Thursday, December 1, 2022

"King" Charlton Heston Rules in 'Diamond Head'

Yvette Mimieux & Charlton Heston have some sibling issues in "Diamond Head."


Diamond Head, the “sprawling saga” of spoiled plantation owners and struggling Hawaiian locals, has often been written off as a glossy soap. Diamond Head is damn soapy, for sure. But it’s not synthetic Ross Hunter soapy. Nor is it stylized like Douglas Sirk’s sudsy cinema. Diamond Head was taken from the same-named novel by Peter Gilman, who covered Hawaii as a reporter, and gives it some authenticity. The '63 film is set in 1959, when Hawaii became a US state.

The social issues & characters' issues of "Diamond Head" was in the vein of "Giant."

Spoiler alerts for soap opera plot points ahead!

What’s surprising about Diamond Head is how outspoken it was for a mid-century mainstream movie regarding racism, white patriarchy, division of wealth, and sexism. I'm looking at this film thru 2022 eyes, but there's some pretty sharp commentary by characters who question the late ‘50s status quo.

Charlton Heston as the aptly nicknamed "King" in 1963's "Diamond Head."

The film stars Charlton Heston as the nicknamed "King." Need I tell you who plays the pineapple plantation owner? Over the opening titles, Heston's Richard Howland is riding his white horse along his kingdom, and when he sees a plane parked near his manse, he gives a small, smug smile. King knows the visitors are politicos, courting him to run for state senator. Heston is a tad less surly than usual, but is well-cast as the alpha male, with snide quips to his political ass-kissers. Throughout Diamond Head, King orders everyone around and runs roughshod over anyone who opposes him.

Yvette Mimieux is Sloane, who wants to marry a Hawaiian man in "Diamond Head."

This happens to be the same day his sister is coming home from college. Sloane is played by Yvette Mimieux, in perhaps her most spirited role. Their parents are dead and the siblings are unusually close. There also seems to be an age difference between them, almost 20 years in real life. He seems more like her father, who was alive in the novel. However, princess Sloane has a surprise for big brother King. 

James Darren is the even-keeled brother who Yvette Mimieux loves in "Diamond Head."

She plans to marry childhood friend Paul Kahana, who's Hawaiian. He's played by '60s heart throb James Darren. King sees himself as a benevolent ruler, as long as everyone knows their place. The Howland siblings are the last of their line and King doesn't want mixed blood inheriting their empire, since it's been in the family for over 100 years. King seems to forget that the Hawaiians were there just a bit longer than that. There are echoes of Giant with the reactionary alpha male who likes to get his way, doesn’t like change, and tolerates the locals. Instead of a willful wife, King has a strong-willed sister in Sloane.

"King" has just given sister Sloane an expensive graduation gift in "Diamond Head."

Paul Kahana's older half-brother Dean is brought in to talk him out of marriage to Sloane. He is also half-Hawaiian, played by recent Oscar winner George Chakiris. No fan of the puffed-up patriarch, island doctor Dean tells King that the real problem is he does not want any man in his sister's bed! 

George Chakiris is Dr. Dean Kahana, half-brother to James Darren's Paul in "Diamond Head." Here, he spars with Heston's "King" over Sloane, left.

Paul and Dean's mother, Kapiolani, has been married to both a white man and a Hawaiian, and doesn't approve of mixing races, either. But knowing firsthand that love transcends race, she gives her blessing. The beloved matriarch is played by the great character actress, Aline MacMahon. 

Aline MacMahon plays the mother of the Kahana brothers and Elizabeth Allen
plays  the aunt of Sloane in "Diamond Head."

The King's widowed sister-in-law Laura doesn't approve either, who is more garden variety white superior. She's played by lovely Elizabeth Allen, who becomes more empathetic as the film goes on. Like her niece, she idolizes King as well, and marks time hoping he'll see how much she loves him.

However, King Richard is a hypocrite, since he's having a secret affair with a Hawaiian woman, Mai Chen, played by France Nuyen. An even bigger surprise comes when she tells him that she's pregnant. Let's just say Heston's King doesn't take the news well. He’s stone cold about commitment, as his wife and children were wiped out in a tidal wave, leaving him emotionally unavailable, except for secret trysts. 

France Nuyen's Hawaiian lover looks as if she'd like to stick that cigar up
plantation owner Charlton Heston's back 40 in "Diamond Head."

