Sunday, July 23, 2017

Billy Wilder's 'Kiss Me, Stupid': Sizzling Satire or Stale Sitcom?

Director/screenwriter Billy Wilder made many great films. 'Kiss Me, Stupid' isn't one of them!

*Spoilers ahead—Only needed if you’ve never seen any episode of Three’s Company!

After Peter Sellers left due to multiple heart attacks, filming of 'Kiss Me, Stupid' was a cakewalk for Billy Wilder. Visiting the set are 'Some Like It Hot' stars Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon.
Billy Wilder is one of my favorite filmmakers, who has directed some of my all-time favorite movies: Sunset BoulevardSabrinaSome Like It Hot, and The Apartment. Wilder’s adult, smart, uncompromising, yet witty storytelling paved the way for modern moviemakers. Imagine my surprise when I finally watched the director-screenwriter’s sex comedy Kiss Me, Stupid, starring Dean Martin, Kim Novak, and Ray Walston.

Kiss Me, Stupid was a notorious 1964 flop that in retrospect was the kiss-off to Billy Wilder’s career as Hollywood’s hottest comedic director. Like Hitchcock’s Marnie that same year, or Joseph Mankiewicz’ Cleopatra the year prior, or George Stevens’ The Greatest Story Ever Told in ‘65, Billy Wilder joined this elite club with Kiss Me, Stupid. They were all long-time, big-name directors whose stellar reputations were never the same because of one film.

Dean Martin as 'Dino' and Cliff Osmond as Barney, gas jockey & songwriter!
After a string of hits, right up through Some Like It HotThe Apartment, and Irma LaDouce, Wilder was renowned for sexy comedies with stinging social satire, wit, and intelligence. These qualities vanished with his next project, Kiss Me, Stupid. The premise is about Orville Spooner and Barney—two would-be songwriters struggling in Climax, Nevada—everybody and every place in this movie have a cartoon name. When Dino, a lecherous and drunken crooner played by—surprise!—Dean Martin, is stranded en route from Vegas, the dim duo envision stardom.

Ray Walston, Dean Martin, and Kim Novak on a three-way love seat.
Dino doesn’t want to hear their pitch, and complains of needing “action” every day—to prevent headaches. Pervy Barney prevails on Orville to pimp his wife, Zelda, out in exchange for the crooner’s pop music consideration. Did I mention Orville is so jealous of his wife, he comes off like a comedic Othello? Married man Orville balks, so Barney prevails on a local cocktail waitress/hooker, Polly the Pistol, to pose as Orville’s wife and do the dirty deed. After provoking a fight with the little woman to get her out of the house—on their anniversary—the wife decides to celebrate solo at The Belly Button, the sleazy bar where Polly plies her trade. The married man, with the floozy’s help, wines and dines the crooner. All goes awry when the jealous Orville gets possessive over the spurious spouse and kicks Dino out. The hubby and the whore spend the night together in mock marital bliss.

The songwriter hubby and the "wife"/whore enjoy some faux-marital bliss.
The crooner ends up at The Belly Button, where Zelda has been drowning her sorrows. The wife is now passed out in Polly’s trailer next door. Guess who pays her a visit, thinking she’s the local whore? Dino listens to Zelda’s pillow talk, praising her hubby’s tunes. She in turn puts out for the crooner. Zelda passes on Dino’s payment to Polly, so she can move on, post-Climax. Orville and Zelda are reunited, Dino sings his song, and Spooner’s jealousy is finally over. Zelda gets the last word, the movie’s title. Everyone say awww.
And the real wife gets to play whore for a night with celebrity customer Dino!
Awww as in awful, that is. Typically, I go light on film plot recaps, but it’s one of this movie’s major flaws. The storyline of Kiss Me, Stupid is so one-dimensionally sleazy that it’s like 126 minutes of Playboy cartoons strung together. Billy Wilder frequently walked the tightrope of taste with risqué plot points in The Seven Year ItchSome Like It Hot, and The Apartment. What elevated these classics were smart dialogue, empathetic characters, and appealing performances by their stars. Kiss Me, Stupid has none of these qualities. What’s really amazing for a Wilder movie is there’s not a single memorable line of dialogue, just a string of low-brow one-liners.

