Monday, March 18, 2013

Director Spotlight #13.5: Elia Kazan's Pinky

Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on 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. This edition’s director is one of cinema’s finest directors of actors, Elia Kazan.

NOTE: Look, I’m tired of typing it out for pretty much every entry, so here it is in the opening: there’s going to be spoilers in this thing, and in almost every entry of Director Spotlight. There’s a lot more to a film than the basic plotting, which is only a small part of the enjoyment as far as I’m concerned. Still, if it’s going to bother you, I’d highly suggest not reading ahead until you’ve seen the film in question.

Grade: 40/C

Who’s up for another Gentleman’s Agreement? I’ll be brief on Pinky, as I’ll more or less repeat most of my criticisms of Kazan’s previous film. The 1949 social problem film is another Darryl F. Zanuck project, filled with good intentions but otherwise forgettable. In this particular case Kazan wasn’t even the first director Zanuck had in mind: the film started shooting under John Ford’s direction until Zanuck replaced him with Kazan because he didn’t like Ford’s dailies. Kazan admitted that he did the film because he owed Zanuck his film career, but he was just as critical of Pinky as he was of Gentleman’s Agreement, and with reason: it’s just as dull, leaden, and forgettable.

Patricia “Pinky” Johnson (Jeanne Crain) has spent the past several years studying to be a nurse, but most people don’t realize something about Pinky: she’s a black woman, light-skinned enough to pass as white (not really, but we’ll get there). Pinky returns home to her grandmother Dicey (Ethel Waters), who is ashamed that Pinky has pretended to be someone other than she is. When a rich white woman, Miss Em (Ethel Barrymore), falls ill, Pinky agrees to take care of her in her final days. Miss Em grows so fond of Pinky that she wills her estate to Pinky, but the white community can’t accept this and contest the will.

Let’s get this out of the way: Crain isn’t convincing at all as Pinky. Two actual light-skinned African-American actresses, Lena Horne and Dorothy Dandridge (later the first black actress nominated for Best Actress), had expressed interest in the role, but Zanuck would hire poor, unequipped Crain instead. It’s easy to understand the casting choice, considering how hard it would be for many white audiences to accept a black actress as the protagonist, and he seems to be making the point that we’d never know she was black unless we knew her background. But even if one is willing to ignore Crain’s whiteness , it’d be difficult to ignore how whitebread she is. Crain was nominated for Best Actress for her work here, but Kazan himself complained about how she had no real temperament. Kazan was a master at getting heated, emotional performances from his actors, but Crain has no heat or emotion, and Kazan’s many attempts to get something out of the sweet but blank actress. Her non-reactions and inexpressiveness kill the character dead.

Kazan has better luck with the supporting cast- seasoned stage veteran Barrymore is a load of fun as Miss Em, and while Waters’ character ventures close to Mammy territory, she imbues her character with a level of dignity. The rest of the supporting cast (Basil Ruysdael as an unprejudiced Judge, Frederick O’Neal as a neighbor of Waters’) provide some down south color, but that’s only goes so far. Kazan’s work is just as efficient and professional here as it was in Gentleman’s Agreement, but it’s just as without passion or Kazan’s personal touch aside from his genius at staging. He’s also hamstrung by unconvincing studio backlots trying to pass as southern country- perhaps some directors could make this work, but some of Kazan’s strengths came from his location shooting.

Pinky is slightly more hard-hitting than Gentleman’s Agreement, in that there are a few scenes of Pinky being harassed by white men. Crain’s blankness don’t give the scenes any real fire, but at least the scenes go further than the rest of the film. For the rest of the film, it’s just another sequence of characters talking about how Pinky isn’t any different from the rest of the white people, about “the fallacy of the impurity of inferior races”, how prejudice is irrational, how Pinky can’t deny who she is (despite the pleas of her dull love interest), and so on and so forth. Is this stuff understandable considering the time period? Yes. Is it any more bearable? No. And most of the script’s major turns- Em giving her estate to Pinky, the far too sunny trial- are painfully contrived. It’s particularly irritating considering that the same year Kazan won a Tony Award for directing the original run of Death of a Salesman, something slightly more dynamic and relevant to the times. Thankfully, Kazan would finally get a chance to show off his true genius soon.

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