Tuesday, January 26, 2010

"Madame X" Marks the Spot

Some people like to cry at movies, some don’t. Some people are not invested enough in a movie to let it move them in the first place. I typically jump off the cliff into a film so that I’m open to whatever emotions it can bring out in me. And I count myself as one who loves to cry at movies. I suppose I find it a release of some sort. Many movies have brought me to tears, some very unexpectedly. My favorite one for generating the waterworks is 1966’s Madame X.

Now this is not going to be everyone’s cup of tea. It’s glossy, far-fetched, at times overwrought and, by many peoples’ standards, dated. To me, though, it’s a sentimentally delivered fable of mother-son love that never, ever fails to “get” me at the climax.

This is not to say that there aren’t hysterically amusing camp moments throughout. It’s just that, thanks to a completely committed piece of acting by star Lana Turner, the emotion really does peck its way through all the trappings and provide the need for a Kleenex. I would imagine that folks moved by Imitation of Life or An Affair to Remember, along with others of that ilk, would be most likely to fall for this.

Based on a French play from 1909, the story was filmed again and again. Versions (some from other countries) were produced in 1916, 1920, 1929, 1937, 1948, 1954 and then came this one in 1966 (and in 1981 a TV remake!) The basic story is of a young woman who marries into a wealthy family, has a son and then falls into an adulterous relationship which causes her to have to depart in shame, never allowing her son to know that she still exists. The plotline and setting are tweaked in each one, but the same story nugget remains in all. (The TV-version substituted a daughter for the son, thus upsetting the dynamic completely, though it at least had Tuesday Weld in the title role and Eleanor Parker as her nemesis.)

Miss Lana had had a rollercoaster of a career and was enjoying an upswing in popularity in the early 60s thanks to the stratospheric success of Imitation of Life and a series of other glossy romantic dramas that followed in its wake. She bought the rights to Madame X in order to co-produce (with pal Ross Hunter) another winner for herself. They tried to get the masterful Douglas Sirk to direct it, which might have taken it to another level, but he was unwell and so David Lowell Rich, a TV director, wound up at the helm. Additionally, it took writers a couple of years to sweep out the cobwebs of the heavily dated story and come up with something that would work for contemporary audiences. Even after their toiling, the story creaked more than a little.

They did effect some changes, though, that worked rather well. One was making the husband more of a sympathetic character rather than a judgmental lout. The biggest (and best) change was making the villain the mother-in-law (isn’t that always the way?) Thus, in this version, the husband isn’t informed of the true circumstances of his wife’s disappearance, lending another layer of emotional torment to the proceedings.

Turner played Holly Parker, a good-natured lady who happens to have come from a lower level social status than that of her new husband, Clay Anderson. John Forsythe was chosen to play the man (though it must be admitted that it’s a fairly colorless role and he brings rather little dynamic to it in the final analysis), heir to the fortune and political standing of a family not dissimilar from The Kennedy’s (though clearly far smaller in number!) Their house in the film, incidentally, is one that would later be purchased by Hugh Hefner and turned into The Playboy Mansion!

As the gorgon of a mother-in-law, Estelle Anderson, Constance Bennett ended a virtual 15-year hiatus from feature films to take the part. Though she had done several TV anthology appearances, it constituted a big return for her and she marked the occasion by having various cosmetic procedures done. One industry chatterbox, Sheilah Graham, even remarked that Bennett looked younger on the set than Turner, who was seventeen years her junior! Certainly, Bennett was thinner, as she’d been cigarette slender for most of her life while Turner always had to be careful not to get too pudgy. Bennett topped off her new face with a (hilarious) and impenetrable helmet of red dyed hair in a sort of Mary Tyler Moore flip (the initial scenes were meant to take place in the early 40s!) It's entirely possibly that there has never been a more bizarre head shot than the one shown here.

Bennett brings a fire-breathing, hate-filled intensity to the role and mouths off some deliciously nasty dialogue. Her Winston-tinged voice rasps various insults at Turner when not cooing over her beloved son, though always with a controlling vibe. Like a serpent, she encourages Turner to mess up so that, when she does, she can be there to eradicate her from their lives. The scenes between the two actresses are fascinating to behold, never more so than when Turner comes tearing through the house frantically, hoping to ask Bennett for help, but instead being confronted by Bennett’s true feelings.

