Monday, August 15, 2016

Olivia's Trip to Italy

Six years ago, our group reviewed Light in the Piazza (1962) when we began looking a the films of Olivia de Havilland.  As the film is one that several of us love, and a newer group member had never seen it, we decided to revisit this excellent film.  Ms. de Havilland plays Margaret Johnson, an American visiting Italy with her daughter Clara (Yvette Mimieux).  As they see the sights in Florence, they are approached by Fabrizio Naccarelli (George Hamilton), a young Florentine who is captivated by Clara.  Margaret attempts to avoid Fabrizio, but to no avail - he is not to be dissuaded.  Meg's problem? Clara suffered a traumatic brain injury when she was 12; as a result, though she is a lovely young woman of 26, she has the mental age of a pre-teen.

Based on the novel The Light in the Piazza by Elizabeth Spencer (New York, 1960), the story first appeared in The New Yorker.  Reviews in the Hollywood Reporter and Variety praised the film (see TCM article), but the New York Times review is scathing.  A shame, really, because it is a moving film, with an exceptional cast - Bosley Crowther just didn't get it.

It's interesting how several years distance from the film, and new discussants adds to one's appreciation.  In our prior discussion, we were very critical of Barry Sullivan, who played Clara's father, Noel Johnson.  Noel is a hard man to like, primarily because of his attitude towards his daughter - he is both jealous of her and embarrassed by her.  His solution: ship her off to Maryland (he's a tobacco executive in Winston-Salem, NC), where visits will be limited, and she will be "safe" in something that is not "an institution" (he describes it as a "country club, or should be for the amount we're paying").  It also means his wife will be all his, not the guardian of their daughter.  Did we like Noel any better? Of course not, but we were more appreciative of the way Mr. Sullivan played him.  He's not afraid to make him unattractive, and it works well.
Our opinion of Signor Naccarelli, as portrayed by Rossano Brazzi, didn't change all that much.  We still found him somewhat shady.  Signor Naccarelli does, however, bring a bit of humanity to Meg;  Meg is so tied up in knots over her fears for her daughter's future, that it is only the flirtatious Signor who is able to finally loosen her up a bit, with his flattery and attempt at lovemaking. But his efforts to blackmail Meg for a larger dowry are rather petty - he's not a poor man, and it is likely Noel will happily supply plenty of money to his daughter's upkeep (though, of course, Signor Naccarelli is not aware that Noel will pay pretty much anything to have Clara out of sight).

Some years ago, two of us saw the Broadway musical version (2006) Light in the Piazza at Lincoln Center.  We enjoyed it, but somehow it didn't click the way the film did.  I think perhaps that the film had more intimacy than the play.  Regardless, it was a good night of theatre, and we appreciated that they would want to tell this story again.  Here is a clip from that version.
Light in the Piazza does a good job in portraying a difficult subject, and we were especially impressed by Yvette Mimieux and George Hamilton.  Originally, Italian actor Thomas Millian was cast as Fabrizio, but Hamilton actively campaigned for the role.  Hamilton is not afraid to make Fabrizio a simple man - not stupid, but a man who wants a loving wife, a home and a family.  He sees in Clara the child bride he yearns for - a playmate of sorts, but a loving one who will revel with him in his love of home and family.  He also makes him a bit of a stalker (with his relentless ability to find Clara and Meg, no matter what part of Florence into which they venture), making Meg's distrust of him eminently understandable, but also providing the audience with a chuckle.

In the end, the film hinges on whether or not we can accept the sincerity of Ms. Mimieux's Clara.  We have to believe that Meg is right in her decision with regards to Clara's future.  Can she be a wife and mother? Can she live in the Florentine world, among adults, and not be ridiculed?  Ms. Mimieux gives us a picture of a girl who, though disabled, is going to be able to grow and adapt, as long as she has the help of those who love her.  Currently retired, Ms. Mimieux made a total of  24 films (most in the 1960s and 1970s), as well as many television appearances.  Her appearance in 1964 as Pat Holmes, the epileptic surfer in the episode "Tyger, Tyger" of Dr. Kildare was very memorable (she was nominated for a Golden Globe in the category of Best Female TV Star).  She currently works in real estate and is married to her second husband of 20 years, Howard Ruby.

We'll leave you with this trailer from the film.  Next time (there will be a bit of a gap, as I'm off to a wedding), we'll return with another Olivia de Havilland film.

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