Sunday 22 May 2016

Movie Review: The Turning Point (1977)

A melodrama in the world of ballet, The Turning Point has little to say, repeats itself endlessly, and then settles for a series of excruciatingly tiresome ballet-on-film sequences.

The American Ballet Company arrives in Oklahoma City on a tour stop, prompting a reunion between principle dancer Emma Jacklin (Anne Bancroft) and her childhood friend DeeDee Rogers (Shirley MacLaine). DeeDee may or may not have been good enough to compete for top roles with Emma, but she settled for a life of domesticity after getting pregnant and marrying fellow dancer Wayne (Tom Skerritt). While Emma achieved the pinnacle of ballet stardom, DeeDee and Wayne became dance teachers and raised three children, including the talented Emilia (Leslie Browne).

DeeDee never came to terms with her decision to walk away from the potential world of glamour, but is pleased when Emma spots the potential in Emilia and invites her to join the Company. DeeDee relocates to New York as Emilia's career begins to take off, leading to continued friction between DeeDee and Emma, whose own career is fading fast. Meanwhile Emilia begins to discover what it takes to get to the top, and starts a relationship with the charismatic Russian dancer Yuri (Mikhail Baryshnikov).

Directed by Herbert Ross and loosely based on the true-life story of Leslie Browne (who effectively plays herself), the goddaughter of Ross' wife Nora Kaye, The Turning Point holds some interest through the dance career versus family debate, but the conflict is set early and stagnates quickly. The characters of DeeDee and Emma are who they are; they are introduced in the first 20 minutes and never evolve. DeeDee grinds on, endlessly bringing up the past and unable to moved beyond her own decisions from decades prior. Emma is the steely-eyed diva who seized her chance and never looked back. Despite the best efforts of Shirley MacLaine and Anne Bancroft, over two hours the women fail to become any more engaging.

Which leaves Ross with plenty of time to kill, and he defaults to filming ballet sequence after ballet sequence. Watching ballet in the theatre is sufficient drudgery, but the live experience at least adds some drama. Watching ballet on film kills any narrative momentum dead in its tracks, and The Turning Point is padded with a solid 30 minutes of stage-bound performances that have nothing to do with the story, complete with on-screen captions introducing the piece, the music and the choreography. The film morphs into an education and attempted celebration of an art form for ballet fans, leaving behind everyone else. MacLaine and Bancroft are more often than not reduced to painfully fake reaction shots.

In a moment of mass imbecility, somehow the film garnered an incredible eleven Academy Award nominations, the most egregious going to the supporting performances by Browne (wooden) and Baryshnikov (who dances a lot but does not act all) for playing versions of themselves and doing little else. The writing nomination is also beyond belief, the Arthur Laurents script unable to create anything resembling an arc for any of the characters, and resorting to a butt-slapping cat fight between middle aged women. Fortunately the Academy came to its collective senses in time and the film was comprehensively and deservedly shut-out on Awards night.

In MacLaine and Bancroft The Turning Point has classy actresses in the lead roles doing their best. They are thoroughly smothered by the tutus, the ballet shoes and the uninspired drama stretching in vain to justify a cinematic experience.

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