§ This holiday break has been a looong one. It seems everyone needed some down time to recharge and find loin girdings for the challenges to come. I myself have been getting my affairs in order and watching a lot of movies. (Did I watch Avengers: Infinity War the moment it came on Netflix? You bet!) I also had a hankering to watch The Nutcracker, Tchaikovsky’s beloved holiday souffle of a ballet. I do recommend going to see a live performance of this – it basically keeps classical ballet alive these days – but since I was couch bound, the 1993 New York City Ballet movie version seemed like a solid bet. Despite featuring some great dancers at their peak, this version is pretty much despised by critics and viewers.
Much criticism is given to Emile Ardolino’s directions – and sure enough he just ported over his Channel 13 direction style: plant the camera and film the dancers. With frilly art direction and Peter Martins’ devoted staging of the choreography by the revered George Balanchine, it’s a nice time capsule of a great performance – Darci Kistler’s sublime Sugar Plum Fairy being the highlight.
But no, that is not what I am here to talk about today. I am here to talk about the “marquee” name that was attached to this version: then 12-year old Macaulay Culkin, still riding high from his Home Alone triumph, was brought on board as “The Nutcracker” – a role which in other versions transitions from a child Clara/Marie’s age to a dancer. In Balanchine’s version it’s played by a child all the way, so it seemed a natural for Culkin, and a draw to lure in unsuspecting children and adults to suddenly become smitten with the world of classical dance.
It’s Culkin’s performance which has drawn the most castigation over the years, and it’s entirely deserved. Non dance trained, barely awake for the whole movie, and leaden in his moves, Culkin may deliver the WORST movie performance of all times, one that saps the life out of everything around it.
It’s all the more surprising given his animation in Home Alone. Watching the movie recently, I was stunned by the 9 year old’s comedy chops. Mugging or moving, it’s a brilliant, captivating performance that has helped keep the movie alive for 28 years.
But a mere two years later, the Culkin of he Nutcracker has descended into the torpor from which his career would never recover. If he weren’t just 12 years old, I say he was stoned out of his mind. Culkin doesn’t seem to be reacting to anything going on around him – and there is quite a bit to react to, from a Christmas Eve soiree to an attack by giant mice, dancing snowflakes, coffee beans, sugar plums and flowers and one of the most ravishing scores ever written. Instead he has a hazy wooden look that seems insensate to anything around him. His demeanor would be great if he were in a poker tournament, but in a ballet about the delights of the holidays it’s a dud.
Admittedly, it is hard to be a non dancer surrounded by one of the all time great ballet companies. The rest of the kids and dancers are at their peak. Jessica Lynn Cohen as Marie/Clara is enchanting as she falls for her new toy, the nutcracker (it was a very impoverished time before video games) and goes to a fantasy land. Ballet acting is broad to reach the back rows but it’s theatrical and everyone inhabits their physical space with maximum awareness and grace.
Culkin isn’t so much a poor dancer as a NON dancer. Your uncle Larry trying to get funky at the barbecue has more rhythm. I did feel a ray of pity for Culkin as he clumped his way through the corps. A naturally ungraceful child dragged into the world’s most loved ballet must have felt kind of out of his depth – maybe he just shut down. You can’t blame him, just the producers who had this bright idea.
All that said, Culkin’s career seemed to be headed straight down the torpor highway. In Home Alone 2 and onwards he exhibited the same heavy-lidded disengagement with his surroundings, and ensuing years saw the usual drug and legal problems. It was nice to see him snap back to life in that Google ad – Hollywood can be a cruel place and it’s particularly cruel to child stars, and it’s hard not to feel sympathy for their acting out in a world that wants them to be 9 forever.
Anyway, there hasn’t been a movie version of The Nutcracker since this one, as far as I could tell, but there should be! Ardolino captured the dancing but it would be nice to see the story dramatized A BIT more. While I was researching this piece I also came across the stories of how choreographer Martins managed to wiggle out of decades of reports of abuse, sexual harassment ad, in one case, dragging his ballerina girlfriend down the stairs. An investigation found “no corroboration” of the allegations against him, to which I can only say #metoo has still not become the law of the land. It’s sad to know such a great dancer and choreographer is a total shit human, though.
In conclusion, if you are into dance, go watch The Bentfootes, if you can find it. Co-directed and choreographed by Beat contributor Kriota Willberg, it is to dance what Spinal Tap is to metal and Best in Show is to dog shows. It’s absolutely lovely, like the world of ballet. A world poor Macaulay Culkin should never have been dragged into.
§ This Ditko Hands poster has been floating around. I know not it’s origin, but saw it first on the San Diego Comic Fest’s FB page. It’s perfect.
§ Sara Pichelli posted her artwork for Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse that was used as a cover in the movie.
§ Christmas is past but David Lloyd’s V for Vendetta themed Christmas card remains awesome.
§ These are the times in which we live: James Wan Speaks Out On Fans Harassing People For Disliking Aquaman
§ Speaking of Aquaman, this profile of the great Ramona Fradon is going around again as it should at all times.
§ Happy New Year, everyone!
Heidi MacDonald is the founder and editor in chief of The Beat. In the past, she worked for Disney, DC Comics, Fox and Publishers Weekly. She can be heard regularly on the More To Come Podcast. She likes coffee, cats and noble struggle.