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Wednesday, December 14, 2011

MENTAL MONTAGE: Play It Again, Sam

The players of cinema's past occasionally indulge in a little game of repetition. I'm not referring to the phenomenon of an actor reprising a role in a series of films, as Johnny Depp has done most recently with his Captain Jack Sparrow character from the Pirates of the Caribbean anthology. Instead, I more particularly draw attention to a complete duplication of a role or film throughout a performer's career. Just as Michael Sheen has been called upon to reprise his role as Tony Blair in numerous, unrelated films (The Queen, The Special Relationship), so too have past stars sunk their teeth into a part or a story that they find themselves unable to let go of-- or perhaps conversely the role will not let go of them. Here are a few examples of Flicker-Show Double-Takes. Sometimes, Deja Vu is more than a feeling; it is a fact.

Rooster Cogburn shows Mattie Ross how to fire a pistol. John Wayne's
 interpretation of the weathered but fiery Rooster Cogburn in True Grit 
would ignite more than audience appreciation-- it would
demand a sequel.

The most obvious example is John Wayne's reprisal of the role of Rooster Cogburn from the Academy Award winning True Grit in the following feature Rooster Cogburn 6 years later. After the huge success of the first film, the Duke was asked to get back in the saddle, literally, to cash in on a plum character to whom his audiences had so energetically responded. The plot of the first film involved Marshal Cogburn aiding a young girl, Mattie Ross (Kim Darby), in her quest to avenge the death of her father by the hand of Tom Chaney. Chaos ensues amidst comic relief, justice is won, and unexpected affection is born. Duke's convincing and multi-layered performance was reason enough for the studio to come up with a belated sequel of sorts. This time, Rooster would go toe-to-toe not with a precocious girl but with an equally iron-willed woman, Eula Goodnight (Katharine Hepburn). Instead of generational miscomprehension, flirtation and unfulfilled romance permeate the story, with Rooster again tracking down a band of outlaws who have this time killed Eula's father. Both films possess a certain charm and daring, and both remain classics, though True Grit is the most honored. Interestingly, Rooster Cogburn in a way was a duplication for Kate Hepburn as well, since she had portrayed a very similar character to Eula when she starred opposite Humphrey Bogart in The African Queen. In both, she plays a strong, older, religious female who is unceremoniously usurped of her home and family-- in Queen,the loss is her brother-- and joins an older curmudgeon on an unexpected journey. In both, victory is, of course, won, and her obstinacy and devotion inevitably whittle down her male counterparts' hearts to nothing. The African Queen remains more noteworthy for Kate, but it is in Rooster Cogburn that you get to witness the 68-year-old actress operate a machine gun. Not too shabby.

Don't mess with the classics: John and Kate continue to kick
tail even in their sixties.

Clark Gable too came back for another round, but this time he appeared in his own remake. In 1932, Clark had starred opposite Jean Harlow (together, left) and Mary Astor in Red Dust. In 1953, proving that at age 52 he was still indeed The King, he again ventured into the wild, but this time with Ava Gardner and Grace Kelly. The plots remain almost identical, with the love triangle of the un-tameable Dennis Carson/Victor Marswell (Gable) caught between the virgin and the whore, and the complex nature of both women making it difficult to decide who deserves which title. In the end, he lets the dutiful-- albeit tempted-- married woman go and embraces his true soul mate-- the tainted but lovable shipwrecked floozy with a heart of gold. The main difference in story is Clark's profession, which in Red Dust involves running a rubber plantation and in Mogambo is the trapping of animals. Yet, in both films, his happy isolation is invaded: first by a sensuous woman of the world and later by a prudish couple who are either surveying or studying anthropology as the story dictates. Artistically, both versions are triumphs, with Gable not failing to establish believable chemistry with all four women. There is a definite charm in watching him volley off true life pal Jean Harlow in the former version, but Ava Gardner brings such comedy and heart to her own interpretation of "Honey Bear" that Mogambo cannot be ignored. Mary Astor, already a seasoned performer by the time of filming, seems much more at home than Grace Kelly, for whom Mogambo was only her third film, but the smoldering lust beneath both women's placid demeanors is evident and thoroughly intriguing. Pitting director Victor Fleming against John Ford is too a hard debate to wage, with perhaps Ford coming a little closer to victory. In all honesty, the competition results in a draw. The Red Dust vs. Mogambo phenomenon is most profound for the fact that it is a direct remake that re-stars its male lead, cementing the fact that no one, but no one, can replace Clark Gable.

Choices, choices... Poor Clark must choose between the
luscious Ava and the tempting Grace in Mogambo.

