Saturday, August 7, 2010
Was Annie (1982) Huston's worst movie?
Back in June, I got in an argument with people on the Internet Movie Database when I charged that Annie (1982) was "the favorite John Huston movie of everybody who doesn't know who John Huston is", and then I went one step further by suggesting that it was "the most expensive piece of cinematic waste of the 1980's", stating that even Cimino's Heaven's Gate was a more interesting film by comparison. Obviously I was being pretty full of myself, and I was taking advantage of the lack of cinematic knowledge of these people; but it was mostly out of frustration that Annie remains the most popular Huston movie of today's generation.
Of course, perhaps Huston was lucky to have even made a movie that today's generation would be familiar with at all (the average joe wouldn't be familiar with a single title by Ford, Hawks, Wilder or most of the other classic Hollywood filmmakers from Huston's era, barring Capra of course), but still... when people think of Annie, they don't think of Huston. That's what bothers me, I think. The one truly good thing that I think came out of Annie was Albert Finney's getting the chance to collaborate with Huston, as it resulted in their recollaborating on Under the Volcano--a far, FAR superior work.
Can you imagine being Huston and having to direct the sequence seen in the above picture, where Annie and Daddy Warbucks are singing at the White House with a (mysteriously healthy and robust) FDR? I probably would have wanted to kill myself first! If you ever get a chance to look at the Wise Blood Criterion DVD, go ahead and look at Huston's PBS interview with Bill Moyer: there's footage of Huston directing Annie. Somehow, for a sickly man in his late 70's, he looks perfectly sane directing this sequence, even though it looks like a real pain in the neck. Who wants to direct a scene where a little girl and three professional adults are singing "Tomorrow! Tomorrow!" over and over again? The actor playing FDR (Edward Hermann) has a smile so fake that it literally screams, "GET ME THE FLYING FUCK OUT OF HERE!!!!!!"
I haven't seen Annie since my middle school years, so I'm not about to attempt a review of the movie here--I just want to see some discussion on the movie itself. What do you think of it? Even though I still have yet to devour Huston's entire filmography, I'm just about ready to say that it may very well have been the worst movie of his career. The Unforgiven (1960) seems to be the only other potentially serious canidate for that title; it was the film from Huston's career that he openly confessed he disliked. I can't imagine him wanting to make it for any other reason except to reclaim his audience after the box office failures of Wise Blood and Victory.
Let's consider the time period Annie reflects upon: the Great Depression. You have to remember that Huston lived through this time, and suffered some pretty bad hardships--most notably an incident in 1933 in which he accidentally struck and killed a woman when he was driving on the road. It was not a good time for him, particularly when his screenwriting career was on the rocks and he and his father Walter would quarrel endlessly over money and unpaid loans.
Now look at the way Annie portrays the Great Depression: even though the movie has heroes and villains, the orphanage that Annie grows up in isn't really all that bad; it's not paradise, of course, but when you can sing along with the girls and drive the landlady crazy, what's so terrible about it? And then there's the rest of the movie, which is mainly about Daddy Warbucks and how Annie gets to live in the world of the privileged bourgeoisie. Isn't this capitalizing on the Depression a little bit? What did Huston think of the material?
As Ebert wrote of the film in 1982, "Annie is not about anything. It contains lots of subjects (such as cruel orphanages, the Great Depression, scheming conmen, heartless billionaires, and President Franklin Delano Roosevelt) but it isn't about them. It's not even really about whether Annie will survive her encounters with them, since the book of this musical is so rigorously machine-made, so relentlessly formula, it's one of those movies where you can amaze your friends by leaving the auditorium, standing blindfolded in the lobby and correctly predicting the outcome."
My high school friend Sarah, a fan of the original Broadway play, has a different opinion. She admires the movie for Carol Burnett's performance as Miss Hannigan, the attempts to adapt some of the elements from the comic strip such as the character of Punjab, and the added backstory of what happened to Annie's parents. Of the film's flaws, Luedloff finds fault in the overzealous villainy of Tim Curry's Rooster, Aileen Quinn's overly-saccharine portrayal of Annie, the pointlessness of the musical numbers, and even the absence of the politics that were in the original play. She actually prefers both the play and even Rob Marshall's 1999 remake (which I doubt I would like much better, since I dislike Marshall).
But what about the rest of you? I'd like to think of this movie in a better light, since, after all, Huston is my favorite American filmmaker. Anything special about it that I've overlooked? My antagonism towards the movie largely has to do with me having to explain to the people who don't know who Huston was that "he was the director of Annie"; that usually clicks off some familiarity for them, but totally the wrong kind. In a perfect world, of course, people would recognize titles like The Maltese Falcon, but I guess little orphan girls living in rich mansions is more appealing nowadays.
Just for the record: don't let some of the harsh things I've said here discourage any of you from contributing pieces on Annie to the blogathon, in case you're planning on doing so!