Dressed to Kill: Trick–or Treat?

27 Oct

What Brian De Palma doesn’t know or understand about trans people could fill an Olympic size stadium.

According to graphic designer Stephen Sayadian, he modelled the original Dressed to Kill 1-sheet (aka movie poster) on an iconic image featured in the 1-sheet for 1967’s landmark film offering The Graduate. Notice the figure hovering in the background and the presumably female leg that is either being slipped into, or out of, hosiery in the foreground. For comparison’s sake, please refer to the following: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Graduate#/media/File:Graduateposter67.jpg Meanwhile, per this image: http://www.impawards.com/1980/dressed_to_kill.html

 

When the super-sly director of such 70s hits as Carrie, Obsession, and The Fury, among others, unleashed audacious psycho-sexual mystery-thriller Dressed to Kill in 1980, the critics’ huzzahs rivaled the feminists’ outcries. The naysayers carped that De Palma, who also wrote the film, trivialized violence against women, at least, and conflated sex and violence, at worst. For example, the film opens with a woman’s fantasy of being sexually attacked in the shower–by someone other than her husband, apparently oblivious from a distance of only 3-4 feet. A few short scenes later, that same lonely woman enjoys a wild romp with a complete stranger–tall dark and handsome per her previous fantasy–she encounters at a museum; however, her sexuality threatens a crazed stalker, and the woman pays a fatal price for so casually abandoning her roles as devoted wife and mom. What a tired trope, right?

Elsewhere, further objections include the recurring idea of depicting women in dangerous scenarios as a means of exciting audiences, and keeping them that way as in the hot shot upscale call-girl (ugh) who discovers the slain woman’s body in an elevator and quickly becomes the target of the killer, lest she be able to make a positive ID.

De Palma probably doesn’t endorse violence against women in his day-to-day life, but his movies certainly illustrate a pronounced fascination with material that leans that way. I believe his defense is something to the effect that audiences, male and female, are more likely to fear for the safety of a woman, especially if she appears helpless, than they are a man–like, say, Rambo (that’s quote from a DVD featurette). That’s debatable. Keeping in mind that, in this case, the call-girl is played by luscious lippy blonde, Nancy Allen–De Palma’s then wife. Make of that what you will. He’s been married–and divorced–three times, btw.

Another slam against Dressed to Kill is the objectification of its leading female, the woman in the shower at the beginning. To clarify, that character, Kate Miller, is portrayed by Angie Dickinson, approaching 50 at the time and a golden-blonde stunner with impeccable bone structure, lovely brown eyes, and a fit and trim body. Even so, her nude shower scene involves De Palma’s sleight-of-hand in that the director hired Victoria Johnson, a well known model, famous for her nude pictorials in skin mag Penthouse, to serve as Dickinson’s body double–for below the neck shots–in the shower scene, a move that made headlines, small ones, even though the plan was to keep quiet about the switch, hoping the audience couldn’t tell the difference between a 20ish body and one well into middle age, no matter how fit.  At any rate, De Palma indulges the viewer, or is that the camera, in shot after shot, close-up after close-up, of breasts as the nude woman caresses her soapy body–and then De Palma points the camera toward the woman’s pubic area.

Again, this is problematic. To begin, Dickinson, to hear her tell the story, wasn’t too keen on filming the shower scene (though she had appeared nude in a movie at least once), feeling that it was not the best move for her at the time, coming off her just-wrapped role as TV’s Police Woman, a role model of sorts. Understandable, yes, but Dickinson’s decision prompted the need for a body double. Fair enough. Plus, did De Palma even look for someone closer to Dickinson’s age? So De Palma lures audiences with the voyeuristic thrill of a sweet, nubile body, one with especially perky breasts, to set-up what? Her bloody demise. That’s what.

On the other hand, I’ve been inclined to give De Palma a pass on the shower scene since the whole episode is revealed to be the character’s fantasy. Don’t we all idealize who we are and how we look in such flights of imagination? Why the hell not?

Still again, De Palma raises the ire of Hitchcock purists with his blatant allusions to, or rip-offs of, the master. What seemed clever in Sisters and Obsession (the latter, a clear throwback to Vertigo) was beginning to tire by the time of Dressed to Kill. For example, the opening sequence, in which Kate fantasizes about being attacked in the shower? An obvious allusion to Psycho (1960). De Palma references Psycho again when Kate is brutally slashed to death with a straight edge razor with the confines of an elevator subbing for the sensation of being likewise trapped in a shower stall. Cornered, nowhere to hide, nowhere to go; moreover, we all know by now, the killer in Psycho is revealed to be a grown man with a mommy fixation whose murderous ritual includes donning mom’s garb. Similarly, even though it might not be quite apparent at first, De Palma clues viewers in on the idea that Dickinson’s stalker is a dangerously conflicted cross-dresser–get it, Dressed to Kill–with delusions of being transsexual. I think.

In De Palma’s twisted logic, the killer is a transsexual who lives a double life with a female personality struggling for domination against a male personality in a male body. Yeah. Another tired–and wildly inaccurate–trope. What De Palma has actually written is a character who functions more as a schizophrenic or a patient with disassociative identity disorder (once known a multiple personality order), but De Palma in all his zealotry is just about the only person who doesn’t seem to recognize how foolish his conceit of “Bobby,” the killer, is.

In interview after interview, both then and recently, De Palma talks a good game about trans women and their ambivalence about their genitalia, but he sounds like such a fool. Again, what De Palma doesn’t know about transgender people could fill an Olympic size stadium.

Back in 1980, on the heels of William Friedkin’s wildly controversial Cruising [1], which gay activists protested due to its lurid depiction of an underground subculture, Dressed to Kill paled in comparison for sheer offensiveness in its portrayal of the trans population–but only because at that time, trans people functioned as a largely invisible segment of society, save for a precious few high profile personalities–Renee Richards, for one–and an occasional episode of Phil Donahue’s talk show, a clip of which De Palma shares in Dressed to Kill–for what purpose I really don’t know. As a primer on all things trans to demonstrate that De Palma had done his research?  It’s not that the trans community was okay with their struggles being so wildly misrepresented, but in the pre-Internet age  there was no real sense of community and certainly no political clout.

Today, of course, everything that seemed problematic with Dressed to Kill back in 1980 is by now magnified. Audiences no longer settle for women being portrayed as mere victims, and we have frank conversations about misogyny, sex workers, transphobia, and the gender binary. Not that such conversations fall on receptive ears consistently because we know they don’t.  Still, we’re moving in the right direction even though the pace never seems to suit many of us who are tired, tired, tired of the old boys club mentality and the way it has shaped society and normalized tropes that should have been retired a long time ago. And, yes, by the way: internalized misogyny is a thing.

I cannot deny that Dressed to Kill reeks of its director’s offensive choices, leaving little to be desired among hosts of moviegoers–and potential moviegoers. That noted, I have no time for people who complain about the politics of any movie without actually seeing it.

That noted, it’s hard to dismiss the film completely.

What I don’t want to do is try to sway, or to be accused of trying to sway, someone who’s most definitely not interested in watching Dressed to Kill that it isn’t as bad as the naysayers suggest because the naysayers make good points. Instead, I want to explain why I think the movie is worth a look to those who’ve never seen it but remain open and intrigued by the possibility.

First and foremost is Angie Dickinson in her greatest film role. The former beauty queen broke into showbiz in the 1950s and began hitting her stride with Rio Bravo (1959), winning a Golden Globe as Female Newcomer of the Year in a film top-lined by the likes of John Wayne, Dean Martin, and pop heart-throb Ricky Nelson. Nicely played, Ms. Dickinson. From there, she continued to work steadily throughout the 1960s before achieving even greater stardom in the 1970s with not only her successful Police Woman series (three Emmy nods, along with a Golden Globe award and two additional GG nominations) but also the racy cult classic Big Bad Mama from schlock-meister Roger Corman. During that time, as well, she and then husband Burt Bacharach, one of the most prolific composers of the times, reigned among Hollywood’s golden couples.

Following Hitchcock’s outline for Psycho, in a which a top-billed Hollywood actress (Janet Leigh) gets killed off fairly early, De Palma follows suit with Dickinson’s Kate Miller. She really isn’t in the picture for that long, but De Palma maximizes her presence, and she makes a vivid impression. Kate Miller is frustrated. Sex with her husband has become mechanical, something she endures without much pleasure. She’s at odds with her mother and can’t reconcile those feelings. Her uncertainty about her worth as a woman leads her, in a moment of desperation, to make a pass, a slight one, at her therapist, dryly played by Michael Caine. Naturally, Caine explains why a more intimate relationship is completely out of the question. Of course, patients often develop feelings of affection for their therapists; that much is understood, and Kate snaps to reality.

This is all good stuff. Dickinson’s Kate is extremely likeable in the early scenes, and that’s what the audience needs.  We have to feel that Kate is just like any other comfortably situated woman facing middle age and juggling roles of wife, mother, and daughter. Her son, btw, is a teenager (played by Keith Gordon), a techno whiz in the throes of completing a science fair project. Kate loves her son dearly and tries to keep up with his enthusiasm as he explains the workings of his latest invention, a home-made computer (this, keep in mind, when computers were simply not the everyday household item we take for granted today). Gordon, now more famously known as a director than an actor, was in his late teens when he filmed Dressed to Kill though he’s probably a year or two older than the character, Peter, as De Palma envisioned him. Nonetheless, he and Dickinson evince great rapport as she expresses concern about him staying up too late to work on his project while also playing the ever-supportive parent. The audience has to believe in the bond between Kate and Peter in order for understand everything Peter does after’s his mother’s death. It’s at this point that Peter turns amateur sleuth, jeopardizing both his life and that of Allen’s character.

