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Light in the Piazza (DVD Review)

24 Oct, 2011 By: Mike Clark

Available via WBshop.com’s Warner Archive
$19.95 DVD
Not rated.
Stars Olivia de Havilland, Yvette Mimieux, George Hamilton, Rossano Brazzi.

Yvette Mimieux first captivated my 13-year-old self when she played the hottest Eloi tribe member around in George Pal’s movie of H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine. Then three years later, her Life cover bikini shot (posed with a surfboard, promoting a coming “Dr. Kildare” TV episode) momentarily took my mind off the Dodgers’ concurrent sweep of the Yankees in the 1963 World Series. In between, though, she made a movie I didn’t see at the time — one that much later surprised me by becoming something of a guilty pleasure. This would be director Guy Green’s Florentine romance-with-a-twist that later became a Broadway musical and Tony contender (taking home a few awards).

I only fitfully subscribe to the “guilty pleasure” concept regarding bedrock Hollywood, figuring that major-studio pleasure is hard enough to find (especially these days, from January through October) without feeling guilty about it. Piazza came out in February 1962, a year that critic/historian Danny Peary has correctly pointed out as having produced more permanently beloved movies than any other year of the ‘60s, 1967 aside. A product of a time when MGM was already having a tough time coming up with movies that made any waves, Piazza will never replace The Manchurian Candidate, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance or Lawrence of Arabia in the graces of anyone (other than perhaps people you don’t want to know). But as glossy soap operas go, it has its virtues — few of which have anything to do with a dubious premise that a standup mother would allow — and even all but lobby for — her mentally impaired daughter to wed a sweetly immature Italian lad even when, admittedly, the two are crazy about each other. And without, it’s crucial to add, informing the youngster, his family or her husband back home (in Winston-Salem marketing cigarettes that even she won’t smoke).

But it’s a hallmark of screen craftsmanship to make us accept what our minds tell us not to — at least until we’ve made it to the theater parking lot. At 45, lead Olivia de Havilland was still something of a stunner, and you can see why the groom’s father (Rossano Brazzi) is always trying to make their relationship … well, a little more European. But her performance also fully conveys one of a not especially subtle movie’s more complex dynamics. Whereas de Havilland’s character is authoritative with daughter Mimieux (stunted by a horse’s kick to the head when she was a child), she’s noticeably subservient to her gruff realist husband (Barry Sullivan) when he planes over from North Carolina for a brief visit to his vacationing family. But you can see from the way de Havilland chain-smokes (again, it’s a rival brand) that she is probably not happy to be bellowed at (though Sullivan is not so much an ogre as a tough ‘60s dad). 

As the wannabe groom, George Hamilton is on the risible side (as only the young Hamilton could be) — a walking wag target, yes, but also very much in keeping with a childlike youth who is even borderline silly. He is, in fact, exactly the type who might indeed be attracted to a beauty with the diagnosed mind of 10-year-old — the guileless kind, that is, and not like those 10-year-olds who make wisecracks in kid-sibling roles on TV sitcoms. Hamilton’s character is so what-me-worry-ish himself that he doesn’t seem to notice that his intended gets a little too excited whenever she sees a cute dog.

The script by Casablanca co-writer Julius J. Epstein (from Elizabeth Spencer’s novella) also loads the deck in another way: de Havilland rationalizes that because her daughter would be marrying into a family with money and servants and nannies, she wouldn’t be overly taxed (though it would be interesting to see a sequel, starting with the first time Hamilton presents her with a copy of the Kama Sutra). And yet, the movie plays well — and certainly better than it should thanks to generally strong acting (Mimieux’s “fit” is borderline chilling), a fast pace and what used to be “scenic values.”

Director Green was formerly a great cinematographer, and early Spike Lee collaborator Ernest Dickerson has said that Green’s Oscar-winning work on David Lean’s movie of Great Expectations inspired his own career. And like a lot of cinematographers (Dickerson ironically included), Green later settled for a much subordinate directorial career, though he did have some gifts dealing with actors. His best movie in this regard was A Patch of Blue — like Piazza, a movie whose premise really laid it on (blind white woman doesn’t know her new best friend is black). Yet it, too, played much better than most anyone expected, becoming a surprise box office hit and ’65 Oscar factor.

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