Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Different Dolls for 'Valley of the Dolls?'

Candice Bergen as Anne Welles,
with her damned classy good looks?
Raquel Welch as Jennifer North?
Boobies! Boobies! Boobies!
Liza Minnelli as Neely O' Hara:
The whole world loves me!

Jacqueline Susann’s naughty first novel, Valley of the Dolls, was the publishing sensation of 1966 and film rights were quickly snapped up by 20th Century Fox.

Barbara Parkins, Sharon Tate, and Patty Duke in 1967's 'Valley of the Dolls.'
Many superstar actresses and up-and-coming starlets’ names were bandied about before Patty Duke, Barbara Parkins, and Sharon Tate were rolled out for yet another update of Fox’s tried-and-true “three girls” template. Said trio were always looking for romance and riches, but often finding heartache and hard times, instead. Duke plays Neely O’ Hara, a singer with a big voice, plus an equally big pill and booze problem; Barbara Parkins is Anne Welles, the secretary turned supermodel; and Sharon Tate plays tragic Jennifer North, a beautiful starlet who only knows how to do one thing! And for dramatic conflict, Susan Hayward plays Helen Lawson, the aging, tough broad Broadway belter, with a black belt at killing the competition.
Susan Hayward as Broadway belter/battleaxe Helen Lawson.

VOTD the novel is significantly different than the film version. The book takes place from the early ‘40s through the mid-60s, versus the movie’s mere few years. Neely’s film career and chaotic personal life are even more obviously taken from Judy Garland’s MGM daze. Anne Welles is a patrician blue-eyed blonde, a poised natural beauty. While patterned after some of Jackie’s model friends, Anne’s archetype perfection and easy rise to superstardom seemed inspired by Grace Kelly. Doomed bombshell Jennifer was actually based on Carole Landis, a 20th Century Fox‘40s starlet and Susann’s close gal pal, with a nod to another Fox star, Marilyn Monroe, who overdosed when Jackie began writing Dolls. Just as Neely O’Hara mirrored Judy Garland more on the page, Susann wickedly spills the beans on Broadway diva Ethel Merman’s diva antics with Helen Lawson. Like Lawson, Merman liked her vino, but saved happy hour for after work. Merman functioned best on stage, where she controlled everything, just like Helen!
Valley of the Dolls: from book to screen.

As far casting goes, I have no real beefs. Everybody came off  as campy in the film version of Dolls, thanks to the cartoonish script, cheesy direction, harsh lighting, ugly clothes, makeup, and hairstyles (yes, it was the ‘60s, but come on!), and the gawd-awful songs (except for Dionne Warwick’s theme song, which haunts Parkins’ Anne throughout the movie.)

Still, if I could go back into the way back machine, and cast this movie, these would be my dream team dolls.
Liza, younger than springtime, and twice as exciting!

Liza Minnelli as Neely O’ Hara: Why not? Fox originally cast Judy Garland as Helen Lawson! So, good taste was not the hallmark of the movie version of VOTD. Liza playing a fictionalized version of her legendary mother could have been awesome or awful. True, we wouldn’t have had Patty Duke braying every line like she was starring as Martha in a showbiz version of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Or Duke predating Seinfeld’s Elaine Benis’ dance moves during her musical numbers. 
"Patty gave me the number of this great dance teacher!"

But I think Minnelli could have been fantastic. For one, you could actually believe this Neely O’ Hara as a once-in-a-lifetime talent. Imagine Liza exuberantly performing Neely’s “rise to stardom” montage, with the help of “dolls.” Minnelli also could have put over those showbiz cliché songs by the Previns. And like Neely, Liza already had a Ted Casablanca in her life, first husband Peter Allen. In Duke’s defense, Patty’s over-the-top performance gives Dolls its little energy. If you want to see what might have been, watch Barbara Parkins’ screentest for Neely on YouTube—her attempt at playing Neely’s “lonely at the top” speech to Anne is pure amateur night.
Candice Bergen may not have gotten to play a "Gillian Girl," but apparently she was a Revlon girl back in the day.
Candice Bergen as Anne Welles: At the time, Bergen was no better an actress than Parkins, but she embodied the novel’s cool blonde WASP and was really a model. Bergen declined, over money or a film role that took the travel-loving actress to a more appealing location than New York and Fox’s back lot. 
Candice as Anne, that natural Gillian Girl!

How fun to picture the future no-nonsense Murphy Brown as a “Gillian Girl” or rolling around the surf in a pill-popping stupor. Parkins, a dull, pretty girl with lots of hair and makeup piled on, acts like a doll on downers from the get-go.
Welch as Jen, primping before her nightly bust exercises!

Raquel Welch as Jennifer North: Already a Fox girl, Raquel turned down the role because she didn’t want to get type cast as a no-talent famous only for her body. I’ll be kind and not list the films Welch appeared in during and after VOTD! Rumor has it Raquel did a screen test for Jennifer. I doubt that she really did, but to paraphrase Hemingway, wouldn’t it be pretty to think so? 

