Sunday, January 17, 2016

Magnificent Obsession (1954)

Jane Wyman in Magnificent Obsession with Rock Hudson, Directed by Douglas Sirk

1 Nomination, 0 Wins

Nomination: Best Actress in a Leading Role - Jane Wyman

Every genre has a filmmaker or two who dominates all discussion of the genre, not by subverting or reimagining it, but by fully engaging in its conventions while introducing a previously unmatched level of artistry.  Like John Ford with the western or Vincente Minnelli with the musical, Douglas Sirk is the undisputed master of the female melodrama.  Though largely dismissed in his own time, the reevaluation of Sirk began in the 1970s with Cahiers du Cinema and the French New Wave and hit its crescendo in the early 2000s with Todd Haynes's majestic love letter Far From Heaven.  As Haynes continues to demonstrate Sirk's influence in his growing filmography, it is clear that Sirk's influence grows as well.

Magnificent Obsession began filming within days of the release of The Robe, a Biblical epic adapted from the novel by Lloyd C. Douglas that became a huge hit for 20th Century Fox.  Douglas's first novel, Magnificent Obsession - previously adapted in 1935 starring Irene Dunne and Robert Taylor - had sold nearly two million copies (according to the Chicago Tribune), and Universal saw potential taking another pass at the tearjerker.  They gave the assignment to their director Douglas Sirk, who had just wrapped production on Taza, Son of Cochise, a largely forgotten 3-D western starring Rock Hudson.  Though Taza did not exactly suggest a pedigree suited to Magnificent Obsession, Sirk, who had already built an extensive filmography at this point, had directed All I Desire immediately prior to Taza, a melodrama with many of the motifs that would become Sirk trademarks.  Magnificent Obsession began a run of several films for Sirk that firmly established his legacy, culminating in 1959 with Imitation of Life, Sirk's most admired film (and also his last).

It is impossible to deny Sirk's abilities as a director, and though Magnificent Obsession does not yet demonstrate the level of visual beauty he would offer in his later films, he loads frames with deep, rich colors and textures.  Performers never looked better than they did in front of Sirk's cameras, and co-stars Rock Hudson and Jane Wyman both practically glow in his frames.

The plot of the film is thin, and the character development is thinner.  In preparing for her performance, Jane Wyman claimed (to Hedda Hopper) to have gone to lengths that were unusual for the time, including speaking with an adult who had lost her vision.  Her performance is capable if uninspired, but it is not surprising that what might nowadays be characterized as Oscar bait resulted in an Academy Award nomination.  Hudson, who for reasons I cannot comprehend was Sirk's muse, is at his best when working with Sirk, though he still manages to bring little more to the role than any capable actor would bring.

Despite his visual gifts, I remain unconvinced of Sirk's genius in other aspects of filmmaking.  Magnificent Obsession is little more than the 1950s version of a Nicholas Sparks adaptation, and the visual beauty cannot make up for average performances and an emotionally insipid story.

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