Blackmail, Deceit: An Ideal Husband … A Cursed Violin, But Sturdy

Blackmail, Deceit: An Ideal Husband

At a time of alien hybrids and cross-dressing spies, it’s a pleasant relief to meet some real people on the screen, even if we have to return to the year 1895 to do it. In Oliver Parker’s superbly stylish, literate and immensely entertaining adaptation of An Ideal Husband , the wit and wisdom of Oscar Wilde has never been more welcome.

At the height of the season in fin de siècle London, Sir Robert Chiltern (the excellent Jeremy Northam) and his patrician wife, Gertrude (Cate Blanchett), are role models in high society. He’s a rising star in Parliament, she’s an admired but priggish champion of women’s causes. They’re rich and beautiful, and their parties are the most coveted invitations in the highest circles. Into their charmed lives enters a well-turned-out viper in the form of the venomous society adventuress Mrs. Cheveley(Julianne Moore), who has invested a large sum of money in a political and financial swindle Sir Robert opposes. Mrs. Cheveley blackmails Sir Robert into influencing Parliament to approve this scheme, threatening him with blackmail because of a certain letter in her possession proving he made his fortune by selling government secrets, an indiscretion in his youth which could now ruin his career and destroy his marriage if it became a public scandal. While the Chilterns are impaled on the horns of this moral dilemma, salvation comes in the unlikeliest of friends-Lord Goring, a handsome, worthless, womanizing cad played to the hilt by Rupert Everett, and Sir Robert’s ditzy sister Mabel (Minnie Driver). As he roots out the scandal, traps the villainess in an act of theft, saves his friend from disgrace and restores the Chilterns’ happy marriage, Mr. Everett steals the show. His is the character most obviously based on Oscar Wilde’s, and he’s the one who dispenses most of the witticisms. (“The only possible society is oneself-to love oneself is the beginning of a lifelong romance!”) As a dedicated hedonist and lifelong bachelor who believes the only link between art and nature is a well-made buttonhole, Mr. Everett is acerbic and snooty, like Clifton Webb in Laura , and reminded me more than a little of George Sanders’ stinging, sardonic Addison DeWitt in All About Eve .

His conceit is fully matched by Julianne Moore’s predatory lady vulture (a role tackled in the 1948 Alexander Korda film version by saucy Paulette Goddard) who is boundless in her chicanery, going so far as to make another wager with Mr. Everett-marriage in exchange for the incriminating letter. (Watching Mr. Everett squirm is one of the film’s chief delights.) And even Cate Blanchett, posing behind a mask of integrity, purity and decency, is not above the hypocrisy Oscar Wilde was always out to expose in British society. She does her fair share of squirming, too, before rescuing her “ideal husband” from Ms. Moore’s sulfurous clutches. In the end, everyone learns a lesson in fake morality. Sometimes there is honor even in dishonest imperfection.

Moving from fashionable drawing rooms in Grosvenor Square through lavish parties and fashionable opening nights (the characters at one point assemble for the first night of a play by Oscar Wilde!), to open debates in the hallowed halls of the House of Commons, the film is rich in décor, sumptuously photographed and impeccably acted. In the play, Mrs. Cheveley is caught red-handed and gets a comeuppance that always elicits wild applause. This time, everyone is forgiven, life goes on, and even the snobbish Mr. Everett succumbs to Cupid’s unpredictable arrows, surrendering his bachelorhood to Ms. Driver. An Ideal Husband is probably a film only the Brits can make-mesmerizing, but at the same time elegant and civilized.

A Cursed Violin, but Sturdy

The Red Violin borrows its basic storytelling premise from the 1964 film The Yellow Rolls-Royce , only instead of a yellow car, an acoustically perfect reddish-tinted violin is the device used to link the stories of a succession of owners from 1681 to the present. With lush music (by composer John Corigliano) as the tie that binds the segments together, it’s often captivating and more than ravishing to watch.