What's contrary about this movie is while it's outspoken about race issues, the stars that play Hawaiians are just about everything but: James Darren is Italian and George Chakiris is Greek, and seem to be sporting tan makeup; Aline MacMahon was white and given the brown-face treatment; and France Nuyen is French-Asian. Still, these actors all give good performances, without going over the top. While I think today's politically correct casting goes overboard at times, this '63 film is at the other end of the pendulum, when box office was the determining factor to casting actors. Hence, a star got cast as various nationalities, as did Diamond Head hunk George Chakiris, who won his Oscar for playing a Puerto Rican.

George Chakiris glares & Charlton Heston scowls as their characters react to their engaged siblings' sexy Hawaiian dance in "Diamond Head."

Yvette Mimieux & James Darren go Hawaiian in "Diamond Head."

When Mai’s drunken brother tangles with King at Paul and Sloane's engagement party, Paul fatally tries to break it up. From here, Sloane and King clash, especially when she rebounds with Paul's brother! More soapy scenes ensue, but what makes the movie intriguing is how direct it is in addressing various social issues. Sloane zings back at some of the male characters' judgment of her behavior as sexist, and she can also admit to her own privilege. The King knows he’s more or less having his cake and eating it, too, regarding his retrograde race relations while also involved with a Hawaiian woman. Yet, he falls back on the old “that's the way it's always been” argument. Chakiris' character and others call out the King for thinking he's above reproach. What's especially timely is King, who had to be courted into running for senator, now stubbornly refuses to drop out, despite being involved in an accidental killing and getting a Hawaiian woman pregnant! Heston plays hard-headed hubris wonderfully.

Charlton Heston's "King" decides to run for senator in "Diamond Head."

Director David Green may be the reason that Diamond Head is direct about the issues discussed in the film. Green is the director of The Mark and A Patch of Blue, which deal with societal topics. The British director seems to have gotten uniformly good performances out of the cast, as well.

Charlton Heston as King, clashing w/ favorite subject, his sister, in "Diamond Head."

Heston isn't as sneering and sullen as he later became, but he's still well-cast! Charlton’s King has some subtle moments, as when he recounts his family's sudden death or reacts to his later son's birth. Heston uses his physicality to show King’s privileged attitude, as if the world revolves around him. Heston uses his trademark scowls, side eyes, and curt line readings to great effect. Yet, occasionally, King is shown to be caring, under all the attitude, and Heston conveys that well. It’s also to the star’s credit that he was willing to play such a role; off-camera, Heston was actively involved with civil rights. Noteworthy, Charlton Heston was 37 when Diamond Head filmed and he’s at the absolute peak of his physical prime here. That Roman coin profile is put to good use as King!

Yvette Mimieux is lovely and spirited as rich girl Sloane in "Diamond Head."

Yvette Mimieux, who often played child-like characters, gets to tap into that childishness here as the headstrong Sloane. Yet, she also stands up to the bull-headed men in her life, which reminded me a bit of Elizabeth Taylor in Giant, when she snaps back at the alpha males around her. At 20, Yvette is quite beautiful here, as well as beguiling.

George Chakiris as Dean, the half-Hawaiian doctor in "Diamond Head."

George Chakiris and James Darren may be the hunkiest brother act in movie history. And both aged beautifully and are still alive at this writing, 90 and 86, in 2022! Chakiris gives a strong performance as the coolly appraising brother, who has come up the hard way as a half-Hawaiian. He holds his own against Heston’s hot-headed character quite well. And Chakiris and Yvette Mimieux make a handsome couple, though their characters spend most of their time quarreling. Darren’s brother is more good-natured and while not the most exciting role, James makes him likeable and it’s a jolt when he’s killed.

James Darren as Paul Kahana, a Hawaiian who wants to marry outside his race,
in "Diamond Head."

Aline MacMahon was warm and authoritative as the Kahana brothers’ mother. This wasn’t her first exotic role, either. Aline played Chinese along with Katharine Hepburn in Dragonseed!  Elizabeth Allen and France Nuyen do their best, playing thankless characters who suffer for being in love with Heston’s insufferable King.

Aline MacMahon plays Kapiolani, the Kahana brothers' mother in "Diamond Head."

