Alphabetical Index of Column Topics

Click here for index.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

The Plutocrats (originally published 4/03)

One of the prime entertainment functions served by movies is that of wish fulfillment. By going to the movies, we can experience second-hand what it would be like to be a secret agent, or a corporate power broker, or a rock star.

In particular, audiences seem to enjoy films about wealthy families. I'm not talking about families that are moderately well off, mind you. These are stories about modern day rivals of King Midas himself; opulent tales that allow the viewer to experience vicariously how the other half lives. The recently released "What a Girl Wants," for example, places a young woman of modest means in the midst of a fabulously wealthy English family, where she must reacquaint herself with her long-lost father. For a sampling of how earlier films have treated the subject of the lifestyles of the filthy rich, look for these titles on home video.

"Giant" (1956). Nobody wrote big, sprawling sagas about big, important, wealthy families quite like Edna Ferber. "Giant," adapted for the screen by producer-director George Stevens, tells the story of the Benedict family of Texas. Bick Benedict (Rock Hudson) is a cattle baron, presiding over a Texas-huge estate known as Reata. We pick up the story as he meets and marries Leslie Lynnton (Elizabeth Taylor), daughter of a prominent family back East. He brings her home to Reata, where we follow their ups and downs as a family through several decades. The film features the final performance of James Dean, who plays Bick's nemesis, Jett Rink. (If you're rich enough, you're allowed to have silly names.) Reproduced below, courtesy of Turner Classic Movies, is the film's promotional trailer.

"Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" (1958). Tennessee Williams's celebrated play was toned down a bit for the screen, but the high-powered cast makes up for the bowdlerization. Burl Ives, in the role of a lifetime, plays Big Daddy Pollitt, the dying patriarch of a 28,000-acre estate on the Mississippi delta. Paul Newman is his impotent son, Brick, and Elizabeth Taylor is Brick's sexually frustrated wife, Maggie "the Cat." (Did I mention that rich characters are allowed to have silly names?) This family is a walking catalog of neuroses, pushing the dysfunctional envelope to its limit. Williams, having bigger fish to fry than verisimilitude, didn't hesitate to paint them with broad strokes, but these actors are more than up to the challenge of playing such bigger than life roles.

"The Big Country" (1958). Director William Wyler's big-budget western stars Gregory Peck as James McKay, a Baltimore tenderfoot who has come out west to marry Patricia Terrill (Carroll Baker), whom he met at a finishing school in New England. McKay soon finds himself in the middle of a range war between the wealthy Terrill family and the scruffy but proud Hannassey family. Burl Ives, who played the Pollitt patriarch in "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" the same year, here portrays the head of the downtrodden Hannasseys.

"The Magnificent Ambersons" (1942). If your film directing debut had been the legendary "Citizen Kane" (1941), what would you do for an encore? Orson Welles, confronted with exactly that problem, chose to follow his astonishing debut with an adaptation of Booth Tarkington's novel about the outrageously wealthy Amberson family, as conspicuous in their magnificence, in Tarkington's words, "as a brass band at a funeral." Set around the turn of the century, the film is unapologetically nostalgic in tone. The directorial flashiness of "Citizen Kane" is all but gone, allowing the considerable acting talents of Welles's Mercury Theater troupe to take center stage. Joseph Cotten stars as Eugene Morgan, who is in love with Isabel Amberson (Dolores Costello) but lost her years ago to a more socially prominent suitor. Tim Holt plays George Amberson Minafer, Isabel's outrageously spoiled son, who bitterly resents Eugene's continuing interest in his mother. Agnes Moorehead gives one of her finest performances as George's spinster aunt, Fanny Minafer, whose lifelong unrequited love for Eugene has left her an emotional basket case. Welles disavowed the film after the studio extensively recut it, but the remaining footage is still an entertaining, moving showcase for some of the Mercury players' best work.

Naturally, seeing these films won't actually make you wealthy. In fact, the rental or purchase price will nudge you just slightly in the other direction. But, having been exposed to some of Hollywood's best work, you will certainly be richer in spirit.

No comments: