Wednesday, July 08, 2015

cinema obscura: Karel Reisz's "Isadora" (1968)

Redgrave's Isadora Duncan entertains herself while her distracted lover James Fox concentrates on his art in Karel Reisz's lost masterwork "Isadora" (1968)

The general personality profile of a lost movie is that it is small and that its original release came with little fanfare. Such films usually come in under the radar. Invisibility is the trademark of a lost movie.

What's difficult to grasp is a major movie that seems to fall off the map.

A prime example is Karel Reisz's brilliant, messy Isadora Duncan biopic, "Isadora," which provided star Vanessa Redgrave with her most emblematic, self-defining role. Duncan, a solopistic, sexually uninhibited artist who experimented with dance, liberating it, was also a defiant free-thinker, and the like-minded Redgrave tore into the role as if it were a raw piece of meat and she was starving. It's something to behold.

Unfortunately, the film was undermined by its studio even before anyone, critics included, got to see it. Universal, with Oscars in its eyes, rushed the 168-minute art film into a single Los Angeles theatre for one week in December of 1968 to qualify for that year's Academy Awards.

Misunderstood, it was promptly panned by The Los Angeles Times (shades of Alfred Hitchcock's "Vertigo" here), although Vanessa Redgrave did get her Oscar nomination, losing - unbelievably - to Katherine Hepburn and Barbra Streisand (oy!) who won in a tie vote that year. Anyway, based on this one review, Universal panicked, recalled the film and deleted some 40 minutes (shade of Terry Gilliam's "Brazil," a future Universal victim here).

By the time it opened in New York on April 27, 1969, it had a new title - the generic, TV-movie-sounding "The Loves of Isadora" - and, according to Vincent Canby's dismissive review in The New York Times, it ran 128 minutes. (This conflicts with reports that put the edited version at 131 minutes but, really, what's three minutes when 40 have been cut?)

Despite its already troubled history, Universal gave Reisz permission to screen the film in competition for the Golden Palm at The 22nd Cannes Film Festival (held May 8-23, 1969), where Redgrave took home the best actress award. Presumably, the original version was screened at Cannes, given that it played there as "Isadora," not "The Loves of Isadora."

The film then disappeared from the landscape until it was incarnated, briefly, in the 1990s when a "director's cut," running 153 minutes, was released on VHS (a version which was televised by the Bravo cable channel, with some minor editing of nudity) and then it disappeared again.

The final nail in "Isadora's" coffin came at The Orange British Academy Film Awards in February of 2010, when Redgrave was awarded its highest accolade, the Academy Fellowship, to an approving crowd at London's Royal Opera House. Voluminous clips from just about all of Redgrave's important films preceded the award itself. It went on forever.

But, inexplicably, not "Isadora." The film that, arguably, contains her single greatest screen performance was absent.  Unfair!






















"Great movies are rarely perfect movies."

-Pauline Kael  on "Isadora"

And that sums up Reisz's film.

Perfectly.

31 comments:

Mike said...

Enjoyed this article very much. Was startled to hear about this film's unnecessarily bumpy history. Depressing in so many ways. Depressing because it has a lot of truth in it. This kind of info brings out the angry cinephiliac in me. Cinephilia is like many fan subculture, but it’s for the intellectual, and intellectual is usually a proud person who doesn’t like to admit to that kind of behavior. Thanks for the peeks at the poster art and for those great stills of Vanessa.

Pat said...

Joe, thank you for this most illuminating post.

joe baltake said...

Actually, Pat, the film illuminates itself.

Blaire said...

Yes, Vanessa Redgrave's best performance!

Stephen said...

“Isadora” is a-mazing, a favorite of mine. Reisz was a very stylish filmmaker. I like "The French Lieutenant's Woman" very much, too. At least, I can see that one. Anything else?

Jeff said...

It is an amazing biopic which was way ahead of its time stylistically. The scenes flash back and forth in time as Duncan's life races toward her cataclysmic end, and this technique, which confused audiences of its day, works perfectly for its subject. Redgrave is on screen in almost every minute of the film, and she leaves an indelible mark on the viewer. Favorite scequence-- the cafe on the road to Paris, as Duncan gradually becomes inebriated and drives everyone away from her-- Vanessa is positively brilliant!

Quito von Rosebud said...

I have the vhs version, and comparing it with the last american version I just can say. "Dont let them tame you"

a.n. said...

