Little Boy, Big Tutu
Once in a blue moon, as Jerome Kern once observed musically, you will find the right one. This goes for movies, too. Sometimes, when you least expect it, you get a joyous surprise that forces you to ditch your cynicism, trust your heart and love unconditionally. It doesn’t happen to me often, but when it does, I’m happy to surrender. This is how I feel about Billy Elliot . Already a smash hit in England, this warm, wonderful, optimistic, heartfelt, unpretentious, life-affirming movie brought audiences to their feet cheering at both the Cannes and Toronto film festivals, and now it’s ready to be embraced anew in your own backyard. Hold on to something. Billy Elliot can sneak up on you when you’re not looking and knock you off your feet.
Set during the turbulent 1984 mine strikes that threatened economic disaster for Margaret Thatcher’s England, Billy Elliot is a coming-of-age story about the hardscrabble life of a spirited 11-year-old boy in a bleak, isolated, poverty-stricken coal-mining village in the North of England who dreams of being a ballet dancer. Billy’s mum has died, his dad wants him to be a boxer, and the only way he can escape from a practically Dickensian dead-end life is by playing the piano his mother left behind. While his dad and brother think he’s at the local boxing hall learning how to work out with gloves, Billy is playing tunes for the local ballet school, jealously watching the girls in tutus at the other end of the room clumsily staggering through their ballet lessons. Secretly, Billy joins the dance class, practicing his moves at night in the bathroom.
“Always be yourself,” wrote his mother in a letter when he was only 8, and that’s the only encouragement he has to pursue his passion. That, and the personal interest of a battered, burned-out, chain-smoking dance teacher named Mrs. Wilkinson (another stellar, warts-and-all performance by the marvelous Julie Walters, of Educating Rita fame). Sensing raw talent, she stands by him, convinced he can make it to London’s prestigious Royal Ballet School, which is holding children’s auditions in Newcastle. While the striking miners are bloodying the noses of scabs, Billy is practicing his arabesques, determined to be the next Gene Kelly.
When his dad finds out what Billy’s been doing with his meager allowance for boxing lessons, his own machismo-already fractured by unemployment and the responsibility of putting food on the table for his two sons-is further disgraced, and all hell breaks loose. Even Billy’s best friend, an effeminate lad with a fondness for lipstick, grouses: “It’s for girls, not for lads, Billy. Boys do football, or boxing, or wrestling-not frigging ballet.” The whole town ridicules him. His dad even chops up his piano for firewood. But Billy has already experienced the transforming power of dance, and when he finally unleashes his pent-up frustration and anger to rebel against the prejudice and ignorance around him, crudely tapping out the electricity inside him across the rooftops and through the alleys of the town, it’s a sequence of heart-churning power and joy.
Much more than just another grim story of childhood repression in the Ken Loach tradition, it’s a movie with universal appeal for anyone who has ever experienced the struggles of youth, or the pain of being just a little bit different. Billy is a victim of his environment who doesn’t run with the other horses, a misfit who battles impossible odds to realize his dreams and ambitions. Without a shard of contrivance, one of the nicest things about the film is the way his dad turns out to be the kind of father who compromises all of his own beliefs to give his son a chance for a better future. He never understands Billy, but he knows the meaning of hope. The script, by Lee Hall, is laced with a candid humor that offsets the poignancy and pathos of Billy’s situation, and the direction by acclaimed stage director Stephen Daldry (making his feature film debut at 40) catapults him to the cinematic status of his fellow countrymen Sam Mendes and Anthony Minghella.
Working with a small budget, Mr. Daldry has made a miraculously rich and nuanced film with no big-name stars, no special effects or electronics wizardry, no action sequences and no blood or sex, a film that is light, exuberant, ineffably touching, sentimental in all the right ways and overflowing with deft visual touches. With the exception of Julie Walters, the cast may be unfamiliar, but every actor shines- especially Gary Lewis as the long-suffering father and young Jamie Bell as Billy. Here is an amazingly natural and charismatic boy with an appealing zest for life and a camera-ready face incapable of registering one false expression. The Adonis he turns into, years later, electrifying the Royal Ballet, is none other than the superstar Adam Cooper, who rocked the dance world in the all-male Swan Lake . Careful and caring, they’ve all contributed to a work of overwhelming sensitivity, beauty and sweetness destined for the film-history books.
People are already predicting Oscars for Billy Elliot , and while I mildly protest (it’s a bit early for such pronouncements), I must also confess I’m not surprised. We still have three more months to go, but from where I sit now, it’s the best movie I’ve seen this year.
