Of Roads Not Taken...

The Turning Point directed by Herbert Ross at the Sack Cheri

A DIRECTOR choosing to make a film on the experiences of artists and the frustrations and rewards peculiar to their art form must weigh two choices in picking his leads. The filmmaker can select a real-life performer from that art form and use the artist in the lead, hoping that sensitive direction will help the artist meet the unfamiliar demands of acting. Nicholas Roeg largely succeeded with this approach when he gambled on Mick Jagger as an aging rocker in the starring role of Performance, but other directors have usually obtained mixed results. Alternatively, the filmmaker can settle for the proven talents of a veteran actor, fudging on authenticity for the sake of a solid acting job.

Herbert Ross has come up with the best solution yet to this dilemma in his film The Turning Point. He avoids this undesirable trade-off by casting a competent actress who cannot pirouette her way out of a paper bag (Anne Bancroft) in one of the two lead roles--a middle-aged ballerina clearly in decline--and supporting her with two genuine ballet stars (Mikhail Baryshnikov and Leslie Browne) in significant if minor roles. Realism and a respect for the irreplaceable skills of a tested movie star blend nicely in Ross' polished parable about the world of ballet and the thoughts about the roads not taken fostered by the onset of middle age.

The Turning Point centers on the bittersweet relationship of Deedee Rodgers (Shirley MacLaine), a one-time aspiring ballerina who gave up the stage for a family, and Emma Jacklin (Bancroft), Deedee's former friend and rival who pursued a career in dance to rise to the top of her profession as the prima ballerina of the best ballet company in the States. They reunite after a long spell of separation when Emma's touring company hits Oklahoma City, where Deedee, the frustrated dancer, spends her middle-aged, middle-American existence raising her three kids and running a ballet school with her husband Wayne (Tom Skerritt).

The company's visit to the Rodgers' adopted home in the Oklahoma flatlands furnishes a trip down Memory Lane for the couple; both Wayne and Deedee were members of Emma's company before their marriage, and the long-time-no-see's flow freely backstage between the Rodgers and the older faces in the company. The joyous encounter between Deedee and Emma takes a bitter turn when Deedee contrasts the varied fates that have befallen them following their climactic competition for the same career-launching part in the ballet Anna Karenina. Emma reminds Deedee, "You got pregnant," and the housewife-instructor retorts, "And you got 19 curtain calls."

The narrative begins to forge the complex network of bonds entangling the rest of the principals in the movie. The story unfolds as Emma invites Deedee's eldest daughter Emilia (Browne), an 18-year-old ballet student bursting with raw talent and innocent sexuality, catches Emma's eye and is promptly invited to join the company. Deedee leaves the household and dance school in the capable hands of her husband and accompanies Emilia to New York, intent on supervising her climb to stardom. The impressionable protege soon takes a strong liking to her mentor Emma (who happens to be Emilia's godmother), much to her mother's dismay. Deedee has enough reason to be jealous of Emma for professional reasons without a twist of emotion-charged rivalry for Emma's affection.


Along the road to the big time, Emilia plunges into a short-lived affair with Yuri (Baryshnikov), the rakish Russian who is the crowning jewel of the company's impressive array of dancers. Yuri and Emilia consummate the relationship in one of the best scenes of The Turning Point; shot in deep blues and purples, the lovemaking is accompanied by ballet music, and appropriately enough, Emilia marks their climax with a ballet gesture, forming a graceful arch with her outstretched arms.

The Soviet's penchant for bed-hopping deals a rude blow to the naive Emilia, who is further jolted when she learns of her mother's dabbling in adultery with Rosie (Anthony Zerbe), an old conductor-buddy who is currently between marriages. Emilia drowns her sorrows in a sleazy Manhattan bar one afternoon before a matinee, affecting a Russian accent while two good ol' boys from out of town try to pick her up. Her inebriation leads directly into an all-too-contrived comic device wherein Browne totters about the stage during the performance while mentor Bancroft winces in the wings.

ROSS'S DIRECTION doesn't really shine until the final 15 minutes of The Turning Point. Deedee's long pent-up sense of frustration and envy over Emma's ultimate professional success comes spilling out during the final showdown between the two long-time friends, which follows the company's special gala performance establishing Emilia as a full-fledged rising star in the company. The accumulated venom flies fast and free during this encounter of the caustic kind, building up to a classic display of feminine fisticuffs. The scene is handled perfectly by Ross, as the two friends suddenly dissolve into laughter when they mutually realize the absurd spectacle they are making of themselves. The crisp repartee of Arthur Laurents' script is at its sharpest throughout the bitter exchanges of stored jealousy and rancor, and their final reconciliation ends the film on a suitably touching note.

Ross' film blazes no new trails, and most of the film's compelling appeal can be traced to the strength of the acting. MacLaine's earthy housewife provides a gritty counterpoint to Bancroft's cosmopolitan artiste, and Baryshnikov's limited role makes no undue demands on his fledgling talents in front of a camera. His virility and sheer presence suffice for the portrayal of the compulsive narcissist stud in the company, and his dancing will predictably astound moviegoers unfamiliar with the awesome talents of Nureyev's successor. While Browne is relegated to the imposing shadow cast by Baryshnikov's virtuoso skills. When they team together in some of the dance sequences, she conveys the confusion and flighty emotions of a young adult straddling the threshold of fame with an assurance not expected from an actress's debut.

Ballet is already experiencing heretofore unknown popularity in America, and The Turning Point will further this trend with its generous use of filmed rehearsals and excerpts from some of the genre's most famous compositions. But cineastes who have no special fondness for ballet will derive considerable pleasure from the plot's many twists and the consistently slick performances Ross culls from his cast. The Turning Point may not represent a departure from the highly commercial repertoire of films bearing Ross's stamp, but what he lacks in vision he makes up for in pure craft.

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