Directed by John Schlesinger
Screenplay by Frederic Raphael
Starring Julie Christie, Laurence Harvey and Dirk Bogarde
When it came up as a Best Picture Project subject, I might’ve made some statement to the effect that 1969’s Midnight Cowboy was the first Best Picture winner of the 1970s. No, the statement doesn’t make the logically-inept conclusion that because 1969’s Best Picture Oscar was awarded to it in 1970 it is somehow a 70’s film, because all Oscars are awarded in the actual calendar year following their release. Rather, the statement was all about sensibility.
Unlike the 1960s, which played out like the last gasp of the old Hollywood machine – West Side Story, My Fair Lady, The Sound of Music, Oliver! and the costume drama, A Man For All Seasons were all Best Picture winners during the decade – the 70s were a rejection of that glitz and glamour. Rather, the 70s Best Picture winners seemed to revel in grit and grime and were without decadence in a way that made them not feel escapist anymore. Which all really started with Midnight Cowboy.
To be sure, while Midnight Cowboy was revolutionary, it also feels very dated. Even the trivia associated with it – it was the only X-rated film to win Best Picture – is dated, given the film plays much closer to a soft-R these days than what we know as an X. And though it seemed revolutionary, it didn’t exactly come out of nowhere to win Best Picture and Best Director. Quite the contrary, i’s origins can be traced right back to Schlesinger’s 1965 feature, Darling. And even if the two films could not have been dissimilar – Cowboy literally ends with Dustin Hoffman’s hustler urinating on himself on a bus ride, then dying, while Darling ends with Christie marrying a prince – they do share a style and temperament. In a word, both films feel handheld, even if they were not. And there is a certain tone to them, of almost nonchalant ellipticism, which links them as brother and sister. If anything, Darling plays as the gentler, happier-ending Cowboy. And if Midnight Cowboy kicked off the 70s, then Darling kicked off Cowboy.
What’s It About?
A shallow, hedonistic model – Christie – flits from man-to-man and effectively sleeps her way to prosperity. Along the way marriages are ruined – her’s to her first husband, Bogarde’s to his first wife – boundaries are pushed and Darling, as she’s nicknamed, eventually finds truth in the phrase, “More Money, More Problems.”
Christie won the Oscar for her portrayal of Darling, and it’s the ultimate star-vehicle. After all, there’s hardly a scene she’s absent from, and when she is absent, her presence is still felt. Bogarde and Harvey might wander through for a half hour or more, but on the whole they are ornaments for Christie to bounce off of.
And budiling the film around Christie – or finding a film that revolved around her – was a stroke of genius, given she’s charming and beautiful and vivacious. Better, she seems well up to the task of most everything the role calls for – when she needs to grate, she grates. When she needs to charm, she charms. And when she’s called to give melodrama, she brings it – in particular she shines when required to be insufferable and brittle and wheedling.
The only thing she can’t seem to do? Nuance.
If I’d had a vote, I’m not sure I’d have given Christie the award – Julie Andrew is just too good in The Sound of Music to ignore, even as I’m not wild about that film. But unlike the buoyant, effervescent confidence she radiated in her Oscar-winning role in Mary Poppins the year before, Andrews played a character in The Sound of Music racked with insecurities, hesitant, and desperately searching. In many ways, Andrews’ two parts were the same, but in the ways that mattered, they were opposites. That said, it’s no shock Christie won the Oscar in her first nomination, even if she’s not my first choice.
A frequent complaint of mine in this series, and in The Best Picture Project, is the use of voiceover. Too often it’s used at the beginning of the film to set things up – an obvious narrative cheat – then disappears. It’s when it’s used that way that voiceover really earns its reputation for being indicative of narrative or structural problems in a film.
When it’s used well, though, such as in Fight Club, it can illuminate and expand the narrative. And while Fight Club is a prime example of it, Darling beat it to the punch, using Christie’s narration to expose the shallowness of the main character and to demonstrate her unreliability as a narrator, especially when straining to put a jaunty spin on events that cannot be happily spun.
And the voiceover in Darling doesn’t seem like a one-off – rather, it’s tied to Schlesinger’s style in the film. Just as the voiceover plays the contrast between what’s said and what’s seen, Schlesinger uses the juxtaposition of images to often show the disconnect between the characters and reality, demonstrating the whole world is an unreliable narrator.
If Nothing Else, See This—
It’s funny that the most memorable part of the movie was a rather minor scene, but that’s the reality. In this case, after Bogarde and Christie set up housekeeping together there is a static shot and montage of a mantle and a mirror – well, static in that the camera doesn’t move, even as tchotchkes move and disappear, and notes and photos are taped up and peeled down. In this way we see the passage of time, immediately jumping from the beginning of the honeymoon period of their relationship to far deeper in it, where we might find drama. It’s a sequence that calls back to the dining table sequence in Citizen Kane and, even if this one won’t make you forget that one, it’s a lovely homage to the earlier film.
Better Than Best?
Best Picture 1965 was The Sound of Music, a much different film than Darling in every way. Whereas one film is all artifice – such is the lot in life of musicals – one does it’s best to eschew all artifice and comes close to feeling real. Of course, while Darling feels real, it also feels so modern and of it’s moment and so instead of being timeless it’s hopelessly rooted in it’s place in the world. This means that as time goes on, it feels increasingly unapproachable as those rooted elements become all the more distracting, and therefore it’s message is blunted.
Worse, despite having no end to incident in the film, Darling has no narrative drive – it just seems to shrug from one scene to another and then another, with little purpose. And while The Sound of Music might be longer than Darling by half, it never feels as sludgy as Darling, which feels every bit of it’s 127 minute runtime. Somewhere inside it, Darling has a good movie trying to come out. Unfortunately, this one isn’t it.
Screenwriter Frederic Raphael won his only Oscar for his work on Darling. Later, he would earn a second Oscar nomination on the great Audrey Hepburn/Albert Finney flick, Two For The Road, and would collaborate on the screenplay for Stanley Kubrick’s final film, Eyes Wide Shut.
As a note, Darling might be the first film with female nudity to win an Oscar. If it is, it’s thanks to the brief shot of Julie Christie’s breasts late in the movie, once she realizes being a princess and instant-mother isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
See the rest of the Also Rans Project here.
 If I made it, I’ll never know, because I can’t be bothered to go back and check on anything I’ve written before. But if I didn’t make it then, I enthusiastically make it now.
 Don’t feel bad for Bogarde because I’ve seemingly diminished his work in the film. After all, he walked out of it with his sole Oscar nomination and won him his second BAFTA.
 I actually much prefer Christie in 1971’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller, where she lost to Jane Fonda in Klute.
 This became most clear to me during a shot of a rather plump woman gorging herself, while the speech over the top of it talked about starvation.