Like, Totally, Lana

So, like, when Pauline Kael—all you kids heard’ve Pauline, right? film critic, real famous, lots of books, movie-wise—wanted to skewer actors in a film, oh, she skewered ‘em, all right. Sharpening her verbal lance to a lethal point, she’d aim it right where it’d do its worst, give it a shove, and BAM. That actor was skewered. I mean, like, totally.

And honest, hons: was ever lance more honed and skewed than the one Kael used to impale Lana Turner in that 1966 Ross Hunter version of that old mother-love weepie, Madame X? Just check out this sample quote: “she isn’t Madame X, she’s Brand X.”  Like, Whoa here! I mean, that ‘Brand X’ bit—major ouch, mes amies. Talk about being spitted and roasted. Poor, darling Lana, spiked like shish on a kebob, with this big mean brochette penetrating her expensive furs and middle-aged interior and going right through her to the other side. Like, Vlad-Tepes-wise.

Like, does this look like Brand X to you, amigas?

Kael wasn’t content with this one prod, however. Gosh, no. She kept right on jabbing: needling both Lana’s age (“Turner is supposed to be a ravishing young newlywed, and the production is designed like a cocoon to protect her. There isn’t a young actress in the cast, not even among the bit players”) and attire (“Hunter was addicted to lavish wardrobes, and so the outcast heroine keeps changing her clothes, and to compensate for all those swell dresses, she keeps suffering”); and then she concludes with, like, this practically snicker-in-print: “With almost every line a howler, this is a camp special.”

X really hits the spot here, friends. Like, where it hurts.

But what makes it all so poignant, pals, is…I’m afraid Kael’s opinion of this Madame X flick is all too true. I mean, like, I just adore Lana (see my post here, babes, where I go into raptures over her in The Rains of Ranchipur), but I gotta face it. Lana’s Madame X is Camp for the Ages: fully ripe and bursting from the pod. Right from the opening, when these humongous gates open on this piece of eye-boggling real estate and chords from this moony piano throb on the soundtrack, we get the Ross Hunter Old-Home-Week Special: gowns by Jean Louis, jewels by David Webb, furs by Ben Kahn. It’s all so Ross, I mean—the clothes, the jewels, the furs, the flowers, the rooms, like, even the cars, it’s all so totally FABulous, but then there’s all this drama and heartbreak and misery because—well, because, what’s the good life without a little gloom on the side? Like I said in my post on this other Hunter/Turner fab collab, Portrait in Black: ya gotta have the suffering contrast to appreciate all that amazingness on display. It’s not exactly like having your cake, but at least you can enjoy, vicariously, the agony of those eating it. Schandenfreude-wise, I mean.

But look, dolls, I just want to put in my own two cents here. Which is: I think Kael was being just a peu unfair to Miss Turner. I mean, I know as an actress Lana was no Duse or anything (that’s Doo-za, folks, like in Eleonora; fab actress, real famous, long time back), but I just gotta say something. And that’s that I—meaning Lil’ Ol’ Me, see—I think Lana’s performance in this Motion Picture is a bit of all right. Like, kinda good, y’know what I mean?

O-kay, so whadda I know? I’m just a humble blogger here, whose eyes get all big and round whenever Lana, in all that fabulosity of hers, appears onscreen (I mean, just check out her work on a dance floor here; like, the lady could move). But let’s please give Lana her due, shall we? Sure, she was just a mite too old to play a blushing bride at film’s start as she stands there, agog-like, in her new king-size home, which looks like an extension of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, I mean, just stick in a registration desk and you couldn’t tell ‘em apart—but that’s not the whole and entire of her performance, is it? Just wait, as the TV ads used to say, there’s more. (BTW, does anyone do those TV ads nowadays?) Just give Lana a chance, I say, and, like UPS, she delivers.

