Monday, December 16, 2013

A Tangled Web

Marquise de Merteuil (Glenn Close): One does not applaud the tenor for clearing his throat.

On this day 25 years ago, I was finishing up my first semester of graduate school. I had completed my final exams, and I was looking for something special to do to celebrate.

"Dangerous Liaisons," with John Malkovich, Glenn Close and Michelle Pfeiffer, was making its premiere 25 years ago today. It was a Friday, and I decided to go to the theater on Monday. (I worked for a mostly afternoon paper in those days, and my days off were Sunday and Monday. I spent Sundays watching football with my father so Monday seemed like the best time.)

There wasn't much of a crowd the day I saw it — which was kind of surprising. It was a week before Christmas, and schools were out. The malls were busy, and I would have figured that some people would have taken a couple of hours to watch a movie.

But, if they did, they were watching something else.

That was OK with me, though, because I didn't have to struggle to hear the dialogue, which crackled in a way that movie scripts seldom do. Maybe that's because it was based on an 18th–century novel — which may have been the reason moviegoers were scared off. If so, that was a shame because they missed out on an entertaining movie experience.

"Dangerous Liaisons" earned back more than twice what was spent to make it, and there were those who regarded that as a success, but its box–office take was exceeded by dozens of other movies that were released that year.

Vicomte de Valmont (John Malkovich): Now, I think we might begin with one or two Latin terms.

It had a kind of "Midsummer Night's Dream" quality to it.

The acting was first rate. Glenn Close played a member of the French nobility who had a virtuous reputation but was, in reality, a scheming and manipulative woman. She decided to have her revenge on a former lover by having his fiancee (Uma Thurman) seduced by another man, thus humiliating the former lover, and the instrument of the seduction would be an equally manipulative character played by John Malkovich.

Well, that was the plan.

The conflict for Malkovich's character was that he was already otherwise occupied with trying to seduce a chaste character played by Michelle Pfeiffer, who was staying with Malkovich's aunt (Mildred Natwick in her final role). But he changed his mind when he learned that Pfeiffer had been warned about him by the mother of Thurman's character (Swoosie Kurtz), and he turned his attention to Thurman.

Thurman's character, incidentally, had fallen in love with her music teacher (Keanu Reeves) who was not, in Kurtz's eyes, suitable for her daughter.

It's all kind of complicated to explain in print. It's much easier to follow when one watches the movie.

It is interesting, in hindsight, to contemplate what might have been. Drew Barrymore and Sarah Jessica Parker could have had the part that eventually went to Thurman. I find it hard to imagine either of those actresses bringing the freshness and naivete that Thurman brought to the role.

At the Oscars, Close and Pfeiffer were nominated for awards but lost. The movie was nominated for Best Picture and Best Original Score but lost those as well. It won for adapted screenplay, costume design and art direction.

Malkovich and director Stephen Frears were not nominated.

On the subject of the music, I was gratified by the soundtrack, which included compositions from a virtual who's who of baroque and classical composers — Bach, Handel, Vivaldi — but, interestingly, even though the story took place in France, no music by French composers was heard.