Posted June 17, 2010 by Phil Hall in Retro Cinema

Retro Cinema – A Little Night Music

A Little Night Music
A Little Night Music

Some films seem to live under a unique dark cloud, and A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC clearly fits that sorry description. The problems started early with the death of its original leading man (Peter Finch) prior to production and continued when financing woes shut down the filming. During these delays, leading lady Elizabeth Taylor’s weight fluctuated so visibly that she seemed to repeatedly gain and lose poundage across the film’s length. Whispers of an artistic dud began to spread while the production was still in cutting stage, and even a sympathetic Oscar in the now-defunct category of Best Original Song Score and Its Adaptation or Adaptation Score couldn’t save the film from bad reviews and nonexistent box-office.

What went wrong? For starters, Broadway director Harold Prince was unsuited to take this strongly theatrical Stephen Sondheim-Hugh Wheeler creation into a cinematic adaptation – his only previous film directing was the obscure 1970 SOMETHING FOR EVERONE.  The innovative staging on Broadway gave way to quotidian filmmaking, turning a magical piece of theater into an ordinary movie.

But even if Prince had the experience and comfort level to helm the film, a reworking of the property mistakenly redirected its setting from Sweden to Austria. While this was done to save money, it created a pull-out-one-thread scenario that wound up reconfiguring the Broadway tapestry: songs were cut to fit the shifting locale, an on-stage Greek chorus-style observation was removed, and new (and inferior) arrangements were created in an attempt to make this version stand on its own. By the end of the film

The result was not as bad as many detractors would like to imagine: the film’s visually opulent style (the costume design earned an Oscar nomination), an intelligent use of the gorgeous Austrian countryside and the presence of beloved reliables Hermione Gingold and Diana Rigg gave the film a degree a class and panache that many 1970’s musicals lacked. Even Taylor, despite the distraction of her weight woes, managed to offer a genuinely touching performance as an aging theater icon unable to find her emotional footing in her maturing years.

But at the same time, the film earned its demerits at many levels: 24-year-old Leslie-Anne Down was far too mature to be taken seriously as a 17-year-old virgin, while Len Cariou, repeating his Broadway role that was pegged for Finch, failed to bring much charisma to the screen (a unique problem for the actor, who never truly found a film niche).  Prince’s direction often seemed nervous and unimaginative what should have been the film’s crowning moment, ensemble rendition of the “A Weekend in the Country” is presented with slovenly editing that blunts the song’s speed and wit.

Yet A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC is primarily recalled for another song, “Send in the Clowns”. Despite claims of dubbing, it appears that Taylor took a game crack at the classic tune.  And while her unsteady vocal abilities fell miles from the crystal-clear lyricism of the famed Judy Collins rendition, she managed to plumb the song’s darker corners and turn it into an unexpectedly bitter denunciation of self-made illusions.  Taylor’s “Send in the Clowns” was not an anthem of hope, but an admission of defeat I am unaware of any similar consideration of the much-performed song. Within the context of her interpretation of the role, it is a daring revisionist interpretation.  Contrary to popular sneering, the real pity was not the tone of the Taylor rendition, but the sad reality that the rest of the film could not dare to attempt that level of risk, let alone succeed.

Phil Hall

Phil has written about cinema for the New York Times, New York Daily News, Hartford Courant, Wired Magazine, American Movie Classics Magazine, Tower Records Pulse! Magazine and the Organica Quarterly. He is the author of several books, including “Independent Film Distribution” and “The History of Independent Cinema.” Beyond film journalism, he is a former United Nations correspondent for Fairchild Broadcast News and a writer and editor for technology and financial publications.