Friday, August 16, 2013

The Best Films I Have Never Seen Before: The Turning Point (1977)

The Turning Point (1977)
Directed by: Herbert Ross.
Written by: Arthur Laurents.
Starring: Anne Bancroft (Emma), Shirley MacLaine (Deedee), Tom Skerritt (Wayne), Mikhail Baryshnikov (Yuri), Leslie Browne (Emilia), Martha Scott (Adelaide), Antoinette Sibley (Sevilla Haslam), Alexandra Danilova (Madame Dahkarova), Starr Danias (Carolyn), Marshall Thompson (Carter), James Mitchell (Michael), Daniel Levans (Arnold), Scott Douglas (Freddie Romoff), Lisa Lucas (Janina), Phillip Saunders (Ethan), Jurgen Schneider (Peter).

Herbert Ross’ The Turning Point is a movie about ballet that has very little to offer audiences except for some absolutely gorgeous dance numbers. But unlike the two best dramatic movies about ballet I have ever seen – Powell and Pressburger’s The Red Shoes (1948) and Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan (2010) the dance scenes are not fully integrated into the story. Both of those other films had dances sequences that were thematically relevant to the rest of the movie – that enhanced the story and the themes. In The Turning Point, as good as the ballet scenes are, they are standalone highlights. The story, which is clich├ęd and not very interesting to begin with, is stopped cold every time people begin to dance.

The movie is about two former rivals, one of whom went on to become the biggest star in America’s best ballet company, the other got pregnant, left the company and has spent the past 18 years being a wife, mother and small town dance teacher. They are brought together once again when the ballet company comes to Oklahoma City, where the wife and mother, lives. To be nice, they let her oldest daughter practice with the company – and when it becomes clear that she is really a star in the making, they invite her to join. So mother and daughter head off to New York for the summer – but whose dream they are really pursuing is not really clear.

Anne Bancroft plays Emma, the woman who went onto become the biggest ballet star in America. But like all ballerinas, her shelf life is limited – and she is already well past her best before date. She was celebrated for years, but the truth in ballet, like any profession based on physical prowess, is that eventually, your career will come to an end. Shirley Maclaine is Deedee, Emma’s one time rival, who has spent the past two decades wondering if she could have become Emma had she not gotten pregnant before the company decided which one of the two of them would play the lead in Anna Karenina – because she left, Emma’s path was unobstructed. But could Deedee have been that famous. And now that her daughter Emilia (Leslie Browne) has been invited to join the company, can she do what her mother could not? And will Emma, who is now too old to be a star ballet dancer, and too old to become a mother, try and become a mother to Emilia to try and remain relevant? And is Yuri (Mikhail Baryshnokov), the young, beautiful, womanizing Russian star of the company, really interested in Emilia, or does he just want to make her another of her conquests?

The Turning Point holds the undistinguished honor to be the most nominated film in Oscar history (11 nominations) not to win a single Oscar, which raises the question if the Academy really loved the film, or if it was a film they thought they were supposed to love. The tone of The Turning Point is all over the map. I could never quite tell if the film was trying to be a modern (for the 1970s) portrait of women breaking out of their traditional roles, or just a campy, old fashioned catfight film. There are elements of both. The marriage between Deedee and Wayne (Tom Skeritt) is troubled, but given a modern treatment – one that realizes that sometimes things can break down temporarily, that both can be flawed, but that they want to stay together. And the portrait of Emma is one where she made the choice to follow the career she loves instead of having a family, and wondering if she made the right decision. But then again, there are moments where the two rivals literally get catty with each other – the climax is a catfight between the two of them that feels completely out of place. Had the filmmakers embraced one tone or another – a modern, feminist film, or an old fashioned campy catfight, the film could have worked. Because it tried to do both, it didn’t.

Then there is the question of the youngsters. Both Baryshnokov and Browne were nominated for their supporting performances, despite the fact that both are quite simply awful in all of their dramatic scenes. Yes, they are beautiful dancers, but their dramatic story completely and totally falls flat. There is simply no emotion there.

Overall, I kept waiting for The Turning Point to settle into its story, and it never quite does. It tries too hard to do too much, and as a result, the film left me unsatisfied. Yes, the dancing is beautiful, but there needs to be more to the film than just that to make The Turning Point into a good movie.

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