But first, sweeties, the film’s gotta give us the whole glam set-up, what with shop-girl Lana marrying this scion of some super-duper-rich Connecticut family, the kind of people who get phone calls from the Secretary of State on Christmas Day (I mean, seriously), and where the scion’s control-freak mater runs the whole joint, down to the parties and guest lists and uniformed staff. Mom’s got that staff so well-trained, they just know what she’s gonna do before she does it: like, when she swings back this basket of fresh-cut flowers, she doesn’t have to look round and double check to see if the butler brooding behind her is gonna catch it (nice, nasty little detail there). Mom’s also got the wherewithal to order up a brace of detectives to spy on her daughter-in-law when she suspects the D-I-L is fooling around behind her son’s back. I mean, this dame’s, like, totally uncool.

Except, as it turns out, Lana just happens to be doing that—fooling around with this tasty side dish, I mean, who rakes her pulchritudinous form with smoldering eyes and murmurs sweet nothings and stuff in her shell-shaped ear—but that’s only because Hubby is always away, running errands for the President and rushing off to another hemisphere to carry out top-secret government orders whenever some higher-up snaps his fingers. The poor shlub keeps promising Lana he’ll buy her a cozy little house someday, just for her and him and their little son, but meanwhiles lonely Lana has to stay at home with beady-eyed Mom-in-Law and do the whole dutiful-wife-and-daughter bit, which is not easy, considering that Mom keeps this, like, totally sick-psycho grin plastered to her powdered features all the time, never letting up, as if afraid that dropping the smirk would crack the make-up. Not a nice situation for our darling Lana, girls. Can you blame her for sampling the local gorgeous hunk?

And that’s when disaster strikes—doesn’t it always in a Ross Hunter flick?—when Lana, trying to bid bye-bye to the boyfriend (who’s, like, totally not pleased), gives him a push—just a little push, the teeniest-tiniest of shoves, only enough to send him catapulting down the stairs as if ejected from a cannon—and wouldn’t you know it, he breaks his neck and goes all kaput and it sure looks bad for Lana. Specially when a spying detective reports the whole thing to Mom, and Mom gets all grande-dame haughty and says ne’er the shade of scandal will stain her family; so she orders Lana out, like, pronto, saying Lana’s gotta play dead and Mom’ll set up a fat trust fund for her and Lana will live off the interest, only she can neverevernever see her hubby and son again. Which just breaks poor Lana’s heart, as you can imagine. And there she is, thrust out into the cold, hard world, with only a gazillion dollars, a fab wardrobe, enough jewels to gild the Great Pyramid of Giza, and all the capitals of Europe to romp through, to salve her aching heart muscles. If that ain’t suffering, then I don’t know what is.

And so, Lana begins her downward slide—but not before she runs into this other gorgeous hunk, this rich concert pianist (how much more exciting than, like, a plumber!) who lives in this darling chateau and who’s just totally smitten with Lana and wants to marry her today, only Lana can’t, because she’s got this, like, unspoken past (and technically she’s still married…)—so, okay, it’s after Lana leaves this guy that she begins her real slide, a joyless journey of bad booze, greedy gigolos, and pessimistic piano played on the soundtrack, until she finally goes to hell in a hand basket in Mexico, which seems to be the go-to place for hell-in-a-hand-basketing. Like, total downer. That’s where she meets skeevy little Burgess Meredith, doing a great job as a skeevy little conman who cottons on as to who Lana really once was; and that, muchachas, that is when Lana goes for the gold: revving it up, getting low-down, and turning on the juice.

Let’s give credit to Lana here, fellas: when she slides, she doesn’t brake. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a major Hollywood actress, other than Bette Davis, so willing to let herself look like total shit onscreen as Lana does in this part of the film. Would Crawford have done it? I doubt it, mes copines. Sure, first we got the glamour and clothes and eyelashes, but now it’s Lana doing dipso, and she gives it her all: the lines, the bags, the shadows, the double chin, the crepey throat, the stagger when she walks, the slur when she speaks, and even the belly flopping out (she’s, like, not wearing a girdle, guys!). She also either didn’t wash her hair or was willing to wear a like-minded wig; she gets so lowdown drunk and dirty, you’d, like, sidle away from her if she sat next to you on the subway. In short, Lana looks like hell and then some. She shows us the blowsy whore this lady’s become, one who’s clearly turning tricks on the side to pay the bills, and who’s letting herself be picked up, used, and abused, because she’s too far gone to care. I mean, even her painted-on eyebrows look bedraggled, that’s how much Lana’s into it.

