Every genre of film brings with it a stable of conventions, whether it’s the traditional sprint from a raging fireball in an action movie or the inevitable slam to the family jewels in a lowball comedy. One genre, however, seems to be completely frozen by its clichés, and that is what we shall call the ballet drama. The Turning Point is an excellent model for the films that would come to copy its plot points, including such soupy soap dreck as Center Stage. Despite some strong performances and a cast of dancers unmatched in talent, it is, in the end, hopelessly contrived.
Shirley MacLaine and Anne Bancroft star as Deedee and Emma, two women whose passion for ballet drove them through their young adult years. A fork in the road saw Deedee becoming pregnant while Emma went on to earn a prize role and subsequent success as a dancer, a development Deedee has essentially resented until the day they reunite. Emma is a veteran of the American Ballet Company, and she uses her position to bring Deedee’s talented daughter Emilia into her world. As the two women are forced to rethink their friendship and how dance has both enriched and haunted their every step, Emilia finds herself falling in love with Yuri, the handsome Soviet Union stallion who sweeps her off her feet and then dumps her like a bad habit.
All of this is very dramatic, as you can well imagine, without a hint of irony or ability to see a broader picture. And for the most part the level of seriousness works, since MacLaine and Bancroft are genuinely great as embittered performers trying to work out the problems of their shared past. The main problem with the film is Leslie Browne’s performance as Emilia, which is both hilariously bad and at the same time threatens to destroy every scene she stumbles upon. It’s obvious the poor girl was cast for her dance skills, which cannot be denied, but her line delivery can best be compared to a robotic girl trying her best to imitate some sense of humanity. This is made worse by the fact that Emilia is just as much a focus of the film as Deedee and Emma, and so again and again we’re forced to watch this empty-headed loon schlep her way across the lens.
There are other issues as well, which can all be attributed back to the film being such an early example of the “ballet drama” as to come off as silly and outdated today. Just when you think you’ve seen your last montage of sweaty dancers with bad hair doing their warm-ups at the bar, you get another one to sit and sigh through. The sex scene between Emilia and Yuri is downright ridiculous, with swirling gossamer curtains and a heck of a lot of cat-like petting. Then the movie makes a fatal error by giving us the best scene—a penultimate confrontation between Deedee and Emma—and then following it up with a seemingly endless parade of dance pieces. I know this is the only reason some people might watch The Turning Point, but c’mon already!
On a final note, don’t go into this film as a fan of Mikhail Baryshnikov, because you might be tricked into thinking the man can act. This is not true, at least in this, his premiere film in America. The man’s accent is thicker than marshland, and his piggy little smirk will make you want to smack him during every moment he’s not dancing up a storm. As was mentioned before, he and everyone else in today’s feature can break out a routine like nobody’s business, but if it weren’t for MacLaine and Bancroft, this would be nothing more than a giant, cornball advertisement for the American Ballet Company.