Judge Clark Douglas offers a big hand for the leading ladies in this set, except maybe for Candice Bergen and Jacqueline Bisset.
It's a Woman's World.
In 2006, Warner Brothers released the Leading Ladies Collection. The collection put the spotlight on five films featuring five notable leading ladies: Judy Garland, Grace Kelly, Joan Crawford, Joan Bennett, and Bette Davis. Now Warner Brothers has released Leading Ladies Collection: Volume Two, featuring another handful of notable leading lady performances. What's new about this collection? Well, the original set only featured leading ladies from the Hollywood studio era, while two of the five films here were made in the 1980s. Also, we have different leading ladies this time: Joanne Woodward, Susan Hayward, Jacqueline Bisset, Candice Bergen, Diane Keaton, and Sandy Dennis. Is it worth your $50 to spend some time with this new batch of lovely leading ladies? Let's examine the case.
Facts of the Case
There are five films in Leading Ladies Collection: Volume Two, spread out over five discs. Each film is housed in a standard plastic DVD case.
A Big Hand for the Little Lady: This 1966 gambling comedy stars Henry Fonda and Joanne Woodward as a married couple passing through a small western town in the 1800s. It turns out that this little town plays host to one of the most expensive poker games around, and Fonda's got an itch to get in on it. Things go sour quickly; when Fonda gambles away his family's $4,000 savings, it's up to the noble, poker-despising Woodward (who is clueless about the rules of the game) to win her family's money back. The film also stars Jason Robards and Burgess Meredith in supporting roles.
I'll Cry Tomorrow: Widely regarded as one of the stronger cinematic portraits of alcoholism, it stars Susan Hayward in one of her most memorable performances. She plays singer Lillian Roth, whose successful career was cut short by a descent into alcoholism. Jo Van Fleet plays Lillian's alternately despicable and sympathetic mother, sternly attempting to control her daughter's life and career. Richard Conte plays one of the bad men in Lillian's life, and Eddie Albert plays one of the good ones.
Rich and Famous: The final directorial effort from George Cukor (The Philadelphia Story). We actually get the performances of two leading ladies in this film. Jacqueline Bisset and Candice Bergen play close friends who also both happen to be writers. Bisset writes one truly great novel, wins all kinds of literary awards, and then gets stuck with writer's block. Bergen writes soapy garbage, and wins loads of popularity, if not much critical acclaim. The film follows the story of this friendship over the years, as it goes through the trials of jealousy and bitterness. Meg Ryan also makes her debut film appearance as Bergen's strong-willed teenage daughter.
Shoot the Moon: The story of a troubled marriage, or more accurately, a troubled divorce. Albert Finney plays a despairing married writer who is in love with another woman (Karen Allen). Finney's wife (Diane Keaton) finds out about the affair and throws Finney out of the house. Keaton then seeks solace, or perhaps revenge, in the arms of another man (Peter Weller). Shoot the Moon is an intimate look at the trials and tribulations of splitting apart, as the spouses attempt to work their way through a haze of rage and selfishness.
Up the Down Staircase: Sandy Dennis plays a young teacher in the late 1960s who accepts a job at Calvin Coolidge High School. It's not the worst school in the world, but it's certainly not the best. Students there tend to be apathetic at best, self-destructive at worst, and no one seems to have any particular interest in making life any better than it is. Can the new teacher, fresh out of college, find a way to reach her students and help them grow? Or will she be overwhelmed by her surroundings?
Most of the films in this collection deal with fairly heavy themes, so it's nice to kick things off on a light and pleasant note with A Big Hand for the Little Lady. Though the film is wildly uneven at times in its pacing, it's a good time with some enjoyable performances. Joanne Woodward is obviously having fun playing a clueless but charming character, and Henry Fonda does all kinds of marvelously funny things with his face during the film's first half. Good as this pair is, the film is stolen by Jason Robards as a cantankerous rich gambler. Robards has one scene towards the end of the film that serves as the movie's funniest moment, even if it seems almost completely out of place.
Most of the movie consists of a lot of people sitting around a table playing poker, but the film tries to add some breathing room by showing us wide open spaces whenever it can. There's a wonderful opening sequence, as a group of gamblers ride like the wind towards their annual tournament. Director Fielding Cook manages to make this bit of filler rather exciting by adding in sweeping landscape shots, the sound of galloping hoof beats, frantic motion, and tremendously exciting music from composer David Raskin. Such cinematic moments are few and far between, but they quite effectively manage to make the film feel a lot less small than actually it is. The film's picture is pretty good as a whole, even if a few frames seem damaged, and the mono audio is perfectly acceptable for a 1960s film.
