Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Goodbye, Vincente

I sometimes think that Vincente Minnelli should have put a pistol to his temple after finishing Two Weeks in Another Town. That was effectively the end of his career. Everything afterward is evidence of a director clinging to an idiom that was drifting further and further into irrelevance. Minnelli's slow eclipse during the 1960s is one of the more ignominious declines for a legitimately great director.

Today's subject is the gender bending comedy, Goodbye Charlie, a film obviously using Some Like It Hot as a touchstone--hence, the presence of Tony Curtis. Unfortunately, it doesn't really send up gender roles the way Some Like It Hot does so much as it suggests that biology is destiny, as a womanizing cad comes back from the dead as Debbie Reynolds, starts to soften almost immediately, and repents his womanizing ways. Whatever.

There are all sorts of problems with this premise: ignoring the obvious feminist and queer complaints, the main problem is that it fixes its battle of the sexes theme in time. Oddly enough, it seems like it fixes the state of the conflict a few years prior to its making, 1958 rather than 1964. It was out of touch when it was released and never mind the day before yesterday. From a feminist point of view, it works a little as a revenge fantasy before it goes all weak in the knees. From a trans-queer point of view, the way it postulates a fungible kind of sexuality based on the kind of body one is issued is risible. This film can't stand the idea that Debbie Reynolds might remain attracted to women as a woman, no matter the premise. It also has an undercurrent of autogynephilia, which shades the film into the province of transgender slash porn. Feh.

The film retains the artifice of studio-era Hollywood even as that system was crashing around its head, which, combined with the film's horribly dated social milieu makes this seem like a relic. Minnelli, it seems, stubbornly refused to change with the times. This can be seen in the performances, too. Debbie Reynolds is fine in a difficult role, doing a broad lampoon of male mannerisms, then morphing into a kind of mantrap (not the kind of role one thinks of with Reynolds). It's better than the movie deserves. Curtis, on the other hand, is visibly uncomfortable with the material (odd, considering his resume), and Walter Matthau is abominable as Charlie's murderer, affecting a lame accent and bad age make-up. Pat Boone is, well, Pat Boone.

This is arguably the director's worst movie, but it has some competition from the movies he made afterward. There are directors who have late-career flowerings and remain relevant until the day they die, but Minnelli, closely associated with the Hollywood dream factory and a slave to that style until the end, was not one of them. Oddly enough, Goodbye Charlie has been remade on a couple of occasions, once for television, once by Blake Edwards as Switch, to indifferent results.

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