STAR WARS" HAS a powerful force to contend in the 1977 Academy Awards race: "The Turning Point," Herbert Ross' enormously appealing movie about the jealousies that rise and the friendships and traditions that endure within an artistic "family," the members and affiliates of a classical ballet company.
Ross, in close collaboration with his wife, Nora Kaye, a former ballet star who initiated the project and served as executive producer, and their friend Arthur Laurents, who was persuaded to write the original screenplay after several years of pestering by Kaye, has succeeded in reviving the best theatrical traditions of both "the woman's picture" and the backstage melodrama. One is reminded anew of the satisfaction to be derived from waiting for something to be done the right way.
"The Turning Point," which opens Monday at the Dupont Circle, after a preview tonight at the Kennedy Center, is an authentic breakthrough-throwback: a vividly enacted depiction of the conflicts between strong, capable, conscious, willful women.
Laurents' script has provided bang-up opportunities to Anne Bancroft and Shirley MacLaine, cast as former rivals and close friends who have chosen different roles, Bancroft's Emma pursuing a successful dancing career while MacLaine's Deedee retired from dancing to become a wife and mother. The old revalried are rekindled when Deedee's talented and ambitious eldest child, Emilia, who is also Emma's goddaughter,joins Emma's company. In a scintillating "last-act" confrontation sequence Deedee and Emma finally have it out, venting and resolving the petty resentments, envies and regrets that have lingered over the years, particularly in the mind of Deedee.
In dramatiring the conflict between the older women Laurents has simultaneously opened the door for an exquisite young woman. Leslie Browne, recruited from the corps de ballet of the New York City Ballet for a minor role and then thrust into the spotlight when illness froced Gelsey Kirkland to relinquish the role of Emilia. It's difficult not to believe that fate dictated this turn of events. Leslie Browne's parents, Kelly and Isabel Brown, danced with the American Ballet Theater when Nora Kaye was the company's prima ballerina. They retired, married, had four children and ran a dancing school in Phoenix. In the movie Deedee and her husband, Wayne, played by Tom Skerritt, are former dancers who run a school in Oklahoma City and have three bright, attractive children, including the enchanting and dedicated Emilia.
While Gelsey Kirkland is already a legendary ballet star, it appears that she may have missed a rare opportunity at a special form of immortality. Her indisposition was certainly Leslie Browne's gain, and Browne's performance - as dancer and actress - will prove a subline revelation to moviegoers, who may recall the pleasures they felt upon first contemplating Vivien Leigh and Moira Shearer. Better yet, here's an American [WORD ILLEGIBLE] who projects similarly spirited and graceful attributes.
Wishful thinking must have accounted for the more extravagant claims made for pictures from "Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore" through "Julia," to one only the most respectable examples of recent films with female protagonist. And it seemed almost funny - in a maddening way - when Faye Dunaway and Beatrice Straight won last year's Oscars for their performances in "Network." Not that the performances were bad, but consider the roles: a ruthless, sexually in satiable young career woman and a bitterly alienated wife of a professional man. Consciously or unconsciously Paddy Chayefsky seemed to have reproduced the schematic, threatening view of the opposite sex apparently typical of many powerful men in the medium.
Unlike "Network," fundamentally a binge of masculine self-pity despite its topical satiric pretensions, Brian De Palma's "Carrie" really was a fable about the conflicts between strong-willed women. Five strong-willed women, as a matter of fact, although three were disguised as high-school girls. However, since these conflicts were presented within the conventions of a supernatural Gothic horror thriller. "Carrie" seemed disreputable and meaningless to some people, who couldn't agree that it transcended its genre no matter how inspired the director and his leading actresses may have been.
"The Turning Point" won't encounter such resistance, because its conflicts occur within civilined, respectable, desirable social setting - a devoted upper-middle-class family and a larger informal family of artists and theater people. If anything, the [WORD ILLEGIBLE] frame of reference will seem like a godsend to many people who have probably drifted awat from movies. Ross' last picture, the stylish film version of "The Seven-Per-cent Solution," should have brought this "lost," grown-up segment of the public back to the movies in greater numbers than it apparently did.
"The Turning Point" probably will bring them back, while attracting the faithful moviegoers too, both declaring. "It's the best thing of its kind since 'All About Eve.'" It's also the most attractive and persuasive movie about ballet perfomers ever created for a mass audience. There may be pockets of resistance among men who imagine that the last thing they could ever enjoy is a movie about toe-dancers, but the movie is astutely calculated to break down this resistance.
For one thing, it will be difficult to resist the sheer dramatic appeal of watching Bancroft and MacLaine tie into roles that actually challenge their skills and draw upon our accumulation of feelings and expectations about them. In "The Turning Point" their imagination and technique are fully engaged again - they have major roles to play, glory be, with plenty of sharp-edged and revealing lines to speak and plausible , absorbing conflicts of feeling to express. As a result, the spectator experiences a resurgent excitement and anticipation, along with a gratifying sense of tradition that links up with the movie's emphasis on the continuity of careers and traditions.
