The Philadelphia Nuns’ Story

5 Jul

Oh, my. We are right here in the thick of it, aren’t we? That would be an election year almost like no other, and too many of us thought the 2000 showdown was a circus. Not to mention a little thing called “Watergate” (i.e., the elephant forever in the room).  Now, look where we are, but don’t worry. This is a movie column, not a political one, so I’m not about to leap onto a soapbox, but what about movies that are also political, you might ask?

Okay, I’m game. Well, I’m game in regards to one particular political film. See, between Alexander Payne’s Election (1999), which used high school student council campaigns to make a larger point about politics in general, and Robert Downey’s Putney Swope (1969), which viewed racism through the lens of corporate greed and one-upmanship, lies the masterfully wicked Nasty Habits, director Michael Lindsay Hogg’s 1977 re-imagining of the then still-recent Watergate scandal within the confines of a Philadelphia convent. That’s right, a cast of nuns, many portrayed by some of the era’s most acclaimed actresses. re-enacting the bad and the ugly of former President Richard Nixon and his bumbling accomplices during the 1972 election and the subsequent cover-up and investigation.

Based on Muriel Spark’s novella, The Abbess of Crewe (1974), Nasty Habits is definitely an acquired taste, but I love it, finding it appropriately savage as we expect from smart satire. Keep in mind that when the movie premiered in 1977, the events depicted were barely 5 years old and had more or less been chronicled with due dignity in 1976’s All the President’s Men, the Oscar winning adaptation of Washington Post reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward’s Pulitzer winning investigative series on the Watergate break-in and the subsequent cover-up.  Even so, the events still made ripe targets for scandal, and setting the whole dirty business in a fiendishly yet matter-of-factly corrupt Philadelphia convent gave/gives it an appropriately brittle edge; after all, we expect more from nuns than we do politicians, especially given the massive popularity of, say, Lillies of the FieldThe Sound of Music and the flurry of  sisterly inspired movies and TV shows that followed in the 1960sbut, then, once upon a time, we probably expected more from politicians. Didn’t we? At the very least, we might have suspected the worst from our elected officials in Washington, but even though we knew unmistakably about corruption and, say, adultery, we hoped those to be isolated incidents and could still claim a certain degree of innocence regarding the highest office in the land, that is, the sanctity of it. Of course, when the Watergate story broke, and Spark set her sights on satirizing it, women weren’t as visible in the political arena as they are today, so that created a sense of tension in the text as well.

I ached to see Nasty Habits when I was a high schooler. At that time, thanks to the likes of Animal Farm and A Modest Proposal (per British Lit), and such TV shows as Saturday Night Live,  All in the Family, Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, and PBS’s never-ending repeats of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, I was keen on satire–what a concept!–and wanted a dose whenever and wherever I could find it. Alas, the movie was a hard sell, coming a few months on the heels of the brutal Network, and fizzled unceremoniously though it did have fans as highly placed as Vincent Canby of the New York Times and Pauline Kael of the the New Yorker, both of whom found praiseworthy elements in spite of some skepticism. Canby lauded the movie for being funny in parts, so much so that (for him, at least) the less funny parts were doubly aggravating. In other words, the so-called good parts deserved much much better. Kael, much more effusive in her review, delighted in the performances and commended the director, most famously known at the time for the landmark Beatles documentary Let It Be, on his deft work with the cast, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

A few years ago I wrote that Nasty Habits was on my movie bucket list, but that all changed with the 2014 DVD release, and it did not, nor does not, disappoint. Almost any and every dirty trick that most of us remember about that particular era is right there on the screen, only twisted for maximum satirically induced discomfort. And fun. Now, I watch Nasty Habits just about anytime I want, and the time is ripe for discovery for those less familiar. Oh, and I also have the book in hardback.

Now, about that cast. If you’re reading this and think the whole idea of nuns engaging in such political skullduggery as tasteless at best and downright sacrilegious at worst, well, that’s certainly a concern. Maybe the film can be better appreciated using a different lens, and that would be the lens of formidable talent. Consider this: among its major players,  the cast of Nasty Habits could–at that time–boast a total of  11 Oscar nominations with three wins, and multiple Tony wins and/or nominations besides, plus at least one Emmy celebrant. And they were all women. Think about that. As I have noted in a previous post, 1977 was some kind of wonderful for actresses.  How wonderful was it? Well, it was so wonderful that Newsweek published not ONE but TWO cover stories that year, spotlighting exciting, meaningful new movies starring the likes of Sissy Spacek, Shelly Duvall, and Janice Rule in 3 Women, Jane Fonda and Vanessa Redgrave in Julia, and Anne Bancroft and Shirley MacLaine in The Turning Point. See? Not just a single actress with a plum film role, but films with two or more leading ladies. Plus, as the following gallery so aptly demonstrates, Nasty Habits contributed to the trend as well. Please consider the following:

Glenda Jackson (above) portrays Sister Alexandra, the nun who would be President Richard Nixon--or Nixon-like. As the film begins, Sister Alexandra is close to being named successor to dying Abbess. Sister Sister Hildegarde. Alas, the old nun dies before she can make the appointment official, thereby setting the story into motion as SIster Alexandra faces an election which pits her in a contest with young Sister Felicity, who already has the support of the noviates but who also has a thing or two she'd rather keep on the down low.

Glenda Jackson (above) portrays Sister Alexandra, the nun who would be President Richard Nixon–or Nixon-like (below). IMAGE: YouTube (

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President Richard M. Nixon (1913-1994); IMAGE: Wikipedia/U.S. National Archives and Records Administration

As the film begins, Sister Alexandra is close to being named successor to dying Abbess, Sister Hildegarde (Estelle Winwood).  Alas, the elder nun dies before she can make the appointment official, thereby setting the story into motion as Sister Alexandra faces an election which pits her against young Sister Felicity, who already has the support of the novices but who also has an active libido she’d rather keep on the down-low. Thus, the righteous old guard, fronted, if not led, by Sister Alexandra, rallies a smear campaign to discredit Felicity and swing the election in Alexandra’s favor even if that means bending or even breaking a commandment or two.  Yes, there is a break-in, with so-called plumbers, illicitly recorded conversations, and references to Machiavelli.

British born Jackson was right at 40 when Nasty Habits opened, and she had been on a roll for most of the decade. Never known for glamorous movie star looks on the order of, say, Julie Christie, Jane Fonda, or Faye Dunaway, Jackson had nonetheless conquered Hollywood through sheer force of talent, wowing her peers in the Academy with award winning performances in Women in Love (1970) and A Touch of Class (1973), the latter, like Nasty Habits, produced through Brut Productions, yes, a subsidiary of the once fabled Faberge toiletries empire. In addition to her Oscars, Jackson also earned nominations for 1971’s Sunday, Bloody Sunday (scripted by the New Yorker‘s Penelope Gilliat), and 1975’s Hedda, an adaptation of Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler; the latter a combined effort from Brut and PBS though, to clarify, released theatrically. Oh, yes she had also made quite a splash in the BBC series Elizabeth R, taking on the role of Queen Elizabeth I, garnering international acclaim, and, yes, an Emmy. She segued from Nasty Habits to the popular House Calls (1978) co-starring Walter Matthau and later reteamed with the actor for Hopscotch (1980). She also earned fine notices and award consideration for her portrayal of  poet Stevie Smith in Stevie (1978) and earned an Emmy nod for playing the lead in a mini-series based on the life of actress Patricia Neal. To clarify, these are only the highlights. Her resume is exceptionally varied. Eventually, Jackson retired from movies and pursued a career in British politics.

As Sister Alexandra, Jackson never stoops to merely impersonating Nixon or goofing on his familiar mannerisms although one particular line of dialogue is an unmistakable beaut. Instead, she plays Alexandra as someone full of confidence and even self-adoration, high on her own cleverness and love of power though shielded by a veneer of soothing charity and calm respectability. She’s a smart cookie, cagey enough to manipulate people into doing her bidding from a respectful distance in order to evince plausible deniability in the process. This ranks among the shrewdest of Jackson’s work even if it’s not among her most popular. Canby labelled it the best thing she had done in years (at that point), coming off a less than successful Sarah Bernhardt biopic (produced by Readers Digest, no less), and Kael raved about Jackson’s “biting delivery,” adding that “She believes in nothing but herself, and appreciates her own refinement and aplomb. In Alexandra, snobbery achieves perfection.” Kael also describes Alexandra as both a “sacred monster” and a “romantic authoritarian.”  High praise, indeed.

Bringing considerable clout to the proceedings is Geraldine Page as Sister Walburga, the Prioress, and a stand-in for H.R. Haldeman (below), White House Chief of Staff during the Nixon years.

Bringing considerable clout to the proceedings is Geraldine Page as Sister Walburga, the Prioress, and a stand-in for H.R. Haldeman, White House Chief of Staff during the Nixon years. (IMAGE: YouTube)

In real-life, Haldeman and his co-conspirator John Erlichman (dubbed “the Berlin Wall” by White House patsy John Dean) were eventually tried and committed on multiple charges, including obstruction of justice and perjury, for their roles in the Watergate cover-up.

At the time of Nasty Habits, Page was a five time Oscar nominee with no wins though that would change with the release of 1985’s The Trip to Bountiful, the Dallas based indie for which she earned her 8th nomination. She won her Academy trophy for Best Actress in the spring of ’86 and passed away in June of the following year. Interestingly, in spite of all those Oscar nods, Page was arguably better known as a theatre actress, especially for acclaimed performances in Tennessee Willams’ plays Summer and Smoke and Sweet Bird of Youth (a Tony nomination, among a quartet, for the latter), both of which eventually netted Page Oscar nominations for their film adaptations. I’m particularly fond of Page’s tour de force as a movie star restless for a comeback in Sweet Bird of Youth (1962). Alas, as splendid as she was in that flick, she was more than matched by Anne Bancroft, the victor for The Miracle Worker.  Whew! What talent! The actress also earned two Emmys during her esteemed career (refer to IMDb). Incredibly, she netted her first Oscar nod for what was labelled a supporting turn in Hondo, a 3D western starring John Wayne. Besides the specific films listed here, her other Oscar nominations include: You’re a Big Boy Now (Best Supporting Actress, 1966), Pete ‘n’ Tillie (Best Supporting Actress, 1972), Interiors (Best Actress, 1978), and The Pope of Greenwich Village (Best Supporting Actress, 1984). Believe me, she makes the most of her limited screen-time in the latter.

One of my favorite scenes in Nasty Habits occurs early in the film when Jackson, Page, and Anne Jackson (see below) retire to their bathing quarters at the end of an eventful day. There, divided into private stalls, each with its own tub, the sisters begin the task of disrobing one cumbersome garment at a time though refraining from stripping down all the way before sliding into warm baths. What’s interesting about the scene, a part from watching these performers engage in dialogue while working through complicated bits of “business,” is seeing the characters’ personalities, their vanity, emerge when they’re free from their habits, secure that nobody is watching. In an instant, Page’s Sister Walburga experiences fleeting delight as her long hair cascades around her shoulders, greeting her newly free tresses like a long lost friend. One gathers that Walburga’s luscious locks are a secret she keeps from her fellow nuns who are much modestly coiffed.

Anne Jackson

If Page’s Sister Walburga serves as the stand-in for Haldeman, then Anne Jackson’s Sister Mildred, Mistress of Novices, suffices as John Ehrlichman, Nixon’s domestic affairs advisor. (IMAGE: YouTube)

Among this star-studded cast, Anne Jackson was surely the least familiar, meaning that most of her best work appeared to be onstage or in episodic television rather than in films.  For example, she earned a “Best Featured Actress” Tony nomination for Middle of the Night (1956), an Obie, the off-Broadway Tony equivalent, for The Typists & The Tiger (two one acts by Murray Schisgal that were eventually packaged as one film, The Tiger Makes Out, for which she recreated her stage role); she also starred on Broadway in the hit Luv–also by Schisgal–which Mike Nichols directed to great acclaim.

Per the previously mentioned scene in which Alexandra, Walburga, and Mildred retire to their bathing quarters, pay special attention to Mildred. The fact that she applies some kind of topical cosmetic patch to her forehead naturally reveals her vanity, but look closely at how she does it. The actress incorporates a sly visual detail that let’s the audience know that these characters should not trust each other. Of course, we know it, but they don’t, so we anticipate their downfalls.

Of course, I hate to second any casting director that manages to secure the talents of Glenda Jackson, Geraldine Page,  Melina Mercouri, Anne Meara, and Sandy Dennis in one film, but the casting of Anne Jackson in this role has always been a puzzler. Oh, she’s fine, and she does have that nice bit of business in the bathing sequence, but I’m not sure she’s singular, either. Not-so- -right-off-the-top-of-my-head, I can imagine that Barbara Harris (mentioned elsewhere in this piece) or Eileen Brennan might have provided a little more spark, so to speak, in this role.


Melina Mercouri portrays Sister Gertrude, a missionary and obvious counterpart to Henry Kissinger, Secretary of State to President Richard Nixon.

Melina Mercouri portrays Sister Gertrude, a missionary and obvious counterpart to Henry Kissinger, Secretary of State to President Richard Nixon. (IMAGE: YouTube)

Actually, Mercouri garnered second billing on this film, right behind Jackson, providing evidence of her star power though she is less essential to the plot than the characters portrayed by Page and Jackson. Younger readers (or moviegoers) might ask,” What’s so special about Mercouri?” Born in Greece, Mercouri dazzled audiences in 1960’s Never on Sunday, which teamed her with future hubby Jules Dassin.  The actress reaped Best Actress honors at Cannes and later scored an Oscar nod. The movie’s inescapably catchy theme song actually landed a statuette for composer Manos Hatzidakis, from a total of 5 nominations including two for writer-director Dassin (who also played the leading male role). From there, she and Dassin segued to Phaedra (an update on Hippolytus by Euripides), for which she earned additional accolades, and then onto 1964’s larky heist-capade, Topkapi with Maximilian Schell and Oscar winner Peter Ustinov–still one of my favorite flicks and a must-see for anyone with fond memories of the first Mission Impossible installment directed by Brian de Palma, but I digress. Mercouri and Dassin made several films together, including 1978’s Medea-inspired A Dream of Passion.

Coincidentally, and much like Jackson, by the time Mercouri appeared in Nasty Habits, she had begun focusing on politics in her homeland and soon retired from acting. She served multiple terms as Greece’s Minister of Culture between 1981 and 1994, the year of her death.

Her Sister Gertrude, not especially admired by either Canby or Kael, is a hoot. At first, Gertrude is eager to help facilitate the impending election, but her efforts are rebuffed by Page’s prioress. Later, Gertrude finds it more prudent to distance herself from the erupting scandal and copters from one far-flung, absurd location to the next, either evading calls from Jackson and her team or simply speaking in non-sequiturs–like a true diplomat. She also delivers the sharpest line in the whole movie when she explains the difference between a problem and a paradox. Her storyline somewhat parallels Kissinger’s in that, while she no doubt accomplishes some good in the course of her actions, she’s also savvy when it comes to managing her identity, and that means steering clear of the evergrowing mess at the convent. Meanwhile, don’t forget that even as the Watergate scandal took on ever more crazy twists and turns, Kissinger still found time to accept his Nobel Peace Prize. In her review, Kael put forth the idea that Mercouri might have been hired based on her accent rather than her acting skills. Harsh, that, though it is certainly true that Mercouri’s strong Greek accent is more than a match for Baviarian born–Manhattan raised–Kissinger’s thick gravelly tonation.  I have a theory, as well,  that by hiring a famous Greek star to play one character, the producers were also able to make a not-so-subtle reference to another:  former Vice-President Spiro Agnew who was also of Greek descent and who also generated plenty of controversy and/or concern during the Watergate years (please refer to the following profile of Anne Meara).

Anne Meara

Anne Meara plays Sister Geraldine, a spoof of Vice-President Gerald Ford. (IMAGE: YouTube)

Meara’s character did not appear in Spark’s original novella, and that makes sense given that Ford was not a part of Nixon’s inner circle when reports of the Watergate break-in first circulated.  During the investigation into Nixon and his crew’s alleged malfeasance, a separate outcry erupted over then Vice President Spiro Agnew’s charges of bribery, money laundering, and/or tax evasion. Agnew pleaded nolo contendere (no contest) and promptly resigned. Then, Nixon nominated Gerald Ford, House Minority Leader at the time (and former member of the Warren Commission), to fill the position. Of course, when Nixon vacated his position amid all the impeachment brouhaha, Ford assumed the role of POTUS, filling the remainder of Nixon’s term, thereby becoming the only person to serve as both President and Vice President of the United States without the benefit of an actual election. He also has the distinction of a complete name switcheroo as his mother changed baby Leslie Lynch King Jr.’s moniker to Gerald Rudolph Ford, Jr. upon her early divorce and remarriage to the elder Mr. Ford. (Talk about an identity crisis.) That’s the history lesson.

