A Life of Her Own (DVD Review)24 Jun, 2013
Available through online retailers via Warner Archive
Stars Lana Turner, Ray Milland, Louis Calhern, Tom Ewell.
Nobody seems to be, or to have been, very crazy about this polished MGM soaper with Lana Turner cast as a fashion model — and this would include director George Cukor, who not for the last time would have the censors and studio suits on his tail over one of his movie’s content. But I thought from the first time I saw Life (and equally so on this viewing) that the damned thing is directed — and in a way the majority of non-Cukor or non-Minnelli MGMs just weren’t at the time.
But it’s also true what defenders or even fans of the movie often note: that the story kind of peaks at roughly the half-hour point, which is around the time supporting player Ann Dvorak has the last of her scenes as Turner’s newly acquainted over-the-hill colleague (of, alas, maybe only 35 or so). This is one of those performances of just a handful of scenes that still makes a tremendous impression — and I’ve always thought that if Life had been a hit, the soon-to-retire Dvorak might have nabbed a supporting Oscar nomination. I don’t think her role is any smaller than Gloria Grahame’s Oscared performance a couple years later in The Bad and the Beautiful or Beatrice Straight’s in Network.
Just off the train from Kansas and trying to make it in New York, Turner sees Dvorak as kind of a negative object lesson regarding the pitfalls of the profession, which includes overwork, loneliness, boozing, cramped apartments and the kind of men (some significantly older) who aren’t exactly in the market for a stable relationship, especially after the olive starts to wilt a little in the third nightclub martini. As for her own character, Turner (who, if too old for the role, is dead on in all other regards) is one of those drop-deaders from the wrong side of the sticks who’s likely been hit on since her early teens, if not before that. Indeed, there are some hints tossed around here about the character’s seamy upbringing — but as would also happen when Cukor later tried to fashion a film out of the sexually supercharged bestseller The Chapman Report, one gets the sense that there’s a better and franker movie trying bust out the industry censors’ shackles. According to the AFI Catalog, the bad-cop Breen Office claimed that Life’s content raised more red flags than any picture had in quite a while. This invaluable publication further notes that Cukor’s envisioned cut ran 150 minutes — truly a pipe dream of a running time in that MGM era unless you were Quo Vadis (which, aside from Rome’s burning, Peter Ustinov, Deborah Kerr’s red hair and Miklos Rozsa’s score, is a comparable drag to what we get here).
Showing up at the 32-minute mark, Turner’s romantic interest turns out to be Ray Milland, who is said to have been borrowed from Paramount after Wendell Corey (another Paramount hand) insulted a leading lady who was making her first picture in two years and, worse, one she apparently didn’t want to do. It’s kind of strange seeing Milland at MGM in this period, though he would return a year later for Night Into Morning (which Nancy Reagan has opined was her best movie, and she’s probably right). But Milland projects an appropriate degree of bummer doom amid a relationship that has a couple strikes against it, including an invalid wife who’s probably too inevitable for what the story needs — though by this time, the script by Isobel Lennart (later of Funny Girl) has kind of painted the narrative into a corner. Yet even though the resolution is more upbeat than Cukor wanted, this is not a movie of happy campers. If Life does fade some after act one, the Cukor hustling-bustling “business” in the model agency offices, nightspots and a horribly depressing women’s hotel (probably run by the Breen Office) is more than adequately kinetic to watch. Here and there, we get a scene with a little extra pop, including a very good one near the end between Turner and Barry Sullivan that has a resigned-to-it sobriety that’s unusually grown-up for its day.