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Desperate Characters


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Product Details

  • Actors: Shirley McLaine, Kenneth Mars
  • Directors: Frank D. Gilroy
  • Format: Multiple Formats, Color, NTSC, Widescreen
  • Language: English
  • Region: Region 1 (U.S. and Canada only. Read more about DVD formats.)
  • Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1
  • Number of discs: 1
  • Rated: R (Restricted)
  • Studio: Legend Films
  • DVD Release Date: July 1, 2008
  • Run Time: 88 minutes
  • Average Customer Review: 3.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (10 customer reviews)
  • ASIN: B0019UGYBO
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #240,650 in Movies & TV (See Top 100 in Movies & TV)
  • Learn more about "Desperate Characters" on IMDb

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Editorial Reviews

Product Description

Oscar® winner Shirley MacLaine is nothing short of brilliant in this gripping drama by acclaimed writer/director Frank D. Gilroy (The Subject Was Roses). With wit and real wisdom, Desperate Characters brilliantly examines the life of two disillusioned New Yorkers as they struggle to come to grips with the "normal" life with which they can no longer cope. Featuring powerful performances by MacLaine, Kenneth Mars (The Producers) as her disenchanted husband, and a young Carol Kane (The Princess Bride).

Review

There's an old saying in show business that timing is everything. Though it's a long forgotten footnote now, a lot of the Oscar buzz back in 1972 revolved around Shirley MacLaine's risky performance in Desperate Characters, a low-budget "kitchen sink" drama written and directed by Frank Gilroy that seemed decidedly at odds with her recent big budget and big PR films like Sweet Charity and Two Mules for Sister Sara. […] And yet Characters remains one of MacLaine's crowning screen achievements, a performance of searing power and pain that is certainly superior to her ultimate Oscar winning one in Terms of Endearment. Though MacLaine herself dismissed the film as a failure, it nonetheless contains two of the most intense--if relentlessly emotionally tamped down--performances of 1970s film, by MacLaine and the superb Kenneth Mars, both actors completely erasing years of comedic star turns in one fell dramatic swoop. In fact, the entire film, largely a dialogue between MacLaine and Mars as an unhappy Manhattan couple, plays a bit like Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? on barbiturates. These characters, unlike Albee's volcanic couple, are too "proper" to ever really let their emotions loose, hence their Thoreau-esque lives of "quiet desperation."

The plot, such as it is, revolves around twin predicaments--MacLaine is bit by a feral cat she has been feeding, and Mars' longtime law partnership with Gerald O'Loughlin has just dissolved, to the consternation of both men. It doesn't sound like much, and it really isn't, but under Gilroy's low-key direction and with his absolutely unmatched ear for dialogue, it all unravels (literally) as the perfect dystopian portrait of life crammed into a city where everyone is aching to get out.

MacLaine's Sophie is alternately elegant, earthy, wounded and superior, and MacLaine has never been more commanding on screen than in her portrayal of a modern woman caught in the throes of a rabid society that has just reached out and touched her in a very real way. Mars is simply a revelation in this role. If you know him only through his inspired work in such Mel Brooks films as The Producers and Young Frankenstein, prepare to be amazed at the brutish power of his Otto, a brutishness buried under layers of mild-mannered banalities and well-heeled mores. The shocking denouement, when the couple finds that their country refuge has been vandalized, is a tour de force for both actors and will leave most viewers squirming uncomfortably as the webs these two have weaved with each other ensnare them. […]

Desperate Characters is certainly not a film for those who need slam-bang action sequences or conflict spelled out in terms of good guys versus bad guys. For those willing to experience characters through their dialogue (and their silences), this is a widely undervalued gem that sums up the beginning of the independent film movement brilliantly, and it contains arguably MacLaine's finest performance ever

[…]

This film should have netted both MacLaine and Mars Oscars. There's simply no justice sometimes. A downbeat, depressing film Desperate Characters certainly is, and yet it reveals some very deep truths about a certain stratum of city-dweller, and does so in a devastating way. If you think of MacLaine as a flighty comedienne, prepare to be stunned by her power and command of a difficult role in this film. Highly recommended. --Jeffrey Kauffman of DVDTalk.com

Customer Reviews

3.6 out of 5 stars

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

6 of 6 people found the following review helpful By Jay Dickson VINE VOICE on July 16, 2008
Format: DVD
Otto and Sophie Bentwood (Kenneth Mars and Shirley Maclaine) live in a gigantic, messy brownstone in 1970 Brooklyn Heights, but for all intents and purposes they might as well be living in Paris in 1848. Barricaded in from the street and the changing social and political world outside by means of their barred entryway, locks, and intercom system (which are given plenty of attention in this film), the Bentwoods are left to tear each other apart with their mutual dissastisfactions. Then the outdoors slowly comes creeping into their home: first with the bite of a (possibly rabid) cat that Sophie tries to befriend, then with the midnight drunken visit of Otto's former partner in his law firm, then by a young man wanting to use their phone. The Bentwoods begin to discover that there is no safety behind closed doors.

