Thursday, May 14, 2015
2015 Cannes Marathon: Sweet Charity
(Played Out of Competition at the 1969 Cannes Film Festival)
Based on Federico Fellini’s 1957 Nights of Cabiria and the stage play by Neil Simon with songs by Cy Coleman and Dorothy Fields, Sweet Charity is the story of a taxi dancer looking for love in New York City as she endures many ups and downs. Directed and choreographed by Bob Fosse and screenplay by Peter Stone, the film is a musical take on a woman’s life as she endures moments of happiness and humiliation in her journey. Starring Shirley MacLaine, John McMartin, Chita Rivera, Ricardo Montalban, Paula Kelly, Barbara Bouchet, Stubby Kaye, and Sammy Davis Jr. Sweet Charity is an exuberant and engaging film from Bob Fosse.
The film follows the life of a woman who dances at late night dance hall with other men as she desperately tries to find love in the hope that she can escape her dreary life. It’s a film with a simple story as it plays more into this woman named Charity (Shirley MacLaine) who would endure a series of moments where her desire to find love and happiness forces her to take some serious challenges. Much of it is sort of told in an episodic manner such as an encounter with a famous Italian film star and a kind man who suffers from claustrophobia. Along the way, she tries to find ways to escape her dreary life but Charity’s lack of skills outside of dancing would make things more challenging. Peter Stone’s screenplay does create a unique structure that plays into Charity’s own plight as it begins with heartbreak and denial as her encounters with other forces would wonder if she finds love. Love is a recurring theme in the film as it plays into everything that Charity is looking for in the journey she would take as it would blur elements of reality and fantasy.
Bob Fosse’s direction not only uses New York City as a character and as a stage setting but he also does much more than just create a musical. Instead, he brings in a lot of elements to play into Charity’s own tumultuous journey as Fosse aims for something that isn’t just a lavish music but also a drama that plays into a woman being beaten into a series of humiliating moments as she struggles to retain some hope. With the aid of Gwen Verdon in the choreography, Fosse knows what to do with the presentation of the dance as he also knows where to place the camera to capture every moment. Especially as Fosse’s use of the widescreen format with a lot of wide and medium shots not only help play to the dance but also in where the dance is going and such. Most notably the Rich Man’s Frug sequence at this very posh club as Fosse definitely injects the visual style of Federico Fellini into the film.
It’s among these lavish dance sequence that plays into the drama as well as the elements of fantasy vs. reality as it relates to what Charity wants in her life. Fosse’s usage of medium shots and close-ups help add to the emotional and dramatic aspects of the film such as Charity’s first meeting with Oscar (John McMartin) inside an elevator. Fosse’s approach with the framing is quite playful as well as some of the drama where Charity copes with wanting to be honest with Oscar as well as being true to herself. Even as Fosse maintains something that is lively but also play into the period of the times as it relates to an encounter Charity and Oscar would have with a mysterious religious group. It’s a moment where Fosse acknowledges that sense of change that is happening at a time where musicals were becoming out of fashion while providing something where it can still have life in the world that Charity and Oscar are at. The latter is from a world where things are simple and with rules while the former is someone that is eager for something that doesn’t really exist. Overall, Fosse creates a very stylish yet exhilarating film about a woman trying to find love in New York City.
Cinematographer Robert Surtees does brilliant work with the film‘s very colorful and vibrant cinematography to play into the mood of the dances with some unique lighting for some of its interiors and scenes set at night as well as some of the lights for the dance numbers such as If They Could See Me Now. Editor Stuart Gilmore does amazing work with the editing with its stylish approach to jump-cuts, dissolves, and freeze-frames while capturing the rhythm of the music and dance without the need to cut very fast in order to capture the full power of the dance. Art directors Alexander Golitzen and George C. Webb, with set decorator Jack D. Moore, do fantastic work with the set pieces from the dancehall that Charity and her friends work at to the lavish penthouse of the Italian actor that she meets.
Costume designer Edith Head does incredible work with the costumes from the lavish dresses the dancehall women wear as well as the clothes at the Pompeii Club where Charity goes to and the clothes that she would wear. The sound work of Len Peterson, Ronald Pierce, William Russell, James V. Schwartz, and Waldon O. Watson is superb for some of the sound effects that come into play as well as the sense of atmosphere that occurs in the Pompeii Club and other moments in New York City. The film’s music by Cy Coleman and Dorothy Fields is phenomenal for its sense of vibrancy and energy where it mixes orchestral flourishes with brass instruments to play into the excitement as the songs in the film not only help drive the story but also play into what the characters are dealing with.
The film’s excellent cast includes notable appearances from Bud Cort as a flower child, Toni Basil as one of the dancers at the club, Ben Vereen as a vocalist/dancer for the Rich Man’s Frug sequence, Suzanne Charny as the lead dancer in the Rich Man’s Frug sequence, Stubby Kane as the dancehall club owner Herman, Barbara Bouchet as the spoiled girlfriend of the Italian actor, and Sammy Davis Jr. in a fantastic performance as the religious leader Big Daddy Brubeck. Paula Kelly and Chita Rivera are brilliant in their respective roles as Charity’s friends/fellow dancers Helene and Nickie who both share the same desire to have a better life but were more willing to accept reality rather than what Charity wants.
Ricardo Montalban is amazing as the Italian film star Vittorio Vatale as a man of great charm who is intrigued by Charity as he allows her to spend some time with him where Montalban also provides the character with a complexity that is unique. John McMartin is superb as Oscar as a claustrophobic man who meets Charity in an elevator as he falls for her while wondering what she really does as he proves to be the one chance of hope for Charity. Finally, there’s Shirley MacLaine in a spectacular performance as Charity Hope Valentine as MacLaine brings a lot of energy and liveliness to her performance as well as elements of despair as MacLaine brings so much to the film as she sings well while doing a lot of her dancing as it’s really a performance for the ages.
Sweet Charity is a phenomenal film from Bob Fosse that features a truly amazing performance from Shirley MacLaine. The film isn’t just a musical that manages to be all fun and excitement but also with a very engaging story about a woman’s desperation to find love. Even as it manages to retain some of the harsher elements of Federico Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria while being it’s own film. In the end, Sweet Charity is a sensational film from Bob Fosse.
Bob Fosse Films: Cabaret - Liza with a Z - Lenny - All That Jazz - Star 80 - The Auteurs #56: Bob Fosse
Related: Nights of Cabiria
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