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Acting superb in Stan and Ollie

(From left) John C. Reilly and Steve Coogan play the titular roles of Oliver Hardy and Stan Laurel. (Entertainment One photo)

 

By Leonard Heldreth
This month’s films include two biographical films and a new film by a controversial Greek director.

STAN AND OLLIE

Director John S. Baird’s film opens in 1937 when Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy were at the peak of their fame, and he sets the stage with a long tracking shot that follows the two men crossing the Hal Roach studio lot while arguing about their working conditions and pay; eventually they arrive at the set of Way Out West and seamlessly slip into their roles, performing the famous soft shoe routine from that film on set, and then sliding into the film itself, as they exit through the saloon doors.
The film then cuts to 1953; the famous duo has aged, their fame has declined, and they are about to embark on a tour of the U.K., partly just to drum up some badly needed money and partly to raise funds and establish their credibility to make a new movie about Robin Hood (the film was never made). Instead of staying in luxury hotels and eating at fancy restaurants, they stay in run-down resorts and perform in fading music halls. But with some carefully planned public relations skits, they build up their following, although they are still arguing over various matters. Then Hardy has a heart attack and ends up in the hospital. How it all works out makes a nice conclusion to a charming movie.
The acting throughout is superb, as Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly are totally believable as Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy. Coogan’s Laurel is the more subtle performance, and he manages to keep the physical characteristics and facial expressions of the skinny comedian just right; it doesn’t become a caricature. Reilly, swaddled in a fat suit that took four hours to apply and left only his eyes visible, captures Hardy’s physical appearance and also his constant frustration with Laurel, as he mutters, “Another fine mess.” Both men were married several times, and it is Hardy’s third spouse, Lucille (Shirley Henderson), and Laurel’s fourth wife, Ida (Nina Arianda), who join the comedians in London; both actresses are excellent and hold their own in the ensemble scenes.
Like most Hollywood films, the script doesn’t let the facts get in the way of a good story. Despite the opening shot, Laurel and Hardy worked out their differences with Hal Roach and made several more films with him. They had also done previous British stage tours—
in 1932, in 1947, and in 1952, the latter apparently the basis for most of the events in the film. As the film winds down, its focus shifts to the relationship between the two comedians and to the fact that as performers, their time is running out; they have no choice but to make way for new blood. All four leads reflect this quality as they deal with Hardy’s illness and question whether or not they should continue the tour. Fortunately, the film usually strikes the right balance between scenes of laugh-out-loud comedy and those of quiet, effective drama. It’s a must-see for fans; for those wanting to see more, the 10-disc DVD Laurel & Hardy: The Essential Collection, covers most of their sound-era shorts & features (1929-1940).