Peter O'Toole is too no stranger to double-takes, and his performance as Henry II in Becket made certain that no other actor could possibly usurp his throne. He put the crown on again 4 years later when he starred in The Lion in Winter. Nominated for his portrayal both times, he would miss out on Academy Award night first to Rex Harrison for My Fair Lady and later to Cliff Robertson for Charly. The first film witnesses a young Henry-- about 15 years after inheriting the throne-- and his constant battles with friend, moral compass, and foe Thomas Beckett. In the end, Henry's immaturity and selfishness, along with his inherent need to protect his throne and his England, forces him to take arms against Becket (played with equal magnificence by Richard Burton) and have him killed (he eyes his work, right). Fast forward to 13 or so years later in the story of Lion. Henry has wizened and is facing his mortality. Recasting Peter in the role was more than a logical move; it was a brilliant one. The audience literally sees how he has aged; how the years of battle and politics have taken their toll, and too how he has successfully grown into his role as his country's leader. His errors of the past with Becket remain buried in his bones, a penance he still pays, and this past conflict is referred to whenever Henry's wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine (Kate Hepburn), wants to stick a needle in. The plot this time revolves around Henry's need to secure a heir to his throne. Sons Richard (Anthony Hopkins), Geoffrey (John Castle), and John (Nigel Terry) all plot, back stab, and battle for the place of honor. Eleanor stirs the pot, not just as a mother, but as a long since spurned lover whose husband has literally kept her locked up in jail to keep her out of his hair and give him free reign to indulge in numerous dalliances, including one with Alais (Jane Merrow), whom he means to marry after divorcing Eleanor. The bitter but unbreakable love between Henry and Eleanor comes to vengeful heights in this Christmas film that engenders anything but familial affection, and the performances of the entire cast are perfection. The dual Henry II films are both superb-- with the writing of Lion pushing it ever so slightly into the realm of cinematic genius-- but watching the progression of Peter O'Toole's Henry is the real reward.

The King and Queen prepare to feast... on each other.

Keeping things regal: before Cate Blanchett became the go-to girl for Queen Elizabeth, Flora Robson enjoyed the same privilege. Getting her start on the stage, Flora turned heads when she appeared as another Liz, Empress Elisabeth in Alexander Korda's The Rise of Catherine the Great. This in turn led to her casting as the notorious English ruler, Elizabeth I, in the 1937 production of Fire Over England. The film, while historically interesting, is more noteworthy today due to its casting of lovers Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh, who were hot and heavy and both married to other spouses at the time of the filming. To see them before they had reached mutual and independent glory in Wuthering Heights (for him) and Gone with the Wind (for her) is quite interesting. But, while the acclaimed thespians fumble their way through the new medium, albeit eloquently, Flora holds her own and portrays her Queen with a combination of ferocity and humanity (all three, left). Her superb characterization was lauded as the best representation of the enigmatic Queen yet, which led to her casting a few years later in The Sea Hawk. This time, the plot, while equally full of intrigue and corruption, was lighter fare. Enjoying the company of Errol Flynn in his role as yet another charming swashbuckler, Flora's Queen this time around is more light-hearted and emotionally vulnerable, yet her power still comes into play when necessary. Her subtle and denied attractions to her leading men in both roles are pivotal in giving her character sympathy, yet her stoicism and sense of duty ring true in her portrayals of a matriarch. The Sea Hawk is a much more enjoyable film, involving piracy and romance, and Flora truly shines. Rumor has it that even the eternal cad Errol was smitten with her and loved every minute of working with a woman whom he considered to be a true pro.

Flora dominates Flynn in The Sea Hawk, a film into which both actors
injected a lightness and humor that reflected their
off-screen friendship.

Cecil B. DeMille was one man who loved to outdo himself. Proud of his cinematic accomplishments but never satisfied, growing technological advancements only made him more frustrated that his classic efforts became dated and outmoded over time. While he would too duplicate his work when he made the sequel to his cinematic debut, The Squaw Man- The Squaw Man's Son, starring Wallace Reid-- it wasn't until 1956 that he decided to give a piece of his work a complete and utter face lift. The Ten Commandments of 1923 was astounding in its day, and yet another reason that Cecil was being hailed as the filmmaker of his generation. The controversial religious themes, the risque subject matter, and the over the top special-effects splendor, left audiences enthralled and overwhelmed. Yet, as the years passed, and as Cecil always kept the conflicting urges of Godliness and Naughtiness close to his heart, he saw more and more opportunities to improve upon his past majesty-- if only to prove that just because his work was aging, it didn't mean that he couldn't keep up with the times. So, after 3 decades, he gave Moses another go, this time with Charlton Heston replacing Theodore Roberts as the chosen vessel to lead his people out of Egypt. Now in color, the scenes became even more vivid than in their silent predecessor. Special Effects too made the great parting of the Red Sea something to behold, the likes of which had never been seen before. Hailed by many as his best work, the film oddly would not be the one for which he won the ever desired Academy Award-- that honor was bestowed upon his The Greatest Show on Earth-- yet, as his last film, and an epic one at that, it remains his own personal testament-- not of the messages of right and wrong, but of what the great medium of Movies was capable.

Chuck Heston lays down the law in The Ten Commandments and
changes the rules of sin and cinema forever.

As we movie viewers are the recipients of contagious filmmaking-- which infects and spreads the same stories over and over with remakes upon remakes upon regurgitated remakes-- it is no surprise when we find ourselves getting that old, familiar feeling while watching the latest take on, say, the age old boy-meets-girl storyline. But, to witness one of our pioneers blatantly plagiarizing himself is a rare and somewhat baffling occurrence. Somehow, the above exceptions prove that sometimes it is indeed okay to be two-timed. While one artist ripping off or trying to out-do another can be somewhat abrasive to our sensibilities, witnessing the results of an auteur going mono e mono with himself can be quite revelatory, curious, and provocative. It is more common to see an actor take on similar roles to those he has in the past, or for a director to bring to life similar story lines that suit his tastes, but while Michael Haneke re-making his own 10-year-old Funny Games shot for shot may at first appear absurd, it is too entertaining for the audience to level the artist against himself and see what different ingredients against a different time can induce. This anomaly is actually the perfect measuring stick for change. Comparing one draft to another, we more fully witness how history "happens" by watching the way one particular performer has aged with time.

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