A Private War
Crazy Rich Asians
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All Critics (7)
| Fresh (6)
| Rotten (1)
Heavy-handed and can't shake its languor.
Though well-acted by Shirley MacLaine and Audrey Hepburn, this second version of Lillian Hellman's play about the malice of lies is not as powerful as the first, in 1936, also helmed by William Wyler.
Closer to the play than Wyler's first effort at the story, but oddly less compelling.
Well-acted, albeit dated treatment of a then-taboo topic
Lillian Hellman, when she mounted the New York play of her work, noted that the piece was more about the damning power of gossip, and the undercurrent of that idea can certainly be seen here, but thanks to a bravura performance by Shirley MacLaine the main topic at hand is never quite off the table or forgotten. Audrey Hepburn shines as well (as does Garner), but then they have little else to do but to pick and play from the handbook of those unrighteously condemned, whereas MacLaine has self-loathing to contend with in spades. The child actress has a mountain to cross as well, convincing the audience of her latent evil intent, and often borrows too heavily from the Nicolas Cage handbook of overdoing it, but all in all the production makes it point, and is resonant.
From a moral point of view, this is a terribly outdated drama (even if daring for then) that serves as a portrait of an ugly time when it would be considered a danger for children to be "exposed" to lesbian teachers - which the film sometimes also seems to agree as being "unnatural."
Thrillers like this, with this amount of tension and political incorrectness, don't get made anymore. Maybe it's because the subject matter is so intense, polarizing, and prejudicial, but sadly, this film still has impact and social significance even fifty years later. Even though it's dealing with homosexuality in a negative light, it is the closest thing to an iconic gay film up to that point. The story deals with a school, run by former college friends, who are working towards the goal of taking on more girls and having a flourishing business. They are very close, and Martha (MacLaine) becomes jealous when Karen (Hepburn) finally sets a date for her wedding to Joe (Garner). A comment, a look, and a shadow lead to a lie, perpetrated by an arrogant child, and leads to both the women being singled out as gay. They lose a libel trial and every one of their students. It's not a story about two women overcoming the lies of a small child, but the destruction that gossip and lies have on the lives of the innocent. Though there are hints that Martha actually is gay, the story deals far more with their descent into bankruptcy, ruin, and depression. It's definitely an actor's film. Hepburn is cool and collected throughout the ordeal, which you can believe because she is the first lady of austere resoluteness. MacLaine acts her younger age, by being emotionally uninhibited at all times. Martha doesn't think through her words before speaking them, and nearly has temper tantrums when the news breaks that she and Karen have been accused of being lesbians. Garner gives his regular stone stiff performance, which works for the film. The real joy to watch in this film is child actor Karen Balkin as Mary, the one who tells the lie. The cunning maneuvers she pulls in blackmailing another little girl to keep perpetuating the lie, can be linked to Salieri bringing down Mozart in the third act of "Amadeus". Though lesbianism isn't given any positive light in this film, it's still a terse thriller that holds up even now.
Director William Wyler is known for getting the best from his actors and The Children's Hour is certainly no exception. James Garner, Audrey Hepburn and (especially) Shirley MacLaine are at the top of their game.
I don't know why this film doesn't get more press. Maybe the taboo nature of the material got it swept under the proverbial rug? It was certainly ahead of its time in terms of social statement and point-of-view. Or maybe it's just that schmucks like me don't shout its praises loudly enough. Whatever the reason, this is a film that should not be missed.
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