Raquel plays Jennifer's suicide scene?
Sharon Tate gives the best performance in Valley of the Dolls, the one most resembling a human being. Jennifer’s death scene, by suicide in the face of breast cancer, is touching. That’s due to Sharon Tate, not the tacky dialogue or lazy direction by Mark Robson. The area Tate is lacking in is Jennifer North’s fabulous figure, especially her bodacious breasts. Constant boob references abound in the film, yet Tate is slim and leggy more than anything. 

Raquel as no-talent Jen? "You know how bitchy fags can be!"
Welch on the other hand, basically WAS Jennifer North. Like Jen, Raquel was initially slow to soar in show biz, because of family—in Welch’s case, she was a single mother as a starlet. What a hoot it would be to hear Welch’s breathless delivery as Jennifer, doing her breast exercises in front of the mirror, before declaring, “Oh, to hell with ‘em, let them droop!” I doubt that the then-young and humorless Raquel Welch would have agreed.

"I've Written a Letter to Jac-kie, say-ing, I want to play Helen!"
The possibilities for Helen Lawson, the Broadway “barracuda,” seem endless. Several veteran actresses threw their wigs in the casting ring. Bette Davis publically palled up to Jackie Susann, angling for the part. Can you imagine Bette singing “I’ll Plant My Own Tree?” That would have rivaled her rendition of Baby Jane’s “I’ve Written a Letter to Daddy” in the camp department!

"I'll plant my own stilettos in your thighs and watch your pain grow!"
Bette’s co-star Joan Crawford was mentioned for Helen Lawson. However, Joan essentially played Helen in yet another Fox “three girls” movie. Nearly a decade prior, Crawford as the book editor barracuda Amanda Farrow killed it in The Best of Everything. Still, imagine Joan snarling, “Now get outta my way, cuz I got a man waiting for me!” 
Joan flips & rips her wig!
Or later, after getting her wig snatched by Neely, envision Joan, chin jutted, grandly intoning to the ladies room attendant, “I’ll go out…the way I came in!” And Joan already had experience as a tyrant stage star, who rips her own wig off, in Torch Song!

Would Helen Lawson ride in her limo drinking decaf coffee?
Lauren Bacall coulda been a contender as Helen, a warm up to her own future as a bitchy Broadway diva. I can hear Bacall’s deep brewed flay-vah baritone reminding Neely, “Broadway doesn’t go in for booooze and dope!”

Ethel Merman gets singing lessons from Lucille Ball...yes, for comedic effect!
Or how about Lucille Ball, who once hilariously imitated the Merm when she appeared on Ball’s sitcom? The real life Lucy wouldn’t have had any trouble with the tough as nails part. Maybe Lucy could have added some slapstick while singing “I’ll Plant My Own Tree,” getting tangled up with the mobile tree. Or Ball could have added her trademark “Waaaaah!” as Helen, when Neely rips her wig off!
The irony if Patty Duke had snatched Lucille Ball's wig in 'Dolls,'
since Patty later dated Desi Jr., much to Mama Lucy's disapproval!

Still, I think Susan Hayward is great as the Ethel Merman-type star. Red-headed and brash, tough yet a touch sentimental, Susan gives the movie its only genuine star power. Margaret Whiting’s singing matches up nicely with Hayward’s speaking voice (Susie sang in some of her earlier films) unlike the usual stars lip-synching to Marni Nixon. Like the real Merman, Hayward was a force of nature. 
"My fans will PAY to hear me sing!!!"

Judy Garland, not ready for her close-up, as Broadway barracuda Helen Lawson. And these are the flattering pictures!
Watching Judy Garland’s wardrobe tests as the originally cast Helen Lawson, emaciated Judy looks engulfed by the clothes. Also, Judy was one of those superstars who doted on audience sympathy. Garland may have been a bitch in real life at times, but would never play one on the screen—it’d be on par with Doris Day as Helen Lawson. Susan Hayward is the real deal as Helen.
These are the celebrity connect-the-dot thoughts that have popped into my mind over the years, whenever I pop in Dolls for guilty pleasure viewing. Perhaps changing even one doll would be akin to the butterfly effect in trying to make Valley of the Dolls a better movie, but instead, turning it into an even worse movie!
I look forward to your comments. And remember, all cats are grey in the dark!

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Joan Crawford Fierce in 'A Woman's Face'

MGM's PR department goes the classy route promoting 'A Woman's Face!'

A Woman’s Face is a fascinating look at one of Joan Crawford’s best performances, one that is somewhat overshadowed by her more famous roles. The 1941 drama of a physically and emotionally scarred criminal was Crawford’s last quality picture before leaving MGM, her long-time studio. 

MGM makeup artist Jack Dawn created Joan's scars as Anna Holm.
Joan plays Anna Holm, a ringleader for a ragtag band of crooks. The victim of a childhood accident, a fire ignited by her drunken father, Crawford’s Anna is left with a hideous scar on her face. Guided by George Cukor, renowned as a “woman’s director,” Crawford is restrained throughout A Woman’s Face. Joan plays Holm as utterly hate-filled, but with glimpses of hurt. Not always the most subtle of actresses, Crawford alternates the conflicting feelings of her character in a natural, believable way.

