Warrior Queens

The unsexed, the oversexed, and the long since past sex.

Directed by Shekhar Kapur
Gramercy Pictures

Velvet Goldmine
Directed by Todd Haynes
Miramax Films

Meet Joe Black
Directed by Martin Brest
Universal Pictures

Elizabeth is a lurid paraphrase of the old Groucho Marx line about Doris Day: “I knew the Virgin Queen before she was a virgin.” As the movie tells it, she was a sylvan, redheaded princess (Cate Blanchett) given to gamboling with her fella (Joseph Fiennes) between periods of internment in the Tower of London on charges of conspiring to overthrow her half-sister, the heatedly Catholic Queen Mary (Kathy Burke). The daughter of the second wife of Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn, and therefore dubbed a bastard by the papists, the Protestant Elizabeth ascends the throne to find the air still thick with smoke from roasted heretics, a team of skulking Catholics plotting her assassination, and a council of advisers (lords, bishops, sundry old boys) who snigger openly at the prospect of taking orders from a woman. Only a strategic marriage to a Spaniard or a Frenchman will mollify all factions, her advisers insist, but the pickings prove dismal. (Her French suitor enjoys wearing dresses.) After skulls are smashed, throats slit, and bosoms skewered in the name of Christ, Elizabeth decides to: a) “unsex” herself and become a symbol–the Virgin Queen, married only to England; and b) entertain dissenting opinions exclusively from those whose heads are affixed to spikes.

You can’t be both a queenly queen and a womanly woman, says the script (by Michael Hirst)–at least not in 1554. (The director, Shekhar Kapur, made the same point in his grim 1994 Indian epic The Bandit Queen, against a backdrop of scrubby plains along the Ganges.) Is this feminist take historically accurate? Probably, although the evidence suggests that Elizabeth had developed a head for stratagems earlier in life (her position had been precarious since the beheading of her mother) and came to the throne with few girlish illusions about How Things Work in a barbarous state.

That said, the movie’s approach makes for juicy melodrama. The tone of Elizabeth comes nearer to the nihilistic relish of Jacobeans such as John Ford and John Webster than to the more sorrowful horror of the Elizabethan dramatists Ben Jonson and William Shakespeare. It’s even closer to a Jacobean drama of our own age: The Godfather (1972), which it emulates by cutting back-and-forth between queen and courtiers in prayer and the roundup and slaughter of Catholics on their privies, in bed with their mistresses, and so on. Their severed heads look on, wide-eyed, as Elizabeth directs her hair to be shorn–images of her girlhood flashing by as her locks rain down–and then walks weightily to her throne, now a chalk-faced gorgon.

With all due respect to Blanchett, Bette Davis, and Glenda Jackson, my favorite Elizabeth I remains Miranda Richardson’s capricious, baby-talking psychopath on the BBC comedy Blackadder II. (Casting about for a new lord high executioner, she mews to Rowan Atkinson, “There are thousands of Catholics simply dying to have their heads sneaked off–and there’s no one to organize it.”) But Blanchett comes in a close second, pulling off the transition from hapless young woman to coolly ruthless monarch with uncommon subtlety. Gradually expunging all empathy from her moist, pink eyes and permitting her visage to ossify, she gives this carnival of carnage an awe-inspiring center.

A more subversive sort of queen is on display in Velvet Goldmine, Todd Haynes’ musical fantasia on the early ‘70s era of “glam” or “glitter” rock. Here the monarch is a David Bowie-esque singer called Brian Slade (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers) and his spidery, space-age alter ego, Maxwell Demon. The movie opens with a spaceship depositing an infant Oscar Wilde on the stoop of a Dublin townhouse. Then it skips ahead to track a jade pin (it signifies hedonistic liberation) from the custody of a young Wilde to a swishy fringe creature called Jack Fairy to the regal Slade, a bisexual superstar who carries the news to all the young dudes. After that, we’re in an Orwellian 1984 that’s presided over by a vaguely fascist president and by arena rockers who serve as propagandists for a repressively conformist state. Whatever happened to Brian Slade, the glitter kids, the visionary exhibitionists and gleeful poseurs? Borrowing its framework from Citizen Kane, the movie follows a reporter (Christian Bale) assigned to reconstruct Slade’s life and solve the mystery of his whereabouts.

Whatever you make of Velvet Goldmine (opinions have ranged from rapturous to casually dismissive), it’s like no other musical ever made. It’s determinedly swirling, discursive, elliptical. Now the story is told by an omniscient narrator, now a TV reporter, now a participant. Now it’s flashing back, now forward. Every other line of dialogue is a cue for one of its dazzling numbers, largely covers of songs by Brian Eno, Bryan Ferry, and T. Rex. The narrative is a challenge to keep up with, but then, great artists often invent their own syntax. In the ‘80s, Haynes employed Barbie dolls to depict the rise and wasting away from anorexia of the singer Karen Carpenter. Lucky audiences who caught Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (it was shelved when Richard Carpenter served the producers with an order to cease and desist exhibition) began by laughing at this elaborately posed, soft-rock femme, only to discover by the climax that the cultural forces that were eating at her (and that kept her from eating) had grown heartbreakingly palpable. Poison (1991), Haynes’ Genêt-inspired exploration of transgression, didn’t overcome its own artiness. But Safe (1995), the story of a Reagan-era housewife (Julianne Moore) convinced that her environment is poisoning her, is an entrancing meditation on the power of culture to crush the individual. Despite its ironic detachment, the film draws you into its heroine’s sickly state: Breathing oxygen from a canister inside a high-tech igloo, she dwindles to nearly nothing, the modern incarnation of the Incredible Shrinking Man.

