Sunday, July 24, 2016

Suzanne Pleshette: The "Next Liz Taylor" Who Became TV's Coolest Comedienne

Suzanne Pleshette as a sex-crazed society girl,
in John O' Hara's "A Rage to Live."
Elizabeth Taylor won her first Oscar as a sex-crazed
call girl in John O'Hara's "Butterfield 8."
There have been a million “new” Marilyns—studios thought that Monroe was so manufactured they could just construct their own MM. By contrast, Hollywood offered only a few “new” Liz Taylors. Though Taylor’s perfect beauty and swift rise to stardom set her apart from mere starlets, Hollywood couldn’t help itself in trying to create another Hollywood Cleopatra. First up was Joan Collins, aptly dubbed “the poor man’s Elizabeth Taylor.” Millie Perkins big moment, starring in The Diary of Anne Frank, had her looking more like National Velvet. Next up vying for Liz’ limelight was Suzanne Pleshette. 

Suzanne's witty appearances on Johnny Carson's show won her
 the role of Emily on "The Bob Newhart Show."
Audiences remember Suzanne Pleshette for her comedic finesse on The Bob Newhart Show. The classic ‘70s sitcom finally allowed Suzanne to shine in all her smart, sexy, warm, funny glory. Pleshette was a popular actress from the age of 20 for nearly 50 years.

Suzanne Pleshette, with her dark good looks, husky voice, and self-assured demeanor, found work on stage, television, and film from the get-go. Pleshette came close to big-time stardom twice. Suzanne was nearly picked to play Broadway’s Gypsy, opposite Ethel Merman. While the producers thought Pleshette was the better actress, they decided on Sandra Church, who was a trained singer. Later, Dick Van Dyke asked her to play his TV wife, Laura Petrie, but Suzanne was already committed to a possible series for Norman Lear. Van Dyke then proposed TV matrimony to Mary Tyler Moore and Pleshette’s Lear pilot went nowhere.

"When I was 4," Pleshette said in 1994, "I was answering the phone, and (the callers) thought I was my father. So I often got quirky roles because I was never the conventional ingenue.”

Watch the birdies, Annie! Pleshette in "The Birds."
During the ‘60s, Pleshette seemed to guest-star on every hit TV show. But Suzanne hoped for movie stardom, and starred in a number of plush big-screen soaps, like Rome Adventure and A Rage to Live. Her biggest break was when Hitchcock cast Suzanne as the schoolteacher and Tippi Hedren’s love rival in The Birds. Even though Pleshette intrigued audiences as torch-carrying Annie—her feathered co-stars and Hitchcock discovery Hedren got all the press and screen time. Pleshette’s husky voice is a joy to listen to compared to Tippi’s flat delivery. In Hitchcock’s world, a smoldering brunette, even with Liz Taylor-esque hair and makeup, is no match for an iceberg blonde! Pleshette, a method actress who studied with famed acting teacher Sanford Meisner, said much later, “Hitch didn’t know what to do with me.” 

Suzanne went on a "Rome Adventure" and all she won was Troy Donahue!
Liz on her own Rome adventure!
Rome Adventure gives Suzanne the star treatment, only to upstage her with Angie Dickinson as the slinky divorcee who steals heartthrob Troy Donahue away. In real life, Pleshette won Donahue, who turned out to be the booby prize. Donahue, a teen idol with a big drinking and drug problem, and very little talent, was Suzanne Pleshette’s version of marrying Eddie Fisher. During this time, Elizabeth Taylor was ditching Fisher and having her own Rome adventure with Richard Burton!

The closest Suzanne Pleshette came to playing an Elizabeth Taylor-type role was her turn in A Rage to Live. The book was based on John O’Hara’s novel, who had also penned Butterfield 8, which was made into a super-soaper starring Liz. Both have O’Hara high-class nymphomaniacs as protagonists. Male characters were made crazy by these wanton women. Tears and tragedy ensue as the price to pay for the earlier soft-core antics. Suzanne rarely looked lovelier on the big-screen, playing the high society tramp in no-nonsense, low-key Pleshette style. Maybe that’s why Suzanne was made more for the small screen. Elizabeth Taylor knew when to turn on the pyrotechnics, especially if it was for igniting wooden vehicles like Butterfield 8 and Raintree County.

