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Lady L, Romain Gary's novel about an elderly duchess recalling her beginnings as a laundress who loves an anarchist but marries an English lord, endured a long and circuitous path to the screen. MGM had begun production on a film version in 1961, with Tony Curtis, Gina Lollobrigida, and Ralph Richardson in the leading roles, and George Cukor directing. But there were script problems, and clashes between Cukor and Lollobrigida. With the sets built, and extras waiting around for the first scene to be shot, Cukor backed out, claiming illness. The production was cancelled. In late 1964, MGM struck a deal with producer Carlo Ponti to take over the production of Lady L (1965). Ponti's wife, Sophia Loren, and Paul Newman were set to star, and Peter Ustinov was hired to rewrite the script and to direct.
The film had originally been written as a romantic melodrama. Ustinov wisely ignored previous screenplay drafts and started over from scratch, re-imagining Lady L as a picaresque comedy. He also cast his old friend, David Niven, a master of sophisticated comedy, as the third point of the romantic triangle. (Niven and Ustinov had become lifelong friends when they served together in World War II.) Ustinov himself made a comic cameo appearance in Lady L as the dotty Prince Otto, the target of one of anarchist Newman's bombs. And he also dubbed the voice of French actor Philippe Noiret, who played Gerome. Lady L is set in the early 20th century, and the locations included the visual splendors of Paris, the south of France and Switzerland, as well as the magnificent Castle Howard in the English countryside. That stately home would later become famous as the setting for the television miniseries, Brideshead Revisited (1981).
Real locations were of the utmost importance for the director who was quoted in Ustinov in Focus by Tony Thomas, saying, "I tried to get the style of the times, and with the new sensitivity of film stock you can now use real locations, which is highly preferable to using sets, no matter how marvelous they might be. You can now shoot indoors, which is more difficult to do but eminently worth it because you get production values of the sort you couldn't build. This was particularly true with Lady L because there is now a growing appreciation for the art and decor of that period: people are beginning to see merit and beauty in what was once dismissed as Victorian, Neo-baroque vulgarity...The railway station we used in Monaco - that's gone. There are many aspects of this film that are of historical value because we put on record things that are paradoxically coming back into vogue again. But so many things have been destroyed because people hadn't the patience to wait a bit longer, and potential Parthenons are obliterated."
According to some sources, producer Ponti was so pleased with the finished film that he planned to release it as a 150-minute road show attraction. Instead, according to Ustinov, Ponti and MGM made so many cuts that the film made no sense. These editing problems may account for the delay in releasing Lady L. Finished in April of 1965, it did not open in Europe until November, and in the U.S. until May of 1966.
Another problem was that, of the three principals, only Niven was perfectly cast. Most critics agreed that Newman, while competent, was too American and too modern to play a turn-of-the century European anarchist. Among the most scathing comments was the New Yorker's: "Mr. Newman has not troubled to think himself very deeply into his silly role, and seems about as far from Paris and anarchism, as say, Akron and the Young Republicans are." Loren was also damned with faint praise. Harold Rogers noted in the Christian Science Monitor: " An actress who has depths within depths, she is limited when dealing with superficial and tasteless pleasantries." Ustinov's script and direction generally fared best with the critics. Elliot Fremont-Smith wrote in the New York Times, "The pacing is fast, the wit is sure, the scenes are gorgeous." The mixed reviews and troubled production history no doubt contributed to Lady L's box-office failure. But artistically, an accurate assessment might be Fremont-Smith's summary: "imperfect [but] droll, rewarding and technically very interesting entertainment."
Director: Peter Ustinov
Producer: Carlo Ponti
Screenplay: Peter Ustinov, based on the novel by Romain Gary
Cinematography: Henri Alekan
Editor: Roger Dwyre
Costume Design: Marcel Escoffier, Jacqueline Guyot
Art Direction: Jean d'Eaubonne, Auguste Capelier; set designs, Maurice Barnathan
Music: Jean Francaix
Cast: Sophia Loren (Lady L), Paul Newman (Armand), David Niven (Lord Lendale), Cecil Parker (Sir Percy), Claude Dauphin (Inspector Mercier), Philippe Noiret (Ambroise Gerome), Michel Piccoli (Lecoeur), Marcel Dalio (Sapper).
C-109m. Letterboxed. Closed captioning.
by Margarita Landazuri