THE FAVOURITE
Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos’s three previous films—Dogtooth (2009), The Lobster (2015) and The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017)—were all surrealistic or fantastic in major ways. The Lobster sent people to a hotel for single individuals where they had to find a mate in forty-five days or be turned into an animal, while The Killing of a Sacred Deer chronicled a young man’s search for revenge on the doctor who may have had a drink before a botched surgery and killed his father. The latter two were recommended in these pages with qualifications, and while Lanthimos’s most recent film is clearly more mainstream, it also must come with qualifications. Heavily influenced by the ribald and often obscene genre of Restoration drama, The Favourite is laced with witty, often four-letter word dialogue, vicious repartee and characters with very few redeeming qualities. Among the cast at the end are “Fastest Duck in the City,” “Wanking Man” and “Nude Pomegranate Tory,” the latter a reference to a scene where spectators throw rotten fruit at an overweight man in a huge wig. Despite these drawbacks (if they are seen as such), The Favourite was nominated for nine Academy Awards.
The Favourite is based on a minor historical fact: in January 1711, Queen Anne, the last Stuart monarch to occupy the British throne, appointed a former chambermaid named Abigail Hill to be Keeper of the Privy Purse, thus decisively reversing the fortunes of Sarah Churchill, the Duchess of Marlborough, who had previously been the queen’s most trusted adviser. The film traces the political, personal, and sexual manipulations that led to this change.
Anne took the throne in 1702 and reigned until her death in 1714, after which George I inaugurated the Hapsburg dynasty. Overweight and burdened with ill health, Anne (Olivia Coleman) had tried to produce an heir but miscarried or otherwise lost the child 17 times. Anne kept 17 pet rabbits to commemorate her losses, and when she commands Lady Sarah Churchill, the Duchess of Marlborough (Rachel Weitz), to say hello to the queen’s “babies,” Churchill tells the monarch, “Love has its limits,” but the queen snaps back, “It should not.”
The film opens with Churchill as the queen’s most trusted advisor, and in that position she manipulates the court, oversees the war with France (her husband is Lord Marlborough—Mark Gatiss—commander in chief of the British army), and generally has her own way. She also has the ear of powerful politician Sidney Godolphin (James Smith), nominally a Tory but aligned with the opposing Whigs, who wish to continue England’s war against France and propose doubling the tax on landowners to finance it.
Coming into this scene and ultimately vying for the queen’s attention is ex-aristocrat Abigail Masham (Emma Stone), whose father lost the family fortune, including her, at a card game, leaving her to throw herself on the mercy of her cousin, Lady Marlborough. (A man sitting opposite her and fondling himself hints at what awaits her if she cannot find help; when she doesn’t respond, he shoves her out of the coach into the mud.) Her cousin does help her, and Abigail is soon working her way up from being kitchen help to ingratiating herself with the queen (some reviewers saw echoes of a pre-Grimm version of Cinderella while others saw a clearer reference to All About Eve). The last part of the film details how Abigail out-manipulates Sarah, ingratiates herself with the queen, and becomes the new “favourite.”
The acting is excellent throughout with Weitz and Stone both receiving best supporting actor nominations and Olivia Coleman winning the Oscar for best actress. The Favourite also received Academy Award nominations for best picture, best director, best original screenplay, best cinematography, best production design, and best costume design.

Felicity Jones portrays Ruth Bader Ginsburg in the biographical film about the early years of the future Supreme Court Justice. (Amblin Partners photo)

ON THE BASIS OF SEX
On the Basis of Sex is a film biography of the early years of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s career. It opens with her entering Harvard Law School, one of only nine women in that class, and concludes after her first major legal victory, in which she and her husband defended Charles Moritz (Chris Mulkey), a Colorado man who was denied a tax benefit routinely given to women caring for family members. Moritz’s problem? He had a mother who needed to be cared for while he was on the road as a salesman, but he was a bachelor, a group that was not included in the tax benefit. Had he been female or a widower, he would have had no problem.
The film also shows Ginsburg (played by Felicity Jones, with Ginsburg’s approval) attending Columbia Law School after dropping out of Harvard after three years to care for her husband (Armie Hammer), who developed cancer. Despite completing all the requirements for Harvard, she was unable to convince Erwin Griswold (Sam Waterston), the dean of the law school, to award her the degree. So she took a degree from Columbia and helped her husband finish his Harvard degree.
The film was made with Ginsberg’s cooperation: her nephew Daniel Stiepleman wrote the screenplay; she reviewed the screenplay for accuracy; and she has a walk-on at the end. Felicity Jones is fine as Ginsberg, and Armie Hammer is excellent as her husband and help-mate (the film shows their life together and their family). Kathy Bates has a solid supporting role as civil rights lawyer Dorothy Kenyon, and Mel Wulf of the ACLU is played by Justin Theroux.
On the Basis of Sex is probably not the definitive work on Ruth Bader Ginsburg (it by no means covers her career), but it’s well done, and anyone interested in the Associate Justice and her career thus far will definitely want to see it.
(All films reviewed are available as DVDs from local stores.)

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