Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Born to Be Bad (Nicholas Ray, 1950)


If Olivia de Havilland is to be believed, perennial on-screen victim Joan Fontaine was anything but in real life - which makes this gold-digger melodrama doubly fascinating. She's consciously playing off her reputation as the breathless, delicate ingenue, and for the first half hour, you don't realise this . So for a good thirty minutes, this untypical Nicholas Ray joint just doesn't appear to be getting anywhere. Only gradually do you pick up on hints that ( 33-year-old business school student) Fontaine is in fact playing a social-climbing vixen and the point of the story is that she's been subtly, consummately manipulating everyone around her. And initially, you have to admire Fontaine for choosing not to telegraph her bitchery and also for so ruthlessly exploiting and undermining her Hollywood-financed persona. But then in no time it becomes apparent that those blank-eyed, swaying half-smiles that the camera lingers on at the end of every scene are intended to pass for cold, cutting sneers. And then it hits you: this isn't a meta- performance, it's a bad performance.
Even though this was produced during the period of his artistic peak, Ray's presence behind the camera can only be felt through the occasional cynical one-liners and the much-read-into abundance of staircases.
The most curious and commendable thing about this picture is that in Mel Ferrer's painter it features an early, rare and only arbitrarily veiled representation of a gay man, who comes off as sophisticated, attractive and even dignified.

(All that said - Joan Fontaine is a treasure who turns 90 this week. In her honour, go see Rebecca, Jane Eyre and Letter from an Unknown Woman.)


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