The folks behind 1962’s 2 Weeks In Another Town could have been accused of flagrantly ripping off the seminal 1952 show-business melodrama The Bad And The Beautiful if Town’s central creative team—director Vincente Minnelli, star Kirk Douglas, producer John Houseman, and screenwriter Charles Schnee—hadn’t made Beautiful themselves a decade earlier. So while 2 Weeks In Another Town feels like plagiarism and parody, it’s at least self-plagiarism and self-parody from a group intent on pushing the fevered show-business melodrama and elegiac sadness of their earlier masterpiece into delirious new realms of excess. 2 Weeks is bigger, if not better, than its predecessor; the frequently hamtastic Douglas, in particular, gives a performance so shamelessly, unapologetically huge that it’d take a movie screen the size of a football field just to contain it.
Douglas returns not as the fiendishly charismatic producer/master-manipulator he played in Beautiful, but rather as a mercurial hotshot actor with a genius for destroying his gifts and blowing the opportunities afforded by superstardom. As the film opens, Douglas has washed up in a sanatorium, where he hides out from the outside world and tries to repair his tormented psyche. An opportunity for redemption arrives in the form of an offer from director Edward G. Robinson, who wants Douglas to fly to Italy and save a floundering international co-production with a scene-stealing supporting role. Upon touching down in Europe, Douglas discovers the situation is more complicated than he was led to believe, as he confronts the living ghosts of his past, most notably Robinson, a legendary director whose professional fate has long been intertwined with his own, and Cyd Charisse, an old flame who reappears in time to threaten a new fling.
It’s easy to see why 2 Weeks made Jean Luc-Godard’s top 10 list for 1963 and is a major influence on Godard’s Contempt and François Truffaut’s Day For Night: it’s the ultimate movie-movie, a gleefully postmodern, self-referential meditation on filmmaking, stardom, cinema, the passage of time, and the agony and ecstasy of collaboration. 2 Weeks sometimes plays not like a proper follow-up to Beautiful, but as its sleazy, clove-cigarette-smoking European gigolo cousin; the emotional pitch borders on hysteria, and the dialogue often reeks of the purple prose of dime-store novels. When Robinson says all women are monstrous, he seems to be speaking for the filmmakers, who depict womanhood in its many forms: shrill harridans, scheming sexual predators, and bland ingénues. Yet while it’s trash, 2 Weeks is exuberant, passionate, smart trash with heart, brains, and a cinephile soul, climaxing with a transcendent final act where Douglas chases his final chance for redemption with the intensity of a starving junkyard dog attacking a bloody steak. 2 Weeks In Another Town answers the question of how to follow up the ultimate show-business melodrama with a simple-but-effective strategy: Start off way over the top, then just keep ratcheting up the craziness from there.
Minnelli faced an even more difficult question when adapting the hit Broadway play Tea And Sympathy for the big screen in 1956: How do you make a sensitive drama about a young man’s struggles with his homosexuality at a time when references to homosexuality were forbidden by censorship boards? Where 2 Weeks finds Minnelli operating at his most unhinged and unrestrained, Sympathy operates under an almost-impossible system of restraints. Thankfully, Minnelli, an allegedly gay man who married one gay icon (Judy Garland) and fathered another (Liza Minnelli), brought enormous tact and sophistication to the job. To the extent that Tea And Sympathy succeeds, it’s because Minnelli, playwright/screenwriter Robert Anderson, and a gifted cast are able to artfully imply what the times wouldn’t allow them to state outright. With Tea And Sympathy, subtext is everything; what isn’t said is infinitely more important than what is.
An impressive, delicate-featured John Kerr reprises his Broadway role as a sensitive young man ostracized and mocked by his rowdy, girls-and-sports-crazed college peers because he’d rather garden, listen to folk music, or kibbitz with faculty members’ wives than chase girls or play football. In an age where conforming to rigid codes of masculinity is of paramount importance, Kerr is an unabashed iconoclast, an odd duck out of sorts with the rowdy, hormone-and-decadence-fueled college world around him. In a desperate bid for acceptance, he strikes up an unlikely friendship with Deborah Kerr, a patient, understanding house mother who finds in her friendship/mothering of the young student the tenderness fatally missing from her marriage to a man who seems to share the entire campus’ strong belief that all John Kerr’s problems would cease if he’d just man up and lose his virginity to a cheap, vaguely feral prostitute.
Tea And Sympathy’s sexually confused hero is drawn with admirable subtlety; though effete, he’s admirably complex and non-stereotypical. Simultaneously bold and a cop-out, Tea And Sympathy is a film divided against itself, a drama about a young gay man’s awkward, fumbling initiation into the adult world of sexuality that doesn’t have the courage to embrace its destiny as a groundbreaking queer film. (Unsurprisingly, the film features prominently in the stellar film and book The Celluloid Closet.) Yet this subtext makes the film even more poignant during its many subdued scenes where John and Deborah Kerr talk around what they’re really feeling because they can’t come right out and say what’s on their minds. Like the film’s troubled protagonist, Minnelli simply made the best out of an impossible situation with this flawed, fascinating time capsule.