Monday, July 30, 2018

The Man with the Golden Arm 1955

'The Man with the Golden Arm' poster, with great graphics that put Saul Bass on the map in Hollywood.

Nelson Algren’s gritty novel, The Man with the Golden Arm, got great reviews and won the National Book Award in 1950. Though somewhat sanitized, the movie version received raves in 1955, as the first film to deal with drug abuse. Some film fans and critics today refer to The Man with the Golden Arm as “dated.” Since the film is over 60 years old, that’s a given. And the Otto Preminger film isn't perfect, for sure. However, while the film seems tame by today’s standards, it was made under strict censorship, yet took an honest look at a taboo subject. The film's makers chose to release the film without the Production Code's Seal of Approval, rather than to compromise any further—a gutsy move for a '50s film.
This is Frank Sinatra's brain on drugs: his girlfriend checks out his pupils by match light.

The story is straightforward: Former card dealer and drug addict Frankie Machine (Majcinek) is released from rehab, ready to make a fresh start, with dreams of becoming a drummer. Just one problem, though. Frankie returns to the same set of circumstances that drove him to drugs in the first place: a gambling boss who wants his ‘man with the golden arm’ to deal; a drug dealer who dangles the bait and snatches it away; a nagging wife who guilt trips him for her accident; a lost love who is still tantalizingly around; and most of all, Frankie’s tendency to fall back on drugs when life gets tough.

Interestingly, though it’s commonly thought that Frankie is hooked on heroin, his drug of choice is never named in the film version. And though the novel is famously set in Chicago, the movie’s locale isn’t mentioned. This is odd and adds an air of artificiality. The film’s depiction of drugs is discreet: Every time Frankie gets high, the camera cuts away. While Sinatra gives it his all in the climactic cold turkey scene, it goes by so quickly, it's like Frank has the 24 hour flu! However, what is shown is portrayed in an honest, non-exploitative way.
The street where Frankie lives...looks like a movie set!

What does date this film for me is not so much the drug depiction, but the artificiality of the slum sets and to a lesser extent, the two female stars. Perhaps the film’s tight budget dictated this, but while its attempt to come off as Actors Studio fifties modern, it looks more like the Warner Brothers’ 1938 Angels with Dirty Faces set. Much of 1954’s On the Waterfront was filmed on location and feels authentic. The Man with the Golden Arm sets are artfully detailed, but you never forget for a minute that you’re looking at a movie sound stage. And though token attempts are made to tone down the glamour, Kim Novak still looks studio styled as the working class bar hostess. And Eleanor Parker, as a wife stuck in a wheelchair, sports luxurious shoulder length curls and false eyelashes. The filmmakers strive for realism with the dingy clothes and apartments, but the two female stars stick out like stylish sore thumbs. 
Eleanor Parker blows as Zosh, Frankie's whining, 'crippled' wife. Parker's performance is like this throughout!

Aside from the artful sets is the equally artificial—and awful—performance by Eleanor Parker. In a part that would have been perfect for career whiner Shelley Winters, Parker comes off like a demanding movie star rather than a slum dweller. Parker plays Zosh, a wheelchair-bound wife whose accident was caused by her drunk driver husband, Frankie. Let’s just say that the guilt-mongering, teary-eyed Zosh is the most duplicitous damsel in distress since Joan Crawford’s Blanche Hudson. I’ve always thought Eleanor Parker was neck in neck with Anne Baxter as the throaty-voiced, arched-eyebrow grande dame of the ‘50s. With a mane of hair that would be perfect if Parker was starring in The Gift of the Magi, perhaps Zosh could have cut off her mammoth mane and sold it for Frankie's next fix. Parker has given strong performances elsewhere. Here, Eleanor is so over-the-top, which hits the heights of absurdity when the fake cripple is caught by drug dealer Darren McGavin, or when she takes her final swan song/dive. The real-life Sinatra probably would have smothered her with the nearest pillow after five minutes of Eleanor’s overwrought emoting. When Parker leaps out of her wheelchair and gives herself away at inopportune moments, it’s like watching a Carol Burnett movie spoof.
Though Kim carries much of her Columbia gloss to this United Artists film, Novak is affecting as Frankie's true love.

In her time, Kim Novak was regularly panned as the worst type of studio-created actress. Kim’s "creation" was part of her publicity, but also became her cross to bear. Still, Novak had her moments, especially in films that exploited her self-consciousness and vulnerability. Kim’s big breakthrough was 1955’s Picnic, and Hitchcock cannily exploited this quality in ‘58’s Vertigo. While Novak wasn’t the most versatile or dynamic actress, those sad qualities Kim possessed work for Molly, the beaten down working girl. Also, Novak and Sinatra share a sad, loners’ rapport that offers some much-needed reality.
Director Otto Preminger rehearsing with Kim Novak and Frank Sinatra.

