Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Boom! 1968

Elizabeth Taylor as the dignified, understated Flora "Sissy" Goforth!

"Boom! The shock of each moment of still being alive." So says Richard Burton’s Chris Flanders to Elizabeth Taylor’s Flora “Sissy” Goforth, explaining his repeated intonation “boom” to the sound of the ocean crashing against the shore of her fabulous estate.
I’m a huge fan of Elizabeth Taylor but there’s no denying that 1968’s Boom! was a commercial and critical bomb. By the film’s finale, all that most critics and cinemagoers felt was the shock of still being awake!
'Boom!' was the Burtons' big flop that signified they were over, suddenly that summer in '68.

When the film was dropped into theaters during the summer of '68, the blasting reviews and the empty theater seats confirmed that ‘The Burtons’ were no longer the box office sure thing. I won't fall into the revisionist trap that every famous past film flop is now a misunderstood movie masterpiece. But Boom! is not bottom of the barrel filmmaking, where it’s been relegated to since its release. Yes, this Tennessee Williams drama is wildly uneven. Yet, Boom! has some genuine merits, and also some myths that deserve to be dispelled. 

The kneejerk negative reaction to Boom! remains so strong that you may ask, what are its positive points? For starters, John Barry (of James Bond fame) composed a remarkable score that may be the best thing about this film. The Boom! soundtrack is wistful, haunting, romantic, menacing, melancholy, and most of all, gives this erratic film an emotional anchor. I own and love this soundtrack. A close second is the eye-popping set that depicts Mrs. Goforth’s luxurious white villa, backed by the stunning Sardinia scenery. The set design is by Richard MacDonald, which is beautifully and insinuatingly photographed by Douglas Slocombe. With these brilliant artists, director Joseph Losey brings the look and sound of this film together masterfully.
Music for lovers? Composer John Barry, of  James Bond fame,
delivers one of his best scores in 'Boom!'

I know this is second-rate Williams, but even second tier Tennessee is better than most. This was also a rare opportunity when Williams got to write the screenplay to his own work. There are some sharp lines and thoughtful musings on people, life, and mortality. Williams, who transferred his own feelings onto his female characters, had lost his longtime partner while writing this play, as The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore. This was exacerbated by the playwright’s fears that after a string of hits, his time may have passed, just like that milk train. Five years later, writing the piece as Boom!, Williams was acutely aware that he was no longer in vogue. A shame, since the premise of Milk Train/Boom! is initially intriguing: One of the world’s wealthiest women, who appears to be terminally ill, is visited by a mysterious stranger, a poet who may be her next lover or really just an escort to her last hurrah.
The Burtons and Noel Coward on location.

Elizabeth Taylor once said that "nobody ever set out to make a bad movie." Even that quote gets mocked, but I think ET was sincere. Though the Burtons collected their usual million dollar fee, plus another quarter million each in overtime, in his later published journals, Richard wrote at length about Boom! From his entries, it was obvious that the Burtons thought this picture was worth doing and took it seriously.
It was Elizabeth's idea to wear nearly all white, as dying Sissy, like death shrouds, throughout 'Boom!'

Most critics cite that the biggest problem with Boom! is that the Burtons were miscast—Elizabeth far too young, and Burton too old—for their roles as the rich bitch and the ambiguous poet. Taylor certainly undercuts Flora “Sissy” Goforth by looking robust and radiant, since she's only got two days to live. When I read the play, I put Sissy somewhere in her 60s, whereas ET was then only 36. Yet, I can see why Elizabeth was chosen, beyond her box office allure. Taylor was prone to precarious health, and nearly died six years earlier, at age 29. Like Sissy, ET sported a string of husbands and gems. Also, Taylor was already a legend, with a fearsome reputation. But instead of aging up, as she did as Martha two years before, she looks like Mrs. Burton at a jet set ball. Taylor's played comic bitches well, and serious bitches with empathy. But Sissy Goforth is one bitch who becomes a bore fast.
And the blame for that goes to Tennessee Williams. He inadvertently pinpointed the biggest problem with this piece, namely, society types like the “heroine,” Sissy Goforth: “These are very tiring women, but fascinating.”  Well, fascinating for a while, anyway. Sissy is totally self-absorbed and doesn't offer a bit of sympathy to anybody else, interested only in her empire. And Sissy is just as much of an unrelenting bitch in the play as in the movie, that by the finale of both, you’re ready to scream, “Die, already!”
Richard Burton as Chris Flanders. Poet? Angel of Death? Hustler? Hard to say!