For those, like myself, of “a certain age,” we’ll always have fond memories of seeing Anne Meara and husband Jerry Stiller work their magic on Ed Sullivan and The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson, along with scads and scads of other TV shows as the celebrated comic duo of Stiller and Meara. This lady wasn’t just funny, and she wasn’t even JUST hilarious. She was committed. A trained actress first and foremost, she had a gift for comedy–but the laughs came because she understood the value of characterization. Well, that’s my two-cents.

At the time of Nasty Habits, Meara had just come from switching gears with short-lived TV drama Kate McShane, groundbreaking in that it was the first series to portray a female lawyer as a leading rather than supporting character (and, again, a risk for a performer more known for comedy). For her efforts, Meara was rewarded with an Emmy nomination though, again, the show did not last a full season. I watched it–until I didn’t or couldn’t watch it. In her stellar–not Stiller-career, Meara actually earned four Emmy nominations (in comedy and drama categories), and a Golden Globe nomination (for a turn on the popular Rhoda sitcom). She also placyed a recurring character on the longrunning daytime drama All My Children. Her work in theatre includes four stints on Broadway, dating all the way back to A Month in the Country (1956) up to a 1993 revival of Anna Christie, for which she snared a Tony nomination for Best Featured Actress in a Play. Additionally, she was no stranger to off-Broadway houses, with a whole string of credits. Furthermore, Meara also made her mark as a writer, winning an Outer Circle Critics Award for her play,  After-Play AND a Writers Guild nod for co-writing, with Lila Garrett, The Other Woman, a made for-TV film in which she co-starred with Hal Linden. Her lengthy filmography include Lovers and Other Strangers, a pop-up in The Out of Towners, and, perhaps most famously, as the frustrated English teacher in 1980’s original Fame.

The ascension of Meara’s Sister Geraldine through the ranks is played for pure slapstick and encapsulates much of what was known about Ford: mainly, that he was an athlete, the star player on his college football team–and that, ironically, he turned out to be bit of a bumbler as an adult, taking a few notable tumbles during his time in office. In the early days of Saturday Night Live, still in its infancy when Nasty Habits premiered, Chevy Chase skyrocketed to stardom by parodying Ford’s so-called “klutziness.” Meara doesn’t flail quite as spectacularly, but she nails the laughs nonetheless. Pauline Kael wrote, “Anne Meara combines the brassy, gum-chewing delivery of the wisecracking gold-diggers of the thirties with the expressive gestures of a top banana. Everything she does is funny.” She provides broad laughs to offset the sting of brutal satire.

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With her owlish spectacles, Sandy Dennis is the unmistakable stand-in for White House counsel John Dean (below); IMAGE: YouTube

Sandy Dennis was one of the most exciting young actresses of her era. She first made her mark on TV, starting with daytime serial The Guiding Light when she was 19ish (circa 1956). From there she transitioned to an early film role in 1961’s Splendor in the Grass though never turning her back on the small screen; however, she also made a tremendous splash on Broadway, earning consecutive Tony awards for A Thousand Clowns (Best Featured Actress in a Play, 1963) and Any Wednesday (Best Actress in a Play, 1964). Shunned for the film adaptations of both hits (losing out to Barbara Harris and Jane Fonda, respectively), Dennis more than made up for those snubs when she was cast in the 1965 film version of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf–and earned a Best Supporting Actress Oscar (though, as these things go, her victory came at the expense of Melinda Dillon who’d played Dennis’s role–as Honey–onstage). Her screen clout established, Dennis signed-on to star as an idealistic teacher in Up the Down Staircase, yet another hit (I used to watch it almost any time it aired.) The likes of Sweet November and That Cold Day in the Park followed. In 1970, she co-starred opposite Jack Lemmon in the smash Neil Simon comedy The Out-of-Towners; both stars earned Golden Globe nominations. I saw the movie in theaters as a child, and most of us who did see it will never forget Dennis’s memorable variations of “Oh my God, George…”

Depending one one’s POV, John Dean was either the patsy or the turncoat in the whole sordid Watergate affair. Did Dean know about and even participate in the Watergate break-in and subsequent cover-up? Yes, that much is a given, but over the course of the investigation, Dean also came to believe that he was being set-up to take the fall, and that’s when he began cooperating with prosecutors. His subsequent televised testimony before the Senate Watergate Committee in 1973 made national headlines and seemed to run for days and days, interrupting many a school kid’s summer TV viewing schedule. Dean pleaded guilty to charges of obstruction and paying hush money, and served a short prison sentence, all the while working with prosectors building cases against Haldeman, Ehrichman, and John Mitchell, former Attorney General and Nixon campaign director (who does not have a Nasty Habits stand-in). Dean was also barred from practicing law and now works as an author and consultant. He was still in his early thirties during the Watergate years. I certainly didn’t think he was an old man back then even though I was still in junior high, but I didn’t realize just how young 30 can be.

And so it is with Dennis’s Sister Winfred, at best a provisional–easily expendable–member of the convent’s inner-circle A bit clueless at times, her hands are nonetheless dirty; thus, she seems the ideal stooge to take the fall for a cover-up that involves breaking and entering, theft, and, yes, paying hush money. But maybe she only appears clueless.

For my money, and Michael’s as well, for that matter, Dennis rivals Jackson for top honors in this enterprise. My memory is that numerous reviewers singled her out for praise though Canby was not amused, pretty much labelling her performance as inexcusable or something equally cringe inducing, yet as Kael observed, Dennis plays the part exactly as Spark describes in her novella’s second paragraph: “Sister Winifrede says in her whine of bewilderment, that voice of the very stupid, the mind where no dawn breaks….”  That’s the expectation right from the get-go, and Dennis runs with it, giving a performance of sweet comic perfection which Kael lauded as a form of  bliss (comparable to watching the late great Jack Gilford), further stating that “she’s a feminine version of a Shakespearean fool–her stupidity is a form of enchantment.”

Of course, for all her early success, Dennis nonetheless had her detractors. As with Geraldine Page, the naysayers often complained that Dennis’s trembly mannerisms, a propensity for fidgeting and twitching, marred her performances. Nonetheless, she retained a modicum of popularity, assuming the female lead in the longrunning Broadway hit Same Time Next Year (filling the role originated by Ellen Burstyn). Indeed, Dennis’s stint in the play began just as Nasty Habits was hitting screens. Working as writer, actor, and director, Alan Alda cast Dennis in 1981’a well received The Four Seasons. Then, in 1988 Woody Allen hired her for a brief but potent role in Another Woman, fully taking advantage of of her fabled neurotic persona. In the late 70s, she weighed in as an early champion of Ed Graczyk’s play Come Back to the 5 and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean, well before its brief–unsuccessful–1982 Broadway run and subsequent screen adaptation, a low budget indie hit, directed by Robert Altman and starring Dennis, Cher, and Karen Black (along with relative newcomer Kathy Bates).  Her performance in that one, all nervous tics and quivery line readings, provides plenty of ammo for the skeptics, no doubt, but she hits all the right psychological or emotional notes of a woman slowly unravelling due to a lifetime of delusions and denial.  

The “wronged” party in Nasty Habits, Susan Penhaligon as Sister Felicity, is a bit of a washout. The character is not compellingly written, an idealistic twit who doesn’t invite much sympathy, and doesn’t seem to necessarily parallel her obvious real-life counterpart, Senator George McGovern–Nixon’s competitor during the 1972 election. Worse, Penhaligon doesn’t seem particularly inspired. No “oomph,” there. Does anyone root for her?

Interestingly, Spark set her story in an English convent, but the moviemakers switched the locale to Philadelphia though much of the movie was shot in England, anyway. That’s right, England doubled for Philly. Maybe it is a conspiracy.

Also, referring to the previous observation that many moviegoers from my generation remember Meara from her numerous appearances with husband Jerry Stiller, a number of younger readers might only know her as the mother of Ben Stiller of Zoolander fame. Indeed, Meara made a cameo appearance as Winona Ryder’s potential employer in Stiller’s first outing as a feature film director, Reality Bites. Best line: “Define irony.”  Again, I digress. The point is that Nasty Habits was truly a family affair, not only for Meara but also Page and Jackson as all three actresses’ husbands pop-up in small roles as well, that would be Jerry Stiller, Rip Torn and Eli Wallach, respectively.

Nasty Habits shows yet again that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Isn’t that the old saw?  Moreover, the movie and the book are really a reflection of any of us, however improbable.  A corrupt nun somehow seems funnier than a corrupt politician, but isn’t the point that if even a nun feels the thrill of power, then the rest of us somewhere in the middle should beware–not of “them,”  but of us? We already know we’re not expected to be perfect or saintly, so where, when, and how do we draw the line? Questions for another day, perhaps. Again, maybe the best way to enjoy the movie is to simply bask in the glory of this amazing cast, playing “Nasty” to the hilt. Hallelujah.

Thanks for your consideration…

Vincent Canby’s New York Times review (19 March 1977):

Kael, Pauline. When the Lights Go Down. New York: Holt Reinhart, and Winston, 1980.

Kael’s review of Nasty Habits originally appeared in the February 21 issue of The New Yorker.

Spark, Muriel. The Abbess of Crewe. London: MacMillan London Ltd, 1974.

Note: If Spark’s name seems familiar, it’s because she’s more famously known for penning The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, for which Maggie Smith won the 1969 Oscar for Best Actress.

A Little Something for Dad OR Weather Man Appreciation Day

18 Jun

I come to praise Nicolas Cage, not to bury him or to throw milk shakes at him.

with regards to William Shakespeare

On Father’s Day, maybe we can reflect on the career of Oscar winner Nicolas Cage. His reputation anymore is that he’s something of a hack, a money-grubber who latches on to big paycheck jobs in over-the-top action flicks.  I can’t–or don’t–relate.

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In its original 2005 domestic run, The Weather Man earned a paltry 12.5 million,  a drought given its relatively meager 22 million budget. I wouldn’t begin to guess how many people have viewed it on TV, DVD, or online though I don’t think it’s yet regarded as a cult classic. But that could change. To that end, and if  you’re genuinely curious, it might help to make connections with other films, starting with Jerry Maguire (1996) or In Good Company (2004). The former famously stars Tom Cruise, Texan Renee Zellweger, and Oscar winner Cuba Gooding, Jr. (directed by Cameron Crowe); the latter features Dennis Quaid and Topher  Grace (directed by Paul Weitz). Like The Weather Man, both films veer between comedy and drama and examine masculine identity in the face of evolving professional and familial dynamics. Continuing, Weitz actually co-wrote 2002’s About a Boy with his brother Chris (adapted from Nick Hornby’s novel), who also directed. This one features Hugh Grant in one of his most compelling performances as a cad-turned-reluctant-father-figure to young Nicholas Hoult who, coincidentally, plays Cage’s son in The Weather Man.  About a Boy evinces a well honed appreciation for life’s awkward moments, as does The Weather Man, whether such moments elicit laughs–or cut to the quick so that any of us want to go hide; it co-stars Toni Collette and Rachel Weisz. Additionally, Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life (2011), starring Brad Pitt, Sean Pitt, and Jessica Chastain, is at least as visually interesting as The Weather Man, and definitely charts the tug of war between father and son though laughs are scarce. I would also put The Weather Man in the same league with arguably lesser known, and perhaps more female-centric, films such as Men Don’t Leave (1990) and Unstrung Heroes (1995). Jessica Lange stars as a widow with two sons in Paul Brickman’s Men Don’t Leave; meanwhile, Diane Keaton directs John Turturro and Andie MacDowell in a true gem of a film that, like Men Don’t Leave and The Weather Man, is keen on the fabric of every day life (with sly touches of humor) and the way families sometimes fall apart and come back together in unexpected ways. Stretching a bit, I can see a link to the fantastical Frequency starring Dennis Quaid (yet again) and Jim Caviezel as a father and son reunited across the time-space continuum (directed by Gregory Hoblit, 2000).  Also, because of its black humor and  exciting use of Chicago as cinematic playground, The Weather Man definitely has a thing or two in common with Stranger than Fiction (2006), with Will Ferrell toplining a cast that includes Maggie Gyllenhaal, Dustin Hoffman, Linda Hunt, Queen Latifah, and Emma Thompson (directed by Marc Forster). If you enjoyed any of films included here, chances are you are also the target viewer for The Weather Man.

Once upon a time, he dazzled audiences with genius performances in quirky films–or is that quirky performances in genius films? You know, Raising Arizona (once again, GENIUS!!!), Moonstruck (that incredibly impassioned speech to Cher late at night during the snowfall–a triumph of acting OVER writing), Vampire’s Kiss, Wild at Heart, and Honeymoon in Vegas. I also liked  Guarding Tess (somewhat subdued opposite formidable Shirley MacLaine) and even Snake Eyes (lesser De Palma but not without its intriguing elements). I even think his often criticized performance in Peggy Sue Got Married makes all kinds of sense in context–but that’s for another day.  I also confess to somehow missing 2000’s Family Man, a riff on It’s a Wonderful Life–but, then, I’m one of the few people I know that has always had difficulty embracing the original 1946 Christmas classic. Oh, and I once knew a woman who couldn’t praise Matchstick Men enough.

During 1995/96 awards season, Cage achieved what many of most ardent admirers had long hoped to see. He  won an Oscar for playing a suicidal, alcoholic, burn-out writer in Leaving Las Vegas. By the time he walked onstage to accept his golden statuette that March evening, he had collected virtually every major award to be had, including but not limited to:  Golden Globe, SAG, and National Board of Review, along with NY, LA, and DFW critics. The Oscar was his to lose–but, of course, he didn’t. Was I glad he won? Yeah, maybe. Of course, he’s a good actor, but I wasn’t a fan of the film, and frankly, I thought he tried too hard. For this viewer, Leaving Las Vegas–including Cage–was uneven, all over the place. I thought Sean Penn (Dead Man Walking) gave a much more compelling performance–in spite of that damned pompadour. I was also very much moved by Richard Dreyfuss’s popular Mr. Holland’s Opus, a comeback of sorts for the previous Oscar winner (1977’s The Goodbye Girl), but Dreyfuss and Penn were there mainly for the ride. It was Cage’s time. (Oh, and please don’t ask me to comment on either Anthony Hopkins as Richard Nixon or the late Massimo Troissi and El Postino.)

So, Cage wins the Oscar, and then something happens. We start seeing him in a whole different light, what with The Rock, Con-Air, and Face/Off in rapid succession. This was high octane Cage, and the public did nothing but buy tickets. As time passed, we saw fewer City of Angels (an American update of Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire, co-starring Meg Ryan) and more Gone in Sixty Seconds. Oh sure, he paused long enough for a relatively restrained World Trade Center (directed by no less than Oliver Stone) and even earned a second Best Actor nomination for 2002’s Adaptation though that one, a take off on Susan Orlean’s non-fiction The Orchid Thief with Cage playing twins (both obnoxious), is definitely an acquired taste. Most of his latest offerings tend to invite scorn and snickers.

All that brings us to 2004 and National Treasure, a huge hit that was actually a lot of fun with Cage cast as a modern Indiana Jones type historian and cryptologist on a thrilling quest involving, among others, the Declaration of Independence. Released in November, just ahead of the Thanksgiving crunch, the movie scored generally enthusiastic reviews and spent three weeks at the top of the box office charts.  The flick was such a success that Paramount quaked. Originally, the studio had intended to release its Cage offering, The Weather Man, during the same time, no doubt for Oscar consideration, but apparently the consensus was that the market could not bear competing Cage vehicles, and that the less thrilling, more character-driven Cage film would be the loser. With that in mind, Paramount pulled all advertising and looked to spring of 2005.

^ That little ditty featured in The Weather Man‘s trailer is “The Passenger” by Iggy Pop. Miraculously, it is also heard in the film. 

Based on  its appealing trailer, one that appeared to show Cage back in fine form, I was super-stoked to see The Weather Man even if I had to wait a few more weeks, or months, to see it. Nothing happened though. Later rather than sooner, Paramount announced that The Weather Man was back on its release schedule–for fall of 2005, again, no doubt as a potential Oscar contender. (Btw, I can find little or no documentation of any of this on the Internet, but I had friends working at the then Paramount branch office at the time, keeping me posted. That office subsequently closed after Paramount and DreamWorks struck some kind of production deal, the details of which escape me.)

Anyway, I saw The Weather Man the very day it opened, probably at the old Keystone theatre (formerly Loews, formerly AMC, formerly Regal), now a Studio Movie Grill.  I loved it, finding it quite moving, unexpectedly so. The trailer promotes it as, yes, a quirky comedy, and it definitely has its comedic moments, but it’s also dramatic and goes to some dark and dare I say tender places, hitting a raw nerve or two along the way.