What’s fascinating is looking at pictures of director Otto Preminger working with Novak and Sinatra. Preminger could make mincemeat of new actors, and yet he seems to have treated the oft-uncertain Kim kindly. And Otto, who was an autocrat on the set, miraculously got along fine with frequently temperamental Frank, who liked to do things his way, such as not doing more than one take. Bob Willoughby’s set photos show them all working intensely and happily.
Frank Sinatra as Frankie Machine, returning home from rehab. Sinatra is so expressive in even the still shots.

Like his singing, Frank Sinatra is subtle and naturalistic when he was at his best as an actor. However, Frank’s acting style got him the rap that he wasn't doing anything onscreen, in some quarters. As an actor, Sinatra always reminded me of his idol Humphrey Bogart—always making it look easy—though obviously Bogie was more dedicated to his craft.
To me, Frank is the one thing that's truly real in The Man with the Golden Arm. This movie came soon after Frank’s legendary comeback in From Here to Eternity. As the down on his luck Frankie, I think the real Frank used some of his recent troubles to convey his character’s pain. His character wears his heart on his sleeve, and that was one of Sinatra's gifts as a performer. Whether Frankie Machine is boyishly optimistic or almost child-like when the chips are down, Sinatra is at home playing this character, and is subtle and superb.
Frankie getting his fix, in 'The Man with the Golden Arm.'

The nifty opening titles by Saul Bass made him a Preminger favorite and the go-to movie titles person in Hollywood for a decade. There’s some stylish, evocative photography by another long-time Otto associate, Sam Leavitt. The bombastic score is by the love him or hate him Elmer Bernstein. I usually enjoy Elmer on a soundtrack, but he’s awfully intrusive here—just as much as that other Bernstein—Leonard—was On the Waterfront! That said, Bernstein did snag an Oscar nod.
Frankie waiting on wheel-chair bound wife Zosh (Eleanor Parker) literally hand and foot.

Overall, this was one of Otto Preminger’s stronger efforts as a director. Though some elements are hokey, he elicits strong performances from most of the cast, and pushed the envelope as far as he could in regard to the drug story line. Plus, Preminger’s modern dramas were more adult and realistic than typical Hollywood fare, even in just the way the male and female characters related to one another. And though The Man with the Golden Arm's author was unhappy with the film's changes, most of them were pretty sound for mid-century film making, and nearly none of them were related to the narcotics aspect of the story.
The Man with the Golden Arm is noteworthy and deserves to be seen, for how Hollywood first dealt with drug addiction on the screen, but especially to watch the heartfelt performance by Frank Sinatra.
Amazingly, Frank Sinatra was fine with a firebrand director...and rehearsing!

Monday, July 16, 2018

This Property is Condemned 1966

This expanded Tennessee Williams one-act may not have turned out to be a classic, but it didn't deserve to be condemned.

Why on earth did Paramount try to expand a 15-minute one-act play, This Property is Condemned, into a 1966 film? Because it was Tennessee Williams, baby!
Williams plays had been prolifically and profitably adapted into films for 15 years: The Glass Menagerie, A Streetcar Named Desire, The Rose Tattoo, Baby Doll, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Suddenly, Last Summer, The Fugitive Kind (from Orpheus Descending), Summer and Smoke, Sweet Bird of Youth, as well as his novel The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone, and his comedy Period of Adjustment.
Robert Redford and Natalie Wood made an intriguing screen couple, in two films: this and 'Inside Daisy Clover.'

That any studio thought they could conjure up a feature-length story from a wisp of writing from Tennessee Williams, the greatest playwright of his time, is typical Hollywood hubris. A dozen screenwriters took a whack at constructing this slight Property. As always, Tennessee Williams complained about the compromised results of his work—and yet Williams sold his plays' film rights away for huge paychecks. In Property’s case, he threatened to have his name removed from the credits. Funny, since 1968’s Boom was just around the corner!

Despite the disappointing results of 1965’s Inside Daisy Clover, Natalie Wood and Robert Redford re-teamed for This Property is Condemned. Though Redford felt the film was tailored as a Natalie Wood vehicle—why Robert found this an issue is odd, as Natalie was a huge star then, and he wasn’t—Bob accepted. He also got his buddy Sydney Pollack as director. 
Natalie Wood, at the height of her stardom, when she had a big say in who was her leading man and director.

