Posted in: by Robert C. Cumbow, Contributors, Film Reviews

Review: The Turning Point

[Originally published in Movietone News 58-59, August 1978]

The Turning Point is a gentle, properly humble film whose joys are nearly always thespian rather than cinematic. The oohs and aahs that have marked response to this film in just about every quarter are pitiable, since they only serve to overrate the film and prepare the viewer for disappointment. Audiences may find themselves feeling that they are expected to like it, because it is about serious art, because it is self-consciously ambitious, and not because of its smallness, which to me is the best thing about the film. It is precisely the film’s ability to be about so many things in a small way that makes it attractive. Its meandering plotline and gratuitous “relevance” are the mark of a kitchen-sink approach to psychology and moralism; and the film’s most obnoxious trait is the tendency of its characters toward ponderous self-analysis and constant moral summation, distinctly remote from the province of most people’s daily behavior.

Herbert Ross’s purported directorial virtuosity, which has gotten a lot of press lately, seems to me, again, principally related to acting more than to filmmaking. In films like this, The Last of Sheila, Play It Again, Sam and The Goodbye Girl, he demonstrates a charming knack for controlled ensemble playing; but one always gets a sensation of the camera and montage being more or less on their own. At least there is no evidence onscreen that Ross pays as much attention to these as to his actors; and that is why his films so frequently add up to less than the sum of their parts. Nevertheless, evoking a strong performance from one’s actors is no mean achievement, and Ross’s work with his cast—like the far more pretentious Sidney Lumet’s, at his best—is worth watching for its own sake.

Ross has consistently worked with tight, short scenarios, and it’s just as well, since his attention to his actors creates a relaxed use of camera and montage that is anything but economic or brisk, and even occasionally bores. If The Turning Point drags now and again, despite its short running time, it’s because of a lack of organic unity in what’s on the screen: nothing so simple as discontinuity, but downright jerky changes of direction in plot and emphasis, and an occasional utter halt in the story to showcase the dancing—which is never satisfactorily integrated, thematically or stylistically, with the film’s story. The cameo roles of Anthony Zerbe and Marshall Thompson, the former just barely worked into the film’s fabric, the latter not at all, give the movie a fragmentary feeling—not the kind of fragments that make up a grand mosaic like Nashville, but the stumps that remain when too many ideas are shorn away from the mainstem of the plot, vestiges left clumsily adhering. So, without any overriding viewpoint or emphasis, The Turning Point is about show people, art, marriage, fidelity, parenthood, decision-making, friendship, suspicion, growing up, and growing old, in no particular order of importance.

This sweeping, loosely structured scheme has many weak spots, like the characters’ constant delivery of lame expository dialogue, telling each other things they must already know, just in order to fill us in; or the creaky effort to integrate the lovely dance scenes of the gala sequence by intercutting them with shots of Emma and Deedee, while flashback dialogue is whispered in voiceover. Most of the ideas that Laurents and Ross use are not only not new, they weren’t very good when they were new. What matters most to me in The Turning Point are the little things, individual scenes, moments, expressions, words that are just right and beautifully captured, even if they haven’t been successfully gathered into the whole cloth of a good film. Things like Leslie Browne as a drunken ballerina, or Martha Scott’s vampirically money-oriented company director (to this favor must all fundraisers come), or the fight between old friends (Emma’s finally acknowledged guilt, Deedee’s never-acknowledged weakness in attempting to blame her friend for the consequences of her own decision, and the laughing-and-making-up, the liberation and joy not of what has been said but of having said it), and—for me—the best moment in the film, when Deedee asks Michael the question that has been nagging at her for twenty years: “If I hadn’t gotten pregnant, would you have used me instead of Emma?” His answer—“I honestly don’t remember”—is a haunting lesson in the relativity of what is important, and it comments ironically on what’s right and wrong about Ross’s scattergun approach in The Turning Point.

© 1978 Robert C. Cumbow

Direction: Herbert Ross. Screenplay: Arthur Laurents. Cinematography: Robert L. Surtees. Production design: Albert Brenner. Editing: William Reynolds. Music adaptation: Michel Lanchbery. Production: Ross, Laurents.
The players: Shirley MacLaine, Anne Bancroft, Tom Skerritt, Leslie Browne, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Martha Scott, James Mitchell, Anthony Zerbe, Antoinette Sibley, Marshall Thompson, Daniel Levans.

A pdf of the original issue can be found here.