Wednesday, March 19, 2014

The Color Purple


Today is my darling Norman's birthday. The little birthday column in the paper suggested he was 102 – where do they get their ideas? He may have made his film debut in the silent era but he remains, professionally, 49. The dear boy is resting up for his birthday bash this evening and I am using the tranquility to work towards putting my new business venture, GlamourPuss gowns, (haut couture suggested by the costumes from Cats ), into high gear. I have a sketch and a muslin mock-up of Skimbleshanks ready for Celeste Holm - she plans on wearing it to a major Hollywood ‘Save the Spotted Owl’ function. Kathryn Grayson called last night asking me to run her up a Mister Mistoffeles. While there's nothing like basic black for slimming the figure, darling Kathy has put on a bit more poundage than could possibly fit into the crepe-de-chine number Bob Mackie and I have dreamed up. I'm trying to figure out a way to tactfully suggest she select the Jennyanydots instead. I will not have my zaftig old friends going out in public looking like a Ballpark Frank.

Last night, as I had nothing better to do, (time to give my agents another boot in the rear); I put the DVD of The Color Purple into the home theater system. I found it in the 'Sale' bin at the local K-mart.. I had not seen the film since its initial release, several decades ago, and remembered having intensely disliked it at that time. I thought it might be interesting to see my reactions now that I have matured into an elder stateswoman of the Hollywood community, especially as this was the first effort by Steven Spielberg to escape the stigma of populist kiddy blockbusters that defined his career and public perception.

Those of you who have read my musings over time know that I am something of a Spielberg fan; even his worst movies have at least one sequence of amazing film craft or one inspired performance. For instance, the disastrous 1941 is worth watching for the dance at the USO that degenerates into a brawl. I have a great fondness for his ability to grasp that film is a visual storytelling medium and his best moments are often wordless when he lets images do the talking (like the footsteps in the powder when Jamie tries to find his parents in Empire of the Sun ). The Color Purple was not his first attempt at making a film for a mature audience - he had accomplished that early in his career with The Sugarland Express - but it was his attempt to break the Jaws/Close Encounters/ET/Indiana Jones box that was closing around him. The film was both a financial and a critical success, launched the film career of Whoopi Goldberg, and gave Oprah Winfrey a chance to prove that she was more than just a talk show host.

The Color Purple is the story of Celie (Goldberg), a black woman in the rural south early in the century, who is abused by men, separated from those she loves and yet manages to triumph and forge a family over the years. It's based on an epistlatory novel by Alice Walker told mainly through Celie's letters to God which grow and change over the years as she self educates and becomes a proud and competent woman. This does not sound like typical Spielberg territory and, at the time, there was much debate as to whether a white filmmaker would do justice to the material; there was talk of a boycott and all of the other nonsense that tends to accompany modern race relations. The success of the film bolstered Spielberg's career so he could move into more adult territory with such fare as Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan and also showed that there was a market for African American stories on film.

So, how is The Color Purple as a film? Most find the film incredibly moving as they are suckered into the melodramatic situations in the story arc which ultimately culminate in a family reunion that telegraphs 'Cry Here' from fifteen miles away as colored robes are artfully blown across lush green fields full of purple flowers. Personally, I resent the manipulation inherent in the emotional structure of the film. I would rather find the sentiment for myself rather than have it carved in big chunks and handed to me like so much processed turkey breast. I also find the feminist leanings of the story, implicit in the original novel, to be somewhat overdone. There is no likable male character in the movie. Mister (Danny Glover in a bravura performance) is given no redeeming qualities until the very end, when it’s far too late to care and Harpo (Willard Pugh) is made into a complete buffoon. There is no need for him to fall through every roof he comes across. The men become cartoons in order to bolster the universe of women. Whoopi Goldberg's Celie is noble and understated and somewhat self effacing, not qualities usually associated with this broad comic and Oprah's Sophie is unforgettable, especially late in the film at a family gathering when the women finally tell their men off. The big emotional moments, such as the reconciliation of Shug (Margaret Avery), the bad girl blues singer, with her father are telegraphed long in advance and music is used to manipulate the emotional moment in patently unfair ways. The same types of problems are apparent in the few appearances of white characters - Dana Ivey should be embarrassed by her Miss Millie and the others are basically just there as evil foils and catalysts for racist incidents.

On the plus side, Allen Daviau's cinematography makes North Carolina (standing in for rural Georgia) look like an Eden; the letters that Celie reads in the second half of the film are beautifully handled in images of Africa that blend in and out of the familiar; and Quincy Jones has provided some interesting and authentic sounding music for certain sequences (especially Miss Celie's Blues ).

The DVD has no extras other than the original trailer (a series of black and white production stills that suggest there were filmed sequences cut from the movie - Rae Dawn Chong in particular seems to have ended up primarily on the editing room floor) and a trailer from a re-release that's more standard issue. The movie ends abruptly half way through and you have to flip the disc in order to finish it. I found that extremely irritating. The sound and picture quality are fine but not redone for this release. With so many of the principals and creators of this movie still actively working, I would have loved a commentary track - however, such is not to be as of yet.

Model Ts. Rural letter carriers. Dirty kitchens. Red sequin dresses. Bar fights. Gospel singing. Gratuitous folkspants. Houses out of character with incomes of the occupants. Subdued and tasteful lesbianism. Offensive mayor's wife.

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