Here’s the expanded story of This Property is Condemned: Owen Legate (Redford) comes to a Depression-era small town in Mississippi to lay off some railroad crew. He meets Alva Starr (Wood) and her kid sister, Willie (Mary Badham), at their mother’s boarding house. Though taken by fanciful, vivacious Alva, she is the total opposite of his buttoned-down, pragmatic persona. While they spark and spar in a love-hate relationship, Mama Starr schemes to set her daughter up with an older man from the railroad, so he can provide for them. Aside from Owen, complicating things too is Mama’s young beau, J.J. (Charles Bronson) who has the hots for Alma. When Owen hands out the pinks slips and several railroad workers punch him out, as well as the time clock, it’s quitin’ time. He invites Alma to join him in New Orleans. Mama interferes and the couple fall out, with Owen leaving alone. Alma gets back at Mama by upsetting her plans and eloping with J.J. The morning after, Alva goes to New Orleans, hoping to find Owen. Their reunion does not end happily ever after.
Natalie Wood, like Alva Starr, was 'the main attraction' here. With Mary Badham as sister Willie, and Robert Blake.
Alva just can't get sensible Owen to see things her fabulous way.

This Property is Condemned was released to poor reviews and even worse box office returns than Inside Daisy Clover. However, I find Property far more watchable than Clover. The greatest debit against this Property is that it was produced literally in the last gasp of the Hollywood censorship code, and is one of many movies made in the first half of the '60s that feels like it still has one foot stuck in Hollywood’s house style of the '50s.
Still, who wouldn't mind gazing into her crystal ball, or those big beautiful brown eyes?

Still, why do some critics and online pundits still beat up on this movie, while there are revisionists who drool all over same-era bombs like Marnie and Bunny Lake is Missing? I think it’s mainly because those films feature past their prime directing legends Hitchcock and Preminger, whereas Sydney Pollack merely became a skilled studio director. Also, This Property is Condemned is considered minor Tennessee Williams, though comparing an intimate one-act to A Streetcar Named Desire or Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is apples and oranges. And Natalie Wood has never been a critics’ darling, then or now. Natalie was far from a being a Bette Davis or Meryl Streep. Yet, compared to wooden non-actress Tippi Hedren and wan starlet Carol Lynley, Wood was a natural, engaging, intense, and charismatic performer.
Even if a film doesn't ultimately work, I can still enjoy the aspects that do come together or stand out. Walter Matthau once commented that even bad films usually have something to recommend them, whether it’s a great performance, dialogue, or even a costume. And while I feel this movie is as much of a hot mess as Alva Starr herself, This Property is Condemned is still highly watchable.
Robert Redford as Owen Legate: Understated or underwritten?

The acting in this Property is its strongest selling point. Wood and Redford make a good team. Both were perfect examples of mid-twentieth century attractiveness. Young Redford looks like a compact version of Tab Hunter, a former Wood co-star; Natalie is a Keane painting, come to life, the dark eyed pixie. Interestingly, it's been written that both stars felt uncomfortable with the "movie star" side of their images—and yet both fell back on it, over and over, throughout their careers. Still, Wood's warm yet intense screen presence is a complementary contrast to Redford's cool, detached demeanor. And their personas are in exactly in sync with the characters.

What to say about Robert Redford as Owen Legate? He’s not the typical Tennessee Williams hero, all cool and reserved, but his character just feels underwritten. Redford’s never been the most emotional actor, but his appraising manner and reticence work here. It’s just a shame that what makes Legate tick is never revealed. At times, Owen’s behavior toward Alva just seems cruel.
Mary Badham, beloved as Scout in 'Mockingbird,' is great here as Willie.

Mary Badham, famed forever as Scout from To Kill a Mockingbird, gives another naturalistic performance as Alva’s no-nonsense kid sister, Willie. Badham is the observer to the drama and provides some comic relief, looking like a cross between Pippi Longstocking and Delta Dawn. It also helps that the young actress was actually from the south. Badham was in her teens here and looks a bit gawky in the way Peggy Ann Garner did after A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Badham retired from acting in ’66 after Property and a William Castle horror flick, Let’s Kill Uncle.

Kate Reid as Mama Starr is one of Williams’ monstrous older women. Reid, with her deceptively loveable face, is unrelenting in her survival plan for the poor family. When the boarding house lady’s bawdy mask drops, look out! Her haranguing of Natalie’s Alva is terrific and terrifying. John Harding gives solid support as Mr. Johnson, the older man with an invalid wife, who wants to set Alva up. Though he’s not exactly sympathetic, Harding plays him as a lonely man who is taken by lively young Alva. Robert Blake has several sweet moments as Sidney, one of Alva’s many admirers. Of course, Blake’s big breakthrough as an adult performer came the next year, with In Cold Blood.
Kate Reid is a killer Tennessee Williams mama!

Cinematographer James Wong Howe does some stellar work, along with Pollack’s penchant for camera showmanship, which he really went to town on in the later They Shoot Horses, Don't They? The authentic Mississippi and New Orleans location scenery and studious production detail are a bit offset by huge, obvious sets, like the main floor of the boarding house or the New Orleans street where Alva lives. Still, This Property is Condemned is one of the few ‘60s movies that are reasonably authentic to another era.
Natalie, as Alma, turns the tables on manipulative Mama, played by Kate Reid. Wood was only 8 years younger than Reid!

