Saturday, August 26, 2006

Dorothy Malone Stirs Up a Turbulent Wind

Considered the jewel in the Douglas Sirk cannon, I first saw 1956's Written on the Wind as a movie-hungry teenager in the early 1980's, and instantly became an obsessive lifelong fan of the film, Sirk, and the movie's beautiful 'linchpin' star, Dorothy Malone. Although I wasn't able to view the film again for many years (until it was finally released on VHS), Wind remained so prominent in my melodrama-loving conscience I even found myself dreaming of key moments from the film, and I wasn't disappointed when I finally was able to view the movie anew. Fifty years after its initial release, Written on the Wind still provides thrills for film fans interested in seeing a prime (and nostalgic) cinematic depiction at what constituted "daring" subject matter for a mid-1950's audience.

Sirk was a gifted storyteller with a distinct visual style, and his adeptness at mixing eye-catching color schemes with performer, music, and editing reach a zenith in Wind, and the director creates wonderfully vivid dramatic sequences while unfolding the tale of siblings Kyle and Marylee Hadley, two young, gorgeous, and spoiled-as-hell Texas tycoons out to stir up a wealth of trouble for their lifelong friend, Mitch Wayne (Rock Hudson), Kyle's beautiful, class-A new bride, Lucy (Lauren Bacall), their frequently concerned father, Jasper (Robert Keith), and any other inhabitant of the small but lively town of Hadley this dynamic duo comes in contact with. From the film's fantastic opening moments, wherein Wind's four stars vividly enact the climax of the movie while the credits unfold to the Four Aces crooning the Oscar-nominated title song, it's clear Sirk's considerable powers are in peak form. Wasting no time in quickly establishing the main characters and the story's arc (but not completely revealing the climax's outcome), Sirk ensures the audience's attention will remain unwavering throughout the film, as we eagerly anticipate who'll do what to whom at the film's culmination.

In their roles as handsome, saintly, idealistic hero and beautiful, understanding, compassionate wife Hudson and Bacall (who, like Malone, is at her most unspeakably alluring) provide blueprints for two of the more reliable 1950's "leading role" types, while Oscar nominee Robert Stack fits right into the flamboyant swing of things, convincingly offering a portrait of Kyle Hadley that dexterously combines believable intensity with a showier, more dramatic approach. However, the film's most enduring appeal lies in Dorothy Malone's incredible, striking depiction of Marylee Hadley. In her florid, energetic portrayal of one of the cinema's classic "bad-but-good" girls, Malone manages to make something real of an extravagant, improbable character (for example, Marylee's so unbelievably mean that, just for the hell of it, she adopts a self-satisfied smirk when it becomes obvious the drunk, insanely jealous Kyle is upstairs beating the crap out of his pregnant wife; nevertheless, Malone makes the smirk "play" on screen). Unlike stars in many Oscar-winning performances Malone, although working with a part rich in drama, clearly appears to be fully enjoying siezing her opportunity to shine in a breakout, meaty role while, dramatically-speaking, she's also giving it all she's got in every scene- Malone's adept mixture of art and pop places Marylee Hadley among the cinema's most indelible creations, and Malone's colorful work remains entertaining and passionate regardless of the number of times Wind is viewed.

Malone's forceful-yet-effortlessly-sensual interpretation, combined with Sirk's genius, produces some truly awesome moments: Marylee tossing the contents of her drink into a potted plant after meeting, then abruptly dismissing Lucy; Malone's long, provocative gazes at Hudson; Marylee at the river, recollecting the lost innocence she shared with Mitch in their idyllic youth; and the film's centerpiece scene, wherein Marylee undulates her way through "Temptation" after a wild night on the town with the local "pump” jockey, while her father crashes down the stairs just outside her door (this scene represents the masterful apex for hyperbolic storytelling in the cinema). Even though sometimes Malone's colorful gestures (grabbing her head-or a miniature oil derrick- in moments of anguish, arching her neck and eyebrows while in her full-tilt 'viper mode') appear old-school and ultra melodramatic, the actress still manages to make these moments work for Marylee in memorable and true fashion- Dorothy Malone is in perfect synch with Marylee Hadley throughout Wind, marking one of those happy instances wherein role and performer mysteriously amalgamate on film in a beautiful, harmonious fashion.

Malone is immeasurably aided by adept vocal modulation, which she skillfully uses to bestow added dimension to the character: for example, when Marylee yearningly utters "Yes, those wonderful, lost afternoons" to Mitch, Malone adopts a tone of melancholic desperation which clearly conveys the considerable depth of Marylee's affection for Mitch; later, in Marylee's big confrontation scene with Kyle, Malone drips acid as she spits out, "I'm filthy, period!" in such a convincing manner the audience never pauses to wonder at the strained nature of the dialogue (as in, "Who really talks like that?").

Malone's ability to suggest the tender spirit existing beneath Marylee's tough, sometimes vengeful exterior enables the character's unrequited love for Mitch to become the film's most touching, memorable plot point. Malone clearly enjoyed working with the stoic-but-strapping Hudson, and she's wonderful with him, whether Marylee's a phenomenally carnal siren leaning in to seduce Mitch on a couch (when Malone, eyes ablaze in wanton lust, agressively states, "I can think of much better things than making smart talk," it's clear what she has in mind, and she's sexier than any nubile, unclad starlet could ever hope to be), or when she's showing a rare "nice" side to her nature, while picnicking with Mitch at their old childhood retreat (wherein Marylee/Malone spontaneously breaks out in a wide, appealing smile after one of Mitch's/Hudson's retorts, which perfectly captures Marylee's adoration of Mitch, as well as Malone's fondness for her costar). Although I think Malone's finest work on screen came the following year in another great Sirk drama, The Tarnished Angels, her Marylee Hadley remains my favorite supporting performance of all time, and stands as a shining, invaluable contribution to the greatest potboiler in cinema history.


At 1:57 PM, Blogger Criticlasm said...

I love this perf, too. I need to see this movie again--thanks for bringing it up. And you're a libra economist who lives in CA? Why haven't we met? :) I'm an old friend of Stinkylulu's and live in LA. Love the blog. Posting more on LiveJournal myself, but will keep checking out yours.


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