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Taste of Honey, A (Blu-ray Review)

12 Sep, 2016 By: Mike Clark



Criterion
Drama
$29.95 DVD, $39.95 Blu-ray
Not rated.
Stars Rita Tushingham, Dora Bryan, Murray Melvin, Robert Stephens.

You could still go to the movies in 1961 and see Love in a Goldfish Bowl with Fabian and Tommy Sands, or in 1962 to see Maris and Mantle in Safe at Home! (in which the Yankees sluggers “hang out” with Bill Frawley). Meanwhile, Audie Murphy Westerns at the drive-in were still ubiquitous in either year, and it would be a decade or so before a principal character in a TV sitcom could be divorced.

So imagine what it must have been like to see Tony Richardson’s opened-up movie of young Shelagh Delaney’s stage play A Taste of Honey, which opened in the U.S. in spring of 1962 about six months after its initial British engagements and a couple weeks before principals Rita Tushingham and Murray Melvin took acting awards at Cannes. Central to its story were an interracial romance that resulted in a single-mom pregnancy and a Murray character (co-equal with the lead Tushingham in Honey’s second half) who was gay. Judging from the “Exhibitor Has His Say” rants from rural theater owners that my adolescent self used to read in Boxoffice magazine about much of the same production team’s sexually winking Tom Jones, a lot of sheltered moviegoers must have been (to steal the title of a bedrock ’61 pop hit) tossin’ and turnin’ at the time.

Today, Honey can be enjoyed in the same manner as any movie that was ahead of its time — and though it has never captured my imagination as much as Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (co-produced by Richardson) or The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner (directed by him), it does stand out from other British “Angry Young Man” pics from the early ’60s by having its anger emanate from … a woman. Delaney, still amazingly, was only 18 when she wrote the original play (which Richardson directed as well), and it’s the combination of youthful passion and sometimes even rage that carries the narrative, along with a bulls-eye acting ensemble and Walter Lassally’s cinematography. Surprisingly, the enormously popular song “A Taste of Honey,” which everyone this side of Fabian and Tommy Sands seemed to have recorded around the same time or slightly later, was written for a Broadway run of the Delaney play and has nothing to do with the movie.

The interiors here were shot in London and the exteriors in Delaney’s home base Manchester, with the latter providing a fuller and richer experience than simply filming the play would have (especially these days, given the time-capsule benefits that come with the accumulation of years). It is in this milieu that 17-year-old Jo (then newcomer Tushingham) lives with her boozy but well-meaning mum (Dora Bryan), carving out an identity as one who might have hit it off with the younger but kindred classroom cut-up Antoine Doinel in Francois Truffaut’s Jean-Pierre Leaud starrers. Bryan’s character has a propensity for falling in with the wrong kind of man, and now she’s engaged to another shiftless type played by a mustached Robert Stephens who’ll likely never be knighted (though actor Stephens eventually was). Tushingham and Melvin are probably what people remember first from the movie, but Bryan (a comedy practitioner more of the time) and Stephens make stellar contributions, with the former taking a BAFTA award. This was so early in Stephens’ screen career that I had forgotten he was even around at the time. His movie glory days would come late in the decade and early the next: opposite then-wife Maggie Smith in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, as the title legend in Billy Wilder’s The Private Lives of Sherlock Holmes and in George Cukor’s lovely Travels With My Aunt (also with Smith).

Lonely and probably sensing she’s trapped, Tushingham’s Jo takes up with a black ship’s cook (Paul Danquah), who, though not necessarily irresponsible is simply not there, which is in natural keeping with his job. He leaves her carrying a child coincidentally around the time she wants to live on her own and away from her mother’s own messy entanglement. Into this environment comes a mysterious young man Jo meets at her place of employment (a shoe store), and the two become roommates. On one of this release’s terrific bonus interviews, a now elderly Melvin talks of how he had to suggest, more than spell out, his character’s gayness in the original play. But by 1961, the so-called gay subtext could be closer to “text, period”; it would have taken one of those Midwest or Southern Boxoffice exhibitors (and I’m speaking as a Midwesterner) to have been oblivious to what was going on.

Melvin and Tushingham (now, surprisingly, a blonde) both rate recently shot supplemental interviews on this release, and you have to believe that both would make delightful pub companions on a privileged night out. We also get Richardson and Delaney in archival pieces; a look-back at Joan Greenwood helping to spearhead the original stage production; a portrait of Lassally; and the full 1956 documentary short Mamma Don’t Allow — a Richardson-produced look at mingling social classes at a British dance hall, complete with appearances by Chris Barber and Lonnie Donegan (both of whom scored pop hits in the U.S.) and an obvious antecedent to the memorable dancing sequence in Honey.

In a good accompanying essay, scholar Colin MacCabe suggests that no one has ever quite put together what happened to Richardson after his Tom Jones Oscar success because with scattershot exceptions (including the Blue Sky swan song that won Jessica Lange an Oscar), his career sputtered. TJ has also suffered from the backlash that’s often extended to films perceived as having been significantly overrated — and Oscar winners feel this a lot — though I suspect a much-needed restoration for Blu-ray might move the pendulum halfway back or more to where it was. But Lassally’s Oscar-winning cinematography was in fade-prone Eastman Color (not Technicolor), so I worry about this.

 


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