Natalie Wood as Alva gives one of her best adult performances. It’s not her fault that the character is a mash up of many Williams’ heroines. My only criticism is that Wood strived for realism and authenticity, but too often falls back on being movie star glamorous, with an endless array of tight-fitting frocks and perfect ‘60s makeup. One example: When Alva does the walk of shame out of town after drunkenly marrying Mama’s stud, Wood is beyond bedraggled. Yet, as she gets off the train in New Orleans, with a cloud of smoke behind her, Natalie looks radiant. 

Still, as a vehicle for the actress, Wood gets to shine in a number of set pieces: the birthday cake scene, where Owen first sees flitting and flirting Alma, literally glowing in candlelight; Alva’s boxcar tour for Owen, where the two try to understand one another’s outlook on life; the scarecrow scene; after Legate’s beat down, where Owen finally lets his guard down to Alva; the argument where Mama guilt trips Alva into her plan by citing vicious comments made by her late father; the final scene where Mama finds Alma in New Orleans; and the best, the mother-daughter barroom showdown with drunken Alma.
Gossip has grown over the years as to how much Natalie drank in this scene. IMO, Wood is too on the ball here to be blotto.

One of my pet peeves is Hollywood "anecdotes" that become taken as absolute truth in the Internet age. Here, in Property, it is said Natalie got drunk to do the big showdown scene between her and Kate Reid. I don't doubt that perhaps Wood had a drink or two to get in the mood of playing drunk, as she was at times a tensed up actress. But you have to be pretty high functioning to play Tennessee Williams blitzed. In this scene, a drunken Alma is toying with her aging admirer, goading her mother, and taunting her mama's younger boyfriend. The scene is mostly on Natalie’s shoulders, and it’s easily the best one in the movie. 
Director Pollack with his stars, all of whom enjoyed working together.

About Wood drinking for the scene, director Pollack told Natasha biographer Suzanne Finstad: "I don't necessarily believe in tricks like that, but in this case, I thought it worked very well. She had two glasses of wine and it just took the edge off."
But a few years later, Pollack told Gavin Lambert for his 2004 Natalie Wood: A Life bio:
"We started in the morning and it didn't feel quite right. Not enough charge. So I decided to break early for lunch, and gave Natalie a glass of wine. She drank it but said, 'You son of a bitch, are you telling me I can't play this scene without getting drunk?' Then she laughed, and as the wine started to wear off, she asked for more. She drank six glasses in all, played the scene wonderfully—and threw up after finishing it."
And this is how show biz “stories” grow—in this case, starting from the director. Either way, the point here was that the wine was to relax Natalie, not serve as a substitute for acting.  

Another myth is that This Property Is Condemned was made to bolster Natalie's career after a long string of bombs. Not true. While Natalie's adult career took off with West Side Story, Gypsy, and her best screen performance in Splendor in the Grass, along with Love with the Proper Stranger, her box office was fine for the first half of the ‘60s. The problem was that while they were big money makers, 1964’s Sex and the Single Girl and ‘65’s The Great Race were fluff. And when Natalie attempted to stretch with Redford in ‘65’s Inside Daisy Clover and This Property is Condemned, this is when her box office first suffered. But it is important to remember that, on a more modest scale, Natalie had a similar career arc as Elizabeth Taylor. Wood was a popular child star who became a substantial ingénue with Rebel without a Cause and The Searchers. Solid hits, if not classics, like Marjorie Morningstar, Kings Go Forth, and Cash McCall followed. Natalie Wood grew up in front of mid-century moviegoers. While troubled, she wasn’t a scattershot star like Tuesday Weld or later, Patty Duke. Like Elizabeth, the show always went on, and Natalie worked steadily.
Natalie Wood with one of her two Keane paintings. The other portrait was Nat as a child. This shot is haunting, I think.

That is, until after Property, when Wood’s on-again, off-again lover, Warren Beatty, wanted to reunite with her as fellow gangsters in Bonnie and Clyde. She turned that and Barefoot in the Park down, to work on her emotional well-being. The sabbatical was much needed. It's been written that Natalie attempted suicide during the filming of Property. This actually happened after filming. Wood took an overdose of pills after the Christmas holidays, apparently depressed and lonely, in early 1966. She had made her first suicide attempt after the filming of The Great Race near the end of ‘64. And her most serious overdose came in the summer of '66, depressed about her career, and most concerning, over being single and childless. Whether the attempts were emotional cries for help, a couple of these were quite serious, medically.
Though Natalie and Elizabeth were two of the few stars to make the transition to adult stardom, their lives weren't easy.

