Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Rants on The Turning Point

When The Turning Point (Herbert Ross, 1977) debuted in the late 70's, the film was probably received as a very timely film for its story involving two women with regrets, one who gave up her career as a world-class ballerina for a family and another who did just the opposite. By 1977, more women than ever before were entering the work force and had to deal with practical issues about how to balance work and family commitments. The Turning Point, although not exactly coming at it from an entirely relatable perspective, attempts to tackle this issue through the Sirkian melodrama, a specific style of melodrama that deals with larger, societal issues through the dynamics of a family or small group of people. The film tries, but ultimately it doesn't dig deep enough at the issues it raises for it to be successful as a Sirkian melodrama. The Turning Point wildly skips over major plot points that would be extremely critical for the film to be successful. For example, at one point, Shirley MacLaine, as the woman who gave up her career, is seen having drinks with a male friend from her past. There are hints that she may cheat on her husband as a way of rekindling her youth and going back to the time when she was the happiest. Just when you think she's about to go through it, the scene ends without either of the characters bringing up the subject of going to bed with each other. It's a strange, abrupt ending, especially considering the film doesn't openly mention the scene again and only hints at it more than 15 minutes later, long after the short scene is forgotten. When it is hinted at, in a scene where MacLaine doesn't come home one night and later when MacLaine's daughter Leslie Browne confronts her about this affair, the accusations come suddenly and without warning. Why is the film attempting to downplay MacLaine's affair? If this was a true Sirk film, the affair would have been broadcasted directly so that the film would be allowed to comment on the consequences this action has on both her family and society in general. By sweeping it under the rug as the film does, The Turning Point makes the decision that it's not really interested in the character's actions and their consequences.

Then again, director Herbert Ross doesn't exactly seem interested in much of what's going on in The Turning Point. Perhaps best known then and now for helming the film adaptations of many of Neil Simon's most popular plays during the 70's, Ross feels like the last director you would ask to direct a melodrama devoid of any "snappy" Simonisms and involving numerous ballet sequences. And, for the most part, Ross does feel like the wrong guy for the job. Not only does the melodrama flop, but the look of the film, especially during the ballet scenes, is ugly and uninspiring. I'm not suggesting that The Turning Point be as outlandishly, breathtakingly gorgeous as something as the highly stylized The Red Shoes, or that any ballet film should be forced to compare to that Technicolor classic, but I would have hoped that Ross had at least taken a chance and done something, anything, to make the ballet scenes worthwhile. All shot at a long distance, on a dour, dank stage with very little visual flourish, these scenes are dreadfully dull and do next to nothing to bring out the emotion the dancers are supposed to be portraying. Even if they are supposed to be stage routines, there is a way, as evidenced by Kate Bush's sublime 'Running Up That Hill (A Deal With God)' video, to make ballet sequences in a confined space as artistic and fascinating as The Red Shoes.

Part of the reason I suspect Ross didn't go for something more fanciful is the fact that, for the most part, he's trying to keep The Turning Point fairly straight-forward visually and thematically. He's isn't aiming for "prestige" direction like many directors in his position would have, which is something to be eternally grateful for. Ross is perfectly content capturing the interactions between MacLaine and Anne Bancroft as her formal rival in their natural surroundings without any bells and whistles. He realizes they are the star of this show and stands back and allows them to act up a storm. Surprisingly, given all I knew about the movie was its numerous Oscar nominations and the infamous moment where Bancroft throws a drink in MacLaine's face, the two dueling ladies are rather restrained in the acting department. This is both a credit to their talents and a detriment to the overall film. They both realize that they don't have to "Grand Dame" the whole movie, when many lesser actresses would have gone straight for hysterics. On the other hand, their subtlety doesn't exactly make The Turning Point the most interesting movie to sit through. Both of their characters are extremely one-note ideas about feminism in the 70's rather than vivid, living, breathing people. Bancroft and MacLaine really needed to add something, anything, to make their characters come across as real humans in order for any of the melodrama to come off. How are you supposed to generate feelings and emotions for the characters when you don't particularly give a damn about either of them? This is why the campy catfight towards the end is perhaps the best remembered part of the movie today. It's not particularly glamorous or in-depth, but it's the one time in the movie Bancroft and MacLaine are allowed to simply let loose beyond simplistic "Oh, I wish I was a mother" and "Golly gee, why did I give up ballet?" characterizations. The film recognizes that this catfight is horribly out of place with the rest of the movie and eventually acknowledges how completely silly the fight ultimately becomes--by the end, MacLaine and Bancroft are literally moving around in a circle, smacking each other on the ass--but this moment of catharsis is perhaps necessary to save this film for complete direness. As for the MacLaine vs. Bancroft showdown, I'm going to have to narrowly call it in favor of the former Mrs. Robinson. Neither are particularly stunning, although they're hardly embarrassments, but my main tipping point for Bancroft is the fact that I believe her as a ballerina while I don't for MacLaine. Yes, I realize that MacLaine has given it up for nearly 20 years and isn't going to be in as rigorous shape as Bancroft, but something about her doesn't click. I can see her as a hooker, a bitch and an overbearing mother, but not as a ballerina. Not ever, ever, ever.

Both Bancroft and MacLaine received Oscar nominations for their work here, as did professional ballerinas Leslie Browne and Mikail Baryshnikov in two of the strangest, most atypical nominations in Oscar history. By nominating these two, Oscar ignored its own unofficial rule that acting is all about, and only about, line readings and facial expressions. Browne and Baryshnikov have quite a few lines but they are most definitely not the most natural actors in the world and one would hope that this isn't what caught voters' eyes in 1977. Rather, I'm guessing that it's their admittedly fantastic dancing that landed them on the ballot. Normally I would have no problem with Oscar expanding their horizons and honoring work which explores character through movement rather than speech, but I can't quite get on board with these nominations. The problem with the dancing in The Turning Point is that the majority of the sequences are performance pieces where the characters are portraying other characters in famous ballets not involved in the story. So, instead of using dance as a way of expressing their own characters within the film, Browne and Baryshnikov dance (wonderfully) to already famous ballets on stage that have nothing to do with their characters on the outside world. To put it another way, it would be as if Jennifer Hudson, who many assumed won her Oscar for singing rather than acting, had, instead of performing 'And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going' or 'I Am Changing', spent most of her on-screen time performing numbers from Porgy and Bess during some unrelated stage show. There's no doubt her singing would have been flawless, as is Browne and Baryshnikov's dancing, but it wouldn't add anything of substance to the film. Baryshnikov, whose accent is so thick at times you have absolutely no clue what he is saying, has nothing to fall back on without his dancing. Browne is admittedly no Bancroft or MacLaine, but she is, at certain times, an unreadable cipher. The majority of the time she's oddly vacant, as if she's white knuckling the acting scenes until she get to another ballet sequence, but, at other times, she is chillingly cold and frightening. There were times when her face was as scarily unreadable as if she was an extra in a Cronenberg horror film. I'm not sure how this fits in with Browne's character on the whole, but that seems to be par for the course in The Turning Point, a film full of odd, underdeveloped, potentially interesting asides that don't seem to fit in with the majority of the dull film. If someone had figured out a way to incorporate these oddities, people may actually remember The Turning Point today. C-

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