Cage’s David Spritz is a Chicago based TV weatherman with aspirations of moving to one of the major networks. He’s fine enough at his job though it’s a dice-y occupation given how personally many viewers receive the message, blaming their resulting frustration on the messenger, thus the occasional milkshake or other fast food item in the face. Yeah. As successful as David is at his job, he’s a mess as a father. His marriage has fallen apart–his ex-wife (the always game Hope Davis) is already seriously involved with someone else–and Dave simply does not know how to be a good father any more than he knew how to be a good husband. His two school-age kids aren’t doing well. His daughter smokes and can no longer fit into her clothes to the point that she’s being taunted by her classmates in an especially cruel, vulgar way; meanwhile, his teenage son is being groomed by a potential pedophile. Dave tries, maybe too hard, even, but he keeps tripping over his own good intentions–or what he believes are good intentions.

Part of Dave’s issue is that he doesn’t know how to be a good father likely because his own father failed him. In this case, dad is portrayed by no less than Michael Caine (a curious casting choice) as a Pulitzer winning author–and buddy of no less than President Jimmy Carter. Caine’s elder Spritzel is a regal, powerful man–a dry academic who believes he’s always right, and he can barely hide the disappointment in his son. Mostly, he doesn’t understand his son’s occupation or interests and never really took the time to learn or to empathize.  How can David ever hope to be a positive force in his own children’s lives if he has only ever disappointed his own father?

What goes on between these two men is a particularly tortured dynamic, and watching it play out is not easy, but that’s what I like about this movie: its complexity. Aside from the aforementioned pedophile (and believe me, that’s not a spoiler–you’ll recognize the what-what the minute he utters his first line), characters  are not necessarily painted as either good or bad, and the reward is watching these works in progress  (all of them have their differences). David Spritz isn’t always likable, or smart, but in Cage’s capable hands, I root for him anyway. I can’t even say it’s because I see his innate goodness…let’s say not entirely innate, but I like that he keeps trying. That’s what comes across, a sincere effort to be better–that, and the way he wanders through the movie with a continually baffled look on his face, astonished that he can be so wrong,  so misunderstood, at almost every turn.

I think if The Weather Man had been a bigger hit, if the studio had understood what it had, and marketed it more effectively, Cage might have swung some year-end awards cred. Do I mean an Oscar or even an Oscar nod? Maybe not; after all, 2005 also saw Philip Seymour Hoffman (Capote), Heath Ledger (Brokeback Mountain), David Strathairn (as Edward R. Murrow in Good Night, and Good Luck), Terrence Howard (Hustle and Flow), and, my personal fave, Joaquin Phoenix as Johnny Cash in Walk the Line–the whole lineup hailed at the time by many Oscar analysts as one of the strongest ever for Best Actor, not a weak link in the bunch. Simply, competition was too tough that year for a movie that was not even a marginal success  to gain a foothold.

What if Paramount had released The Weather Man in 2004 as originally planned? Well, that was pretty much an open shut and case the minute critics and audiences gasped at Jamie Foxx’s magnificent portrayal of Ray Charles in, what else, Ray. Clint Eastwood (Million Dollar Baby) and Leonardo DiCaprio (The Aviator) had their champions as did Don Cheadle (Hotel Rwanda) and Johnny Depp (Neverland), but no deal.

Still, I do think Cage’s performance was at least worth consideration among other groups, even if that meant “only” a Golden Globe nomination. Something. A film festival trinket?  Cage didnt’t even rate a shout-out from the Chicago Film Critics Association even though it apparently earned “Thumbs Up” from respected Chicago based  critic Roger Ebert and his onscreen partner Richard Roeper. Next to the comedic gold on display in Raising Arizona, which defies awards consideration because it really is just TOO good, too special, for such categorization, this is my favorite Cage performance (with Moonstruck a close third), and quite possibly his most underrated. This is a fully rounded characterization, rich with nuance. What it’s not rich in, mercifully, is bluster. In other roles, when Cage’s characters feel the heat, the actor often cuts loose, crazed, maniacal, but the effect is almost always cartoony, hardly resembling real-life. Not so as The Weatherman. Instead, David Spritz is waging war with himself, trying to keep that rage in check, a struggle he mostly wins with one understandable exception. I also like the way he underplays a potentially awkward conversation with his daughter. Exhale.

Meanwhile, one of my contacts at Paramount was certain that Michael Caine was a sure thing for Best Supporting Actor, so let that be a heads up, Caine fans. As noted, Caine would not have been my first choice for the role though he brings considerable presence to the screen, but somehow, I just don’t quite buy him as Cage’s dad. Something is off. On the other hand, maybe that’s the point. That noted, I think these many years later, either Donald Sutherland or Clint Eastwood might have made a better match. Yes, Clint Eastwood. I can easily see him playing this eloquent, detached individual who doesn’t suffer fools.

This isn’t a one man show, mind you, or even a two-man show. This is also a spectacular manifestation of director Gore Verbinski’s vision–riding on the smash success of the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie at the time–in conjunction with a team of first-rate team of designers and technicians: Phedon Papamichael (cinematographer), Tom Duffield (production designer), Patrick M. Sullivan Jr. (art-director), Rosemary Brandenburg (set decoration), and  John David Wolfe (location scout). This team has worked ever so skillfully to recreate Chicago as a richly textured, wet and wintry wonderland full of blues and grays, not a lot of warmth, but every surface is so exquisitely lit as to appear eminently touchable. Of course, Chicago, already architecturally interesting, presents a spectacular canvas. Dig that animal statuary and the way it’s utilized as a kind of unlikely emotional touchstone. Everything is seemingly bursting with life, yet it’s not, and the rain functions as free-flowing tears. What a moment.

As pointed out on the DVD, Chicago makes a great location for a movie about a weather man because the elements are so extreme. For example, the weather in Los Angeles is unchanging. New York, on the other hand, has varying weather, sure, but it’s also familiar to moviegoers. The point being made in this movie is that even a TV weather man cannot control the weather any more than he, or any of us, can control one another; therefore, the weather has to be working against the characters, keeping them unsettled. The movie’s opening shot, Lake Michigan at its iciest, establishes the dynamic beautifully, followed within seconds by the spectacular view from Spritz’s high rise apartment overlooking the Chicago river. It’s all about perspective.

Again, this is a technically stunning movie, and Cage wasn’t the only party to be overlooked for awards consideration. My second biggest complaint would be saved for cinematographer Phedon Papamichael. What an artist, but. again, nothing. No Oscar nod, and not even a scrap from the American Society of Cinematographers. Really? I mean, not to overwork a metaphor, but this movie is just dripping with gorgeous imagery.

Also, credit goes to Verbinski and his team of producers as well as, of course, screenwriter Steven Conrad. He, Verbinski, and Cage benefitted from the expertise of meteorological advisor Tom Skilling, who appears briefly as one of Cage’s weather station colleagues. Shout out, as well, to Bryant Gumble as himself. Additionally, composer Hans Zimmer contributes another fitting score, and dig Cage’s camera ready coif, styled by Larry Waggoner. Spot on. Every day is a good hair day for this dude.

Maybe, just maybe, this doesn’t sound like such an appealing movie for Father’s Day viewing, all things considered. Understood. That noted, I’m glad I finally wrote about it because this is actually one of a handful of movies that inspired me to launch this blog–it along with InfamousDrugstore Cowboy, Letter from an Unknown Woman, Citizen Ruth, and a few others. I really do think that while it’s not entirely a neglected masterpiece, it is definitely and undeservedly neglected. So skip it for now if you think it will cast a dark cloud on you and your dad’s bonding time. Instead, think about it like this: here we are in mid-to-late June in Dallas, TX, and it’s been raining off and on, mostly on, for days and weeks, but it appears to have stopped for the time being, so that can only mean one thing. Summer is coming to Texas, and that  entails a heck of a lot of heat and very little precipitation. Soon, we’ll all be parched and miserable,  clamoring for relief, and that might very well take the form of a movie holiday, something cool, windy, and, yes, wet. That will be your cue to stay indoors, chill, and give The Weather Man his shot.

Thanks for your consideration…

As indicated my the image of the DVD box in the sidebar, Ebert and Roeper gave The Weather Man “Two Thumbs Up.” You can read Ebert’s review by clicking here:


“Find Your Strength in Love”

5 Jun

Impossible is just a big word thrown around by small men who find it easier to live in the world they’ve been given than to explore the power they have to change it. Impossible is not a fact. It’s an opinion. Impossible is not a declaration. It’s a dare. Impossible is potential. Impossible is temporary. Impossible is nothing. – Muhammad Ali

Well, if anyone had ask me when I began this blog back in 2011 if I ever thought I’d be writing about boxer Muhammad Ali, I would have answered, “Not likely.” Yet, here we are. The man himself passed away Friday evening, June 3, 2016, at age 74 and after a decades long battle with Parkinson’s disease–a legend, an icon in both sports and popular culture arenas, so to speak. What a life. I am not in a position to make sweeping claims about the life of the man once known as Cassius Clay–how many of us first remember him–nor am I a sports expert with enough background to write about his accomplishments in the ring though the evidence speaks for itself.

What I know, and what I write about, are movies.

Back in 2001, the late Mr. Ali was accorded the big screen biopic treatment, courtesy of writer-director Michael Mann, then riding high on widespread critical acclaim and Oscar nominations for c0-producing, directing, and co-writing 1999’s tobacco industry takedown The Insider, an expose framed as a suspense story as seen from the perspective of a real-life 60 Minutes producer (played by Al Pacino). Stepping into the role of Ali in Mann’s film was none other than box office contender Will Smith, a hugely popular actor who had risen through the ranks to top box office status thanks to such smash hits as Bad Boys and Men in Black. We played Ali at the theater where I worked. I didn’t love it, and I don’t remember it being an especially impressive crowd pleaser during its run. That noted, Smith earned his first Oscar nomination for his efforts, so good for him. The movie also helped co-star Jon Voight–embodying no less than blustery, high profile sports announcer Howard Cosell–snare a supporting actor nod, so good for him as well.

IMAGE: Columbia Pictures/Wikipedia:

Reviewing The Greatest in a New York Times piece entitled, “Ali’s Latest Victory is ‘The Greatest,'” Vincent Canby wrote, ” You might call Muhammad Ali a natural actor, but that would be to deny his wit, sensibility, drive, ability, enthusiasm, poise and common sense, all of which are the conscious achievements of an ambitious man who has known exactly what he has wanted for a long time.”  IMAGE: Columbia Pictures/Wikipedia:

Truthfully, I always thought the Mann-Smith production was a bit redundant since no less than Muhammad Ali himself had already dramatized his own life story with 1977’s The Greatest in which he, to clarify, portrayed himself. Why watch Smith act Ali’s life story when Ali had already committed the story to celluloid more than a decade earlier? That, and the fact that Ali had also already been the subject of an Oscar winning documentary, When We Were Kings, in 1996?

But I digress.

Released in the spring of ’77, literally days ahead of the Star Wars juggernaut, and based on Ali’s book (co-authored by Herbert Muhammad and Richard Durham and adapted by Ring Lardner, Jr.), The Greatest also featured such talent as Lloyd Haynes, Roger E. Mosley, Paul Winfield, and James Earl Jones–the latter cast as Malcolm X.

My guess is that most moviegoers either don’t know or have forgotten about this film. I didn’t see it when I was a kid, but, then, I didn’t see that many first-run flicks at that point; however,  I did catch up with it years and years later, sometime in the 1990s, well before Mann’s take.  I remember most vividly watching the opening credits, and the song that played over footage of Ali jogging. That song was and is “The Greatest Love of All,” recorded by George Benson, and composed by Michael Masser and Linda Creed. By all accounts, Benson–a top recording artist of the times with such hits as “Masquerade” and a cover of The Drifters’ “On Broadway”–enjoyed considerable success with this tune, but I, for the life of me, don’t ever remember hearing it on the radio, but I recognized it right away when I watched the movie that morning.

^Opening of 1977’s The Greatest: AMC via YouTube

Of course, the song’s relative obscurity took a wild turn with the emergence of Whitney Houston, who belted out the song, full-throttle anthem style, on her 1985 debut album–released on the Arista label, the same as The Greatest soundtrack. Houston’s is the version that most of us know and love, and why not? It’s freakin’ gorgeous with the singer’s impassioned delivery, a stirring arrangement, and powerfully inspirational lyrics. It even earned a Grammy nomination for Record of the Year two years after the album’s release, a feat, that. Yet, for all of Houston and her mentor Clive Davis’s savvy, we must remember that they didn’t invent the song–in the same way that they also didn’t invent the singer’s mega-smash “I Will Always Love You,” a Dolly Parton original made even more famous by Houston’s bravura cover for 1992’s The Bodyguard soundtrack…but I digress.

The point is that “The Greatest Love of All,” shortened to “Greatest Love of All” for Houston’s rendition, is a classic, a triumphant entry in the so-called Great American Songbook. We’ve heard it so many times that it has beome a part of us, a part of our collective consciousness. It’s been performed and parodied hither and yon, but we need to remember its source. The overall effect is much different when seen in its original context, the story of a man on a journey to be his authentic self–and winning against considerable odds. It bespeaks a kind of poignancy.

It probably comes as no surprise to find that the song was overlooked for Best Song consideration by the Academy back in the day. Of course, as I have noted in a previous column, which I always intended to extend to a second edition, the 1977/78 Oscars represented a disconnect in Uncle Oscar’s music branch. Again, also overlooked for Academy consideration were any and all songs from both Saturday Night Fever (an indisputable pop culture landmark) and New York, New York. Of course, the race pretty much began and ended with “You Light Up My Life” from the film of the same name. The song, covered by Debby Boone, was everywhere, racking up stratospheric sales and soaring to the top of Oscar’s “Most Wanted” list. No doubt coming in a close second would have to be Carly Simon’s radio-friendly “Nobody Does It Better” from The Spy Who Loved Me, yet another entry in the popular James Bond series. In that context, “The Greatest Love of All” probably didn’t seem like a significant achievement. On the other hand, what about the other three nominees? Hmmmm…hard to find fault with Disney contenders, “Candle on the Water” (Pete’s Dragon) and “Someone’s Waiting for You” (The Rescuers). The former certainly had its fans and was performed in the film by no less that ever-reliable Helen Reddy; the latter appeared in one of the studio’s best received films–both critically and commercially–in several years. To further clarify, the former was combination of live action and animation (per Mary Poppins) while the latter was an animated delight. Again, who would complain? Of course, the fifth nominee, “The Cinderella Waltz” from The Slipper and The Rose has always been a head scratcher. Simply, there were better choices, “The Greatest Love of All” being just one of them.

Of course, an Academy nod isn’t the end-all, be-all, and we know this better than ever, thanks to Houston’s magnificent recording. Besides the subsequent Grammy nomination, other accolades include–belated–recognition from the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers as one of the Most Performed Feature Film Standards. And it all began in a film about the incredible life and times of Muhammad Ali.

There are amazing stories to be found about this song and its creators, but they have almost nothing to do with Ali or even Whitney Houston, so save those for another time. You can google to your heart’s content.

In the period around 1987-1989, “Greatest Love of All” kept me going through some dark times. I especially embraced it after the soloist performed it one Sunday morning at the church I attended. Suddenly, everything made sense, and I kept coming back, and keep coming back, to the last line: “Find your strength in love.”

Ever since I first heard those words, I’ve held on to the hope that it is indeed  possible for all of us to find our strengths in love.

Thanks for your consideration…

^ This clip includes the lyrics and the full version of George Benson’s version of “The Greatest Love of All”

Vincent Canby’s review of The Greatest in The New York Times (21 May 1977):

Memo to Mr. Beatty: Sooner not Later. Please.

1 Jun

Dear Warren Beatty, Disney Honchos, and Criterion Personnel: Dick Tracy (1990) deserves a super-deluxe, collectible, two-disc edition DVD. Thank you.

We live in the age of the comic-book super-hero movie, witness the boffo–to borrow vintage Variety-speak–grosses of Captain America: Civil War and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. For example, the former netted 179 million in its opening weekend and is now up to to 377 million and counting; meanwhile, the latter opened with 166 million and has earned 328 million so far (per Box Office Mojo).  These mega-budgeted, action-packed, effects laden spectacles run the business anymore, and the end is nowhere in sight. The question is:  how did this happen–and when?

Screen shot 2016-05-23 at 10.46.32 PM

Once upon a time, the “two-way radio wristwatch” Chester Gould designed for Dick Tracy, later supplanted by the two-way TV wristwatch, seemed novel and futuristic. Today, we take for granted the convenience of smart phones, specifically Apple’s iPhone, and the newest member of the family: the smart watch.

Clearly, the movie industry’s confusion of the 1960s, with studios throwing money at musical extravaganzas such as The Sound of Music (1965), Oliver! (1968), Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968), Hello, Dolly! (1969),  and Paint Your Wagon (1969), and moviegoers lining up for the likes of Bonnie and Clyde (1967), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Easy Rider (1969), and Midnight Cowboy (1969),  gave way to the fertile period of the 1970s, the period that made the likes of The Last Picture Show (1971), The Godfather (1972), Chinatown (1974), Nashville (1975), Dog Day Afternoon (1975), and a host of other auteur classics and near classics possible. At the same time, the post-Kennedy assassination, post-Watergate era gave way to cynicism and paranoia, reflected in the likes of The Conversation (1974), The Parallax View (1974), Three Days of the Condor (1975), One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), Taxi Driver (1976), Network (1976), Marathon Man (1976), and, of course, All the President’s Men (1976). At the same time, Hollywood never forgot the value of escapist fare, and in the midst of all that gloom and audience fatigue, a few crowd-pleasers pointed the way to a sunnier, re-energized tomorrow: The Sting (1973), Rocky (1976), Star Wars (1977), and Superman (1978). Of course, somewhere in the middle of those bon-bons, Stephen Spielberg’s Jaws (1975) also set a new standard for thrills, chills, and box office oomph.