The oldest film of the set is up next, 1955's I'll Cry Tomorrow. Susan Hayward's performance is remarkable, perhaps the very best of her career. Despite the fact that the film follows many of the usual steps of films about alcoholism, Hayward is so believable and convincing that the somewhat formulaic plot works quite effectively. Hayward also performs four songs over the course of the film, and shows off her impressive singing voice (her cover of "Sing, You Sinners" is sensational). While Hayward's portrait of Lillian Roth was ultimately a positive and uplifting one, it's impressive that Roth herself offered an endorsement of the film. When you consider the sheer levels of despair and humiliation that Hayward reaches during the film, you can't help but admire Roth for being willing to share her story with the world (the film was based on Roth's autobiographical book of the same name).
Special mention should also be made of the performance of Jo Van Fleet as Lillian's mother. Van Fleet begins the role as a monstrous control freak, and then slowly begins to add dimensions as the film progresses, making the mother an increasingly sympathetic character. Other players like Eddie Albert and Richard Conte are just fine, but Van Fleet is really the only actor who gets significant screen time aside from Hayward. The movie looks okay, though at times the black-and-white cinematography features a little too much white. Audio is solid, especially during the musical numbers. Composer Alex North's brilliant musical portrait of alcoholism is also rendered with pleasing fidelity.
Directly in the middle of this collection of films is the stinker of the set, George Cukor's Rich and Famous. This is one of those terrible films that's so mind-blowingly awful at times that it's actually kind of compelling…for a while, anyway. Candice Bergen's shrill performance (complete with ridiculous southern accent) is quite possibly the worst thing she's ever done. Jacqueline Bisset fares a little bit better in terms of acting, but she is given the burden of participating in the film's least believable plot strands. Consider the scene where Bisset is being interviewed by a 22-year-old reporter from Rolling Stone. She grows irritated with the reporter, and walks out, saying she'll do it another time. While Bisset is walking down the street, she's approached by a creepy 18-year-old gigolo. For no reason in particular, Bisset decides that she's going to take this young thing back to her apartment and have her way with him. After this brief one-afternoon-stand, Bisset determines that she now likes young men, so she goes back to the Rolling Stone reporter and begins an affair with him. It's very difficult for any actress to make this contrived situation work, and despite Bisset's efforts, the whole sequence seems very silly.
There are few things more painful than watching a dumb movie about people who are supposed to be smart. It's quite difficult to accept Bisset's character as an award-winning writer of supreme intelligence when her dialogue is so terribly clichéd and strained. The film pretends to offer messages of insight about jealousy and friendship, but the whole thing is a pretentious excuse to set up some ludicrous and outlandish situations that will only please the most easily manipulated viewer. Also, the film takes place over a span of more than two decades, but Bergen and Bisset don't seem to age one bit as the years pass. Was the makeup department simply hoping we wouldn't notice? Aside from the bad hair and pants that show up on a regular basis, the film looks good (though far from great), and as with the rest of the films in the collection, the mono sound is perfectly fine. Perhaps the most noteworthy aspect of the film is the overqualified score by Georges Delerue, which is downright sumptuous at times.
The pains of having to sit through Rich and Famous were completely forgotten when I moved on to Shoot the Moon, starring Diane Keaton and Albert Finney. Without question, it's the finest film of this set, a hidden gem of immense power and fury. Shoot the Moon lands somewhere in tone between a Bergman relationship drama and The Squid and the Whale. It's painful, savagely funny from time to time, and unrelentingly honest in its portrait of a crumbling marriage. There are scenes so emotionally intense in Shoot the Moon that I flinched.
The movie is directed by Alan Parker, a curious director whose diverse resume runs the gamut from the tremendous to the terrible. He is by all means a risk-taker, and he's fallen flat on his face several times with films like The Life of David Gale and The Road to Wellville. However, I've always admired his courage, and it pays off in Shoot the Moon. Emotions run so hot in this film that it could have easily been a laughable piece of hysteria. Thanks to the sublime performances of Albert Finney and Diane Keaton, we're given a near-masterpiece.