From Suzanne Finstad’s 2001 Natasha, an interview with director Sydney Pollack included this apt observation about Natalie: "There was a fragility in her, and the emotions were very close to the surface: scratch her and get to an emotional color right away. There's something breathless about her, and you feel it, and you feel a kind of quivering just below the surface, a very appealing and vulnerable part of her. She had it in person, too. I've only seen that color twice in actresses. In her, and years ago, I sat at a dinner table with Elizabeth Taylor, and she had the same thing."
Yet, there was a major difference between Natalie Wood and Elizabeth Taylor. While stars both were intense and vulnerable, Elizabeth was totally at ease on screen, and not afraid to muss up her image. Wood wasn't as secure. Natalie's performance mirrors the ‘50s and ‘60s dichotomy of This Property is Condemned itself. Wood never looked more luscious or lovely onscreen—except that she was playing poor white trash. Compare her work with Jane Fonda’s just three years later for Sydney Pollack in They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? Fonda’s desperate Depression era starlet/hooker is gritty and grim, compared to Natalie’s Alva.

Even five years prior, ET was too overripe to play Alva Starr in 'Property.'
In Property, the character ages are skewed. While Natalie could pass for girlish, she's cutting it close here at 28, as Alva is 18, a bit like Elizabeth Taylor at 27 playing 20ish Catherine Holly in her one-act Williams expansion,  Suddenly, Last Summer. (Actually, Elizabeth was first announced as Alva, with Montgomery Clift as Owen Legate, and Richard Burton directing—a decade earlier ET and Monty would have been great.) Kate Reid, as the monster mama, was only eight years older than Wood, but looking a bit blowsy, pulls it off. However, as Mama’s boy toy J.J., Charles Bronson at 45, a sinister stud in the Stanley Kowalski mold, already looks weathered.

The big problem of Property, other than expanding a one-act, is that Hollywood censorship and studio self-censorship wreak havoc with character motivations. Alva Starr's morality is constantly teased, but as coy as the character herself, and is left ambiguous. Is Alva a huge flirt in the Scarlett O’ Hara manner? Or is she a glorified whore, who draws male clientele to her mother’s Depression era boarding house? Or is she in denial, ala Blanche Dubois, while carrying on at the Tarantula Arms on the down low? Redford’s character calls her a whore at several key points, Alva’s monster mother throws in her face that she’s slept with every man in town. Despite earlier indications this is true, Alva’s crushed by these accusations.
Owen is alternately enchanted and exasperated by Alva's tales. 

After the climactic scene between Alva and Mrs. Starr, the movie runs out of steam. According to Pollack, in the original script, after their showdown, Alva still runs away. But instead of meeting up with Owen, she becomes a prostitute in New Orleans, picking up men at the train station. In a Williams-esque moment, when one travelling salesman compliments her, Alva asks, "Did you say beautiful?" As he says it again, she responds, "My name is Alva Starr. Starr with two R's."
Instead, the movie reunites the couple, only to have vengeful Mama expose Alva’s prior actions. Owen is angered again, and this sends Alva fleeing into the rainy night. The film takes us back to Willie, back on the railroad tracks, to conclude the tale, explaining that Alva died of a “lung affliction.”
However, I’ve also read that the “Alva as prostitute” scene took place after she runs away from Mama and Owen, followed by her Willie’s railroad epitaph. This makes more sense, or it would have been a 90 minute movie otherwise. Dabney Coleman is listed on various sites as “The Salesman.”  In a recent interview, Coleman commented that his pal Pollack got him the role, but it was cut—though he was thrilled to play a scene with Natalie Wood.
Natalie Wood and Dabney Coleman's back, in a deleted scene, where Alva's doing more than waiting on a train.

This Property Is Condemned was filmed and released at the same time as Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, but their directors’ takes are totally different. With Woolf, director Mike Nichols fought the Warner Brothers’ interfering and fears, and the result was a film that was an artistic victory, broke the censorship codes, and was a smash hit. Property's studio and producer John Houseman held sway over the production, smoothing away the rough edges. Sydney Pollack was just as much a film novice as Mike Nichols, but pegged himself early on as a skilled but obedient studio director. And so this Property suffered accordingly.
In another deleted scene, Wood with 40-something boy toy Charles Bronson.

At the time, Williams' once-daring work seemed dated compared to the realistic style of the ‘60s and early ‘70s, making him passé. However, Tennessee Williams’ work has passed on into classic status, especially after he died. Although Natalie Wood is often first remembered for her mysterious death, I hope she will also be remembered for her best work.
 I am not a film fabulist, who insists there is movie magic where there is actually none. But I do think that Natalie Wood was much underrated as an actress, especially here, as Alva Starr. Like her friend Elizabeth Taylor, Wood’s range wasn’t huge, but within her reach, Natalie was naturally appealing and hauntingly memorable.
Make a wish: The lovely moment where Redford's Owen sees Natalie's Alva Starr for the first time.

Sunday, July 1, 2018

Natalie Wood Blogathon July 17-20!