With the 1980s came a new model of business, motivated by the thirst for “popcorn” flicks, high-concept package deals brokered by the hot-shots at Creative Artists Agency (led by Mike Ovitz), and an increasingly corporatized atmosphere at the studios as media conglomerates became the norm. The early-to-mid 1980s gave us the likes of Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), E.T. (1982),  48 Hours (1982), Tootsie (1982), Flashdance (1983), Ghostbusters (1984), Beverly Hills Cop (1984), Rambo (1985), Back to the Future (1985), Top Gun (1986), a string of highly lucrative teen comedies from writer-director-producer John Hughes,  and dozens more. Then, in 1989, Warner Bros and Tim Burton, known at the time for idiosyncratic titles such as Pee Wee’s Big Adventure (1985) and Beetlejuice (1988), upped their game with Batman, an edgier alternative to the campy similarly titled TV show of the 1960s with its goofy effects, cut-out sets, puns, and cavalcade of guest stars–both in and past their prime–playing increasingly over-the-top villains.

Instead, Burton’s film, as has oft been reported, took its cue from graphic novels The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller and The Killing Joke by Alan Moore and Brian Bolland. The line between good and bad seemed murkier than ever.  In the role of millionaire playboy Bruce Wayne and his crime-fighting alter-ego, director Burton generated a wave of controversy by casting Michael Keaton, mostly known at the time for comedies such as Night Shift (1982), Mr. Mom (1983), and Burton’s own Beetlejuice; however, Burton countered by explaining that he cast Keaton because he needed an actor who could effectively play the nuances of the Wayne character, an otherwise phenomenally successful man haunted by the murder of his parents, a murder he witnessed. Fortunately, Keaton proved himself the right man for the job, but he did not emerge the star of the show.

No, that distinction went to no less than (then) two-time Oscar winner Jack Nicholson, who played “The Joker,” Batman’s nemesis, a shade more sinister, but no less hammy, than his TV predecessor Cesar Romero (but not as darkly as he would eventually be portrayed by Oscar winner Heath Ledger in 2008’s The Dark Knight). Audiences savored Nicholson’s every lip-smacking move. The actor also made headlines by inking a then-unprecedented deal that entitled him to a cut of everything, meaning not only the film’s box office take (presumably from the first ticket sold) but also merchandising and sequels. He even demanded and was granted top billing. That’s right, over Keaton, the titular hero.

Burton’s grandly scaled film was unquestionably darker and even more violent than similar superhero fare. The soundtrack featured a breakthrough score by Danny Elfman, an obvious departure from audience fave John Williams, who had so memorably composed anthemic themes for the likes of Star Wars, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Superman, and Raiders of the Lost Ark (again, among many others). Warner execs also engineered a way to incorporate music of reigning pop superstar Prince, the addition of which upped the film’s “cool” quotient. Production designer Anton Furst won an Oscar for creating an imposing Gotham City and all its environs, including Wayne Manor and the Batcave, marked by industrial, Art Deco, and Gothic influences.

Batman arrived amid a flurry of relentless hype, the likes of which I had never witnessed at that point in my theater exhibitor career (going on 7 years when it happened). Oh, I’m not naive. Of course, I understood very well that so-called ballyhoo was always essential to the Hollywood game, going all the way back to at least 1939’s Gone with the Wind with stops along the way up to Cleopatra (1963), with ample fanfare in between and well-beyond. Sure, I knew all about the marketing game, but, remember, even Star Wars and Ghostbusters, and oh so many others, were word of mouth hits, bolstered as they were by smart publicity blitzes. They did NOT hit the screens with pre-sold audiences. Batman was different. The buildup was almost unavoidable. Batman was everywhere: TV talk shows, TV commercials, magazines, whatever–and remember, this was before the Internet had the same utility as it does today. As I recall, this was the first time, outside of a radio station sponsored advance screening, that theaters sold tickets to Thursday night showings prior to the official Friday opening. Also, as I recall, our screening filled up three auditoriums. Unprecedented. Those first few days were grueling, grueling in a way that even 1983’s Return of the Jedi, which did benefit from a pre-sold audience, could not compare.

The result of all this masterful media manipulation is that Batman became the first movie to earn 100 million dollars in a mere 10 days [1]. Historic. Sounds much ado about nothing now, measured against Captain America‘s recent 179 million haul in only one weekend–but that’s kind of the point. Blockbusters are ever becoming the norm, and the stakes are getting higher.

So, what does any of this have to do with Dick Tracy, you might ask.

Released in June of 1990 by Disney subsidiary Touchstone Pictures and based on Chester Gould’s decades running comic strip (1931-1977)  Dick Tracy is superstar actor-turned-producer-and-Oscar-winning-director Warren Beatty’s long-laboured dream project about a big city, square-jawed detective battling a cast of colorful hoodlums–with such names as Big Boy, Eighty-eight Keys, Flattop, Little Face, and Mumbles. Add to the mix a scruffy street urchin and the affections of two polar opposite females: no-nonsense Tess Trueheart and vampy torch singer–and sometime gangster’s moll–Breathless Mahoney. The former portrayed by Glenn Headley; the latter personified by no less than pop royalty Madonna, Beatty’s then romantic flame.

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Madonna’s Dick Tracy-inspired I’m Breathless album netted a  #1 hit single, “Vogue” with its landmark music video directed by then relative unknown David Fincher, and an Oscar victor, “Sooner or Later” with music and lyrics by veteran Tony, Grammy, and Pulitzer winning tunesmith Stephen Sondheim. To quote Ira Gershwin, “Nice work if you can get it.” We’ll assume that’s Beatty, face obscured, sporting the fedora.

No doubt inspired by Batman‘s smashing success, the Disney brass launched Dick Tracy in June of 1990 with a tidal wave of publicity, the likes of which had scarcely been seen since, well, you know, the Bat guy from one year earlier.  Merchandising tie-ins galore, not the least of which was Madonna’s wall-to-wall, chart-topping radio smash, “Vogue,” which, technically, did not appear in the film but was instead featured on the singer’s Dick Tracy companion record album, I’m Breathless: Music From and Inspired by the Film Dick Tracy.  The album also featured contributions composed by legendary Stephen Sondheim, including future Oscar winner “Sooner or Later” and “More.” The Blonde One was everywhere that summer, garnering mucho media attention thanks to her globe-trotting Blonde Ambition tour, footage of which eventually formed the basis for 1991’s Truth or Dare documentary.

The Disney Store had just opened at NorthPark around that time (give or take a few months), and Dick Tracy merchandise lined the shelves, including a snazzy Madonna as Breathless Mahoney wristwatch which a friend gifted me with for my birthday–and which I still own.

Make no mistake, Madonna was hardly the whole show. Of course, aside from the rare misstep known as Ishtar (1987), Beatty had a reputation as a Hollywood power-player with a knack for assembling top-flight talent and working to exacting standards on ambitious projects, often to dazzling effect, including the aforementioned Bonnie and Clyde (1967), as well as Shampoo (1975), Heaven Can Wait (1978), and Reds (1981), serving as producer and actor in all of the above, earning Oscar nominations in as many as four categories–Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Director, and Best Screenplay–for both Heaven Can Wait and Reds.

Joining Beatty in supporting and/or cameo roles was a panoply of stars and character greats such as Al Pacino, straight from his sizzling comeback in Sea of Love, as nemesis Big Boy Caprice, Mandy Patinkin, Dustin Hoffman, Paul Sorvino, James Caan, Kathy Bates, Catherine O’Hara,  Charles Durning, William Forsythe, Dick Van Dyke, and Estelle Parsons (who, of course, had won Best Supporting Actress for her role in Bonnie & Clyde decades earlier), and several more.  The cast also included young Charlie Korsmo, who’d earned raves earlier in the year as widowed Jessica Lange’s youngest son in Men Don’t Leave. The script, incidentally, was penned by the hotshot team of Jim Cash and Jack Epps Jr., the duo behind such hits as Top Gun and The Secret of My Success. (These writers were part of the aforementioned CAA stable where package deals were the name of the game.)

With all that fanfare, all that pedigree, Dick Tracy easily opened at the top of the box office charts, a position it maintained through two weekends (per Box Office Mojo), dipping only 31% from week 1 to week 2–and only 35% from week 2 to week 3.  More than respectable numbers, as anything less than 40% is considered within an acceptable range. (Falling more than 60% is grounds for disaster.) To clarify, Dick Tracy actually yielded the year’s third biggest opening haul. A hit is a hit is a hit, right?

Everything you need to know about Dick Tracy in one shot. That's ever-reliable character actor William Forsythe as "Flattop" with Oscar winning makeup effects by John Caglione, Jr. and Doug Drexler. The pair won in a year in which the competition included, among others, the heavyweight team of Ve Neill and Stan Winston, in the race for the celebrated Edward Scissorhands. (IMAGE: Touchstone Pictures/

Everything you need to know about Dick Tracy in one shot. That’s ever-reliable character actor William Forsythe as “Flattop” with Oscar winning makeup effects by John Caglione, Jr. and Doug Drexler. The pair won in a year in which the competition included, among others, the heavyweight team of Ve Neill and Stan Winston,  for the celebrated Edward Scissorhands. This shot also provides a peek at Milena Canonero’s Oscar nominated costumes and director Warren Beatty’s vision of saturating each frame with blue, red, yellow, and green. Canonero, already a two-time winner, lost for Dick Tracy but has since gone on to triumph with 2006’s Marie Antoinette and 2014’s The Grand Budapest Hotel. (IMAGE: Touchstone Pictures/

Generally, the critics responded favorably. Popular TV and print critic Roger Ebert gave it 4 stars and deemed it “visionary.” The New York Times‘ Vincent Canby lavished praise as well [2-3]. Much of the applause was in response to the top-notch cast as well as the movie’s incredible look, mainly the cartoony production design, festooned as it was from frame to frame in a palette dominated by primary colors: red, blue, yellow, and, okay, green (technically not a primary color) with other hues, mainly black and silver, used selectively. The stunning effect was part of Beatty’s vision to make this final product evoke a child’s sense of wonder–especially when reading the Sunday funnies. Because, remember, Dick Tracy was a comic strip rather than a comic book. Moreover, he was hardly a super-hero on the order of Batman or Superman. By the way, the film’s much ballyhooed “look” extended to the literal interpretations of the characters’ outrageous mugs and coifs.

At year’s end, as corroborated by Box Office Mojo, Dick Tracy held the number nine spot among the year’s top ten box-office hits, earning as much as 103 million (domestically), again, in an era in which 100 mil was considered the proverbial gold standard for achieving blockbuster status [4]. For all that, however, Beatty and his film could not quite escape being labelled a failure. Was it because, even with its robust box office take, it failed to recoup its cost? Well, that’s one way of looking at it. Certainly, filmmaker Beatty is not known for producing on the cheap. His flick had a reported price tag of 47 million, a lot for a Disney picture for the time–the studio being known as mostly tight-fisted; after all, the following year’s comic book extravaganza, The Rocketeer (also Disney),  cost a relatively meager 35 million, about the same as Batman. Still, Dick Tracy‘s returns–again, 100 million+ on a budget of 47 mil–might have looked better if not for what were surely exorbitant marketing costs. On the other hand, ticket sales are not the only measure of success. What about overseas markets, home video sales and rentals, cable and network TV rights, and all those merchandising tie-ins?

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Oscar winning art direction by Richard Sylbert and Rick Simpson; cinematography by famed Vittorio Storaro. Everything works. Sylbert was a true giant in his field with six nominations for the likes of Chinatown, Shampoo, and Reds (the latter pair under the eye of Beatty as either producer, director, or both). His credits also include Frances and Carlito’s Way. In 1990, he also collaborated on Brian De Palma’s infamous adaptation of Bonfire of the Vanities. His twin brother Paul also worked in films, also as a production designer. He earned an Oscar for Beatty’s  1978 update of Here Comes Mr. Jordan, retitled Heaven Can Wait.

Mainly, Dick Tracy was deemed a failure, a misfire, because it wasn’t Batman. Hardly an unqualified disaster, its success paled in comparison to its super-hero predecessor’s colossal cultural impact. Did it ever occur to anyone that maybe marketing it as something it really wasn’t might have been a bad idea? Batman‘s effect was emphatically dark and majestically gloomy while Dick Tracy was colorful and comedic around the edges, practically a romp. A romp with sassy singing and dancing, to be specific.

No matter. In early 1991, Disney chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg drafted a memo, more like a mission statement, leaked to the press almost instantaneously, in which he expressed disappointment that the company he loved so much, a once rock-solid brand, if you will, unmatchable in its ability to deliver quality product–on a thrifty budget–to a welcoming audience, had lost its way in pursuit of big stars and blockbuster mentality [5]. Katzenberg further notes that Disney was actually in last place among the big studios when he came aboard in 1984, the same year the Touchstone subsidiary launched, and was top of the heap six years later.  Of course, the point of Touchstone was to reposition the struggling studio (reeling from a series of expensive, not to mention confusing, duds) by expanding the Disney market beyond the familiar family-friendly fare and branching out to more sophisticated titles along the lines of Splash, Country, Three Men and a Baby, Good Morning, VietnamDead Poets Society, and Down and Out in Beverly Hills, the film that launched bawdy Bette Midler’s comeback–and her reign as one of the biggest box office draws of the mid-to-late 1980s.

Katzenberg directed much of his frustration at the relative success (or failure) of Dick Tracy in particular, making special note that three of the year’s biggest hits, Home Alone, Ghost, and Pretty Woman (the latter also from Disney’s Touchstone subsidiary), had seemingly come out of nowhere to capture the public’s imagination in a way that Dick Tracy had not. “The idea is king,” he infamously exclaimed. What does that mean, anyway? Not all ideas are created equally, but almost every movie ever made surely began with what someone somewhere thought was a good idea. Even a bad idea still qualifies as an idea, right? On the other hand, again, the finished product (Dick Tracy, that is) was less a problem than the expectations and hype that preceded it

Of course, Katzneberg’s memo also revealed his sometimes fuzzy logic; after all, I always wondered what Uncle Walt, Disney, that is, would have thought of super-successful Pretty Woman and its leggy hooker waving his company’s once family-friendly banner. Of the three movies Katzenberg fawned over, only Home Alone, the year’s biggest hit, came close to qualifying as a genuine surprise hit since it really didn’t boast a “name” cast though it still came from a big studio–20th Century Fox–and with the proven clout of the aforementioned money machine John Hughes as writer and producer. In many ways, kid friendly Home Alone also seemed more Disneyesque at the time than actual Disney product; moreover, 1990 also saw the creation of yet another Disney subsidiary, Hollywood Pictures which premiered with creepy-fx driven comedy Arachnophobia.

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Designer Richard Sylbert and his team transformed the Universal backlot into Warren Beatty’s vision of a city splashed with lots of reds and yellows.

The saga took another twist about a month after Katzenberg’s missive made headlines, and that occurred when Dick Tracy earned a healthy 7 Oscar nods, mostly in the technical categories though Al Pacino earned a spot among the Best Supporting Actor finalists for his boorish buffoonery. That strong showing also heralded a nomination for Stephen Sondheim. The film’s nominees extended to such luminaries as production designer Richard Sylbert (a winner for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, in his sixth race), costumer Milena Canonero (already a two-time winner for Barry Lyndon and Chariots of Fire), and renown cinematographer Vittorio Storaro (3 for 3 with the Academy at the time: Apocalypse Now, Reds, and The Last Emperor).

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What Sylbert and his team could not create outright on the Universal lot, a crew of visual effects artists made possible with stylized matte paintings used as augmentation. Total Recall won the Visual Effects Oscar that year, reconfigured as a “Special Achievement Award” rather than competitive award due to that film’s for the times unparalleled technical triumphs.  IMAGE: A.V.

Come Oscar night, Dick Tracy triumphed in three categories: Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Best Makeup, and Best Original Song. Madonna performed the latter during the telecast, seemingly battling a case of nerves while channeling the ghosts of Blonde Bombshells Past. In an Oscar race dominated by Kevin Costner’s wildly popular Dances with Wolves, in which Costner–in true Beatty style–starred, directed, and co-produced, Dick Tracy‘s full tally put it second in the final count, Costner’s film going 7 for 12. Backing up, Dick Tracy‘s seven nods tied with Godfather III for second place in the nominations account, again, second to only Dances with Wolves. Isn’t this an achievement worth celebrating in a deluxe DVD rather than ignoring, as is the case with the current shabby offering?

