Saturday, June 23, 2007

More on Noel Black

In the comments to my last post on Pretty Poison, Peter Nellhaus mentioned that Noel Black had been removed from the 1980 A Change of Seasons after shooting the first half of the film. I just reread the article I wrote on A Change of Seasons at the time; though I wasn't aware then that Black had been involved with the film, I wrote about its acting in terms that dovetail nicely with the issues I raised about Pretty Poison. And, unlike most of what I wrote 25 years ago, the piece doesn't embarrass me. So here it is. It originally appeared in the L.A. Reader's January 11, 1981 issue.

The credit sequence of A Change of Seasons delivers on the promise of the ad campaign - Bo Derek and Anthony Hopkins frolic naked in a hot tub in leering, repetitive slow motion designed to make even the most pure-minded admirer of the female form feel like a sleazy pervert. Interestingly, Derek doesn't appear in the nude again during the entire course of the movie (although she is seen behind the frosted glass of a shower door in one scene). Could it be that the credit sequence was shot as a last-minute attempt by producers to avert rioting in the theaters by Derek's frustrated fans? Be that as it may, posterity will undoubtedly remember A Change of Seasons as that film with Bo Derek in the hot tub, and the vulgar and deceptive advertising will probably ensure that this intelligent, subtle comedy of manners will never find its proper audience. Surprisingly few filmgoers are able to deal with the oft-proven fact that the way in which a film is promoted has nothing whatsoever to do with the film itself.

A Change of Seasons is an actors' film, but the basic principles behind the diverse performances are so consistent from actor to actor that one must credit director Richard Lang with the overall plan. Lang, whose work in TV includes the pilots to Vegas and Fantasy Island and the miniseries The Word, emerged from the tube in 1980 with the unjustly neglected The Mountain Men, an elegiac tale of the last days of the trappers in the American Northwest. Faced with the formidable task of resurrecting a genre, Lang somehow found the level of abstraction necessary to integrate the film's rowdy humor and grim violence into an epic format. Apart from a penchant for emphatic foreground-background opposition, Lang's style in A Change of Seasons doesn't bear any obvious resemblance to the style of The Mountain Men. But nothing in the earlier film is an impressive as Seasons's shifting, contrapuntal characterizations and the extraordinary balance between grown-up humor and melancholy that they create. The script by Erich Segal, Ronni Kern, and Fred Segal leaves little to be desired, but if one does the mental work necessary to disassociate the lines from the line readings, one can see that a much more conventional movie could have been made from the same script, a movie in which good guys, bad guys, and messages were underlined much more clearly than in Lang's realization.

The film begins with a stereotypic situation that is quickly deepened in the character development. Within a few minutes of the opening credits, literature professor Anthony Hopkins, walking home from an evening out with his wife Shirley MacLaine, is confronted with her knowledge of his affair with one of his students. The ensuing discussion, carried on during the couple's evening domestic routine, is the film's first impressive display of tangled, offbeat character interaction. Hopkins's attempts at justifying his actions continually snarl on his nervous self-consciousness and a nagging awareness of guilt. When he tries to explain to MacLaine that men have special compulsions, he says, "Our needs are more...baroque," a line scripted to evoke audience disdain. But Hopkins creates a new meaning by grimacing as he delivers the awful intellectual's euphemism, fidgeting desperately with a sense of the absurdity of the phrase. MacLaine, on her part, admirably steers past the trap of self-righteousness, mixing her hostile retreats into humor with quiet, dignified expressions of her pain. Much of the script's wisecracking humor is deflated by the basic gravity of the scene; the victim of a well chosen zinger is liable to retreat in helplessness, leaving the other to ponder his or her solitude.

Hopkins's relationship with his lover Derek, partly based on mutual contempt, is nearly as complex and well conceived as the relationship with MacLaine. Derek, clear-eyed and better able to ride the instability of the situation than Hopkins, can barely contain her amusement at his constant uneasiness; she uses her directness as a playful means of tipping the power balance of the relationship. Hopkins absorbs all of her aggression with little, evanescent smiles and scaled-down reactions; one sees in him an occasional flicker of gleeful self-satisfaction that is more truly demonic than Derek's unconcealed pleasure in domination.

Meanwhile, MacLaine vents her frustration by taking up with Michael Brandon, an itinerant handyman whom she finds working in the house. Of all the dangers that the film averts, the one that must have taken the most effort was the likelihood that Brandon's character would emerge as the classic carefree nonconformist who gets to put all the straight characters in their place. Despite hints in the script of the character's destiny, Brandon totally skirts this pitfall, playing with a soft-spoken gentleness and vulnerability that takes the edge off his hippie wisdom. With both husband and wife ensconced in their own relationships, the plot thickens when MacLaine informs Hopkins that if he intends to take Derek to the family's country house over a holiday vacation, he can expect a foursome. The script here reads, approximately: Hopkins: "Are you serious?" MacLaine: "Yes." Hopkins: "I think that's disgusting." The touches that make the moment as filmed so delightful - and so characteristic of Lang's contrapuntal approach - are MacLaine's relaxed good humor and the weird smile of complicity that creeps across Hopkins's face as he delivers his lines. Once more, the characterizations serve not only to deepen a conventional situation but also to make the characters more sympathetic.

The two pairs of lovers head off to the Vermont country house, setting up a farce situation that is successfully deemphasized for quite a while. Strangely, the characters become closer to each other instead of exploding into jealous hatred; this idea is written into the script, but is given force by the way the actors invariably soften their characters' responses to the script's insult humor. Hopkins is particularly good at taking put-downs with a genuine appreciation for the wit of his adversary. In one notable scene, Hopkins begins reading a verse from Marvell with the intention of mocking his rival's supposed intellectual poverty; Brandon, ever so slightly piqued beneath his usual good nature, finishes the verse from memory and turns a sarcastic comment by Hopkins neatly around. Brandon's controlled flair of hostility and Hopkins's amused perspective bring the two vastly different personalities to a momentary resemblance, and a spark of mutual appreciation is struck.

After a little more than an hour of screen time, the film's tone shifts a little toward a more conventional, less textured comedy, and the shift correlates roughly with the intrusion of other characters into the menage a quatre. With the arrival of Hopkins's and MacLaine's daughter Mary Beth Hurt at the country house, the farce conventions of the story become clearer; the film actually grows funnier at this point, but it loses much of the complexity of characterization of its first two-thirds. Hurt's boyfriend Paul Regina and Derek's father Ed Winter also get their chance to be baffled by the household's unconventional living arrangements; each of the three late arrivals delivers his or her lines with a comic abstraction that would not seem amiss if the rest of the film hadn't used a different acting style. Furthermore, a mild didacticism sets in during this last part of the film, as various characters dabble in pointing out the lessons of the story for us. Still, the last half-hour suffers only in comparison with what had come before, and is rather acceptable on its own terms. As a whole, A Change of Seasons remains the best light comedy since Head Over Heels, and Anthony Hopkins's brilliant performance alone is more than enough reason for a recommendation.

It remains to be seen whether 20th Century-Fox's misleading ad campaign will benefit the movie's box office. Merchandizing "10" on the strength of Bo Derek's physical appeal worked, but then "10" was actually constructed around a core of sex fantasy. Its credit sequence aside, A Change of Seasons doesn't really have much to do with sex one way or another, and I'm curious how audiences will react when they find that out. At any rate, there's no point in blaming Bo Derek for the excesses that she inspires in ad men. She hasn't starred in a bad film yet.

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