Wednesday, April 18, 2007

The Best of Everything (Jean Negulesco, 1959)

Saw Jean Negulesco's The Best of Everything (1959) mainly because I was browbeated into seeing it--a discussion on a_film_by declared how great it was, how it was available on DVD, and how we younger uns should go rent it.

And it's pretty good--the genre of working girls struggling and surviving in the big city, the women mostly flawed but heroic, the men mostly heels. The commentary--by Rona Jaffe whose novel the film is based on and Sylvia Stoddard--had its moments thanks mainly to Jaffe, who can remember how it was like to actually work in those offices.

It's interesting that Jaffe chafed under the changes made to her book--a subplot where Diane Baker becomes pregnant is watered down (to solve her problems she jumps out of a car, which is supposed to be better because the consequences are accidental); Stephen Boyd, who plays Hope Lange's love interest, loses much of the alcoholism he was saddled with in the novel and now mostly spends his time stepping into Lange's office to lecture her about the unmixable nature of love and career, and how she has to make a choice. Very Hollywood, Jaffe notes. Stoddard seems more into providing us with every actor and filmmakers' biography, and pointing out every car, costume and color detail onscreen (I'm not sure she thinks there's anything worth noting about Negulesco's directing style).

That said, the changes weren't all bad. Robert Evans (yes, THAT Evans) as Baker's snake of a rich boyfriend seems all the more despicable for taking her out to be married, then revealing that they're really going to a doctor for an 'operation'--his buying her a wedding bouquet is a nicely vicious touch. Boyd is dull when he's not tipsy (his best scene is when he's riffing on other men with an equally drunk Lange), but as Lange's tiresome 'voice of conscience" you actually feel ambivalent that they end up together, despite the romantic theme song that plays over their walk away from the camera. And I presume Joan Crawford's peformance as Amanda Farrow only improves on the book--there she's supposedly a one-note villain, while here we see a vulnerability that presumably was Crawford's contribution to the film (she took the role--her first supporting role in a long time--because she reportedly needed the cash).

Negulesco's use of color in the film is striking--color dictates the office worker's status (the higher up the ladder, the more muted the color of door or dress), everyone has noted the Mondrian set design (Negulesco was a painter, and may also have done some of the sets' paintings). Cinemascope I imagined would be problematical--New York is all about dizzying heights, not wide expaneses--but Negulesco counters this by panning down the buildings, emphasizing the way they tower over the antlike workers below; in office interiors he uses the wide screen like a theater set, staging crucial action in long takes where actors cross each other a number of times (I'm thinking of the tipsy Lange and Boyd) and keeping them mostly in medium shot so that they seem to look at each other from arm's length, puzzling over how to close the distance and make contact (this impression is especially strong when it's a woman confronting a man about his lack of commitment). The spaces also point up the relative wealth of corporate officers with their roomy offices and apartments--especially in Manhattan, where the square foot of flooring is at a premium.

I can't be sure about this, but I would imagine Best has influenced many a modern-day office comedy--from Ishmael Bernal's Working Girls (about the shenanigans in a Metro Manila bank--far more intense than in a publishing house I can tell you from personal experience), to Mike Nichols' Working Girl (only Nichols's is more clearly a simpleminded fairy tale).

Fun, fun, fun, though what impressed me the most is that even an eleven-year-old girl can appreciate it (seven-year-old boys are more problematic, though).

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