Friday, April 18, 2014

Stepping Out


My physicians have allowed me to get up from my sick bed and start a mild routine of twenty minutes of tap dance a day, in order to strengthen my muscles and get my body back in shape for a new entertainment spectacular. A few weeks on that uncharted desert isle certainly has played havoc with my sartorii and gastrocnemii and it's going to take a lot of hard work before I can present myself again to my adoring public.

The time in bed has not been wasted. I have been constantly on the phone to my various representatives. Fajer and Hellmann, my attorneys, are in settlement talks with the producers of Celebrity Survivor to make sure I get adequate compensation for my pain and suffering on being abandoned and forced to endure some days on a floating porta potty. Madame Rose, my publicist, has been shopping the story of my ordeal at sea as a possible cable TV special and tells me that Nu-Image films are very interested. Joseph, my manager, is working hard to secure a suitable property for my next entertainment project. In the meantime, I am catching up with current events, eating the occasional nutritious meal from Spago's take-out menu and working the kinks out of those dancing muscles.

This evening, after donning a masque of Lesterene brand shrimp and avocado facial oil, I decided to settle in with a film that would inspire me to even greater heights of tap dancing prowess. My choice was Lewis Gilbert's 1991 film of the Richard Harris play, Stepping Out with Liza Minnelli. Once upon a time, Miss Minnelli had a serious film career, before too much pills, liquor, and the surgical attachment of a gentleman companion who appears to have been created by a taxidermist. It skidded badly through the 1980s and this film, in 1991, was her last major theatrical feature. Its failure more or less put paid to her as a bankable star.

Stepping Out tells the story of a tap dancing class. Liza plays Mavis Turner, a slightly over the hill entertainer who gave up her career for her man and is settled down far from the bright lights of Broadway. There, she ekes out a living singing in low rent clubs and giving tap lessons in a church social hall. Her tap students are a lot of misfits, each taking dance as a way to cope with the vagaries of life. They include the wealthy housewife whose golden marriage isn't so golden (Julie Walters), the painfully shy man (Bill Irwin), the naive young nurse (Jane Krakowski), the abused wife (Sheila McCarthy), the happy go lucky librarian (Andrea Martin) and the overweight black woman (Carol Woods) amongst others. One day, Mavis is approached by the snooty lady from the local arts council (Nora Dunn) and asked if her little group would like to have an act in the annual fund raising show. Mavis is determined to turn her losers into winners and, in the tradition of all underdog films, the challenge is on - this time accompanied by the strains of 'Tea for Two' as played by the grumpy old lady on the piano (Shelley Winters).

I don't think it will be giving too much away to say that the characters pull together, learn about each other and themselves and present a credible show, just awkwardly amateurish enough to be believable. The film then takes a leap into fantasy for the final credits sequence where the cast, well trained hoofers all, really gets to show their stuff in a well crafted routine. Remember, it takes a really good dancer to be able to realistically portray a not so good one on screen.

The supporting cast all have their moments (especially good are Julie Walters and Andrea Martin) and only the abused wife subplot falls victim of Lifetime movie of the week cliché. It remains Minnelli's film. She was in her mid forties when she made it and resembled her famous mother more than ever. She has a great solo dance number with a fedora and a mirror in the middle of the film that strongly suggests Judy (a woman with whom I have some familiarity) come back to life. This, and other moments remind you of how powerful an entertainer Liza can be when she's on.

Director Gilbert specializes in films made from small cast stage plays with strong lead female performances and he snagged Oscar nominations for Julie Walters for his Educating Rita and for Pauline Collins for his Shirley Valentine. I assume Liza was hoping for lightning to strike a third time, and it is a performance that the academy could have honored, but the film flew right under Hollywood's radar screen, barely causing a blip at the box office. It's too bad as the film is highly enjoyable.

The major weakness is in the by the numbers plotting. Five minutes into the film, it's pretty clear where it's going and what the revelations are going to be. Gilbert's earlier films were based on better plays with characters who defied expectations rather than lived them. Still, there are far worse ways to spend a few hours than with this cast of oddballs as they attempt to tap their troubles away.

Deodorizing spray. Hospital ward tap. Gratuitous lounge song. Pastel tap costumes. Blue sequin tap costumes. Bad piano playing. Gratuitous awkward early love relationship. Flamboyant Ellen Greene.

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