Tuesday, December 31, 2002

I have commented before on the fact that different non-English speaking countries have different preferences on how they like their titles of their English movies. In some countries the posters and publicity have an English title, which may or may not be the same title as used in actual English speaking countries. In others they have a title in the local language. Once again, this may be a translation of the English title, or it may be something else entirely. To my previous observations that Bend it Like Beckham had become Kick it Like Becham, I now see that it is Joue-La Comme Beckham in France, which I believe approximately translates to Play it Like Beckham .

(English and German versions of the poster can be found here .

The film is still unreleased in America, and if it does get a release, I don't know if they will change the title. "Beckham" is immediately undertood in French, German, and British English, but an unknown word in American English.

On the other hand, Reese Witherspoon's Sweet Home Alabama has been changed into Fashion Victime for some reason.

I don't know quite why this is. The film's plot is the hoariest of cliches. Reese Witherspoon's character Melanie was a native of Alabama, but decided some years ago to leave her husband behind in Alabama and go to New York, where, seven years later, she is a successful fashion designer, who wants to marry someone else. She goes back to Alabama to get her husband to sign the divorce papers, but the movie gives us lots of southern colour, and eventually Melanie discovers that Alabama has small town charm, that she loves her husband after all, etc etc etc, although, to quote Roger Ebert,"The fact is that few people in Hollywood have voluntarily gone home again since William Faulkner fled to Mississippi. The screenwriters who retail the mirage of small towns are relieved to have escaped them. I await a movie where a New Yorker tries moving to a small town and finds that it just doesn't reflect his warm-hearted big city values". I will add that the filmmakers themselves were clearly so scared of going to Alabama themselves that they filmed the picture in Georgia and Florida. Yes, I have given away most of the plot, but to quote Ebert again, "Anyone who thinks I have just committed a spoiler will be unaware of all movies in this genre since 'Ma and Pa Kettle.'".

However, I wouldn't say Melanie is a fashion victim. Yes, she is supposedly a fashion designer, but this is entirely irrelevant to the plot. All that the plot requires is that she is successful in New York at something, and fashion design will do just fine. As to why the French needed to change "Sweet Home Alabama" into something else, I have no idea. My guess is that Jean-Paul of Bordeaux or Martine of Marseilles (and probably even Abdul of La Zone) know where Alabama is, and are probably even familiar with the song. So why the change. (And as to why "The Santa Clause 2" became "Hyper Noel", I won't even speculate).

And yes, Sweet Home Alabama is a pleasant enough movie, and Reese Witherspoon lights up the screen. Notice that the above poster is simply a picture of Witherspoon, and she is the only thing being used to sell the picture. And of course the film was a big success, as was Legally Blonde last year, another not all that great movie (but which had its moments) in which Witherspoon shone. It's quite an extraordinary achievement, really. Reese Witherspoon is now clearly a star. The last time young actress who could turn mediocre movies into hits just through being in them was the Julia Roberts of about 1991 . Reese Witherspoon might be on the verge of turning into that big a star (and I am certainly not the first person to observe this). So who is this girl?

In 1996, the local multiplex at Cambridge (that belonged and belongs to a joint venture between Warner Bros and Village Roadshow of Australia) had for some reason much more flexible programming than is the case for most chain cinemas. In particular, one thing it would do was show late films on Friday and Saturday nights that were not on its regular daytime schedule. Sometimes these would show strange Canadian-French adaptations of Japanese comic books. Sometimes they would simply show Hollywood films will a lower profile than their regular stuff. In any event, I made something of a habit of going along. One Friday night, they showed a thriller called Fear. Very simple plot. Teenage girl gets older boyfriend. After a while, she sleeps with him. After that, he turns into a psychopathic stalker, who gets crazier and crazier and eventually dies at the end of the movie.

The young actress who played the principal character in this movie had a similar way of pouting, and looked very similar to Alicia Silverstone, who had been so very good in Amy Heckerling's Clueless. In fact, I spent much of the movie asking whether the actress was Alicia Silverstone. (I was not the only person to think this: the similarity was commented on by quite a few people). I waited for the end credits, and noticed that the actress was someone named "Reese Witherspoon" and then thought nothing more of it. I dismissed her as some insignificant clone of Alicia Silverstone, and put her out of my mind.