Pleshette wore plush falls in her starlet days.
Liz ALWAYS loved big hair!
Pleshette tried to establish herself on the big screen, but guest-starring roles on such popular series like The Wild, Wild West, The Fugitive, and The Invaders were becoming more frequent than movie roles. The best of which, If It’s Tuesday, It’s Must Be Belgium, showed Pleshette’s flair for comedy and what was around the corner in the ‘70s.

Liz with big hat instead of big hair!
Suzanne in a straw hat, so popular in the '60s.
Suzanne Pleshette came from a New York City showbiz family—her father was a theatre owner and her mother, a dancer. Pleshette had plenty of anecdotes and made a great talk show guest. I remember my parents—particularly my mother—enjoyed watching Suzanne trade quips about her showbiz life with Johnny Carson. My Mom wasn’t the only one. The producers of the upcoming The Bob Newhart Show caught a Tonight Show episode with Newhart sharing Carson’s sofa with Pleshette. They were so struck by their chemistry, that they cast Suzanne as Emily Hartley, Bob’s witty, level-headed wife. A star was belatedly born. The Bob Newhart Show ran for six seasons and Pleshette received two Emmy nominations.

Silver foxy lady: Suzanne Pleshette in mid-career.
Even after the show ended, Suzanne Pleshette’s Emily Hartley was considered television’s “perfect wife,” right up there with Laura Petrie, the role that Pleshette had to turn down a decade before. Pleshette continued working, often the best thing about most of the TV movies, mini-series, or guest spots she appeared in the next three decades.
Elizabeth Taylor found meaning as AIDS activist in later years.

After the Troy Donahue fiasco, Pleshette’s 32 year marriage to Texas millionaire Tommy Gallagher ended only with his death in 2000. She frequently mentioned him with great humor on talk shows, reciting ribbing but loving poems about their life together.

Pleshette & Poston rekindled their romance in 2001.
One more romance came into Pleshette’s life that cinema sister Liz Taylor would have certainly thought romantic. She reunited with costar Tom Poston, with whom she had appeared on Broadway and enjoyed a romance back in 1959. They remained friends through the years, with many personal connections in common. Both had recently lost their spouses and rekindled their romance. Pleshette and Poston married in 2001.

In 2006, when Suzanne was fighting cancer and Poston with health issues of his own, Pleshette’s bawdy humor helped. Pleshette sent this note in Oct. 2006 to veteran Hollywood reporter Army Archerd:
I lost all of my hair
I look like shit
Tom has a catheter in his dickie
We have round-the-clock nurses, a walker and a wheelchair
I'm saving a fortune on bikini waxes
Tom has lost all peripheral vision so he doesn't know
At his age we're just glad he
has a lump in his pants
We're madly in love
And we feel lucky.

Old age ain't for sissies: Taylor, Poston, and Pleshette at a benefit in 2001.
"He was such a wonderful man. He had fun every day of his life," Pleshette said after Tom Poston died in 2007.

Like many stars of her era, Pleshette was a heavy smoker throughout her life and was diagnosed with cancer in 2006. Pleshette claims she was cured, though part of a lung had to be removed. In the fall of 2007, Pleshette reunited with the Newhart cast for a TV Land tribute in a wheelchair. Frail but funny, this was Pleshette’s last public appearance.

Despite serious pulmonary issues that nearly prevented her from participating, Pleshette put on her gregarious game face:  "I'm cancer-free, my (breasts) are great and ... I'm extremely, extremely rich!"

She passed away Jan 19, 2008, of respiratory failure, less than two weeks before her 71st birthday on Jan. 31.

Suzanne loved her rebel, Steve McQueen in "Nevada Smith."
Liz loved her rebel: with James Dean while filming "Giant."
When asked in a Emmy TV Legends interview how she would like to be remembered, Suzanne Pleshette replied, “…as a good daughter, wife, and friend.”