NBC broadcast the complete roadshow version over two nights twice in the early 1970s. Previously, having only seen the severely truncated THE LOVES OF ISADORA (which is now beautifully restored in a British produced DVD and recent Blu-Ray under the title ISADORA)I watched it both times and remember it well. While that broadcast was missing the Intermission music, the cleverly-realized,lovemaking scene between Redgrave and James Fox and a snippet of nudity in the MARCHE SLAV sequence much new-to-me footage was added. Being the '70s, it was of course pan & scan and not letterboxed however, the original ratio being 1.66:1 the visual loss wasn't as great as a more attenuated widescreen process. Having seen Karel Reisz Director's Cut from the '90s on VHS which is readily available on ebay and Amazon, I can say that version is very close to what I saw on NBC. What is missing are some early establishing scenes of:
* The Duncan Family taking a transatlantic cattleboat to Europe in dreadful weather.
* The Duncan Family checking into Claridge's Hotel as "The O'Gormans" and sneaking out the next day without paying the bill
*Young Isadora and her brother Raymond improvising dances in autumn leaves in Kensington Garden

Many of the Jason Robards/Paris Singer sequences were longer and a tad more intricate. In my opinion, that's where the film drags a bit and nothing significant was lost. In fact the further trimmings have tightened things up a bit.

There's also one additional dance performance sequence which given the so-so quality of Redgrave's sincere effort at dancing and the somewhat insipid quality of the ersatz choreographic reconstructions: No big loss here either.

Generally, the roadshow version differs from the Director's Cut in the overall rhythmic feel of the film. The Riviera/Nice sequences were a bit more solid and were more of the film's "spine" if you will. In a way, they constituted a mini film within a film. The hallucinations of Isadora's children and funerals begin as a mystery and intersect more frequently, only very gradually revealing themselves to the viewer as to what they are all about. By the time Redgrave/Isadora sits down to document her loss in the harrowing centerpiece which alone should have won Redgrave scads of awards, the audience has begun to put the puzzle pieces together. Reisz' Director's cut destroys a lot of that "feel".

The Roadshow's intermission came after Isadora reveals the source of her misery in the aforementioned sequence. That comes at the 2-hour mark. Russia and the catastrophic end in Nice come after the Intermission and make up the film's last hour.

A really thorough restoration needs to be done. Jocelyn Herbert's masterful art direction, evident from the recent DVD/BluRay, is a major player unto itself.

It's a film I didn't much care for when I first saw it cut up. I preferred Ken Russell's 1966 effort with Vivian Pickles at the time. But when I finally saw it more or less complete and realized that it was actually an object of great subtlety and beauty --- a memory play, really --- I began to shift allegiances.

It is above all Vanessa Redgrave's finest hour on film. And for that alone it deserves care and respect.

joe baltake said...

a.n.- Thanks for the invaluable information. -J

Alex said...

Among Reisz's work, I'd single out "Who'll Stop the Rain," the best Vietnam movie I've seen, and one that contains Nick Nolte's best performance, and "Sweet Dreams," a terrific bio-pic with a knock-out performance by Jessica Lange (I notice a trend here when it comes to Reisz's work with actors). I'd love to see the original "Isadora," or even the truncated version, since Redgrave ranks among the very best actresses in movie history, in my view. Getting movies like this into the public eye is what DVDs should be for, I think.

joe baltake said...

Alex- I also admire "Sweet Dreams" and "Who'll Stop the Rain?" And I'd like to add the little-seen "Everybody Wins," which reunited Nolte with Reisz and with Debra Winger (Nolte's "Cannery Row" co-star). -J

Alex said...

I've heard of "Everybody Wins," but never had a chance to see it. I'd like to, with that cast. Another Cinema Obscura candidate?

joe baltake said...

Absolutely!

Daryl Chin said...

Actually, Vincent Canby's review began with the statement that, though the Academy Award went to Katharine Hepburn and Barbra Streisand, here was the performance which should have won: Vanessa Redgrave for ISADORA. I'll always remember that review, because Canby was bucking the trend of praise for either Hepburn (for her longevity) or Streisand (for her conquering of the movies, after her work on stage and television). I don't remember what he said about the movie per se, but i know he loved Redgrave. (Interestingly, though Vanessa Redgrave was Pauline Kael's favorite actress - not just as a critic, but as a person, in the odd period when Kael tried to be a movie producer in the mid-1960s, the actress she wanted to work with was Redgrave - she was not as fond of Redgrave's performance in ISADORA, not because of the acting, but because Redgrave's dancing didn't cut it - "Only once have I stopped rooting for her: I thought her dancing in THE LOVES OF ISADORA unforgivable, because she lacked the fluidity and lyricism to transform calistenics into dance." Though Kael voted for Redgrave's ISADORA performance at the National Society of Film Critics, it wasn't her first choice, one of the only times that happened.)

joe baltake said...

