Thursday, February 12, 2015

Good Night, Gracie

In exchange for all the girly movies (horror and suspense) I am watching , I'm making her watch guy films, mostly musicals, like Grace of My Heart (1996). I've been planning to watch this story of a singer-songwriter loosely based on Carol King, for a while, and an interview with the star Illeana Douglas on Projection Booth brought it all home.

It starts in the fifties with Douglas the teen daughter of a wealthy family. She is going to a talent show where her mother wants her to sing "You'll Never Walk Alone" in a white prom dress. But another contestant, a black girl singing the blues, convinces her to sing "Hey There, You with the Stars in Your Eyes", and trades her the white dress for a slinky black cocktail number.

This blues singing inspiration, by the way, is played by Jennifer Leigh Warren, who I went to school with. Never would have recognized her, but she is great, even though she didn't do her own songs. Neither does Douglas, she's dubbed by Kristen Vigard. But that's fine.

So Douglas wins the talent show and gets to go to New York with a recording contract. But nobody will record her: Female singers aren't selling that season and nobody wants a singer who records her own songs. Finally, John Turturro (in a role inspired by Phil Spector) gets her to let a male doo-wop group record her song. When it's a hit, he moves her into the Brill Building and it's off to the races.

The film is a mix of Douglas' quest to be recognized as a singer and a songwriter, her problems with men, and the changes in the world as the sixties roll in. Her first husband is her self-centered writing partner Eric Stoltz. Then she had an affair with married older man Bruce Davison. Finally, she moves out to California with Brian Wilsonish Matt Dillon. She gets something from each of them, but really, she needs better taste in men. She does stay in touch with Jennifer Warren, and gets an English songwriting partner, Patsy Kensit. In fact, one of the best little scenes is those two doing a song for Bridget Fonda as a Leslie Gore type, a deeply closeted lesbian coming apart at the seams. Her song, "My Secret Love" was actually written by Leslie Gore, along with Larry Klein and David Baerwald.

Most of the songs, in fact, are written by a writer from the day paired with a modern day writer. Carol Sager with Dave Stewart, Larry Klein and Gerry Goffin, and the first pairing of Elvis Costello and Burt Bacharach. It's the songs that the movie lives or dies on. I don't even think that they are really that great songs. But they are sold with utter conviction and beautiful production. Illeana Douglas even says at one point, "It's very melodramatic," and she's right - beautifully, breathtakingly melodramatic.

I should mention that the movie is full of great performances, and Douglas is a lot of fun to watch. She's funny looking, as at least one character in the movie says, but beautiful. She hasn't been in very many movies, but she's great in this.

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