Pleshette, like Liz, loved dogs, often telling wry anecdotes
about them on talk shows.
Suzanne Pleshette was a star, who to this baby boomer kid, seemed to be on every television, talk, or game show, as well as TV movie, when I was growing up. I remember seeing one of her early big-screen efforts on the local TV afternoon movies. It was Nevada Smith with Steve McQueen. I recall saying to Mom that Suzanne looked just like Liz Taylor; Mom thought Pleshette had a better figure—well, yeah! And Pleshette seemed infinitely more practical. Still, there was something about Liz, who at the time was divorcing and remarrying Richard Burton. The two brunette beauties seemed to share a bawdy sense of humor, love of dogs, men, cocktails and cigarettes, and a realistic view of show business. Some stars, like Elizabeth Taylor, seemed remote and unreal, almost a myth. That changed later, with Taylor’s AIDS activism and openness about her addictions. Others were familiar faces, like Suzanne Pleshette, who seemed like a particularly fun friend who stopped by to visit, by way of your television.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

The Deer Hunter Catches Me at Last

I grew up watching the Vietnam War on the nightly news, so Vietnam movies seemed grimly unnecessary to me, and I never watched any of them until decades later.

I finally saw Apocalypse Now when I turned 50 in 2009, watching it on TV with Mom and Dad. We were engrossed in Apocalypse until Marlon Brando—not my Dad’s favorite—appeared, acting weird. After a few mumbled scenes, Dad waved his hand at the TV in disgust, saying, “Ahh, I’m going to bed.” This was Dick Gould’s classic thumbs down when he was done with a TV show or movie.

In happier times: the epic wedding scene from "The Deer Hunter." Real drinks were served in these scenes!
The Deer Hunter came out in 1978, a year after I graduated from high school in Manistique, Upper Michigan. I just watched the controversial classic for the first time this summer, 38 years after it was released. I guess I’ve been avoiding The Deer Hunter my entire adult life!

Director Michael Cimino, who recently died,  on  the film's set.
When Deer Hunter director Michael Cimino recently died, I realized I should watch the movie that made him famous. Opening the Netflix envelope, I saw that it was over 3 hours long—and wondered how 1970s audiences liked that?

All I knew about The Deer Hunter was that it made Meryl Streep and Christopher Walken stars, that the Vietnam scenes were hard to watch, and that it was an epic about everyday people.

Robert DeNiro as Mike, as the deer hunter.
A great deal has been said about this film—about its artistic merits, political accuracy, and intentions.  Though I thought The Deer Hunter was too long, I could not take my eyes off the screen. The Deer Hunter was unlike any other movie and I had no idea what would happen next. How could audiences or I know that a pivotal wedding day scene would last an hour? Or that we would next see the three men, about to leave for Vietnam, in the middle of action, and shortly after, captured? And that the group leader would actually return to Vietnam to rescue one of his friends, only to find out that he doesn’t want to be?

Meryl Streep, in her breakout role as small-town girl, Linda.
I found the small town scenes the most powerful, because they rang true. The Deer Hunter is set in a small Pennsylvania steel mill town. While the paper mill in Manistique wasn’t as all-dominating, many locals worked there or at Inland Limestone. Growing up and watching demonstrators and politicians argue about the Vietnam War on TV, I was always struck by the different attitude of people in my home town. They may have been for or against the war, but either way, just seemed to accept it as another hardship in their working class lives. I remember as a grade-schooler at Hiawatha School, when we brought treats and wish list items to mail overseas to local soldiers. I have vivid memories of when my family got the news that Dad’s brother, David, stepped on a land mine. I can still feel how horrible the news was, how frantic my family was, trying to figure out how to get Grandpa and Grandma Gould to the army hospital Uncle David was flown to. They had no extra money for luxuries like plane tickets. I remember hearing the grownups say that when word got out about David, money was donated from friends, family, and townspeople in a day’s time. So, those scenes of people coming together in The Deer Hunter, whether for a wedding or to welcome one of their own back from the war, in a simple, heartfelt way, really hit home.

