Desgining Woman April 14, 2015
If only I could wrap myself in movies like Designing Woman. They exist in this ultrafizzy, Edward Hopper akin, CinemaScopic universe in which the rich thrive and champagne flows freely. To look and act elegantly is a first priority. New York is a cocktail of newspaper headquarters, fashion shows, Broadway musicals, blondes, bottles, high-end restaurants where you may or may not see an Oscar winner. It’s all artificial and it’s about as deep as a 1960s-era Palm Springs postcard, but despite my appreciation for films that take a trip down realism lane, Designing Woman, along with its colorful, vintage, romantic comedy counterparts, holds a special place in my heart. I don’t just watch these films: I want to live in them, to explore the possibilities of non-problems, witty lines, and romantic misunderstandings. It’s the best kind of entertainment: fluffy, agreeable, smart, visually stunning, and fast, with two mega stars leading and clearly having a lot of fun with their material.
Gregory Peck portrays Mike Hagen, a sports reporter who meets and instantly falls in love with Marilla Brown (Lauren Bacall), a fashion designer, during a sunny vacation. They have nothing common — he’s a man’s man, she a glamourpuss — but they forge a natural bond that eventually leads to a hasty (but loving) union. The first few months consist only of simple bliss, with few incidents of disagreement or annoyance. Conversations run easy, affection even easier.
But all comes to a head one weekday evening. Mike invites his poker mates for a few rounds; Marilla summons her theater friends to chat about an upcoming play. The apartment is crowded, loud, and clashing. Things don’t end up turning out well. The night is disastrous, all chaos and no fun, leaving the newlyweds disconcerted by the fact that their social circles hardly match. Things get even worse when Marilla discovers a risqué photo of a Broadway star (Dolores Gray) in Mike’s old apartment. That same starlet, coincidentally, is playing the lead in a musical that Marilla is designing costumes for. Mandatory misunderstandings follow; but love conquers all.
For such a tired plot, Designing Woman is sure energetic: comedy is one thing, but portraying it well, along with a starry romance, is another. George Wells’ screenplay keeps things going at a fashionable, quick-witted pace, throwing in clever voiceovers, fourth-wall breakings, and winningly comedic scenarios that work more often than not. Paired with Minnelli’s attractive directorial skills, loaded with style, the film is fun but not so fun that brains are left in the sun to fry. This is a movie of exquisite taste, requiring no effort to draw us in.
Better are the performances, with a suitably straight-manned Peck and a comedically superb Bacall. They look great together, but special notice should be put toward Bacall’s stupendous work. As an actress typecast into the roles of low-voiced, seductive females for much of her career, Designing Woman sees her in an entirely different light. Here, she sizzles, giving a terrific performance that seems miles away from her legendary parts in To Have and Have Not or The Big Sleep. (Keep in mind that her husband, Humphrey Bogart, was at the end of his life during filming. Bacall is so good here that she makes us forget about that tragedy for a moment.)
I can’t say that Designing Woman presents anything we haven’t seen before, but it’s hard to really care about familiarity here. Nostalgia for the past can sometimes be sickening, but a film like this makes one yearn for the 1950s, even if they were nothing like