Wednesday, September 23, 2009

On Your Toes

I don’t like baseball, but I love movies about baseball. You see all the good parts without the long, boring stretches. The same may be true for many people regarding ballet. Even if you would not spend an evening at the ballet, there are three movies about ballet that I believe are movie-making at its best.


The Red Shoes (1948) is probably the most famous of ballet-themed movies. Starring prima ballerina Moira Shearer, it is a story of conflict, love and tragedy. The Hans Christian Anderson tale about a girl who covets a pair of red shoes, only to find that they will never stop dancing, is mirrored in the story of ballerina Vicky Page (Shearer). Her love of dance and fascination with Lermontov (Anton Walbrook), the ballet impresario who is a thinly disguised version of real-life ballet producer Diaghilev, collides with her wish for normal love and life with composer Julian Craster (Marius Goring). This conflict is portrayed on a melodramatic and epic scale.

This film is rich in color, incredible music by Brian Easdale, and the genius of writer-producer-directors Powell and Pressburger (also famous for their film Black Narcissus). The Ballet of the Red Shoes, starring and choreographed by ballet master Robert Helpmann is a marvel of impressionistic artistry. The great Leonide Massine created the role of the demonic shoemaker. Both give performances that rival the sinister Walbrook, the emotive Goring and the ethereal Shearer.




In 1977, director Herbert Ross filmed The Turning Point, starring Anne Bancroft, Shirley Maclaine, the great Mikhail Baryshnikov and young ballerina Leslie Browne. Alternating between the often idealized world of ballet and the everyday world of marriage and family, the film revolves around the relationship between aging prima ballerina Emma (Bancroft) and former ballerina turned wife and mother Deedee (Maclaine). The complex relationship between the two women see-saws from love to anger, from jealousy to need. Their turmoil comes to a head in a fight you will not soon forget. Meanwhile, Baryshnikov and Browne strike up their own star-crossed love affair. Basically a study of people and relationships, the film is filled with incredible dancing to some of ballet’s most famous and beautiful scores. In all respects, The Turning Point is a tour de force.


Herbert Ross turned to ballet again with 1980’s Nijinsky. George de la Pena plays and dances the doomed Vaslav Nijinsky, premiere dancer of the Ballet Russe in the early 20th Century. Alan Bates is wonderfully effete as Diaghilev, impresario of the Ballet Russe and Nijinsky’s lover. Leslie Browne appears again as a naïve lovestruck girl who eventually marries Nijinsky. This marriage causes an irreparable rift between Diaghilev and Nijinsky, ending Nijinsky’s career with the Ballet Russe. De la Pena dances three of Nijinsky’s most famous performances, Spectre de la Rose, Scheherazade and Afternoon of a Faun, all presented with splendid artistry and authenticity. It is with Afternoon of a Faun that Nijinsky performs an indecent act on stage, and his eventual descent into madness begins. Although not an actor per se, de la Pena does an admirable job bringing to disturbing life the hysterical nature of Nijinsky, as well as his downward spiral at a very young age into the semi-comatose state in which he spent the remainder of his life.

So, if you don’t like baseball but enjoy baseball movies, take a chance on these three wonderful films. You will never forget them.

11 comments:

  1. I confess I haven't seen NIJINSKY, but have watched the other two and enjoyed them. All Powell & Pressberger movies appeal (even though TALES OF HOFFMAN wasn't my cup of tea). In the 1980s, my wife and I were members of a nonprofit film society and suggested holding a celebrity auction to raise money for the group's film rentals. We wrote Michael Powell, who sent an autobiographed paperback of THE RED SHOES...and the nicest personal letter about the importance of sharing one's love of the cinema (typed on his Archers stationery, no less). The paperback brought in a tidy sum during the auction. We kept the letter.

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  3. I was at the first night public showing of The Turning Point at the Avco Center In Westwood CA. It was some night. Herbert Ross was a one time member of ABT the Troupe used in the film. The " Cat Fight is one of the most realistic in it's final outcome ever put on film.I love this film.

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  4. Becky - I happened to see this first at CFU (I had just checked my messages there and replied to a message from Paul) and I posted a long comment that I won't repeat here except to say that is is one beautiful blog...great job describing each film...superb!

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  5. Eve, just wanted you and other members to know that I posted this first here on the Cafe. I wanted it to have it's "world premiere" here. The Cafe is a special place to me.

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  6. Becky, beautiful post. These are all "new to me " films. After reading your review. i can't wait to see them. THE RED SHOES will be first on my list.

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  7. Great blog. My wife loves dancing, and she would greatly enjoy a night of watching ballet. Thank you for a list of movies that would save me from a night of sheer boredom: "Hey, baby, let's stay home and watch a movie instead!"

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  8. Becky,
    This is a really terrific blog. I have never seen any of these movies and, until reading this blog, had little desire to see them. You've broadened my horizons!

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  9. Becky,Michael Powell's widow and Martin Scorese, have worked on a new print/ transfer of The Red Shoes, It was shown at Canes,and has benn run on the MGM HD Channel in Widescreen and 1080i High Def. It Is Mind Blowing .I do not know if there are plans to release it on Blu Ray.

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  10. Paul, I get MGM HD on DTV--I will look for The Red Shoes. Thanks for sharing this info.

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  11. Becky, this was a wonderful post! I loved your comparison to movies about baseball, too, and the point is quite well taken. As someone with a partiality to red slippers :) I also enjoyed "The Red Shoes." I love Hans Christian Andersen. His stories are often moral tales that are quite thought provoking. And marrying that into the loving hands of Powell and Pressburger makes for cinema magic.

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