So I am going to grace you with my reviews of two really, really bad movies I saw on digital On-Demand cable this week while I was cleaning house. This is the use to which I choose to put my remarkable mind.
1. THE FOUNTAINHEAD.
Okay, admittedly, I’d seen this one before – it’s so egregiously rotten and campily over-the-top it’s actually kind of a guilty pleasure. Every minute it’s onscreen is a minute you’re subjected to truly awful acting and screenwriting, and yet you dare not look away for fear of missing something amazing.
For those not familiar with the film, it’s an adaptation – with a screenplay by Ms. Dollar-Bill-Cape herself – of Ayn Rand’s inexplicably best-selling novel about architect Howard Roark’s date-rape romance of batshit psycho Dominique Francon, and his concurrent struggle against mediocrity and the grasping hands of the collective masses who want to drag every genius down to their base level. (By a totally staggering coincidence, Ayn Rand herself was a misunderstood genius whose rich family got booted by the Soviets during the Russian Revolution. But of course Objectivism is a totally rational philosophy and has nothing whatsoever to do with a massive trauma she suffered as a young, sensitive woman of privilege.) Rand insisted on doing the writing herself – it’s part and parcel of her whole no-compromise outlook on the world, and she wouldn’t have dreamed of letting anyone dilute the sheer brilliance of her message. As a result, what you get on screen is the same as what you get on the page: reams and reams of totally unrealistic situations, windbag dialogue coming out the ass, and unbelievably awkward speechifying at every opportunity.
Which would in itself make for a total stinker, but what really makes the movie shine is the casting. Even if one wanted to make a good version of this horrible novel (honestly, folks, I just can’t budge on this one: Ayn Rand’s popularity is totally bewildering to me. She’s a third-rate philosopher – Objectivism is a dumb, impractical and selfish construction, and beyond that, it’s not a complete philosophy, having nothing to say about causes, metaphysics, or anything beyond its narrow system of ethics – and she’s an even worse novelist, with horrible dialogue, one-dimensional characters, and a ravingly huge need for a good editor), they blew it hardcore when assigning the parts. Howard Roark was played by Gary Cooper; I’m assuming that he got the part because they figured Cooper, so skilled at playing aw-shucks-I-don’t-know-much-but-damn-it-I’m-a-m
Who, by the way, is the second volley that sinks the U.S.S. Fountainhead for good. I learned while watching the TCM intro that she was having an affair with (then 47-year-old) Cooper during filming; her shitty performance is a lot easier to forgive (after all, Neal isn’t a terrible actress by any means) when you learn it’s coming from a 22-year-old girl who’s fucking her daddy-aged co-star. But, MAN is it a whoozy performance. Even leaving aside the cheapjack melodramatic device of having the two deliver all their dialogue (or, more appropriately, dueling monologues) while looking off into the distance in different locations so they never make eye contact, she’s completely nuts in this movie – reeling, hissing, and vamping, with a crazy bug-eyed look, even in love scenes, that makes hear appear as if she just swallowed a live moth she found in her egg fu young. And pairing this scenery-chewing daffiness against Cooper’s comatose non-acting results in the worst charisma imaginable.
There’s lots more to hate about it: King Vidor’s ultrahacky direction, Franz Waxman’s score (actually pretty solid, but way, way, WAY too heavy-handed in telegraphing the dramatic moments), Rand’s hilariously goofy conception of how the world works and bizarre choice of careers for her protagonist (if you’re going to make a hero who hates compromise, despises public taste, and refuses to work with others, why would you make him an architect? By its very nature, architecture is the most collaborative, compromising and public art form there is.), and the performance of Robert Douglas as the flagrantly gay supervillain Ellsworth Toohey (in Ayn Rand’s world, the villains are as physically ugly as they are morally degenerate, and most of her worst villains are either caricature Jews or caricature gays). There’s also the goofy alternate universe where you can blow up a public housing project and get away with it if the jury thinks you’re morally upstanding, where people line up for blocks around to attend the grand opening of a fancy penthouse, and where the most power in all of New York is wielded by the architecture critic of a daily newspaper. But all in all, it could STILL be a decent movie (longstanding Hollywood rumor is that both Oliver Stone and Michael Cimino want to take a crack at a remake; God, I hope it’s true) if only the casting wasn’t so completely abysmal.
2. THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA.
This is another wildly popular cultural artifact whose success completely flummoxes me. It’s got a crappy score even by Andrew Lloyd Webber’s basement-level standards, the plot goes absolutely nowhere, and it has the dramatic depth of a fingernail scratch on a marble tabletop. I’ve seen it on stage, and it sucks raw there, so I couldn’t imagine it being any better on film; and, in fact, it turns out that it was much, much worse. For one thing, it was louder, not a plus when all the songs are bad; for another, it was directed at a cost of five hundred quintillion dollars by Hollywood mega-schmuck Joel Schumacher (the modern version of King Vidor, one might say), the man who brought you such classics as St. Elmo’s Fire, D.C. Cab and Batman & Robin. And for a third thing, it was really, really, really long; it went on for about six hours, I believe, and unlike the stage version, there was no intermission where you can fortify yourself for the even worse second act with a healthy shot of whiskey.
Casting was again the key here. Big-screen nobodies Gerald Butler and Emily Rossum (given the thankless task of closing her eyes and looking tragic a lot) were handed the leads, and burned up the screen with charisma the likes of which Hollywood hasn’t seen since The Fountainhead; the equally unmemorable Patrick Wilson snagged the plum role of the Phantom, and conveyed the terror and madness in this classic character by, well, pouting a lot and occasionally snarling when he sang.
Singing, of course, is presumably why these dingbats got the roles instead of actually movie stars, but you know what? They’re not good singers. Well, that’s not entirely true – they’re technically skilled, to be sure. But there’s no passion, no energy to their voices, and they sound like exactly what they are: Broadway belters who sing everything in the same bland, tediously competent style. They can’t accomplish anything placed in the context of what should be, well, something operatic. None of them sounds like an opera singer except Minnie Driver (or, rather, the person who dubbed Minnie Driver’s voice) – and, bizarrely, she’s made fun of by the screenplay for her operatic singing, leaving the viewer to wonder (a) what the Phantom thinks is such hot shit about Christine anyway and (b) how the hell Carlotta became such a famous and beloved opera singer in the first place when everyone hates her voice.
Speaking of Minnie Driver, she’s also one of two people (Miranda Richardson being the other) in this movie who’s actually a good actor, but she obviously took one look at the script, got a gander at her co-stars, and said “fuck it”. The result of this eminently sensible giving up is that she and Richardson both seem to have decided that the only way to make it out of the film alive would be to dress up in the most deranged fakey Italian accent since Chico Marx died. It seems, in Driver’s case at least, to be some sort of demented amalgam of Cher’s character in Moonstruck, Benito Mussolini, and a canary. You halfway expect her to start singing “Shut Uppa You Face” like some sort of drag-queen Maria Callas. Richardson is a tad less of a hate crime, but still, when she has lines like “She stoody unner a verra famous-a voice-a titcher”, she shouldn’t be walking the streets of Little Italy anytime soon.
This one stunk a lot worse than the first, if only because its appeal is even less explicable and it wasn’t nearly as unintentionally campy-bad (just plain ol’ regular bad). By the way, I would suggest it would also benefit from being remade by Oliver Stone or Michael Cimino.