So what happened next?

Clearly, Katzenberg’s memo did nothing to endear him to Beatty, and, actually, Katzenberg was more or less relieved of his duties a few short years later. He has since gone on to co-found, with Stephen Spielberg and David Geffen, the popular Dreamworks SKG production outfit. Beatty, meanwhile, returned to fine form just the very next year with the lavish Bugsy, a slick biopic about notorious–and reportedly handsome–gangster Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel, including his exploits in Hollywood and Las Vegas, not the least of which involved an illicit fling with Hollywood starlet Virginia Hill (played in the film by Annette Bening, later Mrs. Warren Beatty; Hill was reportedly the model for the character Joan Crawford once played in The Damned Don’t Cry). In one noteworthy departure for multi-faceted Beatty, he turned the directing reins over to Rain Man‘s Oscar winner Barry Levinson.  Beatty’s last brush with Oscar was for co-writing 1998’s controversial political satire Bulworth, which, yes, he also directed, co-produced, and starred.

A number of years ago, I began looking for Dick Tracy on DVD. I found it in the bins at my local Movie Trading Company. Easy enough,  but the edition offered no extras. Nothing. Really? Every so often I would check there, and on Amazon, for updates. I was holding out for a big splashy edition, to no avail. To clarify, even the Blu-ray is reportedly no-frills. Finally, I broke down and bought the only copy I could find. I watched it once. Maybe twice. Then, just a few weeks ago, I turned on the TV, and the movie was playing, and right during one of Dustin Hoffman’s big scenes (as “Mumbles”), I happened upon an online article about a Criterion edition of what? Tootsie. Starring whom? Dustin Hoffman. Then, it hit me. Why not a Criterion edition of Dick Tracy, for cryin’ out loud? Okay, maybe not Criterion, but why not something, some edition with loads of extras, commemorating one of the most ambitious movies of its time? Believe me, I’ve seen movies far less successful with DVD bonus features. I’ve also been surprised by some of Criterion’s titles.

At first, I thought there must still be bad blood between Beatty and the Disney people. Surely that could be a major factor. Of course, since Beatty and Madonna’s relationship soon fizzled, perhaps neither feels compelled to rehash that particular moment in their lives for the sake of a DVD featurette. Just a thought. While researching this piece, I discovered an article about a lawsuit between Beatty and the Chester Gould estate, which Beatty ultimately won. Is that the reason for the shabby DVD? Part of the lawsuit involved a 2009 “Making of…” TV special hosted by Leonard Maltin, featuring Beatty in character as Tracy. The special can be found on YouTube, but it’s mostly an overly scripted snoozer. Don’t look to it for anything resembling depth.

No, we the fans are still waiting for an awesome DVD edition though, of course, some of the principals, such as Sylbert, are no longer with us. Meanwhile, 86 year old Stephen Sondheim likely does not have much time to spare. Still, am I the only one who longs to see and hear a mind-bogglingly talented group of actors and artisans reflect this many years later on the full intricacies of such a celebrated if misunderstood production?

Even so, I hang on to hope. After all, once upon a time, Beatty held hope of a lavish biopic based on the life of Howard Hughes. That project never happened. Indeed, he was beat to the punch by Martin Scorsese’s heralded The Aviator (2004) starring Leonardo DiCaprio. Still, we now know that Beatty’s upcoming Rules Don’t Apply, his first directorial effort since Bulworth, features him in a supporting role as no less than Hughes. Better late than never. I have also seen a few headlines lately in which Beatty hints that he’s considering a Dick Tracy sequel [6] . I don’t know how that might work, but if an update of the current DVD is part of the pre-release push, I’ll play along. Mr. Beatty, please take note.

Thanks for your consideration…

[1] Link redirects to July 4, 1989, archived New York Times article by Aljean Harmetz, “Batman Sets Sales Record: 100 Million in 10 Days”:

[2-3] Ebert’s review: New York Times review:

[4] Dick Tracy at Box Office Mojo:  Of course, context is everything. Contrast the 1990 numbers with those from 2015. In 1990, only two movies earned over 200 million, and one movie in the top 10 didn’t even break 100 mil, the difference between being a hit, even a runway hit, and a blockbuster. In 2015, not a single top 10 hit earned LESS than 200 million. Movie budgets have skyrocketed–we all know that–as have ticket prices, thereby accounting for today’s NEED for mammoth box office dollars…though, of course, we have ample evidence to suggest, as well, that increased ticket prices mask decline in the number of actual tickets sold…the latest Star Wars movie being an exception:

[5] This link redirects to the Letters of Note website and purports to include the full text of Jeffrey Katzenberg’s 1991 memo, or mission statement, in which he questions Disney’s involvement in Dick Tracy among other things. As an aside, this very memo reportedly served as writer-director Cameron Crowe’s inspiration for the “mission statement” that functions as the catalyst for Jerry Maguire’s career game-changer in the popular 1996 film:

[6] Variety item, dated April 13, 216,  describing new Hughes film, Gould lawsuit, and possible Dick Tracy sequel:

On Letting Mothers be Mothers

2 May

Well, Mother’s Day will be a little different, a little sadder, this year.  No IHOP. No Hallmark. No mother. Not my own, anyway, though I still play Mother Hen when I get the chance.

I think a good friend and I will duck into the nearest multiplex one of these days to catch Mother’s Day, the latest holiday-themed ensemble piece from director Garry Marshall (New Year’s Day and Valentine’s Day). Of the star-studded cast, I am most intrigued by Julia Roberts, seemingly having a grand time time channeling matronly HSN realness.

Of course, even before Marshall and his latest cinematic bouquet, Hollywood long loved paying tribute to the women with whom, for better or worse, most of us will form the most complex, yet loving, relationship(s) of our lives.  Fans of classic cinema no doubt have a favorite movie mama, everything from Barbara Stanwyck’s noble Stella Dallas (an Oscar nominee from 1937) and Joan Crawford’s indelible Mildred Pierce (a 1945 Oscar winner) to the likes of the most recent Best Actress Oscar winner, Brie Larson in Room. The decades in between are packed with the likes of Jane Darwell’s formidable Ma Joad in The Grapes of Wrath (1940’s Best Supporting Actress honoree), Juanita Moore and Lana Turner–but mostly Best Supporting Actress nominee Juanita Moore–in 1959’s platinum-hearted Imitation of Life, Rosalind Russell as the stage mother of all stage mothers in Gypsy (1962), Mary Tyler Moore, the epitome of impeccably tailored WASPish reserve in Ordinary People (another Oscar contender, 1980),  Shirley MacLaine pulling no punches as headstrong Aurora Greenway in Terms of Endearment (Best Actress, 1983), Sally Field fully immersing herself in the thickness  of the mother-daughter conflict at the heart of the otherwise sassy Steel Magnolias (1989), and local fave Darlene Cates as the indomitable “Mama” Grape (Bonnie, that is) in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape (1993). Of course, I could go on and on and on….

You probably have your favorite–or favorites.

On the flip-side, Hollywood often serves less flattering portrayals of motherhood, such as Mrs. Bates (Psycho, 1960), Harold & Maude‘s snooty socialite (the sublime Vivien Pickles, circa 1971),  Margaret White (Oscar nominee Piper Laurie in 1976’s Carrie), Faye Dunaway in Mommie Dearest (1981), and Oscar nominee Anne Ramsey as the cantankerous “Momma” in Throw Momma from the Train (1987), among others.

On this Mother’s Day, however, I want to recognize two of my favorite portrayals of motherhood from the past few years though “few” is a relative term since one of them is actually a decade old as of this writing. Nonetheless,….

Meet Little Miss Sunshine‘s Sheryl Hoover (from 2006), the woman who tries valiantly to play peacemaker to one and all: husband, daughter, son, father-in-law, brother and even–the unseen–sister. As played by ever-versatile Toni Collette, Sheryl is hardly an ordinary woman caught up in extraordinary circumstances. Instead, she’s more like a resoundingly ordinary woman coping as best she can on life’s merry roller-coaster. Look at her. She dresses nicely, not overly-styled or beyond  her means. Not cheap but definitely budget-conscious. In the first scene, we see that she wears a slim skirt topped by a non-descript shell. She certainly looks professional and well-groomed, nothing fancy but also, blessedly, nothing that reads as a caricature of what it means to be working class. I don’t think we ever learn where she works, exactly, but it appears she’s required to wear a name tag. My guess is bank teller, possibly real-estate agent, maybe retail, somewhere on the order of Macy’s or Kohl’s. My point is that a lot of times Hollywood gets it wrong, and many female characters are outfitted in clothes that seemingly have more to do with a given actress’s taste than what seems appropriate for the character, or the costumers, again, strain to evoke dowdiness or financial hardship. Not in this case. Kudos to costumer Nancy Steiner.

Sheryl Hoover tries to take care of her family, but she’s a little frazzled–and you would be also if you’d had the kind of day she’d had just as the movie opens. Her brother, a widely respected scholar, has tried to commit suicide, and Sheryl is tasked with bringing him home to temporarily share quarters with her spouse and children for safety concerns. This means that she has to walk a precarious line with her husband, a good looking but slightly clueless aspiring motivational speaker. Richard Hoover is a big dreamer, and he means well,  but he’s also a bit of a prig, and his goal of being the next Tony Robbins or Dr. Phil is a risky endeavor that keeps Sheryl on her toes as she is the sole breadwinner for the time being. She tries to fight back desperation, but her will is tested any time money enters the conversation. For now, the Hoovers live comfortably, but the meter is running. Her household challenges also include a  dark-haired teenage son who worships at the altar of Nietzsche and has taken a vow of silence until he is admitted into pilots school; a father-in-law with a randy mind, a filthy mouth, a drug problem, and nothing but love for his granddaughter; finally, Olive, the title character, a sweet-faced girl and kiddie pageant hopeful without a mean, or untrusting, bone in her body. Sheryl wants Olive’s pageant dreams to come true, but she’s hardly a micro-managing pageant mom. She just wants to do the best she can by Olive even if that means figuring it out along the way.

Like many moms on the go, Sheryl Hoover can barely catch a break. She, like many of us at one time or another, I’m sure, doesn’t necessarily smoke, but she likes to keep a pack handy for especially stressful times, something which her husband understands but does not approve. There she is, cruising along, trying to beat rush hour traffic after a day at work, but she needs to make that detour, the mission of mercy for the sake of her brother. Frantic, she puffs a cig  while trying to carry on a conversation with her husband–and I’m pretty sure she knows she shouldn’t be talking on the phone while driving–but her husband’s wise to her, so she covers as best she can. See? We’ve all been there. I’m not saying what she does is right, but it’s relatable.

Furthermore, like many harried moms in the 21st century, Sheryl Hoover frequently brings home dinner in a takeout bag. Her default choice is a bucket of fried chicken. And, once again, why not? After all, she’s only barely getting used to her eccentric–to put it mildly–father-in-law; now, she has another mouth to feed thanks to her brother’s devastation. You’d probably want to snag a bucket of chicken also. Still, Sheryl pushes on, throwing together a salad and encouraging everyone to have a least a bite or two of the green mix. She knows the pre-fab mashed potatoes in the family combo-pak do not constitute a real vegetable. And aren’t her mismatched drinking glasses, leftover from jelly jars and other assorted freebies (or special offers), a familiar sight? We had more than our share of those glasses when I was a kiddo. Home sweet home. Oh, and ever the gracious hostess, she serves dessert even if that means popsicles.

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Toni Collette’s remarkable career includes everything from award winning work in her native Australia to prestige entries in England and in the U.S. She boasts 11 Australian Film Institute nominations, with six wins, most notably for Muriel’s Wedding (1994) and Japanese Story (2003). Interestingly, she was even nominated for Little Miss Sunshine in her home country. In America, her award clout extends to an Oscar nomination for playing Haley Joel Osment’s weary mother in The Sixth Sense (1999) and an Emmy, among three nominations, for The United States of Tara. Her BAFTA, or British Academy, nods include Little Miss Sunshine and 2002’s About a Boy. Clearly, her work in The Sixth Sense, About a Boy, and Little Miss Sunshine  (even 2013’s Sunshine-esque The Way, Way Back) qualifies her as a movie motherhood all-star.

What I love most about Sheryl Hoover is her dedication to her children. I think she wages constant doubts about her ability to be an effective parent. We can see this when she weighs the cost of how much her brother should share about his recent suicide attempt when asked about it by his niece at the diner table. Of course, Sheryl understands that her brother’s tale is not an easy one for a small child to grasp–it involves a same sex lover–but Sheryl believes, much to her husband’s protestations, that there is no substitute for the truth, and she’s right. Sheryl also knows her daughter, a wee-bit on the chubby side, should enjoy being a kid even if that means splurging on fats and calories with a hearty helping of waffles a la mode for breakfast. No fat shaming or body image issues for her little girl for the sake of a crown, however valued. No ma’am. Besides her daughter, Sheryl supports her son (from a previous marriage) and his military aspirations even though she’s perplexed, maybe even fearful. Maybe she doesn’t try to dissuade him because she’s holding out for the possibility that he’ll change his mind as long as she doesn’t force the issue. Smart for her.

I love Sheryl the most when she rails against the naysayers who want to discourage Olive from competing in the pageant, especially since those naysayers are not more seasoned pageant veterans but members of her own family. Guileless Olive is a charmer, and she might win a pageant one day, but it’s obvious that she’s simply not as polished as her fellow contestants, but that’s okay with Sheryl because she’s not afraid of Olive failing or embarrassing herself (or her family). What Sheryl, this great compassionate mom, sees is that Olive has worked hard to be as prepared as possible AND enjoys what she’s doing. Winning is not as important to Sheryl as it is to others. She wants Olive to be a regular kid and have fun. “We have to let Olive be Olive,” Sheryl exclaims, and that is the moment I most cherish in this whole funny flick. I just wish more parents saw the world and their children as simply and as lovingly as Sheryl.

Little Miss Sunshine scored an impressive number of Oscar nominations back in the 2006/2007 Oscar race, Best Picture among them. The kitty also included trophies for Alan Arkin (Best Supporting Actor) as the loose-cannon grandpa and Best Original Screenplay for Michael Arndt’s miracle of a script; a miracle in that it looks so easy even though it breaks many of the standard rules for scriptwriting. Additionally, Little Abigail Breslin earned a Best Supporting Actress nomination, but she was up against powerhouse Jennifer Hudson in Dreamgirls, so the nomination had to suffice.

Actually, I think the whole cast was Oscar worthy, including Greg Kinnear as Richard and Steven Carrell as Sheryl’s brother. That noted, Toni Collette is the force that holds the movie together for this viewer. Abigail Breslin’s pageant girl might very well be the story’s catalyst, but Sheryl is the anchor, the protector. I could have easily supported a Best Actress nod for her in a year dominated by Helen Mirren’s exacting performance as Queen Elizabeth II in The Queen. Mirren was unstoppable, for reasons I never understood, other than members of the press as well as the Academy determined that after decades of superb work she had topped herself with a super-size big screen role and was overdue. To be clear, I never hated Mirren or her movie, but, as distinguished as it was,  the performance never struck me as a singular achievement. Mirren’s only competition that year seemed to be Meryl Streep, practically reinventing herself as a legendarily demanding fashion magazine editor in The Devil Wears Prada. At the time, Streep was my personal fave among the favored five though with the passing of the many years since, I appreciate more and more the dark genius of Judi Dench as a miserable school marm in Notes on a Scandal. Now, there’s a performance that rocks for the ages. By the way, Kate Winslet (Little Children) and Penelope Cruz (Volver) rounded out the final ballot.

Among the 2006 also-rans were Annette Benning (in the otherwise problematic Running with Scissors) Beyonce (better than her detractors might allow in Dreamgirls), and, as noted, Collette. My guess is that the role of Sheryl Hoover is simply not flashy enough to dazzle Academy voters. Again, in many ways, Sheryl is resoundingly ordinary–the charm of which likely escaped jaded Hollywood viewers–and what Collette does best is react to the much of the antics surrounding her. Every actor learns early on that all acting is reacting–this is essential to the craft–but for some reason, the Academy almost always favors acting that looks like acting. As Sheryl, Collette has her moments, but the role isn’t about those moments. You know, martyrdom, harrowing ordeals, long-winded impassioned speeches, tearful soliloquies, or fits of rage and righteous indignation. What we get instead is a woman  for whom body language says a lot and whose big blue eyes seemingly take-in everything. Study her face in closeups.

Collette aims to find truth in the heart of a basically good yet flawed woman doing the best she can as wife, daughter-in-law, and, yes, mother. I recently found a great quote from Little Miss Sunshine co-director Valerie Farris on LondonNet: “Toni is an amazing actress who plays the strongest character in the film. You identify with her,” says co-director, Valerie Faris. “She is smart and capable and makes good choices. She supports everybody in the family for who they are. Toni really understands this character. She has a big heart and she is a very open person and in the film, that comes across.” Well stated, Ms. Faris. Thank you.