At that point, it is easy to forget that Alicia Silverstone was once being groomed for stardom. She was really wonderful in Clueless: funny, adorable, and at the same time capturing the character of Jane Austen's Emma in a modern setting almost perfectly. After this, she signed a production deal with Sony Pictures, and we all waited for her future hits. But they never came. Only one film ever came from that production pact, the rather excrable Excess Baggage . I don't know whether it was that someone too young and inexperienced was given too much control over the film or what, but Silverstone had lost the sparkle, and the film appeared to have really low production values for a studio release. It looked and sounded dreadful, and it died at the box office. Next, Silverstone took the part of Batgirl in Batman & Robin . And while she certainly wasn't responsible for that particular debacle, again she did not look comfortable on screen. She was only in one major studio movie that many people were likely to see after this, the Brendan Fraser vehicle Blast From the Past . This was actually a much better movie and a much better performance from Silverstone, but she was only really in a supporting role, and she again lacked the obvious star power she had had in Clueless. This is one of those situations where the apparent star making role seems to have been a fluke, and was possibly brought out of her by a director who is good with actors, who can get what she wants on film and then put the performance together in the editing room. (I have thoughts on Amy Heckerling as a writer and director, but that would be too big a digression). In any event, at that point Alicia Silverstone faded into B movies and stage work.

In any event, the fact that she seemed so obviously to be copying Alicia Silverstone, who appeared to be a much greater talent, was why I rather dismissed Reese Witherspoon when I saw her in Fear. Bad call on my part. She was to keep popping up in films over the next few years, mainly in supporting parts: as Tobey Maguire's sister in Pleasantville and then more notably in Cruel Intentions, Roger Kumble's modern prep school update of Les Liaisons Dangereuses , which Witherspoon stole, although Sarah Michelle Gellar was nominally the female star (and she and the film were actually pretty good, although Kumble or perhaps the studio didn't quite have the nerve to confront the full implications of the ending of the source material and the film lost its way a bit in the third act). At that point I went back and looked at some of Reese Witherspoons earlier work, from the completely over the top Little Red Riding hood road movie Freeway, to the sweet coming of age movie Man in the Moon (from 1991, her first film, made when she was only 14, and a lovely piece of work). And then in 1999 she starred as Tracy Flick, the obnoxious over-achieving high school student, in Alexander Payne's Election, a brilliant satire of what David Brooks would later refer to as The Organisation Kid, American politics, and an assortment of other things. This film also brilliantly cast Matthew Broderick against his own usual onscreen persona, and is probably the best American film of the last ten years that you haven't seen. It was obvious at that point that Witherspoon was an actress of extraordinary skill and of great interest. The thought that I or anyone had ever considered her a lesser talent than Alicia Silverstone at that point seemed absurd.

But Witherspoon has not done anything as dazzling as that since. She appeared in an Adam Sandler vehicle, and then went on to make Legally Blonde and Sweet Home Alabama relatively unambitious movies that were none the less perfect star vehicles for her. (In her defence, she did also recently (and hilariously) play Cecily in The Importance of Being Earnest). I think she is inevitably now going to be a huge star. This is fine, This is probably good. Given that Witherspoon has always taken parts in mainstream and genre movies such as in fact Fear it is probably what she has always wanted, but I hope that it does not mean that there are no more performances like that in Election in her. Julia Roberts is more star than actress, but Reese Witherspoon is potentially a great actress, and stardom sometimes has an odd effect on roles. Stars are discouraged from playing unlikeable characters (and Tracy Flick was certainly that) and the presence of a star in a movie can lead to interesting scripts being rewritten and rewritten until they are middle of the road pap. Cate Blanchett is another potentially great actress who seems to not be especially bothered about being a star, and has instead spend her time seeking out interesting parts and people to work with. Her body of work is terrific. I hope Reese Witherspoon's can be as good.

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