By the early 1980s, Pauline Kael had grown increasingly frustrated with the poor quality of American movies. Less than a decade after the Golden Age of American film, the Star Wars syndrome had put American movies on a downhill slide from which I’m not sure they’ve recovered even now. For this reason, when The Leopard was reissued in the States in 1983, Kael latched onto it like it was an oasis to a dehydrated woman. The Leopard was made by Visconti in 1962, and only released in the U.S. in a butchered version … more than twenty years later, the real thing finally showed up, and showed up is the proper term, because it showed up the competition in 1983. (The big movie that year, Oscar-wise, was Terms of Endearment; the runaway champ at the box office was Return of the Jedi, while other movies among the top grossers of the year were Flashdance, Octopussy, Mr. Mom, and Superman III.) The Leopard is on an epic scale … the Sicilian setting invites modern audiences to see interesting connections to the Godfather movies, and there’s no question Coppola watched the concluding hour-long ball setpiece many times before he started creating his own such pieces in the GF movies.
The Leopard also has Burt Lancaster. I love Burt Lancaster, but I admit he was often miscast. This seems to be in part because Lancaster always tried to stretch as an actor, meaning he took on roles outside of what was expected of him. In any event, he is great in The Leopard, even though, in the original version which is now the standard version, his voice is dubbed into Italian. (The earlier American version dubbed everyone into English … in that version, Lancaster did his own voice.)
It’s very tricky, at least when I’m in the audience, to create sympathy for the upper class in decline. Really, who gives a shit? But Visconti and Lancaster pull it off in The Leopard. The way Visconti does it is problematic … most of the characters are either of the aristocracy or of the newly-rising “democratic” ruling class, meaning we see very little of the poor. The poor are spoken of, and Lancaster’s Prince believes that noblesse oblige is better for the poor than a democracy run by the corrupt. But we never hear what the poor think of all this.
And it doesn’t really matter, because more than class, the movie is about Lancaster’s Prince, how he sees the changes on the horizons, and how he reacts to them. The history of his family tells him that no matter what happens in the outside world, his family will adapt; as is said more than once in the film, things must change in order for them to remain the same, and as the film begins, the Prince is certain the latest political activities (the movie takes place in 1860s Italy, when it was becoming Italy) will be more of the same, as long as he makes the proper adjustments. The tragedy of the film comes as the Prince realizes this new change is fundamental … there will be no more room for his type. His nephew (Alain Delon, who in later years called Jean-Marie Le Pen a friend) is the future: amoral, interested only in climbing the ladder of power. Of course, the reason the Prince has been able to avoid such social climbing is because he was already born at the top. But as Lancaster plays it, there’s a sadness nonetheless.
Visconti and Lancaster manage to make the viewer understand the importance of people like the Prince. Over the first two hours of the film, we see the Prince maneuvering as necessary, and Lancaster’s inevitable vitality charges everything he does. We don’t realize it while it’s happening, but we come to trust in the Prince/Lancaster to keep the movie going. When, during the climactic hour-long ball that closes the film, the Prince begins to feel under the weather, and Lancaster shows it in bits and pieces, maintaining the proper public facade, then wiping the sweat off his brow when he has a private moment, sitting in a chair where he has been standing for what seems like the entire movie … in these moments, we watch Lancaster/the Prince fade before our very eyes, and in that is the tragedy.
It’s a bit spooky to realize that the Prince is supposed to be a member of the aging older class, when he’s only 45 (8 years younger than me, in other words). But when the movie starts, he seems to be an awfully young 45, and by the movie’s end, he might as well be 80.
The film looks beautiful, by the way, which is my way of introducing one other topic that I can’t neglect. Claudia Cardinale is one of the most beautiful actresses of all time. As if its greatness wasn’t already assured, The Leopard adds evidence to the legend of Cardinale. And, just as the film put other films to shame back in 1983, just as it still puts other movies to shame in 2006, Cardinale’s voluptuous beauty puts 21st-century standards of beauty to shame.
Finally, a note on the DVD: it’s great. Criterions always are, but this one goes above and beyond. Three discs … on the first is a pristine copy of the film, on the second is a disc full of extras including an hour-long documentary on the making of the movie, on the third, a superfluous yet oddly important copy of the American version of the film.
Ten on a scale of ten.