Tuesday, May 1, 2012

1959 - Room at the Top

There is one major pitfall of the infrequency with which I've been updating this blog as of late. Too many newsworthy events occur in between posts for me to devote the appropriate amount of space to informing you about each of them. So, here's a brief summary of my news for the past couple of weeks:

Fresh off the New York City premiere of my short film Clicked, of which I wrote about last time, the film has now been selected for the Hoboken International Film Festival, screening in the first week of June. On top of that, I'll be beginning rehearsals later this week for a local production of The Taming of the Shrew, in which I will play Grumio.

If I manage to decrease the delay between each post in the coming weeks, I'll give more details for those events, but in the meantime, the next Best Picture nominee from the 1959 Oscars is...

Room at the Top
Jack Clayton
Neil Paterson
(based on the novel by John Braine)
Simone Signoret, Laurence Harvey, Heather Sears, Donald Wolfit, Donald Houston, Hermione Baddeley
Academy Awards:
6 nominations
2 wins, for Best Actress (Signoret) & Best Adapted Screenplay

Post World War II, Joe Lampton (Harvey) leaves his small war-torn Yorkshire town for a slightly less small town and the security of a job with the local government. There, he quickly falls for Susan (Sears), the daughter of high-powered executive Mr. Brown (Wolfit), who is consequently far out of Joe's reach. That doesn't stop Joe, of course, who shamelessly pursues both Susan and the upper class life. When Brown thwarts Joe's attempts at courting his daughter by sending her away, Joe instead begins an affair with Alice (Signoret), a French amateur actress who is herself unhappy with her lot in life, particularly her husband.

Assuredly, Room at the Top was considered racy at the time of its release, particularly in comparison with American fare of the late 1950s. Yet, to the modern viewer, there is a strange paradox that occurs while watching it. By today's standards, the film is only mildly risque, so it's amusing to think of the fuss that was probably made over its British sauciness. However, knowing that it was released in 1959, it is slightly jarring to hear the word 'bitch' bandied about so nonchalantly, alongside some rather suggestive dialogue. Perhaps this is only a phenomenon felt by those, like me, who weren't yet alive in the 1950s, and have based their erroneously wholesome image of that era on the mostly profanity-free American pictures of the time.

In any case, the film is a thoughtful exploration of class issues, possessing an interesting grittiness while retaining enough humility to allow for clever conversations in which the characters hint at naughty things without being explicit. Metaphor goes a long way. My favourite line in the movie must, without a doubt, be when Susan asks if Joe likes the way she makes love. Feeling in an unkind mood, Joe replies, "It reminds me of a good set of mixed tennis."

Without spoiling too much of the film's conclusion (although the poster does a pretty good job of that on its own), I will compliment the effectiveness with which the story's message is conveyed. Essentially, it's the ultimate case of being careful what you wish for. Joe's ambition is intense but when he finally achieves his stated goal, there is great dissatisfaction - for him and for the audience. The final moments are awkward, driving home the point, unsatisfying yet inevitable.

Laurence Harvey's (pictured) is not a particularly likable performance, albeit mostly due to his character. Joe initially presents as creepy and somewhat sleazy. His immediate fascination for Susan, expressed with stony glares, appears borderline obsessive and, even though this disturbing aura soon gives way to vulnerability, he never really shakes off that awkwardness. The Academy saw fit to nominate Harvey for Best Actor, however, so what do I know?

Simone Signoret, on the other hand, is positively engaging. Her complex portrayal of the complex Alice is natural and nuanced, earning her a well-deserved Best Actress Oscar. In a tiny but effective role, Hermione Baddeley delivers a memorably eccentric performance as Alice's protective friend, receiving the film's third acting nomination for Best Supporting Actress.

1 comment:

  1. Room at the Top is considered one of the first of the British New Wave films, or more appropriately a sub genre of that called the kitchen sink or angry young man movie. Other notable films of this sort were Look Back in Anger (Richard Burton), Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (Albert Finney), The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (Tom Courtney) and This Sporting Life (Richard Harris). All are worth seeing.

    Angry young Lawrence Harvey is asked to carry this film, and it is probably his best performance. However, as you said, he does project an aloofness or coldness to his roles that limited his range and effectiveness. Simone Signoret on the other hand elevates this film by her earthiness, sensuality and vulnerability.

    Tiny role aptly describes Hermoine Baddeley's part. Her nomination is in the record books as the shortest ever for a performer, at around two and a half minutes.