Daryl- Thanks, once again, for the insight. Invaluable. -J

Kevin Barry said...

For the 1968 National Society of Film Critics Awards, Pauline Kael's three votes went to Barbra Streisand (Funny Girl), Liv Ullmann (Shame), Vanessa Redgrave (The Sea Gull). For the 1969 awards, her choices were: Barbra Streisand (Hello, Dolly), Jane Fonda (They Shoot Horses, Don't They?), Vanessa Redgrave (The Loves of Isadora).

joe baltake said...

Thanks, Kevin! Noted.

Kiki said...

This is so beautifully written, Joe. I LOVED Isadora. Vanessa was so beautiful and I thought Robards as Singer was perfect.

Brian Lucas said...

Considering Universal's lousy attitude towards the film, is it unreasonable to assume that clips from "Isadora" weren't made available to the BAFTA awards show?

joe baltake said...

Good assumption, Brian. Makes sense.

Taylor said...

You may be interested to know that an Isadora Duncan biographical film had long been in the works in Hollywood. George Cukor had initiated the idea with a film to star Greta Garbo who had long been deeply interested in Duncan's innovative art and iconoclastic life. The film was only to suggest the dance sequences without any full out performances. Cukor was himself a great fan of Duncan and was on close friendly with her adopted performing "daughters" known as "Les Isadorables" They along with Gemze deLappe, a second generation Duncan dancer and notable Broadway dancer in her on right, were going to be on hand to insure that whatever movement Garbo did perform was done so with a high degree of authenticity. The project was eventually put on hold and of course Garbo "disappeared" from public view.
Later, European director Max Ophuls was called on to revive the project with Rita Hayworth starring as his Isadora. Apparently, he went so far as coming up with a nearly completed script. The introduction of Ophuls on the project is quite interesting because Reisz' film's structure very closely resembles Ophuls' Technicolor masterpiece LOLA MONTES 1955 in its flashback/flashforward sequencing. His film also went through many "versions" and legend has it that Ophuls died of a broken heart after losing control over its final presentational mode.

joe baltake said...

Many thanks, Taylor

joe baltake said...

Note to a.n. Would you know the running time of the roadshow version of "Isadora"? I have 168 minutes but not sure if that is correct. If you see this, let me know. Thanks.

a.n. said...

Yes, Joe, I can easily see 168 minutes as being the original run time. Including the NBC broadcasts (which they must have stashed somewhere) I have seen 4 separate cuts of the film and and each has a smidgeon of something that the others don't have. It is clear that not only were scenes completely removed, but a lot of trimming of scenes took place. Add in a musical Overture and Intermission music (5-6 minutes????) which all Roadshow films had, that isn't a stretch. Why the original film wasn't restored when Reisz did this Director's Cut is beyond me. Especially for a film which by the '90s clearly had enough expressed public interest is strange. We're only talking a 15 minute difference. The Director's Cut, as I said above, does it's own botch job on the rhythmic "feel" of the film. It's only in the NBC broadcast that Memory Play structure made its own kind of sense. Not to sound arrogant but in 1968, that would have been something of a problem for general audiences to follow. NBC's broadcast, of course, sandwiched portions between commercial breaks making it easier to "go down" --- it's psychological. What Reisz did in his Director's Cut is trim the original in such a way as to help us to "understand" what the film was doing and get rid of what he felt wasn't necessary anymore. He should have left it alone on its own merits; "we" were a much more intelligent and film savvy audience by the 1990s. A similar recent DVD Director's Cut botch job was done by Christopher Miles on THE PRIEST OF LOVE, his nuanced biography of Duncan contemporary DH Lawrence.

BTW, I am the person who supplied the Greta Garbo info above not "Taylor". Additionally to that post, the Hakim Brothers who produced the final film were the team behind the Ophuls/Hayworth attempt, so I find it very likely that the script used for Reisz/Redgrave is heavily based on Ophuls script esp. given how strongly it resembles the unique structuring of LOLA MONTES.

I am a dancer with a long term interest in all things to do with Isadora Duncan and her period. This particular film and Redgrave's uncanny evocation of a historical personage she doesn't in the least resemble have fed an abiding interest. The identification with actor/role is so strong. Unfortunately, that has also played out in like political scandal and personal tragedies for Redgrave herself.

What an astonishing presence she remains.

joe baltake said...

a.n.- Thanks again for the generous insight. I truly appreciate it and I'm thrilled that "Isadora" has a loyal following, and in your case, a passionate devotee.

I must comment on three issues you broach here...