(It was partly my passion for Haynes’ films that led me to accept a job offer from his indefatigable producer Christine Vachon last year to collaborate on a nuts-and-bolts book about producing, Shooting To Kill. So my review of Velvet Goldmine–like my review of Vachon’s other recent release, Happiness–should be read as the work of a partisan. But not a blind partisan.)

In Velvet Goldmine, Haynes sets out to demonstrate the power of popular music to change people’s lives–to tell them it’s OK to fashion themselves into anything they please. The core of the movie turns out not to be the Bowie figure but the journalist, Arthur Stuart, who was a witness to the events he’s now reconstructing. Bale is such an expressive performer that Stuart’s remembrance of things past attains a Proustian intensity. To him, Slade was a sexual messiah. I’ve never seen a more vivid distillation of rock’s allure than the scene in which he reverently opens the new Brian Slade album–its centerfold image is a lithe, naked, green-tinged Maxwell Demon–slips the vinyl out of its paper jacket and, after gingerly setting the LP on the turntable, props a chair under the doorknob to keep the uncomprehending world at bay.

But if Haynes wants Velvet Goldmine to be an anthem to the principles Bowie once embodied–the embrace of artifice and the smashing of conventional sexual roles–he also wants to portray the rocker as a hollow opportunist who abandoned glam and bisexuality for the life of a corporate superstar, throwing in his lot with the forces of repression. That’s a lot to cover. An actor of stature might have bridged these two impulses, but the beautiful, brazenly slim-hipped Rhys-Meyers doesn’t make his lines sound as if he’s thinking them up on the spot, and Slade’s self-destructive passion for Curt Wild (Ewan McGregor), the film’s fuzzy, sweet Iggy Pop figure, seems less an emotional imperative than a thematic one.

A case can be made that Velvet Goldmine isn’t fully filled in, and that Haynes, who has never shaken off his background as a semiotics major, has made a movie that’s all signifiers. I sometimes found myself wishing he would let the picture catch its breath, that the performers would stop coming at me in stroboscopic flashes. But then I’d be swept up in the sinuous motion of his filmmaking, in the elation of watching point of view passed like a baton from hand to hand, in the liberating force of his language and soundtrack. Velvet Goldmine might seem like a collection of baubles, but those baubles are strung.

I s Brad Pitt the worst actor on earth? The case could be made, and Meet Joe Black could serve as Exhibit A. Pitt plays two roles in this seven course schlockfest. He’s (briefly) a slick but wholesome yuppie and then (interminably) Death, who takes over the young man’s body when he’s thumped by a couple of cars in the movie’s most promising moment. Bleached so blond that he looks like an irradiated android, Pitt expels all expression from his face and all tone from his voice. He speaks very, very slowly. The stunt half-works, at least until he’s supposed to undergo an inner transformation and acquire human emotions–whereupon his face remains just as blank. Pitt’s conception of the role is an idée fixe by someone who doesn’t appear to have an idée in his head.

Martin Brest, the director, is known for shooting a ton of footage and then “finding” his films in the editing room. What do you suppose he “found” when he scrutinized these miles of celluloid with Pitt doing nothing and taking his sweet time doing it? The first adaptation of this story (originally a play) was the 1934 Death Takes a Holiday, which came in at a perky 78 minutes. A conceit this fragile needs to whiz along to keep our disbelief in suspension, but Meet Joe Black grinds on for three hours (longer than either Beloved or Saving Private Ryan), and Pitt acts as if he has leased the screen by the year.

Anthony Hopkins plays the zillionaire communications baron whom Death enlists in the hope of understanding the human condition–an odd choice for a tour guide, since most people’s condition doesn’t involve personal helicopters, sprawling mansions on Long Island Sound, or Manhattan apartments that sport Olympic-size swimming pools. Four screenwriters, among them the great Bo Goldman (Melvin and Howard, 1980; Shoot the Moon, 1982), labored on this moldy script, which features characters who ask questions that begin “Am I to understand that …?” and a corporate villain who directs another character to “wake up and smell the thorns.” It apparently never occurred to even one of these overpaid scribes to eliminate Hopkins’ rueful realization that he’d “never write the great American novel”–no kidding, given his flagrantly Welsh accent.

Actually, Hopkins gives this humanistic magnate considerable weight, so that whether or not Death takes him before he can stop to smell the roses and make amends to his neglected children becomes a matter of some suspense. The rest of the cast works with equal fortitude, especially Jeffrey Tambor (Hank “Hey now!” Kingsley on The Larry Sanders Show) as Hopkins’ milksop son-in-law and Marcia Gay Harden as his party planning, perpetually wilting elder daughter. As the younger daughter, the dark eyed, spaghetti thin Claire Forlani has to carry the picture’s bathos on her exquisite shoulders. Her tremulous thoroughbred act wears thin, but it’s hardly her fault: She has to emote like mad opposite a black pit of death–or is that the Black Death of Pitt?