Sunday, November 8, 2009

The Red Shoes - Part II

Title from the 1948 film

The New York Times
November 8, 2009
Op-Ed Columnist

Ballet’s Mean Streets


Some movies you have to watch whenever they’re on.

One of those, for me, is “The Red Shoes.” Like its doomed heroine, I’m pulled inexorably along by the bewitched crimson ballet slippers into a lush, swirling landscape that turns into an inescapable, bloody hell.

There are many great works of art about obsession, from Heathcliff’s wailing to Ahab’s whaling, but this is surely the most gorgeously haunting. The destructive obsession portrayed here is not with a lover or outside object of desire. It’s about the tyranny of creativity.

As the white-skinned, blue-blooded ballerina Vicky Page, Moira Shearer dons the red slippers and is forced to choose between love and art.

There was never a screen pairing more magical than Moira and Technicolor. The flame-haired Scottish dancer is so radiant in the Criterion DVD of the 1948 classic directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger that it’s impossible to believe she could glow more brightly. But in the lovingly polished version of the British movie that debuted at Cannes and is now showing at Film Forum in New York, Moira is even more incandescent.

The original backers of the movie had so little confidence that a stylized tragic ballet film could do well that they didn’t even give it an official London premiere.

Now Martin Scorsese calls “The Red Shoes” “one of the true miracles of film history.” He long ago began an obsessive campaign to restore Powell’s reputation. His Film Foundation and the UCLA Film and Television Archive have taken the lead in digitally alchemizing the movie from cracked, shrunk, moldy negatives.

Scorsese fell in love with the movies of Powell and Pressburger when he was an asthmatic kid living in a four-room tenement apartment in New York, watching “Million Dollar Movie” on TV and going to theaters with his dad.

“They have a flair and flamboyance you don’t usually find in films being made at that time,” he told me. “And a fearlessness about emotion. They create worlds that take no prisoners.”

In “Black Narcissus,” their 1947 movie about a lustful nun in the Himalayas, played by Deborah Kerr — they seemed drawn to redheads for Technicolor — the sister faints from sexual desire and the screen goes orange. “That’s such a wonderful way to express desire,” Scorsese marveled.

In a letter to Kerr in the early ’40s, Pressburger laid out their manifesto, including: “No artist believes in escapism. And we secretly believe that no audience does. We have proved, at any rate, that they will pay to see the truth, for no other reason than her nakedness.”

In the early ’70s, Scorsese tracked down the broke and discredited Powell in London and took him to a pub.

“Michael was very surprised to hear that his films had thrilled a younger audience and given fuel to the imagination of myself and Brian De Palma and Francis Coppola,” Scorsese once recalled. “He went home that night and recorded in his diary that he felt his blood course through his veins again after meeting us in the bar.”

In 1980, Coppola invited Powell to become a consultant at Zoetrope Studios. He moved to America and married Scorsese’s film editor, Thelma Schoonmaker.

It is interesting that Powell twice counseled Scorsese against the color red. He didn’t like the red boxing gloves in the early rushes of “Raging Bull” and urged Scorsese to switch to a black-and-white film. (He did.) Powell told him “Mean Streets” had too much red lighting and he should take some out. (He didn’t.)

“The Red Shoes” is based on a Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale of the same name about a little girl who becomes vain about her red shoes and gets confused about her priorities. As in the movie, the shoes force the girl to dance day and night, and then she dies. But the fable has an even grimmer coda: The girl asks an executioner to cut off her feet.

The shimmering Moira Shearer could never take off the red shoes, either.

“To be constantly associated with that one film is really quite dismaying,” she once said. “It’s as though I’d done nothing else in my life. I mean, it’s odd, when you’re 61, to be haunted by something you’ve done when you were 21!”

She resisted doing the movie, finding the script “silly and banal”; she feared it would deflect her from a classical ballet career. And when she died at 80 in 2006, her husband dismissively called her film work “a bit of a distraction.”

Shearer said she faced hostility when she returned to the ballet world from some who considered her overnight movie fame frivolous. She always worried that she was succeeding more for her looks than her dancing.

She was eclipsed by Margot Fonteyn, married, had four children and receded. She wrote a book about her experiences with George Balanchine. As Clive Barnes wrote in Dance Magazine, “She had a disappointing and disappointed dance career.”

In later years, Shearer was asked to give her occupation in “Who’s Who.”

“Writer,” she replied.

Personal comment: It would be interesting to know what Shearer’s career would have been like in classical ballet if she had not done the film. Dame Nanette de Valois the founder of Sadler’s Wells Ballet as the company was known at the time of the film could be every bit as emperious as Boris Lermontov and Margot Fonteyn was the star. Many incredably talented women languished in Fonteyn’s shadow during her too long career with de Valois’s companies. When the company toured the U.S. after The Red Shoes became a huge hit in America everyone wanted to see Shearer dance rather than Fonteyn and management, and one presumes Fonteyn, were not happy. Here is The Red Shoes trailer from the un-restored original film.

1 comment:

  1. I'm still wondering if there would be a possibility to remake "The Red Shoes" with some newer stars, some current members of ABT, NYCB, POB, Bolshoi, etc., and cast Summer Glau as Vicki. She was trained as a ballerina before sustaining an injury, which forced her into acting. Look for her YouTube videos dancing as well as rehearsing the scenes where her Cameron the Terminator character dances during the first season of "Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles."


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Powys , Wales, United Kingdom
I'm a classically trained dancer and SAB grad. A Dance Captain and go-to girl overseeing high-roller entertainment for a major casino/resort