Saturday, May 08, 2021


Robert Altman’s Kansas City (1996) has the 1934 milieu of the Midwest hub down pat, from the eye-popping production design and costuming, to the corrupt political machinations of the time (emanating from the influence of boss Tom Pendergast and a host of other shadowy operatives silently empowered by the Roosevelt administration), to the city’s fascinating musical culture, which functions as a navigational device through the film’s landscape, especially in terms of race, seeping into the film’s cracks and crevices, almost defiantly, willfully holding it together.

At the center of all this is the magnetic performance of Harry Belafonte as Seldom Seen, the gangster/entrepreneur who runs his part of KC from the back room of the Hey Hey Club, where the plot strands of the film gather to entangle and get more entangled. Seldom Seen is as much of an entertainer as the great jazz musicians gathered on his stage for an ebullient playoff contest, and he knows it— he can’t seem to stop himself from regaling stories and bleak jokes as part of his process of rule by intimidation, his genial manner never far from the flicker, and then the full emergence of menace. And Belafonte navigates his near-presidential presence with the sort of agility that is truly worthy of awe— his manner is observably informed by the truth of the times without ever becoming obvious or mannered, and you can’t, nor would you want to take your eyes off of him when he’s doing his thing.

The problem with Kansas City is that Belafonte’s story is not at the forefront. He’s essentially the impetus behind the film’s primary focus, a melodrama kicked into gear when Seldom Seen foils an attempted robbery of one of his money shipments and holds one of the would-be robbers, a Caucasian in blackface by the name of Johnny O’Hara (Dermot Mulroney) for tortures yet to be revealed. (Seldom dispatches the other, a Black man, with a brutal reckoning in an alley.) When she gets wind of Johnny’s predicament, his wife, a delusional cosmetics counter worker named Blondie (Jennifer Jason Leigh), concocts a scheme to leverage Johnny’s release by kidnapping the wife of a powerful local politician, who has ties to Pendergast and Roosevelt, in an attempt to blackmail him into using his connections to help free her two-bit criminal husband.

As the kidnapping victim, Miranda Richardson starts off playing up the most obvious notes of her troubled character, a woman who has sunk into an opium haze as a way of dealing with the humiliations and neglect dealt to her by her ambitious and often absent husband, essayed with typically cool emotional brutality by Altman favorite Michael Murphy. But Richardson’s characterization becomes warmer—she avoids the pitfalls of an absence of audience sympathy by her ability to orchestrate levels of humanity and sympathy which begin to work their way up through the drug-induced fog as she is forced to spend more and more time observing another form of fragility in the personage of her abductor, whose own relationship to reality is tenuous at best.

The movie’s central conceit is how the kidnapping story reflects the sorts of political machinations and racial stratification that spur on life in Altman’s beloved hometown just after the turn of the century, but if that story is going to function as part of the sort of mosaic Altman could typically conjure, then it has to hold its own against the seamy underworld of Seldom Seen,  the Hey Hey Club, and the commentary on the inequity of structures and everyday life between Black and white. Altman and co-scenarist Frank Barhydt structure Kansas City to flirt with bringing some of these elements into sharp relief— a home for “wayward” women figures into its third act, populated mostly by African American tenants, and a substory involving a young Black musician who befriends a girl who takes up residence in the home—but those elements never find their focus. And despite the details of both the political world and the world of Seldom and the club being easily the more fascinating and potentially rewarding in dramatic terms, they ultimately serve only as background for a story which is itself undermined by the oddly stylized performance of Jennifer Jason Leigh as Blondie, who keeps blunting our empathy regarding her increasing desperation and her slippery grasp on sanity with her own brand of acting histrionics.

Blondie sees herself as a Jean Harlow wannabe, and Leigh chooses to go whole-hog with that fantasy. She plays the character, presumably with the director’s assent, not in the style of realism which the rest of the movie indulges, but as if she really were in one of those rat-a-tat pre-Code pictures she frequents during her copious time off from her department store job. Leigh’s immersion in this sort of stylistic affectation isn’t exactly unprecedented—she took a lot of heat when she essentially conjured Katharine Hepburn for the Coen Brothers’ wild ‘40s-era comedy The Hudsucker Proxy two years earlier, in 1994. But the Coens’ picture, in its overheated approach, matched Leigh’s style syllable for rapid-fire syllable—what she did there was an integrated piece within that movie’s overall energy. In Kansas City, her commitment to the idea of Blondie’s delusions sets her adrift in Altman’s meticulously crafted milieu—she stands out, but not in a way that serves the material, or even her own story. She plays Blondie with such lunatic determination that it seems like she barely unclenches her jaw for the entirety of the picture. The way Leigh plays her, Blondie seems, in contrast to those around her, borderline insane, yet her behavior is never noted as anything particularly strange or hostile-- her pals process her as quirky, unpredictable, and the audience is asked to process her movie-star delusions as just another facet of the ambered past Altman conjures, which is what the conceit of the character is surely meant to convey. But Leigh can only bring attention to her actorly tics, and the performance never gels as anything beyond a curiosity, a misstep, and her story never meshes with the other parts of Kansas City in the way it surely should have.

If you haven’t seen it in a while, there’s a great deal of pleasure to be had from revisiting the gorgeous Arrow Blu-ray of Kansas City. The movie has probably never looked better, and it features a typically droll and informative Altman commentary, presumably ported over from an earlier home video release, as well as enjoyable appreciations by critics Geoff Andrew and Luc Lagier. Unfortunately, Arrow was not able to secure the one element that would have made their Kansas City package one for the ages—missing is Robert Altman’s Jazz ’34, the documentary Altman filmed for the PBS Great Performances series as an accompaniment to Kansas City which focuses entirely on the musical performances from Joshua Redman, Ron Carter and others which keep the Hey Hey Club hopping. These performances serve as the glue which binds Altman’s vision together, yet they blaze, gloriously, in this documentary on their own. On its own, Altman’s feature drama falls short of being the sort of late-period masterwork the director seemed to be able to summon at will so often during his career. But even so, on the wings of its music, these musicians, the riveting presence of a now 94-year-old star who owned the screen like never before in this picture, and yes, on the guidance of its director’s innovation and method of societal inquiry, there are moments when Kansas City, as wedded to the ground as it sometimes seems, still soars.



1 comment:

mike schlesinger said...

Thank you for this. KC is my favorite Altman, partly because of the 1930s, but mainly because of the wonderful music (I think of it as the anti-Nashville). I saw it three times when they were looking for a distributor, even though I knew Sony would never go for it. After my second viewing, I mentioned to Altman that the placement of the musicians on the bandstand seemed to be the same as that in "Jammin' the Blues." He said, "The Gjon Mili?" Me: "Yes." He fixed me with a steely gaze and then said, "You're the first person who's picked up on that."

Needless to say, my feet were about six inches off the ground for the rest of the week.