Saturday, February 16, 2008

Sex appeal is a big deal.

by Ryland Walker Knight


naomi, not tippi
scarlett and javier, not grace and jimmy
paltrow and downey, not kelley and grant
seth, not cary

I think whoever decided to put Naomi Watts in a Tippi Hedren beehive, whether they knew it or not, was out to slay me. Marnie is a favorite -- and ever more as I continue to reflect on its smarts (as much as on its imbalanced structure). As far as movies about unfolding a psychoanalytic logic in dense plotting go, I think Vertigo may, indeed, be the better picture, but there's something so off about Kim Novak that I never have an urge to watch it again. Now, if Tippi had played Madeline, it would have been a distinctly different picture (a different brand of obsession), but her insecurities are much more endearing, Naomi Watts style, than the fussy "hot girl" posture Novak inhabits. Another way to put it, I'll wager, is that Novak isn't as good looking as Grace Kelley. Yes, of course, that's a fruitless comparison. But, in all seriousness, I think it has something to say for how To Catch a Thief works so well. Maybe more important: look at how different an actor Jimmy Stewart is around Kelley in Rear Window. (I think his range is underrated, or often neglected, in conversations that favor his particular line-reading, um, habits.) This, of course, signals how the men each of these three ladies play off constitute different dynamics, in varying registers, of attractiveness (as a screen couple, as individual screen stars, as something or somebodies I want to watch) and efficacy (as actors, as crucial to the films they star in, as couples). Which is another cool thing to think about: how a star's (or any person's) sexiness is constituted by the other star (or person) that s/he plays with/off. That whole "it takes two" thing.

Sex appeal is a big deal. Especially in movies; definitely in Hitchcock*. These Vanity Fair restagings (more here) seem to understand this, and are, for the most part, pretty cool. Although that beehive looks pretty good to these eyes, the Rear Window remake may be the sexiest photo. It's pretty clear Seth Rogen's North by Northwest run is the most unsexy, which is a bummer, since Cary Grant is so damned sexy (to go along with his funny). Robert Downey Jr is a good looking guy, and a special kind of actor, but the new To Catch a Thief still life seems a little off the mark, too -- but not for lack of sexy. I think it speaks to the confidence and breezy charm of Cary Grant more than the look of consternation on Downey's face (and Grace Kelley's regal beauty is a world away from Gweneth Paltrow's too-skinny Hollywood good looks). Even when Grant is peeved he looks at ease, comfortable. It's why that crop-dusting scene is so funny, while scary: he's wearing a suit, he's waiting, he's a little impatient, but he's game. Seth Rogen is game but that expression he's wearing, along with the way the suit is falling about him (unflattering), makes him look less than comfortable in his own skin, much less the costume-skin of a legend. Really, though, the best of this project has to be the revision of Psycho with Marion Cotillard. (Dig that Janet Leigh's character is named Marion Crane.) And, no, not because she's naked, as the dude on Film School Rejects said, "but I love the fact that it recreates the scene in blocks." But we shouldn't ignore Cotillard's lithe limbs**. This famous murder is definitely some kind of punishment for being sexy. And, you know, stealing mad money.

But my interest in Hitchcock has way less to do with sex than all of this, than a lot of criticism, actually, which makes this post yet more silly and transparent. It's clearly a concern for the man (again: why so many blondes? why this fear of women?) but what I find most striking -- at least now, at my refined, ripe, naive, silver age -- is the evolution of his interest in America as such a powerful locus of challenging moral forces. But, wait, you say: To Catch a Thief takes place in France! Yes, it does. But America is very much on its mind: people are always telling Cary Grant's John Robie to go back to America; Grace Kelley's Frances Stevens beckons him away from France; Robie becomes a stand in for America, as he is characterized as a trickster, like many mythical Americans, always scheming to achieve his rightful (in his eyes, at least) slice of the devil's pie. What that pie is, exactly, I'll leave, for now, to you to decide.

laid down
stay here

*This is not to say that I think "ugly" people shouldn't be in films. Rather, there's a certain kind of star cinema that relies on an audience's projection of sexual desire.

**I had no idea Cotillard was this radiant, having not seen La Vie En Rose, which I fear being one long downward spiral of pain. But I may rent it yet since I haven't seen anything with her, except stills like this, and I had no idea I should be super excited (on a superficial level at least) to see her act with Johnny Depp and Christian Bale in the new Michael Mann movie, Public Enemies (due 2009).

and she
is
America, too

[Eva Marie Saint ain't half bad, either.]
[This America is a cross roads of faces and lands.]
[This America is North by Northwest, a no-place, a myth, an end.]

big nose
bigger nose
big faces
the end

10 comments:

  1. Ryland -
    Great post. Thanks for the tip on the VF photos. I agree that Marion's is the best of the (great) bunch, but I also love Jodie Foster as Tippie Hedren in The Birds' phone booth.