In A Woman’s Face, though Anna’s back story is given—with emphasis that 30-something Crawford’s character was 27!—Joan’s criminal is at first unrepentantly hard. When the surgeon’s unfaithful wife mocks blackmailing Crawford’s disfigured face, she is rewarded with some of Joan’s best onscreen face slapping ever. The scene is drawn out and disturbing—especially in a movie from genteel MGM.

The operation is a success. So is Crawford's performance, one of her most subtle.
One of Anna’s would-be victims, Dr. Segert, intrigued by this tough piece of work, offers to operate on her damaged face. The surgery is a success, but Anna has struck a bargain with a cad from a wealthy family, Torsten Barring, who is cash-poor himself. His solution is to have Crawford’s character pose as a governess and knock off the child heir to the family fortune. The big question is: Anna has healed on the outside, but has her humanity healed, as well?

A Woman’s Face is told in flashback, framed by a murder trial. Crawford is supported by some of the best of MGM’s stock company: Melvyn Douglas as the surgeon; Marjorie Main as Emma, the wealthy family’s housekeeper; Reginald Owen, Donald Meek, Connie Gilchrist, Henry Daniell, and Osa Massen are familiar film faces who round out the cast.

Suave and sinister as Torsten. Veidt is best remembered for Casablanca.
Conrad Veidt as Torsten is one of the sexiest movie villains ever! A star from the German silents, Veidt was still an aristocratic, handsome man with piercing blue eyes. As the cash-poor cad, he is magnetically charming, but totally twisted in his inheritance scheme. Often cast as a Nazi villain, Veidt was actually a hero, a German actor who publicly denounced Hitler while declaring his love for his Jewish wife. Sadly, he died two years later, shortly after appearing in Casablanca. Conrad Veidt died of a heart attack on a Hollywood golf course, with Ingrid Bergman’s then-husband, a doctor, attending to him.
Meanwhile, leading man Melvyn Douglas, a fine actor from the studio era, whose no-nonsense style never dated, has nothing to do as Dr. Segert, the surgeon who saves Joan’s face and soul. He disappears for long stretches of the film and when he’s onscreen his character is merely an observer to Crawford’s actions.

Swedish governess Crawford giving a UV treatment to her little charge! 
Child actor Richard Nichols is adorable as Lars-Erik, the heir in danger. There’s an amusing scene where governess Crawford gives him a UV treatment—with huge goggles yet—was Joan the first tanning salon professional captured on film? Nichols appeared in Bette Davis’ All This and Heaven Too the previous year, where Davis played, yes, a governess accused of murder. Imagine having both Joan and Bette play your nanny—and a murder suspect!

George Cukor deserves credit for giving Joan Crawford strong direction in their three films together, whom Crawford herself paid tribute to many times. Cukor was a blunt, articulate director and demanded Joan truly play her characters, and not play Joan Crawford performing a dramatic character.
Honey, you're going to be SO sorry you laughed at Joan Crawford's scarred face!
This is especially true with A Woman’s Face. Cukor and the film’s producer demanded that Joan tone down her MGM glamour mask and mannerisms. As in The Women, Joan’s “MGM English” is dialed back for the most part, and probably sounds like the real Crawford. Great stars often cling to their personas and it takes a strong director to get them to let go. Director William Wyler fought ferociously with Bette Davis to rein in her theatrical tendencies—yet together, Bette gave three of her best performances. Later, Davis trusted Joseph Mankiewicz’ directing and writing skills, and together they made the classic All About Eve. Similarly, Elizabeth Taylor deferred to Mike Nichols’ genius and gave the performance of her career in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? So, kudos to Cukor in gaining Joan’s trust and respect: Crawford stays in character, and does not play a caricature of herself as Anna Holm.

Will Joan kill or spare the heir, played by Richard Nichols?
As to Joan Crawford’s actual talent as an actress, my opinion is that a director cannot deliver a truly good performance from a non-actor. A perfect example of that is Alfred Hitchcock’s attempt at molding a dramatic performance from amateur actress Tippi Hedren in Marnie. When Virginia Woolf was released, Nichols gave several statements that he didn’t “get” a great performance out of Elizabeth Taylor, because the talent was there. However, even a Meryl Streep benefits from a strong director, over a weak one. Joan Crawford has never been afraid to give everything she’s got as a star and actress. But strong directors like Edmund Goulding, Michael Curtiz, Robert Aldrich, and George Cukor were not afraid to offer constructive criticism, whether it was for Crawford to take it down a notch, speak naturally, or to wear hairstyles, makeup, and clothes in keeping with her character. On some of her later films, Joan overruled weaker directors on clothes, makeup, and script changes—though it was actually against her own best interests.