Angie Dickinson in Dressed to Kill’s much praised museum sequence. The actress has gone on record with her belief that the 1980 film sensation represents her best work. She won a Saturn Best Actress trophy–per the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror Films–alas, her only award for such an accomplished effort. A supporting actress nod, from either the Hollywood Foreign Press or the Academy, would not have been unjust. After all, Janet Leigh’s featured turn in Psycho, in every way Dressed to Kill‘s antecedent, attracted the Academy’s attention. Why not Dickinson? Perhaps all the controversy, not the least of which includes the hubbub regarding a nude body double, worked against Dickinson even though, heck, stunt doubles are nothing new in Hollywood AND by that time Sissy Spacek had garnered Academy approval for De Palma’s blood-soaked Carrie. (IMAGE: https://www.ebay.ca/itm/Angie-Dickinson-Dressed-To-Kill-Original-8×10-Photo-N732/372308530823?hash=item56af515687:g:9BcAAOSwrU1a~bhA:rk:40:pf:0)

Back to Dickinson. Her triumph in Dressed to Kill is the famous museum set piece. Kate’s there to meet her mother-in-law and is only mildly enthused about doing so. From a bench, she takes in the sights, including the couples and families strolling amongst the art. She jots reminders to herself in pocket notebook. Then, in an instant, everything changes when a mysterious dark-haired man, sporting dark shades, sits down next to her. Kate clearly feels attracted to the man, and he’s definitely on the prowl, but she’s not necessarily ready to jump into bed either. Yet.

Extravagant filmmaking follows, per De Palma’s assured touch. Kate and her stranger play a curious game throughout the vast art-filled space [2]. Kate is clearly the pursuer, and the pursuant relishes the chase, practically luring her a la the Pied Piper. It’s 5 minutes of winding, ever more dizzying camera work by Ralf D. Bode, precision editing by Jerry Greenberg, and Pino Donaggaio’s thrilling score heightening the emotional pull–sweeping, intense, and frantic. For most of it, the lens focuses solely on Dickinson’s sun-kissed, expressive face as she navigates a host of changes. That she registers her character’s urgency as vividly as she does is even more impressive given that the mechanics of the shoot required Dickson to act while moving toward a camera operator, monitoring her own distance by holding a rope, hidden from the camera’s view, in order to ensure that she remain in focus each and every step along the way. Tricky business, that. Better still, Dickinson registers her character’s plight so strongly that a scripted voiceover, Kate’s interior monologue, which she was to record during post-production, never happened once De Palma saw the rushes and felt satisfied that his star’s performance obviated the need for words. Good job.

Just when Miller resigns herself to yet another disappointment, she’s whisked away in a taxi cab for an orgiastic fully clothed tussle–with a bit of audio enhancement to Kate’s enthusiastic moans via Rutanya Alda [3].  Later, after a tender interlude takes a curdled turn, Kate steps into an elevator, and we know the rest though Dickinson has another great bit when Kate, feeling embarrassed by her transgression, has a stare down with a seemingly over-inquisitive child.

Then, the murder, and it’s shocking, but despite De Palma’s skillful build up, the sequence lacks the visceral charge of Psycho‘s legendary shower scene.

From there, Dressed to Kill offers a few taut thrills, including a multi-layered interrogation scene bathed in suspicion and split screen/split diopter bravado involving the son (Gordon), the hooker (Allen), the psychiatrist (Caine), and a hard-nosed detective (indefatigable Dennis Franz, a frequent De Palma player); elsewhere, De Palma orchestrates a deliberately misleading subway pursuit involving a cop played by Susanna Clemm, and bit of techno-gadgetry orchestrated by Gordon’s whiz kid.

Alas, the movie stumbles toward its anti-climactic conclusion, followed by a tired gimmicky coda.

Despite its controversy, Dressed to Kill turned quite a hefty profit for Filmways Pictures on a relatively cheap budget by 1980 standards–in a season dominated by The Empire Strikes Back–though both the film and its director could do no better than runner-up status in some of the year end-voting, most notably from the New York Film Critics Circle. The film was not entirely overlooked by the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror Films, per the annual Saturn awards. De Palma’s next offering, Blowout, a political thriller that takes off from both Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-up AND the Kennedy assassination along with a definite nod to the Chappaquiddick scandal (involving Ted Kennedy and the late Mary Jo Kopechne) garnered stellar reviews but failed to excite moviegoers en masse in spite of a cast headed by John Travolta, Nancy Allen, and John Lithgow, all of them frequent or former De Palma collaborators.

The director long ago lost his cachet as one Hollywood’s leading filmmakers though certainly The Untouchables (1987), for which superstar Sean Connery won the 1987/88 Best Supporting Actor Oscar, and Mission Impossible (1996) scored big. De Palma’s bombastic revamp of gangster classic Scarface (1983), starring Al Pacino, became iconic later rather than sooner while Bonfire of the Vanities (from Tom Wolfe’s spectacular best seller) failed miserably [4]. Most everything else is hit or miss though the likes of Melanie Griffith (Body Double, 1984), Michael J. Fox (Casualties of War, 1989), John Lithgow (Raising Cain, 1992), Sean Penn (Casualties of War, 1989, and Carlito’s Way, 1993), and Frances Sternhagen (also of Raising Cain) have earned strong notices and awards buzz in works of varying quality.

Per the IMDb, Dickinson hasn’t earned a film or TV credit in almost ten years though she continued to work steadily throughout the 1980s and 1990s, including a Big Bad Mama sequel and such high profile mini-series as Hollywood Wives and Wild Palms. Coincidentally, Dickinson’s Dressed to Kill son, Keith Gordon, directed two installments of the latter.

Halloween season is upon us. Currently, Jamie Lee Curtis is basking in the big screen blockbuster success of yet another entry in the enduring Halloween horror franchise.  Good for her, AND good for director David Gordon Green, a Richardson High School graduate and local fave.  For those inclined to skip the crowds and stay home to watch scary movies, De Palma offers a frightening enough boogey woman, or, rather, a boogey man disguised as a boogey woman, in Dressed to Kill.  Indeed, the trick of Dressed to Kill is that De Palma’s thrilling technique as a visual storyteller comes with the price of his peculiar notions about violence against women and sexuality, not to mention gender identity and gender expression. On the other hand, Angie Dickinson’s vivid portrayal of a woman motivated by longing and contradictory impulses continues to make Dressed to Kill a treat.

Thanks for your consideration.

[1] – Coincidentally, per the Dressed to Kill DVD featurette, De Palma’s frustration with not being able to secure the rights to Cruising’s source material provided the impetus, at least partially, for developing Dressed to Kill.

[2] – Trivia: The museum’s exteriors were filmed at Manhattan’s easily recognizable Metropolitan Museum of Art right smack on bustling Fifth Avenue; however, when an interior shoot at the same location proved infeasible, De Palma and producer George Litto, both of them Philly natives, packed up production and moved–on the sly from studio brass–to the impressive Philadelphia Museum of Art.

[3] – Besides her famous supporting role in 1981’s Mommie Dearest, which I wrote about recently, Alda is a longtime De Palma colleague, logging appearances in some of his earlier, lesser-known films, in addition to 1978’s big budget The Fury.

[4] – Julie Salamon’s The Devil’s Candy (1991) expertly chronicles how just about everything turned sour with the big budget production, headlined by such major players as Tom Hanks,  Melanie Griffith, Bruce Willis, and Morgan Freeman (all of them pretty much cast for all the wrong reasons), the true folly of corporate Hollywood moviemaking.

 

 

 

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Committed: Fabulously Faye

7 Oct

In my last post, I lamented Billy Wilder’s unfortunate Fedora, the dud movie adaptation of the late Thomas Tryon’s story of the same name, the leading entry in his Crowned Heads collection.  Within an instant of its publication, reports swirled that Faye Dunaway was being chatted up for the title role, a reclusive movie star whose erratic behavior is as puzzling as are her seemingly ageless good looks.

Ah, Dunaway, the one and only.  Before 1967’s Bonnie & Clyde, she was just another promising hopeful, but she soon became a household name thanks to the box office blockbuster based on the exploits of real-life Depression era bank robbers–from Texas, no less.  She earned an Oscar nomination and helped launch a fashion trend inspired by costume designer Theodora van Runkle’s interpretation of 1930s style. Dunaway soon followed with the sizzling Thomas Crown Affair, opposite Steve McQueen, another hit, but the next several years were marked by at least as many misses as hits; however, by the mid 70s, she was back on top.

