Dedications: My four late friends Rory, Stan, Bryan, Jeff - shine on you crazy diamonds, they would have blogged too. Then theres Garry from Brisbane, Franco in Milan, Mike now in S.F. / my '60s-'80s gang: Ned & Joseph in Ireland; in England: Frank, Des, Guy, Clive, Joe & Joe, Ian, Ivan, Nick, David, Les, Stewart, the 3 Michaels / Catriona, Sally, Monica, Jean, Ella, Anne, Candie / and now: Daryl in N.Y., Jerry, John, Colin, Martin and Donal.

Friday, 4 January 2013

Dame Maggie's other Quartet, a memento mori ...

Dustin Hoffman's film of the Ronald Harwood's play QUARTET opens here this week and is attracting the usual favourable notices, but I want to go back to 1981 - its only 30+ years ago, to that other Maggie Smith QUARTET, one of those James Ivory films we liked then, as produced by Ishmael Merchant and scripted by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala.  This one is set in the Paris of the 1920s, from a Jean Rhys novel, and the period detail looks terrific. The cast is the thing here led by Smith and Alan Bates. Factor in a favourite French actress Isabelle Adjani, and Anthony Higgins, Pierre Clementi, Suzanne Flon and the fabulous Sheila Gish. Light the torch paper and retire ...
Following the conviction of her art dealer husband, Stephan Zelli, for theft, Marya Zelli, originally from the West Indies, moves in with her acquaintances, expatriate Brits H.J. and Lois Heidler. Marya knows that H.J. in particular has more in mind than just providing her lodging out of the goodness of his heart. Marya agrees in part because she, being a foreigner, cannot get work and would thus become destitute otherwise. She learns she is the latest in a long line of lodgers. She also learns that H.J. and Lois' marriage is not all that it appears on the surface. The Heidler's hold on Marya becomes stronger when they convince her that Stephan not only has no money but has no future in France after his release.

Bates and Smith are at their peak here as the odd British couple with designs on the perfectly French Adjani - like THE EUROPEANS, HEAT AND DUST and those other Merchant Ivory productions like MAURICE and A ROOM WITH A VIEW the drama plays out nicely against immaculate backdrops and the lead actors shine. Its the only time Bates and Maggie Smith played together (they are both in Altman's GOSFORD PARK though, but then most British thespians were...). This one nicely evokes the Jazz Age with its art deco and nightclubs, costumes and music.  Like the equally interesting British production RETURN OF THE SOLDIER from the same era (1982) where we have another fantastic cast (Bates, Julie Christie, Glenda Jackson, Ann-Margret) in a period setting, review soon - we were certainly spoiled by great costume dramas with quality casts then and more or less took them for granted.  This QUARTET is worth discovering now - the Merchant/Ivory team made these movies on very tight budgets but they look terrific on screen and their inspired casting always works a treat. Since then costume dramas are big business on television, but Merchant-Ivory made theirs as films and on slim budgets.
I must get around to Alan Bates before too long, apart from all those movies I also saw his stage success BUTLEY and his impressive HAMLET (Theatre label).
This too was Maggie Smith's prime years with those delicious performances in films like CALIFORNIA SUITE, MURDER BY DEATH, EVIL UNDER THE SUN, THE LONELY PASSION OF JUDITH HEARNE, A PRIVATE FUNCTION, Alan Bennett's TALKING HEADS etc. I like her double act with Susan Hayward in THE HONEYPOT in '66, and with Bette Davis in DEATH ON THE NILE in '78; she was an ideal foil too opposite Rex Harrison, Burton, Ustinov. Now of course after those HARRY POTTER films she is beloved again as the Dowager in DOWNTON ABBEY where we wait for those withering comments, like "what is a weekend?" - as good as her "bought marmalade, I consider that very feeble" in GOSFORD PARK, also written by Julian Fellowes. Almost as funny as her comment, when commuting by helicopter between a film set and a play in London: "I never thought I'd look down and see Guildford between my legs" or, when feuding with Olivier when they were doing OTHELLO at the National, sticking her head around his dressing room door and saying, as he blacked up, "how now brown cow"! Oh to have seen her early revues with Kenneth Williams, or that legendary 1963 National Theatre HAY FEVER directed by Coward himself with Edith Evans and Smith and Sarah Miles as the young juveniles ...

MEMENTO MORI - nice to finally see this 1992 BBC production which like THE PRIME OF MISS JEAN BRODIE is also from a Muriel Spark novel. Directed by veteran Jack Clayton, his last credit, (ROOM AT THE TOP, THE INNOCENTS, THE PUMPKIN EATER) it also has a sterling cast led by, once again, Maggie Smith with Michael Hordern, Stephanie Cole, Renee Asherson, Thora Hird, Cyril Cusack, Maurice Denham, Anna Cropper, Robert Flemyng and Muriel Pavlow from those Rank Organisation Dirk Bogarde movies. It is pure Spark, set in the 1940s, as it concerns a group of old people who are getting mysterious phone calls saying "remember that you have to die" .... Other friends are receiving the phone calls as well, a group of old people who like to organize social reunions, gathering together at funerals.
I like Spark's books like "The Girls of Slender Means", "The Takeover", "The Abbess of Crewe" (which was filmed as the delirious NASTY HABITS, which I really must re-watch and review if only for that amazing cast (Glenda Jackson, Edith Evans in her last appearance, Sandy Dennis, Geraldine Page, Melina Mercouri). MEMENTO MORI is almost as funny as Iris Murdoch's THE BELL (another great British novelist, making up a triumvirate with Spark and Ireland's Edna O'Brien). MEMENTO MORI is a pleasure, the Georges Delerue score is perfect, the acting is superb, and the story is at once quirky and poigant--anyone with elderly parents will be especially affected. (See AMOUR review below ..).

Maggie as Hedda
A Postscript: Two Heddas:  Maggie Smith with Sheridan Smith in the latest QUARTET, Dustin Hoffman's 2013 release. Both actresses have played Hedda Gabler - the very busy Sheridan just finished a theatre run here as Ibsen's doomed heroine - I did not see that (but saw Sheridan in LEGALLY BLONDE and in last year's FLARE PATH -
(Theatre label) but I saw Dame Maggie play Hedda twice in 1970 for director Ingmar Bergman, with those flame red sets and black-costumed cast (including Robert Stephens and Jeremy Brett  and BENIDORM (tv sitcom) regular Sheila Reid). It was so mesmerising I had to go twice, as I did to the company's THE BEAU'S STRATAGEM, and also to David Storey's HOME with Richardon & Gielgud - 1970 was a great theatre year, when I was 24!. (Jill Bennett was also a terrific Hedda then - I also saw Maggie in plays like PRIVATE LIVES, LETTUCE & LOVAGE, NIGHT & DAY, THE LADY IN THE VAN). I had tickets for her Lady Bracknell in 1993 but was taken ill that evening and spent a week in hospital being treated for a bleeding ulcer!

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