Sunday, January 29, 2012

Director's Spotlight #3.11: John Huston's Annie

In the world of film, it is not the actor, nor the screenwriter, nor the producer who makes or breaks the movie. Whatever their contributions, it is ultimately the director who is the sole author of the film. Every month, Director’s Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. January’s director is master craftsman and storyteller John Huston. Next up, 1982’s Annie.

Grade: 16 (D)
It’s a bit puzzling, to say the least, what made anyone think John Huston was the right director for a big budget adaptation of the hit Broadway show Annie. Huston wasn’t exactly known for films with happy endings, and his big budget films (Moby Dick, The Bible: In the Beginning) were generally considered his worst, along with being big financial flops. Then there’s the fact that the bid budget musical had mostly gone out of style at the tail end of the 60s: Camelot, Doctor Doolittle, A Little Night Music and Mame were among the musicals of the past decade or and a half that had bombed, big time. Yet someone figured that a big, old-fashioned musical needed to be made, and that Huston was the right guy for it. The results weren’t pretty.

Annie (Aileen Quinn) is an adorable (just go with it for now), red-headed, 10-year-old orphan in Great Depression era New York. Her parents left her with a locket years ago after leaving her on the doorstop of an orphanage run by the boozy Miss Hannigan (Carol Burnett). When Oliver Warbucks (Albert Finney) needs good PR, his secretary picks up Annie from the orphanage. Warbucks is initially unmoved by the charming (just go with it for now) little girl, but she melts his reservations and warms his heart. He plans to adopt her, but she hasn’t given up on her parents yet, and he comes up with a reward for Annie’s parents if they collect her. Enter Hannigan, her crook brother Rooster (Tim Curry), and his girlfriend Lily St. Regis (Bernadette Peters), who plot to take the money and run, with Annie in tow.
Let’s get the positive out of the way, what little there is: Huston manages to get much of the look of Depression-era New York right, with its dirty streets, poor masses, and glitz just on the outside. It’s admirable that Huston took a slightly darker tone in certain elements of the film, and when Huston tries to communicate his love for Old Hollywood escapism, it’s easy to see how people used the movies to escape everyday woes.
That’s hardly enough to save the film, however, which shares the same bloated qualities of Huston’s big budget films and the gargantuan-sized musicals that tried and failed to recapture the success of West Side Story or The Sound of Music. Like Carol Reed’s overrated adaptation of Oliver!, the film takes a sweet-natured (if often dark), optimistic, enjoyable musical and blows it beyond its modest proportions. While often impressive on a technical standpoint, the dance numbers and set-pieces feel overinflated and empty where they should feel invigorating. Huston doesn’t even manage to cut to the chase: his talents are buried under the bloat, and aside from a few touches, it’s hard to see his stamp on the product.
Casting was usually a strong-suit for Huston, but it mostly fails him here. Bernadette Peters and Tim Curry hit the right notes (although it might have been interesting had Steve Martin taken Curry’s role as originally planned), but Burnett plays to the back rows in a performance that’s several notches too loud and too big. Finney is worse, too big and with an inadequate voice for the numbers. Quinn…well, she’s certainly trying, but it’s an alternatively mugging and overly-precious performance. Nearly everyone in the film is poorly cast.
The songs, so charming and wonderful in the stage version, nearly all fall flat. Huston makes a major mistake of playing the show-stopper “Tomorrow” over the opening credits, deflating its impact in a later scene. Other songs (“I Think I’m Gonna Like It Here”, “It’s a Hard Knock Life”, “I Don’t Need Anything But You”) feel lifeless, made worse by Huston’s insistence to insert garish dance numbers that call attention to themselves in the worst way possible.  And whoever decided to replace great songs like “NYC”, “Something Was Missing” , and “We’d Like to Thank You Herbert Hoover” (talk about a missed opportunity to illustrate how dire the times were) with awful new numbers like “We Got Annie”, “Dumb Dog”, and “Let’s Go to the Movies” clearly wasn’t thinking straight.
There’s no nice way to put it: Annie is a botch of a movie, an unfortunate sidetrack for a director who didn’t have long to tell more great stories. If nothing else, the film gave Huston the freedom to do what he wanted for his last three films, and those were the ones that counted.
NOTE: for a more satisfying, if still imperfect, adaptation of Annie, look to the 1999 ABC movie directed by Rob Marshall (who never did better, as far as I’m concerned), starring Alicia Morton as Annie (far superior to Quinn in every way), Victor Garber as Warbucks, Kathy Bates as Hannigan, Alan Cumming as Rooster, and Kristin Chenowith as Lily St. Regis.

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