As I child, wow, did I ever want to see Bonnie and Clyde and find out what was so cool about Faye Dunaway, but I was only 7, so I had to wait until the film appeared on network TV, cut-up and with commercials, so the experience was different from what I’d imagined. Never mind that I have seen it a few times since that first viewing. On the other hand, as a child, at least, I was mostly confused by The  Thomas Crown Affair, which I saw at the drive-in with my  family.  My favorite Dunaway performance is as mysterious Evelyn Mulwray in 1974’s Chinatown, pictured here, a remarkable blend of cool cunning and messy catharsis. She lost the Oscar to Ellen Burstyn for Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, which nobody second-guesses, but Chinatown remains  an undeniable classic thanks  in part to Dunaway’s colossal efforts.  (IMAGE:  http://www.zimbio.com/The%2BWomen%2Bof%2BLos%2BAngeles%2BFilm%2B(and%2BTV)%2BNoir/articles/-x2Wk-ZgXDk/Faye%2BDunaway%2BEvelyn%2BCross%2BMulwray)

The turn began in 1973 with the release of Richard Lester’s boisterous, all-star take on Alexandre Dumas’s classic The Three Musketeers, featuring, as well, Richard Chamberlain, Oliver Reed, Michael York, Raquel Welch, and Charlton Heston. 1974 saw the release of the celebrated neo-noir Chinatown with Dunaway as an increasingly suspicious (or suspiciously acting) woman at the center of a confounding mystery. Her efforts earned her a second Oscar nod–one of the film’s 11 Academy nominations, including Best Picture. She also earned star-billing, along with Paul Newman, Steve McQueen, and William Holden, in Irwin Allen’s popular disaster epic, The Towering Inferno–which, to clarify, competed against Chinatown for top Academy honors. A rare feat, appearing in two Best Picture contenders in one year. Oh, and she even re-teamed, reluctantly, it seems, with Richard Lester and company for The Four Musketeers. She maintained her high profile in 1975’s The Three Days of the Condor. Her role in the political thriller was clearly secondary to that of Robert Redford–hot, hot, hot, at the time–but audiences flocked to theatres and made the movie a hit. 1976 brought Network and with it, not just another Oscar nod, but the coveted trophy itself.

About that Oscar. At the time, many prognosticators gave a slight edge to Liv Ullman for Ingmar Bergman’s typically somber Face to Face. While acknowledging a close race between Ullman and Dunaway, many critics harrumphed that watching the latter in Network was like watching a very good actress, no matter how exceptionally skilled, “act.” In other words, skeptics charged that her performance was more about performance for the sake of performance, rather than illuminating a character, and didn’t add up to much. I understand the concern, but I also disagree. Somewhat. I happen to love Dunaway in Network. I love her energy as a TV programming executive who thrills to her own power and the power of the medium itself. With those extreme highs come a few lows. In those moments, mostly when she’s face-to-face with co-star William Holden, a married, old-school newsperson in the throes of a mid-life crisis (of which Dunaway’s Diana Christensen is the key player), Dunaway affects a commendable stillness. She hangs on to his every word, not quite comprehending the language he speaks, the language of emotions–of love, indignation, and regret.  Indeed, per director Sidney Lumet in one of the DVD bonuses, Dunaway was so strong in one such exchange that he (Lumet) cut some of Dunaway’s lines–never even shot them–explaining that he got everything he needed in one visual. That’s powerful stuff. (Dunaway corroborates the story in her autobiography.)

At the same time, as much as I enjoy watching Dunaway in Network, I think she’s better, far better, than her material. Yeah, yeah, I know that the late screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky won a third Oscar, among other accolades, for his much ballyhooed Network screenplay, but Christensen isn’t a fully developed character. She’s a type, a stand-in for everything Chayefsky finds–found–lacking or distasteful, beginning with the soullessness of television and, it could be argued, the vapidity of successful business women. Same old tired misogyny, repackaged as cutting edge satire, 1976 style. Remember, Network premiered during a time in which women were feeling newly liberated and campaigning for equal rights, per the ERA. Even Lumet offers that the character has no vulnerability and is somehow less than fully human. Chayefsky shows more care for the characters portrayed by Holden, Best Actor winner Peter Finch (as prophetic anchor Howard Beale), and Best Supporting Actress winner Beatrice Straight (as Holden’s jilted wife). Dunway is tasked with playing the unplayable and making it believable.  That she does. At this point, it’s hard to imagine that any other actress could have risen to the task as authoritatively. Good for her. [Even so, I could have easily cheered, per Danny Peary, an Oscar victory for Sissy Spacek in her breakthrough role as telekinetic teen Carrie, 1976’s supernatural sleeper sensation.]

Commenting on an Academy award winning actress’s wardrobe might seem reductive, but kudos to Network costumer Theoni V. Alredge–who’d won for The Great Gatsby two years previous–for resisting the temptation to outfit the star in mannish suits as if to further underscore her character’s less than suitably feminine disposition. Instead, she’s right in step with the prevailing casual elegance of the 70s, per such designers as Halston and Diana von Furstenberg. At the time, and even for a time afterward, rumours abounded that Dunaway’s character was at least partially based on, or inspired by, Lin Bolen, NBC’s innovative daytime programming executive. Bolen passed away earlier this year. (IMAGE:  https://www.shrimptoncouture.com/blogs/curate/13077849-fashion-in-film)

Besides her award winning portrayal in Network, Dunaway also appeared in the same season’s Voyage of the Damned, a thrice Oscar nominated entry inspired by the ill-fated Jewish refugees aboard the SS St. Louis as it sailed from Germany to Cuba in 1939. With her Oscar, Dunaway fielded even more offers, starring as a high fashion photographer with psychic gifts in 1978’s suspenseful–if grisly–The Eyes of Laura Mars. The controversial flick turned a tidy profit, and Dunaway segued to Franco Zeffirelli’s lavishly promoted retelling of 1931’s The Champ, the classic weepie for which Wallace Beery won an Oscar [1]. The 1979 update starred Jon Voight, right on the heels of winning an Oscar for Coming Home, and child actor Rick Schroder–billed as Ricky Schroder–in the role made famous by Jackie Cooper. Dunaway had the thankless role of Voight’s ex-wife, but no matter. Audiences bawled their eyes out during the teary finale. And Schroder melted hearts, earned a Golden Globe for Best Debut Performance (along with other tributes), and launched a career of remarkable longevity, including such popular TV shows as Silver Spoons and NYPD Blue, minus the oft typical hazards that occur when child stars are no longer adorable–and easily marketable.

During those years, Dunaway worked as industriously in TV projects as she did in films–not to mention the big screen roles she declined. For example, her TV portrayals included such high profile offerings as Wallis Simpson, aka the Duchess of Windsor (The Woman I Love, 1972), Sister Aimee Simple McPherson (The Disappearance of Aimee, 1976), Eva Peron (Evita Peron, 1981), and a production of Arthur Miller’s After the Fall.  During that prolific period, Dunaway, for whatever reasons, passed on such biggies as 1975’s The Wind and the Lion (the Candice Bergen character, loosely based on an early 20th century international kidnapping crisis), Julia, in the role that ultimately won 1977’s Best Supporting Actress honors for Vanessa Redgrave (so strong is the latter as the elusive title figure, it’s hard to imagine Dunaway in the part),  and Norma Rae (1979), which famously catapulted Sally Field to big screen stardom–after thriving in television for years–and paved the way to Oscar number 1. Coincidentally, Jane Fonda, with whom Dunaway would have played opposite in Julia, also turned down Norma Rae–as did, per Wiley and Bona, Jill Clayburgh. But I digress.

Faye Dunaway absolutely should have portrayed Thomas Tryon’s screen siren, Fedora, an actress trapped by her own beauty, her own allure, and her own legend, as much a burden for her as it is her loved ones. Onscreen, the character is an immortal, a goddess; off-screen, she’s a wreck, increasingly paranoid and seemingly self-destructive.  As no less than Hollywood royalty Joan Crawford once famously opined, Dunaway was the only screen actress of her generation that–at least in Crawford’s eyes–had the makings of a true movie star. And why not? With her penetrating gaze, model-rrific cheekbones, and clotheshorse bod, Dunaway makes a ravishing camera subject, whether icy and remote or sultry and exotic. Plus, as she demonstrated in both Chinatown and Network, she has a fiercely intelligent and indelible talent. Also comparable to Tryon’s creation, she has long had a knack for generating controversy, specifically dividing co-workers on just about any given set [2]. I’m not sure how seriously Dunaway was ever considered for Fedora, really. Director Billy Wilder definitely had her in mind when he began the project. I also seem to remember an item about it, per one of the syndicated gossip columnists of the times, such as Rona Barrett, Joyce Haber, Dorothy Manners, maybe Rex Reed, or Liz Smith–among a few others.

All of which brings me to Mommie Dearest, speaking of Joan Crawford. At truly the peak of her fame, Dunaway nabbed the role of real-life “Hollywood Royalty,” Miss Crawford, in what looked to be a sure-fire hit.  Published not too long after Crawford’s passing, Mommie Dearest recounted the turbulent relationship between the actress and her adopted daughter Christina–as seen from Christina’s perspective.  The book broke ground in that it was the first of a long-line of “tell all” accounts by children of Hollywood notables, most of whom come off as lousy parents. If such books are to be believed. The Joan Crawford depicted in Christina’s take is a fright, a bully prone to outrageous drunken sprees in the middle of the night, railing against any perceived infraction against her tightly-controlled, picture-perfect, movie star worthy environment. The highlights, or lowlights, if you will, include a prolonged sequence in which young Christina is forced to eat a disgustingly rare piece of meat, a contest of wills that lasts for days. Another episode details Joan’s horror at discovering her daughter has hung an expensive frock on a wire hanger–as opposed to wooden and/or padded–and becomes violently enraged. On and on it goes. Joan’s final slap comes when she makes no provision for Christina in her will. Christina responded in kind by serving Joan’s head on a platter, memoir style, to a public eager to devour every page.

With Dunaway, already known as a Crawford fave (albeit in an entirely different context), eager and available, what could go wrong?

When the movie version of Mommie Dearest premiered in the fall of 1981, critics and audiences didn’t quite know how to respond. Like me, for starters. I read Christina’s book, hot off the press in ’78, and found it especially harrowing. I saw the movie during opening weekend at the old Highland Park Village theater and couldn’t reconcile what unfolded onscreen. Passages in the book that made me squirm in discomfort, fearful for young Christina’s safety and shocked by Joan’s apparent cruelty to a child, played much differently: absurdly comical with Dunaway going full throttle with heightened emotion, sometimes 0-100 in a matter of seconds. The knockdown dragout brawls between Joan and Christina (played as a child by Mara Hobel and as a young adult by Diana Scarwid) are staged so awkwardly, clumsily, as to be, well, laughable. What could have been an insightful, eye-opening account of child abuse devolved into mere camp.