My number two pick for a great cinematic modern American mother is Patricia Clarkson as Rosemary Penderghast, mother of–coincidentally–Olive Penderghast, played by Emma Stone, in Easy A, 2010’s high school update on Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. Truthfully, I think Clarkson and Stanley Tucci, as Clarkson’s hubby/Olive’s dad, both deserve great big heaping piles of accolades for playing the freshest, smartest pair of parents in almost any teen movie of the last decade or more; however, this day is about Mom.

After racking up more than 20 years in film exhibition, I well understand that makers of teen comedies understand exactly which audience they hope to reach with their products. At the same time, audiences, even teen audiences, likely benefit from being challenged rather than pandered (to). For example, in many teen comedies parents just come across as (pick one): dolts, stiffs, morons, absentee, self-absorbed twits, etc. Look no further, for instance, to Amy Poehler’s bimborella in the otherwise smart, Tine Fey penned, Mean Girls. Sure, Poehler is funny, but her character, straining to be hip and with-it, is pathetic. On the other hand, Clarkson in Easy A is refreshingly cool. She doesn’t try too hard to be her daughter’s bff because she already is her daughter’s friend on top of being a concerned, pro-active parent. Yes, she really likes her child and enjoys spending time with her even if that means hanging out in the kitchen, preparing dinner–and it’s not just the two girls; dad and little brother are right there, the way we like to think families should be during meal time. (Of course, one can argue that the family’s affluence–living comfortably in beautiful, tony Ojai, California–plays a HUGE role in their ability to spend so much time together compared to, say, traditionally working class or single parent households. Duly noted.)

Screen shot 2016-05-01 at 4.40.30 PM

Some of the most refreshing moments in Easy A feature Olive Penderghast ( Emma Stone on the left) and her sweet-n-sassy mom Rosemary (Patricia Clarkson to the right). Ironically, and in spite of multiple performances as movie moms, including an Oscar nominated supporting turn in 2003’s Pieces of April, Clarkson is not a mom in real-life , nor has she ever been married. In 2010, she was surely a long-shot for another Best Supporting Actress nod for her fine work in Easy A. Competition was stiff, and Easy A, in spite of healthy box office and enthusiastic reviews, just didn’t register as a significant achievement. Too bad because to this viewer, this is exactly the kind of crackerjack portrayal that seems truly supporting and, likewise, tailor-made for supporting character awards consideration. For years, Clarkson, the dusky-voiced New Orleans native, has worked tirelessly to launch a film project in which she would star as Tallulah Bankhead,  the colorful Golden Age stage and screen actress with even more pronounced Southern roots, hailing from a prominent, politically well-heeled family in Alabama. Kathleen Turner and Valerie Harper have portrayed Bankhead onstage, but Clarkson seems born for the job.

What I also like about Rosemary Penderghast is that she knows how to communicate with her daughter in a way that seems just about on-target even in awkward situations. In other words, Rosemary understands that her child isn’t perfect and needs a little guidance, but she doesn’t want to intrude–too much–but she also needs to exert parental stewardship. That is, after all, her responsibility, so Rosemary learns to deflect some of these conversations with a dose of humor, and I applaud her for that. Rosemary also doesn’t mind tossing out, almost as casual asides, some of her own juvenile escapades. Of course, Olive is a wee bit embarrassed, and that’s okay because she now knows her mother won’t judge her–too much–for the mess she has created for herself by pretending to be, you know, “easy.” This is smart parenting.

The beauty of Clarkson’s performance is that she never goes too far. She doesn’t sacrifice the heart of the character for the sake of a laugh or vice versa. Once again, think back to Ana Gasteyer’s globe trotting zoologist mom in Mean Girls. While she’s definitely more grounded than Poehler’s character, she’s almost equally clueless about her daughter even though she appears to be cut from the same touchy-feeling peacenik cloth as Clarkson’s Rosemary. And, again, I actually enjoy Gasteyer. My point is  to show how Clarkson as Rosemary rises above the rest of the fray by playing a funny character that also represents positive parenting. What’s so bad about that? After all, we have to let mothers be mothers.

Thanks for your consideration…



Night and Day: On Patty’s Passing

10 Apr


This photo from the set of Me, Natalie (1969)appears in Patty Duke's 1987. autobiography Call Me Anna. She writes that she had attempted suicide a day earlier. She eventually landed a Golden Globe nomination for her work in the film.

This photo from the set of Me, Natalie (1969) appears in Patty Duke’s 1987. autobiography Call Me Anna. She writes that she had attempted suicide a day earlier. What a sad thing. She eventually landed a Golden Globe nomination for her work in the film. This image is the one that most shows me who Patty Duke is and how she saw herself (at least at the time).

We repeat truisms for a reason. We believe them to be true. Of course. Context is everything. Perspective is everything. Perspective changes everything. Time changes our perception. See? Certainly, I have had reasons to consider some of the above in the days since the passing of Oscar and Emmy winner Patty Duke.

As a child, I loved Patty Duke! I got such a kick out of her wacky sitcom. How special was that? All of sixteen and she had her own show.  I wanted my own show, and I wanted to play twins–twin cousins, that is.  Just like Patty Duke. There she was with her fabulous flip (kinda-sorta) as (insert–kooky, spunky or perky–here) teen Patty Lane, and there she was–again–as demure Cathy, no flip but more elegant, refined tastes, especially in clothes, not to mention ballet and crepes suzette. Plus, Cathy had that super-cool British accent. Sure, technically, she was supposed to be from Scotland, but try telling that to a three, four, or five year old, especially once Beatlemania and the British Invasion set-in.  Who could believe that one actress, a teenager, no less, was capable of such extraordinary gifts? And that was before I knew smack about The Miracle Worker or something called Academy Awards.

^ Probably one of the first songs to which I learned all the words. Incredibly, Duke and many of the original cast members re-reteamed for a 1999 TV reunion movie. 

Of course, I was too, too young to understand the implausibility of the premise. I just assumed Patty and Cathy were twin sisters. No, I was reminded by my pre-teen sister, they were cousins. Okay, that works. Doesn’t it? I wonder how the creator–that would be heavyweight Sidney Sheldon–ever successfully pitched the idea. Oh sure, I understand, now, there was some tom-foolery about how the girls’ dads (trusty William Schallert–still living btw, at 93) were also twins, and I guess even a 6 or 7, maybe 8, year old might buy that one for a minute or two.

By most accounts, including the IMDb, this adorable lass, Rita McClaughlin (now Rita Walter) served as Duke's body double on The Patty Duke show. Whereas the show frequently made use of state-of-the-art split screen technology in order to show Duke's face as much as possible, trickier, less static shots, often required the use of a double (always photographed from the back). Enter McClaughlin. If her name sounds familiar, then you might remember her fondly, as I do, from her role as Carol on As the World Turns in the 1970s and 80s.

By most accounts, including the IMDb, this adorable lass, Rita McClaughlin (now Rita Walter), served as Duke’s body double on The Patty Duke Show. Whereas the show frequently made use of state-of-the-art split screen technology in order to spotlight the star as much as possible, trickier, less static shots, often required the use of a double (always photographed from the back). Enter McClaughlin. If her name sounds familiar, then you might remember her fondly, as I do, from her role as Carol on As the World Turns in the 1970s and 80s. (IMAGE: Monster Kid Classic Horror Forum)

Patty Duke’s show was cancelled after a three season run for a total of 103 episodes, per the IMDb. I also didn’t understand, then, why great shows, shows like Patty Duke’s, were cancelled. Did I even know the meaning of the word “cancelled”?  How thrilled I was, a few years later, when over the course of a summer my sister and I were laid up, recovering from tonsillectomies (yes, at the same time),  and we found reruns of The Patty Duke Show on one of the UHF channels. Remember UHF? What a summer! Patty Duke and all the ice-cream I could eat. Well, the promise of ice cream was how they, the adults, tricked us into being compliant with the whole tonsillectomy thing.  That part was a bit of an exaggeration as eating anything required too much effort, but Patty Duke, playing twin cousins, was back on TV; that much was true, and it helped.

A few years later, after yet another divorce in the family, my mother relaxed strict rules  about “bedtime” and allowed my sister and me to stay up and watch Valley of the Dolls on the late show. You know Valley of the Dolls, don’t you? Based on Jacqueline Susann’s provocative best seller (long held as the best selling novel of all time, per the Guinness Book of World Records), the movie served a heady mix of glamour and allegedly savage, “hard-hitting” drama as three career girls soar to rapturous show-biz highs, full of lucky breaks, fancy clothes (by Travilla), outrageous hairdos, nightclubs, premieres, awards, montages, montages, montages, and, of course, romance (laced, as it were, with hints of nudity), only to descend to the titular valley as a result of madness and misfortune brought on by pills (dolls), booze, and catfights. My mother carefully prompted my sister and me to the real-life parallels, such that Patty Duke’s Neely O’Hara was based, at least in part, on Judy Garland, legendary–and quite troubled–dynamo of screen, TV, and music (both live and recorded). Her battles with  addiction, dating all the way back to  her years as a child star at MGM, were hardly secret.

At any rate, I could not believe what I was seeing and hearing. Looky there at Patty Duke, no longer a teen comedy queen, but a legitimate dramatic actress at all of 20-21.  Her incredible range staggered my 11 or 12 year old imagination. She transformed from poor, put upon, sweet yet scrappy Neely, so egregiously mistreated by that bully Helen Lawson (a caricature of brassy Broadway diva Ethel Merman, played divinely by Susan Hayward) to a pathetic, manipulative mess. A monster who shrieked, growled, and suffered sloppy yet frightfully realistic nervous breakdowns. And catfights. What an actress! Patty Duke could seemingly do anything, and I was horrified–horrified–to think that she had not won yet another Oscar–by then, I was into the game–for such an earth-shatteringly brilliant performance. Did I mention, by the way, that I was 11, 12, maybe 13, at the time?

I watched Valley of the Dolls as often as I could, and I stayed up wee into the night, vampire style, reading my mother’s hardback edition. One day, the movie lost its magic for me, and I didn’t watch it for several years.  I’d moved on to other things, like Jane Fonda movies: Julia (1977), Coming Home (1978), and The China Syndrome (1979). I immersed myself in movie culture and expanded my knowledge; consequently, my tastes changed.

Then, came cable TV and videocassettes, and I returned to the Valley of the Dolls. (Sounds like a sequel, doesn’t it?) As an adult, even a young adult, however, I recognized the film as something entirely different from my easily swayed, romanticized childhood POV. Oh sure, parts of the movie look great, and Barbara Parkins (as Anne, Susann’s idealized version of herself) and the late Sharon Tate are fine, the latter portraying a doomed showgirl turned international sex symbol (rumoured to be a composite based on Marilyn Monroe and Carole Landis.) Alas, Ms. Duke does not fare as well. What once seemed earth shatteringly bold and brilliant suddenly read as baffling. Duke hams it up, thick and juicy style, straining–it seems–to shatter her “All American Girl” effect, making herself look silly, clueless, and over made-up, in the process. Of course, she isn’t helped by a script lacking in subtlety.  Everything that happens to these girls arrives at breakneck pace, and Duke’s Neely is no exception.

Though slammed by many critics, 1967's Valley of the Dolls lured scads of moviegoers into theaters with the promise of sexy babes and Hollywood dirt. In an appropriately twisted turn of events, Duke played a role at least partially based on mercurial entertainer Judy Garland while the latter was actually originally cast as a bad-ass Broadway bitch inspired by Ethel Merman, but Garland, overwhelmed, left the project and was replaced by dynamo Susan Hayward.

Though slammed by many critics, 1967’s Valley of the Dolls lured scads of moviegoers into theaters with the promise of sexy babes and Hollywood dirt, no, filth. In an appropriately twisted turn of events, Duke (above) played a role at least partially based on mercurial entertainer Judy Garland while the latter was actually originally cast as a bad-ass Broadway bitch inspired by Ethel Merman, but Garland, overwhelmed, left the project and was replaced by dynamo Susan Hayward who does not disappoint. (IMAGE: Pinterest)

With Neely, extreme swings are the norm, but Duke doesn’t modulate her performance accordingly, especially in the film’s latter half,  where it might make sense to pull back just a bit since the story is already over-the-top.  Instead, she barks her lines (most of them howlers), like a petulant 8 year old, and rips right through anything standing in her way, kind of like the old Tasmanian Devil. For her part, the actress always blamed director Mark Robson. Duke’s complaint has long been that Robson felt he needed to extract the actresses’ performances through any means necessary, including humiliation and indifference. Duke’s response was that as an actress she could and should be addressed as a working professional, not as a piece of scenery, a prop. To a degree, she might be correct in that Parkins corroborates Duke’s frustration on the DVD, claiming that Robson always seemed more interested in effects, the way staging would read on camera, than he was in working with the actresses to help develop their characters. Per Parkins, it was more about being told to turn to the camera after so many beats, or to make sure hands were in the shot performing a particular bit of business, such as holding a bottle of pills at a certain angle, but never explaining how to connect the dots. Also, both Duke (in her autobiography) and Parkins chide Robson for less than supportive treatment of lovely Sharon Tate, whom Parkins assails as not having a mean bone in her entire body. Alas.

For all of Valley of the Dolls‘ miscues, it survives, at least as classic camp, propelled as it is by 1960s glossiness and a compulsively watchable cat-fight between Duke and Susan Hayward that sets the bar–a very low bar–for such tomfoolery though the dialogue, ham-fisted as it is, crackles.  Even so, Duke’s final meltdown in a deserted alley still gives me shivers, probably the most authentic moment in her entire tortured performance. Whereas her intensity in other scenes seems ripe for mockery, I just can’t shake Neely’s seething desperation in that moment, and I wonder where Duke, as an actress, had to go in order to make it happen. Certainly, those who long to imitate it never quite get there, and the joke is on them.

Of course, speaking of matchless performances, nothing matches Patty Duke in her most famous, no, iconic, role: young Helen Keller in  1962’s The Miracle Worker. Duke first played Keller in the original Broadway production, beginning just shy of her 13th birthday; the show closed almost two years later, a healthy run for a so-called “straight” play, but the show’s legacy is even greater than that, and I’m not even including the famed movie version though maybe I should. Allow me.

In my last piece, I wrote about how Broadway vets, such as Carol Channing and Julie Andrews, are sometimes denied the opportunity to repeat their successes in big screen adaptations, but, luckily, that was not the case with Patty Duke and Anne Bancroft, in the role of Annie Sullivan, the fiercely committed teacher, the miracle worker of the title, trying with all her might to make a connection with her charge, a scared, bratty, over indulged deaf and blind girl, who, of course, would grow up to be a world class scholar and activist. But I digress. At any rate, thank goodness the gods of Hollywood casting decided to take a chance and allow Bancroft and Duke to recreate their stage roles for the movies even though there was a very real concern that by 1962, Duke had grown too tall to be convincing as a child. Fortunately, Ms. Duke was still small for her age, and the director and camera operator worked out staging and angles to manage the rest as best possible.

For all their success with both stage and screen versions of The Miracle Worker, Anne Bancroft (l) and Patty Duke (r), were not the first performers to play the roles of Annie Sullivan and Helen Keller, respectively, as Keller's story had previously aired as part of TV's Playhouse 90 with Oscar winner Teresa Wright as Sullivan and Patty McCormack as Keller.

For all their success with both stage and screen versions of The Miracle Worker, Anne Bancroft (l) and Patty Duke (r), were not the first performers to play the roles of Annie Sullivan and Helen Keller, respectively, as Keller’s story had previously aired as part of TV’s Playhouse 90 with Oscar winner Teresa Wright as Sullivan and Patty McCormack as Keller. (McCormack, of course, was already famous for her eerie, and Oscar nominated, performance as creepy Rhoda in The Bad Seed.

What a blessed achievement. What fascinates me the most about the film version of The Miracle Worker is how Bancroft and Duke work together so seamlessly. I’ve often remarked that they’re actually giving one performance, not two. That’s the pronounced degree of their connection. I would almost call it magical, but I think that demeans the achievement, the dedication and skill they bring to the piece. Their big dining room confrontation, choreographed to the nth degree as Duke describes in her book, is acting at its finest simply because it doesn’t look like acting. It looks like two very strong opponents unfolding in an unconventional, even banal, arena, getting to know  in  such an unorthodox way each other’s personalities, strengths, and weaknesses, through emotion and movement and with nary a word. I think it may very well be the most thrillingly acted scene in the history of American cinema.

When Patty Duke won Best Supporting Actress for 1962's The Miracle Worker at the age of 16, she became the youngest ever recipient of a competitive, rather than honorary, Academy Award. In so doing, she snatched victory from no less than Angela Lansbury, so memorable as the power hungry manipulator in The Manchurian Candidate. Duke also bested young Mary Badham, so memorable as "Scout" in To Kill a Mockingbird, as well as beloved vet Thelma Ritter in Birdman of Alcatraz (the last of her six nominations), and Shirley Knight in Sweet Bird of Youth.

