Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Daisy Miller (1974)

          Cocksure young director Peter Bogdanovich was poised for a fall after the back-to-back triumphs of The Last Picture Show (1971), What’s Up, Doc? (1972), and Paper Moon (1973), and the fall happened when the Henry James adaptation Daisy Miller hit movie screens in the summer of 1974. In addition to the usual jealousy surrounding anyone who achieves success, critics had their knives out because Bogdanovich had left his wife, producer Polly Platt, for Last Picture Show costar Cybill Shepherd, a former model.
          Therefore, when he cast his pretty lover in the title role of a major film, wags characterized Bogdanovich as a horny Svengali. And indeed, Shepherd isn’t right for the role: Though she later developed strong light-comedy skills, at the time she was too inexperienced to pull off such a daunting acting challenge. In her defense, the role could have bested far more seasoned performers, because Daisy has to come across as enchanting and infuriating at the same time. The character is a flirtatious, motor-mouthed American touring Europe in the late 19th century with her absent-minded mother (Cloris Leachman). She scandalizes other members of expat high society by keeping company with single men, including exasperated American aristocrat Frederick Winterbourne (Barry Brown), who desperately wants to defy convention by telling Daisy that he’s in love with her, even though she comes from a family of low birth.
          It’s easy to see what Bogdanovich and screenwriter Frederic Raphael were going for, and what they nearly achieve: The movie barrels through dense dialogue at such a fast clip that the filmmakers want viewers to be as breathless as Winterbourne, caught in the wake of Daisy’s reckless exuberance. The script is terrific—sly in some stretches, arch in others—and Bogdanovich uses the camera so precisely that the movie is as slick as any Michael Curtiz gem from the heyday of the studio era. Brown’s sad-eyed bewilderment anchors the movie perfectly, and Eileen Brennan is fabulous in an atypical role as his disapproving upper-crust aunt. Leachman is strong but underused as Daisy’s mother, sharply demonstrating in just a few scenes where Daisy got her gift of gab, and a very young James McMurtry (son of Last Picture Show author Larry McMurtry, and now an acclaimed singer-songwriter), gives an amusing performance as Daisy’s wiseass little brother.
          But the whole movie ultimately rests on Shepherd’s shoulders, and she’s not up to the task. The actress gamely powers through the script’s mile-a-minute dialogue, and she lands some great loaded glances in isolated close-ups, but she never seems comfortable or real. Moreover, she’s so icy that it’s hard to believe men are falling over themselves to be with her. The genius casting for Daisy Miller would have been Goldie Hawn, presuming she could pull off 19th-century diction, or perhaps Diane Keaton. Alas, while Shepherd doesn’t give an awful performance by any stretch, she’s simply not playing on the same level as everyone else involved in the movie. This is a shame, since her performance holds the movie back from greatness; as is, Daisy Miller is admirable but not amazing.

Daisy Miller: GROOVY

1 comment:

Will Errickson said...

I like to imagine an alternate '70s cinema universe in which Diane Keaton played nearly every female role.