It isn’t just the surface, though; Lana really goes beyond the makeup. Watch her in a scene with Meredith, who’s invited a fellow con artist to shake down Lana’s husband by presenting him with his believed-dead wife; and Lana, catching on to the scam, and dredging up her last scrap of nobility, is determined to put the kibosh on it. So she plays it in layers: she fakes this whiny-blotto act over her real drunken shakiness, and she feigns this sham vulnerability to hide her real fear and qualms. And she plays it like it’s an act, like she’s this hired tramp who’s too befuddled to remember the lines she’s rehearsed (“How d’ya tell me to say it happened? What d’ya want me to say, Danny?”); and then, when the scam falls apart, she caps it with this nasty, bitter snigger, realizing she’s pulled it off. No other word will do here, folks—Lana is superb. She gets into her character’s guts, she digs way down and pulls it out, and it’s the essence of real acting: when you don’t see the machinery working, you only see the existence of this sad, sorry woman, who redeems her life by clawing out this one tiny victory for herself, body and soul.

Supposedly Lana did object to looking like hell onscreen (she’s now in hell, so what the hell), arguing with her good buddy Ross over her makeup and lighting. Well, of course she would kick; I mean, she’s fabulous Lana Turner, known for beauty, youth, and luring allure. But now Lana was in her mid-40s and sensitive about it. I won’t make fun of her for fussing. She had a right to her fear, she was a star. But she went ahead anyway and threw herself into her part, she gives us a woman in the dregs and she does it without indulging the histrionics. That’s what makes her performance so strong—she’s not begging for sympathy. And she adds some nice touches, like how she licks her lips when Meredith sloshes some absinthe in a glass, she’s that desperate for the booze. Lana knows what she’s doing, she knows she’s playing a lousy, strung-out drunk and she plays it totally straight. And, like, it’s great. Lana lets it all hang out, and I go for it, I mean, I am so totally into what’s she’s doing here.

Look, I wouldn’t say Lana’s performance redeems the whole film. I mean, its first half, not to mince meat about it, is, like, dumb, and the second soaps it up with the finesse of a car wash. Plus the direction is sappy, with swish pans and superimposed montages; and then there’s that whole courtroom climax when Lana’s on trial for murder and refuses to name herself (so that explains the title). But—pay attention, ‘cause I mean it—I was really moved by Lana’s performance in these scenes. Her acting is like an open wound—sitting utterly still, she’s, like, a woman drained, a blank who can no longer think or feel, only breathe. No dramatics here: no brimming eyelids or heaving sighs. Lana holds it back, the tears and the tremors (for once her soft voice is effective), she knows this woman is clinging to an innate dignity to survive; and her look of wonder when she realizes her grown son is defending her—I know, I know, it’s as schmaltzy as marshmallows and cream puffs, but Lana does it beautifully, with just her eyes. By not playing for pity, Lana stirs up ours—a woman who’s killed to preserve a dignified memory for her child, and who asks for nothing more than to be left unknown. It’s ain’t played for camp and I have a feeling audiences even today wouldn’t treat it as such. That’s how good Lana is.

So that’s what I have to say, my friends, about Lana and Madame X and the art of acting. I’m no famous film critic, but I just gotta say it: a little respect is due our gal here. Maybe this flick is just a tearjerker (oh unfairly reviled word!), but Lana gets at something true, sincere, and honest in it. She earns those tears she brings to our eyes, and I, for one, am gonna stand up and applaud her for it.

And I totally mean that. Like, heartfelt-wise.

Bonus Clip: Okay, here’s, like, the original trailer for 1966’s Madame X—”another deep emotional experience—for once, they kinda get it right:

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