When Patty Duke won Best Supporting Actress for 1962’s The Miracle Worker at the age of 16, she became the youngest ever recipient of a competitive, rather than honorary, Academy Award [1]. In so doing, she snatched victory from no less than Angela Lansbury, so memorable as the power-mad manipulator in The Manchurian Candidate. Duke also bested young Mary Badham, so memorable as “Scout” in To Kill a Mockingbird, as well as beloved vet Thelma Ritter in Birdman of Alcatraz (the last of her six nominations), and Shirley Knight in Sweet Bird of Youth. Estimable competition to be sure.

Of course, they both won Oscars, but that in itself is not what makes Duke and Bancroft in The Miracle Worker such a singular triumph. No, instead, consider this. Though long a favorite of high school drama departments, performed with varying degrees of success all across the nation (the clips are all over YouTube), with at least two TV remakes, the play has been revived only once on Broadway, and that revival came more than 50 years later and, alas, closed abruptly after a few dozen performances. Lesson learned. Duke and Bancroft own The Miracle Worker and likely always will.

For whatever reason, and there are likely several obvious ones, Duke’s movie career was otherwise spotty though, please note, that even before The Miracle Worker, she’d enjoyed some degree of success, playing the younger version of Kim Stanley’s character, a Marilyn Monroe-alike, in 1958’s The Goddess. For most of her career, Duke earned her living on the small screen. She never landed another series as successful as her early sitcom, but she earned a People’s Choice award for It Takes Two, a smart if short-lived series that ran on ABC from fall of 1982 through spring of 1983 for a total of 22 episodes. Co-starring Richard Crenna, the show was created by the same team that created Soap, Benson, and, eventually, The Golden Girls. (Per the IMDb, the kitchen set of It Takes Two was recycled for The Golden Girls.) Duke later reteamed with the same production company for Hail to the Chief, an even less successful sitcom about the first ever female President of the United States. Coincidentally, at about the same time Duke was playing president on TV, she held office as president of the Screen Actors Guild.

Duke’s biggest mark was in guest roles, TV movies, and mini-series. In If Tomorrow Comes, she played a young bride, married to a Japanese-American, in the days leading up to the Pearl Harbor attack. It was this 1971 offering, btw, that actually served as my introduction to the disgrace of America’s own internment camps. (Curious, isn’t it, how I’d already had some knowledge of the Holocaust but nothing about our own camps.) A few years later, Duke stunned me yet again playing an informant, one with a lot of baggage, in an incredibly intense episode of Police Woman, of all things [2], an episode that featured her then husband John Astin as a sleazoid, a man who pissed off the wrong person and ended up with a face full of brass knuckles. As I recall, this was also my introduction to whole idea of something as disturbing as brass knuckles. In the early 1990s, my sister and  I bawled our eyes out, straining not to, as we watched a Christmas season weepie entitled Always Remember I Love You about a mother and child reunion that hurts so good it elicits smiles through tears. I watched it every year after that as long as it aired, most notably on Lifetime, and I even had a lousy videotaped version, but I lost it long ago, and I the show hasn’t been rerun in close to two decades.

Duke won her third Emmy for portraying no less than Annie Sullivan opposite Melissa Gilbert, flush with success from Little House on the Prairie, as Helen Keller. Once again, Duke will forever own The Miracle Worker.

Duke (l) won her third Emmy for portraying no less than Annie Sullivan opposite Melissa Gilbert (r), flush with success from Little House on the Prairie, as Helen Keller in a 1979 TV adaptation. Once again, Duke will forever own The Miracle Worker. After all, who remembers Melissa Gilbert as Keller? Or Hallie Eisenberg (from a Disney TV remake), or Abigail Breslin from a recent stage revival?  (IMAGE: Amazon)

In her storied career as a TV star, Duke amassed a total of 10 Primetime Emmy nominations. Per her bio, she at one time held the record as the most nominated actress in Emmy history. Her resume also boasts one Daytime Emmy nod as well. Those nominations  include everything from an early bid for her own sitcom as well as a turn as Martha Washington and a character reportedly based on Rose Kennedy in the mini-series version of Taylor Caldwell’s mammoth Captains and the Kings. She also scored a nod for a supporting role in the tele-adaptation of Marilyn French’s  feminist classic The Women’s Room. Ultimately, she claimed three statuettes for her TV portrayals, including one for My Sweet Charlie, a landmark TV film co-starring the great Al Freeman Jr.

Patty Duke’s life was full of turmoil, everything from a positively Dickensian childhood, in which her single mother essentially relinquished her to the care of abusive showbiz promoters–Patty Duke wasn’t even her real name–to disastrous high-profile affairs, four marriages, a notorious paternity scandal, and well-publicized bouts of bipolar disorder. Duke eventually made de-stigmatizing mental illness part of her personal platform and even drew attention to the issue by writing about it in her book, which was later adapted into a TV movie in which, yes, she played her adult self.

What a curious life. As a child, little Anna-Marie was subverted into the public persona known as Patty Duke. As a teen, she played twins. Early in her career, she won an Oscar for playing Helen Keller in The Miracle Worker while as an adult she won an Emmy for playing Annie Sullivan, Helen’s teacher, in a TV version of The Miracle Worker. She acted the role of a fictional U.S. President and served as president of her union. Later, she even played the grown version of herself, always acting. Always a wild duet. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Anna Marie Duke-Pearce is survived by her husband Michael Pearce, and sons Sean Astin, MacKenzie Astin (both actors), and Kevin Pearce.

Find out more about Patty Duke’s autobiography, Call Me Anna, at Amazon.


[1] By 1974, Tatum O’Neal broke Duke’s record, earning Best Supporting Actress (Paper Moon) at all of 10 years old. Of course, labelling either Duke or O’Neal as supporting is a bit of a stretch considering their screen time and importance to their respective films’ plots, but I digress. To clarify, when Anna Paquin won in the same category for 1993’s The Piano, she was 11.

[2] Citing Police Woman probably seems pretty indefensible now, but back in its time it was hailed as a breakthrough, first of all, for being spun-off from the highly acclaimed anthology series Police Story (from Joseph Wambuagh). Beyond that, star Angie Dickinson did something that Anne Francis (Honey West) and Teresa Graves (Get Christie Love!) had not, which was headline a successful TV crime series with a female lead, the other two lasting only a season, or less, each. That noted, for all of Dickinson’s star power, and whatever contributions Wambaugh might have made, Police Woman devolved from its early promise over the course of its four season run. The aforementioned episode with Duke aired during season 1.


Miscast Matchmaker Match Made in Hollywood Heaven

27 Mar


I conducted my own investigation even though I knew what I would find.

My beloved Ruth Gordon starred as Dolly Levi in the original Broadway run of Thorton Wilder’s The Matchmaker  just a year or so shy of her 50th birthday. Good for her. She even earned a Tony nomination. Better for her. (To clarify, The Matchmaker was Wilder’s update of one of his earlier works, The Merchant of Yonkers [1], but I digress.) Similarly, Shirley Booth, still reaping the benefits of her Oscar triumph in 1952’s Come Back Little Sheba, portrayed the same Dolly Levi in the 1958 film adaptation of Wilder’s hit play at about the same age as Gordon. Fiftyish. No worries. Then, in 1964, Carol Channing took on the Levi challenge in producer David Merrick’s colossal Broadway musical version, famously titled (or retitled) Hello, Dolly! (staged by the one and only Gower Champion).  Still in her early 40s at the time and with a few high profile shows to her credit, Channing hardly qualified as an ingenue, even compared to the seasoned likes of Gordon and Booth; moreover, Channing had clearly experienced enough life to be utterly believable as a wily widow–and apparent Jill-of-all-trades–who, after a prolonged period of relative seclusion, finds love and seizes the chance to reclaim her place in the glittery nightlife of New York City, circa 1890. Channing scored a Tony, and soon afterward parlayed her popularity into an Oscar nominated–and Globe winning– supporting role as Muzzy Van Hossmere in 1967’s Throughly Modern Millie, starring Julie Andrews–then at the height of her popularity.

Taking all this into consideration, I have to admit that my mind still reels at the fact that when 20th Century Fox purchased the rights to Merrick’s property, someone in charge (producer Ernest Lehman?) thought it a grand idea to cast no less than blazingly new superstar Barbra Streisand, all of 27 (give or take), as this celebrated–and unequivocally middle-aged–character. Did I mention, by the way, that Streisand was only 27? Did I mention that my mind still reels?

Oh sure, Streisand, to quote Sandra Bernhard (in Without You I’m Nothing), was “hot, hot, hot” at the time; after all, she had just conquered Hollywood via the tremendously well-received big screen transfer of her Broadway triumph as legendary vaudevillian Fanny Brice in Funny Girl, for which she ultimately tied for Best Actress (with Katharine Hepburn in The Lion in Winter) at the 1968/69 Oscar ceremony.

In what truly qualifies as an ironic twist, Streisand either through sheer luck or by design snatched Dolly from Channing in a kind of turnabout of the occasion when Streisand lost a Tony for Funny Girl to Channing in Hello, Dolly! But, once again, I digress…

According to an article posted on the Turner Classic Movies website, Carol Channing, a Tony winner for her interpretation of Dolly, aroused concerns that her oversized personality might not be a good fit for the big screen adaptation. Reportedly, Broadway biggie Ethel Merman, for whom the part was reportedly intended, was considered as was, allegedly, Elizabeth Taylor--who can't sing--and Ann-Margret, which would have made even less sense than Streisand. Btw, among the many actresses who played Dolly on Broadway after Channing left the production: Betty Grable, Ginger Rogers, Martha Raye, and Pearl Bailey.

According to an article posted on the Turner Classic Movies website, Carol Channing, a Tony winner for her interpretation of Dolly, aroused concerns that her oversized personality might not be a good fit for the big screen adaptation. Really? Reportedly, another Broadway biggie Ethel Merman, for whom the musical role was reportedly originally intended, was considered for the movie, but that claim seems a tad dubious given that Merman, better known as a Broadway draw than a bona fide film star, had not even been allowed to recreate famous stage roles in Annie Get Your Gun and Gypsy for the movies. Plus, she was knocking 60 at the time. Other alleged contenders include(d) Elizabeth Taylor–who can’t/couldn’t sing as we all learned from A Little Night Music–and Ann-Margret, which would have made even less sense than Streisand. On the other hand, the IMDb reports that Ms. Margret was considered for one of the supporting roles though Shirley MacLaine, who’s had a featured role in The Matchmaker, is included as a possible Dolly. Backing up, can any of us really imagine Streisand and Ann-Margret in the same film? Btw, among the many actresses who played Dolly on Broadway after Channing left the production: Merman, Betty Grable, Ginger Rogers, Martha Raye, Phyllis Diller, and Pearl Bailey. Channing’s understudy, by the way, was future Laugh-In staple, Joanne Worley. Meanwhile,  good ol Rutanya Alda, eventually known for her role as put-upon personal assistant Carol Ann to Faye Dunaway’s riveting Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest, is credited on the IMDb as Streisand’s stand-in and photo double. (IMAGE:

Of course, to the Fox suits casting Streisand as Dolly made genius business sense due to her extraordinary appeal not only as a freshly bankable movie commodity but also as a top recording artist and proven TV draw, thanks to a series of popular well-received musical specials. Channing, on the other hand, despite being synonymous with Hello, Dolly! and with big screen credibility thanks to Thoroughly Modern Millie, seemed too much of a risk, no doubt because she had never carried a picture, and, likely, because she was over 40, rarely considered a selling point for an actress in Hollywood. Plus, the late 1960s were simply a hand-wringing time for the big studios as they attempted to stay current in a very confusing time, socially and/or culturally. After all, glossy, old-fashioned Dolly was released the same year as Easy Rider and Midnight Cowboy, the latter of which was originally rated X and earned the distinction of being the only so rated film to win Best Picture (or, presumably, any other Oscar for that matter).

That doesn’t change the simple truth that Streisand, not even 30, was simply too young to play Dolly Levi, what’s the word, realistically. That has nothing to do with talent because Streisand’s talent has never been in question; however, gargantuan talent doesn’t necessarily guarantee that even a star of Streisand’s caliber is always the best choice for every role. What were those Fox guys thinking? For example, did it ever occur to them that while Streisand might have ensured a relatively strong opening, she still needed to convince the masses that she could effectively play a middle-aged widow if the picture were to have positive word of mouth with the general public? After all, too, too, much of the story hinges on the fact that Dolly and her late husband, Efrem, had enjoyed a deep, loving, committed relationship–she quotes him constantly–and that she has been alone for a considerable period. That just doesn’t play as well coming from a 27 year old. Plus, the filmmakers–perhaps wisely in retrospect–don’t even try to make Streisand look older or more mature. She looks like Streisand. She may even look like Streisand as Fanny Brice. Maybe she looks like Streisand playing Fanny Brice playing Dolly Levi. Yeah, that’s the ticket. (Methinks if this series of unfortunate events were to happen today, there would be a lot of hoopla about transforming the star with special “age” makeup. Blech.)

Yes, here we are at the conundrum of the whole thing. In Hello, Dolly!, Streisand simply looks like Streisand. No attempt is made to obscure her youth and vibrancy. Far from it. Of course, she’s styled to a fare-thee-well. No attempt to add creases to her face, or to dowdy-down her hair even though the script keeps referencing her age, her longevity, her colorful past. The effect at times is discombobulating–but only at times because as miscast as she clearly is, she knows what’s she doing, and what she’s doing is selling Jerry Herman’s wow of a score while also serenading audiences with the full sweet magnitude of her unlikely stardom–a kooky unconventional beauty with mesmerizing talent–and she simply dazzles in spite of  the incongruity of it all.

I once read that the late great Pauline Kael had described George Cukor’s monumental 1954 remake of A Star is Born starring Judy Garland, as the greatest one woman show in the history of movies. Something like that. I think Streisand in Hello, Dolly! gives Garland a run for her money in that regard. Literally, of course, nothing could be farther from the truth. Just as  Cukor surrounded Garland with resourceful supporting players, including magnetic James Mason, Dolly director Gene Kelly, legendary hoofer-turned leading man-turned filmmaker, fills the big, big screen with comic foils, energetic dancers, and scads upon scads of costumed extras, but for much of the movie Streisand seems to exist in a world of her own, and she seizes the screen, dominating a picture absolutely packed with detail in every frame.

Of course, this–what, singularity?–may prove distracting to some moviegoers who prefer their flicks to be plot driven stories in which characters interact with each other in order to advance the action. I mean, that is the gig, typically, is it not? Streisand skeptics may shudder and write the whole thing off to egomania, a charge the entertainment phenom has faced more than once, especially with the likes of her own crowd pleasing remake of A Star is Born (1976) and 1983’s Yentl, producing the former while producing and directing the latter. I fully admit that I’m not much of a fan of either film–and for the same reasons as all the other detractors. (I especially retch at the self aggrandizing A Star is Born remake in spite of Oscar winning tune “Evergreen” that Streisand composed with Paul Williams.) Other Dolly foes might protest on the grounds that Streisand “stole” a role that rightfully belonged to Channing, but that seems, well, unimaginative, meaning that there is no guarantee that Channing would have been cast even if Streisand had turned down the part. Of course, we all know that no less than Audrey Hepburn originally balked at the chance to play Eliza Doolittle in the big screen version of My Fair Lady, hoping her refusal would force the studio heads–Warners–to rethink their decision to NOT hire Julie Andrews who made the role famous in its landmark Broadway run. Nothing doing, the Warner’s people reportedly told Hepburn. If she didn’t take the role, someone else would–and they didn’t mean Andrews. That would never happen. So Hepburn, knowing she was licked and knowing, like Kenny Rogers, when to hold ’em and when to fold ’em, switched rather than fight.

Of course, fans of Dolly on Broadway (or its original cast album) might remain steadfast in their contempt due, again, to Streisand’s youth and how obviously miscast she is.

But I love her in Hello, Dolly!

In spite of all that. Yes, I should know better. Yes, I should know that I should know better, but for some reason, I don’t care. Maybe I need a support group, but I think Streisand nails this role in all its glory.

From June of 1971, one of my all-time favorite Mad magazine covers when Streisand was seemingly everywhere. I'm pretty sure I still have this issue, neatly preserved in plastic wrap, somewhere. (IMAGE:

From June of 1971, one of my all-time favorite Mad magazine covers–when Streisand was seemingly everywhere. I’m pretty sure I still have this issue, neatly preserved in plastic wrap, somewhere. My two favorite Streisand performances are in Hello, Dolly! and What’s Up Doc? I enjoy Oscar winner Funny Girl, but I don’t love it in the same way as the others. Ditto perennial weepie The Way We Were. Oh, she’s fine  in the latter as dynamo Katy Morosky, more than up to the challenge, but curious editing choices work against her. I’m still working on Up the Sandbox and The Owl and the Pussycat. (IMAGE:

What do I love about Streisand in Dolly? For starters, her comic timing works like a charm. A lot of the lines are actually clever, but Streisand makes them more clever (cleverer?); however, that is not her gift. No, what she actually does is find a way to make even the corny lines sound snappy. And that’s huge. (Again, the effect may read as Striesand playing Fannie Brice playing Dolly Levi, but that just makes the whole thing more fascinating.) Also, please notice–either the next time or the first time you watch–how fluidly she gesticulates. It’s not so much that her hands are always moving, that would be a bit much, but when they do move, every little detail, every bend of the wrist, every flick of a finger, reveals something about the character. Of course, those artfully manicured nails really deliver in the glamour department, all larger than life they are. Plus, I marvel at La Streisand’s energy level, knowing that nothing, or almost nothing, in movies is ever as easy as it seems, meaning take after take after take, but in this case that includes huge production numbers with layers of details (and, as such, more and more  potential gaffes to slow down filming), yet Streisand stays lively, buoyant, even in the heat of exterior scenes, or the hot lights of sound-stages, even under layers of period clothes–and that means long dresses, wigs (or a wig, but it’s a doozy of a voluminous Gibson Girl updo), and huge ornate hats. What a dynamo!

