s former boyfriend, Brian Ahern in 1939. Making matters worse, Fontaine told de Havilland that de Havilland’s then boyfriend, renowned playboy Howard Hughes had made a pass at her at Fontaine and Ahern’s wedding rehearsal. Later in 1946 when de Havilland married the four times divorced writer Marcus Goodrich, Fontaine joked with the press that “It’s too bad Olivia’s husband has so many wives and only one book”. By the time that de Havilland won her first of two Oscars in 1946 for her role in To Each His Own, their relationship was reduced to such a severe estrangement that de Havilland refused to acknowledge Fontaine when Fontaine approached her backstage to congratulate her (a moment which was famously captured by a photo in Photoplay magazine). While de Havilland went on to win a second Oscar in 1949 for The Heiress, Fontaine never earned another Oscar nod. When their mother died in 1975 Fontaine was out of the country and later said that she only learned of her mother’s death by chance, as de Havilland did not notify her of the death or invite her to the service. Through all of the ups and downs of their tumultuous relationship de Havilland refused to speak of the feud saying only, “A feud implies hostile conduct by two parties. I have no memory of any hostile conduct on my part”. In a bizarre twist Fontaine later claimed that the entire feud was a fabrication created by the press, despite all of the allegations that she had publicly made. Regardless of Fontaine’s attempt to retract her allegations, the sisters remained estranged at the time of Fontaine’s death in 2013, and Fontaine reportedly became estranged from her daughter as well after her daughter refused to sever ties with de Havilland. Fontaine once said of her sister, “Olivia has always said I was first at everything. I got married first, I got an Academy Award first, I had a child first. If I die, she’ll be furious because again I’ll have gotten there first”. Movie buffs can only wonder what de Havilland makes of that ironic statement today.

One screen is too small for two contenders
Frank Sinatra and Marlon Brando: Proving that feuds aren’t just for the fair sex, two of tinsel town’s most legendary tough guys engaged in a spat of their own. While working on the classic musical Guys and Dolls Frank Sinatra was dismayed to find that he had been cast in what was arguably a supporting role to Marlon Brando’s lead. When later asked about his sour behavior on set Sinatra admitted that he felt slighted by Brando’s being cast in the lead, a part that Sinatra argued, “just didn’t fit him [Brando]”. In retaliation, Sinatra was cold to Brando and was described by co-star Regis Toomey as being “snotty and very difficult” throughout filming. In an attempt to smooth their working relationship Brando offered to rehearse and run lines with Sinatra, to which Sinatra snapped, “I don’t go for that Method crap”. During filming Sinatra wanted to continue his usual screen habit of shooting each scene in one take, while theater-trained Brando preferred to rehearse, shoot multiple takes, and take the time to fully embody his character. When Brando had finally tired of Sinatra harassing him and referring to him as ‘mumbles’ and ‘the world’s most overrated actor’ he devised a plan to get even by blowing his line on purpose during one of their scenes. By the time that Brando finally decided to get his line right, the scene, in which Sinatra was required to each cheesecake (which he loathed) was shot for a total of nine takes. Infuriated at Brando’s prank, Sinatra leapt across the table waving his fork like a weapon and shouted, “these f***ing New York actors; how much cheesecake do you think I can eat?!”   As filming continued, the co-stars refused to speak to one another and the cast and crew were forced to relay messages between them, splitting the cast into two camps; pro-Sinatra and pro-Brando. While the film was a hit, both vowed to never to work together again, with Brando describing his co-star as “the kind of guy who when he dies, he’s going to go to heaven and give God a hard time for making him bald”. While they never worked together again after their explosive collaboration their feud remains the stuff of Hollywood legend.
And now, as a bonus here is the trailer for the FX hit drama Feud: Bette and Joan, which is inspired by the real-life feud between Davis and Crawford.