First, re the NBC telecast of the roadshow version. Hopefully, someone out there has it on tape. NBC and Universal are, of course, related, and in the 1970s, NBC regularly televised Universal films from that decade, routinely in revised versions in the case of titles with adult content (with some theatrical scenes cut and previously deleted footage reinstated). Often, this destroyed the original work, as in the cases of James Goldstone's "Red Sky at Morning" (with John-Boy style narration, read by one of its stars, Richard Thomas, superimposed over scenes containing dialogue) and Frank Perry's "Diary of a Mad Housewife" (with newly added footage of Carrie Snodgress' therapist, shot upside-down in some misguided attempt to be arty; Parry never filmed this stuff - it was invented by Universal for the TV version).

However, NBC's telecast of "Isadora" is something of a rarity. It's the first time that I am aware of Universal airing one of its titles in its original form, sans much editing or tampering in any way, on NBC.

Again, I hope someone has it. Better yet, the home entertainment arm of Universal should release the full version (along with "Diary of a Mad Housewife") on BluRay.

Secondly, yes, Vanessa Redgrave is a marvel. None of her performances has missed a single beat, not one of them, and her line readings are utterly flawless. She's one of our acting treasures.

Finally, re "Taylor." In the past, I've encouraged readers of this site not to post messages anonymously. If one wants to remain private and not share one's real name, then I suggest using a nom de plume.

As a rule, I don't run anonymous feedback. However, when the posts are compelling, as yours are, I take the liberty of using "a.n." as an easy identification or some name. Hence, the post by "Taylor." I hope you understand. I believe that responses have more credibility when there's a name attached.

Marvin said...

Tremendous, fabulous article. Thanks for taking the time to write a fascinating piece on "inside Hollywood foolishness." Marvin

Sharon said...

Once again, your blog is full of fascinating information, this one in particular featured a movie, Isadora, I had missed entirely. It opened in what was a chaotic time in my life, which must be the explanation. I have no memory of any of the screenings mentioned, movie or TV, so it all was entirely new. What is most personally surprising is that I was introduced to Isadora Duncan in college and she intrigued me. What a shame I missed Vanessa's interpretation of what obviously was a fascinating life. I join the other commenters in approbation and approval of Vanessa Redgrave. In her portrayal of Guinevere in Camelot, not one of her more challenging roles, she added depth to the story as she revealed the queen to be far more interesting and layered than mere decoration. From youth to age, I cannot remember a movie in which Vanessa Redgrave is less than stellar. A treasure indeed!

Randall Henderson said...

I also saw the film in original release and months later cut to ribbons as LOVES OF ISADORA. The first time I saw the Director's Cut was on the long gone Theta Channel in LA. I believe at that time we were told that the editing had been rushed in order to qualify for Academy Award consideration, and this was the version Reitz "would have" done. That's the version that ended up on VHS and, I think on the British DVD releases. I recall Pauline Kael praising not just Redgrave but the way the film portrayed the life of an artist as a sloppy mess, and not someone struck by a bolt out of the blue with a gift. Over the years I have written to Universal and also Criterion Collection about ISADORA. Criterion Collection responded politely but that was all. And yes, I further recall the first NBC screening, the soundtrack of which I taped off the television as I don't think video tape was quite yet available. NBC also ran hugely edited versions of two other Universal English-made films of the same period, THREE INTO TWO WON'T GO and SECRET CEREMONY. The latter involved newly inserted scenes and changing the main character, a common prostitute played by Elizabeth Taylor, into a -- WIG SALESLADY. I am not making this up, and there was some flak about it at the time.


joe baltake said...

I believe you, Randall. Of all the major studios, Universal was most notorious for pasting together TV versions of its films, using outtakes and newly filmed stuff to replace sequences deemed inappropriate for prime-time television. It did unspeakable things to James Goldstone's "Red Sky at Morning" (and apparently the TV re-do of this fine film is the only version now available). The most interesting example, however, is Frank Perry's "Diary of a Mad Housewife," whose TV version is the same film and yet vastly different. I recently learned that Perry himself prepared that version using loads of footage that never made it into his theatrical version. I wrote about it recently but have to update my essay based on this new info. Here's the link:

http://thepassionatemoviegoer.blogspot.com/2016/01/notes-on-perrys-dairy-of-mad-housewife.html

Randall Henderson said...

This discussion sent me to the theater program (yes, program) sold at the initial, brief, uncut showings of ISADORA ib exclusive run in late 1968. Buried within were my long forgotten clippings of Pauline Kael's original New Yorker review as well as coverage of the Director's Cut when it turned up several years later. Would be happy to scan them if there is a way to get them to you.

joe baltake said...

Randall! I have that program among my souvenir program collection. But thanks for the thought!