Astor Place

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Mary Astor played a bitch in her Oscar-winning role in The Great Lie (see my post here), and she also plays a bitch in 1961’s Return to Peyton Place, but in no way does she repeat herself. Astor finds tones and shadings in bitchiness that leave you in awe; she plays her bitchiness with a difference. The bitch is always the best part, anyway—see Joan Crawford in The Women—because you get to snarl at everyone while looking glamorous as hell—see Joan Crawford in Queen Bee. Indeed, Crawford was originally signed up for Astor’s role in RTPP, but then dropped out. Per IMDB and Wikipedia, Bette Davis was also considered for the film, for two roles. That’s the sort of trivia that starts you playing crazy what-if games in your head, thinking up alternative-cinema scenarios (what-if Bette and Joan could have both been in this film? What-if they could have gone mano a mano in CinemaScope and De Luxe color?). Some of us fans think of Heaven as the Re-Teaming of Bette and Joan, the ultimate what-if bitch-fest, with skies lit by Ernest Haller, angels clothed by Adrian and Orry-Kelly, and celestial choirs humming schmaltzy Max Steiner tunes. What else could Heaven be?

However, to get back to earth, Astor got the part: that of the venomously proper Mrs. Carter, the richest lady in Peyton Place, and the one who makes the rules deciding What Can and Cannot Be Done. She plays it realistically; there’s no grandstanding, no throwing back the head and shoulders, no flaring of nostril or flashing of eye. Astor is the correct New England matron (where most of the film takes place), clad in expensive but conservative fashions, the kind where you’re not truly dressed unless graced with gloves and stiff round hats that sprout those dotted veils that get tangled in eyelashes, while wrapped in enough fur to clothe a small zoo. Her character is a courteous monster, one who hides the steel blade in the velvet muff. I think Astor carries that, too (the muff, that is, not the knife). But Astor doesn’t play for the hisses alone. She makes the monster human, even a little pathetic and dignified. You want to strangle her, but only up to a point.

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RTPP (both novel and film) is the follow-up to Peyton Place, two title words that had by then become synonymous in the public mind with Fearlessly Salacious Truth-Telling On Small-Town Life. The story itself, in which Mrs. Carter battles to ban from the school library Allison MacKenzie’s novel, a roman à clef rehashing all the first book’s (and film’s) scandals, is a meta-comment on Peyton Place‘s own history, reflecting the novel’s own sexual frankness and notoriety. It was also a great way to dig up all the dirt from the first PP and spread it out for further mulching. We hear once again about Selena’s rape, Constance’s affair, Allison’s illegitimacy; we witness once more the town’s moral hypocrisy. And we wait with bated saliva for new dirt to be dug up, new closets to be flung open and new skeletons to come clanking out, while wondering what new, frantic snipping efforts will be made by the Breen office to keep the film adaptation under control.

Maybe the Breeners won out on this one. While the first film was heavily sanitized, it still could thrill with Lana Turner playing the most unrealistically glamorous housewife imaginable. But the dirt in its cinematic sequel is now spread pretty thin, lacking the deliciously grimy feel that really good, nasty dirt has. Allison’s affair with her married publisher, for example, is reduced to a lingering kiss and a late-plot statement by the man that nothing happened between them (that’s one way to wiggle out of it!). Selena becomes engaged to a nice Swedish ski instructor, even though she’s conked him on the noggin with a fireplace poker, but he’s OK with that and marries her anyway (which says much for the saintly forbearance of Swedish ski instructors). Many scenes take place at a ski resort and feature lots of whooshing snow and cups of hot cocoa after an afternoon slalom. It’s clean enough for Andy Hardy.

But the biggest change is with Mrs. Carter. The movie does hint at some juicy kinks in her relationship with her son, such as eavesdropping on him when he’s closeted with his wife. And she’s upset about his marriage to a nice Italian girl, discharging much of her venom onto the helpless bride. In the novel, however, the bride is a wicked aristocrat who propels Mrs. Carter down a flight of stairs to her doom (CAN you imagine Joan or Bette here?), and apparently gets away with it. Yet the film eliminates the story’s most luridly dramatic scene, the one to highlight in the trailers. Was a murdered mother-in-law beyond the Production Code pale? Follow-ups are always a tricky proposition, and even though the producing studio, 20th-Century Fox, promised that the new effort would begin where the original “left off!”, the result was more a lukewarm leftover. Public response, like the film, was watered down, with a box-office take of less than half of what the first movie made.

