‘The Portrait’: Warner Archive reissues Peck, Bacall reunion

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portrait3Gregory Peck and Lauren Bacall had great chemistry on screen and off when they made the middling 1957 romantic comedy “Designing Woman,” and the two stars became lifelong friends.

In her memoir, “By Myself,” Bacall writes that making the frothy film with Peck kept her sane during the final months of the life of her husband, Humphrey Bogart.

So, it’s not surprising that Peck thought of Bacall as his co-star when he acquired the movie rights to the Tina Howe domestic comedy, “Painting Churches,” two decades ago.

On stage, Howe told the story of the friction between a devoted elderly couple and their only child when the grown daughter returns home to do a portrait of her parents. The play was short and tightly focused on the three characters.

Howe’s play is about a couple — Gardner and Fanny Church — whose love has been so intense that they didn’t always leave too much room for their artist daughter, Margaret, who has spent much of her life wondering if she has lived up to their high standards.portrait5

Peck probably purchased the rights to the play as much for his actress daughter — Cecilia Peck — as for himself, but the decision to expand the intimate piece into something bigger, retitled “The Portrait,” backfired.

The late great film director Arthur Penn was hired for one of his last jobs but his work with the stars, and a large but mediocre supporting company, is pedestrian at best.

I had never seen the made-for-TNT film until I received a Warner Archive copy of the film last week, and while it has a few pleasurable moments, “The Portrait” never really comes together as a compelling piece of drama.

Expanded to include beautiful location filming in North Carolina — and an opening sequence in downtown Manhattan — “The Portrait” dilutes “Painting Churches” with too much visual busyness and lead performances that appear to have needed more rehearsal time before shooting began.

Bacall rushes around in the early scenes, overplaying Fanny’s calculated dottiness. The actress sometimes appears to be doing an homage to her friend Katharine Hepburn’s work in “On Golden Pond,” but the goofy, loyal spouse act doesn’t sit as well on the flinty Bacall. It’s not until very late in the film, when the actress gets a few better developed, more smoothly directed scenes, where Fanny talks about her feelings for Gardner, that it becomes easy to warm up to the character (and the actress).

Peck senior — whose last acting job this was — appears to have turned “The Portrait” over to Bacall and Cecilia Peck, without getting a handle on Gardner. The actor also suffers from moments when a serious but fake health scare echoes the worst plot device handed to Henry Fonda in “On Golden Pond.”

The film foolishly keeps taking the focus off the three central characters and wasting time with cartoon figures like the trendy couple too eager to take possession of the lovely old house that the Churches are selling in favor of something smaller and more manageable.

In opening things up, and adding so many unpleasant minor characters, adapter Lynn Roth lost the essence of what makes “Painting Churches” so charming on stage. It’s sad that Peck wasn’t able to end his great career on a higher note.

Joe Meyers

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