Let’s be frank here. Mommie Dearest is not a great film, but it’s compulsively watchable not unlike, well, say, a train wreck. You know how it is when you just can’t look away even though you squirm the whole time and want to vomit, you know, because you’re as excited by the sheer bloody spectacle as you are repulsed. Even so, what makes Mommie Dearest so damn watchable is Dunaway’s commitment to bringing Crawford back to life.  To be clear, I do not mean to suggest that Dunaway’s performance is so bad that it’s actually good, a guilty pleasure if you will. Instead, I think it’s a masterful performance by a courageous actress in a film that as often as not works against its star player. How can that be?

The key to watching Mommie Dearest and savoring every minute detail in Dunaway’s performance is to focus on the face. No, this is not to say that Dunaway looks astonishingly like the real Crawford, because she doesn’t, even though many critics and fans certainly believe so. Okay, maybe more in some sequences than in others. No matter. Crawford, especially in the 1930s, the era of Grand Hotel and The Women, possessed (per one of her own titles) one of the most ravishing faces in the history of movies. It might not have been perfectly symmetrical, but it was perfect nonetheless, what with Joan’s doe-eyes, regal forehead, and bold slash of a mouth; however, as the 30s faded, and Joan had to reinvent herself to stay relevant–which she did–the face became more like a mask, starting with the exaggerated almost too-easy-to-mock  thick dark eyebrows and severe hairdos. And the ever increasingly absurdity of the drawn-on lips. Even so, was she ever more beautiful than she was in Humoresque, released a year after Oscar winner Mildred Pierce?

Back to Dunaway. In preparing to play Crawford, Dunaway learned after much practice how to compose her face muscles to replicate Crawford’s unmistakably haughty bearing, the mask of protection, to blot out, yes, the shitty life of poverty, despair, and likely abuse that shaped her into a driven, ambitious workaholic for whom nothing less than perfection was acceptable. All of that is in Dunaway’s face, scene after scene, especially the quiet ones, such as the moment when Crawford goes for her morning run with trusty assistant, Carol Ann (the great Rutanya Alda), driving along beside her among the winding roads of Brentwood. Crawford, never mind her adopted children, is her own greatest creation, and her every move, every deed, from exercising to cleaning house, must be punishing in order to hold value and act as a reminder she must never stop fighting to escape the past. For her, everything is business. Even having fun is business.

But a mask is still a mask. As Crawford, Dunaway’s face is rigid, impenetrable, but the eyes are alert–and plotting, plotting, plotting. Plus, again, Crawford, no matter what else she is, is an actress, always performing. Forget the tantrums, the hysteria over wire hangers, Dunaway’s Crawford is at her most cruel when she’s perfectly calm, resting on a swanky chaise lounge while delicately applying cream to her elbows and coolly taunting Christina for playing a childish game that she (Crawford) sees as a betrayal.

Dunaway doesn’t look too much like Joan Crawford in this still from Mommie Dearest though in some sequences she serves a more convincing illusion. This over-sized chaise, btw, is a magnificent piece of furniture and probably my favorite such item in any film. Ever. I can imagine living in it for a lazy weekend. That noted, for all the luxe furnishings in the film’s first  half, mostly Crawford’s lavish, impeccably furnished two storey Brentwood estate, and some of legendary designer Irene Sharaff’s contributions, the latter  portions appear  to have been  shot on a shoestring with sets that clearly look like sets, some likely recycled from  old TV shows. (IMAGE: https://ironingboardcollective.files.wordpress.com/2011/01/425-dunaway-mommie-dearest-0606081.jpg)

Another intriguing scene, which Dunaway plays expertly, begins in Crawford’s basement laundry room. Daughter Christina, by now a teen, is home from her fancy private school, going about the business of washing clothes. Then, Crawford descends, registering shame as she solemnly breaks the news to her daughter that money is tight, so “cutting-back” is the new order. This means that Joan has enrolled her daughter in a work-study program, thereby allowing her to continue at boarding school. This quiet exchange between mother and daughter plays touchingly as both Christina and Joan try to shrug the recent turn as a mere minor setback; after all, Joan toiled in a similar program when she was a girl–which we know to be true, actually. With Crawford ever the worker-bee, Dunaway plays much of the scene folding laundry.  Director Frank Perry, in one of his smart moves, thrusts the camera right into Dunaway’s face as she reveals how frightened she is at the thought of being cut loose, yet again, from a Hollywood studio contract–after her triumphant comeback with Oscar winner Mildred Pierce at Warners, once she and MGM parted ways–in another tautly played scene–in light of her being labelled “box office poison” by theatre owners [3].

Of course, by this point, we’ve just seen Crawford dripping in jewelry, throwing back cocktails, and explaining how she had to let go the housekeeper. So how can she afford all that jewelry? Everything comes together in the scene that follows the laundry encounter when Christina walks into Joan’s dressing room and finds her mother, passed-out drunk, surrounded by newly delivered shoe boxes, hat boxes and more–all freshly purchased; this, in spite of all the anguish over no longer earning a steady paycheck. Chilling stuff.

Mommie Dearest‘s reputation as a campy howler stems from a few ineptly staged scenes in which Dunaway comes across as frighteningly unhinged. No denying she goes over the top–way, way, over the top. One such offender is the infamous “No wire hangers” meltdown, which culminates with Crawford dragging her daughter into the bathroom and attacking her mercilessly with a can of Old Dutch cleanser–yep, it’s as bad as it sounds–with Dunaway freakishly ghoul-like thanks to a heavy layer of white face cream. Why add that ostentatious element to an already shocking scene? The last straw is a knockdown brawl between Crawford and teenage Christina that results in overturned furniture and Crawford choking the child until Carol Ann and a visitor intervene. It’s an ugly scene, and based on an actual incident. But the fault isn’t Dunaway’s.  As unfortunate as these missteps are, she never comes across as “hammy,” of over-acting like a rank amateur. Instead, she is frighteningly real, caught up in the moment, having tapped into some deep-rooted rage that must be unleashed. I get that.

No, much of the fault lies with the director, the late Frank Perry. Hear me out. Contrary to lore, Faye Dunaway has actually addressed the making of Mommie Dearest in multiple forums, such as her own book, in which she devotes a whole chapter to the movie, and an episode of Inside the Actors Studio w/James Lipton. Even so, the so-called talk is that she refuses to discuss the film. Not so. The essence of Dunaway’s account is that she was so consumed by the enormity and the complexity of the character, that is, Joan Crawford, that she kind of got lost in the process, and that a stronger director would have worked harder to rein her in a bit, to tell her when she’d gone too far–such as the scene in which Crawford goes ballistic and savagely cuts Christina’s hair–and help her modulate or shape the performance. To clarify, if the script dictates that Crawford take out her frustration by whacking her daughter’s hair, or choking her, then that is what it is. What Dunaway needed was someone to coach her so that Crawford’s reaction was believable. Instead, as noted, Dunaway often goes from 0 to 100 in a matter of seconds, and the effect is bizarrely comical when it should be heartbreaking.

Is Dunaway being too easy on herself and too hard on a director who is unable to defend himself? After all, Perry died in 1995–just as Dunaway published her book. Maybe Perry tried but never got through to his star. Perhaps. Even so, I’m inclined to agree with Dunaway based on some of the awkward staging and general ineptitude throughout the flick’s entirety.  Much of the time, the director seems to fail his star. What was Perry doing when he was supposed to be in charge of the set?  After all, what’s up with those shots, more than one, in which the camera fixates on teenage Christina’s white underpants? It demeans actress Diana Scarwid and robs the character of her dignity–on top of the abuse she suffers at her mother’s hands.

This is not to say that Perry fails time after time, but he seems to struggle with the bigger, emotionally elevated sequences. It’s in those instances, such as a blowout between Joan and her steady, Greg (played stiffly by Steve Forrest [4]), that everything goes haywire: not just acting, and not just Dunaway, but also staging and editing.  Perry lets the “big” scenes get away from him, but Dunaway suffers all the blame.

That noted, one scene in the last half of the movie plays extraordinarily well, demonstrating how sharp the rest of the film could have been if Perry had exercised just a little more diligence, a little more care. To backtrack, in the mid 1950s Crawford met and married Alfred Steele, the dynamic CEO of Pepsi Cola. Was it a marriage of convenience, given the fact that 50ish Crawford no longer had the security of a long-term studio contract and had to hustle for gigs, or was Steele the great love of her life as she often proclaimed? Maybe a bit of both. Nonetheless, Crawford relished her role as Pepsi’s Goodwill Ambassador but when Steele passed away suddenly in 1959, he left his widow with a pile of debt that effectively put Crawford at odds with Pepsi’s board of directors. (Once again, simplified for the sake of the movie.)