Paula Fox's beautifully claustrophobic and depressing 1970 novel seemed a natural to be filmed because of its compressed time frame over one long unhappy weekend; it might still make an absolutely first-rate film some day, but this Frank D. Gilroy film made a year after the novel was published doesn't quite pull it off. Gilroy was experimenting quite a bit in this film with shots of very dark city streets and with intentionally disorienting jump cuts to shots above the characters after intense conversations that make them look trapped and hopeless; he also deliberately made the Bentwoods' clothes, hairdos, and homes look as awful as possible (even by the standards of one of the least stylish periods in American cultural history). To say the result isn't very cheerful is putting it mildly; but it's also very off-putting in narrative terms.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By F. Levesque on January 13, 2011
Format: DVD
DESPERATE CHARACTERS is not a film to watch in a depressed mood, although it could cheer you up since yours isn't likely to be any worse than theirs. Frank D. Gilroy (Tony Gilroy's father) directs efficiently this low key production, a do-any-two-movies-you-like deal between Shirley Maclaine and a Paramount subsidiary (the other one being the great yet also depressing THE POSSESSION OF JOEL DELANEY). Anyhow, DESPERATE CHARACTERS contains fine acting by everyone, with a nice change of pace for funnyman Kenneth Mars. But it's really Mrs Maclaine's picture. She turns in a very carefully nuanced interpretation. Fans of the star should definitely see this one.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By Gary - Tucson AZ on April 29, 2011
Format: DVD
The plot has been well reviewed by others. The awkward sexual encounter at their country home was equally awkward to watch, and could have been omitted. This is an unusual film in some ways, and I think there are bits and pieces to which we can all relate. Sada Thompson (one of my favorites) is great in her low-key, measured, but cynical and sardonic interpretation of the people in her own life, including her ex-husband, a college professor, who lives off and on with her for companionship. She thought it would be easier to adjust to being in her forties than it was, remarking to Shirley MacLaine "This is why I dress as I do--better a middle-class frump than an aging go-go girl."

There is a strange encounter between MacLaine and a supposed friend, Ruth, who she sees on the street hailing a cab. MacLaine tries to reach out to her, and Ruth is clearly not interested in conversing with her, only answering her questions. Shirley asks if they can have lunch some time. "I don't eat lunch anymore, I'm on a diet" is Ruth's excuse. Then Shirley says "I'll call you." Ruth says something as she enters the cab, but we can't hear it because of horns blowing on the street. Shirley then turns to a stranger standing close by and asks "Did she just say for me to go away? It doesn't really matter, I'm just curious." The woman doesn't answer her. And of course it mattered to her--she was just saving face.

Again, I think all of us can relate to some of these odd encounters, where MacLaine seeems to be trying to make sense of a world to which she has increasing difficulty relating.
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful By Philip Cairns on November 19, 2008
Format: DVD
This DVD is excellent. I love the film. I first saw it in 1972, soon after it came out. The acting is great, particularly by Shirley MacLaine. It really is one of her best performances. The script is also really good.

The sound and picture quality on the DVD are beautiful. I own 2 VHS copies of the film. The quality on both is poor. It is one of those SP mode cheap videos and both copies skip, once in a while.

If you haven't seen this film and you like serious dramas with great acting and a fabulous cast, then you are in for a real treat if you buy this film on DVD.

The film received excellent reviews, when it came out, but it was not widely distributed, outside of the major U.S. cities. MacLaine won the Best Actress award at the Berlin Film Festival for this film.

Philip Cairns
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By chris on August 15, 2014
Format: DVD
Wonderful character study. Maclaine is sublime and hits all the perfect notes in this introverted drama that is really a horror film...not in any classic sense of a horror but a horror within ones life and mind. Just wonderful. Subtle, nuanced, disturbing and food for thought
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