What about my festive folk outfit?! Melvyn Douglas wasn't one of Hollywood's best straight men for nothing!
The first half of A Woman’s Face is dark and direct; as Anna’s hard heart slowly thaws, the film’s later half is more slick soap opera. Unlike some modern viewers who can’t stand “old movies” with their old-school acting and story -telling, I’m pretty good at looking at the big moving picture. However, I have two criticisms of what prevents A Woman’s Face from achieving classic status. First, the story is an American remake of a Swedish film, starring Ingrid Bergman, before she came to Hollywood. So, why didn’t MGM set the film in the US? The cast is all American archetypes, from Crawford to Melvyn Douglas to Ma Kettle herself, Marjorie Main. Yet, they’re playing Swedes—at least they don’t attempt accents! The party scene at the family mansion, with Joan sporting Swedish garb while joining a folk dance, is a hoot. Second, the MGM glamour is at times so gaga. It is one thing when Joan goes to work for a wealthy family in the second half, but the early scenes at a Swedish country tavern that looks like a Walt Disney fairytale as depicted in Thomas Kinkade painting. Smooth criminal Crawford mixes with patrons, who wear suits and glittering evening gowns at a rural inn.

'Face' was head and shoulders above Joan Crawford's early '40s films.
Upon release, Joan received strong reviews for her performance and A Woman’s Face became a modest financial success. Unfortunately, Joan Crawford was fighting an uphill battle after being labeled—somewhat unfairly—“box office poison” in 1938. At MGM since 1925, Crawford swiftly rose from popular starlet to bonafide movie star, but most of her roles were sleek soap operas or fluffy comedies. Starting with 1939’s The Women, also directed by George Cukor, Crawford let the studio and critics know that she wasn’t afraid to play unsympathetic or unglamorous roles. The spiritual drama, Strange Cargo, with Clark Gable followed in ‘40, earning mixed notices for the film, but strong ones for the stars. The satirical comedy, Susan and God—again with Cukor and Melvyn Douglas—had Crawford playing a mother of a teenager, a movie diva taboo at the time.

I think the real reason Joan Crawford fell out of fashion at MGM was because the studio was changing—no reflection on Joan, who was always game to mix things up. After Irving Thalberg died in 1936, L.B. Mayer was large and in charge. And two of his up and coming stars were superstars by the time the 1940s arrived: Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland. Their stardom seemed to pave the way for other musical and comedy stars.
Where did this leave Joan? Greer Garson arrived at MGM in 1939 and instantly became a star with Goodbye, Mr. Chips. Garson then got all the “great lady” parts, inherited from Norma Shearer, who had left Metro about the same time as Joan. Then starlet Lana Turner broke through with Ziegfeld Girl. A decade earlier, Joan would certainly have played the Turner parts in Johnny Eager and The Postman Always Rings Twice with Clark Gable. Turner, touted as the next Jean Harlow, actually took over Joan Crawford’s mantle as the glamour star whose highly publicized personal life often mixed with her films.

Despite these game attempts like A Woman’s Face, Crawford’s career was considered on the down slope. Clinkers like They All Kissed the Bride, Above Suspicion, and Reunion in France that followed didn’t help the perception. By 1943, Joan was closing in on 20 years at MGM, and considered past her sell-by date (an expression Cher used to describe her own mid-career ups-and-downs!).

Joan Crawford, in a role said to have been intended for Garbo.
A Woman’s Face is a precursor to Joan’s later dramatic work at Warner Brothers. Crawford believed that her Oscar win for 1945’s Mildred Pierce was a career Oscar for cumulative work in films like The Women and A Woman’s Face. Maybe, but Hollywood also loves a comeback! I wish A Woman’s Face had been filmed at Warner Bros. It would have been grittier and free of that overwhelming MGM gloss. The story certainly appealed to other Warner Bros. actresses—Bette Davis and Ida Lupino both performed Crawford’s role in radio versions of A Woman’s Face.

Despite Joan Crawford’s herculean efforts, her battle to extend her range and shelf life were initially somewhat in vain. However, Joan’s never say die attitude prepared her when she left MGM after 18 years and moved to Warner Bros. Crawford’s tenacity and talent paid off when she waited for—and got—Mildred Pierce. And the rest, as they say, is history.
For those who aren’t devoted Joan Crawford fans, check out A Woman’s Face. It’s a fine dress rehearsal for Joan’s Warner Bros. years.
Joan Crawford: A Movie Star's Face.

Friday, June 9, 2017

Hitchcock’s 'Rear Window' Still Thrills

Rear Window remains one of Alfred Hitchcock’s best Technicolor blockbusters. The suspense classic combines the thrills of The Man Who Knew Too Much and North by Northwest with the twisted undercurrents of Vertigo.