The production takes advantage of location shooting with Diamond Head and there’s a great Johnny Williams score. In fact, the only major fault with this epic is the sudsy incestuous brother-sister angle. The makers of this movie could have dropped this titillating subplot, which serves no real purpose, but seemed to be trendy during the ‘60s: The Last Sunset, Bunny Lake is Missing, Secret Ceremony, etc. Yes, it was a “shocking” selling point of the book and movie, but the film could have dug even deeper into the more universal issues of racial and sexual equality, and power and wealth. The one truly camp moment is the water fall dream sequence. Sloane dreams of her younger days, when she skinny dipped in her favorite fall. First, she tries to cajole George Chakiris’ Dean to join her. He just stares morosely. Then James Darren’s Paul walks into the water—fully clothed!—to join. After he kisses her, Paul steps back, and he becomes Heston’s King—also fully dressed. Naturally, Sloane wakes up startled!  And while some may find the engagement Hawaiian dirty dancing camp, too, beautiful Darren and Mimieux acquit themselves well, I think.

First Sloane dreams of her dead fiancee in "Diamond Head..."

Then the late lover morphs into sister Sloane's brother, in "Diamond Head."

If you can get past the whitewashing of the “Hawaiian” characters and the soapy incest subplot, Diamond Head is well worth watching.

What real Hawaiians looked like in "Diamond Head," as extras!

A decade later, Charlton Heston was in full sullen and sneer mode as the cynical cop in the futuristic Soylent Green. My take here:


One last shot of that on-screen charmer, Charlton Heston! From "Diamond Head."


Wednesday, November 9, 2022

Kathy Bates’ Stephen King Encore: ‘Dolores Claiborne’ 1995

The battle cry of Dolores Claiborne: "Next time, one of us is going to the boneyard!" 


I loved Stephen King’s suspense novel Dolores Claiborne and was pleased when I saw the film version onscreen back in ’95. Director Taylor Hackford and screenwriter Tony Gilroy did a stellar job telling King’s story.

This blog post is part of the Classic Movie Blog Association’s Blogathon “Movies Are Murder.” Here’s the link to the lineup!

Click here:

***A few spoilers ahead***

The title character is a small town Maine woman who is abused in varying degrees by both her boozing bastard husband and rich bitch employer. Dolores endures all of it to save as much of her earnings as possible for daughter Selena to go to college. Things come to a head when Dolores discovers that hubby Joe has cleaned out Selena’s savings account and more alarmingly, is also molesting the girl. Desperate, domestic Dolores turns to employer Vera, who’s surprisingly sympathetic, and offers a drastic solution.

Kathy Bates as the younger, then Dolores St. George. Bates has said that
"Dolores Claiborne" is her favorite role and I agree!

New Englander Stephen King, a Peyton Place fan, seems to have been inspired by the white trash Cross family from the Grace Metalious novel and the 1957 20th Century Fox film adaptation. Remember drunken lout Lucas Cross, who beats his housemaid wife and molests his daughter, Selena Cross? It's no coincidence that the abused daughter of Dolores Claiborne is also named Selena. However, beaten down maid Nellie Cross is no Dolores Claiborne. Instead of fighting back, Nellie hangs herself at lady-like employer Constance McKenzie's home. Dolores Claiborne feels beaten down with her lot in life, especially after getting screwed over one last time by husband Joe. Luckily, employer Vera is much more vengefully practical than prissy Constance. In Peyton Place, it’s daughter Selena who must defend herself against the drunken father.

The poor and unhappy Lucas Cross family of "Peyton Place" seemed to inspire
 Stephen King with his dysfunctional family in "Dolores Claiborne."

I recall one critic at the time saying that Dolores Claiborne recalled the mid-career melodramas of Joan Crawford and Bette Davis. I immediately imagined ‘50s Bette Davis playing this role opposite Ernest Borgnine, her co-star from The Catered Affair, where they played a bickering Boston couple. I also amusingly envisioned Bette as the dumpy Dolores to Joan Crawford in Harriet Craig mode as demanding perfectionist Vera Donovan: “Six pins, Dolores! You know that’s the way I like it. Six pins, not five!”

Imagine Bette Davis as "Dolores Claiborne" & Ernest Borgnine as Joe!

Or Joan Crawford as Vera Donovan, who was pretty good
at giving the help a hard time in "Harriet Craig!"

Director Taylor Hackford directs what would have once been called a "woman's picture" with great style, set pieces, and highlighting the actors performances and characters. It's a suspense film/soap opera, with a lot of plot. But the story is that of small town secrets and scandal—and as somebody who grew up in one, I found it totally believable!