That moment, by the way, of Turner pouncing up the (countless) stairs while Frank Skinner’s musical score wails at full steam, is probably one of my favorite moments in all of cinema. I love stairs anyway and the way Turner runs in her snug skirt, with tears pouring, as she races to find Bennett sends me to the moon.

And why is she running? Well, when Forsythe was out of town on one of his endless politically motivated trips, love-starved Turner fell under the spell of the local lothario, Ricardo Montalban. A brief, but highly passionate, romance blossomed, but then she realized that it was Forsythe she truly loved. Her final meeting with Montalban didn’t go well at all, to say the least.

Now armed with the material she has always needed to send Turner packing, Bennett arranges a new identity, a standing bank account and other means necessary to remove the daughter-in-law she despises. Turner acquiesces in order to spare her little boy the shame of a scandal involving his mother.

From here, the story takes Turner to various international locales including Switzerland, Holland and Mexico. She just isn’t allowed to return to the US. Ever. She is turned into a brunette and has money to live on, but is haunted by the loss of her little boy, her husband and the special life they had intended to live together. Eventually, she becomes addicted to the liqueur Absinthe (and not the kind that’s now available at the local pony keg!) and slides into a state of degradation.

While in Mexico, a duplicitous con man played by Burgess Meredith decides to exploit Turner’s past in order to extort money from her husband Forsythe (who has no idea she is even alive.) This, along with her desire to never have her son know about how low she’s come, leads her to extreme measures and places her at the lowest physical and emotional ebb yet.

This is where Turner began to have problems in real life! Always presented in her films as the ultimate in glamour and beauty, often with splendiferous and expensive wardrobes, the best lighting, the best makeup (things she still experienced in the early part of this picture), she now had to be aged, deglamorized and made to be as haggard as possible. The entire enterprise began to wear her down and she found herself fighting with her longtime makeup man Del Armstrong and also with co-producer (and career savior) Ross Hunter. She wore a veil from her trailer to the set, desperate not to be seen or photographed in this way except for the movie cameras.

Ironically, the dejecting experience of being made to look as horrible as possible gave her a desperation and an unhappiness that came through perfectly in her performance. No one had ever seen Turner look like this (including herself!) and in the end she wound up giving the type of performance that no one had ever seen her give! Her scenes on the witness stand and thereafter are among the best she had ever provided to a viewing audience and really should have merited an Oscar nomination.

Her moments in the final segment of the story, during which she is defended in court by the impossibly beautiful Keir Dullea (best known for his role as an astronaut in 2001: A Space Odyssey), tug at the heartstrings unmercifully and Dullea only adds to this, thanks to his own guileless and earnest portrayal. His blue eyes sear the screen as he endeavors to save the life of the woman he knows only as Madame X. (An actor whose movie career began with a splash, but soon lost steam, Noel Coward referred to him as "Keir Dullea, Gone Tomorrow..."!)

The film only did middling business at the box office, though reviews tended to be kind, especially to Turner. Audiences, by 1966 (perhaps quite a bit earlier!), had ceased to buy into the sentimental and melodramatic type of story that was being told here. However, time has been kind to the movie since modern viewers basically tend to look at all films of the past as relics anyway and scarcely differentiate between what came out in 1956, 1958, 1962 or 1966 when assessing their value now. To those who can go along for the ride, the emotional reward is there.

For comparison's sake only, look at this still from the 1937 version with Ruth Chatterton and her seamy tormentor and then below it a 1966 shot of Turner and Meredith.

One thing that makes this one fun now for viewers of a certain age is the supporting cast. Forsythe, of course, went on to star as Blake Carrington on Dynasty. Montalban became famous to a whole new generation of audiences as Mr. Rourke on Fantasy Island and as Khan in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Meredith played The Penguin on TV’s Batman. John Van Dreelen, a Dutch actor with extensive American credits, has a significant role as a concert pianist who comes very close to giving Turner happiness in her second life. Coincidentally, he would later play the minister during the infamous Moldavian massacre episodes of Dynasty. As was often the case, Hunter utilized his favorite actress Virginia Grey as one of Turner’s society friends.