Sex, Lies and Politics
Nothing imaginable could pack more of a punch in an election season than The Contender , the best film about dirty American politics since All the President’s Men . It’s a sniper’s view of sexual McCarthyism in the year 2000 that will send the Republicans into orbit. Brilliantly scripted and dazzlingly directed by Rod Lurie, a former film critic who made good, it’s alive with ideas-a disturbing, sobering and ultimately scalding look at the vicious back-stabbing zeal with which opponents in the Washington political arena are willing to destroy each other to further their own ambitions in the quest for power. If a woman in the Oval Office is a genetically inevitable idea whose time has come, this is a movie about what she’ll have to go through to get there.
In The Contender , the Democrats are in power. The Vice President has just died in office, leaving a vacant slot wide open. The most obvious contender for the job is the governor of Virginia (William Petersen), a Desert Storm patriot and national hero with Reagan-like approval ratings, but the young, charismatic and immensely popular Clinton-like President (Jeff Bridges), to everyone’s astonishment, chooses and confirms Ohio Senator Laine Hanson (Joan Allen), making her the first woman Vice President in U.S. history. The Republicans are outraged. Not only is she a liberal pro-choice feminist determined to smash double standards, she’s also a former Republican who switched parties in mid-election.
The most dangerous adversary leading the opposition to her appointment is the powerful but unprincipled senior Congressman Shelly Runyon (Gary Oldman), a Jesse Helms–like conservative from Illinois who will stop at nothing to wreck both her political career and her personal life. As chairman of the House Judiciary Committee hearings to check the candidate’s moral qualifications, this old fraud- who hasn’t felt his own pulse since George Wallace was shot- launches a vicious sex scandal, accusing the Senator of participating in a wild orgy when she was a 19-year-old college freshman. Refusing under oath to confirm or deny the charges as “beneath my dignity,” the Senator-the daughter of a legendary former governor of Virginia, happily married with a 6-year-old son and an impeccable record in Congress-takes the moral high ground, insisting her private life is nobody’s business but her own.
In a world of sleazy tabloids and trashy TV shows, the press is less interested in her positions on campaign-finance reform and gun control than her positions in bed when she was 19. Even the President himself pleads for her to come clean and “trust the American people to forgive.” But she’s implacable, a victim of partisan-politics blackmail who would rather sacrifice her reputation on the charges than dignify the right of her opponents to make them in the first place. Even after Runyon’s own wife denounces his ambush as “the ideological rape of all women” and provides Laine with personal dirt to use against him, the idealistic Senator refuses to fight back. Exasperatingly noble (and something of a pain in the ass, if you ask me), Laine becomes the one thing there is no place for in the American pit-bull arena-an honest and principled candidate who is too good to be true. Before it all comes out in the wash, Mr. Lurie turns the tables on everybody with enough shocks, surprises and twists to make your mouth fly open.
Meanwhile, a number of challenging issues are explored in this gripping film that is both uncompromisingly tough and immensely entertaining. A colorful parade of characters adds spice to the brew, all played to the hilt by a first-rate cast that includes Sam Elliott as the President’s chief of staff, Christian Slater as a naive junior Senator who joins the ambush and gets a lesson in moral integrity that changes his life, and Mariel Hemingway as Laine’s husband’s ex-wife, who testifies against her. The most commanding mystery guest is Gary Oldman (also one of the film’s executive producers), unrecognizably devious and creepy as the slimy Runyon, the kind of self-righteous hypocrite who can simultaneously release a secret pornographic file to the press while publicly sponsoring an Internet-libel-protection act in Congress.
To inject a lighter note, there’s a running gag about the President’s constant humorous attempts to stump the White House chef with daunting menus. But there is no Valium strong enough to reduce the tension generated by the remarkably informed and provocative script. The film is blatantly, unapologetically pro-Democrat, which will draw howls of protest from wounded Republicans- but in the sorry wake of the Clinton impeachment debacle, and after the character assassinations designed to tarnish the credentials of such prominent female Democrats as Geraldine Ferraro, Ann Richards, Bella Abzug and now Hillary Clinton, the arrows seem piercingly justified, and very much part of the world we live in. Regardless of your politics, see The Contender for the towering, meticulous and overwhelmingly sincere performance by the elegant Joan Allen. Every time she makes a movie, I feel she deserves an Academy Award. (She should have won for her portrayal of Pat Nixon in Oliver Stone’s Nixon .) This one may finally put that elusive, bare-assed gold prize in her deserving hands at last. It’s a role-and a performance-that is unforgettable.
There’s a reason why great political movies in the tradition of The Best Man , Advise and Consent , The Candidate and All the President’s Men are rarely made anymore. They make you think. As voter registration sinks to an all-time low and a network like NBC opts for sports over the Presidential debates, you wonder if anybody is watching anything besides the wallpaper. The Contender is an uncomfortable film that makes you squirm, but it’s also bold and lively enough to wake up the zombies.