Feb 6, 2016

Michael Redgrave, Mourning Becomes Electra


Michael Redgrave doesn't show up to play within Mourning Becomes Electra's crazed, stagey, melodramatic story until after a third of the film has passed. Still, once he arrives, what was most striking about him was the grip he had on the material and the moderate (but fresh) sense of restrain he brings, the very type that Rosalind Russell and Katina Paxinou do not choose utilize. And in doing so, I felt that Redgrave completely runs away with the picture.

The New York Times' Bosley Crowther too agreed with me in his more negative review of the film (I personally loved the film myself--such fun!), citing Redgrave as one who "turns in a good job as the weak, confused, Oedipean and hysterically-inclined Mannon son," while "the rest perform in manners which seem much more pretentious than inspired." I feel as though this is an accomplishment in and of itself--that is, to stand out amongst a crowd of principal characters who each have very juicy bits of material to sink their thesp'ing teeth into. Still, what I found most interesting about Redgrave was that in spite of his stage background, the man still comes into one of the more stagier offerings of the decade with a grounded realism that really fleshes out Orin as a multifaceted, twisted, and ultimately utterly tragic character. This is crucial as he is essentially the purest of the characters, caught amidst the firestorm of hate which ravages his family and his life. A lesser actor might have played up the drama a bit more, in turn risking the creation a compelling character for a more manic caricature (looking at you Katina Paxinou--horrid casting if I ever saw it.) But whether it's shading Orin with a slight air of post-traumatic stress disorder as he discusses his encounters during the war, the one-two-three punch of the nearly-adolescent/obsessive-compulsive/rather-perverse worship of his own mother, or the fine balance of spite and damage he demonstrates in the film's third act, I thought that Redgrave checks off the various attributes of Orin with masterful aplomb, turning in the most realized performance within the film. He is compelling for all the right reasons, effectively dramatic without being overdramatic and in clear control within a film and tale that provides enough juice for things to spiral out of control.

Originally a four, I ended up changing my mind by 2/8 :) 


  1. Great review. When I saw this film the only thing I knew about it was that Russell was the "favorite" for Best Actress and was "robbed" of the award. I didn't know who Michael Redgrave was and only learned much later on that he'd also received an Oscar nomination, which surprised me. With all the showy theatrics going on around him, it didn't seem to me that his underplaying would have registered. When I learned he was a stage actor, my first thought was of how un-theatrical he is in MBE. His performance is in tune with the intimacy of the camera rather than the upper balcony of a theater. I liked that.

    Still, you've articulated aspects of his work that I wouldn't have appreciated at the time (I haven't seen this film in decades) and it's made me want to check it out again, because I do remember liking him more than I expected. It's hard, though. Where did this film go? I've never seen it on TCM, on VHS or on DVD. I don't know where you found it but I'd sure like to know because your review has piqued my interest.

  2. Hum, I don't like him very much. Interested in your thoughts on Russell now.

  3. Redgrave was also very good in the 1969 version of "Goodbye, Mr. Chips" with Peter O'Toole and Petula Clark. They're both terrific in this weather-worn film and the screenplay is quite adept at its modernization. The songs are excrement, unfortunately, and the direction is pedestrian at best, but the O'Toole-Clark-Redgrave triumvirate is quite effective: a very surprising treat from what is often decried for its lack of achievement.