Directed By: Herbert Ross
Written By: Arthur Laurents
Starring: Shirley MacLaine, Anne Bancroft, Leslie Browne, Mikhail Baryshnikov
Much like fellow 1978 Best Picture nominee Julia, Herbert Ross’ balletic soap opera The Turning Point would have benefitted from a leaner scope. It’s a promising film which too often gets distracted with narrative detours that are unable to match its central relationship for heft. It’s an ultimately diminishing exercise, one which lets a more exciting study slip through its fingers.
At the heart of the film are two terrifically written and performed characters; Shirley MacLaine’s DeeDee and Anne Bancroft’s Emma; two women whose lives have become inextricably fused. The story details their tumultuous relationship, from dear friends to impassioned competitors, jockeying for position among ballet’s elite. This is no Rocky en pointe however. The film focuses on their rivalry and friendship in retrospect, where DeeDee’s aspirations of growing into America’s prima ballerina have been obliterated by her three pregnancies, and Emma’s position atop the ballet world (a position gifted to her after DeeDee chose family over career) is being brought into dispute.
The Turning Point is better understood as a concurrent existential study, where the two women bitterly muse over what might’ve been, where DeeDee longs for Emma’s decorated career, and Emma ponders what a life off the road might’ve yielded as her vanity is challenged by her aging body.
What the film does so well is toe the line between sentimental soap opera and a more grounded, humanist character study. DeeDee and Emma are two deeply troubled characters, each marred by a perpetual jealousy and envy. DeeDee resents Emma for her opportunism, whilst Emma maintains the world was always rightfully hers. They’re fiery, deeply flawed and oftentimes wrong. What Ross and screenwriter Arthur Laurents so expertly achieve is a fluidity between the problematic and the relatable within the characters, where they’re judged and scrutinised for their faults, but never vilified. It calls to mind another ’78 nominee, Woody Allen’s eventual winner Annie Hall, in that both films thrive in their ability to engage and render the human ego, lending their characters an accessibility that makes them so wonderfully familiar, in spite of how unendearing their actions may be.
The film’s weakness is its flinching from this dichotomy. In a second plot thread DeeDee’s daughter, Emilia, finds her foot in the door of her own ballet career when she’s not only invited into New York’s top company, but also taken in as a protégé to Emma. The thread is justifiable to a degree, and Emilia is unquestionably well played by real life prima ballerina Leslie Browne (playing a fictionalized account of herself), who does a convincing job of capturing both the innocent naivety and narcissistic angst of youth. But Emilia is essentially a pawn in DeeDee and Emma’s feud, a mere plot device for something much larger and more interesting. It becomes difficult, then, for Emilia to justify the credence given to her story. The character pales by comparison to the recognisable, egocentric humanity stirring within DeeDee and Emma. Emilia’s journey lacks the intrigue and fire of the film’s central relationship, consisting entirely of hackneyed high-school heartache, sandwiched between a series of undeniably impressive, but uncommunicative dance numbers. For their own, self contained artistic merit, the dance routines in the film are truly impressive, particularly effective is the physicality Ross injects into these sequences. But there’s little in the way of character or narrative that the dancing conveys (save for a clichéd sequence in which Emilia and a fellow rising star seduce one another.)
And what of Tom Skerritt as DeeDee’s husband? So direly underused. He’s an interesting character, a man who has lived a life of confused sexuality due to his own career in ballet. There’s much to be discussed here, but he too struggles for definition amongst all the melodrama. The film just can’t help but lack personality when it veers from MacLaine and Bancroft.
The film’s conclusion must also be highlighted as a sequence which flirts with storytelling danger. For many it will be a conclusion of lazy over-convenience, a string of sentimental epiphanies in which the film backs away from the very complexity of human nature that it so fantastically captures earlier in the piece. I felt the ending was well earned, so compelling and true are the two central characters. If only there was more of that grace and charm of the dancing itself to compliment DeeDee and Emma, we may have had a truly powerful melodrama on our hands. As it is, The Turning Point is a film with some highly impressive dance sequence and an effective core, but one which is unsure of how to distribute its time.