"Frederick, what I really think is that you had better not meddle with little American girls who are—as you mildly put it—uneducated."—Mrs. Costello to her nephew Frederick Winterbourne regarding his first encounter with Daisy Miller
One of the cinema's most insurmountable challenges is translating the classic works of expatriate American novelist Henry James to the screen. Plenty of talented directors have taken the bait—among them William Wyler (The Heiress), James Ivory (three films with producing partner Ismail Merchant: The Europeans, The Bostonians, The Golden Bowl), Jane Campion (The Portrait of a Lady), and Iain Softley (The Wings of the Dove)—with uneven results. (For this writer's money, the quintessential James film remains The Innocents, the riveting 1961 adaptation of The Turn of the Screw directed by Jack Clayton and starring Deborah Kerr.)
Tackling an insurmountable challenge always requires a challenger with chutzpah to burn, and perhaps no American filmmaker of the last half of the 20th century possessed that quality in more boundless limit than Peter Bogdanovich. A director who shot to stardom out of the shadows of—of all people—schlockmeister Roger Corman, Bogdanovich blazed brightly, if briefly, in the early 1970s with a string of box-office hits (The Last Picture Show, What's Up, Doc?, Paper Moon) before derailing his Hollywood street cred along with his marriage (to production designer and screenwriter Polly Platt) via a disastrous personal and professional dalliance with model-turned-actress Cybill Shepherd.
Daisy Miller, Bogdanovich's stylish take on James' novella, represented the first fraying cable on the plummeting elevator of the director's rollercoaster career. Let's take a ride, shall we?
Facts of the Case
Frederick Forsyth Winterbourne (Barry Brown, Bad Company (1972)) is a prosperous American frittering away his callow youth among other expatriate swells lounging around the resorts of Victorian Europe. One fine morning in Vevey, Switzerland, in the spring of 1878, Frederick's eye is captivated by the sight of one Miss Annie P. Miller (Cybill Shepherd, still a decade and a half away from her resurrection to TV comedy stardom on Moonlighting)—"Daisy" to her male admirers, who appear as innumerable as the Midianite host—a blonde vision in white traveling the Continent with her fragile, nouveau riche mother (Cloris Leachman, Young Frankenstein) and her insufferable hellion of a younger brother (James McMurtry, son of Lonesome Dove scribe Larry McMurtry).
Daisy may not be the sharpest blade in the Swiss army knife, and her manners are deplorably boorish and brazen by the standards of the highfalutin Eurotrash wannabes surrounding her. She's smart enough, however, to understand that her beauty and her bankroll will open doors that would otherwise slam flush in the face of an unrefined girl from the Colonies. One of those doors lies across the threshold of Frederick's heart, much to the chagrin of his socially conscious aunt, Mrs. Costello (Mildred Natwick, Dangerous Liaisons), and the doyenne of upper crust snobbery, Mrs. Walker (Eileen Brennan, most familiar to today's generation of filmgoers as the Cat Lady in Jeepers Creepers).
When the silver-spooned scion to the manor born collides with the morally casual floozy from the wrong side of the Schenectady tracks, sparks may fly but disaster usually results. But then, this is a Henry James story—you didn't seriously expect happily ever after, did you?
Bogdanovich the director starts his flirtation with Henry James three steps behind the proverbial eight ball. First, Daisy Miller is a slight (though enormously popular) work composed near the beginning of the author's career, three years before he erupted into full flower with 1881's The Portrait of a Lady. The source material, therefore, is not as rich as James' later efforts. Second, the nuances of 19th century European societal mores are, if anything, even less clear and pertinent to modern American audiences than they were to James' provincial title character, so it's difficult to understand—much less care—why these issues seemed of such vital importance in their day. Last, James' austere and psychologically frosty prose gives his writing a stark, emotionally distant tone—one that's uncinematic even at its best.
Yet, Bogdanovich manages to overcome these obstacles to deliver a reasonably entertaining motion picture. And surprisingly, the most effective weapon in his arsenal is his much-maligned star. Cybill Shepherd, who has borne the brunt of a good bit of ribbing from critics over the years for her arguably skimpy acting talents, is delightful here as the unmannered, vulgar Daisy. She prattles on a mile per breathless minute, wields her parasol like a reaper's scythe, flutters the long lashes curtaining her sapphire eyes, and emerges as utterly charming. We can easily comprehend why every man Daisy meets falls head over heels for her, despite her obvious intellectual vacuity and coarse disregard for etiquette. The role doesn't push Shepherd beyond the confines of her ability, but instead provides her as perfect a showcase for the talent she possessed at this adolescent stage of her acting career as her TV sitcoms would offer years later.