I'll be joining this Natalie Wood blogathon July 17!
Watch for my next post to see my Natalie Wood essay on 'This Property is Condemned.'
And check here the week of July 17th to see ALL of the Natalie Wood blog essays!
Stay tuned! Rick

Saturday, June 23, 2018

Tootsie 1982

'Tootsie' still has lots to say about sexism!

I just re-watched 1982’s Tootsie, not having seen it in some time. In the current era of the #metoo movement, some of the issues between the film’s male and female characters are especially relevant. Most importantly, Tootsie is still funny and fresh, over 35 years later.
The original poster for 'Tootsie' sums it all up...

Dustin Hoffman plays Michael Dorsey, a struggling actor well-known for being difficult. With no prospects, Michael auditions for a soap opera …as a woman. Surprisingly, he lands the role. Unsurprisingly, as Dorothy Michaels, he’s just as opinionated, rubbing the powers that be the wrong way. The biggest surprise of all is, playing an actress playing a hospital bigwig, Michael is a hit! And that’s just the beginning of this classic comedy with brains—and heart.
Michael becoming Dorothy Michaels...

I always assumed that Dustin won the Oscar for Tootsie. Not so, Ben Kingsley did, as Gandhi. Let’s just say that Tootsie’s Dorothy isn’t as big on passive resistance! Dustin Hoffman's take on a strong woman is wonderful. There are times when watching Tootsie that I forgot I was watching a man playing a woman. I just loved Dorothy and missed her when she wasn’t onscreen. Michael’s character was patterned after Dustin himself, though in recent years, Hoffman claims he never considered himself difficult. Oh, really? Have you ever heard of an actor who admitted that they were? Even Bette Davis made repeated pronouncements that she was not difficult to work with!
Jessica Lange as Julie and Dustin Hoffman as Dorothy Michaels, looking astonished at their soap plotlines!

Hoffman’s presence in this film is especially noteworthy because he too has been accused of sexually inappropriate behavior by the #metoo movement. Aside from clashing with directors and writers, Dustin’s been known to go a few rounds with co-stars—even Lord Olivier. With women, he at times has come across as sexist, as Meryl Streep recalled recently. This all clashes with his proclaiming to have seen the light regarding male chauvinism during Tootsie’s making. Yet Hoffman is hardly the first person on the planet to talk the talk, but not walk the walk, high heels or no.
That said, Hoffman gives a helluva performance as Michael Dorsey/Dorothy Michaels. As the 40-ish actor, Dustin’s energetic and funny, but also increasingly serious and sensitive to his alter ego. And as Dorothy, running roughshod over the clichéd soap scripts and sexist director, watching Hoffman’s creation come to life is a delight. The fact that everyone loves this unlikely soap star has you rooting for Dorothy to kick some more ass!
Jessica Lange in her Marilyn Monroe-like role as an unlucky in love soap star.

Jessica Lange, who plays it straight to the antics around her, gives a sweet, Marilyn Monroe-esque performance as the soap actress, Julie. I haven’t watched Tootsie in years, and seeing the softer side of Lange was a pleasant surprise from her latter day neurotics. Jessica as Julie is fascinating to watch, as her character grows from her friendship with firebrand Dorothy. Lange is a Billy Wilder/Marilyn Monroe fan, and her sweetly sad, soft-spoken, slightly tipsy character seems like a nod to Marilyn’s most famous role, as Sugar Kane in Wilder’s cross-dressing classic, Some Like It Hot.
Terri Garr as Sandy, the actress who is unlucky, period!

Terri Garr, in another era, would have been a classic supporting comic actress. As Sandy, the hapless struggling actress, Garr is a delight as the girl who is utterly confused by Tootsie’s proceedings. Frustrated by that “that cow” Dorothy Michaels, who got her role, to crossing the line with best friend Michael Dorsey, then feeling double crossed, Terri is hilariously hysterical, but also comes off as human, and not a cartoon. Garr’s career ran the gamut, from dancing in background of Elvis musicals, to guest shots on Star Trek, as a regular on The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour, to her breakthrough in Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein, and in Tootsie, she hit her peak.
Dabney Coleman as Ron, the sexist director, explaining why HE'S the injured party regarding his playing around.

And who plays a sexist jerk better than Dabney Coleman? The character actor became synonymous with male chauvinist pig as the boss in 9 to 5. Coleman’s philandering, paternalistic director does a slow burn as he clashes with Hoffman’s Dorothy. Watching Coleman’s Ron in action gives Michael’s character something to ponder, regarding his own shortcomings as a man.
Charles Durning as Jessica's romantic dad, who has designs on Hoffman's Dorothy!

Like the rest of the cast, Charles Durning comes off as effortlessly real as Julie’s widower dad, Les. Durning is so likeable as the old-school guy with a romantic heart that I somehow wanted it all to work out between him and ‘Dorothy.’ Some of the best scenes are when Julie and Dorothy spend the holidays with Les. They’re lovely and generate genuine laughs from a crazy scenario: Les falls in love with Dorothy, Michael disguised as Dorothy, is in love with Julie. And Julie just wants her dad to be happy!
Bill Murray as Dustin's roommate, Jeff, has some of the best one-liners in 'Tootsie.'

