Oscar Movies: Turning Point, The (1977): Starring Anne Bancroft and Shirley MacLaine

Fox (Hera Productions)

Though made in 1977, as written by Arthur Laurents and directed by Herbert Ross, “The Turning Point” is a schmaltzy, old-fashioned film that, a woman’s picture set in a backstage-ballet melodrama–sort of an update of a Bette Davis melodrama of the 1940s like “Old Acquaintance.”

Set in Oklahoma City, “The Turning Point” concerns the friendship of two different types of women. The film focuses on the relationship between Deedee Rodgers (Shirley MacLaine) and her teenaged daughter Emilia (Lesley Browne), who wants to be a ballerina. Mother-daughter relationship is strained when Deedee rekindles an old affair and Emilia finds out about it, and later gets worse, when the Emilia becomes closer to Emma Jacklin (Anne Bancroft), her mother’s former friend and competitor, an aging ballerina whose career has precluded marriage, or so we are led to believe; Emilia is named after the grand dame, who’s her godmother.

Since neither woman is happy, “Turning Point” poses the old question of this film genre: Who made the right choice: Emma, the aging, lonely ballerina, who chose career over domestic life and happiness, or Deedee, the wife-mother who gave up her artistic career.

The movie represents an effort to domesticate for mainstream audiences the ballet world by removing its taint of European high-culture and esoteric appeal. Most of the characters are meant to be “heartland ordinary,” but seem too sophisticate for that.

Laurnets’ “original” script is borderline banal, and it’s burdened with expository dialogue. The emotional core consists of a series of intimate scenes between the two friends, Deedee and Emma, in which they disclose big “truths” and “secrets” to each other.

Herbert Ross direction is uninspired, lacking excitement, visual sweep, or the kind of verbal cattiness that prevailed in Warner melodramas of yesteryear.
The scene in which Deedee and Emma engage in a physical fight with their purses and then punches, is borderline camp, but half of it is shot from a distance, thus depriving us of any pleasure. Predictably, the fight ends with the femmes’ hugs, kisses, and tears.

The script does provide opportunities for dance, but they are not integral to the story. The picture doesn’t have a unified dance conception, such as the one that defined the popular 1948 British dance melodrama, “The Red Shoes.” Indeed, except for the love duet between Emilia and Yuri Kopekind, the dances are interspersed in the narrative as divertissement, serving no dramatic function or illumination of character.

In this picture, we get snippets of classic ballet pieces, such as “Romeo and Juliet,” as well as modern works by Balanchine (“Stars and Stripes”) and others, with star performers like Peter Martins, Antoinette Sibley, Marcia Hayden, Richard Cragun, Lucette Aldous, and Fernando Bujones.

In the name of “realism,” Ross and Laurents have taken the personality and temperament out of the ballet world, and as helmer, Ross is caught between the script’s philistinism and his own love of dance. Unlike “Red Shoes,” the film is directed and shot is a way that doesn’t let the audience feel the lure of the dance world.

The film’s conception and execution owe a good deal to Ross’s wife, Nora Kaye, a former dancer, who reportedly gave up her career upon meeting Rossjust like Deedee Serving as exec producer, Kaye helped hubby Ross, who’s himself a former choreographer.

Released in the same year as Turning Point,” John Travolta’s disco film, “Saturday Night Fever” was superior as a lifestyle melodrama and as a dance flickat least it had the smarts of containing some exciting and dramatic dances, accompanied by the Bee Gees.

The lyricism of Emilia’s affair with Yuri and the mythic speed with which he becomes a star an she is on the way up present a formulaic fantasy that has hails back to Warner backstage musicals of the 1930s (“42nd Street” is the prototype).

Except for Deedee and Emma, most of the characters are narrowly drawn. It’s good to see in supporting roles Martha Scott as Adelaide, the company’s mercilessly calculated founder, the legendary coach Alexandra Danilova playing the fictional Dahkarova, and particularly Tom Skerritt, as Wayne Rodgers, Deede’s husband, who years back courted and impregnated her in order to prove to her (and to himself) that he was not gay.

Lesley Browne received undeservedly an Oscar nomination, on account of the film’s sweep factor, but Baryshnikov, in his film debut, shows strong presence and would appear in other dance-oriented films, such as Taylor Hackford’s “White Nights” (1985).

End Note:

There were rumors at the time that Grace Kelly, Princess of Monaco, was approached to play one of the two lead roles, but Prince Rainier would not allow a comeback.

Oscar Nominations: 11

Picture, produced by Herbert Ross and Arthur Luarents
Director: Herbert Ross
Screenplay (Original): Arthur Laurents
Actress: Anne Bancroft
Actress: Shirley MacLaine
Supporting Actor: Mikhail Baryshnikov
Supporting Actress: Lesley Browne
Cinematography: Robert Surtees
Art Direction-Set Decoration: Albert Brenner; Marvin Marsh
Sound: Theodore Soderbergh, Paul Wells, Douglas O. Williams, and Jerry Jost
Film Editing: William Reynolds

Oscar Awards: None

Oscar Context:

One of the biggest losers in Oscar history, “Turning Point” lost in each of its 11 nominations. Only one other picture, Spielberg’s “The Color Purple,” achieved that losing record, 11 nods, 0 awards.

Woody Allen’s “Annie Hall” won Best Picture, Director, Screenplay, and Best Actress for Dianne Keaton.

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