THE CONSTANT GARDNER

Having just finished Lee Server’s biography Ava Gardner, subtitled Love Is Nothing, I went in search of a film I’d never heard about until I read the book. Not too surprising, since hardly anyone else has seen it. Directed in 1969 by actor Roddy McDowall (his only effort in that capacity), The Ballad of Tam Lin sat on the shelves until 1972, when it appeared very briefly under a number of alternate titles before vanishing from sight and memory.

Even on Internet Movie Database, the Britannica of online film information, it’s identified as The Devil’s Widow, one of the many preposterous titles early distributors tried in order to sell the difficult-to-classify movie to wary ticket-buyers. Few viewers took the bait.

Released on home video two years ago and recently upgraded to Blu-ray, The Ballad of Tam Lin is ripe for rediscovery. It’s not a great film, but it’s an interesting one – especially for fans of Miss Gardner and Ian McShane. The Hollywood screen goddess was 47, McShane in his mid-20s (trim and svelte, a far cry from his appearance as the slovenly, foul-mouthed saloon keeper in HBO’s Deadwood).

According to her biographer, Miss Gardner (who hadn’t made a film in two years) was initially distraught when she saw the first day’s rushes, appalled at how old she looked. In reality, she was still very lovely; however, she was surrounded by a much younger cast, many of whom (like Joanna Lumley and Stephanie Beacham) would become staples of British film and television.

The film is based on a ballad by Scottish poet Robert Burns, about a bewitching fairy queen who entraps young Tam Lin in her decadent clutches, his only hope of salvation resting in the love of a pure young maiden. The film transfers the setting from fantasy to England’s swinging ’60s (in its last gasp) where an unspeakably rich Michaela Cazaret (Gardner) holds court in her highland estate over a group of young acolytes of both sexes, plying them with drink and pleasure. Her favorite du jour is Tom Lynn (McShane), who puts his very life in jeopardy when he falls in love with the proverbial rector’s daughter Janet (Beacham). Michaela does not take rejection lightly or lying down.

Expertly photographed by Billy Williams, who would be Oscar-nominated that same year for Ken Russell’s Women in Love, McDowall’s pet project is beautiful to behold, not surprising since he himself was an accomplished photographer. McDowall described the film variously as a valentine to Ava Gardner and a paean to a passing era. The film succeeds on both counts today, though audiences of the day (the very few who saw the movie) really didn’t know what to make of it.

Even today, Tam Lin is difficult to pigeonhole. For instance, IMDB lists its genre as “horror,” which it most definitely is not. In obvious frustration, McDowall vowed to never helm another film, so this beautiful curio of another time and place is his directing legacy.

With Ava Gardner still gentle on my mind, I dialed up 1948’s One Touch of Venus, in which the 25-year-old screen goddess plays the Roman goddess of love, whose statue is brought to life after being kissed by a frustrated window-dresser (Robert Walker of Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train) in a department store.

A delightful bit of fluff based on a successful stage musical, Venus is as much a product of its time as Tam Lin, and great fun in its own right. In her best role since The Killers two years earlier, which launched her career after a series of studio bit parts, Gardner is radiant, playful, and positively divine.

And in her case, there’s no better typecasting.

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