Time for Season 3 of Hit Me With Your Best Shot. Wednesday evenings.
I thought we'd kick off this season with a personal favorite from the 80s. I use the word favorite emphatically because in many ways, Ladyhawke (1985) is a movie with a confusing relationship to objective quality. It's both great and bad, the score arguing that it's a feature that absolutely should not exist outside of 1985 while the mythic story fights for timelessness. The sound (Oscar-nominated) has wonderful details, maximizing the earthly details of fluttering wings, wolf howls and horse hooves while also embracing the transcendently romantic voices (Rutger Hauer and Michelle Pfeiffer) but it's marred by jarring score cues that take you out of the action and weird post-production "comedy" vocal work from extras. It feels, at least for its first half, like it's a movie with several authors and endless studio interference from people who didn't believe in a romantic fantasy epic in a time long before fairy tales were hot commodities and sword and sorcery epics were the furthest thing from bankable. So, would you laugh at me if I claimed I thought it was thisclose to being a classic? People are always reediting the Star Wars prequels to try to make them into the movies they should have been but the fantasy with the easiest fix to nudge it from punchline to greatness is Ladyhawke.
The one area where Ladyhawke can lay legitimate claim to greatness without lengthy conditional explanations is in the cinematography of three-time Oscar winner Vittorio Storaro (most famous for Apocalypse Now and various Warren Beatty epics). Many films throughout history have used sunsets and sunrises for their sheer beauty but Ladyhawke's reliance on light is more than vanity; it's storytelling.
Ladyhawke tells the tormented love story of the former captain of the guard Etienne Navarre (Rutger Hauer, then at the peak of his gifts) and his lady love Isabeau (Michelle Pfeiffer, then a rising fresh face). The secret lovers were cursed by the furiously jealous and evil Bishop of Aquila (John Wood) to remain apart even when together. Each sunset Navarre becomes a wolf and each sunrise just as he's human again, Isabeau becomes a hawk. The lovers are inseparable, roaming the world with their beloved animal companion, but can never touch in the flesh.
Due to the nature of the story Isabeau is very nearly the last principle character we meet. This is her famous entrance in the picture turning into the light of the moon, shrouded in a black cloak.
It's the single shot from Ladyhawke that I've never been able to shake it's so completely burned into my moviegoing brain. It marked my big screen introduction to the woman who would become my favorite actress (I may have seen her in Grease 2 on TV first... I can never remember. But if I did, she didn't stick.) I saw Ladyhawke twice the week it opened and was so hypnotized I completely understood the Bishop's obsessiveness and Etienne Navarre's unshakeable romantic devotion.
I struggled to choose a "best shot" though, because there are so many. One of Ladyhawke's great strengths is its actual reality despite a fantastical story. Consider the hawk's wings touching water, the sunlight, and the way the actors are interacting with real stone and wood and the great outdoors. I miss trained animal actors and real location shoots both of which have been replaced by CGI and green screens. Ladyhawke's grand romantic gestures would never work today if you replaced this physicality with weightless special effects. Paradoxically it needs the grounding to feel as heightened as it does.
My choice for best shot comes from the film's most heartbreaking moment when time slows down for a strange transformation. We watch the lovers almost touch until Isabeau is gone and only her bird form remains; a real bird casting real shadows by real sunlight across Rutger Hauer's face. The shot is both entirely beautiful and filled with quiet sorrow, like Isabeau herself. Navarre is rendered momentarily catatonic, unable to process the pain of this morning ritual though it's a sight he's been seeing daily for years.
The sheer patience of the shot with its slow zoom and fluttering shadows stuns. Director Richard Donner and Storraro find a perfect visual representation of this beastly magic war between night and day and they play it right across their star's face. Day wins the war as it always does taking Isabeau away from Navarre. The hawk will lift off and the captain of the guard will scream, collapsing with agony in the snow. Who wouldn't howl and weep for the eternal loss of this woman?
Best Shot Players
Antagony & Ecstasy world building and new star advertising
The Film's The Thing the theatricality of a good hood
Serious Film transformation in your imagination
Pussy Goes Grrrr bird, beast and supplication
Film Actually an unexpected kiss
Sorta That Guy the hawk struck, the beauty luscious
Okinawa Assault escape from mother's womb
Drive into a hail of bullets with another pair of cursed lovers in the indisputable masterpiece Bonnie & Clyde (1967) starring Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway. All you have to do is 1) choose your favorite shot 2) Post it on your personal webspace and 3) let me know and The Film Experience links right up. And stay tuned for more Warren Beatty classics all next week as we celebrate the Hollywood legend's 75th birthday.