Dino as a most disruptive dinner guest. Kim as the "wife" doesn't seem to mind.
I will give Billy Wilder this: the opening and closing scenes of Kiss Me, Stupid show off his storytelling style admirably. And Wilder and his long-time screenwriter, I.A.L. Diamond, tell the story with great clarity—everything is nimbly wrapped up by Stupid’s final scene. Too bad the story and dialogue in between are so low-brow. There are stretches in Kiss Me, Stupid that are endless, the worst is when Orville and his “wife” are entertaining Dino.

Felicia Farr as the patient wife, Ray Walston as the insanely jealous husband.
This film was blasted by critics, censors, and the Catholic Church when it was released during the Christmas holidays, 1964. After the plot described above, is it any wonder? The Hollywood era was near the end of compromising with censors. Still, during the first half of the ‘60s, mainstream movies came on as provocative, but often ended up pussy-footing around. Wilder deserves credit for not being a tease, I suppose. While the targets of the director’s derision are admirable—moral hypocrisy, greed, and celebrity worship—the humor is about on par with a crass celebrity roast. The intelligent wit of Wilder is woefully lacking. The other big liability is the stars of Stupid. Wilder always worked with stars of great comedic flair and charisma—Shirley MacLaine, Audrey Hepburn, Walter Matthau, etc. In a film that desperately needs Wilder favorites Jack Lemmon and Marilyn Monroe as the jealous married man and the hooker with the heart of gold, we get Ray Walston and Kim Novak. Walston as Orville Spooner is grating, performed by a one-note Hollywood ham who fared better as a sitcom Martian. At 50, Walston was neither attractive nor appealing enough to believably attract gorgeous Felicia Farr or Kim Novak. But hey, we still have sitcoms starring homely comedians and their hot wives! Jack Lemmon was not available for this lemon, so Peter Sellers was originally cast as Orville, but suffered a series of heart attacks and dropped out.

Kim Novak as Polly the Pistol, who works at bar called
The Belly Button, in a town named Climax. Hilarious, right?
Marilyn Monroe was the original choice for Polly the Pistol, but famously expired before pre-production. So Kim Novak made her first film in two years as Polly. In her heyday, Novak was routinely panned as the most plastic kind of studio-manufactured star. In recent years, some film historians/writers now see nuances in Novak’s performances. To me, Kim certainly possessed vulnerability, which, when cast in complementary roles like Vertigo, was very effective. Yet Kim Novak’s limited range and lack of genuine charisma only makes me appreciate how Marilyn Monroe made sexy comedies seem effortless. Novak’s New Jersey accent makes her unfunny punch lines seem even flatter. And who thought it would be hilarious to have Novak play Polly as suffering from a stuffed up head cold? Kim sounds like a female Tony Curtis here.

Director Billy Wilder and star Dean Martin were a mutual admiration society.
Dean Martin, the most likeable of performers, gets to play Dino, the evil twin version of his persona. Martin’s brutal self-parody seems more foolhardy than brave, and only solidified his increasingly rancid Rat Pack image. Billy Wilder raved about Dean Martin’s untapped talent…but cast him as a dirty joke version of himself?

The great supporting cast is wasted as sitcom stereotypes. The worst is Cliff Osmond as Barney, the songwriting pal who concocts the whole sleazy scheme. Osmond is not just over the top, but totally repellent, looking and acting like Charles Laughton in slobbering villain mode. Osmond and Walston, as the untalented songwriters, are so frenetically unfunny together that I kept wishing somebody would magically give them the Bugs Bunny cartoon-style hook.

Felicia Farr is a lone bright spot as the sexy, sensible wife in 'Kiss Me, Stupid.'
The sole saving grace of Kiss Me, Stupid is Felicia Farr as Zelda Spooner, the Orville’s wife. Farr is lovely, sexy, smart, fun, and real—everything this film is not. The charming actress must have decided that starring as Jack Lemmon’s wife in real life was better than appearing in movies like this, because she acted only occasionally thereafter.


There’s a wave of current day film theory that defends Wilder as breaking barriers with his unvarnished, tough take on middle-class morals in Kiss Me, Stupid. Unfortunately, Billy Wilder presented the material in such a puerile, obvious manner that it comes across as trying to have your cake and eat it, too. And over 50 years later, Kiss Me, Stupid is still one stale slice of comedy.