In a magnificently tense confrontation between indomitable Crawford and a roomful of hardened Pepsi execs determined to vanquish her, Dunaway takes charge. Seething with contempt, not just for the men across the table but the entirety of the male dominated establishment under which she has long toiled,  Dunaway’s Crawford is cagey, calculating. She’s not there to lose her cool though. If Pepsi wants a fight, she’ll fight–but not without a warning that she’s nobody’s pushover. The emotional ante builds and builds until there’s no holding back, and the eruption comes as a needed release. The scene has nothing to do with Crawford’s tumultuous relationship with her daughter, but it’s just about the only time in the movie in which Crawford’s anger is delayed, and the audience can savor every nuance in Dunaway’s tightly wound performance. Plus, again, notice how Perry frames the action: Crawford on one end, smug Pepsi execs on the other, cutting back and forth, bringing the camera closer and closer to Dunaway, looking every bit the well turned-out movie star who knows the value of putting on a “costume” in order to make a statement. The scene’s climax comes as Dunaway’s Crawford bellows at the suits, the fellas, not to “fuck” with her, and then hisses the reminder that I have memorialized as the tag line for this blog.

Again, if only other scenes had been consistently well-modulated. Certainly, with David and Lisa (for which he was Oscar nominated), Diary of a Mad Housewife (both, to clarify, Oscar nominated in multiple categories) and other prestige titles to his credit, Perry was hardly a lightweight, but his efforts on Mommie Dearest are uneven, to say the least, but I don’t think Perry had to pay for Mommie Dearest‘s miscalculations to the degree that Dunaway did. That noted, Perry’s follow-up, 1982’s bloated Monsignor, starring Christopher Reeve (and at least co-produced by Frank Yablans, also of Mommie Dearest, and clearly holding no grudge) tanked–and deservedly so. Still, Perry notched a minor comeback with 1985’s smart and sassy mystery-comedy Compromising Positions, toplined by Susan Sarandon in a cast that also included Judith Ivey, Raul Julia, Edward Herrmann, Anne De Salvo and a few others. It was the light success that Perry needed.

It took Dunaway a bit longer to recover, and that’s unfortunate, but not uncommon in an industry which measures success and failure differently for women than for men. It’s fair to say that the offers of quality material for Dunaway dwindled in the aftermath, which is not to say that she wasn’t offered variations of Mommie Dearest that would have relied on camp appeal. At the same time, Dunaway is at least partially responsible for the downturn, as she made a conscious choice to be less visible among Hollywood’s deal makers by moving to England to be with her husband (photographer Terry O’Neill) and begin raising a family, working only selectively–notably a couple of Agatha Christie adaptations. The feature films she actually completed during that era were mostly duds.

The rebound came with 1987’s Barfly, a low budget offering, surprisingly via exploitation masters Cannon Films, co-starring Mickey Rourke, penned by no less than renegade pulpy poet Charles Bukowski [5] (with Francis Ford Coppola earning a producer’s credit). Dunaway’s boozy hardluck case warranted a shout-out from Premiere, then in its infancy, as the comeback of the year. No Oscar nod, alas, but the Hollywood Foreign Press came through with a Golden Globe nomination–in a most competitive season. In the years that followed, Dunaway, well into her 40s by that point, worked pretty steadily, earning a Cable ACE nomination for Cold Sassy Tree (a project she developed) and an Emmy for an installment of the Columbo series, among other nominations and/or awards. She even made a cameo appearance in 1999’s reboot of The Thomas Crown Affair starring Pierce Brosnan and Rene Russo.

So, what about Oscar consideration for Dunaway in Mommie Dearest? In spite of the film’s controversy, Dunaway eked out runner-up status in the tallies for awards from the National Society of Film Critics (with Pauline Kael, rhapsodic about Dunaway in print, rallying votes) and the New York Film Critics Circle; however, the Academy looked elsewhere for honorees. What about that? Here’s what. Do I think Dunaway deserved an Oscar nomination for Mommie Dearest? Yes, though I probably was less convinced at the time; nonetheless, I certainly would not have been surprised if the nod had materialized, all things considered. I definitely remember feeling that way at the time. There were three sure-things that year, no questions asked: Katherine Hepburn (On Golden Pond, the victor [6] ), Diane Keaton (Reds, the most nominated flick in more than a decade), and Meryl Streep (The French Lieutenant’s Woman, Streep’s first starring vehicle, in double roles no less, since winning supporting honors for Kramer vs. Kramer).  Next, Susan Sarandon in Atlantic City. Good for her. I loved Atlantic City, and I loved Sarandon in it. I was glad to see her land in the big leagues after appreciating her work in the likes of The Rocky Horror Picture Show and King of the Gypsies (a seriously under-valued performance). Famously, Paramount, Atlantic City‘s distributor, had positioned Sarandon as a supporting hopeful, but the Academy saw otherwise, and, again, good for Sarandon.

The fifth nominee is the one that has always struck me as anti-climactic. That would be Marsha Mason in Only When I Laugh, her fourth and–so far–final nod. Her first came with 1973’s Cinderella Liberty when she was a relative newcomer whose breakthrough season included not only her nominated flick but also critical fave Blume in Love. Mason’s next two nods were for films penned by her then husband, popular playwright Neil Simon (who passed away while I was writing this piece): The Goodbye Girl (1978) and the semi-autobiographical Chapter Two, playing her own fictional counterpart opposite James Caan (with whom she’d co-starred in Cinderella Liberty).  Only When I Laugh was another Simon collaboration. C’mon, three Oscar nominations for movies penned by her husband in less than 5 years? Really? This is not to say Mason isn’t worth watching–though I only have faint memories of seeing Only When I Laugh when it first appeared on cable–but somehow the nod just seemed rote, uninspired. Plus, the nod smacks of, what, cronyism [7]. That noted, Only When I Laugh was a hit, and the wealth was spread around as supporting players Joan Hackett and James Coco also earned Academy nods. Indeed, Hackett even won the Golden Globe in her category. (< The respected actress passed away in 1983, barely more than a year after her sole Oscar nomination.)

Mason was the safe choice, and I guess there’s nothing wrong with that, necessarily, but I’ve long thought that her slot would have, could have, and should have been better served by the inclusion of either Jessica Lange in The Postman Always Rings Twice, or, yes, Faye Dunaway in Mommie Dearest. Now, that would’ve been a race like no other.

Yes, Mommie Dearest is stupefyingly, howlingly, berserk (another Crawford title) at times, but that’s largely the director’s fault, and, sure, it’s hardly typical Academy fare (certainly not at that point in Hollywood’s timeline). Yes, Dunaway’s instincts sometimes veer to outlandish extremes but the good outweighs the bad. Upon close inspection, those moments are relatively fleeting and certainly do not represent the entirety of Dunaway’s efforts in Mommie Dearest, which are otherwise masterful, impassioned, and committed.

Thanks for your consideration.

[1] Beery actually tied with Frederic March (Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde) for that year’s Best Actor award.

[2] Without going into a lot of detail, let me add that reports of Dunaway’s–alleged–conduct have always made good copy. She feuded with Chinatown director Roman Polanski though he also professed quite a row with top-billed Jack Nicholson, yet, unsurprisingly, that outburst was later laughed off as just guys being guys. Double-standard much? Meanwhile, consider that in her self-published account of filming Mommie Dearest, actress Rutanya Alda (as Carol Ann, Joan Crawford’s star-struck fan turned personal assistant), describes a production fraught with delays thanks to its temperamental star. Alda also points the finger at interference from Terry O’Neil, Dunaway’s then boyfriend (and soon husband), a famous photographer in his own right who snagged an executive producer’s credit on the film. In her book, Dunaway writes that O’Neill made her feel protected during a demanding project with a director who was clearly in over his head. Still again, on the DVD commentary, producer Frank Yablans hails Dunaway as mostly pleasant and professional, save for a misstep on the first day of shooting. Who knows the truth at this point, except to say that even though Alda spares Dunaway almost nothing in her book, she nonetheless praises the star’s performance, effusively, in the finished film, per the DVD featurette.

[3] Crawford’s departure from MGM was reportedly more mutual than the cold dismissal depicted in the film though props to Howard Da Silva for slyly seizing the moment as MGM boss Louie B. Mayer.

[4] Forrest’s character, Greg Savitt, stands-in for multiple men in Crawford’s life, particularly show-biz lawyer Greg Bautzer, whose relationship with Crawford was reported to be quite volatile. Bautzer was still alive in the early 80s, so not using his real name might have been a move to avoid legal complications.

[5] Paraphrase from 2005 New Yorker article by Adam Kirsch quoted in  Wikipedia entry on Bukowski:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_Bukowski#cite_note-9

[6] Hepburn’s 12th nod, a record at the time, and her fourth win, a feat still unmatched by any performer, that is, any performer, male or female, in any category, leading or supporting.

[7] Tellingly, Mason’s profile, that is, her marketability, slipped almost the instant she and Simon split in 1983. Yes, she recovered but certainly not with the same luster as in the Simon years.

Works Cited

Alda, Rutanya. The Mommie Dearest Diaries: Carol Ann Tells All. Ed. Jeremy Bright. Self-Published, 2013. Updated in 2015.

Dunaway, Faye, and  Besty Sharkey. Looking for Gatsby: My Life. Simon and Schuster, 1995.

Peary, Danny. Alternate Oscars: One Critic’s Defiant Choices for Best Picture, Actor, and Actress–From 1927 to the Present. Delta, 1993, pp. 233-234.

Thomas, Bob. Joan Crawford: A Biography. Simon and Schuster, 1978.

^ Note: I read Christina Crawford’s Mommie Dearest when she first published it in 1978; however, I long ago lost track of my copy. I remember giving, yes, giving, it to a friend who passed away years ago. At any rate, Thomas’s book, also published in 1978, of which I read excerpts at the time, and now own, corroborates at least some of Christina’s details about growing up in the Crawford household in the 1940s and 1950s, besides providing key details about the overall Crawford trajectory.

Wiley, Mason and Damien Bona. Inside Oscar: The Unofficial History of the Academy Awards, 10th Anniversary Edition. Ed. Gail MacColl. Ballantine Books, 1996. pp. 569; 599-606.