The Vietnam scenes and its chaos of gunfire, bombing, and masses of people on the run, is hard enough to take. But the infamous Russian roulette scenes had me flinching. After a certain point, I felt like I was watching another movie. I think that was the point: these men were taken from their small town lives and dropped into a nightmare halfway around the world. Robert DeNiro and Christopher Walken were both 35, and John Savage was 29, when this movie was made. Despite their painfully powerful acting, the actors were clearly men, not boys. I realized later that many U.S. soldiers were so young, like my Uncle David, who was 18 at the time. Imagine going into that hell straight out of high school.

Christopher Walken won a best supporting actor Oscar as walking wounded Nick.
Just when you think you’re home free, DeNiro’s Mike goes back to rescue Walken’s Nick. And like the Vietnam War’s finish, there’s no happy ending for The Deer Hunter, either.

The controversy, praise, and criticism of The Deer Hunter are all valid. The movie is at least 30 minutes too long, you wonder where some characters have disappeared to, or ponder where is this all going? The movie’s strengths are the talents involved. The acting is uniformly top-notch. To think that John Cazale, as shit-stirrer Stan, was dying of lung cancer during filming, is mind-blowing. Vilmos Zsigmond’s cinematography is striking, making his compositions of rugged nature and the smoky factory town equally beautiful. The direction by Michael Cimino shows both his strengths and flaws. Cimino knows how to stir emotions with epic sweep and realistic detail. But like Francis Ford Coppola and his war epic, Cimino doesn’t know when less is more, or when enough’s enough. Cimino was given free rein on his next American epic, 1980’s Heaven’s Gate—which turned out to be enough rope to hang himself. The film was such a critical and commercial flop that it essentially ended Michael Cimino’s career.

The Deer Hunter, released at the end of 1978, still retains its emotional power.
I’m not one of those film buffs that love to pick movies apart or demand perfection. If a film has something to recommend it, I’ll watch. Maybe I’ll even watch Heaven’s Gate, to see what all the hooting and hollering was about. After all, it’s only been 36 years since its release.

Friday, July 8, 2016

Casablanca 1942

'Casablanca' still casts its classic spell 75 years later.
Critics and audiences still like to argue whether Casablanca is great art or merely great entertainment—let them, I say. Casablanca still captivates, no matter how you define the 1942 Warner Brothers’ war-time romance.

Bill Kennedy, the movie host with the most!
I was junior high age when I first watched Casablanca on the late show. From where I sat on my plaid sofa, in 1970s Upper Michigan, it was just another dated war time romance: lots of air sirens, police whistles, patriotism, sneering Nazis, and brave Bogie and Bergman clutching one another in the face of danger.

A few years later, I watched Casablanca again on Detroit TV 50’s Bill Kennedy at the Movies. By then, I was hooked on classic Hollywood and much more impressed. Kennedy was as proud as a peacock whenever the one-time actor got to show and chat about a true blue classic like Casablanca. By high school graduation, I felt like Bill had been my favorite teacher—in film.

What set Casablanca apart from other exotic romances, especially the many cinema copycats to come, was the classic melodrama captured a time and place vital in American and world history. The U.S. had avoided getting into WWII, much like Rick/Bogart: “I stick my neck out for nobody.” 

Everyone comes to Rick's movie blog!
However, Pearl Harbor changed all that on Dec. 7, 1941. Casablanca was filmed the following year, in an atmosphere of uncertainty. Many of the supporting cast members were ex-pats and refugees from all over Europe, who had already suffered in varying degrees from the bulldozing Nazi regime. S.Z. “Cuddles” Sakall, who played Rick’s head waiter—and memorably taught Barbara Stanwyck to flip pancakes in Christmas in Connecticut—lost three sisters to the concentration camps. Cast member Helmut Dantine spent time in a concentration camp before escaping to the U.S.

The plot of Casablanca is a cliché: Resistance fighters are trying to move through Casablanca and not get caught in the occupied city’s Nazi web. It’s a serviceable but straight-forward framework.