As for Bennett, she died tragically of a cerebral hemorrhage soon after filming wrapped and never lived to see the film released. Like Turner (who once sported a “Million Dollar Wardrobe” by Edith Head in Love Has Many Faces), Bennett was also considered a major fashion figure in her heyday and felt at times that audiences were coming to her films merely to see what she had on! Her quote at the time was, “They come to see me and go out humming the costumes.” Nevertheless, she was, for a time, one of the very highest paid performers in Tinseltown.

This really marks the spot at which the old-fashioned type of “women’s picture” ceased to exist in its formulaic manner. Certainly it was the last time it would be done up with all the Jean Louis gowns, the lush music, the glamorous sets and so on. Hunter moved on to different styles of motion pictures and Turner never had another film worthy of her talents. She did have the monumentally troubled TV series The Survivors, which was cancelled after fifteen episodes, and six well-regarded appearances on Falcon Crest, but that came to a halt after she irritated the star, Jane Wyman.

Next time you’re in the mood for some glossy, garish fun, give this movie a shot. Just be sure you have the Kleenexes handy in case the emotional finale happens to work its magic on you! As with so many older films, a primary plot element is given away on the back of the video cover. I haven’t revealed it here, though it’s well known among cinema buffs. See if you can resist finding it out before watching.


Ross said...

I found the below paragraph from an obituary for the film's costume designer Jean Louis and thought I'd share ...

Constance Bennett, cast as Turner's mother-in-law in the latter, refused to be aged with make-up and, in Louis's soft sweaters and chiffon scarves, looked exactly the same age as Turner. More problems arose for Louis when, for a scene in which the two women were both to wear fur coats, with Turner in a Louis- designed white mink, Bennett insisted on wearing sable. When Turner heard, she demanded that she be given sable, adding, "Let Constance wear chinchilla. It's more suitable for an older person."

Poseidon3 said...

Ha! Thanks for sharing that. I always love backstage bitchery.

FelixInHollywood said...

Love this movie. Love your wonderfully detailed coverage on all the topics you choose.


Poseidon3 said...

Awwww.... Aren't you kind! If you look at my EARLIEST posts, they really were sort of brief and had fewer photos per topic. I also had layout issues (which I still struggle with!) I went back and tried to fiddle with the one that spoke about Imitation of Life, Back Street and this film, so that it would look less jarring. But, anyway, since then, I keep getting windier and windier and adding more and more photos for each posting! I'm annoying myself with my own obsessiveness... But I'm glad you like it! Thank you!

normadesmond said...

not sure how i missed it, but i've just arrived, late as usual. i'm bowled over by all the work you do. wow! AND, this movie is certainly one of my favorites.

Poseidon3 said...

Welcome, normadesmond, and thanks! It's great to see you here at The Underworld. Next time let Max come along, too? ;-)

Anonymous said...

I'd always chuckle when these great film divas would be in their forties and expected us to believe them as young girls in their twenties - Barbara Stanwyck did it in Sorry, Wrong Number when she was forty-one, portraying a college coed lusting after Burt Lancaster. Turner as Holly in Madame X comes almost as close in eliciting chuckles from yours truly. Clearly, she was not a young virgin bride, and no amount of makeup and camera filtering was gonna make anyone believe otherwise. Still, I found this film quite enjoyable.

angelman66 said...

Great review of one of my favorite Ross Hunter spectacles...I was not aware that Lana bought the rights or that she wanted to reteam with director Douglas Sirk! Very interesting. I actually fell in lve with this film years before I discovered Imitation of Life...it was often on TV, either as a late-show or the 4:00 afternoon movie when I was growing up. Very baroque in style...I remember all that rapturous piano music in particular...and I felll in love forever with both Miss Lana Turner and the scene stealing brilliant Constance Bennett.

I think I need to buy this one - you've totally convinced me! Thanks for your great article.

Poseidon3 said...

Thank you, Angelman66! I just today read your take on "Imitation of Life" over at your own blog and those glorious caps of Turner make me want to hunker down and watch that one again soon. My first exposure to "Madame X" was on TV one weekend. My mother was all engrossed in it and I decided to watch along, never realizing what an emotional whallop I was in for (which is likely why I still feel it today. Those childhood experiences can be hard to shake off once we're adults.) Take care!