The film Joanna hasn’t been heard from since it came out in 1968 and provided some career advancement for a few of its cast members, Donald Sutherland and Calvin Lockhart specifically. It also set up its director Michael Sarne for his biggest fall. It came with his next directorial assignment, the screen adaptation of Gore Vidal’s bestselling novel Myra Breckinridge. Prior to Joanna Sarne had never directed a feature length film before. Just one short, a stylish little number entitled The Road to Saint Tropez (1966) that was shown at the Cannes Film Festival and he was designated the hot young director of the moment. He was 27 at the time.
Joanna which was from an original screenplay by Sarne came out the following year and became something of a cause célèbre and an artistic scandal of sorts when some critics lavishly praised the film while others damned it for its sentimentality, heavy handedness and for some extremely weak acting in several key roles. There were also some musical interludes in the film that many critics felt were out of tone with the rest of the mise en scene. But the film did well enough to keep Sarne in play for his disastrous next effort the now infamous Myra Breckinridge (1970).
I saw the film in New York when it was first released and like it. Liked it a lot. But I had to agree with some of its dissenters who said that that there were moments that were downright embarrassing. Such as Donald Sutherland’s character Lord Peter Sanderson’s meditation on death. The actor didn’t play it badly, the embarrassment was in the words he was given to say. There was also Genevieve Waite’s performance in the title role which was weak to the point of seeming amateurish. There were other weak items along with those but still I liked the film. Why? Mostly, I think it is because it struck me as a deeply felt work by its author/director. He was putting his heart, his mind and his emotions on display and that can often be a source of embarrassment. Especially in the young. I viewed the film the way I look at a first novel by a talented but inexperienced writer. A writer that tries to put into one work everything he or she feels about life, love, identity, personal confusion and death. And when certain parts don’t fit, they’re shoe horned into the work nevertheless. So my perspective was a compassionate one. I thought Sarne a promising director who had made an imperfect film that had many powerful moments. In other words it was a film with some honest mistakes from a caring filmmaker. And I felt that such talent and promise needs to be and should be encouraged. I still feel the same way now.
The story of Joanna has to do with dissatisfied girl moving from the country to Swinging London of the late 1960s in hopes of pursuing a career in fashion design. In the course of her adventures she encounters several men including a dying Lord and a black nightclub/gangster (Gordon) smashingly played by Calvin Lockhart who went on to have something of a career here in the US with films like Halls of Anger (1970), Cotton Comes to Harlem (1970), Melinda (1972) and the hit series Dynasty in the 1980s. Joanna falls in love with this man and becomes pregnant by him. When it is discovered that Gordon has killed a man and is wanted by the police Joanna is thrown into a personal crisis that she and only she alone can resolve.
Now although he is never seen on screen Sarne’s presence can be felt in every frame. It is as if he’s right there working and reaching for a kind of verbal and visual lyricism that often succeeds but sometimes fails miserably. And because of this the audience at the time was sharply divided into two camps. Those who loved the film and those who absolutely hated it. Usually for the same reasons. This kind of extreme response made it a cult film for a while. But after that it was quickly forgotten. All through the 1980s and 90s I looked for it on tape but it wasn’t available. I even thought that it might show up at a festival or on TV, but it never did. It became just another lost film. Or so I thought. But now I see that there are DVD copies available at various sources.
As for Michael Sarne, between 1969 and the present he has directed only seven features, two of which are documentaries. But as an actor he seems to have had more success because he has appeared in 51 features. The most recent being Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (2011)
Joanna, his best effort as a director, is a curiosity piece that I think is worth looking at for a variety of reasons which is why I am selecting it as this week’s film.