I actually forgot that Bill Murray, not billed in the opening credits, was in Tootsie—and he’s such a great commentator on the action. Murray doesn’t resort to mugging, but relies on his best asset—his deadpan mug and dry humor—the perfect reaction to Tootsie’s antics.
Doris Belack is bitingly funny and real as Rita, the no-nonsense producer who gives Dorothy her big break. And George Gaynes is a hoot as John Van Horn, the ham soap star who fears improvising and going live equally. 
There’s also Geena Davis, in her first film role, as a starlet. Her moments are eye-catching, especially where she’s in her underwear, distracting Michael, as Dorothy. And look close for Golden Girls’ Estelle Getty as a fan of Dorothy’s, while she’s out dancing with Les.
Dustin as Dorothy: Who wore it better?
Jane does dowdy in '9 to 5.'

George Masters, makeup and hair guru, was famous for giving Marilyn Monroe her final 'white' look, is responsible for Dorothy Michael's look. Watching Tootsie this time, I realized that Dustin’s Dorothy and Jane Fonda’s 9 to 5’s frumpy secretary had the same look going!
Director Sydney Pollack as Dustin Hoffman's frazzled agent, was a natural comic actor.

In the documentary on Tootsie, Sydney Pollack claimed he didn’t want to do it, citing that he was a dramatic director, not a comedy director. True, but perhaps he should have directed more comedies, as this is easily his best film. Sydney Pollack's major strength as a director was that he was great with actors. Dramatically, he was a solid, but not inspired studio director. Hoffman freely admits that he badgered Pollack, a one-time actor, into playing his agent, mirroring their off-screen bickering. And Sydney’s hilarious!
From all that’s been written about the making of Tootsie, this film took a long time to evolve to the seamless and smart comedy that was a commercial and critical hit.
Both Murray Schisgal and Larry Gelbart got screenwriting credits, though Elaine May was called in to give it a rewrite for her smart outlook, humor, and a woman’s point of view. Hoffman clashed with Gelbart, who later commented, “Tootsie is my vision, despite Dustin Hoffman's lifelong mission to deprive anybody of any credit connected with that movie, except for his close friend, the writer and producer Murray Schisgal.”
Dustin's Michael Dorsey tells Jessica's Julie why he's a better man for having been a woman.

It is noteworthy that of the two, Larry Gelbart got an original story credit, and his writing career was far more stellar than Schigal’s. Gelbart also stated, “I do know that the central theme for Tootsie came from me…that Dustin's character, Michael Dorsey, would become a better man for having been a woman. That was the cornerstone of the film.”
Regardless of who wrote what, Tootsie is still one smart cookie of a comedy. Its look at how men view women, women in the workplace, women as friends—this was all still edgy for 1982.
The only thing that dates this movie is the sappy though catchy Stephen Bishop tune during that era’s inevitable montage scene. But I can handle that, as it shows everyone adoring Dorothy Michaels, as do I.
Who doesn't adore Dorothy in 'Tootsie?'

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

The Lady from Shanghai 1948

'The Lady from Shanghai's' visuals make this Orson Welles film noir memorable, especially those of Rita Hayworth.

I’d never gone out of my way to see 1948’s The Lady from Shanghai, though I admire Orson Welles’ storytelling style, and adore Rita Hayworth’s electric magnetism. Perhaps reading about the film’s original flop reputation, with Rita criticized as out of her dramatic depth, made me pass this Lady over for decades. The Lady from Shanghai’s reputation has risen over the decades, to the status it enjoys today. Long overdue, I watched Welles’ film noir and was surprised in unexpected ways.

Orson Welles in a scene that shows his talent for striking visual compositions.

*Beware, spoilers ahead. The Lady from Shanghai is certainly a mixed bag of cinematic treats. What’s most delectable is the movie’s visual style. Orson Welles takes an already familiar genre and puts his original spin on this film noir spider web. Lady feels like a gorgeous nightmare, filled with huge, sweaty close-ups, off-putting camera angles, and the bizarre juxtaposition of visuals, situations, and dialogue. The villains of this film noir are deliciously over-the-top, and there’s some choice campy dialogue for them to chew on.
On the half-baked side is Welles’ intrusive Irish accent and Orson trying to pigeon-hole his already larger-than-life persona and puffy physique into the standard film noir anti-hero. Also overstuffed is the convoluted story that literally has to be explained by Welles to baffled viewers. Still, The Lady from Shanghai, flaws and all, is spellbindingly watchable.
That Orson Welles eye: The sailor and the siren tryst at an aquarium, not some ordinary cocktail lounge!

