(*homocinematically inclined)

Friday, September 21, 2018

Reverend's Reviews: There Is Nothing Like a Dame

Who wouldn't want to sit down for a drink with British acting legends Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Joan Plowright and Eileen Atkins? Well, you have your chance with the delightful, intimate Tea with the Dames, opening this weekend in NYC and next Friday in Los Angeles. And let me just say that they don't only drink tea!

This insightful documentary by Roger Michell (best known for the narrative films Notting Hill, Venus and My Cousin Rachel) is the next best thing to being in the same room with these celebrated women of stage and screen. All four have been honored by Queen Elizabeth II for their memorable contributions to the arts, hence their "dames" status. While they have grown elderly, three members of this distinguished quartet continue to work regularly. Sadly, Plowright has more recently gone blind, which prompts Dench at one point to comment hilariously "We have three eyes between the four of us."

Gathered together at Plowright's comfortably elegant country home (which she shared with her late husband, Sir Laurence Olivier), they all share anecdotes about their past performances, marriages, and other achievements. Children are frequently mentioned as another significant accomplishment, especially by Dame Maggie. True to form, though, Smith humorously disses her Downton Abbey wardrobe, her stage debut playing a Chinese boy(!), and this doc's sometimes intrusive cameraman. It's also great to watch Smith and Dench, who first met at the Edinburgh Theatre Festival way back in 1958, repeatedly crack each other up.

All four offer interesting recollections and bits of advice. "Listen more," Atkins would instruct her younger self. "When in doubt, don't," Smith wisely recommends. For Plowright, exploring "the difference between actual truth and illusion" has become paramount. They also all reflect on not being considered "conventionally pretty" at the start of their careers and how irrelevant that ultimately proved to be.

Tea with the Dreams provides a truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience (at least until it comes out on home video/streaming) and I'm so glad Michell was inspired to gather these spectacular talents together. As the Queen herself would surely proclaim: "Miss this film at your peril!"

The Oscar-nominated, American actor Montgomery Clift might have bristled at being referred to as a "dame," but he likely would have preferred it to some of the other terms with which he was described before and/or after his premature death in 1966 at the age of 45. Clift was criticized as "a gay tragedy," "self-destructive" and "a beautiful loser," the last also serving as the title of a proposed biopic about this unquestionably talented, sensitive yet troubled man. He made his film debut in the 1948 western Red River, prompting co-star John Wayne to call him "an arrogant little bastard."

Making Montgomery Clift, a uniquely intimate exploration of his life and work, will be having its world premiere this Sunday, September 23rd, at the LA Film Festival. Directed and photographed by Monty's nephew, Robert Clift, it incorporates excerpts from the voluminous recordings of phone conversations preserved by the actor as well as his late brother, Brooks (Robert's father).

Monty proved to be a pioneer in several ways. While he didn't apparently shirk at being thought of as gay, he was actually bisexual and had relationships with women (including Elizabeth Taylor) as well as men. He refused to be put under contract to a particular studio, making Clift one of the first true "free agents" in Hollywood. And while he was often lumped in with the method actors of his generation, Clift himself was publicly critical of "the method" that made stars of several of his contemporaries including Marlon Brando.

All of these facts are illustrated in this illuminating documentary. Despite the mysterious conditions surrounding his death, Monty declared "I have a rather large capacity for life." Robert Clift doesn't resolve all these conundrums, with the role of the late Lorenzo James (Monty's black male "nurse" his last few years) one of the more perplexing. James' voice is heard in the film but he refused to be interviewed or appear on camera. Another lingering question after watching Making Montgomery Clift is whether or not Monty was actually having an on-camera nervous breakdown in the Oscar-winning movie Judgment at Nuremberg.

Although Robert Clift never met his famous uncle, he does his best here to clear Monty of decades of untruths and false allegations. Montgomery Clift's fans as well as fans of classic Hollywood will surely find this doc fascinating.

Reverend's Ratings:
Tea with the Dames: A
Making Montgomery Clift: A-

Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film and stage critic of Movie Dearest and Rage Monthly Magazine.

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