by Bill Hawk

Miramax/Warner Bros, 2004, color, 170 mins, Warner Bros. DVD

Cate Blanchett: “Howard, we’re-- we’re not like everyone else. Too many acute angles, too many… eccentricities. We have to be very careful not to let people in or they’ll make us into freaks.”

Ah, but Howard Hughes was something of a freak-- a man who became famous for good reasons, but wound up being famous for bad ones. Hughes, in the form of Leonardo DiCaprio, burns through his family oil fortune trying to become a movie mogul in 1920s Hollywood, and teeters on the brink of disaster before finally achieving success. It’s a pattern that will be repeated in the coming years as the man pursues his passions for aviation, movies and women, and confronts both external enemies and an ever-worsening mental illness. For a time, he finds solace with fellow oddball Katherine Hepburn, played by Blanchett, but his compulsive nature torpedoes any long-term romantic commitments. He tries to do his part for the war effort, but one of his projects drags on too long, and another ends with a crash that injures him physically and mentally. He rallies again to show the world what he’s made of, and enjoys another day in the sun-- but there’s a long night coming, and he knows it.

Director Martin Scorcese’s picture earned well-deserved Oscars for its production design and cinematography, but those things are par for the course in a project like this. What really matters is the insight given into the subject, and on that count the film falls a little flat. It isn’t lacking in drama, and it does draw an appropriate link between Hughes’ mental problems and his achievements, but it never really shows you why he was such an important figure in his fields of endeavor. Of course, such selectivity is the curse of the Hollywood biopic, and Scorcese is no amateur, so there are a number of sequences where he delivers the goods in style. Helping him along is the cast, with headliner DiCaprio making the most of the part-- he’s not much of a match for Hughes physically, but he acquits himself well enough in the emotional department. Cate Blanchett’s turn netted her an Oscar for a performance that starts out as almost a caricature, but develops some nice depth as it goes along. The supporting players include a hammy Alan Alda, a restrained Alec Baldwin, a classy Kate Beckinsale, and a slightly befuddled Ian Holm-- all of them fun to watch. The film is a little too long, and a little too selective, but it’s a classy effort with an undeniable appeal. Extras on the two-disc set include audio commentaries, stills, a documentary, and a whole bunch of featurettes.


MGM, 1964, B&W, 115 mins., Warner Bros. DVD

Julie Andrews: “Seems I don’t mind making love to a scoundrel, but I-- I think it immoral to marry one.”

Well, sometimes you can’t be too picky, Julie. Like many Brits, Andrews has a hard time of it during World War II, losing her husband, father and brother to the conflict. And to make matters worse, she’s had a bad habit of “comforting” wounded men who invariably break her heart when they head back into the fray. But when she meets American Navy man James Garner, it looks like she’s going to be able to break that habit, for he is a self-professed coward who has set himself up in a job that will keep him far from any actual combat. Initial friction between the two gives way to something much cozier, but the silver lining starts to fall out of their cloud when Garner’s superior, Melvyn Douglas, cracks up under the pressure of the impending D-Day invasion and issues some nutty orders. Orders that could result in Garner having an uncomfortably close look at a beach in Normandy as the troops land-- which, needless to say, is not on his list of fun things to do. The way in which he deals with the situation might cost him the love of Andrews even if it saves his skin-- and the way things go in wartime, he may just lose both of those precious things anyway....

This darkly comic tale was a favorite of many who worked on it, including the two stars, director Arthur Hiller, and screenwriter Paddy Cheyefsky, who supplies some interesting characters and razor-sharp dialogue. There isn’t much nobility going around in this game of war-- different countries are out for whatever they can get, different branches of the military are out for whatever they can get, and individuals try to scoop up whatever poker chips they can. Against this backdrop, Garner and Andrews play entertainingly against type, giving us one of those improbable couplings that could only arise in trying times. And the times become trying indeed, as Garner struggles against a system that has literally gone insane, even when seen against the chaotic and absurd atmosphere of war itself. Andrews goes through the wringer as well, and the two of them can’t help hurting each other before their relationship resolves itself, along with the plot, in a nice mixture of optimism and cynicism. To sum up, great script, great acting-- if you’re up for a black comedy with an antiwar twist, you’ll enjoy this. Disc extras include audio commentary by Hiller and a vintage featurette.


20th century Fox, 1946, B&W, 128 mins., Fox DVD

Irene Dunne: “But he’ll rue this day, let me tell you-- if he knows the meaning of the word rue…”

The widowed Dunne, needing to support herself and her young son, accepts a teaching position at the palace of the King of Siam, whose dalliances with 1000 or so concubines have unsurprisingly resulted in a sizeable brood that the King would like to have educated in Western fashion. The King, played by Rex Harrison, is a man trying to bridge the ancient and modern worlds, and in this quest he comes to receive guidance and criticism from proper Victorian lady Dunne-- whether he wants it or not. Dunne has to struggle both with the lowly status of women in Siamese society, and with a ruler who’s quite accustomed to getting his own way. But her strength of character earns her the respect of Harrison and his top guy, Lee J. Cobb, and her charges are won over by both the lady herself and the opportunity that she presents for a better future. There are triumphs and tragedies along the way, but Dunne lives to see some positive changes for the country-- a legacy forged by the King and herself.

This original version of the true story of teacher Anna Leonowens has long been overshadowed by the later musical version, The King And I, and unfairly so, for it’s a solid and well-crafted take on the material. There are flaws, but they are the ones you’d expect given the period in which the picture was made, such as the use of white guys to portray Asians-- a situation that results in some pretty silly images. But Harrison and Cobb maintain their dignity for the most part, and Harrison believably portrays his character’s conflicted nature, which is leavened with some welcome bits of humor-- and some surprising bits of unpleasantness. Indeed, one particular turn of events shows the King to be fully capable of acting like the “savage” that he fears being perceived as-- one of the darker strains in the story which serve to realistically counterbalance the Hollywood sentimentality, and the wholesomeness of Dunne’s character. Not that Our Heroine is a complete saint-- she is sorely tested, and in some cases she comes up wanting, but Dunne’s engaging performance has you rooting for her all the while. You fully believe that this woman exemplifies the best traits of her admittedly flawed society, and while the film’s assumption of the superiority of Western values is not unexpected, it is also not entirely unfair given some of the behavior on display. On the whole, this is an entertaining look at an extraordinary character. Disc extras are comprised of an A&E Biography episode devoted to Leonowens, and some footage from the movie’s premiere.


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© Melt Magazine 2005