A huge hit in '54, much imitated, never equaled. 
The much-imitated 1954 movie begins with risk-taking news photographer L.B. “Jeff” Jeffries, sidelined with a broken leg. During a hot New York City summer, the bored patient has taken to spying on his Greenwich Village neighbors for entertainment. Wheelchair-bound, Jeff follows their lives like a favorite reality TV show: “Miss Torso” is a dancer always in motion and various stages of undress; “Miss Lonelyhearts” is desperately seeking romance; the newlyweds keep house mostly in the bedroom; the aspiring songwriter is looking for a hit; and there are several other neighbor archetypes, whose behavior figures into the storyline. One neighbor piques peeper Jeff’s interest in particular: Lars Thorwald, a brooding jewelry salesman with a nagging invalid wife. Late one rainy night, Jeff hears a scream. Later, he notices Thorwald leaving his apartment several times, into the wee hours. This lifts Jeff out of his lethargy. The next day, the lensman notices that the salesman’s Mrs. seems to be missing.
A chain of events leads Jeff to assume the worst. He even calls upon detective pal, Tom Doyle. When nothing incriminating is found, Jeff’s suspicions are still aroused and he decides to flush Thorwald out. Soon enough, the neighbor is on to Jeff, as well.

Good guy Jimmy Stewart shows a dark side as the voyeur in 'Rear Window.'
Director Hitchcock found in James Stewart the perfect common man, the ideal stand-in for audiences. Stewart, open, relaxed, is the perfect film actor—a great reactor. Even at his best, James Stewart may always seem to be playing “Jimmy Stewart,” the homespun hero, but Hitch also gave the folksy actor some darker traits. In Vertigo, Stewart is obsessed with Kim Novak; in The Man Who Knew Too Much, Stewart is a controlling doctor, whose life spins out of control. And in Rear Window, Stewart’s character is a voyeur. While scolding Jeff, his nurse declares that people are becoming “a nation of Peeping Toms.” Jimmy’s inherent decency gives his character empathy, and makes his questionable actions palatable.
Jeff likes to people-watch a little too much for his own good—and yet also has a problem with paying proper attention to his girlfriend. According to nitpicky Jeff, Lisa Fremont, played by Grace Kelly, is too perfect. Stewart’s character seems irritated at having a gorgeous girlfriend twenty something years his junior, who tries to seduce him with sexy negligees and gourmet takeout food. Sounds like male menopause movie star problems to me!

Grace Kelly has one of the most perfect movie entrances ever in 'Rear Window.' Helps when you look like this!
Grace Kelly is great fun here, not to mention subtly sexy and blindingly beautiful. Kelly is self-assured, intelligent, and romantic—plus, Grace gets a chance to react to Stewart’s criticism of her already princess-like persona. Unlike Hitchcock’s painstaking efforts regarding Tippi Hedren’s acting, Hitch merely got Grace to tone down her acting school mannerisms and just act natural. Pat Hitchcock, the director’s daughter, said all Hitch had to do was say a few words to Kelly, and she knew just what to do. How about a shout-out for Kelly’s introductory scene? Leaning in to kiss her awakened photographer prince, Grace in a huge slow-motion close-up—is movie magic.

Thelma Ritter as Stella, a nurse who dispenses medical and marital advice!
The great supporting cast is led by the inimitable Thelma Ritter as Stella, the nurse who alternately tends to Jeff’s leg while tossing off pragmatic romantic advice. Ritter is wisecracking yet warm, as always. Ritter and Kelly are especially endearing together when they do the legwork for Jimmy’s wheelchair detective, which provides some of the more hair-raising moments. It’s always a jolt to see Raymond Burr, usually on the right side of the law in Perry Mason and Ironside, as the villain. Burr, with his glowering eyes, is a most unnerving neighbor to have. And Wendell Corey, who practically invented the word laconic, is the deadpan detective who’s skeptical of Stewart’s character.

Hitchcock truly took advantage of the slowly eroding censorship code. I was amazed at what slipped by, but Hitch cannily put in salacious content that he knew wouldn’t get by the code, while the scenes and dialogue he really wanted to keep slipped by. All the voyeuristic titillating bits were filmed from Jeff’s point of view at a discreet distance. Hence, Miss Torso is undressing with her back to the camera, Miss Lonelyhearts fights off lotharios, and The Honeymooners are mostly seen between sexual rounds in the sack. 

Raymond Burr, usually on the right side of the law, is the very scary neighbor.
This film has the trademark Hitchcock thrills but effectively mixed with his take on humanity. The scenarios played out in the other apartments are a slice of life, but shaken when one of their neighbors displays aberrant behavior. For a stylized filmmaker, Alfred Hitchcock had a realistic view on life: the good and the bad intermingle together, and there are no safe havens.
Rear Window is unique because, unlike most thrillers of the era, it doesn’t rely on a scary musical score. The soundtrack is spare, mostly jazzy, but is filled with incidental sounds of city life and from the neighbors’ homes. Music occasionally wafts from the various apartments. Also pleasing is that Paramount films from the ‘50s have lush crisp color, unlike MGM’s grainy MetroColor or WB’s unflattering hues, or Fox’s gaudy color, for example.

The elaborate apartment complex set for 'Rear Window.' The lighting had timers, to depict different times of the day.
Paramount gave Hitch free reign for Rear Window, and the “apartment complex” was one of the biggest sets ever constructed…and deepest. To allow for the proper amount of apartment “floors,” the Paramount construction crew cut out the floor soundstage and turned the basement into the courtyard.