Richard Burton is always described as too old for poet Chris Flanders, which is not quite true. In the play, Flanders is 35, “hardly a chicken,” as Sissy wryly notes, when she finds his passport after rifling through his belongings. Burton was 43 but not aging well—still, Chris wasn't a twink. Perhaps this perception started when boyish Tab Hunter played him on Broadway. The play’s notes describe Chris as looking like an embattled boxer. Does Burton fit the description, or was he merely punch drunk? Burton seems restrained, but compared to the howling tornado that is Taylor, who wouldn't? He has some sly moments and gives an intelligent reading, but somebody menacingly handsome, like Terence Stamp, would have been marvelous. Burton seems a bit weary at times, but the accusation of being drunk or hung over is just a cheap shot. For those who think Burton was on alcohol-induced autopilot, compare his performance in Boom! with Hammersmith is Out or Bluebeard five years later.
The other big problem with Boom! is that the story expires long before Mrs. Goforth. Once the Witch of Capri leaves and Sissy realizes the end is near, it's not exactly a race to the death... more like a caterwauling crawl to the crypt. It also doesn’t help that Williams had reduced himself from intoxicating rhetoric to intoxicated repetition, with too many lines like: "What's human or inhuman is not for human decision!"
Tennessee Williams and Elizabeth Taylor  on the set of 'Boom!' This was a career crossroads for both of them.

Williams was facing his unhappy fifties during the ‘60s, which he called his ‘stoned age.’ Famed stage actress Marion Seldes, who played Sissy’s secretary, Blackie, in the original Broadway version, said, “It's an imperfect play, but it's beautifully imperfect.'' Ah, Tennessee couldn’t have put it better himself!
The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore’s title didn’t have that late ‘60s film pizzazz. So the movie’s opening title became Boom. When the film was released, the posters added boundless excitement by calling it Boom! My suggestion: Suddenly, Sissy's Last Summer!
Gossip has had it that everyone involved was bombed on Boom! These tales are often repeated by film writers or Internet talking heads with no real proof or even a sense that they have actually seen the movie. The film’s history is not helped by John Waters, who has made a cottage industry with his fatuous comments on the film, such as Elizabeth was so drunk that she didn't realize that the Boom! set was not a real house. I realize there are people who truly want to believe this kind of nonsense. Come on—Elizabeth had been making movies for 25 years, I think she could tell a set from a home—no matter if Taylor was tipsy or not. I'm not saying that what went on the leisurely Boom! shoot was like bible school, but Taylor’s performance is too sharp to be called drunken bumbling. Gossips cite ET's stumble while telling Coward's Witch of Capri about a typhoon benefit as she performs some kabuki moves, saying tycoon instead, while stumbling slightly. The word switch was probably a fluffed line, but the stumble is straight out of the original play, a signal to the Witch of Capri that the rumors of Sissy’s ill health are true.
No, that's not Audrey Hepburn showing pal Elizabeth some exercise moves. ET's getting kabuki instruction, really!

Other critics have seized on Taylor's grand accent that occasionally slips into bellowing broad when barking orders. Again, this is right out of the play: Sissy is a swanky dame who likes to give the airs of a great lady. Mrs. Goforth came from poor white trash from Georgia when she met her first millionaire hubby, as a chorus girl. She has married and buried a string of tycoons, and is now a world-famous, wealthy widow. Sissy grandly recites her memoirs to Blackie, which sounds like a cross between Patrick Dennis’ Little Me and Joan Crawford’s A Portrait of Joan.
I'm hardly saying this is a great Taylor performance—while energetic, it's ultimately one-note. ET’s Boom! broad is too broad. Sissy Goforth is hell on wheels and could use some typical Taylor empathy. One quiet moment occurs when Sissy tells Blackie what she really needs is some summer lovin', and Elizabeth is amusing, droll, world weary, and a bit sad. 
My favorite scene and quote from 'Boom!' And I dig those shades, especially indoors!

