Friday, September 27, 2013

The Art of THE GRADUATE and George Cukor

If I was a guest speaker in a course teaching Film as Art, I would tell the class that one must pay attention to the details in the big picture.  It's not just about the actors.  Movies are a collaboration.  The set designer, the cinematographer, the costume designer -- even the hair stylist contribute to help the director and screenwriters make the picture the best it can be.  Those craftspeople help tell the story and give us clues as to a character's destiny or true nature.  Those are revealing clues.  I've blogged about this before but let me give you examples again.  When we first meet Rita Hayworth's blonde character in 1947's The Lady from Shanghai co-starring and directed by Orson Welles, she seems to be a woman in distress, a female who needs help.  Is Elsa Bannister really helpless -- and harmless?  Look at the sign above her lovely blonde head in this shot.
What does the sign say? And what is she doing?  That art direction tells you something about her true nature.  It's a great detail.  The same applies to the aquarium scene.  The big, brawny, beguiled sailor wants to help her.  He gets involved with the married woman.  Notice the fish in the tank near her in the shot.  It's a shark.

The Lady from Shanghai is neither helpless nor harmless after all.

This is all the literature of film.

Dancer Rita Hayworth was famous for her red hair which delighted audiences in some delightful Technicolor musical comedies.

She went blonde to take on the film noir dramatic role in The Lady from Shanghai.  As Madonna sang in Vogue:  "They had style, they had grace.  Rita Hayworth gave good face...."  

No Hollywood actress could switch from movie saint to slut as easily and as effectively as Jennifer Jones.  She won her Best Actress of 1943 Oscar for her superb work in The Song of Bernadette as the French peasant girl who was visited by the Virgin Mary in Lourdes, became a nun and, after her death, would be canonized as a saint in the Catholic Church.

Then she slammed across a sizzling performance as a frontier vixen in 1946's Duel in the Sun with Gregory Peck.  This western was so sexy that it was nicknamed Lust in the Dust.

She was virginal in Love Letters (1945) and Portrait of Jennie (1948).  She was far from virginal as Madame Bovary (1949) and Ruby Gentry (1952).

Jones played a temptress in a 1950 British drama called Gone to Earth.  She's an animal lover and a beautiful gypsy in this film.  She and a fox will both be chased by men.

In the open of Gone to Earth, a certain blocking and the way the gypsy is framed by an object gives a clue that her sexual allure may not steer her towards a happy ending.  This film was directed by the creative pair of The Red Shoes, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger

George Cukor's masterpiece, his 1954 remake of A Star Is Born, is a rare drama with musical numbers and one of the few times a remake was just as good -- if not better -- than the acclaimed original.  Judy Garland as the band singer who gets discovered by a fading movie star and James Mason as the alcoholic actor who discovers her, loves her and sees her film career eclipse his own got Oscar nominations for their work.

Cukor has a definite color motif that is picked up in set and costume design.  It's a psychological use of color in a film that almost has a noir-ish darkness.  That's unusual, considering that this is a "Judy Garland musical."  But it's a different Garland in a different vehicle.  This has true love, physical violence, public humiliation, self-loathing, sacrifice and a drowning death in addition to musical numbers.  Fading Hollywood star Norman Maine sees a show biz greatness in Esther Blodgett that she doesn't see in herself.  He tells her that her "dream isn't big enough."  A known Hollywood babe-chaser, Maine is courteous and gentlemanly with Esther.  She brings out the best in him.  In her motel room, with the door open, he looks through her scrapbook and listens to the story of her career as a girl singer with a band on the road.  Notice the trickle of water between them in the shot from the outside fountain in the courtyard.  That's a genius detail.  Water will come between Norman and Esther again in the last act of A Star Is Born.
Norman Maine graciously calms and guides a scared Esther before her screen test at his studio.
Esther has been given a new name, "Vicki Lester," by the studio.  She works hard as one of the studio's many contract players.  She's learning a new craft.  Then she gets a big break in a new musical.  We know this movie will be a hit for her.  As Norman takes his extremely nervous and grateful discovery to the sneak preview in Hollywood, notice the art decoration of the sets.  There's foreshadowing in simple storefront signs.
As they cross the street to the theater, Esther/Vicki is under a drugstore sign that reads "Best-buy."  Norman Maine is under one that reads "Cut Rate."  In the second half of the film, they will marry.  She becomes a beloved Hollywood star.  He'll be dropped by the studio.  His drinking will increase.  She'll win an Oscar.  He can't get a job in Hollywood.

In Cukor's remake, navy blues are attached to Esther Blodgett, the unknown singer who dreams of having a hit record.  Blushes and rosy colors signify approaching fame and fame itself is symbolized with deep red.  Browns and earth tones are seen when thankful Esther falls in love with Norman and will become Mrs. Norman Maine.

In the last half of A Star Is Born, Garland's character is the studio's biggest star but she struggles off-screen to keep a balance in her troubled marriage and remain loyal to alcoholic Norman.  She doesn't want stardom to take over her life the way it seems to have overtaken Norman's.  She strives to be both Vicki Lester, the dependable performer, and Mrs. Norman Maine, the committed wife.  We see that reflected in the colors of her costume for the peppy musical number she's shooting before she has a tearful breakdown in her dressing due to Norman's alcoholism.  His addiction has bruised their marriage and taken an emotional toll on her.  She opens up to the studio head.  With the blue/gray of her pants, we see that she really has three identities trying to keep an equilibrium in Hollywood -- Esther Blodgett, Vicki Lester and Mrs. Norman Maine.

The pants in her costume pick up the color she wore when first she met and was charmed by a repentant Norman Maine backstage.

Band singer Esther Blodgett got more than she dreamed of.  Much more.

On a small TV screen, you might some of the genius in The Graduate from director Mike Nichols. Benjamin, played by Dustin Hoffman, is a like a lost lamb in a Southern California jungle.  Mrs. Robinson, a serious middle-aged drinker, is like a jungle cat intoxicated on her own power and he's her prey.  Notice how cleverly Nichols frames and costumes her.  Anne Bancroft obviously picked up on that for her portrayal.  She's brilliant as the predatory Mrs. Robinson.  She fascinates me more than any other character in the film.

Look at that now-famous shot with the arched leg.  Who's got the power in that scene?  She does.  Brilliant.

She's a sly cat with claws out in the suburban California jungle.  Look at what she wears.  The wildlife stalker animal attitude adorns her clothing.

In a hotel meeting, we know that sex will be the room service.  How can we tell?  Look at the phallic shadow cast by the light fixture next to Benjamin.  It resembles a sex toy, which is basically what Benjamin is to Mrs. Robinson.  On a small screen, you miss that shadow detail.  Don't think it's there by accident.  That's part of ...the literature of film.

I love that shot in The Graduate.  Just thought I'd share.  Watch a classic movie this weekend and tell me how you liked it.  Notice the details.


  1. Did NOT know Duel was nicknamed "Lust in the Dust"!!! Oh man. That made my day. Fabulous, fun post Bobby!

  2. You gotta love old Hollywood for coming up with "Lust in the Dust" for that Selznick western. The nickname really fits too.

  3. Judy looks like Liza's twin in that second to last Star photo. There is so much going on in that flick and your opening its technical and cerebral details doesn't take away it's magic. Neat trick.

  4. P.S. Never saw the candle-dick light fixture's shadow in the dozens of times I watched Graduate.

  5. Dominic, let's go shopping for light fixtures.


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