Beauty can’t outshine the bland
In 1970, Clint Eastwood was at the height of his popularity as an actor. Against the odds, his trilogy of Italian spaghetti westerns had made him an international success, and he’d returned to Hollywood to work with one of America’s best mainstream directors of the period, Donald Siegel, on Coogan’s Bluff and Two Mules for Sister Sara. He had started his own production company, Malpaso, and within a year would make one of his greatest successes, Dirty Harry. In 1972 he would direct for the first time ( Play Misty for Me). In the meantime he teamed with Siegel for the third time on The Beguiled, a Malpaso production based on a 1966 novel, The Painted Devil, by Thomas P. Cullinan and a screenplay by the formerly blacklisted writer Albert Maltz (with Irene Kemp).
As you might expect, this civil war drama was a very male-oriented affair, with the focus firmly on Eastwood’s character, John McBurney, a wounded Union soldier who is given shelter by the headmistress of an isolated southern academy for young women. As played by Eastwood, McBurney was a liar and a cheat from the start, but he was also able to cajole and charm each of the women in the establishment. The influences at the time seemed to have been Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Teorema and the vintage Hollywood melodrama King’s Row. It was rather hokey but very well made and deliriously entertaining.
Sofia Coppola’s remake of The Beguiled, which she scripted and which won her the best director prize at Cannes a couple of months ago, is understandably tilted more towards the female characters. That’s fair enough, and she has an excellent cast at her disposal: Oona Laurence as Amy, the little girl who finds McBurney in the woods while she’s picking mushrooms and helps him back to the gothic antebellum mansion where the Seminary for Young Ladies is located; Nicole Kidman, in excellent form as Miss Martha Farnsworth, who owns and operates the seminary; Kirsten Dunst as Edwina, one of the teachers, and the one most smitten with the charming stranger; Elle Fanning as Alicia, the teenage flirt who seems to have few of the inhibitions of a well brought up young woman of the era; and Angourie Rice as Jane, another pupil — the young Australian actress so memorable as Ryan Gosling’s resourceful daughter in The Nice Guys and as the girlfriend in Jasper Jones is, unfortunately, given little to do. And then there’s Colin Farrell as McBurney, a less complex charmer than the character Eastwood portrayed, though it’s easy to see why the women, of all ages, would be captivated by his Irish charm.
Rather than aim for the gothic, down and dirty approach of Siegel, Coppola goes for languid sensuality. Philippe Le Sourd’s camera glides through the moss-covered, sun-dappled trees or worships the beautiful women in their white dresses in interiors lit only by candles. It’s all very beautiful and just a tad dull. Siegel and Eastwood succeeded in making a ripe melodrama, and a stylish one; Coppola’s film is undeniably stylish but it could have done with a bit more grit.
The question that’s never really addressed is whether McBurney deserted the Union Army because he’s a coward or because his wound forced him to fall back and he was simply left behind. Given that in this version of the story the character is a recent arrival to the US from Dublin, perhaps the truth lies in the fact he’s not very concerned about the outcome of the conflict — only to stay alive and earn his wages as a soldier. When Miss Farnsworth cleans his near-naked body with a damp sponge the erotic nature of the process is made much of, but somehow in 1970 a similar scene was more disturbing, probably due to the fact sex in the cinema hadn’t yet reached the level it has today.
Towards the end, the hitherto languid pace picks up a little for the dramatic scenes that follow a symbolic act of castration, but admirers of the original film probably won’t be impressed with the way Coppola manages to turn such a volatile narrative into something frankly rather bland. However, if you’re unfamiliar with the original, this tasteful and undeniably beautiful film may well beguile you. Defiant Lives is a documentary feature about the campaign to gain rights for people with disabilities: as one commentator says near the beginning, “We want disability power so we can change things.”
A great deal of Sarah Barton’s film uses archive video footage of past protests, especially the period during which people with disabilities challenged the authorities during the Carter and Bush Sr presidencies, demanding wheelchair access to public transport and public buildings. These protests proved an inspiration to activists in Australia and Britain, and footage of their protests is also included.
The section of the film I found most revealing was that involving the celebrated Jerry Lewis telethons that raised money for muscular dystrophy sufferers. I had always assumed that these television events were a force for good, raising, as they did, large sums of money; and that Lewis, an actor who gave the impression of being committed to good causes (in contrast to his cheerfully dissolute former part- Above, from left, Kirsten Dunst, Addison Riecke, Angourie Rice and Emma Howard (both standing), Nicole Kidman and Elle Fanning in The
left, Colin Farrell in a scene from the film ner, Dean Martin) would be a hero of the disabled. Not so. The complaint made here is that the money raised from the telethons went to research, and therefore to doctors and medical facilities, not to the sufferers themselves. Lewis is found to be patronising towards the people he aimed to help.
Barton also takes to task the Miss Australia Quest, which until 2000 raised money for what used to be called spastics. Admittedly, the footage of a “typical” gala evening hosted by Barry Crocker looks pretty cringe-making when seen from this different perspective. Needless to say, the so-called spastics themselves were not invited to these soirees.
The film delves into the sorry history of society’s dealing with the disabled, who in the past often were confined to institutions and insane asylums. The main aim of many disabled people featured in the film is to be allowed to live in their own homes, outside the prison-like places where they were formerly housed.
I was a little surprised Barton didn’t mention the Australian filmmakers who have attempted to shed a sympathetic light on the problems of the disabled: Rolf de Heer with his tender Dance Me to My Song (1998), which starred and was coscripted by cerebral palsy sufferer Heather Rose, who gave a shattering portrayal of her daily life; and polio survivor Ben Lewin’s equally powerful The Sessions (2012) in which a polio victim, played by John Hawkes, seeks sexual gratification from a sex therapist, bravely portrayed by Helen Hunt. Both these films were designed to alert a wider audience to the real day-to-day problems faced by the severely disabled, and it would have been interesting to have been provided with Barton’s take on them.