"Who are those guys?"
George Roy Hill doesn't get written up much these days. People either like some of his films or not, but don't usually have much to say about them. In the breadth of subjects and tones he tackled, the former TV director certainly made it hard to perceive an authorial voice, and even his visual style was inconsistent, veering between the flatly televisual and a more nouvelle vague playfulness. Regular collaborator William Goldman praised him as one of the greats precisely because of his versatility, but he seems destined to be recalled for only a couple of movies, and as an able journeyman rather than as a unique artist.
The World of Henry Orient (1964) is a charming oddity. It deals with a fantasy world concocted by two 14-year-old schoolgirls in New York, based around a minor local celebrity, concert pianist Henry Orient (Peter Sellers), whom they encounter by chance and become obsessed with, inventing a fairy-tale land and a private language in his honor. It's much like the peculiar make-believe kingdom of the girls in Peter Jackson's Heavenly Creatures (still his best film, or at any rate the only one with anything like real people in it).
But the movie, glowingly shot on location in widescreen, aspires to lightness and a degree of frivolity, with a little sentiment and cruelty from the adult world, but no homicide. Probably Hill's most successful quasi-comedy if we set Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid aside, it melds a bunch of variously broad and eccentric performance styles and different levels of stylisation versus realism. Tippy Walker and Merrie Spaeth, as the two leads, attain a striking degree of naturalism and a convincing rapport, while handling complex dialogue that eschews the inarticulacy of teenspeak and mumblecore in favor of glorious screwball rhythm and fluency.
Sellers manages the difficult task of portraying a fake, a would-be Lothario reliant on a bogus Hungarian-French-Italian-whatever accent, with cartoon exaggeration but enough truth that he can interact with natural locations and more restrained actors without sticking out like a 3D thumb. It's always marvelous to me that Sellers could parody smoothies so mercilessly and yet aspire to be just such a creep in reality. Orient is a layer of charm spread thickly but unevenly over a core of panic and desperation, and the psychological acuity of the portrait allows the actor to decorate it with a lot of music hall and Goon Show schtick without losing the plot or the man.
Angela Lansbury strikes a balance between the two extremes posed by the kids and Sellers, as a nasty mom. Tom Bosley as the nice but absent father is absolutely compelling and sympathetic and real, quite a revelation. Paula Prentiss is as funny and inventive as Sellers. Phyllis Thaxter is sweet. Al Lewis kind of overacts, but maybe it's just the way he's assembled.
Hill, making his third feature, is starting to flex his directorial muscles, and though warned to avoid gimmicky by conservative crewmembers, serves up an ebullient slow-motion romp sequence, with his heroines bouncing high in the air (some uncomfortable, to modern eyes, upskirt photography here). Apparently this was inspired neither by Zazie Dans le Metro nor A Hard Day's Night, but by Leni Riefenstahl's famous high dive montage in Olympia.
The source novel was by Nora Johnson and the screenplay co-written with her father, the legendary Nunnally, which explains the comic and dramatic control. Apparently youg Nora and a schoolfriend really did formulate a mad "pash"—for Oscar Levant, causing that renowned neurasthenic some anxious moments, one presumes. Hill's best moment is a concert scene parodying modern classical music (with Elmer Bernstein's help), with a beautifully orchestrated array of reaction shots and spot gags, much of the business improvised with the cast.
John Simon argued that this sequence was anti-intellectual, and he's probably right but I don't care because good cartooning is good cartooning, and a rare thing in the cinema (though more common in the sixties).
A shame I discovered this just after Christmas, because it's quite seasonal, too.
The Forgotten is a regular Thursday column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay.