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From the Sublime to the Ridiculous
'Le grand amour' is served up with a sizzle as Saturday Night at the Movies on TVO presents a double bill on the Cyrano de Bergerac story. Edmond Rostand's original stage play is adapted for the screen in an entirely serviceable 1950 version with José Ferrer. Steve Martin adapts the adaptation with his own style and wit with debatable results in the modern update of "Roxanne".
The offering on SNATM just in time for Valentine's Day was the 1950 version of Cyrano de Bergerac with José Ferrer coupled with Steve Martin’s Roxanne (1987). The two movies were presented as two very different interpretations of the original 1897 Edmond Rostand play.
Well, they were very different. What else can one say? It was like comparing apples and oranges. I found that the real exercise in analysis and comparison that took place in my mind was between the José Ferrer 1950 version of Cyrano de Bergerac and Gérard Depardieu’s performance of the same role in 1990. I literally could not stop myself from replaying the many memorable scenes of Depardieu playing Cyrano as I watched the 1950s Hollywood version.
I confess that somehow I missed out on seeing the José Ferrer Cyrano somewhere in my youth or childhood. I don’t know how it happened, but it did. I was and am a real sucker for all those classic swashbucklers of a bygone era. Therefore the first and definitive cinematographic version of Cyrano that is lodged in my brain cells is the Jean-Paul Rappeneau Cyrano de Bergerac. The film made a big impression on me when I went to see it on the big screen, both visually and through the overwhelming beauty of the French language. I too fell in love (absolument folle, capotée, coup de foudre) with Cyrano for his words that night!
It must be stressed that I fell in love with the original French version as depicted on the screen. I went and read the Rostand play later. It is simply not possible to duplicate the experience of hearing the poetry in the original language. It is like listening to Shakespeare in translation: although there have been many fine attempts to convey Shakespeare in translation, for the Anglophone nothing can compare to the exquisite pleasure of listening to the Bard in the original English.
I speak French as a second language. Although I speak French well enough to savour the poetry of the dialogue in the 1990 Cyrano, I found the “Burgess”, I believe it is, English translation of the play used as the basis for the dialogue in the 1950 film to be very serviceable. The English translation captures the wit, beauty and grace of Cyrano’s words and person.
And that, after all, is the most important thing about the film. As many other reviewers have said, the role of Cryano as played by José Ferrer makes the film and, I would add, the poetry spoken by Cyrano make the character.
The rest of the production is not much to look at. Well, yes, Mala Powers is very pretty in a 50ish costume drama sort of way. (My, I thought she still looked pretty well preserved during the “Interviews”!) I think honourable mention should be given to the sword fight scenes. I found myself wondering how they could have got such great shots of Ferrer during the fight scenes with the limited technology they had in those days. Then I learned that Ferrer was quite the athlete. He probably did the swordplay himself; quite a feat if this was actually the case. I am no fencer, but even I could tell that those scenes weren’t all that easy to pull off.
I was also surprised to learn that in this Stanley Kramer (producer) version of Cyrano, Ferrer beat out some other big contenders in 1950 for Best Actor of the Year (Spencer Tracey in Father of the Bride and Jimmy Stewart in Harvey, a couple of old chestnuts on my list of picks for “most endearing family films”) Well, it was a different era back then. Maybe words, their beauty and their meaning, were treated with a bit more respect than they are today. Or maybe there was just some politicking going on behind the scenes at the Oscars that led to the decision and it had nothing whatsoever to do with lofty ideals and social trends.
And then there was Roxanne. Well. It was a Steve Martin film. I am not a big Steve Martin fan. To be sure there were funny moments. The “drinking out of a wineglass through your nose” gag struck me as funny. Daryl Hannah locking herself out of her house while stark naked in an opening scene, while I can understand the humour in it, just didn’t do it for me.
That is what Steve Martin comedies are like for me: hit and miss. Mostly I don’t bother with them unless I have a good reason. I had a good reason to watch this one in order to do the comparison between Roxanne and Cyrano de Bergerac. As I said earlier, the real comparison for me was between Depardieu and Ferrer as Cyrano de Bergerac. Steve Martin as C.D. Bales, well, he is in a different class.
The movie Roxanne has often been billed as a romantic comedy. For me, it comes across as pretty thin on both accounts: as romantic and as comic. It is truly an updated modern version of the story. Superficiality (and not only as applied to the “Chris” character played by Rick Rossovitch) is one word that comes to mind. Degradation is another. unlike the other film versions previously mentioned, a nobility of character and mind is notably absent in Roxanne.
But, what else can we expect in a modernized Cyrano where Steve Martin plays the lead role? It is what it is. In some ways it is not fair to compare the film with its 1950 predecessor. It is like comparing apples and oranges. I think it was the producer of the film, David Melnick, who said in one of the interviews that he was “too stupid to know that he was fighting uphill” by making this modern-day remake of Cyrano.
Perhaps it is better and more charitable to say that the two films belong to different eras and to different genres and share little more than a common kernel of a story. Roxanne might be good for the odd laugh here and there, but nobody thinks of it as great film. In fact, my take on it is that nobody thinks much at all during or after seeing this particular film.
I couldn’t stop thinking about Cyrano de Bergerac for days after seeing it in 1990. That film gave my mind lots to think about, a luxuriant feast for the ears, and a beautiful indelible memory for the inner eye. That is why I recommend seeing Depardieu as Cyrano, in French if you can manage it, as the ultimate movie experience on this subject.
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