A Rowlands Revival

In the forthcoming avalanche of big-budget, end-of-the-year Hollywood epics with limitless money for marketing and promotion, don’t overlook The Weekend and A Good Baby , two small, sincere, modestly financed but extremely intelligent independent films worthy of attention. The Weekend , written and directed by Brian Skeet, is a lushly photographed reverie about a group of people who come together in a warm, welcoming Colonial house in upstate New York to celebrate the life of a friend who has died of AIDS. Tony (sweetly played in flashbacks by the talented D. B. Sweeney) had a big influence on their lives (they all loved him in their separate ways), and on this Chekhovian weekend in the waning twilight of summer, old regrets are voiced, old passions resurface and new insights are gained.

The hosts of the gathering- Tony’s half-brother John (Jared Harris) and his wife, Marian (Deborah Kara Unger)-are struggling to hold their marriage together, haunted by their unspoken but ever intrusive memories of him. Marian hides the unrequited love a straight woman can have for a gay man in her vision of Tony, while her best friend, Tony’s ex-lover Lyle (David Conrad), has found someone to make him feel human again in his new relationship with Robert (James Duval), who immediately senses he’s an unwelcome guest in the house. Meanwhile, a worldly neighbor named Laura Ponti (Gena Rowlands)-a widow writing a memoir about her own beloved deceased husband-is paid an unexpected visit by her neglected and estranged daughter, Nina (Brooke Shields), a brittle actress in B-movies. To torture and shock her mother, the bitchy Nina has brought along her newest lover, Thierry (Gary Dourdan), who is not only married but black. More places must be set at Marian’s Martha Stewart table when they, too, arrive for dinner.

During the course of a long Saturday-night meal lit by lazy fireflies, Marian-who spends more time fussing over her infant daughter than her husband-cannot hide her resentment of Lyle’s new boyfriend, while Nina makes a play for John, Laura lavishes maternal affection on everyone except Nina, and the repressed sexual and emotional tensions build in a film of blissful nuance and subtle shadings. This theme-that family relationships don’t always live up to their expectations-is neither fresh nor original, but The Weekend is intelligent and considered in its keen observations of human nature.

The performances are uniformly elegant and first-rate. Brooke Shields stretches in mature areas that demonstrate her growth as an actress, while the luminous Gena Rowlands can still say more with a withered look and a tongue planted gingerly in her cheek than any four pages of dialogue can convey. She has the film’s best lines-or maybe she’s just such a magical actress that she makes them seem better than they are. At any rate, she’s a revelation in a film that effortlessly and unsentimentally charts the absurd complexities of human psychology. It’s Ingmar Bergman in Dutchess County, and well worth a look.

In A Good Baby , former child star Henry Thomas does a quietly intense job of getting behind the scruffy façade of a Southern backwoods redneck to flash a light on the human heart of the disenfranchised. He is Raymond Toker, an odd, lanky loner living in a storm cellar-the only thing left of a family homestead that has burned to the ground. One day while squirrel hunting, he finds an abandoned baby girl in the woods-and when none of the local hillbillies will take her, Raymond experiences an immediate paternal affection for the baby himself. A number of strange folks enter the film at odd intersections. The baby’s missing teenage mother is found murdered and left in an abandoned DeSoto; a 12-year-old girl limps through the forest with blisters on her feet, searching for her older sister; a slattern (Cara Seymour) who collects china patterns develops an uneasy attachment to Raymond and his baby; and a sleazy traveling salesman and religious zealot (David Strathairn) moves from one character to the next, asking too many questions.

These people have one thing in common: They are all essentially homeless in a God-forsaken place where the law of the community is bent and shaped by the hands of whoever is still alive to call it home. The strangeness, the setting (a hill region of North Carolina so remote that the Greyhound bus won’t even stop at the general store), the impending threat of violence and the moment-to-moment realism of the Southern cracker-barrel colloquialisms have the unmistakable air of a short story by Flannery O’Connor or Eudora Welty. But the film was written and directed by Katherine Dieckmann, who shows flair, understanding and compassion for her actors while creating a compelling fairy tale firmly rooted in the banality of everyday existence.

Ms. Seymour makes a vivid impression as the oddball character who spends every waking moment plotting her escape from the butt-end of nowhere, and Mr. Strathairn etches another persuasive portrait in his gallery of weirdoes. Henry Thomas, who made a lasting impact as the little boy in E.T. , has grown into a sensitive, appealing actor of surprising depth and dimension. Even the nameless baby has a spirited, innocent and curious personality of her own. They all contribute handsomely to A Good Baby , a strange, haunting indie-prod with the quality of a dark folk ballad mournfully sung in a jail cell after midnight.

