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Monday, February 8, 2010

Vaulting Ambition (originally published 11/95)

If you buy the premise that storytellers do their best work when dealing with familiar subject matter, the recent success of "To Die For" makes perfect sense. Who would know better about driving ambition and a blind, amoral hunger for success than the filmmaking community? As you might imagine, it's a subject they've dealt with many times before. Here are some earlier movies about vaulting ambition and its victims. Each is available on video.

"All About Eve" (1950). Writer-director Joseph Mankiewicz's classic turns a jaundiced eye on the rise of Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter), the newest toast of Broadway. The film begins with a ceremony honoring Eve for winning the Sarah Siddons award for acting, then flashes back to show us how many people she stepped on to reach that pinnacle. Most especially she steps on Margo Channing (Bette Davis), the Broadway star whom Eve befriends only to betray. The seamy proceedings are narrated for us in appropriately cynical fashion by dyspeptic theater critic Addison DeWitt (George Sanders).

"Room At the Top" (1959). The late 1950s and early 1960s in Britain saw the emergence of a group of playwrights and filmmakers who have been collectively labeled the "angry young man" dramatists. This pungent indictment of the British class system is a product of that movement. Laurence Harvey stars as Joe Lampton, an ambitious working class fellow who is determined to rise in the world. Recognizing that no amount of industriousness will accomplish this goal, he resolves to marry into the upper crust. He pursues and wins the affection of a young woman from a highly placed family. At the same time, he begins an affair with a woman nearer his own station in life, for whom he has genuine feelings. Needless to say, the time comes when he must choose between love and ambition.

"The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz" (1974). Based on the novel by Mordecai Richler, this Canadian film offers an early look at the developing talents of Richard Dreyfuss, who plays the title role. Duddy is a driven and ambitious young man, torn between the example of his father, a two-bit hustler, and that of his uncle, a successful and ethically responsible businessman. Duddy, hungry for quick success, elects the low road, achieving some success but losing his uncle's respect in the process.

"The Day of the Locust" (1975). It took only 36 years for Nathanael West's caustic short novel on the underbelly of Hollywood to be adapted into a movie. Considering the intensely unflattering portrait West paints of the movie colony, it's actually a little surprising that it ever made it to the screen at all. Karen Black plays Faye Greener, an ambitious, amoral young actress who is determined to make it in the movie business. In furthering her aspirations she does not hesitate to use those who fall under the spell of her superficial charm. The first of these is Tod Hackett (William Atherton), a set designer through whose eyes we see the story unfold. More tragically, she strings along a simple-minded fellow named Homer Simpson (Donald Sutherland), who becomes her sugar daddy without even receiving the usual benefits in return. Faye sacrifices Homer to her ambition without a thought, despite the fact that she never even achieves the success for which she has ruined his life.

"Macbeth" (1948). The ultimate tale of ruinous ambition, of course, is the one that gave us the phrase "vaulting ambition" in the first place. Macbeth, a Scottish nobleman and kinsman of King Duncan, is tricked by three witches into coveting the crown. Spurred on by his ruthless wife, he murders Duncan and diverts suspicion of the deed onto Duncan's sons, who therefore flee the country. This leaves Macbeth free to claim the throne. In the end, however, it is Macbeth himself who is the victim of his own reckless ambition. Orson Welles, one of the best cinematic interpreters of Shakespeare, made this stylish version of "Macbeth" on a shoestring budget for Republic, a studio best known for its B-Westerns and serials.

"Macbeth" is renowned in the theater as a bad luck play. Maybe that's because it, like each of these films, is about the attempt to forge one's own luck out of the misery of others. It's a doomed endeavor but, as Nicole Kidman knows, it makes for good drama.

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