"Dolores Claiborne" is unflinching in it's look at small town dysfunctional families.

Dolores Claiborne is a gutsy Maine character who chooses her battles. The book and movie are direct about child sexual abuse, spousal abuse, elder dementia—the stuff of real life, and of Delores’ life. Oscar winner Kathy Bates (Misery) is on record saying that Dolores Claiborne is her favorite role. It’s easy to see why. Kathy as Dolores is salty but good-hearted, innately decent but sometimes tough, and is both the victim and reluctant villain. Claiborne is a character who life has left its mark on, which is beautifully conveyed here by Bates. I also love Dolores Claiborne because she and Kathy Bates remind me of my paternal grandmother, who also had a hard life and was equally plain-spoken. Grandma Alvera’s favorite saying could have been Dolores Claiborne’s: “Quit your pissing and moaning!”

Kathy Bates as the older "Dolores Claiborne," with Jennifer Jason Leigh as Selena.

British actress Judy Parfitt was unfamiliar to American audiences at the time, but her performance as piece of work Vera Donovan is now among her most memorable. Bates and Parfitt make a great team as the no-nonsense maid and the imperious lady of the house. There are a number of memorable lines from this movie, but Parfitt’s waspish Vera has the very best of them! Though Vera wears her bitchiness like a badge of honor, other aspects of her personality and past are held close.

Judy Parfitt is most memorable as the rich employer in "Dolores Claiborne."
Vera Donovan: "Sometimes, Dolores, an accident can be an unhappy woman's best friend!"

In King’s novel, Selena St. George is depicted as a child, but only referenced as an adult. Tony Gilroy’s screenplay does a solid job of fleshing out Selena as an unhappy young woman. She’s now a writer in New York City, just like Peyton Place’s Allison MacKenzie, who is traumatized by family scandal and runs off to the Big Apple to write and have affairs. Jennifer Jason Leigh is perfectly cast as the dysfunctional, depressed, drinking and drugging daughter, who somehow manages to be high-functioning, professionally. Leigh’s Selena is understandably detached and morose coming back to her unhappy childhood home, and falls into dysfunctional traps. Leigh’s coolness is a great counterpoint to Bates’ warm-hearted and sometimes hot-headed mother.

David Strathairn, in a villainous turn as worthless husband Joe St. George.
Watching Strathairn as slimy Joe reminded me of Arthur Kennedy
as equally vile Lucas Cross in "Peyton Place!"

David Strathairn is a great villain as Joe St. George, Dolores’ worthless husband. Strathairn has played both distinguished and despicable men with equal skill and conviction, much like Arthur Kennedy did in his long career. Kennedy won an Oscar nomination for his drunken sexual predator Lucas Cross in Peyton Place. Had Dolores Claiborne been a big commercial hit at the time, it’s likely that Bates, Parfitt, Leigh, and Strathairn would have all received nominations. Also, Christopher Plummer is in sneering and steely mode as the local detective who’s determined not to let Dolores Claiborne get off the hook.

Christopher Plummer in supercilious mode as Detective Mackey, who has it in for
Kathy Bates' "Dolores Claiborne."

Dolores Claiborne is one of those films that enjoyed an afterlife on video and television. It got solid reviews upon release, but was only a modest hit. The year before, the adaptation of King’s The Shawshank Redemption was a male-oriented story that became a sleeper success. With home viewing, both Dolores Claiborne and The Shawshank Redemption have become popular favorites.

Vera Donovan offers "Dolores Claiborne" some parting advice before the big eclipse!

Director Taylor Hackford deserves praise for his handling of the current day story of Vera Donovan’s mysterious death with the equally weighted flashback scenes of Dolores and Vera’s unhappy lives. The set piece of the eclipse and Dolores leading Joe to his fate is wonderfully done. Selena’s repressed memory of her father’s abuse is strongly but subtly handled.

Setting a trap for her abusive husband isn't exactly rocket science for "Dolores Claiborne."

There are many memorable scenes in Dolores Claiborne—alternately harrowing, suspenseful, darkly humorous, and touching. A throw back to a classic movie-movie, but with enough reality to engage modern audiences, this movie stays in your memory. Dolores Claiborne is both an atmospheric suspense film and engrossing character study, with strong, naturalistic performances and stylish storytelling.

The beautifully executed eclipse/death scene in "Dolores Claiborne."