If the Crown Fits: When Bad Movies Happen to Good Books

11 Aug

Among moviegoing’s many certainties, one such reaffirms the daunting task of adapting books for the big screen. More often that not, someone, somewhere, will find fault with the finished product sooner or later. Not all such translations are doomed to disappoint en masse. A few beat the odds. Almost 30 years after the fact, Silence of the Lambs still stands as a near perfect example. Of course, there have been others in the interim. Sometimes, a book’s devotees overlook their dissatisfaction with one change or another and appreciate a resulting movie on its own terms. How generous.

Besides the simple fact that books present challenges related to paring a lengthy, far-flung narrative to a comfortable running time conducive to a single sitting, budget concerns and logistics loom as considerations that a writer’s imagination need not address. If the writer can capture the vision on the page, the reader’s mind can run wild with the experience. Furthermore, novelists and book lovers revel in the possibilities of language, that is, the beauty, intricacy, and complexity of words. A well-written sentence wields power and grace. In contrast, film often registers on a more visceral rather than cerebral level.

Sometimes, readers respond to that magical something known as a writer’s voice. Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres reigns as a stunning example. Readers feel compelled to turn the page because the speaker’s voice, Ginny, the oldest of three sisters in conflict over division of their father’s land (by way of Shakespeare’s King Lear), registers so persuasively. A movie can recreate the plot points, the highlights, but “voice” remains elusive. In the case of A Thousand Acres, the loss of voice in the unfortunate 1997 adaptation (starring Jessica Lange and Michelle Pfeiffer) was further compounded by the omission of a major–shocking–plot point. Even weaving select passages from a given text into voiceover narration to help set the scene for moviegoers–connecting the dots, filling in the details–invites debate. Many experienced screenwriters advise newcomers against voiceover, insisting that providing such narration is a cheat and that the objective should be to tell the story so strongly through well-modulated action, visual details, and dialogue that narration is superfluous. Find a way, the experts admonish.

That noted, many a film noir has certainly been enhanced by the world weary voiceover of a cynical detective.

Then, there’s Blade Runner. Director Ridley Scott’s 1982 influential adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, a highly stylized post-apocalyptic update on the film noir trope was completed sans narration though the resulting product reportedly left test audiences confused, so star Harrison Ford’s craggy voiceover was added, ostensibly to make the film more marketable to one and all.  Scott and Ford harrumphed, and not in vain.  Even with studio mandated narration, Blade Runner‘s initial run lacked the much needed legs to score big at the box office, instead carrying the mantle of cult favorite. Years later, Scott released a director’s cut that more or less restored his original vision, meaning bye-bye voiceover.  By now, Scott has tinkered with the film so often that he–not the film–looks increasingly ludicrous. Full confession: Michael and I prefer the original theatrical release, not the least of which is because we dig the atmospheric touch provided by Deckerd’s (Ford’s) account. Btw, it’s the 1982 release that the National Film Registry selected for commemoration. So there.

A second seemingly inescapable certainty regarding movies dictates that, especially in the Internet age, many of us love playing “Recast that Movie,” otherwise known as “If Such and Such Movie were Made Today, Who Would You Cast?” The Internet Movie Database’s dearly missed message boards once thrived on such propositions, and the conversations followed to social media. Seemingly every other Valley of the Dolls fan indulges from time-to-time as do devotees of All About Eve, Steel Magnolias, Casablanca, Clue, and scads upon scads of others.

Angelina Jolie, seen here in a 2017 Guerlain ad, stands out as ideally suited to play legendary screen goddess Fedora in my dream remake of Thomas Tryon’s novella of the same name, that is, Fedora. Besides her considerable acting skills, and the fact that the Oscar winner hasn’t had a thrilling role in a while, Jolie exudes not just good looks but star wattage and mystique galore. At 43, she’s old enough to portray the character who appears to have stopped aging at around 50ish though she could easily play 30ish or so in flashbacks. Done. Charlize Theron, also 43, is a close second. I wouldn’t rule out Jennifer Garner, 46. I’d like to see her in a super-challenging big screen role. She’s under-served in many movies. Emily Blunt, 35, might be too young to be convincing in the modern scenes. Ditto Scarlett Johansson, 33. Meanwhile, Kristen Thomas, already in her 50s and smashingly radiant, would be a stretch, er the flashbacks. (IMAGE: https://celebun.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/03/Angelina-Jolie-Mon-Guerlain-2018-Pictures-01.jpg)

All of which brings me to Fedora, Billy Wilder’s ill-fated effort to bring Thomas Tryon’s novella of the same name to the big screen. Never heard of it? Please allow me. I had a chance to revisit Sunset Boulevard (1950), Billy Wilder’s Gothic tinged Hollywood satire, a few months ago as part of a Big Screen Classics series. From that, a friend gave me a copy of Dallas author Sam Staggs’ book on the making of the celebrated flick that starred Gloria Swanson and William Holden as, respectively, a long faded silent screen star desperate to return to the big screen and a fast-talking, younger screenwriter going nowhere fast who strikes the actress’ fancy. And there’s a murder.

Anyway, Staggs’ well chronicled account, and a Wilder bio by Ed Sikov, brought back memories of Tryon’s Fedora, both the book and the missed opportunity that befell the big screen adaptation.  How so? Keep reading.

Darkly, ruggedly, handsome, 6’3″ Thomas Tryon worked steadily as an actor in television and movies, beginning in the 1950s and up through the 1960s. Ironically, his splashiest big screen success led to his decision to quit acting, at which point he turned to writing novels. In 1963, Tryon played the lead in Otto Preminger’s The Cardinal, earning a Golden Globe nod as well as a Golden Laurel nomination. The film scored additional accolades, including Oscar nominations for Preminger (Best Director) and John Huston (Best Supporting Actor); however, on-set clashes between Tryon and the director left the actor emotionally bruised and prompted him to rethink his career options. His first novel, super-natural charged The Other, hit number 1 on the best seller list and attracted all kinds of attention–my mother was a huge fan.  Director Robert Mulligan (To Kill a Mockingbird) signed on for the movie version, and Tryon wrote the screenplay. A succès d’estime, perhaps. So far, so good. Next up? Tryon followed through with Harvest Home, another huge success. Retitled The Dark Secret of Harvest Home, it became a popular, frequently re-aired mini-series, featuring no less than Bette Davis and earning a couple of Emmy nods.

After Lady, Tryon turned to his Hollywood background for 1976’s Crowned Heads, a collection of four novellas, each portraying a fictional star fallen on hard times. The making of a particular film, in which all four performers appeared, links the stories. Sort of.  The most intriguing of the quartet was “Fedora” which I first read in the spring of ’76 as a lengthy excerpt in Ladies Home Journal, a special Hollywood themed issue no doubt timed to coincide with the Oscars.

In short, Fedora tells the story of a Russian born silent film star (Maria Katrin Fedorowich) who makes a big impression in Berlin  before crossing the Atlantic en route to the Hollywood dream machine. Rechristened Fedora, she survives the transition to talkies and embarks on a decades long career, almost without exception as a star, never reduced to playing the leading lady’s mother, grandmother, or aunt. She was and is the leading lady, a seemingly ageless beauty who enthralls audiences even when her films disappoint. Tryon even throws a few Oscar nominations into the Academy’s real-life timeline for verisimilitude, besides the star’s complete filmography along with detailed plot explanations.

The role of writer Barry Detweiler presents a challenge in that the character appears in scenes set just after VE Day as well as later scenes in the 1970s, the latter of which occupy the larger portion of the story. While lead character Fedora appears to defy aging, it would be next to impossible for one actor to play Detweiler as a fresh-faced soldier and as his older, more distinguished self. Even so, I always visualized the character from the 1970s’ sequences as looking much like Tryon himself, per the below photo. The key is to cast the mature Detweiler first. With that in mind, Billy Crudup, 50, seems to have all the right stuff, but so does George Clooney, 57. Clive Owen, 53, and Eric Bana, 49, come to mind as well. Pierce Brosnan, 65, cannot be ruled out entirely. Back to Crudup. The one-time Texas resident has been making movies for over 20 years, including 2015’s Best Picture winner Spotlight yet is still not as established on screen in the same way he is onstage. He  won a featured actor Tony for The Coast of Utopia in 2007. Earlier this year he won an Obie for Harry Clarke, in which he  played 19 characters. Once upon a time, late  ’80s-early ’90s, Detweiler would have been a solid fit for Michael Douglas or Richard Gere. (IMAGE: https://www.villagevoice.com/2018/05/24/billy-crudup-off-broadways-accidental-seducer/)

So powerful is Fedora’s mystique that her fans never abandon their affection. In some quarters, she’s hailed as “the perfect work of art.”  Her comebacks are also legendary. Her frequent absences, or disappearances, spark all kinds of rumors. Drugs? Nervous exhaustion? A torrid affair with a Polish nobleman? Then, she returns, as enigmatic as ever. It’s not that she appears to have never aged, only more slowly, less noticeably, less discernibly, than her contemporaries. The handiwork of sinister Dr. Vando, a Portugese anti-aging specialist?  Eventually, upheavals associated with a particular project spell doom, finality, for her career. She retreats to the Greek islands, finding comfort–for awhile–in the villa of her Polish former lover’s willful, albeit wheelchair bound, mother, the Countess Sobryanski.

Then one day, an American writer named Barry Detweiler, seemingly a projection of Tryon himself, arrives, haunted by a chance encounter with Fedora decades previously. He’s not a screenwriter, to be clear, but a biographer looking for a fresh angle on the elusive star’s legendary story. He’s the audience surrogate as de facto detective.

