Making fun of The Turning Point requires little effort, since it’s such a consummate “chick flick” that it almost seems like it was designed to repel heterosexual males—the picture is a tearjerker about friendship in the ballet world starring two middle-aged women. And, indeed, the movie’s narrative is exactly as soapy as the premise might suggest. That said, The Turning Point is worthwhile in every important way. The acting is great, the cinematography is beautiful, the dancing is terrific, the direction is fluid, and the writing is intelligent. In short, The Turning Point is highbrow schmaltz—very much like The Way We Were (1973), another project that sprang from the pen of writer Arthur Laurents.
The Turning Point tells the story of two lifelong friends who reconnect after a long period of estrangement. As young women, DeeDee (Shirley MacLaine) and Emma (Anne Bancroft) were both promising ballerinas in New York City. DeeDee chose family, hooking up with fellow dancer Wayne (Tom Skerritt) to set up housekeeping in Oklahoma, while Emma became a star. The picture begins with Emma arriving in Oklahoma for a performance, which occasions a reunion with her old friend after the show. As the women subsequently bond and clash, old differences manifest in harsh judgments about each other’s lives. The picture also tracks the ascendance of DeeDee’s daughter, Emilia (Leslie Browne), a promising young ballerina onto whom both older women project their dreams. The biggest subplot involves Emilia’s hot romance with Yuri, a ballet star played by (and modeled after) Mikhail Baryshnikov.
The movie’s torrid narrative tackles such themes as age, ambition, betrayal, jealousy, regret, and, eventually, the gaining of wisdom through experience. Much of the film, of course, is devoted to dance, with long sequences of Bancroft faking her way through routines and of real-life dancers Baryshnikov and Browne strutting their stuff. Director Herbert Ross, himself a former dancer, clearly approached this film with great love—in fact, Browne was his godchild—and he generated both impassioned acting and lyrical imagery. Nobody phones in a performance for The Turning Point, and all four principal players—Bancroft, Baryshinkov, Browne, and MacLaine—received Oscar nominations. (The picture scored 11 nods in all, though it lost in every category.)
Yet even with such exemplary work, The Turning Point is not one of those niche-interest movies that surpasses its inherent limitations by speaking to universal themes. Viewers who don’t dig ballet or scenes of women talking about their feelings will find little to love here. Even the picture’s breakout star, Baryshnikov, is a treat for the ladies, because he’s charismatic, muscular, and sensitive—an exotic hunk in tights. So perhaps it’s best to regard The Turning Point as a beautifully made throwback to the studio era, when such powerful actresses as Joan Crawford and Bette Davis regularly starred in what are now pejoratively referred to as “women’s pictures.”
The Turning Point: GROOVY