    I think Marion has a different, perhaps more radiant quality when speaking French (see this), though it's hard to be much more adorable than a French girl slightly tripping up on her English. I've been a fan of hers for a long time, though I wasn't sure she was ever going to get a starmaking role like the Piaf film. It's also possible you've seen her in small roles but haven't really noticed - she was in A Very Long Engagement, Abel Ferrara's Mary, and was in Big Fish.

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  2. Thanks, Dave, for the comment. I realized I'd forgotten the Jodie Foster as Tippi picture a little late and was too lazy to go back in and address it. It, too, is delicious. Unfortunately I was not impressed by A Very Long Engagement (and haven't thought about it since I saw it) nor have I seen either of the other two you mention. So I'm still a relative neophyte when it comes to her charms. Still, I'm hooked. (Man, I need to add your blog to my roll call...)

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  3. Great post, Ry, full of news, too. Didn't know about Michael Mann's new project!

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  4. given that those are very small roles (nb: I haven't seen the Ferrarra), maybe the place to start is with some of her French films. Les Jolies Choses and Une Affaire Privée don't seem to be available on R-1 dvd, but Jeux d'enfants is and is a good place to see her carry a lead role. The movie isn't spectacular, though I did enjoy it, and Marion really shines through as someone capable of bigger things. I'm not sure if this was her first breakout role in France or not, though I suspect so. [It's also interesting that her best friend (Elodie Navarre) and her current boyfriend (Guillaume Canet) were both costars on the film.] The Englihs title of the film is "Love Me If You Dare."

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  5. Ry, this is such a fun post!
    I had never seen any of these Vanity Fair re-stagings...

    "how a star's (or any person's) sexiness is constituted by the other star (or person) that s/he plays with/off. That whole "it takes two" thing."

    Hmm, something good to contemplate...!

    Like you, Marnie keeps calling me back. Since the last time, I've been haunted by the photo of Sophie the jaguarundi, captured by Rutland (Sean Connery), both physically and within a frame as a photographic image. Its pink mouth recalls Marnie herself, who is associated with red.

    Here's something interesting. Ken Mogg (in The Alfred Hitchcock Story) writes, comparing Vertigo and Marnie:

    "Vertigo, of course, has a formal perfection, befitting its heroine who represents the eternal female, a sort of Platonic ideal of womanhood. But the heroine of Marnie respresents, on the contrary, all that patriarchal society is afraid of and finds unacceptable in womanhood--what Julia Kristeva famously calls "the abject"--and the form of the film is accordingly jarring and, at times, confronting. It's no accident that Strutt speaks of Marnie as a witch, the epitome of hated womanhood in history."

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  6. I seem to have the complete opposite opinion of the Hitchcock women you mention. To me, Novak's "off" quality is perfect for Vertigo, since the whole movie seems "off" -- in the same way a dream is. None of it seems real, and it extends to Madeleine and her odd, almost-gray hair and peculiar, masculine facial lines.

    And on the American focus of To Catch a Thief: I've always been confused about Grace Kelley's "Where were you born, the Rogue River?" line. What is she trying to say with that -- is she emphasizing the "Rogue" part of the name, or trying to tell him she's familiar with Oregon? It was a little startling to hear it the first time since I was living about 30 miles from the Rogue.

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  7. Dave -- Thanks for the recommendations. I'll try to get to them someday when the work slows down and I remember.

    Girish -- Thanks for the quote; it's right on the money. Maybe this speaks to my own eccentricities as far as who I find sympathetic, and desirable. Also, I just have a thing for Tippi, I guess.

    One of my favorite shots in _Marnie_ (among so many) has to be that strange interstitial of the two trains arriving (in Philly) on different levels. That image, to me, sums up Marnie the character and Marnie the movie. (They're one and the same, right?)

    Adam -- Yeah, I get what you're getting at. It was meant more as a statement of taste. For that reason you cite _Vertigo_ is as terrifying as _Mulholland Dr_ for me. Except, of course, you get to look at Naomi Watts for 2+hrs in DL's movie. As for the Rogue River comment: yeah, I think it's an emphasis on the roguish quality he brings to France, to cat burgling. And, as an aside: the Rogue River is a lot of fun to raft. I plan on it this summer since one of my best friends (ok, my ex gf) is a guide there (and can hook up a cheaper ride). Everybody should experience white water at some point.

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