Sound familiar? Maybe a bit reminiscent of Sunset Boulevard, not to mention the lives and times of such real life luminaries as famously reclusive Greta Garbo by way of Marlene Dietrich,  Gloria Swanson (speaking of Sunset Boulevard), Pola Negri, maybe Ingrid Bergman (younger than the others, yes, but but legendarily beautiful, foreign-born, and no stranger to international scandal), and even Mae West (famous for her bawdy humor as well as her allegedly outrageous anti-aging treatments). All of these stars were still very much alive at the time Tryon published “Fedora” and, likewise, when the troubled film premiered, but I digress.

With all this in mind, Billy Wilder seemed a logical pick to direct a movie version of Fedora. Why not? After all, he’d directed Sunset Boulevard while Fedora, as many critics noted, functioned as its distant cousin. Charles Brackett, with whom Wilder collaborated on Sunset Boulevard‘s Oscar winning screenplay (among others), had passed away a few years earlier–and the two had parted after Sunset Boulevard, anyway. Instead, Wilder once again teamed with I.A.L. Diamond, his partner on several films, including such classics as Some Like It Hot and Academy Best Picture winner The Apartment, for which, to clarify, the duo won Oscars for writing.

What could go wrong?

Besides everything, that is.

Who should play the infirmed, white haired dowager Countess Sobryanski, who may or may not be holding reckless Fedora as a hostage? A gag in 1996’s First Wives Club offers that there are only three age groups for actresses in Hollywood: “Babe. District Attorney. And Driving Miss Daisy,” but Miss Daisy came out in 1989, almost 30 years ago, while First Wives premiered over 20 years ago. Things have changed. Expectations have changed. Jessica Tandy turned 80 while completing Miss Daisy, and won an Oscar, indeed, but she had been playing ‘little old ladies’ well before then. Today, the likes of Oscar winner Helen Mirren (73) along with Charlotte Rampling (72) and Glenn Close (71) play a variety of roles, often with more than just a hint of sex appeal. The crone of a countess offers none of that and while these three giants boast plenty of acting chops, any of them would require “old age” makeup to play the role as outlined. Now in her late 70s and as smashing as ever, Julie Christie maintains a low profile, but she’d be great too. At 69, Jessica Lange could play the role, of course, but she would need even more aging. Naturally, Meryl Streep is in the mix, and, hey, why not Isabelle Huppert or Barbara Hershey? Meanwhile, Vanessa Redgrave, Maggie Smith, and Judi Dench can act just about anything. This photo depicts Mirren at the premiere of 2017’s The Leisure Seeker, opposite Donald Sutherland, for  which she scored a Globe nomination. (IMAGE: http://www.celebzz.com/helen-mirren-at-the-leisure-seeker-premiere-held-at-pacific-design-center-in-west-hollywood/)

Referring back to the beginning of this piece, Tryon’s story works as well as it does thanks to a strong, compelling voice. With one tantalizing tease at a time, Detweiler, the narrator–being interviewed by a prominent TV journalist–pulls the reader into a fascinating tale, jumping all over the place with flashbacks and fast forwards, bouncing back and forth from the 1970s to the 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s, and so on, as well as shifting locales: New York, California, France, Russia, Germany, Tangier, and Greece. Not only does Wilder and Diamond’s screenplay lack that crucial detail (in spite of voiceover, per the framing device of Detweiler’s conversation with the reporter), the story skimps on, or simply rewrites, crucial details. The finished film only superficially resembles the source material, and in all the wrong ways; moreover, the writers dumb down the story, making dumb additions and substitutions that make a folly of Tyron’s text. Why? One character’s death is reimagined as a violent suicide for no apparent reason. A bit of a to-do is made over one character’s gloves though the book includes no such heavy handed reference; meanwhile, a character in the book is described as sporting a very specific hair do. The same character in the movie almost always wears hats, humongous hats. Almost every detail about the biographer’s back story and his chance encounter with Fedora is completely shot to hell, changing the dynamic between the two. Why?  In short, the adaptation is a mess.

Worse, Wilder is stingy with the close-ups. Plus, Fedora often hides, per Garbo in her twilight years, behind oversized hats and shades. Imagine filming a movie in which the lead character’s lasting fame owes to her incomparable beauty, the so-called perfect work of art, and only rarely allowing audiences to see, to experience, that beauty for themselves. She could be anybody. Frustrating.

Not to mention Michael York. The fair-haired, real-life star of such 70s hits as Cabaret, Murder on the Orient Express, and Logan’s Run, pops up in Fedora as himself of all people, a key player in a silly plot thread that has absolutely NOTHING to do with Tryon’s original. What gives? I can scarcely believe York allowed himself to be talked into such a stunt. He’s not alone in that regard as Henry Fonda also pops up as the President of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, yet another sequence invented for the film and having NOTHING to do with the original text.

Once again, a book is powerful enough to attract the attention of moviemakers who then set about making changes, diluting the very thing that made the book worthwhile, popular, in the first place.

Wilder and Diamond’s resulting mess was released without much fanfare in 1979 after originally being slated to premiere during the 1978 Christmas season. Per Staggs, Wilder knew the production was on its way to being a train wreck within a week or so of shooting, but turning back wasn’t an option (372).  Even so, as an ardent fan of the book, I am glad that I finally got to see it, years ago, via 7-8 minute snippets on YouTube. I’ve seen it at least once more since then, without nagging interruption, not that it helps. Boo-hoo.

Besides Wilder and Diamond’s problematic screenplay, problems with Fedora can also be attributed to poor casting choices. Early reports announced that Wilder originally approached Faye Dunaway for Fedora and Marlene Dietrich as the dowager countess (Sikov 553). Wilder directed Dietrich’s stunning performance in Witness for the Prosecution, thus a perfect match, a known quantity; however, Dietrich reportedly hated Tryon’s book in the first place, so her participation in the adaptation quickly became a moot point (553). Did anybody ask Garbo? Possible but not probable. Did Wilder pursue his Sunset Boulevard star Gloria Swanson? Again, the symmetry would have helped sell the movie.

Per Dunaway, she was at the peak of her stardom in the mid-to-late 1970s, what with Chinatown, Oscar winner Network, and The Eyes of Laura Mars, and would have been the perfect choice:  unconventional, effortlessly glamorous, strikingly photogenic (the planes of her face at that point were amazing, astonishing), alternating behind a kind of icy remoteness and fluttery, high-strung mannerisms. Plus, Dunaway, a great clotheshorse if there ever were one, looks swell in period wardrobe, and, again Fedora spans decades’ worth of styles. Alas, this was not to be. I’ve read the book many times. I can hear Dunaway’s voice when Fedora speaks.

I don’t recall what happened regarding Dunaway’s involvement though, again, she was at the peak of her stardom and was working pretty much non-stop. Maybe she was more unavailable than uninterested.

With his first choices for two of the leads out of the running, Wilder had to settle. And settle he did.  First up, Marthe Keller, the Swedish native who first caught American audiences’ attention with French director Claude Lelouche’s multi-generational saga And Now My Love, Oscar nominated for its screenplay. From there, she quickly signed on for the likes of Black Sunday, Marathon Man, and Bobby Deerfield, co-starring with Al Pacino in the latter–and with whom she would enjoy a whirlwind affair. Casting a Swedish actress in a Garboesque role might have made marketing sense, but Keller lacked star stature, certainly not the caliber of Dunaway.

This picture shows Thomas Tryon on the back of the Crowned Heads book jacket. He later published a similar collection of fictionalized Hollywood tales entitled All that Glitters, not a sequel to Crowned Heads, more like a companion piece. Tryon died of stomach cancer at the still young age of 65 back in 1991. (IMAGE: https://www.ebay.com/p/Crowned-Heads-by-Thomas-Tryon-1976-Hardcover/1240576)

For the countess, Wilder hired German born Hildegard Kneff, all of 50 at the time if my research holds. Knef was no stranger to Hollywood though she was hardly a household name. Her past involvement with a Nazi soldier sullied her reputation, so she found better opportunities back in Europe. Even so, Kneff enjoyed a whiff of success on Broadway when she co-starred opposite Don Ameche in Cole Porter’s Silk Stockings back in ’56. Incredibly, Porter and his collaborators, including George S. Kaufman, adapted Silk Stockings from the 1939 movie Ninotchka, starring the one and only Greta Garbo. The show attracted lots of attention but Kneff’s role, the same one previously played by Garbo, was handed to Cyd Charisse when MGM brought the property back to the big screen.

Besides the fact that Wilder seemed clueless regarding just about every aspect of the movie he agreed to make, meaning a poorly adapted text and bewildering set-up and editing choices, Keller and Kneff solidified the debacle. Yes, Fedora is Russian, by way of Germany, and, yes, the countess is Polish. Of course, we expect them to speak in accented English; likewise, as noted, Keller is Swedish while Kneff hails from Germany. Once again, of course, we expect them to speak in accented English though the scuttlebutt is that both performers’ accents were so thick that test audiences experienced difficulty understanding them. That led Wilder to opting to have the actresses dubbed (Sikov 559). Dubbed poorly that is. The voices clearly sound piped-in from another room, and the synchronization is awful. Plus, the readings for the Fedora character are particularly lackluster–brusque, monotone–as if the person providing the voice had ever only watched the early scenes of, yes, Ninotchka, in which Garbo plays an apparently humor-impaired Soviet emissary.  But her dry readings were delivered tongue-in-cheek. She was in on the gag, and it was funny. Not so the train wreck served in Fedora.

