Lost in the Movies (formerly The Dancing Image): A Quick One - The Country Girl

Saturday, December 20, 2008

A Quick One - The Country Girl

[As December, and with it 2008, comes to a close, let me take a moment to look back on several recently viewed (but undiscussed) movies. Each "Quick One" will be a paragraph, with the open invitation for you to keep the discussion going by leaving comments.]

Although it's Grace Kelly who won the Oscar (for improbably - yet somewhat successfully - playing down her beauty to appear dowdy), Bing Crosby dominates The Country Girl. The Clifford Odets script (based on his own play) is often overbearing in its histrionics and the behavior of Kelly and William Holden, playing his trademark vulnerable cynic, whose blistering misogyny may mask more conflicted feelings about Kelly, often feels forced. They seem to be struggling against the material, whose convolution and cerebral, belabored misery grows exhausting. Whereas Bing floats buoyantly on the surface of his characters' pathos - as a wretched, self-loathing alcoholic actor (given a second chance by Holden's producer), he's nonetheless smooth and clever while being pathetic and self-pitying at the same time. Director George Seaton must deserve some credit (unless you believe, with Tom Stempel, that only screenwriters and actors need create a performance) - he's tapped into the troubled waters beneath Bing's placid surface, while managing to expose the malicious manipulation inherent in the old crooner's smooth demeanor. One of the best scenes finds Crosby in a bar, drowning himself in another shot of whiskey, only to perk up and turn around in his seat when the bar singer wanders in his direction, singing along and effortlessly stealing her thunder with cocky good cheer and false humility. There's pain in those eyes, but there's also a ruthlessness, and they're inseparable, and he knows it, and he relishes and deplores the fact at the same time. The character is always performing and that hint of desperation in his face, coupled with a devilish delight, is there because he doesn't know how to stop, or where performance ends and reality begins.

2 comments:

Dean Treadway said...

Coincidentally, I just watched Seaton's movie recently, and was also struck by how much Crosby dominates the film. I know now that Crosby himself was somewhat of a liar in real life, betraying his easy-going persona in his real life by being a notoriously cruel and inhumane father to his tortured children (he once forced one of his boys, with whom he was angry, to parade around in front of a gaggle of his famous Hollywood friends with the nearly naked boy's underwear on his head). Given that his character in COUNTRY GIRL is a bald-faced non-truth-teller, I wonder if Crosby conciously or subconciously found much of himself in the role, and thus by association delivered his most nuanced screen performance. Yes, Kelly is good. But it's Crosby's movie. And a very good one at that.

MovieMan0283 said...

I wondered the same thing - does this character reflect certain aspects of Crosby's persona? I'd heard about his cruelty to his children, though never in specifics. Ultimately, I don't think it matters exactly - the important thing is that the performance feels like its plumbing depths, and playing with our own perceptions of Crosby's smooth, always charming public persona.