Finney's performance is one of controlled rage: fits of angry violence followed by heartbroken apologies and desperate attempts at redemption. Keaton's neurotic and confused character nervously wanders between bitter revenge and curious hope, teetering back and forth between attempting to salvage the relationship and willingly tearing it apart. Their scenes together have a nervous tension; the moments of calm and warmth always feel like deceptive preludes to a thunderstorm. When the storms break out, the effect is shattering. The scene where Finney attempts to get inside his house to give his daughter a birthday present is one that I'm never going to forget. The film has a way of sticking with you, and I felt emotionally drained when it was over. The picture and audio are both acceptable, but hardly ideal. Shoot the Moon isn't exactly a film that begs for impressive visual treatment, but like a lot of films from the early '80s, the video looks a little softer than it ought to.
Everything wraps up on a positive note with Up the Down Staircase, an above-average teacher-helps-troubled-students film. If the plot I described while presenting the facts of the case sounded familiar, then you've probably seen Stand and Deliver, Take the Lead, Freedom Writers, or a number of other films with the same setup. What sets Up the Down Staircase apart is its refusal to deal with these problems in a typical or predictably easy manner. Yes, Dennis makes progress as she attempts to cope with these students. But it's not 100 percent effective, and some students continue to struggle and ruin their lives despite the teacher's best efforts. For every step forward, there's another step back.
Up the Down Staircase is a positive and uplifting film, but it's not a sentimental one, and it's aged surprisingly well over the past forty years. The film's second half, which contains a great deal of thoughtful dialogue about education and learning, stands as a model of how this sort of motion picture should be made. The first half, while a bit more familiar and typical, is nonetheless effective. The picture isn't great on this one, but pristine images might not do any favors to this modestly gritty setting. Audio is a little bit muffled at times, and the groovy '60s score by Fred Karlin is alternately effective and distracting.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Despite the .800 batting average this set is hitting when it comes to providing good films, it really struggles when it comes to delivering extras. Special features are few and far between, and what's here is pretty inconsequential. A brief featurette of no real substance is provided for Rich and Famous. I'll Cry Tomorrow has some brief, modestly interesting newsreel material and a cute 20-minute short film starring Lillian Roth. Shoot the Moon contains a mundane and generally uninformative commentary from Alan Parker and screenwriter Bo Goldman. Up the Down Staircase only has a trailer, and A Big Hand for the Little Lady doesn't even have that!
Also, some might complain that A Big Hand for the Little Lady and Shoot the Moon shouldn't qualify for the collection, as we spend more time with the leading men of those films than the leading ladies.
You get four good films for a reasonable price, and one really bad one as a bonus. This really is a worthwhile collection of films, particularly for the superb Shoot the Moon. With the exception of Bisset and Bergen, the leading ladies featured in this collection are all represented reasonably well. Just be sure to spare yourself the two hours of torture known as Rich and Famous. You might not want to throw it away, just for the sake of keeping your box set full, but please don't ever give into the temptation to actually watch it. Just pretend it's not there, and you'll enjoy Leading Ladies Collection: Volume Two.
Rich and Famous is guilty of being a piece of melodramatic tripe posing as a serious drama, and the Brothers Warner are found guilty of failing to put much effort into adding interesting bonus features to these releases. Leading Ladies Collection: Volume Two as a whole is free to go, due to the substance and quality of the majority of the films it contains.
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Scales of Justice, I'll Cry Tomorrow
Perp Profile, I'll Cry Tomorrow
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, I'll Cry Tomorrow
• Vintage Lillian Roth Short "Story Conference"
Scales of Justice, A Big Hand For The Little Lady
Perp Profile, A Big Hand For The Little Lady
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, A Big Hand For The Little Lady
Scales of Justice, Up The Down Staircase
Perp Profile, Up The Down Staircase
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, Up The Down Staircase
• Theatrical Trailer
Scales of Justice, Rich And Famous
Perp Profile, Rich And Famous
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, Rich And Famous
• Vintage Featurette "On Location with Rich and Famous"
Scales of Justice, Shoot The Moon
Perp Profile, Shoot The Moon
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, Shoot The Moon
• Commentary by Alan Parker and Bo Goldman
Review content copyright © 2007 Clark Douglas; Site design and review layout copyright © 2014 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.