THE BALCONY—-just when you think you’ve seen it all, you stumble over an item like this 1963 oddity. Since it did place-hold spot #66 and make around $3,400,000, was Oscar nominated for Best Cinematography and certainly was subversive enough to churn controversy, it comes as a surprise that it remains so little known.
Directed by Joseph Strick, it’s an adaptation by Ben Maddow of Jean Genet’s influential surrealist play, written in 1956. As revolution sweeps a country, the chief of police asks the madam of a bordello to impersonate the vanished Queen. She counters by having three of her steady customers masquerade as a bishop, a general and a chief justice, in order to reassure the riled populace. Over the course of 84 minutes fantasies of power play out, and societal roles are examined and scoured. Contempt is expressed.*
Shelley Winters plays the madam, her lesbian lover assistant is Lee Grant (first gal-gal smooch in mainstream movie history?), the three patsies are Jeff Corey, Peter Brocco and Kent Smith. The hookers include Ruby Dee, Joyce Jameson and Arnette Jens. Leonard Nimoy is on hand, toiling away after a dozen years, still three away from Star Trek.
Everyone gets their licks in, but the stage is taken and held by Peter Falk as the policeman. He has an absurdist comic soliloquy that is the forgotten highlight of his career—flat out hilarious and unlimbered with such intensity you’ll think his head will vaporize—it’s a little masterpiece, truly something to behold.
That camerawork comes from George J. Folsey, one of his thirteen career nominations, never to win. While the tiny-budgeted eye-poking of The Balcony rippled quietly through art house showings across the land of Mr. Ed and Gunsmoke, the lineup of cinematic sin tweakers in ’63 also included Tom Jones, Irma La Douce, Dr. No and Hud, plus things did get thematically daring with 8 1/2 and A Child Is Waiting. Jayne Mansfield busted the nudity lockbox with Promises! Promises! (with an accompanying Playboy issue likely changing my life more than the death of Old Yeller) and Carl Foreman’s The Victors took the hallowed high ground of World War Two and suggested glory was actually gloss on grime. The ice was starting to break, with a hidden berg lying dead ahead on November 22.
*The average moviegoer won’t know Jean Genet from Jeannie at Dairy Queen, but fanciers of esoteric theater will sit up, rapt. Before the maladjusted Frenchman started writing poetry, plays and novels, he deserted the Foreign Legion, was a thief, a male prostitute, a pimp and a smuggler. Maybe all that contributed to his sour outlook?