The rest, however, is memorable. The studio system was at its peak and Warner Brothers’ best was rolled out for Casablanca: Michael Curtiz, the studio’s # 1 director; Hal Wallis, their most artistic producer; Humphrey Bogart, emerging as WB’s top actor; promising newcomer Ingrid Bergman, “borrowed” from David Selznick; the pick of the studio’s stock company of great character actors; a polished script with some of movies’ most memorable lines; cinematography that was both crisp and dreamlike, a dramatic Max Steiner score, and of course, the ultimate movie love song, As Time Goes By.

Bogart & Bergman in a flashback of happiness as Rick & Ilsa. They'll always have Paris, and we'll always have Casablanca.
 Casablanca was a hit, making a leading man out of character actor/movie villain Humphrey Bogart, at age 43. The following year, his new status was confirmed when 19-year-old Lauren Bacall became Bogie’s baby, onscreen and off, in To Have and Have Not. Casablanca cemented Swedish star Ingrid Bergman’s status as a Hollywood leading lady. Three Oscars were to come later for other performances, yet Ilsa is still Bergman’s signature role.

Bogart and Bergman as Rick and Ilsa (two-thirds of a triangle) are genuinely moving because their performances are realistic, as well as romantic. Can you imagine if MGM had made this with Clark Gable and Joan Crawford, with Gable’s bluster and Crawford’s posturing? They might have made Casablanca popular but not an enduring classic.

Just some of the great ensemble cast of 'Casablanca.' Bogart & Bergman flanked by Claude Rains and Paul Henreid.
For those who think Casablanca is just high-grade Hollywood fluff, watch To Have and Have Not. WB was hoping lightning would strike twice. While it was just as well-made and entertaining as Casablanca, To Have has none of its emotional resonance or depth.
Casablanca became Hollywood’s greatest wartime romance, with its notion of sacrifice in an uncertain world. The film and its classic love theme became a touchstone of a time and place, but also as a symbol of true romance.

I recently watched Casablanca four decades later, on yet another plaid U.P. sofa. I was knocked out anew by the film’s genuine romanticism, since movies are typically filled with phony romance. Casablanca is fascinating because of its perfect counterpoints: Bergman’s dreamy close-ups to Bogart’s sharp tongue; the stars’ chemistry to a scene-stealing supporting cast; great dialogue to classic cinematic images; the booming Warners’ soundtrack to Wilson softly crooning As Time Goes By; and most of all, the genuinely romantic versus traditional happy ending.

Casablanca proves that, to lift a lyric, audiences will always welcome lovers, like Rick and Ilsa, no matter how much time goes by.
1942: The beginning of a beautiful friendship between "Casablanca" and audiences.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

My Own Auntie Mame!

A message to the youngins who’ve never seen 1958’s Auntie Mame: Watch this comedy classic on Netflix or Amazon or TCM ASAP. The story of a rich, free-thinking aunt who takes her orphaned nephew under her wing is a hoot with a heart.

Rosalind Russell was the definitive Mame--just ask Cher!
The irreverent Mame Dennis has enjoyed many incarnations. The Patrick Dennis best-seller from 1955 was a satirical shocker that still zings some sting. Though toned down for star Rosalind Russell, Roz still scored as Mame on both Broadway and film. In the ‘60s, Angela Lansbury triumphed in a Broadway musical Mame; the ‘70s Lucille Ball film version was so trashed that it was nicknamed Maimed. In recent years, stars from Whoopi to Goldie to Bette to Cher have been pitched for the inevitable remake. Cher, who knew both Roz and Lucy when she was starting out in show biz, said why bother, since Russell was the perfect Mame.  And she’s right.

However, I have a personal bias regarding Roz Russell as the most authentic Auntie Mame.
My “Auntie Mame” was my Aunt Audrey. Whenever I watch Rosalind Russell swanning through her greatest role, I think of my great aunt, Audrey Swan. I always get goose bumps when I hear Russell announce: “But darling! I’m your Auntie Mame!”

My Mom’s aunt was the total opposite of her own rather reserved family. Aunt Audrey was full of high spirits or full of something else, depending on who you talked to. Aunt Audrey was audacious, always rarin’ to go. She loved being surrounded by family, friends, and often, a fresh cocktail. Audrey Swan also loved being the center of attention.