A curse accompanies this mysterious instrument from inception. The 17th-century artisan who created it lost his wife and stillborn child and added their blood to the varnish before discarding it. But the instrument is rescued by monks and finds its way into the children’s orchestra of an Australian monastery. By 1792 it has become the treasured possession of an orphaned prodigy with a weak heart and is stolen from the child’s coffin by grave robbers. A century later, in Victorian England, it is the obsession of a mad composer addicted to drugs and sex. After his suicide, the valuable instrument travels to Shanghai, where it is condemned by the Communist Revolution as a symbol of cultural capitalist corruption and degenerate Western music, but where it is narrowly saved from destruction by a brave music student. The story drags on, from one crisis to the next, the violin always managing to get itself protected by one thief or another until it ends up on the auction block in Montreal. An expert musicologist (Samuel L. Jackson, of all people) is summoned from New York to evaluate it and falls in love with the instrument, stealing it in a suspenseful finale that bears the essence of a real detective thriller. But because of the annoying way Mr. Jackson mumbles lines, some of the film’s most important and revealing clues to the violin’s identity are rendered incoherent.

Directed by François Girard, who made the superb 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould , the film’s reverence for classical music is admirable, and the cinematography as burnished as the resin on the red violin itself. I wasn’t bored, but the stories range in quality and dramatic interest and the acting (in Italian, English and German) varies, too. The Oxfordshire insert with Greta Scacchi and Jason Flemyng seems as hysterical as it is pointless. But the tragic scenario, bringing heartbreak and death to all who possess the red violin, builds to a whammy of an ending.

Austin Powers : Shaggy Trash

I don’t know what to tell you about Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me . But how could I? I’m one of those hopeless wrecks who looks for artistry, coherence, sanity, expert direction, craftsmanlike performances, plots that lead to logical endings, character development-professional stuff this non-movie finds in short supply. It’s not so much written as vomited. The acting is on the level of a nursery school revolt. The nonexistent plot, about the effeminate, bra-wearing, animal-pelt chested moron called Austin Powers, is execrable. Mike Myers is a star created by raccoons, and looks like a troll under a drawbridge. The dialogue is brain-dead babble. The entire wrenching affair, which runs only 95 minutes, seems like days. Vulgar, stupid and mean-spirited, it brings out the worst in everybody. To find the target audience for this kind of trash, you have to dig-six feet under the nearest septic tank.

Remembering Mel Tormé

The death last week of Mel Tormé diminished the world of serious popular music and jazz beyond recovery. A musical idol since high school and a cherished friend of mine for the past 30 years, Mel had a zest for life and a genius for writing and singing elegant songs no artist today can match. He was a renaissance man, a fine actor (check out his famous dramatic performance as Mickey Rooney’s spineless brother in Rod Serling’s The Comedian on “Playhouse 90” the next time you’re passing the Museum of Television and Radio), composer of classic songs (“The Christmas Song,” “Born to Be Blue” and “County Fair,” among others), author of five books, pianist, drummer, and the greatest interpreter of lyrics since Billie Holiday. All of it made him special, and at his funeral in Los Angeles, an illustrious gang of friends, relatives and fans gave him a sendoff that was worthy of his mantle. He spread his passion for vintage automobiles to Harry Anderson, he passed his obsession with movies on to Hugh Hefner, and he rubbed the patina of his humor on all who met him. One of his sons, Tracy Tormé, recalled at the memorial services the time he found himself playing baseball against the son of Sammy Davis Jr., another singer with whom Mel had a lifelong “love-hate relationship.” Mel signaled his son, the pitcher, to strike out Sammy’s son, the batter, but Tracy’s pitch hit the other kid square between the eyes and knocked him out instead. Tracy looked over at his dad and Mel hung his head. But after the game, the singer said, “Well, son, don’t feel too bad. If he’s anything like his old man, he deserved to be dusted.”

Among the speakers were Cliff Robertson, Hugh Hefner and Donald O’Connor, and among those standing graveside were Nancy Sinatra, Gloria DeHaven, Mel Brooks, Steve Allen, James Darren, Robert Culp, Roger Williams and Rhonda Fleming. Mel was buried under a palm tree at the exclusive Westwood Village Memorial Park cemetery, only a few feet away from Natalie Wood, Marilyn Monroe, Burt Lancaster, Eve Arden, Donna Reed, Darryl F. Zanuck, Dean Martin and Stan Kenton. Knowing him, he loves the company. And still, in death as in life, Melvin Howard Tormé remains uniquely, euphorically and eternally in a class of his own.

Blackmail, Deceit: An Ideal Husband … A Cursed Violin, But Sturdy