The Illusionist is a hypnotic story of magic, murder and palace intrigue set in turn-of-the-century Vienna. Edward Norton plays “Eisenheim the Illusionist” whose stage shows cast a spell amongst the locals and raise the ire of the Crown Price (Rufus Sewell). As a child, Eisenheim had fallen in love with “Sophie” (Jessica Biel) who was from a wealthy royal family. When they tried to run away together, they were caught and she was taken away from him. Fifteen years later, as Eisenheim is doing an illusion on stage, he calls for a volunteer from the audience. He is astonished to realize that the woman who volunteers is the girl he had fallen in love with years ago. They arrange to meet in private where they quickly rekindle their feelings. Unfortunately their class distinctions still threaten drive a wedge between them. Due to political reasons, she is expected to marry the evil and corrupt Crown Prince. Eisenheim must avoid the vengeance of the Crown Prince and find a way for he and Sophie to be together.
This film is a very classy period piece with top notch acting. Edward Norton is excellent as the calm, calculating and brilliant Illusionist who never doubts for a moment in his power. Paul Giamatti plays the chief inspector and it is a very different role for him that anything else he has ever been in. As always, he rises to the challenge and delivers. Jessica Biel and Rufus Sewell also lend great support.
The Illusionist has a dreamy, hynotic quality thanks to the beautiful cinematography by Dick Pope and a score by Philip Glass. This is film entertaining in an old fashioned Hollywood sense of the word. To me, that’s a big compliment.
Tonight Turner Classic Movies unspools the world premiere of their new documentary STARDUST: THE BETTE DAVIS STORY and will launch a month long salute to the woman who was arguably one of the greatest actresses to emerge from Hollywood’s Golden Age. I’ve been fortunate enough to have seen the documentary in advance and I can tell you that it is one of the best of its kind. I’ve seen so many documentaries about Hollywood stars that either paint them as perfect in every way or as terrible, miserable human beings. This documentary is more intelligent than most as it strikes a balance. It paints Bette Davis as both a brilliant actress and as a flawed, damaged and self destructive person. It examines her life both on screen and off with a candor that few documentaries have ever seen before.
The documentary also doesn’t make the mistake of believing the star herself and taking her word for gospel. It debunks many myths that Davis helped to perpetuate. The film shoots down the Davis claim that she first named the Academy Award an “Oscar” after her husband’s rear end. It also rebukes her claim that she threw away her chance to play Scarlett O’Hara due to a fight with Jack Warner. The film also contradicts Davis on numerous personal matters as well and brings to light the shocking charge that Davis caused the untimely death of her second husband. There are also positive facts that have seldom been brought to light. Davis ran the “Hollywood Canteen” for soliders to be entertained by Hollywood stars during WWII. She caused a huge stir when she refused to segregate the canteen. This was considered pretty progressive and radical by early 1940s standards.
STARDUST also offers candid interviews with women such as Jane Fonda, Ellen Burstyn and Gena Rowlands who worked with Davis and/or knew her personally. They all give great insight into Davis and what made her tick. Another interesting layer of the film is the paradox it presents between Davis’s strong willed feminist personality, combined with her need for a husband to lean on for support. In one contradictory portion of the film it goes into what a great pioneer Davis was for women’s independence and then it shows a clip of Davis telling a TV interviewer that the woman must always surrender her needs to those of the man in order for a marriage to work. The film illustrates the conflict between the private longings vs. the professional image which Davis never able to reconcile successfully.
I’ve read 3 different biographies about Bette Davis and this film even showed photos and revealed tidbits of information that I’d never known before. Most profound and tragic of all the revelations seems to be the fact that in spite of Bette’s protestations to the contrary, her stern and cold father actually DID love her and WAS proud of her. He sent her telegrams of congratulations and attended her early theatrical triumphs. It is apparent that her broken relationship with her father and her inability to reconcile with him changed and course of her life and emotional stability forever.
STARDUST is a lovely, moving, illuminating and satisfying tribute to a woman who was far more complicated that any character she ever portrayed on screen. Don’t miss this documentary and the Bette Davis movies that will be airing all month long on Turner Classic Movies.