Aunt Audrey certainly lived by Auntie Mame’s much-quoted motto: “Live, live, live. Life is a banquet and most poor suckers are starving to death!”

Aunt Audrey treated children like grownups and adults like they were children. Naturally, this delighted us kids and exasperated our parents.  Audrey asked opinions of children during an era when they were supposed to be seen and not heard. Aunt Audrey liked fussing over girls, like when she would wrap a scarf (one of my aunt’s favorite accessories) around my sister Robin and declare her “Mona Lisa!”

Childlike herself, Aunt Audrey named her pet poodle after the pet name she always called my mother—Coco Jean.

My Auntie Mame...Aunt Audrey, striking a pose, as usual!
There’s a hilarious family photograph of Aunt Audrey posing on a snowmobile, complete with snowsuit and white boots. I am willing to bet money she never rode that snow machine or the results would have been like Auntie Mame’s memorable attempt at horseback riding for a fox hunt on a dare!
Aunt Audrey was middle-aged when I was a kid and thought she was still striking, like an aging movie star. When I watch Russell as Auntie Mame, I am struck by their similar dark, sparkling eyes, and patrician airs. Roz Russell and Aunt Audrey both were masters of the arched brow, mock-dramatic intonation, and sailing into a room like a yacht. Bea Arthur worked those qualities, too. Bea became a hit in the sitcoms Maude and Golden Girls, and my family laughed as Arthur made her entrance, jutted chin and shoulders drawn back. Aunt Audrey was Roz’ and Bea’s equal in the dramatic entrance—and more than a few of the family thought Audrey Swan missed her career calling.

This is more like it! Aunt Audrey (left) in heels, with Grandma Leone.
Back in the late ‘60s, Aunt Audrey was visiting Manistique from Albion, MI. We had just moved back from Milwaukee, and she insisted on saying hello to Dad at his new job at the saw mill. When she asked to see him, Aunt Audrey introduced herself to his boss as “The Queen of the Lumberjacks!”

During the 1940s, ‘50s, and ‘60s, Aunt Audrey’s alpha female attitude wasn’t always appreciated. Some friends and family felt she was a bit much, and the term that fits Aunt Audrey best was drama queen, which didn’t exist back then!

But that didn’t stop Audrey Swan from carrying on, whether it was fussing over her charming husband Ed, or good-naturedly interfering with her children’s lives, whooping it up with friends, or looking for an excuse to celebrate. Like Auntie Mame, Aunt Audrey also enjoyed her cocktails, and could get “hung,” too.

When Uncle Ed died, this was a huge blow to Aunt Audrey. He adored her and was usually amused by her antics—the perfect husband for Auntie Audrey. And in her mind, he never left. Aunt Audrey believed in the afterlife and thought Uncle Ed’s spirit lived in her upstairs closet!

Latter day Aunt Audrey, right, with one of her "bosom buddies," Dickie Seymore.
Audrey and Ed had retired to Manistique in Upper Michigan, she adapted to her more modest personal and financial circumstances. Auntie Mame’s attempt at working class life might have been comical, but Audrey thrived on working around people, as when she was the guide at Manistique’s museum or later, when she became a janitor at the court house. I don’t know how spic and span her cleaning skills were, but she was probably the most charming janitor ever.

Audrey Swan was never afraid to try anything new, whether from necessity or curiosity. As a senior, my great aunt ended up moving to California, where two of her sons lived. She settled in an apartment complex where they worked and many college students lived. The kids loved this hip older lady, who loved hearing their stories, and they certainly got a kick out of hearing hers! Once again, there was a new audience for Audrey Swan.

Auntie Mame and Aunt Audrey, both the life of the party.
Aunt Audrey’s swan song finally came from cancer. She had a great life and was cared for by her beloved boys. Regrets were not Audrey Swan’s style—and she was a very stylish lady. Aunt Audrey and Auntie Mame both had lots of ups and downs, but they were always the life of the party.