We don't blame you for hiding, Felicia!

Billy Wilder’s 'Kiss Me Stupid': Sizzling Satire or Stale Sitcom?

*Spoilers ahead—Only needed if you’ve never seen any episode of Three’s Company!

After Peter Sellers left due to multiple heart attacks, filming of 'Kiss Me, Stupid' was a cakewalk for Billy Wilder. Visiting the set are 'Some Like It Hot' stars Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon.
Billy Wilder is one of my favorite filmmakers, who has directed some of my all-time favorite movies: Sunset Boulevard, Sabrina, Some Like It Hot, and The Apartment. Wilder’s adult, smart, uncompromising, yet witty storytelling paved the way for modern moviemakers. Imagine my surprise when I finally watched the director-screenwriter’s sex comedy Kiss Me, Stupid, starring Dean Martin, Kim Novak, and Ray Walston.

Kiss Me, Stupid was a notorious 1964 flop that in retrospect was the kiss-off to Billy Wilder’s career as Hollywood’s hottest comedic director. Like Hitchcock’s Marnie that same year, or Joseph Mankiewicz’ Cleopatra the year prior, or George Stevens’ The Greatest Story Ever Told in ‘65, Billy Wilder joined this elite club with Kiss Me, Stupid. They were all long-time, big-name directors whose stellar reputations were never the same because of one film.

Dean Martin as 'Dino' and Cliff Osmond as Barney, gas jockey & songwriter!
After a string of hits, right up through Some Like It Hot, The Apartment, and Irma LaDouce, Wilder was renowned for sexy comedies with stinging social satire, wit, and intelligence. These qualities vanished with his next project, Kiss Me, Stupid. The premise is about Orville Spooner and Barney—two would-be songwriters struggling in Climax, Nevada—everybody and every place in this movie have a cartoon name. When Dino, a lecherous and drunken crooner played by—surprise!—Dean Martin, is stranded en route from Vegas, the dim duo envision stardom.

Ray Walston, Dean Martin, and Kim Novak on a three-way love seat.
Dino doesn’t want to hear their pitch, and complains of needing “action” every day—to prevent headaches. Pervy Barney prevails on Orville to pimp his wife, Zelda, out in exchange for the crooner’s pop music consideration. Did I mention Orville is so jealous of his wife, he comes off like a comedic Othello? Married man Orville balks, so Barney prevails on a local cocktail waitress/hooker, Polly the Pistol, to pose as Orville’s wife and do the dirty deed. After provoking a fight with the little woman to get her out of the house—on their anniversary—the wife decides to celebrate solo at The Belly Button, the sleazy bar where Polly plies her trade. The married man, with the floozy’s help, wines and dines the crooner. All goes awry when the jealous Orville gets possessive over the spurious spouse and kicks Dino out. The hubby and the whore spend the night together in mock marital bliss.

The songwriter hubby and the "wife"/whore enjoy some faux-marital bliss.
The crooner ends up at The Belly Button, where Zelda has been drowning her sorrows. The wife is now passed out in Polly’s trailer next door. Guess who pays her a visit, thinking she’s the local whore? Dino listens to Zelda’s pillow talk, praising her hubby’s tunes. She in turn puts out for the crooner. Zelda passes on Dino’s payment to Polly, so she can move on, post-Climax. Orville and Zelda are reunited, Dino sings his song, and Spooner’s jealousy is finally over. Zelda gets the last word, the movie’s title. Everyone say awww.
And the real wife gets to play whore for a night with celebrity customer Dino!
Awww as in awful, that is. Typically, I go light on film plot recaps, but it’s one of this movie’s major flaws. The storyline of Kiss Me, Stupid is so one-dimensionally sleazy that it’s like 126 minutes of Playboy cartoons strung together. Billy Wilder frequently walked the tightrope of taste with risqué plot points in The Seven Year Itch, Some Like It Hot, and The Apartment. What elevated these classics were smart dialogue, empathetic characters, and appealing performances by their stars. Kiss Me, Stupid has none of these qualities. What’s really amazing for a Wilder movie is there’s not a single memorable line of dialogue, just a string of low-brow one-liners.