Hitch was at the height of his powers and sensationally in sync with studio style filmmaking during its last hurrah. The sets were stylized but in keeping with the era; the sexy elements of the story were highly charged, but implied, not explicit.
What’s amazing about Rear Window is that the storytelling is so engaging, while ratcheting up the suspense, you don’t realize until it’s over that the whole story took place in the apartment complex. And that’s a perfect example of why Alfred Hitchcock was called The Master of Suspense.
Grace Kelly, picture perfect in one of Hollywood's most perfect romantic suspense films.

Monday, May 29, 2017

Clint Eastwood's Directorial Debut 'Play Misty for Me' Still Delivers Chills

Clint Eastwood showed Jessica Walter how to hold a knife on camera so that it caught the light.Thanks for the tip, Clint.

Play Misty for Me scared the life out of me as a ‘70s Yooper kid. After watching Misty again, 40-something years later, this slasher thriller may seem tame to today’s audiences. The 1971 suspense film still startles, thanks to no-frills storytelling and a thrilling turn by Jessica Walter as the scary woman scorned.

'Misty' was made on a shoe-string and made a mint. Clint also starred as
'Dirty Harry' the same year, the box-office equivalent of Fort Knox.
Clint Eastwood stars as Dave Garver, a dreamy-voiced DJ in Carmel, CA. Dave spins records, recites poetry, and generally turns his listeners on. The latter certainly holds true for Dave’s biggest fan, who regularly calls to make the title request. A “chance” encounter at a local bar leads DJ Dave and # 1 fan Evelyn Draper to spend the night together—as the then-popular Stones song goes. For Dave, it’s a casual encounter, but for Evelyn, life or death—his! Dave is on hiatus with his hippie girlfriend, Tobie, who wants commitment. Their relationship is on the rocks because of his roving eye. Dave seems to shrug off the serial shagging on his part, while bitching that Tobie always has—roommates! Perhaps they put a crimp on the couple’s alone time…a good thing she doesn’t live in a commune. While Dave begs Tobie for another chance, he still placates needy Evelyn with one more session of pity sex. Dave tries to make the break final, but his #1fan turns out to be fanatic. Evelyn takes “slash and burn” tactics to a new level.

Clint as Dave, Carmel's sexy DJ who meets his #1 fan...fanatic.
Star Clint Eastwood, in his directorial debut, filmed Misty on location in Carmel, CA, his home all these years. Eastwood has always been a lean machine when it comes to keeping his films simple and under budget. No ego-maniac epics or wasted money on Clint’s resume.  Eastwood shot the movie in a number of homes, restaurants, bars, and even the local radio station—no sets or process shots here. There’s also the natural beauty of the Pacific coast, well-utilized here. According to Jessica Walter, Clint requested that the female stars kept their makeup and clothes simple. Clint didn’t want female leads Walter and Donna Mills slathered in standard studio makeup. The clothes budget reflected the characters’ lifestyles. Though it’s easy to laugh at Misty’s ‘70s mod hairdos and duds—that’s what people were wearing at the time.

Clint, with his soft voice, is well-cast as the DJ and playboy. After the swinging ‘60s, baby boomers were heading into the “me decade.” It always amuses me to see stars from the prior generation, who came of age in the ‘50s, sporting long hair, beads, and groovy threads. Clint was 41 here, a long way from Rowdy Yates. Whether intended or not, Dave’s aging Peter Pan DJ actually adds depth to Clint’s characterization. DJ Dave has played both sides to the middle for too long, and now he is cock-blocked by a one night stand who won’t say goodbye.

Jessica Walter as Evelyn Draper, who wields a knife much like Joan Crawford does an ax in 'Strait-Jacket,' with diva gusto!
Clint Eastwood is a generous superstar when it comes to sharing the screen—no Barbra Streisand tactics of hiring big name supporting casts, who then get edited down to cameos. Clint seems secure enough to let talented co-stars shine, especially his female stars. Eastwood basically hands Play Misty for Me to Jessica Walter on a silver platter. As Evelyn Draper, Walter has one of those showy, dramatic roles that would have nabbed an Oscar nomination a decade or two before. Draper is a throwback to an old-school movie diva role that Joan Crawford might have played—1947’s Possessed meets ‘64’s Strait-Jacket? Jessica certainly has some of Joan’s wild-eyed, husky-voiced intensity. Evelyn Draper goes from sassy and sexy to needy and nuts in a blink of an eye, and Walter takes us on a wild ride. Evelyn Draper is really a younger, sexy version of all the star turns in “hag horror” movies from the ‘60s. But Misty was released in the early ‘70s, when realism and/or British actresses seemed to get most of the Oscar nods. Still, Walter got raves and a Golden Globe nomination—and her performance is right up there with Arrested Development’s loony Lucille Bluth. The actress has said that the key to making Evelyn Draper believable—and scarier—was to play her as not thinking she was crazy.

