Wednesday, February 6, 2008
Heller in Pink Tights
Heller in Pink Tights is the only Western ever made by George Cukor, better known for his sly, clever comedies, so it's no surprise that this is an extraordinarily idiosyncratic Western. In fact, it's really a sly, clever comedy disguised as a Western, one where all the traditional Western trappings the badass gunslinger, the swarms of marauding Indians, the corrupt small-town businessman with the posse of thugs exist at right angles to the main story. These Western archetypes are pushed aside here by the focus on the theatrical troupe of Tom Healy (Anthony Quinn) and his flirtatious mistress Angie (Sophia Loren), as they struggle to make ends meet and flee from town to town with the law (prompted by Angie's con games) always one step behind them. Along the way, this unlikely troupe stumble into the middle of a classical Western story, when they run across the gunman-for-hire Mabry (Steve Forrest), who has killed three men and is now a target for his employer, the sleazy De Leon (Ramon Novarro), who doesn't want to pay the agreed fee. This intrigue, though fully developed and fraught with tension in its own right, inevitably plays second fiddle to Cukor's apparently greater interest in the troupe's memorably awful theatrical numbers and the milieu of the theater in general.
The result is a film in which individual disconnected moments are much more powerful than the film as a whole can support, but the strength of these moments more than makes the whole worthwhile. The film's subtext, literally unspoken but constantly present, is sex, and its verbal absence is highlighted early on when two of the actresses are discussing the relationship between Healy and Angie, asking why they should have to get married if they're already... and then the actress is cut off. The film is full of such coy references to sex; Cukor seems to be as much of a "tease" as Angie herself, and the film constantly dances around the naughty bits with a lightfooted grace that makes such discretion funny and exhilarating rather than simply frustrating.
Sex is the film's big white elephant, always there, in every one of Sophia Loren's seductive glances, and in the bantering dialogue. It's also there in a scene where Angie and the outlaw Mabry size each other up by looking only at each other's bottom halves. Angie is on a staircase, her upper torso hidden from the view of Mabry, who's standing below her and watching with admiration. She senses his stare, and bends down to look at him, but the ceiling obscures her view of his upper half as well, and she only sees him from the belt down to the boots. It's a wonderful scene, in which the way Cukor divides and chops up the frame also chops up the characters, accentuating their sexuality by literally focusing on their sexual organs. It also serves to point out the nature of Angie's connection to Mabry they are essentially introduced to each other through sexuality as a contrast to the dialogue-based interactions between her and Healy.
In another beautifully handled scene, Angie observes Mabry by looking through a sliding panel with a painting of a reclining nude woman on it. As Angie slowly slides the two panes of the window apart, inserting her gorgeous face in between, the effect is of her seeming to emerge from within the nude, the halved naked woman driving home the sexual nature of Angie's gaze. As if it wasn't already obvious from the earlier scene where she checks out his lower half! Such sexual division is one of the film's key subtexts, the way Mabry (and to some extent, Angie too) views sex as a dehumanized commodity, a matter of mere mechanics and body parts. This, too, is driven home even further when Mabry wins Angie in a card game where she puts up "herself" (read: her body) as the ultimate collateral. As he continually reminds her, she then becomes his "property," indicating a conception of sexuality entirely removed from real human interaction.
If sex is the film's driving force, it's also apparent that Cukor has a great affection for the theatrical milieu which these characters populate. The grandiose, kitschy stagings of classical plays and operas put on by Healy and company involve awkwardly read lines, ridiculous costumes, and a spectacle involving a "wild" horse that charges around the theater and then runs along a carefully concealed treadmill to provide the illusion of a race through a forest backdrop. This latter touch turns the theatrical stage into a kind of movie theater, an effect that Cukor enhances by placing the charging horse in a frame towards the back of the stage, so that its continuous running-in-place seems to be happening on a screen rather than directly there on the stage. Just as Cukor's film encompasses the theater of his characters, so their theater has room for a primitive realization of cinema, a bow towards the motion-capture photos of Eadweard Muybridge, one of the earliest progenitors of the cinema. It's an implicit acknowledgment from Cukor, who had at times worked in both forms, that the art of cinema had long since supplanted the theater in terms of mass entertainment.
Cukor has great fun with the more theatrical scenes here, playing up the hammy quality of the troupe and their dismal productions, staged with would-be grandeur that only makes their ragged costumes and makeup-caked faces all the more pathetic. But the film's best celebration of theatrical performance is also a subversion of cinema, or at least of the specific conventions of the Western cinema form. Cukor builds up to an Indian attack with all the solemnity and earnest suspense to be expected of such a scene, especially with the foreboding buildup of menacing music on the soundtrack. The stage is set for an epic chase scene, but what Cukor delivers is much stranger and more satisfying for being so unexpected, defusing the conventional menace of the Indians' assault. As the troupe flees on horseback, leaving their wagons behind them, a marauding wave of Indians swoops over the wagons, but instead of directly following, they linger at the wagons, turning their hunting party into a game of dress-up as they play with the costumes and props left behind by the actors. Cukor shoots this scene as though it's a teenage slumber party rather than an attack, with feathers flying everywhere from broken-open pillows, dresses twirling through the air, and several Indians donning animal-head masks or blowing harsh notes on a tuba. The scene is a brief respite from the tension of the chase, a moment of celebratory joy that's enough to make one forget that, just moments before, these Indians were the enemies, the subject of the building suspense that drove away the film's main characters. This interlude ends soon enough, as the Indians torch the wagons and are promptly left behind by the narrative, never to be seen again as the film returns to the acting troupe. It's an example of Cukor's occasional indulgence of his whims at the expense of the narrative, his purely visual delight in this scene entirely trumping its narrative purpose. The Indians are just a plot device to get the troupe moving into the mountains with Mabry as their guide, and once this is accomplished they're summarily dropped from the film. But not before Cukor allows them a moment of their own to have some fun.
Heller in Pink Tights is bursting with great scenes like this, visually exciting moments of great sensuality and energy, underpinned by Cukor's themes of sexuality and the theater. It's always apparent that he's not quite as engaged by the prosaic machinations of the plot, which in the second half of the film largely follows a standard Western adventure line, twisting and turning but never approaching the electric thrill of the scenes where Cukor isn't concerned with fulfilling any narrative purpose. The cast of the theatrical troupe, which features some great character actors like Eileen Heckart and Edmund Lowe, isn't given much to do, and neither is Anthony Quinn, who's totally wasted here. Even so, it isn't necessarily a mistake that the film focuses so fixedly on Loren, who simply radiates sexuality and desire, acting mostly with her expressive eyes, which Cukor wisely highlights again and again in closeups, especially ones where the rest of her face is obscured by a scarf or blanket. The film is carried by her charm and beauty, as well as by the strength of that handful of scenes where Cukor's visual wit is on full display. Not a perfect or fully realized film by any means, Heller is nonetheless a genuinely entertaining and stylish entertainment, the kind that the Healy theater company's productions aspire to be thrilling, intelligent, knowingly sexual, and totally free-spirited.