...Valentina Cortese in Day For Night (1974)
approximately 18 minutes and 27 seconds on-screen
roughly 16% of film's total screen time
Truffaut's Day for Night builds its loose but intricate narrative upon the "dramatic" structure of a film shoot, with the film's first scene being the first day of filming and the final scene happening the day the project wraps. The eclectic cast and crew (helmed by Truffaut himself playing the film's director) and their internecine personal sagas become a much better source for compelling drama than "Meet Pamela" -- the patently mediocre fictive "movie" ostensibly at the center of the film. Truffaut's film mines enthralling moments from the petty yet fascinating minutiae that routes the workaday actions of, say, the "script-girl" Joelle or the production-manager's wife. Yet, just above or beyond all of this mundanity is "Severine" -- a legendarily talented and glamourous leading lady in her youth, now relegated to supporting parts that neither sustain nor inspire her. (Let alone her glamour.) Nonetheless, as played by Supporting Actress nominee Valentina Cortese, Severine hovers just above much of this film. Nearly every transmission over the on-set PA system, or hustling message among crewmembers, announces Severine -- her needs, her wants, her comings, her goings, even her wig status -- and, all together, subtly constructs the character as a high-maintenance diva even in the actress' absence.
Not that Cortese's Severine disappoints on the high-maintenance diva front. Not hardly. In what is surely one of the film's most enthralling sequences (only the "will the cat drink the milk" scene is more exhilarating), Cortese's Severine flails her way through shooting a simple scene, first losing her lines (before having the words taped at strategic intervals on the back of set pieces) and finally dissembling in a nervous collapse (when she can't keep track of which door's she's to storm through at the scene's end). Cortese's performance elevates the scene's superficial comedy to an excruciating kind of transcendance. Cortese's Severine repeats the same sequence of banal dialogue again and again, making both the same and different mistakes each time, until she cracks under the desperation. This 7+minute sequence is a marvel to watch and is -- in and of itself -- nomination-worthy.
And yet, there's something -- a grandness? a charisma? a presence? -- missing from Valentina Cortese's Severine. She's a brilliantly grandiose mess, to be sure, but the character needs to be something more. Part of the character's desperation follows from the fact Severine's still exuding the gravitational pull that made her a star but no one's much interested in orbiting her. (Consider, as contrast, co-star Jean-Pierre Aumont's easy elegance as Alexandre, who effortlessly exudes the kind of old-school movie glamor that both Alexandre and Severine are to represent.) Unfortunately, rather than embodying the nuclear fragility of a disintegrating star, Cortese makes the mistake of manifesting Severine's desperation by madly clutching champagne bottles and glasses. To be sure, Cortese does give a sensible, sensitive performance but misses something -- a vestigial "sensationalness" -- to underscore just what Severine's almost entirely lost along the way. (Indeed, during the film, when members of the crew pop off answers to a tv quiz show and mention Jeanne Moreau, StinkyLulu got a case of the actressexual quivers: "That's Severine," StinkyLulu mused, "Moreau would've rocked as Severine. And what about Signoret..." Well. It's never a good moment when StinkyLulu tries to recast the performance as it's happening...)
There's much to admire about Valentina Cortese's performance as Severine, but StinkyLulu stops short of finding much to love. One of StinkyLu's personal criteria for greatness among actresses at the edges is: do I want to follow that character off the screen into another movie in which she's the star? And, here, StinkyLulu's answer is a bit shocking: "Absolutely -- would love to see more of Severine...once they recast."
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See you at this Sunday's
Smackdown for 1974!
Smackdown for 1974!