Donna Mills as Tobie, Clint's hippie chick artist with a Brady Bunch shag.
Donna Mills, later celebrated as evil Abby Ewing on Knots Landing, is warm and sensible as Tobie Williams, Clint’s cool but fed-up hippie chick artist. Unfortunately for Mills, she gets saddled with most of the era’s “hip” dialogue. While pondering  their relationship, Mills gets to recite clinkers even more eye-rolling than from that other Pacific coast free spirit artist, Liz Taylor in The Sandpiper.

Unlike its remake rip-off, Fatal Attraction, there are no pretensions with Play Misty for Me; it’s just a well-made, down-and-dirty thriller. Except for the ‘70s styles and some old-school “character-defining” dialogue, Misty feels modern and direct. Play Misty for Me, like Psycho, was bankrolled by Universal Studios for just under a million dollars, over a decade later. Though not the classic or blockbuster that was Psycho, Misty made a mint at the box-office. Misty marked the beginning of a long, increasingly distinguished directorial career for Clint Eastwood. Play Misty for Me is most memorable for the all-stops-out performance by Jessica Walter, who should have become a major movie star after her turn as evil Evelyn Draper.
Lucille Bluth, before she switched to martinis!

Monday, May 22, 2017

Written on the Wind: Soapy and Subversive

Written on the Wind: Sirk du Soleil!

What more can I write about Written on the Wind? So much has already been said about the films of director Douglas Sirk. The super soap opera about superrich Texans was a big hit in 1956 and a cult favorite to boot. What gives Written on the Wind staying power is Sirk’s subtle critique on post-war America and strikingly visual storytelling style.

Dorothy as Mary Lee works those arched eyebrows in this sexy Texas saga.
Sirk is the model of storytelling economy, epitomized in the opening credits of Written on the Wind. Over the sweet sounds of The Four Aces, the story is succinctly set up: Rich boy Kyle Hadley is drunk and racing his sports car back home, for a showdown with his best friend, Mitch Wayne, who booted him out. Roaring into the driveway, he smashes his bottle against the brick mansion. Waking the servants, alerting his sleazy sister, Mary Lee Hadley, long-suffering wife Lucy, and pal Mitch, the plastered prodigal son has returned. Door left wide open, Kyle lumbers into the library. His sister flits down the staircase and follows. From outside, a gunshot is heard, Kyle Hadley staggers out, and collapses in the driveway. The camera cuts to his bedroom, where his wife faints, and a calendar’s pages fall back to the story’s beginning. All this in just three minutes and six seconds!

Douglas Sirk’s postwar films are the ones on which his reputation rests. On their surface, Sirk’s cinema seems over-the-top glamorous, slickly soapy, and artificially emoted. Audiences then and even now take such films as Magnificent Obsession, All that Heaven Allows, and Imitation of Life at face value, as guilty pleasure wallows. Others have deconstructed the work of Douglas Sirk, for what lies beneath his glossy facades, sometimes to the point of absurdity.

Malone as Mary Lee, seeking comfort with a miniature oil derrick ?
Still, moviegoers today easily see that there is more than meets the eye to Sirk’s ‘50s films. I’ll never forget watching Written on the Wind with my folks and its infamous finale—the rich sister all alone, caressing her father’s miniature oil derrick—Mom and Dad burst into laughter. Sirk took the disadvantages of censorship and confining studio system film making and worked it to his advantage. Social and sexual issues were played out in the guise of a soap opera: The older woman-younger man relationship of All That Heaven Allows; the disillusioned breadwinner of There’s Always Tomorrow; the hedonistic playboy in Magnificent Obsession, or the racial issues of Imitation of Life. Written on the Wind tackles unchecked wealth and power, sexuality and sterility.

Mary Lee Hadley's mambo of death.
Some of the cited examples of Sirk’s genius can be a bit of a reach. One such claim is that Written on the Wind’s visuals were deliberately and blatantly artificial. To me, Wind doesn’t look any different than other ‘50s films. Rear projection, matte scenery, backlot outdoor sets, and interior sets were all standard issue then. Sirk skillfully used the devices in his films, heightened with his expressive lighting and camera angles.

Rock Hudson in leading man mode as Mitch Wayne.
Written on the Wind is twice the soap, in half the time, as Giant, George Stevens’ take on Texas, also came out at the end of ‘56. The two epics have interesting parallels. Rock played steady Eddie Bick Benedict in Giant to James Dean’s Jett Rink, the wildcatter who cracks up. In Written on the Wind, Hudson’s Mitch is a strait-laced version of Jett, the outsider looking in. And Robert Stack’s dissolute rich jerk Kyle is how Jett Rink ends up in Giant.

