Saturday, February 14, 2009

Executive Suite - Stanwyck as Queen Bess

Watched Executive Suite, Robert Wise’s 1954 boardroom opus, which Oliver Stone on a commentary track (in which he mostly obsesses about American politics and his own films – I’ve only seen one of them, Wall Street, perhaps the most appropriate here – and misses several salient details of the movie, such as that Barbara Stanwyck feels suicidal when she looks out the window of the eponymous room in part because her father, the company’s founder, did commit suicide that way. (Explicitly mentioned in the dialogue.)

What Stone gets right is the rarity of a major picture with no music track, with so much clever dialogue that you don’t even notice this, with the dialogue explicating the many characters so well and concisely – so that you feel you know who each one is, down to the last contract walk-on player (the secretaries of the executives – all the execs are white males, of course, and all the secretaries white females, and at least one is sleeping with her boss). Stone marvels at the tight, clear, dialogue, the excellence of the leads acting with or against each other, and the climax like a western – but indoors – with William Holden challenging Fredric March at high noon.

Also, which also struck me, that the movie’s message, that factory work means more, has to mean more, than the dividends paid to investors (exactly the path that led us into the present global fiasco, bad news for us all even though I admit I’m enjoying reports that Dubai is turning into a ghost town as its money-grubbing immigrants flee the threat of debtors’ prison and the man-made isles off shore begin to sink, like Atlantis and az-Zahira) is precisely the message the 1950s ignored, with the result (Stone’s own mishigos? Or mine? Or Paul Krugman’s?) that this is where America has traveled: no strong native industries, everything off-shore owned and operated, the nation a seething cesspool of debt, Atlantic City for retirees or those who aspire to be, whose only hope is to aspire to be. Bush’s America – but also Ike’s, because no one else had the courage to stop it either. (Stone brings in Vietnam, I’m not sure how.) America of entitlement and insecurity, not America the brave. Sing louder and maybe the ghosts will stay out of our cemetery.

I hadn’t seen Executive Suite since they showed it to us in junior high school, in segments during lunch breaks. Don’t ask me what lesson they thought we’d be sophisticated enough to understand. We got that Shelley Winters was a trollop with a heart of brass, that June Allyson was the mom we wished we had (never mind what dad wished), that Barbara Stanwyck was a little long in the tooth to be boasting of her beauty. (Now I find her beautiful, especially at the moment that another actress could easily have made shrill, when she confirms her new faith in Holden with a simple, low, throaty, “Yes.”) (Curious fact: Stanwyck and Winters had both had affairs with Holden.)

I didn’t appreciate this film (and a whole lot of other things) at 14, I admit. I like it now, very much.

And when I fell asleep, I had a curious dream, in which Executive Suite was the template. Barbara Stanwyck was now Elizabeth the First, older, sardonic, shadowed by the unappeased ghost of her father; the dead man, Avery Bullard, was Robert Dudley, earl of Leicester, who died just after the victory over the Armada, the only man she ever loved (unless you count Tom Seymour when she was a kid). Gallant William Holden was Robert Devereux, the earl of Essex, Leicester’s stepson and the favorite of the ’90s (until he attempted a coup in 1601, and she chopped his head off as he richly deserved). Calculating Fredric March was that saturnine little hunchback, Robert Cecil, Burleigh’s son. Aging, too honorable Walter Pidgeon was Lord Burleigh. Elegant Louis Calhern, out for the main chance, was Sir Walter Raleigh (or maybe Talbot). Sleazy Paul Douglas was Edward de Vere, earl of Oxford. (Okay, I’m being vicious because I despise the man for daring to claim to have written Shakespeare’s plays, a claim he himself never made – it’s being made for him.) June Allyson is Frances Walsingham, Lady Essex. Nina Foch is one of the queen’s confidante/handmaidens – Lady Northampton or Mary Sidney. Shelley Winters is Burleigh’s ward, Lady Oxford (or maybe she’s Lettice Knollys, Lady Leicester). And baseball playing Tim Considine, the kid, is of course James Stewart, waiting in the wings.

The boardroom and the proto-gothic décor fitted right in – though there would have been more windows in Elizabethan times, I fancy.