Dino as a most disruptive dinner guest. Kim as the "wife" doesn't seem to mind.
I will give Billy Wilder this: the opening and closing scenes of Kiss Me, Stupid show off his storytelling style admirably. And Wilder and his long-time screenwriter, I.A.L. Diamond, tell the story with great clarity—everything is nimbly wrapped up by Stupid’s final scene. Too bad the story and dialogue in between are so low-brow. There are stretches in Kiss Me, Stupid that are endless, the worst is when Orville and his “wife” are entertaining Dino.

Felicia Farr as the patient wife, Ray Walston as the insanely jealous husband.
This film was blasted by critics, censors, and the Catholic Church when it was released during the Christmas holidays, 1964. After the plot described above, is it any wonder? The Hollywood era was near the end of compromising with censors. Still, during the first half of the ‘60s, mainstream movies came on as provocative, but often ended up pussy-footing around. Wilder deserves credit for not being a tease, I suppose. While the targets of the director’s derision are admirable—moral hypocrisy, greed, and celebrity worship—the humor is about on par with a crass celebrity roast. The intelligent wit of Wilder is woefully lacking. The other big liability is the stars of Stupid. Wilder always worked with stars of great comedic flair and charisma—Shirley MacLaine, Audrey Hepburn, Walter Matthau, etc. In a film that desperately needs Wilder favorites Jack Lemmon and Marilyn Monroe as the jealous married man and the hooker with the heart of gold, we get Ray Walston and Kim Novak. Walston as Orville Spooner is grating, performed by a one-note Hollywood ham who fared better as a sitcom Martian. At 50, Walston was neither attractive nor appealing enough to believably attract gorgeous Felicia Farr or Kim Novak. But hey, we still have sitcoms starring homely comedians and their hot wives! Jack Lemmon was not available for this lemon, so Peter Sellers was originally cast as Orville, but suffered a series of heart attacks and dropped out.

Kim Novak as Polly the Pistol, who works at bar called
The Belly Button, in a town named Climax. Hilarious, right?
Marilyn Monroe was the original choice for Polly the Pistol, but famously expired before pre-production. So Kim Novak made her first film in two years as Polly. In her heyday, Novak was routinely panned as the most plastic kind of studio-manufactured star. In recent years, some film historians/writers now see nuances in Novak’s performances. To me, Kim certainly possessed vulnerability, which, when cast in complementary roles like Vertigo, was very effective. Yet Kim Novak’s limited range and lack of genuine charisma only makes me appreciate how Marilyn Monroe made sexy comedies seem effortless. Novak’s New Jersey accent makes her unfunny punch lines seem even flatter. And who thought it would be hilarious to have Novak play Polly as suffering from a stuffed up head cold? Kim sounds like a female Tony Curtis here.

Director Billy Wilder and star Dean Martin were a mutual admiration society.
Dean Martin, the most likeable of performers, gets to play Dino, the evil twin version of his persona. Martin’s brutal self-parody seems more foolhardy than brave, and only solidified his increasingly rancid Rat Pack image. Billy Wilder raved about Dean Martin’s untapped talent…but cast him as a dirty joke version of himself?

The great supporting cast is wasted as sitcom stereotypes. The worst is Cliff Osmond as Barney, the songwriting pal who concocts the whole sleazy scheme. Osmond is not just over the top, but totally repellent, looking and acting like Charles Laughton in slobbering villain mode. Osmond and Walston, as the untalented songwriters, are so frenetically unfunny together that I kept wishing somebody would magically give them the Bugs Bunny cartoon-style hook.

Felicia Farr is a lone bright spot as the sexy, sensible wife in 'Kiss Me, Stupid.'
The sole saving grace of Kiss Me, Stupid is Felicia Farr as Zelda Spooner, the Orville’s wife. Farr is lovely, sexy, smart, fun, and real—everything this film is not. The charming actress must have decided that starring as Jack Lemmon’s wife in real life was better than appearing in movies like this, because she acted only occasionally thereafter.


There’s a wave of current day film theory that defends Wilder as breaking barriers with his unvarnished, tough take on middle-class morals in Kiss Me, Stupid. Unfortunately, Billy Wilder presented the material in such a puerile, obvious manner that it comes across as trying to have your cake and eat it, too. And over 50 years later, Kiss Me, Stupid is still one stale slice of comedy.
We don't blame you for hiding, Felicia!

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.