Viewer Guide: Laura and Grandma with Richard Peña

February 23, 2018 | Richard Peña

Your weekly peek into what’s coming up next on REEL 13, written by host Richard Peña.

REEL 13 CLASSIC | LAURA

Laura (1944)

This week’s REEL 13 classic is Laura (1944), a crime drama that’s often cited as one of the first “film noir” to emerge in the American cinema, starring Gene Tierney, Dana Andrews, and Clifton Webb, produced and directed by Otto Preminger.

At first glance, Laura seems a somewhat unlikely candidate to be considered a noir: its posh settings and the ambience of New York City’s high society seem to link it more directly to earlier cinematic society thrillers such as the popular Thin Man series. Yet as the plot unspools, it’s soon clear that there’s something truly rotten going on just beneath the upper crust. As with many other noirs, the twisty narrative begins in voiceover, except the words are not those of the world-weary, hardboiled detective Mark McPherson, played by Dana Andrews; instead, they belong to Waldo Lydecker, an at times witty, at times acerbic, but always powerful newspaper columnist brilliantly played by Clifton Webb. McPherson has come to see Lydecker regarding the murder of Laura Hunt, a successful advertising executive, glamorous socialite, and a kind of protégé of Lydecker’s. McPherson also enlists Lydecker’s help in introducing him to the possible suspects within Laura’s inner circle, including her opportunistic fiancé, played by a surprisingly charming Vincent Price, as well as her well-to-do aunt, played by Judith Anderson.

As McPherson sifts through the potential evidence he finds in Laura’s empty apartment, he becomes increasingly obsessed with the murder victim, whose beautiful portrait looms large over the fireplace—a striking image made all the more haunting by composer David Raksin’s famous theme song. And as portrayed by Gene Tierney, one of Hollywood’s legendary beauties, who became a star after this film, it’s easy to see why McPherson becomes so driven to solve the case. But when an unexpected visitor walks through Laura’s doorway, the investigation takes a dramatic turn that McPherson never could have anticipated.

Much like its complicated plot, the production of Laura took several twists before making it to the silver screen. Producer Otto Preminger originally tried to develop a theater adaptation of author Vera Caspary’s novel by the same title, but Caspary parted ways with Preminger to pursue other collaborators. After Broadway plans stalled out, Caspary optioned her book to 20th Century Fox, where it was eventually assigned back with Preminger as a movie project. This time around, Preminger avoided involving Caspary in developing the screenplay. Among the changes Preminger sought to undertake was an expansion of Waldo Lydecker’s character, which Caspary was not happy about.

Also not happy was Fox studio chief Daryl F. Zanuck, who had previously locked horns with Preminger and was displeased to find him attached to the project upon his return from wartime military service. Zanuck tried to limit Preminger’s role to producing only and reassigned directing duties to Rouben Mamoulian. But after screening disappointing rushes with actor Laird Cregar in the role of Lydecker, Zanuck relented and allowed Preminger to take back directing duties from Mamoulian, with Clifton Webb—long absent from the movies—re-cast in the role of Lydecker. Still, the turmoil still wasn’t over: underwhelmed by Preminger’s interpretation, Zanuck demanded a new conclusion in which Lydecker supposedly “imagined” the whole story.  It wasn’t until Walter Winchell—the real power columnist of the era—told Zanuck he didn’t understand the ending that Zanuck was forced to let Preminger restore his original finale.

Contemporary film scholars have often pointed out Laura’s dream-like atmosphere, chillingly evoked at the moment of Laura’s return. McPherson clearly has become obsessed with Laura, goes to her apartment, has a few drinks and falls asleep; while he’s dozing, we hear a door open and Laura walks in. A return from the dead—or detective McPherson’s wish fulfillment? David Raskin’s theme song seems to tell us much, as it concludes with the claim that Laura “is only a dream.”

 

REEL 13 INDIE | GRANDMA

Grandma (2015)

This week’s indie is GRANDMA, a 2015 comedy-drama directed by Paul Weitz.

Lily Tomlin stars as Elle, a 70-something retired academic, poet, and, yes, “grandma,” who is still emotionally wobbly after the recent death of Violet, her life partner of 38 years. Although Elle is the kind of person who seems to take pride in being bluntly confrontational, her grief still bubbles up in private moments when there’s no one to witness her emotional fragility. Harshly breaking off a new relationship of four months with a younger woman, Elle seems determined to be on her own, resigned to a solitary status and dwelling more in the past than the present.

But an unexpected visit from her granddaughter Sage abruptly pulls Elle out of her private torpor. Played by Julia Garner, Sage informs Elle that not only is she pregnant, but she has an appointment for an abortion that very afternoon at 5:45 PM, with only $18 in hand to pay for the $630 procedure. Elle unexpectedly finds herself embroiled in a pressurized quest to help Sage find the money, which initially begins with the goal of not involving Sage’s mother (and Elle’s daughter) Judy, a high-powered lawyer played by Marcia Gay Harden, the polar opposite of her bohemian mother. Appearing in cameo roles through the course of Elle and Sage’s day-long odyssey are Nat Wolff, Laverne Cox, Elizabeth Peña, and Sam Elliott as Elle’s resentful ex-husband.

Taking on one of the most controversial and emotionally charged issues in American society, Grandma walks a fine line in balancing an off-beat comedy with a dramatic exploration of a subject that, of course, is no laughing matter. In his first film, the 1999 blockbuster comedy American Pie, director Paul Weitz recounted the misadventures of a group of teenage guys determined to lose their virginity by prom night. One might see Grandma as the flip side of American Pie. In Grandma, he has created a multi-generational tableau of American women, ranging from Elle’s groundbreaking feminism, to her daughter Judy’s unabashed careerism, to her granddaughter Sage’s general obliviousness of the hard-won accomplishments of the women who have come before her. The narrative is full of encounters that underline the characters’ self-delusions and contradictions, but the film never tries to score easy points.  Despite its comic tone, Grandma doesn’t take Sage’s choice lightly, with Elle making the point early on it’s a decision she will probably think about every day for the rest of her life—something Elle knows from experience.

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