The eternal triangle, as viewed by Douglas Sirk in 'Written on the Wind.'
Since the release of Written on the Wind, many film critics, fans, and historians criticized Rock Hudson and Lauren Bacall as boring, while praising Robert Stack and Dorothy Malone for their showy performances. I beg to differ. If all four stars had engaged such scenery chewing, the Hadleys’ mansion would have been reduced to rubble. Somebody had to be the straight man—ironically, that fell to Rock Hudson. As Mitch Wayne, Rock meets the pre-requisites for a top tier leading man: Hudson is at his handsomest, along with his warm personality, intelligence, and one of the best speaking voices of his movie generation. Robert Stack, who had the killer role of Kyle, later praised Hudson for not pulling rank as the star and ordering Stack’s star-making role reduced. Frankly, I think Rock might have played the rich boy better than stone-faced Stack.

Lauren Bacall as Lucy, pondering her future as wife of a rich playboy. 
Instead of playing her usual snarky tough cookie here, Lauren Bacall is Lucy, the leading lady—which I found a refreshing change of pace. Watching Bacall, chic in a grey suit during the film’s NYC scenes, I thought it a shame Alfred Hitchcock never gave Betty Bacall the nod as one of his famed blondes. Naturally, not the fragile ones of Vertigo or Marnie, but Bacall would have been the bomb in North by Northwest with Cary Grant. My sister, when watching Hollywood movies from the ‘50s and early ‘60s, has commented how matronly the shellacked hairdos and cartoonish makeup makes the leading ladies look. In Written on the Wind, Lauren Bacall sports stylish hair and makeup, but it’s subtle, and she rarely looked better onscreen after her sexy starlet days. Lauren Bacall brings her usual pragmatic personality to Lucy, but it is tempered with warmth, something that wasn’t always present in her screen roles.

Even Kyle's sister snidely comments on his 'electric personality!'
I’m not the first to point this out, but the big problem with Written on the Wind is why anyone would put up with Kyle Hadley for a New York minute. As the poor little rich boy given to grand gestures, he flies from Texas to the Big Apple for lunch. This is where Robert Stack’s Kyle meets Bacall’s Lucy, snagging her away from Hudson’s Mitch. Kyle is drinking and showboating, which puts Lucy off. She attempts to get away from him, but the rich kid reveals his real self, which makes the city girl view him in a different light. The problem is Kyle, as written and performed, does not inspire awe or sympathy. Kyle is either drunk and obnoxious or sober and morose. 
I grew up watching Robert Stack sporting a trench coat and acting like a dull detective in Unsolved Mysteries. Stack was a grade B Charlton Heston, deadpan sneer and broadcasting boom of a voice. Robert Stack gives his all as the lost soul playboy, but that’s not saying much. He does have his moments. One that I found affecting is when wife Lucy tries to find out why Kyle is back on the bottle, after a year of sobriety. When Kyle feels he’s failing Lucy as a husband, Sirk cleverly makes sterility Kyle’s issue, though a probable closet case might be closer to the truth. Sitting at his bedside the morning after, she asks, “Do you love me?” Stack as Kyle replies, “I don’t even love myself.” With that, he rolls over and pulls the covers over his head—a stunning moment for a he-man actor in a ‘50s movie.

Like Robert Stack, Dorothy Malone spent over a decade paying her showbiz dues. As Mary Lee Hadley in Written on the Wind, Malone plays the “nymphomaniac” rich girl who pines for Hudson’s Mitch, a childhood friend to both her and the brother. She resents Kyle for “taking away” Mitch as they grew up.

What would a Douglas Sirk movie be without a mirror scene? Sisters-in-law Malone and Bacall having a catty reflection.
As Mary Lee, Dorothy Malone cashes in on her showy role and pulls out all the stops. Whether taunting her family, picking up men in dive bars, getting the dirt on others, or dancing with deadly abandon, Malone is all sexy moves and mugging. Unlike stone-faced Stack, Malone was an expressive actress who could be just as stunning when she took it down a few notches. Her scenes of expressing her unwavering love for Mitch are touching. The big courtroom scene, with Malone as Mary Lee in a big black hat, gives Stack’s Kyle a moving epitaph: “He was sad, the saddest of us all. He needed so much and had so little.”

Douglas Sirk suddenly retired after his biggest hit, 1959’s Imitation of Life. I wonder how Sirk would have fared in the ‘60s, when realism in film quickly became the norm. My guess is that had Sirk stayed in Hollywood, he would have struggled much like Hitchcock, who found his similarly stylized storytelling obsolete by the middle of that decade. Still, Hollywood was cranking out glossy soap operas well into the 1960s. Some featured past Sirk collaborators like producer Ross Hunter and aging star Lana Turner. For those who think Douglas Sirk overrated, compare Imitation of Life to Ross and Lana’s Madame X. Or compare Sirk’s work to director Delmer Daves, who picked up the soap mantle when the veteran director retired—Magnificent Obsession or Youngblood Hawke? And all those sexy ‘60s soaps with Liz Taylor, Carroll Baker, Ann-Margret, etc. offer none of the emotional impact for their stars or audiences. 
Douglas Sirk was obviously doing something more than blowing cinematic soap bubbles.

High octane melodrama: Note the monogram on Mary Lee Hadley's caddy car door.