Monday, April 2, 2012

Cinematically Inclined: “The Turning Point”

If there’s one thing I learned from Black Swan, it’s that ballerinas are batshit crazy. One friend called it “Ballerina Fight Club”. From other films with ballet or dance, I learn only about some nondescript aspiring young Midwest girl hoping to learn about life and love and the big city. The dancing, in all of the stories, appears secondary to the life journey the often milquetoast, heterosexual white female undertakes to find herself, or some such nonsense. (See further: Center Stage, The Company.)

This is what makes Herbert Ross’s 1977 film The Turning Point unique in its day and even today, at least in the small canon of dance films. This is a film centering on two women who started off as aspiring ballerinas in the 1950s and took radically different paths in life. Emma (the late, great Anne Bancroft) became the prima ballerina of the premiere American ballet theatre company. Dee Dee (Shirley MacLaine) became pregnant, gave up a promising career and settled into a low-key life running a dance school with her former partner Wayne (Tom Skerritt) in Oklahoma. Twenty years later, the company plays two nights in their small town and Dee Dee is reunited with her former colleagues, including her best friend and formidable foe Emma. The “turning point” refers not just to the pregnancy, but also the lead role in Anna Karenina, which was awarded to Emma when Dee Dee had a baby, and became a career-defining role.

That baby, Emilia (Leslie Browne), has become a promising ballerina. The dance company offers her a summer scholarship in Manhattan, and Dee Dee accompanies her, surrounding herself with her past and the career that she left behind, which now awaits her daughter. In the background, a young Russian dancer (Mikhail Baryshnikov, in the role that made him an actor) romances Emilia. Into this turmoil there are rumours of the dance company suffering financially, a young prick of a director trying to make ballet cold and hip, and an old flame from Dee Dee’s past, amongst others.

There’s enough drama here to fuel an entire soap opera. In fact, the content of The Turning Point could easily have been the catalyst for a show like NBC’s Smash, and an heir apparent to Fame (which, by the way, was released just a couple of years after the success of The Turning Point and became a cultural touchstone in its own right). Playwright Arthur Laurents crams his screenplay not with clichés, but with several plot threads giving the film an aura of really living in the dance world. There’s constant worry about funding an art form that has considerable support in Europe but not in America, where it is considered an elitist pastime and not as part of one’s essential cultural education. The ballet is not just a backdrop into which a navel-gazing treatise a la Eat, Pray, Love is thrown to give some young starlet an acting showcase. This is a film that honours the dance tradition and is about people who eat, breathe, sleep and love the ballet, without irony and purely for the love of it. Their bodies may ache, their feet will bluster and their will beaten (and sometimes broken) under vicious taskmasters, but all of the assembled members of the company believe in their craft, using it to create art.

The film’s centerpiece is an all-too-brief montage of various pieces immaculately performed by the company to Tchaikovsky, Mugorssky and Debussy, amongst others. Who needs an original music score for such a film when the finest composers in the world have already done so? This being the 1970s, split-second film editing was not in vogue at the time, and thankfully the dance sequences are filmed in medium and long shots, showcasing the work of the entire company without the frantic zooming and focusing that characters dance-laden films. You can actually see the choreography, which was done by no less than Alvin Ailey and George Balanchine, amongst others. (They are the first names mentioned when the end credits roll. How do you like them apples?)

This is not to say that the film is perfect. Despite there being none of the conventional plot machinations we have come to expect, or a predictable triumph of the spirit or will, there’s still too much storyline crammed into less than two hours. The central melodrama surrounding Dee Dee’s regret feels a bit deflated and, had it not been for the lead performers, somewhat tiresome, and ends in a rather silly denouement. There’s so much content to flesh out and explore that this really should have been a TV series and not a feature film. (This is why Fame made for better television than film: it knew it had a story to tell and did it no matter how long they thought it should take.)

The two central roles are well-performed, with Bancroft chilled but not impenetrable as the formidable yet brittle Emma. MacLaine plays Dee Dee as earnest and disappointed, but hopeful that she can create a dance legacy through her daughter. Browne, who just happens to be the director’s niece, made a lovely film debut that is as much physical in her performance as it is cerebral. She went on to have an extraordinary career in the American dance theatre world with occasional but unmemorable film appearances. And Baryshnikov, in his film debut, still smolders in a role that, while it may not have been much of a stretch, showed off his considerable charisma. It’s no wonder he became a star and is still remembered vividly to this day. All four received Oscar nominations for their work, even if Skerritt was overlooked for his sensitive work as Dee Dee’s husband, the one who also left it all behind to start a family.

There’s much to admire about The Turning Point. What ultimately keeps it from becoming a truly great film is the script’s overextension to include too many narratives. The film also ends a little too neatly, if not ideally, yet there’s much more than could be explored with even another hour to iron things out. (Or, they could have cut some rather unnecessary plot lines and a few characters to keep things as lean as the dancers’ bodies.) The Turning Point also holds the dubious distinction of having received the most Academy Award nominations in a single year – 11 of them – without winning a single one of them, a record tied by The Color Purple in 1985. It is available for streaming on Netflix.