Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Sweet Charity (1969)

Somehow I'd never seen this, despite my love of musicals and Shirley MacLaine. Sweet Charity: The Adventures of a Girl Who Wanted to Be Loved is a musical with big names, ambitious choreography, an adorable title character, and a lackluster plot. Charity Hope Valentine (Shirley MacLaine) is an eternally optimistic pushover working as a dancer and escort in a seedy club. She tells her dream of escaping this establishment after saving enough money to buy a house to her fiancé, Charlie, who promptly robs her and pushes her into a river in Central Park. At first she refuses to recognize he did either of those things, persisting in believing the best of someone for the sake of love, but her friends/co-workers/roommates Nickie (Chita Rivera) and Helene (Paula Kelly) eventually convince her otherwise.

Later that night Charity runs into famed Italian movie star Vittorio Vidal (Ricardo Montalban), and charms her way into an evening with him at a fashionable club, finishing the night in the bedroom closet of his ornate apartment, hiding from the off-again-on-again-girlfriend who ends up back in his bed. Not long after, she decides to get herself out of her disreputable career, but finds no office jobs available for unskilled women. As she's leaving the employment agency, she gets stuck in an elevator with handsome square Oscar Lindquist (John McMartin), who asks her out after she tries to help him with his claustrophobia issues. Charity is delighted to be dating such a kind and respectable man, so she hides her true profession. When he proposes, she finally tells him what she really does, fearing he'll leave her but determined to be honest.

Sweet Charity is all about the performances and the dancing, and not much else. This is mostly an ok thing. Shirley MacLaine is adorable and sympathetic, despite her character's numerable misguided or foolish actions. She is a good pick for the part, utilizing her natural charm and joyful expression to counteract her underwhelming singing voice (it's not bad at all, just not as strong as a lead female character's usually is, especially for such a splashy musical). John McMartin is likable, Ricard Montalban is the picture of sophistication. Sammy Davis, Jr shows up for an exciting hippie-inspired number. Chita Rivera and Paula Kelly play well off of MacLaine's naivete with straightforward pragmatism and excellent dance skills. If you look closely, you'll see a young Bud Cort for about one minute at the very, very end. It is awesome! And you bet I was super proud of myself for spotting him.

Like the original Broadway production, this was directed by Bob Fosse, which means Glitz! and Glam! and Sexy Experimental Jazz Choreography! The dance numbers are incredibly, incredibly self-indulgent, but I kind of loved that about it. Some of them, like "The Rich Man's Frug" and "Rhythm of Life" don't even pretend to have relevance to the plot. It's mostly just Fosse showing off how talented he is with a lot of enthralling and stylized modern dance moves performed by women in glamorous costumes. All of the musical sequences are really exceptional, but not particularly accessible, and the kind of thing I suspect only die-hard musical fans could really get into.

I haven't seen the original Fellini version Le Notti di Cabiria, so I'm not sure if these issues are inherent to the original or part of the musical adaptation, but the story was a little dumb. Though the focus was definitely on the music and the lead character, the plot is still important enough to drag down appreciation of the movie as a whole. It all felt very disjointed and sort of pointless to me. The segment with Vittorio Vidal had no bearing whatsoever on the rest of the story. She didn't have grand revelations (except the one about how jealous her friends will be now that she gets to hang out with a movie star), there was no romantic aspect; but yes, there were two great dance numbers. Sammy Davis, Jr's hippie religion, while colorful and groovin', also had little relevance to anything, except to showcase that Oscar is totally into Charity. Yay. Plot takes a backseat to dancing in a lot of musicals, but this film actually strove to deal with some interesting issues. Then they sort of forgot about those issues so more people could sing about unrelated subjects. I liked the concept of a woman working in a (perceived) ignominious position and trying to have a normal relationship despite that. I was interested in Oscar's reaction to her job: as a so-called "good man" could he overlook her past transgressions now that she is trying to get out and make a better life for herself, or would his strict moral code leave no margin for error? But that kind of stuff only really came into play in the last third of the movie, so it almost felt like an afterthought.

*Spoiler Alert* I have to say the very end of Sweet Charity really affected how I felt about the film as a whole. Here's a woman who has desired only to be loved (it's even in the title), only to be disappointed over and over again by every relationship. Even on the brink of marriage to a "good man", she is left alone. I thought it was sad that her only way out of her situation was going to be marriage to an overly moralistic accountant- as if we need more examples of the "saving" qualities of that institution and its effect on working women. When Oscar decides he can't look past the other men she's been with and leaves her in the middle of getting a marriage license, I was glad. He had been a symbol of everything Charity needed to escape, and I wonder if her devotion was misplaced due to her need to love as well as be deemed a better person. I honestly had no idea where the story would go from there. As she sits in sorrow in Central Park she is given a flower by a group of hippie teenagers, and suddenly her face brightens. She walks around the park gleefully, suddenly regaining her optimism and showing great resilience in the process. She can be alone and be ok with that. She's already quit her job so her life is open to every possibility. It was an unexpected and actually pretty satisfying ending. Too bad the story leading up to it was mediocre.

Sweet Charity features impressive choreography and a great cast, but I wouldn't recommend it to anyone who wasn't really into musicals. Or Shirley MacLaine.


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