With Shepherd as his centerpiece, Bogdanovich manages to convert James' cutting commentary on American manners into a perfect analogy for the USA's increasingly awkward relationship with the rest of the world in the post-Vietnam, post-Watergate era. It's not hard to correlate Daisy Miller to the international perception of America—gorgeous, wealthy, and irresistible on the one hand, but crude, selfish, incautious, and dangerously irresponsible on the other. The director, through the evocative, scenically aware eye of Italian cinematographer Alberto Spagnoli (who toiled most of his career in schlocky horror and sword-and-sandal flicks), captures the brightest face of a dissolute age, while subtly revealing the beauty that made it compelling.
A sparkling supporting cast—led by the marvelous trio of Cloris Leachman, Eileen Brennan, and Mildred Natwick—contributes fine, brilliantly observed performances. The weak link is Barry Brown, whose Frederick is so effete, foppish, and anal-retentive that it's a miracle the vivacious Daisy even gives him the time of day. That's the point of his character, I suppose, but Brown's characterization palpably sucks the life out of the celluloid whenever he appears on it.
Modern audiences (at least those who haven't read Henry James) will no doubt find Daisy Miller's deliberate pace uncomfortably slow despite the film's abbreviated running time. Bogdanovich doesn't help himself in this regard with his sometimes confusing transitions between scenes—we occasionally lose track of where we are as the story travels from Switzerland to Rome, and screenwriter Frederic Raphael's (Eyes Wide Shut) narrative sense of time is not always as well defined as it could be. On the whole, though, Daisy Miller is a nicely developed, lovingly presented adaptation of a most difficult writer to bring to film, an imagining worthy of its source material without being needlessly dogged in faithfulness to it. It's proof positive that Bogdanovich in 1974 still had some magic left, even as his chosen industry was beginning to abandon him.
Paramount, a studio notorious for dumping its catalog titles on the market with scarcely a fare-thee-well, comes through with a marginal exhibition of Daisy Miller on DVD. The anamorphic transfer is acceptable given the age of the film, but is marred by a sometimes overwhelming level of grain, print damage, and digital chatter, the latter problem likely resulting to some degree from attempts to clean up the first two. The picture seems annoyingly soft—some of this may have been intentional in the original production—with weak definition and anemic color. The mono soundtrack likewise shows its age, with a thin, tinny aural palette and a woefully underequalized dialogue track. Again, we're talking about a 30-year-old movie that wasn't a priority restoration, so this will have to suffice.
As supplements to the film, director Bogdanovich pitches in a 13-minute on-camera introduction accompanied by production stills, as well as a full-length audio commentary. Bogdanovich, an intelligent, thoughtful student of film, contributes a great deal of rewarding information in both pieces, which I'll not spoil for the reader here (except to wonder aloud how the picture would have turned out if Orson Welles had directed it and Bogdanovich had co-starred as Winterbourne opposite Cybill Shepherd's Daisy, as was Bogdanovich's original plan). His reflective commentary alone is worth, at a minimum, the price of a rental. Even viewers who aren't fans either of the movie or of Bogdanovich will gain a wealth of insight into the process of filmmaking, from an artist who knows more about the craft than he's often given credit for. You'll also learn a surprising amount about the man himself, as he's quite forthcoming about his foibles, both on and off the set (as proud as he is of this film, he wishes somewhat that he hadn't made it, given its effect on his career and personal life). Interesting stuff, and for the unabashed cineaste, highly intriguing.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I've long been a fan of Peter Bogdanovich's work. The only one of his films I find completely unwatchable is the dreadful Rob Lowe comedy Illegally Yours (and yes, I've seen At Long Last Love, and while it's a failed experiment, there's a certain clever spunkiness in its audacity). Several of Bogdanovich's post-peak movies, including Mask and the criminally forgotten tour de force Saint Jack, are breathtakingly solid, and I listed his recent comeback effort The Cat's Meow among my Top 10 releases of 2001.
It's tragic what Bogdanovich allowed ego, arrogance, and imprudence to do to a once-stellar directorial career. That he's kept a hand in the business as a commentator (he contributed a fine audio commentary to the 60th Anniversary DVD of Citizen Kane) and critic is laudable—Who the Devil Made It, his amazing book of interviews with landmark directors ranging from Hitchcock to Hawks to Chuck Jones, should be required reading for every serious film enthusiast. But I'm sorry he deprived himself of the opportunity to make more pictures like Paper Moon. I hope that, while he still can, he'll try again.
Not a great film, but a good one, and probably as decent a job as anyone's done with Henry James since The Innocents. Slow, graceful, and downbeat, but with a sharp subtext layered in by a first-rate director. Take a flier on it at the rental store the next time you get that hankering for a quality period costume drama. You do get that hankering…don't you?
Miss Annie P. Miller is found guilty of Ugly Americanism in the first degree. But then, aren't we all, really? Time served will do justice—the defendant is free to go. Court is adjourned.
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Scales of Justice
• Audio Commentary Featuring Director Peter Bogdanovich
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