Taylor biographer Alexander Walker wrote that director Losey had a London doctor write up a diagnosis for Sissy Goforth’s illness, so that Taylor could gradually depict her decline. Sissy’s malady was a form of leukemia, with symptoms of euphoria intermingled with depression, exacerbated by the shots and booze that she constantly intakes. Mrs. Goforth’s circumstances—"Urgentissimo... like everything else this summer!"—were not unlike those of Vivien Leigh, who long suffered from tuberculosis (and later leukemia complications), along with manic depression, and had recently died. Taylor, a huge admirer of Leigh, was said to have been inspired by her later unhappy years as Sissy.
"Husbands...lovers...everything...a memory!" Noel Coward, the world weary Witch of Capri, looks on.

Sissy to the Witch of Capri: "Has it ever occurred to you that life is all memory? Except for each present moment that goes by so quickly you can hardly catch it?" Director Losey suggested Taylor play the scene where she’s dictating memories of her many husbands for laughs, and Elizabeth snapped back, “I do not find such a life funny.” Taylor reconsidered, because Sissy reciting her list of hubbies is grandly campy. Despite Losey’s tips, it doesn't seem he was a strong director of star actors. Some humor—and humanity—might have lightened this role, because the character is just as churlish on the printed page as in Taylor’s performance.
Elizabeth Taylor, like Sissy Goforth, shared memories of her favorite late husbands. ET appeared on TV shortly after 'Boom!,' in a special marking the 10 year anniversary of Mike Todd's death in a plane crash. Taylor was subdued and slightly melancholy here. Toward the end of her life, ET's memories became nearly as dramatic as Mrs. Goforth's.

Elizabeth was then coming up on the ten year anniversary of third husband Mike Todd’s death in a plane crash, and he was very much on her mind during shooting Boom! And some of Williams’ lines echoed at least the tabloid version of Taylor’s life: “Well, well. I've escorted six husbands to the eternal threshold and come back alone without them. Now it's my turn. I've no choice but to do it, but I want to do it alone. I don't want to be escorted. I want to go forth alone. And you... you counted on touching my heart because you knew I was dying. Well, you miscalculated with this one. The milk train doesn't stop here anymore.”
Given that Taylor was plump pretty much after 'Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,' I think ET looks stylish here, a decade later.

There were a lot of knocks on Taylor's weight here, but frankly she doesn't look overly heavy, no more than she had in her last few movies, including the early scenes of Virginia Woolf. Her weight problem showed in her fabled face soon after, in Losey's Secret Ceremony. Aside from her crazy kabuki getup—again from the play—Taylor's clothes suit her full figure and are quite simple. Karl Lagerfeld was the lead designer for Tiziani of Rome, who John Waters laughingly “wondered” who or what the heck that was. Waters should have tried Google.
ET's motto: More is better!

I found it amusing that the dying Sissy changed her costumes and hair in nearly every scene. This is certainly how Cher would ‘go forth’ into the good night! For those who think Taylor's look was over the top, think late '60s Priscilla Presley, Ann-Margret, Raquel Welch, Valley of the Dolls, or Monica Vitti in Losey’s previous camp fest, Modesty Blaise.

Elizabeth Taylor at this point reminds me of Bette Davis in Beyond the Forest. Both were in their late 30s, both were miscast, both working with cerebral directors in their baroque phase. Both are playing full blast, with nary a nuance, to overcompensate. Ironically, Taylor had recently played Martha, a role that parodies Davis in Forest. The difference was that while both were overweight, over-made up and wigged out, Taylor was supposed to be older and Davis younger. The other difference was that Taylor, despite her weight, still looked lovely, whereas Davis looked prematurely aged. Both roles set them firmly on the path of caricature forever after.
"I don't bray!" Whoops, wrong movie! 