I watched both Hello, Dolly! and Funny Girl the first time that each premiered on regular network TV back in the day, and I enjoyed both tremendously, but as teen, or pre-teen, I must confess that I was confused about which "parade" song belonged in which movie. Of course, "Don't Rain on My Parade" is from Funny Girl while "Before the Parade Passes By" is from Hello, Dolly!

I watched both Hello, Dolly! and Funny Girl the first time that each premiered on regular network TV back in the day, and I enjoyed both tremendously, but as teen, or pre-teen, I must confess that I was confused about which “parade” song belonged in which movie when replaying them in my mind. Of course, “Don’t Rain on My Parade” is from Funny Girl while “Before the Parade Passes By” is from Hello, Dolly! (IMAGE: Pintrest – Pinned from

Then, of course, there’s that voice. Somewhere along the way in her storied career, Streisand lost sight of her most valuable asset, that million dollar voice capable of elevating almost anything to the highest heights, a mixture of fierce control, yes, but brightened with pure emotion: everything from whispery soft to commandingly loud and clear. Over time, her musical performances became (or have become) too mannered, too strained, for my taste–though it’s obvious that she influenced a whole host of younger singers, such as Celine Dion.

In Hello, Dolly!, Streisand savors the words and melodies of titan Jerry Herman, and it’s a thrill just to hear THAT voice sing THOSE songs. The perfect merger of artist and material. Streisand’s two standouts, besides that rousing title tune, begin with “Before the Parade Passes By.”  There, seconds after a rollicking  exterior production number, director Kelly directs the camera to find Streisand as Dolly, alone on a park bench, framed by soft rich greenery, a deft touch against her lavender dress, sunlight dappling across her face. Then, she begins, quietly at first. She sees people laughing and dancing in the park, and she wants to join them, but how can she, a lonely middle-aged widow with baggage? (See what I mean?) Dolly has to get things right in her head first before she can proceed with the next chapter in her life, and Streisand’s voice pierces through the malarkey, and Dolly slowly comes to life–in character–until she’s all but breathless with exhilaration at the realization that time–and its parade–have not passed her by. Not yet. From there, Kelly cuts to arguably the biggest, splashiest parade scene in any movie this side of Cleopatra’s entrance into Rome per the 1963 Elizabeth Taylor-Richard Burton extravaganza, also an enormously expensive Fox production. On and on it goes, this parade, for what appears to be blocks and blocks in a replica of Old New York City, especially created on the Fox back lot. Stunning. Then, Streisand, that is, Dolly, musters up every single bit of fortitude she has and delivers a whammy of a full-tilt finish. Streisand brings Dolly to rousing life so that she’s now ageless, timeless. The second showstopper for this viewer, again, besides the obvious title tune, is “So Long, Dearie,” a campy, vampy, farewell to her intended–and quite perplexed–suitor. Streisand demonstrates yet again her considerable vocal range while strutting her considerable stuff with electrifying verve, milking every innuendo with aplomb and no doubt more than a coincidental nod to vintage saucy seductress Mae West, all in good fun.

The big screen adaptation of Hello, Dolly! also scores in other ways, not the least of which is Michael Kidd’s energetic choreography. Kidd, already legendarily famous for, among others, 1954’s box office smash–and Best Picture nominee–Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, works on a tremendous scale, and his work here is just as swell as, say, Kelly’s own Singin’ in the Rain, Jerome Robbins in West Side Story (1961) and Oona White in The Music Man (1962), those last two among my particular personal faves, and right up there, as well, with his own Seven Brides.

Now, about that title song. What a piece of work, everything from Streisand regally descending a grand staircase to a gaggle of high stepping chorus boys–outfitted as waiters in a lavish, bustling high dollar restaurant–to no less than the late great Louis Armstrong, already a Grammy winner at that point for his chart-topping cover version of the title song (which he actually recorded just prior to the stage show’s Broadway opening).  Armstrong, with his light-hearted, fizzy growl and twinkly eyes, creates movie magic when he serenades Streisand, and she returns the favor with giddy enthusiasm. For better or worse, Armstrong is the only performer with whom Streisand truly appears to connect during this massive endeavor. Or is it simply that he’s the only cast member who has enough razzle-dazzle star power–or is that confidence?–to match the vibrant leading lady? Meanwhile, Kidd is equally in good form in at least two other numbers, including “Put on Your Sunday Clothes” and “Dancing.”  Along those same lines, to be perfectly clear, nothing but nothing in this Hello, Dolly! would work without Jerry Herman’s delightful, diamond-hard score and the contributions of Lennie Hayton and Lionel Newman for adapting that score; those two won Oscars, by the way, as did sound engineers Jack Solomon and Murray Spivack.

Actually, Hello, Dolly!  did  very well at the 1969/70 Academy Awards ceremony, copping wins in three categories from a pool of 7 nominations, including Best Picture (losing, of course, to the more daring Midnight Cowboy as noted). First and foremost among those Oscar victories has to be honors bestowed upon a production design team headed by John DeCuir, Jack Martin Smith, and Herman A. Blumenthal (Art Direction), along with Walter M. Scott, George James Hopkins, and Raphael Bretton. Not a shabby bunch, this crew. Prior to Dolly!, they’d all, save Bretton, won at least one Oscar for such offerings as The King and I (1956), Cleopatra (1963), My Fair Lady (1964), and Fantastic Voyage (1966). Dolly! dazzles most in its exterior sets, a mock up Old New York, all of it created on the Fox backlot, that just seems, as noted, to go on and on forever. If the parade scene doesn’t convince you, take a gander at the milliner (played by Marianne McAndrew) and her perky assistant (lovely E.J. Peaker in a slim, forgettable role) during their first scene. In one sequence they walk across a block, turn a corner, cross yet another street, climb winding steps, and swing back around before reaching their destination. Additionally, dig that park bench scene and the gorgeous fountain Streisand passes (one of at least two among the exterior niceties). Also, what about the entrance to Dolly’s beloved dining establishment, The Harmonia Gardens? Yes, bigger is bigger. So persuasive–and costly–is this mammoth exterior contraption that Fox began renting it, mostly to TV cop shows, I’m sure, in order to recoup its considerable investment. Among the interiors, almost nothing is more lavish than the restaurant’s main set, as gaudy and rococo as one could ever hope to imagine: multiple levels, plush red carpet, chandeliers, gilded everything, statuary, private dining rooms, fussy, well-set tables, elaborate floral arrangements,  and, of course, a fountain. Skeptics and period purists may argue that even for Victoriana, too much is too much. I can see that to a point, but only to a point; after all, yes, the milliner’s shop is probably way too spacious and fanciful to read as anything but fantasy, which  could be distracting, certainly not the desired effect.  On the other hand, some of us relish the chance to revel in what appears to be a fully realized world unto itself, and for me this is a case in which a movie so rich with design begs to be seen on a giant screen.  (To clarify, the scenes set in Rochester NY,  were actually filmed on location in Garrison, New York with spectacular views of the Hudson River.) Shout outs as well to legendary costume designer Irene Sharaff, already a 5 time Oscar winner at that point (for the likes of An American in ParisThe King and IWest Side Story, and Cleopatra) who earned her 13th out of 14 Oscar nods. The standout look besides those fabulous hats and red-jacketed waiters, of course, is that gold beaded gown Dolly wears for her triumphant scene at the Harmonia Gardens. Exquisite, and no doubt a challenge for Streisand as the dress obviously weighs several pounds (40, per the IMDb, at a reported cost of $8,000.00). Sharaff lost in her category to Margaret Thurse of Anne of the Thousand Days, the year’s most nominated pic, starring Richard Burton as Henry VIII and Genevieve Bujold as tragic Anne Boleyn. Other nominations were accorded to cinematographer Harry Stradling, Sr. (a posthumous bid), and editor William H. Reynolds, and good for them. Everything is top-notch.

The late, great Danny Lockin as Barnaby Tucker in Hello, Dolly! The rising star, who'd already played in Dolly on Broadway, among other notable credits, was sadistically murdered in the late 1970s. Such an appealing performer and such a shocking loss. The whole saga can be found on multiple Internet websites. (IMAGE:

The late, great Danny Lockin as Barnaby Tucker in Hello, Dolly! The rising star, who’d already played in Dolly on Broadway, among other notable credits, was sadistically murdered in the late 1970s. I read about his unfortunate demise years and years ago, and it’s haunted me ever since. Such an appealing performer and such a shocking loss. The whole saga can be found on multiple Internet websites. (IMAGE:

For all of Streisand and her director’s razzle-dazzle Hello, Dolly! is not without its flaws, and not just the questionable casting of its lead actress–even if she delivers in spite of all that. No, the weakness, as indicated earlier, is that Streisand has no one to play against. The supporting cast is mostly weightless. Sure, future Broadway legend Michael Crawford (a 1988 Tony winner for The Phantom of the Opera) has an agreeable screen presence though his singing voice is a bit thin (obviously, that all changed by the time he conquered the Great White Way with his signature portrayal). He makes the best of his goofy role–I guess–as Cornelius Hackl, a lanky clerk with hopes of finding true love in the big city, but his screen time with Streisand is relatively scarce, and his presumed love-interest–the spurned milliner–is a snoozer. (Note: Crawford and Streisand are approximately the same age though, again, Dolly is supposed to be a mother hen to young Mr. Hackl.) That said, I want to give a shout-out to Danny Lockin as Crawford/Hackle’s sidekick, Barnaby Tucker. Lockin’s enthusiastic performance is marked by some of the most athletic dancing one could hope to imagine. Elsewhere, the aforementioned Peaker, oh so good on so many TV shows in the 70s, is wasted, as is Texas giant Tommy Tune.

“Unfortunate” pretty much describes the decision to cast the blandly pretty Marianne McAndrew in the role of hat maker Irene Molloy, a pawn in Dolly’s matchmaking scheme to land a suitor of her own. McAndrew fails almost from the beginning when she’s asked to launch into a song entitled, “Ribbons Down My Back.” From the outset, it’s obvious that McAndrew is lip-synching, and that in itself is not the real problem; after all, vocals for most movie musical numbers are prerecorded, with the performers pantomiming to their own tracks on-camera; however, what emerges sounds almost nothing like the actress’s speaking voice. Plus, McAndrew seems to lack any feeling for what she’s doing–as though she’s never even sung a note, on her own or with a record, in her whole life. I’m not even sure her lips actually move. It’s the opposite of joyous, for both her and the audience. That noted, McAndrew earned Golden Globe nods for both Best Supporting Actress and Most Promisng Newcomer. Her vocals, per the IMDb, are provided by Melissa Stafford (with possible assist by Gail Maiken).

Speaking of the opposite of joyous, the biggest casting blunder of all has to be that of Walter Matthau as the miserly stick-in-the-mud merchant Horace Vandergelder upon whom Dolly places all her hopes and dreams. It’s a joyless performance though skeptics might argue that Matthau is just staying true to the character–that it’s a thankless part. Maybe. Of course, part of the problem is that Matthau, approaching 50 at the time the movie was filmed, has no discernible chemistry with his leading lady, a huge factor of which can be attributed to an age gap of nearly 20 years, and, again, Dolly, technically, should be played by a more mature actress. (Some texts describe Dolly as being a friend of Vandergelder’s late wife.) The effect is frightening: to think that this vivacious, robust Dolly seems hell-bent on throwing away her youth and beauty on an ungrateful old raisin like Matthau. Unsettling.

Of course, Matthau pretty much registers disinterest during much of the movie. The legend, reported in almost every source I’ve ever read about this particular movie in all my many years, is that the actor couldn’t stand Streisand and made little or no effort to be cordial during filming. And it shows. Luckily, Matthau isn’t in the picture enough to ruin it,  only to remind audiences that this is supposed to be a love story every time he appears. The effect, for me, is, “Oh. It’s you. Again. Really?” It also doesn’t help that Matthau is saddled with the show’s worst song, the lamentable “It Takes a Woman.” Of course, Matthau is no singer. That’s the least of it, nor is the problem the schmaltzy lyrics. No, the worst part is that Matthau’s song is too melodically similar to the arguably more famous “We Need a Little Christmas” which found its way into composer Jerry Herman’s other smash musical, Mame. Jerry, you’re cannibalizing yourself.  Of course, Matthau probably seemed like a good idea at the time. He’d won Best Supporting Actor for The Fortune Cookie a few years earlier, and he and Jack Lemmon had just come off the smash big screen version of Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple. Even so, Streisand, ever a showbiz trouper, keeps plugging away, making the most of her screen time with Matthau, especially during the Harmonia Gardens scene, relishing every line as though she actually believes she could fall for someone as charismatically bankrupt as Matthau’s character.

Also, I think casting any established, middle-aged actor opposite Streisand during that time was probably a bit of a feat, not because she was young, but because she was an upstart, a movie newcomer from New York with a galvanizing talent who was already landing plum parts–and earning major awards for her film debut–in a chummy, company town such as Hollywood. What seasoned vet wants to star opposite that, especially knowing that he would likely be overshadowed as his function would be to merely serve as the straight-man while the diva lands all the gags, the great costumes, the flattering closeups, etc.? Hint: Actors can be very insecure about such things. That noted, a friend of mine recently observed that Dick Van Dyke, a mere five years younger than Matthau, might have been a better fit; after all, Van Dyke at that time was a reliable–hugely appealing–actor who had yet to match earlier spectacular successes such as Bye, Bye Birdie, Mary Poppins, or his self-titled sitcom. Certainly, he didn’t attract much attention for his 1969 effort, The Comic, a fictional rags-to-riches-to rags saga about a silent screen star. I can visualize Dick Van Dyke as a Horace Vandergelder with a slight twinkle in his eye despite exasperation at Dolly’s shenanigans. Matthau just makes me shudder.

So, there we have it. A bravura leading performance by a young powerhouse actress who in spite of her considerable finesse is obviously miscast as decidedly middle-aged busybody. But what would the movie be without her? That noted, I hate that we don’t have Channing’s performance recorded for posterity on film. What else? A major Oscar contender that cost a fortune–and looks it–that apparently ranked among the year’s top grossing films while notably still failing to recoup its for-the-times enormous costs though we may never really get to the bottom of this since–A–Hollywood bookkeeping, especially in the less transparent 1960s, has always been a bit of a shell-game, and–B–the Internet has a way of rewriting history and not always with the most credible sources. Additionally, in spite of its seven Oscar nominations, again, including Best Picture, director Gene Kelly was shut-out even though the movie is technically accomplished. (He and Streisand, however, were honored with Golden Globe nominations.) Maybe Kelly was snubbed by the Academy’s directors branch because he let the budget get away from him, or because he allowed himself to be steamrolled by a presumed diva. Maybe in 1969 Hollywood, the Academy wasn’t as tolerant of actor-directors as it later became, especially given that this project lacks a personal touch and appears more on the order of an impersonal corporatized entertainment that, nonetheless, provided scads upon scads of jobs to numerous performers, artisans, technicians, and other in-demand personnel. Maybe.

^ This YouTube clip appears on a recent Hello, Dolly! Blu-ray but, alas, not on the DVD.

I’ve seen Hello, Dolly! dozens and dozens of times, and I enjoy it as long as I don’t think too much about it. I must say that its unbridled gaiety helped brighten many a darkened day over the past six months, and that’s one reason why I’m happy–and able–to write about it now. Of course, it has become familiar to younger generations by virtue of being referenced in Pixar’s popular–and Oscar winning–Wall-E. Between film repertory series, both old and new, I’ve been able to catch up with some of my favorite musicals on the big screen, those that I’d missed for one reason or another as a child, including Gigi (release before I was even conceived), West Side Story, The Music Man, Mary Poppins, The Sound of Music, and, yes, even Funny Girl. The King and I is next. Oh, how I’d love to see Hello, Dolly! in all its garish late 1960s splendor the way it was intended. It would be so nice to see it back where it belongs.

Thanks for your consideration…

[1] Technically, Wilder’s play has its origins in 19th century works by Johann Nestroy and John Oxenford; the former, Viennese; the latter, English. Read more from The Thornton Wilder Society.


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