Friday, September 4, 2009

Review: Sweet Charity

When we were in Provincetown one night at the video bar, they showed this video of a bizarre dance sequence that none of us knew but liked for its craziness. Someone nearby must have overheard us talking about it, because they told us it was from Sweet Charity, the film starring Shirley MacLaine. We made an attempt to rent the DVD while we were there, but we couldn't get it. Thanks to Netflix, I just watched it tonight. What a strange musical!

I really knew nothing about it before now. In 2005, Christina Applegate starred in a Broadway revival that got so-so reviews, and that was about all I knew until tonight. It premiered on Broadway in 1966 with Bob Fosse as choreographer and director. Fosse went on to perform the same roles when the film version was made in 1969 with MacLaine as Charity Hope Valentine, the dance-hall girl who goes through man after man in her idealistic search for love. The story was originally a Federico Fellini film entitled Le notti di Cabiria, in which the lead was quite blatantly a prostitute. Broadway and Hollywood, of course, cleaned this up for America and made her "just" a dance-hall girl, but even that had issues, as the story shows. In fact, one of the things that struck me with the film was how it was striving to be modern, addressing issues of sexuality and the place of women in society, and using musical numbers and dances that were wild for the day. Charity even has a tattoo! At the same time it conformed to traditional musical status (think The Sound of Music from 1965), as if to recapture a sense of innocence and sweetness (hence the title) of America itself during a time when Vietnam was raging, civil rights marches were occurring, and drugs were affecting the sensibilities of an entire generation. It is in essence a strange juxtaposition of modern realism and fantasy.

Aside from MacLaine, the film has some big surprises in its cast: Sammy Davis, Jr. as the hippie preacher Big Daddy, Ben Vereen as a backup dancer, and Ricardo Montalban as an Italian movie star. Chita Rivera and Paula Kelly play Nickie and Helene, Charity's close girlfriends and dancers. The one exception is probably John McMartin who plays the important role of Oscar Lindquist; he's recognizable for us as a character actor who has been on just about every television program for the past 30 years. For the cast alone, one should definitely see it. I have to confess that I didn't actually find MacLaine all that great though. I felt like she was overacting the whole time. But since the role does call for her to remain constantly hopeful, and it is a musical, maybe a touch of starry-eyed melodrama is necessary.

The best reasons to watch this movie, however, are for the following: (1) the dance numbers; (2) the costumes and make-up; and (3) the shots of NYC in 1969. The dance sequences are superb. "There's Got to Be Something Better Than This" with MacLaine, Rivera, and Kelly is a top-notch performance, but "Big Spender" and "The Rich Man's Frug" (which was the crazy dance sequence that got me started on all this) are the highlights of the show (there are links to videos of both numbers below). Edith Head did the costumes, and they are really brilliant. On the DVD, there is an excellent 10-minute documentary from 1969 where Head talks about how she envisioned the costumes to be a satirical take on high fashion and society in NYC at the time. And of course this is a great NYC movie. The on-location scenes in Central Park, Wall Street, in the subways, etc., are all fantastic. They conjure up a wonderful historic sense of the City at that time, although I suspect it was probably a bit dirtier than they make it seem in the movie.

Among the bonus features on the DVD is another short documentary from 1969 about Bob Fosse and his bringing of the musical to the screen. This movie was the first that Fosse directed, so he talks about his experiences of moving from a smaller theatrical setting to the enormity of the film world. But even better among the bonuses is an alternate ending to the movie. It turns out that Fosse filmed a second ending that is completely different from how the musical and movie actually end, out of fear the Hollywood people would insist on a "happier" ending. It's worth watching, just for the surprise to see how it goes, because it changes the entire context of how you perceive the film and Charity herself.

Here are the two dance sequences I was talking about. Enjoy!

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