Six Damn Fine Degrees #20: Dubbed and snubbed – the secret voices of Hollywood

Welcome to Six Damn Fine Degrees. These instalments will be inspired by the idea of six degrees of separation in the loosest sense. The only rule: it connects – in some way – to the previous instalment. So come join us on our weekly foray into interconnectedness.

Question: Do you think this is actually Audrey Hepburn singing the wonderful “Moon River” from Breakfast at Tiffanys (discussed in last week’s post by Alan)?

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Six Damn Fine Degrees #14: Two for the Road

Welcome to Six Damn Fine Degrees. These instalments will be inspired by the idea of six degrees of separation in the loosest sense. The only rule: it connects – in some way – to the previous instalment. So come join us on our weekly foray into interconnectedness.

In 1951, when she had a small appearance in The Lavender Hill Mob as Chiquita (sadly not having seen the film, I cannot tell whether this means she played an actual banana), Audrey Hepburn wasn’t yet the movie star that she would later become. Roman Holiday was still two years away, then came Sabrina, War and Peace and Funny Face, and in 1961 she made her iconic appearance in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Much has been written and said about what exactly Hepburn’s character in that film, Holly Golightly, is exactly: is she merely selling companionship needy men, or is she selling sex? Truman Capote, who wrote the novella the film was based on, called her an “American geisha”, but he didn’t exactly answer the question.

In any case, for all of Hepburn’s tremendous charms and attraction, she never struck me as particularly sexual in her performances; her characters were largely cute as the cutest of kittens, but also oddly innocent, almost to the point of sexlessness. On screen, she always came off as something of an anti-Marylin Monroe.

So consider my surprise when I found out that she was in a film written by Frederic Raphael, whose other works include Eyes Wide Shut. Yes, Stanley Kubrick’s last film. Yes, the one with the orgy that caused Warner Bros. to digitally alter the respective scenes, Austin Powers-style, to avoid an adults-only NC-17 rating.

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I’ll be in my trailer… watching trailers: Into the Woods

Join us every week for a trip into the weird and wonderful world of trailers. Whether it’s the first teaser for the latest instalment in your favourite franchise, an obscure preview for a strange indie darling, whether it’s good, bad, ugly or just plain weird – your favourite pop culture baristas are there to tell you what they think.

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The Rear-View Mirror: Easter Parade (1948)

Each Friday we travel back in time, one year at a time, for a look at some of the cultural goodies that may appear closer than they really are in The Rear-View Mirror. Join us on our weekly journey into the past!

I’ve written about my ambivalent relationship to the musical genre before. It moves beyond ambivalent into downright ignorance when it comes to the musicals of the Golden Age of Hollywood. Sure, I’ve seen Singing in the Rain, but I have failed so far when it comes to other classics, such as An American in Paris. And if you were to ask me about Fred Astaire… well, it’s better not to ask me about Fred Astaire, unless you enjoy the sound of silence. It’s not that I dislike him, it’s more that I simply don’t know him.

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It is all an illusion

Chances are that most of you (“you” being my real or imaginary readers – for all I know all of this blog’s visitors are advertising bots) won’t get a chance to see Sylvain Chomet’s L’Illusionniste, his first animated film after Les Triplettes de Belleville at the cinema. If you do get the chance, take it: there’s an additional layer of magic to seeing the film at a movie theatre, ideally one with red velvet curtains and comfy seats.

L’Illusionniste is a rare beast, a non-computer generated (although many scenes definitely received some help from the digital brush), non-3D animated film aimed primarily at an audience over the age of 12. (You won’t see L’Illusionniste lunchboxes at the shops.) It is also about a rare beast threatened by extinction: the old-fashioned, cabaret-type entertainer, in this case a stage magician. The film is set during the ’60s, at a time when the eponymous illusionist, like his fellow artists, clowns, acrobats and ventriloquists, has all but been replaced by proto-boy bands and electric Wurlitzers. (These days we’re nostalgic about the latter, even.)

The movie’s plot is of a crystalline simplicity and there are few if any surprises. The ageing illusionist, searching for the increasingly rare show he can do here and there, finds himself performing on the Hebrides, where his magic and old-school manners charm a young girl working as a cleaner. When his engagement is over, he heads for the mainland, and she follows him. The two settle in Edinburgh where he finds that his bagic has been too convincing: in order to keep the girl charmed, he provides her with more illusions, more magic – a pair of lovely shoes here, an elegant coat and Audrey Hepburn-type dress there. Except, of course, this sort of magic can’t be spirited from top hats or people’s ears, so the illusionist has to take on one deadening job after another to keep the girl in gifts. His increasing absence from her life, which he never explains to her, leads to her finding magic in another man instead, a handsome young beau, and the disillusioned illusionist moves out one day while she’s gone, leaving a card: “Magicians do not exist.”

And that summarises the film’s intriguing tension: magicians don’t exist, it is all a charming illusion, the penny in your ear comes out of the magician’s sleeve or palm, cleverly hidden, and the fat, belligerent rabbit was in the hat all along. And yet, and yet… The film, like its sad hero, is all about the charm of illusion, it magics us away to a time and place that is better, more charming than reality. It creates people that never existed, an Edinburgh that never was, and its touches of the real – the film idealises but does not Disneyfy – only add to the spell.

At the end, the illusionist acknowledges that there is no such thing as magic, and pretending that there is creates false expectations, hope and illusions of the dangerous kind: the shimmering red shoes, the beautiful dress, even the crayon miraculously regrown after it had been worn to a stump, act as gateway illusions. He is right: magicians do not exist. The film shows this – in 70 minutes of beautiful, touching magic.