A Dusted-Off Annie Oakley

For the movie buff in your life, here’s a Christmas suggestion for this year’s perfect stocking-stuffer. After being embroiled in legal tangles with the Irving Berlin estate for 27 years, MGM has at last released its splashy 1950 musical Annie Get Your Gun on home video. It’s the only major MGM musical left from those halcyon days of the cherished Arthur Freed unit that has never been released on video, and it has thus become the most requested title in the MGM library by movie mavens, historians and private collectors-all of whom refuse to die peacefully until they’ve seen Annie Get Your Gun . So there is understandable excitement surrounding this video release, and whether it becomes your favorite version of the fabled Berlin icon or not, one thing is certain: It looks magnificent.

With a magnetic soundtrack that sounds brand new, and splendiferous three-strip Technicolor processing that looks as fresh and sparkling as it did on the day it opened 50 years ago, this Annie has been digitally remastered from some pristine negative they must have kept in a hermetically sealed MGM vault right next to Louis B. Mayer’s old socks.

Purists may grouse about the numbers that were left out (cherished songs like “I Got Lost in His Arms” and “Moonshine Lullaby”), and cultists may grumble about the fact that Judy Garland-who was originally cast as Annie Oakley, then fired after a few days of shooting-never got a chance to show what she might have done with the role. But in my opinion, the bombastic Betty Hutton was an inspired replacement. Not only is she the most raucous, energetic and vulnerable Annie of all time, but she brings to the role of hillbilly-turned-rodeo-star a blazing artistry that commands and holds in every scene. If they had ever found a way to harness this woman’s combustible energy to a rocket, they would have had the first woman on the moon.

I wasn’t around in 1946 to see Ethel Merman in the original production, but I did catch the Lincoln Center revival in 1966, when she was 20 years too old for the part (the wags called it “Granny Get Your Gun”), and in both soundtrack recordings there is no doubt that Merman displayed a streak of vulgarity five miles wide. Betty Hutton is superior throughout-feminine and appealing even in the early backwoods-dirt-and-freckles scenes, when she knocks a hole through the screen “doin’ what comes natur’lly” on that song as well as “You Can’t Get a Man With a Gun” and “There’s No Business Like Show Business,” then blossoming into a beauty who can break your heart on a wrenching ballad like “They Say It’s Wonderful.” Her show-stopping performance is nothing short of a triumph. As the “big swollen-headed stiff” Annie falls for, Howard Keel is the only perfect Frank Butler I’ve ever seen-conceited and cocky and handsome as a strutting cockatoo in his white Wild West–show sharpshooter costumes, etching the love songs with his booming baritone, then easily milking “Anything You Can Do” (his big duet with Ms. Hutton) for all its wit and comic potential, matching her every line.

It’s a dream team, and the film-Ms. Hutton’s first and last at MGM-should have been the happiest pinnacle of her career. Quite the contrary, it turns out. In a rare appearance recently on Turner Classic Movies, she came out of seclusion to tell interviewer Robert Osborne that Annie Get Your Gun was the most miserable experience of her life, and accused everybody on the film of treating her like an unwelcome intruder. “They wanted Judy Garland, and they never let me forget it,” she said. True or false, the film speaks for itself: The troubles are invisible, and everything is cloudless, cheerful and crowd-pleasing.

The video includes several additional perks: A deleted Betty Hutton number that Irving Berlin wrote for the film, “Let’s Go West Again,” has been restored, along with “Colonel Buffalo Bill,” the only number that Frank Morgan-best remembered as the title character in The Wizard of Oz -filmed before he died during production and Louis Calhern resumed his role. These numbers have never been seen before. For Garland nuts, the only two numbers she completed (before her nervous collapse forced the film to halt production and start over without her) are also included. Finally, you can see how wrong she was for the role, how unprepared she was for the strenuous work. Pale, weak and drawn, the famous Garland energy was at an all-time low, and on “I’m an Indian Too” she literally gasps for breath right before your eyes. This was obviously a very sick Judy, who didn’t have a clue how to play a role originated by somebody else. (Spectacularly restaged, recostumed by Helen Rose and brilliantly directed by George Sidney, this number is one of the highlights of the Hutton version.)

It’s just as well that Garland exited both Annie and MGM at such a low ebb. Four years later, she moved to Warner Brothers and relaunched her career with a legendary comeback in A Star is Born . The rest is in the history books. Meanwhile, there’s plenty of history on view in Annie Get Your Gun . The style in front of the cameras, the drama behind the scenes, the timeless Irving Berlin songs and the rodeo pageantry concocted by Busby Berkeley (who was also fired), with cameras mounted atop two 500-foot towers and simultaneously aimed at more than 1,000 extras, two mounted bands consisting of 224 musicians, and 800 rodeo horsemen riding in close-knit circle formations, clockwise and counterclockwise, around Betty Hutton and Howard Keel (one of the most colossal finales of any movie musical): It’s all here, and more, in the most eagerly awaited video release of the new millennium. Grab it now, before it disappears again, and experience the joy and opulence of the movies at a time when they really meant something special. You’ll probably want to play it for many Christmases to come.