Thursday, October 18, 2012

Nutcrackers: "The Turning Point" (1977)

1977 was a very good year for director Herbert Ross.

Not only did Ross direct this film, which was nominated for eleven Academy Awards, but he also helmed "The Goodbye Girl," which received five nominations. Out of the twenty acting nominees that year, an astounding seven were from two of his films.

If you love ballet, you will love "The Turning Point." If you have flashbacks to your little sister's bit part in "The Nutcracker" the same way Vietnam vets flashback to Da Nang, you might still like "The Turning Point." Deedee (Shirley MacLaine) is a former dancer now running a ballet school with her husband Wayne (Tom Skerritt) in Oklahoma City. The American Ballet Company comes through, and Wayne and Deedee reunite with all their old friends and rivals- both ingredients can be found in Emma (Anne Bancroft). Emma and Deedee competed for the same part back in the day, but Deedee ended up pregnant and Emma went on to be a star of the company.

Deedee, however, gave birth to Emilia (Leslie Browne), who is now a supreme dancer in her own right. She joins the company, and Deedee and Emilia move to New York City for a summer. Soon, Emma makes herself Emilia's surrogate mom, never having children of her own. Deedee finds herself in the arms of old crush Rosie (Anthony Zerbe), never living the life Emma lives. The two head for a collision course on the very night of Emilia's lead debut.

While I am not a big ballet fan, I am a big fan of good acting. MacLaine and Bancroft nail their parts. Ross never lets one actress over shadow the other. Both of them are equally heroic and flawed, so the viewer cannot come down on one side or the other. Leslie Browne is hot and cold as Emilia, letting her great dancing speak for her character. Mikhail Baryshnikov is very effective in a clicheed role as the company horndog Yuri, who quickly beds Emilia. While Wayne is wishy washy, we find out why at the end of the film, and Skerritt holds his own.

As with "The Goodbye Girl," Ross directs with a vengeance, never letting the camera stop. He is not show-offy or pretentious, but he keeps things going at a fast clip, even the dance sequences. They do not run too long or too short, but are brief enough where you can still appreciate the pure athleticism of the performers. I have not been in awe of dancers like this since I sat through "West Side Story." Watch for a wonderfully edited sequence where a fantasy dance between Yuri and Emilia turns into the two making love, a perfect blend of cuts and musical accompaniment. I do complain that the film runs about fifteen minutes too long, and some closure with Deedee and Rosie would have been nice.

"The Turning Point" is not everyone's cup of tea, but the actors and direction save it from being just another chick flick. (* * * *) out of five stars.