Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Peyton Place (1957)

Well, I finally watched my Netflix movie, and boy was it worth it. Peyton Place may be one of the biggest soap operas to ever hit theaters.

The film "stars" (Though there doesn't seem to be one actual main character) Lana Turner as Constance McKenzie, a single mother who moved back to her childhood home of Peyton Place after her husband died, leaving her with her daughter Allison (Diane Barsi), a senior in High School. She keeps a firm hold on Allison, terrified that she may commit some sort of scandal, despite Allison being a very good-natures and intelligent young woman who wishes to become a writer.

Allison herself is having a budding romance with Norman Page (Russ Tamblyn), a shy young boy who lives with his oppressive mother, causing him to be totally inept when it comes to girls.

There's also a plot about Allison's friend Selena (Hope Lange) who lives in a small shack with her mother and stepfather, who has to deal with her step father becoming more and more abusive towards her. In addition, there's a story of a classmate of Allison's who is in love with the town slut, but is torn between his whore and his wealthy father who forbids the relationship.

It all takes place in (obviously) Peyton Place, a town which is sexually repressed and filled with gossip hungry people. It was Mad Men before Mad Men, dwelling on the themes of appearance anf perception.

In case you didn't get the impression already, this movie has a lot of plot. So much so that it feels like you're watching a TV series, and this is going to turn some people off. Well, it's also very long, over 2 and a half hours, and very episodic. There will be chunks of the film that are entirely devoted to side character like Selena, so some could view the film as unfocused.

But the film works because the level of acting is so high. Lana Turner, Hope Lange, and Diane Varsi are all brilliant as the three "main" women. Lana Turner keeps her character very reined in, very cool and repressed but she begins to slowly open up as the film progresses (this is actually symbolized by her hair, which is kept in a tight up-do for most of the movie and begins to slowly become looser). Hope Lange breaks your heart as Selena, who probably has to deal with more than any other character in the film, and she pulls it off with strength, never making her character a victim. And Diane Varsi adds intelligence and warmth to a character who sees Peyton Place for what it really is and wishes to expose it in her writings.

The film itself is quite brave, as it deals with the whole "Suburban Repression" topic that was considered to be untapped until the recent film American Beauty. And it deals with it all in an entertaining and soapy way, serving as an indictment of those who seek to ruin someone's reputation as well as serving as a wake-up call to those who value their reputations more than their own happiness.

Plus, as I said, the film is pure soap opera, but it has something behind it, something worth saying which elevates it above pure pulp trash. It's a well-crafted film and one that I heartily recommend.

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