FOREVER FEMALE is a blisteringly funny peak behind the Broadway curtain

Rating: ★★★★

“I know you’ve seen Times Square a thousand times before…” intones Broadway producer Harry Phillips (Paul Douglas) in voiceover on the press night of his new play. By way of introduction to Irving Rapper’s unfortunately forgotten peak behind the stage curtain, it’s a line that not only indicates screenwriters Julius and Philip J. Epstein’s keen awareness of the film’s influences, but one which neatly contextualizes much of the negative reaction to the its recent re-surfacing on Blu-ray courtesy of Olive Films.

Brusquely brushed off as an ill-judged comic clone of All About Eve, the connection of one of that film’s stars, William Holden, and its subject matter has also seen the film criticised as falling far short of greatness when compared to Sunset Boulevard. While we’re at it, the opening on-location footage and the quick-fire patter between two business partners and rivals in love has an anticipatory whiff of the Sweet Smell of Success about it, four years before that film so pungently stunk up the streets of Manhattan.

It may not be as self-loathingly cynical, or caustically cutting, but in place of sleaze and back-stabbing, we have the glamour of celebrity dreams right at the tipping point before they became the deranged nightmares of the those films: when the artistic ambitions of those trying to break into the biz were pure, and driven by the love of the craft of their chosen profession. Like all people with their names above the title, they still craved the adulation of stardom, but it was stardom defined by a need to connect with audiences – to please them, but possibly also to change them. Forever Female paints a picture of a time when the size of a diva was relative to the artistic validation of her peers, and performers were compelled to do what they did because they felt it in their bones. This was a time long before the cult of celebrity took over and society’s intense, delusional desire to become famous blinded us to the enriching power of the work that gave stars their status.

Authentically capturing the environs of Broadway pre and post show, Harry Stradling’s camera glides past the neon of many marquees and into Sardis restaurant, the unofficial Broadway hall of fame, whose interior is cluttered with stage and screen caricatures. Often talked about by Woody Allen who put the place on film in 1987’s Radio Days (recently released on Blu-ray by Twilight Time), the vibe and energy of the place has never been captured as it was here. Watching the film’s strongest sequence, you feel as though you’ve got your own table, eavesdropping across from all the producers, agents and starlets ordering obscene dishes to calm their nerves while they wait for the early morning edition and the hopefully positive notices that could ensure their show’s success.

When success does come, aspiring playwrights are shown gathering at the bar and hurling bitterly derisive remarks. Though comic in tone, these asides show a cutthroat attention to detail for which the Epstein’s script deserves more credit. Their dialogue is delicious from the moment that the star and ex-wife of Harry Phillips’ latest flop ‘No Laughing Matter’, Beatrice Page (Ginger Rogers) sits down next to talent agent Eddie Woods (James Gleason) and tells him to “start lying.” One man who doesn’t lie is Eddie’s newest client Stanley Krown (William Holden), a green playwright outside the inner circle, whose night job at the Washington Market doesn’t permit him patience for Broadway bullshit. Drolly indignant, his forthright views on actors and the play in question detonate across the table, occasioning many “tell us how you really feel” rejoinders from Harry. His assessment of Miss Page as “patronising, superior and much too convinced of your own charm” and her performance as “condescending to the play and the people who paid to see it” is one of cinema’s harshest put downs, up there with Jep Gambardella’s point by point evisceration of one of his parasitic high society acquaintances in last year’s The Great Beauty. The play might’ve been no laughing matter, but Stanley’s introduction is blisteringly funny.

While not exactly ingratiating himself to this power couple, Stanley’s play ‘Unhappy Holiday’ about a nineteen-year-old pianist and a controlling, mother in her fifties is as tough as he is, and Beatrice is turned on by his tenacity. Even watching the ex he’s still very much in love with eying up another man, Harry is eager to produce, but won’t splash the cash without a part for Beatrice. When she suggests the nineteen-year-old might be rewritten as twenty-nine, for her to star, Stanley’s artistic integrity is insulted, but the lure of having his first play make it to the stage proves that even his high-mindedness is corruptible. Casting for the mother proves difficult and at one of these sessions, Sally Carver comes bursting in, determined to read for the role of the daughter. Having read the play in her job as a typist, Sally is as appalled as Stanley first was when he tells her that the pianist is now being re-cast as a twenty-nine-year-old, a compromise she’s certain will ruin all the play’s complexities.

forever-female

Victor Young’s score really seems to side with Sally, tenderly stoking the unshakable hopes of the unemployable dreamer whose resume is all two-bit commercials and no hit shows. Sally is the old fashioned manic pixie dream girl found in Woody Allen, and like Mia Farrow’s Sally in Radio Days or Mira Sorvino in Mighty Aphrodite, she’s a bit of an excitable airhead; naive and lacking in social grace, but encourageable, single-minded and undeniably talented. As a strong woman who dominates this top notch quartet of veterans, it’s a star-making debut from Pat Crowley so self-evident, the film even ends with a still of the the-then ingénue captioned with the words: “Pat Crowley, a future Paramount star.” Crowley went on to play Barbara Stanwyck’s daughter in Doulas Sirk’s There’s Always Tomorrow, but vanished off the big screen after that, working in television for the next five decades appearing in everything from The Rockford Files and Dynasty to Friends and Frasier. Why she never had a career like that of Audrey Hepburn is unclear, but on the evidence of just one signature role it’s hard not to imagine the very different (though no less distinguished) career she might have had.

As the two actresses end up competing for Stanley’s attention and the part through a series of predictable but unexpectedly staged narrative machinations, the most interesting relationship is not between Holden and his two muses, but Harry and how he deals with his young protégé cozying up to his ex-wife. Often playing blustering doormats in films like Clash By Night and Executive Suite, here Douglas plays a man who refuses to fool himself. He knows the embers of his and Beatrice’s love for one another will never be extinguished, but that romantically, his time with her is over and that now they can only share their lives together by supporting one another’s careers.

Neither is it lost on Harry that middle-aged and claiming to be twenty-nine, Beatrice’s parade of boy toys goes with the job description. He’s seen them all come and go and his is a genuine love, sticking by his woman even when she becomes engaged to Stanley. Not letting jealousy get in the way of business, he puts personal loyalties aside and advises Stanley as to what is best for the play. Through that advice the two become firm friends, respecting each other as men. Underneath the sarcastic jostling, Paul Douglas gives an ironically soulful performance that’s the heart of a film in a very different register to those it sits in the shadow of, but just as sharply observed. As with the best comedies, it’s also every bit as melancholy.

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