For the first time in many outings one can feel that these distinctive and forceful actresses are building on their earlier achievements. The performances of Bancroft and MacLine are bound to mean a little more to people who retain vivd impressions of their previous movies, because they reaffirm the abilities we initially valued and responded to. They're no longer young, but they're artistically rejuvenated film actresses, and this condition enchances their reputations.
A joint Oscar for Bancroft and MacLaine in "Turning Point" would make perfect sense, because the characterrizations are as interdependent as the work of Brando and Pacino in "The Godfather." Bancroft's proudly resolute, solitary Emma, troubled by the prospects of a fading professional career, and MacLaine's affectionate, maternal, yet dissatisfied Deedee, haunted by the thought of the opposite sides of the same coin. They embody equally recognizable and widespread sets of aspirations and contradictions.
Each friend envies something of what the other has achieved - in one case fame and in the other motherhood and domestic contentment. Naturally, they tend to idealize each other's roles, to overrate what they imagine they lack and underrate what they've attained. The story is calculated to force them into a theatrically effective showdown, commencing in spiteful accusations and concluding in conciliatory reaffirmations of friendship and common sense, as well as shared aspirations for Emilia, a continuing link to the ballet for mother and godmother.
Reluctant males may be drawn quickly to the presence of Leslie Browne. There's much more to her than the slender, piquant figure who first appears being introduced to her godmother backstage in Okalhoma City. While Bancroft and MacLaine renew themselves through this vehicle, Browne blossoms, at first as a rapturously long-limbed, sylphlike dancer and ultimately as a beguiling actress, capable of ranging from effervescent, self-mocking comedy, when she flirts with two yokels in a New York bar and then tries to perform while introxicated, to touching moments of youthful confusion and disillusion.
It will also take some doing to maintain that male dancers are invariably effeminate in a movie where Mikhail Baryshnikov has the romantic lead, cast as a young star playing a field in which Leslie Browne is prominetly included. One can imagine Rudolf Nureyev feeling pangs of regret when he catches up with his film, because Ross utilizes Baryshnikov's breathtaking abilities as a dancer and the attractive aspects of his personality, especially his foxy, amusing sexual assurance, while carefully obscuring potential weaknesses, like his accent and limited acting experience. If Ken Russell had deployed Nureyev with a fraction of the affection and generosity Ross shows to Baryshnikov, "Valentino" might not have been a total loss.
No doubt anticipating those pockets of resistance, Ross makes a very shrewd choice in the casting of Phillip Saunders as Ethan, Emilia's kid brother. He's also interested in dancing, but his enthusiasm takes such rambunctious, brash forms that he will probably succeed in disarming most suspicious fathers in the audience.
The entire family is one of the most subtly attractively I've ever seen in an American movie. MacLaine and Skerritt as the parents and Browne, Saunders and Lisa Lucas as their children suggest a kind of familiarity and attachment that is palpable in most real, stable households but usually buttered up in your typically indigestible family circle on American television.
Last year when he passed through Washington promoting "The Seven-Per-Cent Solution," Ross found it difficult to contain his enthusiasm about his next movie. "Perhaps I shouldn't get ahead of myself," he said, "but something extraordinary is coming out of this footage. Leslie and Misha (Baryshnikov's nickname) are more beautiful on screen than I thought they'd be, and the dancing sequences are going to look totally different from anything you've ever seen. I wanted to do them without studio lighting, and Robert Surtees was willing to try it. He may be the only cameraman in the business with enough experience and confidence to have taken such a gamble.
Ross' election was justified. Baryshnikov and Browne look marvelous together, and the dance footage seems unusually luminous and appreciative. Over the last decade Ross has developed into one of the most versatile, tasteful and productive commercial filmmakers we have, and "The Turning Point," a labor of love that has proved splendidly worth the labor, should become his foremost popular and critical success.
The experience isn't transcendent enough to transcend all reservations. For example, I found the symmetry of both mother and daughter having romantic flings a bit dubious, and the scene of Shirley MacLaine pleading for tolerance from Leslie Browne a trifle abrupt and unassimilated. Having given Deedee a romantic adventure, I wish Laurents and Ross had devoted one or two more sequences to it, perhaps capitalizing on the amusing aspects of the casting - as the lover, Anthony Zerbe looks like a more rakish version of Tom Skeritt's easygoing, understanding Wayne.
But why quibble? "The Turning Point" is a lovely movie, primed to inspire much of the old-fashioned romantic and emotional gratification moviegoers often seek in vain or desperately overcompensate for these days. With "Star Wars" and "The Turning Point" 20th Century-Fox is sitting pretty in 1977, positioned for a runaway at the Oscars. Don't be surprised if the dancers suceed in upsetting the warriors.