The supporting cast is negligible. Noel Coward is just as one-note campy here (in reverse gender casting) as the Witch of Capri as he was in Bunny Lake is Missing. I kept thinking how wonderful Bette Davis would have been as the Witch of Capri. Hell, she would have been a great Sissy Goforth, and the right age! Joanna Shimkus is bland as long-suffering secretary Blackie and the most interesting thing about Michael Nunn as sadistic guard Rudy is that he’s short.
"We've got Virginia Woolf in color!" crowed one Universal executive at the time. Not quite! After the unlikely hits of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and The Taming of the Shrew, more than a few critics were waiting for them to fail. Boom! provided the perfect vehicle.
"The sea is full of medusas...and film critics!"

Richard Schickel fired the opening volley that the Burtons were over. Life magazine’s Schnickel claimed that their clout as superstars caused arrogance to set in: “They get to thinking, perhaps unconsciously, that they can dare us to reject anything they feel like shoveling out. The Burtons are particularly afflicted with this malaise… There is a slack, tired quality to most of their work that is, by now, a form of insult. They don’t act so much as deign to appear before us and there is neither dignity nor discipline in what they do. She is fat and will do nothing about her most glaring defect, an unpleasant voice which she cannot adequately control. He, conversely, acts with nothing but his voice, rolling out his lines with much elegance, but no feeling at all. Perhaps the Burtons are doing the very best they can, laden as they are by their celebrity.”
But the critics had a point. Here's the Burtons partying with
Claudia Cardindale. Note ET's wearing a Boom! costume.

I think Schickel’s criticism was actually more apt in regard to the last lap of their first marriage, during the Divorce His/Divorce Hers and Hammersmith is Out era. But Boom! certainly marked the beginning of the Burtons’ decline.
Judith Crist, who made her name as a critic blasting Cleopatra as “a monumental mouse,” continued to carp on the Burtons non-stop. About Boom!, Crist critiqued: “Taylor is 20 years too young and 30 acting eons away from the role.” The acerbic film critic also razzed Richard Burton, citing he looked more like “a bank clerk on a campy holiday, kimono and all, than a poet.”
As far as ET was concerned, Crist was wrong on both counts. Sissy is well into her 60s, which would make Taylor 30 years too young; however, Elizabeth had triumphed in two prior Tennessee Williams roles, plus ET had just played a 52-year-old alcoholic shrew in Virginia Woolf. Aside from age, Sissy Goforth was not outside Elizabeth Taylor's range. She is indeed too young and there's no attempt made to hide the fact. The real problem with casting ET was that she had a weak acting director in Joseph Losey. Taylor had subtlety and variety when working with Richard Brooks, Joseph Mankiewicz, and Mike Nichols in theatrical-originated roles. But here, Taylor turns up the screen diva stereo up full blast, with no filter.
Wilfred Sheed wrote a huge Esquire piece titled “The Burtons Must Go!” Though “LizandDick” gave them plenty of ammo, some critics were also self-serving, making a name by tearing down the Burtons.
A then fledgling Roger Ebert wrote at the time, perhaps the most accurately: “There are different kinds of bad movies. Some are simply wretchedly bad, like well, you know. Others are bad but fascinating and Boom! is one of these.”
One of the film’s many cuckoo moments includes just how many times Mrs. Goforth orders people off her patio. Even her pet gets banished in a key moment, with the much quoted line: “Monkey…off…balcony!”
Another running gag is that Sissy is so self-absorbed that just because she can't eat, never offers anybody food, and what is offered by others, she orders to be taken away. This could be taken as symbolic of Boom!, a film that promises a feast, but doesn’t deliver. Boom! is ultimately a failure but still fascinating to watch, whether as camp or as fans of the film’s participants.
The shock of that moment when they realized 'Boom!' was going to bomb?
ET looking very chic and casual, while visiting with Burton, who's in costume as Chris Flanders.

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.