Today is the birthday of Shirley MacLaine (b. 1934). Quite at random, a post about two films she made back to back, drawn from my notebooks.
Sweet Charity (1969)
An all-star effort: music by Cy Coleman, lyrics by Dorothy Fields, book by Neil Simon (screenplay by Peter Stone for the film), directed by Bob Fosse (both stage and screen), and based on a Fellini film (Nights of Cabiria).
I find much of this film (mostly the song and dance numbers) truly demented and amazing…just riveting in energy and weirdness, emulating both Fellini (sometimes a little too much) and Warhol, as well as the burlesque tradition Fosse knows so well. Unfortunately there isn’t much of a plot, so it really sags between the numbers. It is about a dance hall girl (of the “private dancer” variety) who longs desperately for real love and a normal life. But it rambles and feels static. One segment has her trapped in a closet. Another has her trapped in an elevator. At first, it resembles Fellini too much…her first boyfriend is a mafia looking hood in sunglasses, and her second one a famous Italian film director (played by Ricardo Montalban).
At the heart of the film is MacLaine, who has played this type of woman countless times: loose with men, ironically, out of goodness and a trusting nature. In such roles she is never less than completely sympathetic and vulnerable. Hence she is great here as Charity. Plus she can dance—if not exactly sing. I am glad she was cast in the film instead of Gwen Verdon, the star of the stage version, who invariably makes my flesh crawl. Stubby Kaye plays the guy who runs the dance hall, Chita Rivera is one of the girls, Sammy Davis Jr is a psychedelic cult leader (in a number that’s just a bit too weak given the weirdness of the scene prior to it where she hooks up with the film director). There is also another familiar face, with but a single line: Bud Cort plays (what else) a hippie in the park. Most of the songs are great and two are famous: “Big Spender” is so well known and so associated with burlesque that I had always assumed it was much older. “If My Friends Could See Me Now” is the other hit.
Two Mules for Sister Sara (1970)
Clint Eastwood rides in over credits, oblivious to harbingers of danger: a cougar, a sidewinder, a skeleton, a tarantula. He plays his “Man with No Name” in this movie — only this time he has a name: “Hogan”. Hogan encounters three guys in the Mexican desert raping a nun (MacLaine). He dispatches them all handily.
Hogan proves to be a gentleman with Sister Sara, but only just so far: he makes her bury the guys who were raping her, for example. He prefers that they go their separate ways, but it turns out that she is being pursued by imperial French cavalry. Hogan has a heart, and decides to help evade this band. Then he hatches a plan to take a garrison on Bastille Day with the Mexican revolutionaries she supports and which he sometimes does business with. She knows the layout, and claims to have taught the soldiers Spanish. Bit by bit though we get hints that she is either more (or less) than the nun she claims to be. The film is very well plotted but slow paced, exploring the chemistry/antagonism/growing together of the two characters.
En route, Hogan gets shot by a Yaqui Indian arrow. Sara has to remove it while he gets drunk. Then they blow up a train bridge, in a spectacular but brief shot. When they get to the town, it turns out that “Sister Sara” is not a nun, but a whore. But there is no time to fight about it. They and the Mexican band invade the French fort and are victorious. Hogan goes back to where Sara is taking a bath — a hint of the final resolution of all this romantic tension. An epilogue has them back in the dessert, Hogan this time carrying all kinds of wedding presents, and “Sister Sara” seriously tarted up. The moral of the story? When in doubt, Shirley MacLaine is always secretly a prostitute.