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Diluting the sequel further was the dimmer wattage of the new stars who took over from those in the earlier film. Although rumors breathed out such vintage names as Crawford, Davis, Gene Tierney, and even Norma Shearer, Fox, then mired in the swamp that would become Cleopatra, didn’t want to shell out for big-name actors. So it cancelled the Super Bowl and gave fans Pop Warner instead. Lana Turner was gone, replaced by Eleanor Parker, Diane Varsi by Carol Lynley. Parker (who doesn’t have much to do) is tall, slender, fine-boned, and looks lovely but overwrought; her acting tends toward the tense and febrile, emotion always pitched at full steam (a rather Crawford-like quality, oddly). As for Lynley, I find her a woeful actress, with a doughy, inexpressive face and a dead, druggy voice. She speaks with a monotonous drone, as if lead weights were attached to her vocal chords; dressed in haute couture, she looks like a ten-year-old playing princess games. In contrast, Tuesday Weld, in the part originally played by Hope Lange, is in another film. She wriggles and bounces in a squealy, Sandra-Dee-high-school-teen manner; combined with her saucer eyes and plump, pushed-up upper lip, she seems ready to head for the nearest beach party.

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If it’s Tuesday, this must be the 60s.

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José Ferrer’s sloggy direction may also be partly to blame; scenes drag like the train of a wet gown. I wish he could have gotten more out of the material, dug in more, rather than rely on on a corny script (a character warns that Mrs. Carter is a “possessive, evil, meddling old woman,” in case you miss the point). A scene of Allison at her novel’s launch party hosted by her publisher, where she runs smack into his wife and suddenly realizes he’s married, could have been sharp and sly, the best one in the film; especially since the wife, as played by Jennifer Howard, is calm, cool, and exquisitely polite to both her husband and his “protegée,” unfazed when her spouse says he won’t be home for dinner. I was piqued by the ambiguity of this couple’s marriage, wondering what was going on (or not) between them. However, the scene meanders, the camera never seeming in the right place in relation to Howard, who barely hangs on at the edge of the screen. It needed a Wilder or Cukor here, someone who could understand its subversive humor and play on its undertones of meaning.

That, overall, is what dismays about this film, as with so much other overproduced studio product of that era: its utter lack of meaning. It’s big and shiny, like an untouched toy, and bustles with noise and self-importance, but what we see is aimless activity in an empty room. Actors go through the motions like well-dressed marionettes, with only expensive production values to play against; the very air seems to have been sucked out of their bodies. There’s no reason for the film’s existence other than to fill studio coffers. As with the other major studios, Fox had lost touch with something, failed to anticipate a coming change. Between 1957’s Peyton Place and its 1961 sequel, the culture had shifted and the eternal verities as fashioned by the Production Code were falling like leaves in a New England autumn. The year before RTPP, audiences were lining up to watch the low-budget Psycho, art houses were introducing Fellini, Resnais, and Antonioni, and the New Wave had washed up to our shores. In unconscious irony RTPP also acknowledged this sea-change: the town council elects not to ban Allison’s book because times have indeed moved on. And those times would leave behind such dying behemoths as the Hollywood studio system itself, to sink like a dinosaur into its own empty swamp.

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At least there’s the eternal verity of Mary Astor. Unlike her studio or director, Astor could and does play on the undertones, putting flesh on those skeletons she digs up. She steals everything, of course, as she passes catty judgments with a mere smile and a shift in vocal tone. Her voice is low, incisive, cutting like ice through flesh, and she uses her eyes, shoulders, a tilt of the head, to assert her character’s control—quietly, but with deftness. I wonder if she herself came up with that nice bit at the end, which captures and sums up her character like a sonnet’s last line. Defeated by the council in getting Lynley’s book banned, she rises from her seat, attempts to put on her coat, gets her hand stuck in its sleeve, then opts to drape it over an arm—all done with a quick, conscious dignity, aware that everyone is staring at her but pretending she’s unaware that they are. Good use of small gesture. And then there’s the moment when her son publicly denounces her to her face, and she reacts with small, swift changes—her visage almost crumbling, like dried petals in the wind, until she rights herself with the desperate shreds of a forlorn pride. Lovely, thoughtful work by a consummate actress. No one else comes close.

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