The Lady from Shanghai is a precursor to Welles’ decade later A Touch of Evil. And both films feel like a later inspiration for David Lynch’s directorial eye. Visually, the movie is a feast of the eye: the ominous aquarium scene, the Chinese opera, and especially, the funhouse and house of mirrors finale, are all memorable. The languorous scenes on the yacht and down Mexico way are sensual, yet with an undercurrent of dread and ennui. However, the courtroom scene is downright silly, complete with a lively Greek chorus and the villainous lawyer who cross-examines himself!
An Orson Welles action scene means tipping over a bookcase on his intellectual!

Orson Welles' strengths were strongest as a director. I'm always struck by how phony Orson’s film acting could be, full of theatrical accents, wigs, costumes, and wild over-acting. I know that Welles was capable of subtle performing, such as his classic role as Harry Lime in The Third Man. Here, as sailor Michael O’ Hara, his Irish accent inspires laughter, with no relief, from his constant film noir narration. Welles’ brogue is right up there with his unintelligible drawl for The Long, Hot Summer or his Hungarian hamming in The VIPs. Also eyebrow-raising is how often the other characters refer to Orson’s Michael as “big and strong.” I was surprised to read that Welles was over six feet tall, because Orson looks short and fat, and his billowy suits don’t help. The action scenes all involve Welles’ hero, and look cartoonish. The final fight, with Welles tearing apart a judge’s chambers to get away from a burly guard, is downright absurd.
Everett Sloane is the abrasive, shyster lawyer married to a sultry young woman who disobeys smoking signs.

Legend has it Orson turned in a 155 minute version of The Lady from Shanghai to Columbia Studios. The final version is just under 90 minutes, which some film folks decry as too bare bones. Well, Laura, perhaps the best film noir ever, clocks in at about the same running time. And Laura’s production was nearly as fraught as Lady. Frankly, the insanely twisted story is Lady’s least interesting aspect, so I can't imagine what another hour would have added. Fun as it would be to see a longer version of the climactic funhouse scene, or the deleted scenes, it’s also not essential to the final film.
Who's really captain of this ship? Rita's yachting ensemble would make RuPaul green with envy!

Much like The Big Sleep, it's the atmosphere that keeps viewers enthralled in The Lady from Shanghai. It doesn't have the sly repartee of Sleep, but Lady has some bizarrely memorable lines. And some seem so archly campy that you wonder if this movie is supposed to be a black comedy version of a film noir.
Glenn Anders in one of his many ominous but oddly hilarious uber close-ups, as Grisby.

Glenn Anders is fascinating as George Grisby, the villain's drunken partner. His creepy character and delivery of some of the film’s most loony lines are really out there. Lady also features some of the most uncomfortable close-ups ever on film, of Anders’ Grisby, especially as he is tries to intimidate Welles’ sailor stud. Everett Sloane has one of best roles as Bannister, the shady lawyer, who is memorably sinister, yet also pathetic. The shootout showdown with his seductive young wife in the house of mirrors is riveting, but also oddly touching. And one could have a drinking contest over who brays their character’s form of addressing Welles’ sailor or Rita’s siren more: George’s ‘fella’ or Bannister’s ‘lover!’
One of the most brilliant finales in movie history: the fun house mirrors sequence from 'The Lady from Shanghai.'
Rita Hayworth as the seemingly saddest femme fatale in the world.

I had no doubt that Rita Hayworth would fulfill the female aspects of her femme fatale just fine. However, I was surprised by Rita’s striking performance as Elsa Bannister. Filmed on the heels of her signature role as Gilda, Hayworth is again the mystery woman tied to an older, ominous man, and a younger man drawn into their orbit. Unlike defiant Gilda, Hayworth's Elsa seems incredibly sad and defeated. Elsa seems like the wounded women Rita played after her return to Hollywood in the '50s, after her disastrous marriage to Prince Aly Khan. That steamy sequence on the yacht, with Rita lounging in a swimsuit, driving all the men wild, reminded me of Ava Gardner’s scene later in The Barefoot Contessa, a film loosely based on the life of Hayworth.
Bang, bang, my hubby shot me down: Rita rocks the stone cold villainy as Elsa Bannister.

To then see Rita revealed as the stone cold, stone-faced villainess at the finale is a jolt. Hayworth’ performance made me wonder if her acting was that good, or did Orson change the story as he went along—as he was known to do. Either way, Rita is riveting, going from melancholy and mysterious to murderous. The finale, with Rita crawling across the floor, screaming, ‘I don't want to die!’ as Orson walks out the funhouse door, is a stark departure from most '40s movies, even for film noir.
Nobody’s particularly likeable here, typical of film noir, but Orson Welles really pushes the envelope here. Despite the conniving characters and the convoluted plotting, there’s much to admire about this stylish Lady from Shanghai.

Elsa and Michael soon bid farewell in 'The Lady from Shanghai.' Before the film's release, so did Rita and Orson.