Wilder’s next casting terror comes to us in the form of William Holden. Once again, this seems like a marketing decision more than anything else. After all, Holden and Wilder worked together famously on Sunset Boulevard, in which the actor played a down on his luck screenwriter, who was just desperate enough to allow himself to be kept by reclusive  filthy rich movie star with aspirations of magnificent return to glory. As rewritten in Wilder and Diamond’s script, Fedora’s Barry Detweiler character has upgraded to role of producer who hopes to sell the elusive star on the idea of a comeback, but I’m getting ahead of myself.  Besides Sunset Boulevard, Holden and Wilder also collaborated on Stalag 17, for which Holden won that year’s Best Actor Oscar, and the perennially popular Sabrina starring Audrey Hepburn, among others. Plus, and this is important, Holden had just scored an Oscar nomination for Network [1], playing an ousted old school news department bigwig whose mid-life crisis leads him into brief, unsatisfying affair with a ratings obsessed programming executive: Dunaway, in her Oscar winning turn. FYI: Before Network, Dunaway and Holden had previously appeared in 1974’s The Towering Inferno, a blockbuster Best Picture nominee that competed in the same year as Dunaway’s smashing Chinatown.

Holden was still in his 50s when he made Network and had turned 60 by the time Fedora premiered, but he looked much older than his years in both films, and the effect is especially pathetic in Fedora. Years, decades, of drinking had taken a hard toll, pretty much  the consensus and borne out by his passing in 1981 at the relatively young age of 61, still middle age [2]. Cause of death? Apparently he busted his head after falling during an intoxicated stupor and lost a fatal amount of blood [3]. May he rest in peace.

Holden looks desperate in Fedora. He reeks of it. More him than the character, per se, a real mess.

In flashbacks, then boyish Stephen Collins portray’s Holden’s Detweiler, but the actors might as well be in separate movies.  They don’t register the way they should. Plus, Collins’ sequences are worlds’ removed from the way Tryon envisioned the comparable flashback in his book, meaning the chance encounter between Detweiler and Fedora. In Tryon’s version, the two meet in the Louvre after WWII. In the movie, young Detweiler appears as production assistant on one of the star’s Hollywood films. Again, the difference changes the dynamic. In the book, the characters are more or less equals, strangers, with Fedora more or less travelling incognito (per Garbo), with neither claiming home field advantage. In the movie, the characters meet with Fedora very much in the star element and holding all the power. Plus, Wilder depicts the relationship is as sexually charged, also a change from the book.

This is the April 1976 issue of Ladies Home Journal featuring fabulous Sophia Loren, no doubt timed to coincide with the annual ballyhoo surrounding the Oscars, keeping in mind that magazines hit the stands about a month earlier than the specified date–and the Academy typically presented its awards in March. I first read Tryon’s Crowned Heads excerpt, “Fedora,” within the pages of this magazine. Notice the blub just beneath Loren’s face. Later, I purchased the book in hardback at the then new–and now long gone–Century Bookstore at Spring Valley and Coit. Also, of interest in the mag is a feature on Garbo and a mini-fashion spread starring four relative newcomers, coincidentally including future Fedora star Marthe Keller, along with–as I recall–Marisa Berenson, Jill Clayburgh, and Andrea Marcovicci.

Besides the (re) casting choices indicated in the various sidebars, a few roles need to be considered.  First up, the females beginning with Mrs. Balfour–companion to the ailing countess. Ever reliable Frances Sternhagen played the role previously. She was in her late 40s at the time and already well known for her work in theater, including a Tony as a featured player in The Good Doctor, as well as a recurring role in a series of Crest toothpaste commercials on the telly. Since then, she has earned yet another Tony (per the revival of The Heiress) and gained legions of fans from her roles in such series as Cheers and The Closer in addition to a host of films, including Outland, Misery, Doc Hollywood, and Raising Cain (with a dizzying monologue, apparently filmed in one continuous take) among many, many others. I think it would be great if she could play Balfour all over again, frankly. That noted, I recently watched a series of interviews of Jane Curtin via the Archive of American Television (emmytvlegends.org), and I’ve always loved the edge she brings to characters with sunniest dispositions. Hmmmm….Balfour is slightly dotty but also a bit secretive. Curtin could work though, I believe, the character is actually English. Still, Sternhagen managed just fine without being English, right? Secondly, Tryon bookends his tale with an interview between Marion Walker, a morning news show reporter, and biographer Detweiler. At the time of the book’s release, Walker seemed to closely resemble no less than Barbara Walters, keeping in mind that besides the similarity of last names Walters was at that point flying high, transitioning from her formidable role in NBC’s Today to co-hosting ABC World News Tonight with Harry Reasoner and making history in the process as the first woman to anchor a network evening news program. Arlene Francis played the role in Wilder’s film, reportedly after Walters declined (Sikov 556). Despite the similarities with Tryon’s Good Morning, USA, ABC’s Good Morning America was brand spanking new at the time and hardly in the same league as Today; however, I think a bit of creative casting is in order. Why not, GMA‘s Robin Roberts? America loves her. Of course, the “present day” scenes in the book are set in the 70s, and that would need to remain the case in order for the story’s timeline to make sense. With that in mind, Roberts could not realistically play herself, per se, but who cares? She could pull off the role without a lot of fuss, and, no, I don’t even think with her classic, sporty, look goods she would need to be weighed under by period hair and makeup, which are merely incidental. Roberts has the recognition value to connect with audiences and get the story rolling.

Per the males, the movie greatly expanded the role of the mysterious Dr. Vando, rendering him much more a key player than in the book wherein he’s often referred to but makes only a fleeting appearance. Wilder cast no less than Jose Ferrer in the enhanced role, a coup, but superfluous. What about Fedora’s off and on again affair with the Polish count? Someone has to play the part, true enough, but it does not require a star. Finally,  Fedora’s intimidating chauffer, more like prison guard, could be played by just about anyone. Sorry.

I once read a quote in which someone, possibly John Huston, complained that Hollywood types often remake good movies, the ones that already work and have stood the test of time, instead of remaking the lesser known titles that could actually benefit from a redo. Of course, the flipside to that argument, and I’m inclined to attribute this one to Pauline Kael, is that sometimes a clunker has such inherent flaws that a remake seems pointless unless, of course, the material is seriously, scrupulously, re-evaluated.  Tryon’s original story might have structural flaws that render an intelligent screenplay impossible. That consideration is something about which might have frustrated Wilder and team, and they did the best that they thought they could at the time, all things considered; nonetheless, a good movie has yet to be made from Fedora.

Of course, the imagined remake still needs a director. Here are two possibilities: Sofia Coppola and Jodie Foster.

Meanwhile, Fedora may very well be out of print, per se, but it’s still available on Kindle. Plus, as things often go, no less than two hardbacks recently popped up at a local bookstore famous for selling used books at a discount. Now, is a good time to visit or revisit Tryon’s intriguing assemblage of characters and play the “recasting the movie” game. We’ll compare notes when you do.

Thanks for your consideration…

[1] – About that Oscar nod. Holden lost to his Network co-star, the later Peter Finch–in the role of once distinguished news anchor taken to stark raving on-air hallucinatory proclamations (most famously, “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!”). The celebrated Finch died suddenly of a heart ailment in early 1977, just as the Oscar season was swinging into action. From the first Network test screenings, word began building that Finch was an Oscar sure-shot though there was some debate between the actor and studio brass (MGM) as to whether his character was leading or supporting. Finch definitely had an opinion on the matter and made his voice heard, unequivocally (Wiley and Bona 530). Since his ‘Howard Beale’ functions as the story’s catalyst, not to mention the most quoted character, it’s hard to imagine that he was ever considered as anything other than a lead or co-lead. Frankly, I never doubted that Finch would win the Best Actor Oscar from the earliest reports I read. His death, just prior to the official announcement of nominees, prompted all manner of speculation regarding a sympathy vote; nonetheless, he won, and his widow accepted the award on his behalf.  Holden seemed not take accept defeat graciously, reportedly remarking to someone in his inner circle, “If the son of a bitch hadn’t died, I could have had my second Oscar” (536).

[2] – Holden’s drinking, and the effect it had begun to take on him as far back as 1950 and the making of Sunset Boulevard, has been remarked upon more than once. For example, Nancy Olson, Sunset Boulevard‘s ingénue, offers as much on page 72 in Staggs’ book. Staggs elaborates on the toll of such abuse on page 226. The author further reports that Paramount makeup supervisor Wally Westmore once claimed that a shirtless Holden looked as firm and athletic as any actor in Hollywood, the face being a different matter entirely (230). Elsewhere, as on the Network DVD commentary and Pauline Kael’s review of the same movie, the word “craggy” is frequently used to describe the actor’s appearance (223).

[3] – Link to UPI report on coroner’s report via New York Timeshttps://www.nytimes.com/1981/11/18/us/coroner-terms-death-of-holden-an-accident.html

Works Cited

Kael, Pauline. “Hot Air.” When the Lights Go Down. Holt, Rinehart, Winston, 1980. 219-224.

Sikov, Ed. On Sunset Boulevard: The Life and Times of Billy Wilder. Hyperion, 2018.

Staggs, Sam. Close-up on Sunset Boulevard: Billy Wilder, Norma Desmond, and the Dark Hollywood Dream. St. Martin’s Griffin, 2003.

Wiley, Mason and Damien Bona. Inside Oscar: The Unofficial History of the Academy Awards, Tenth Anniversary Edition. Ballantine, 1996. 525-536.

 

One Red Shoe: Objectively Bad or Guiltily Pleasing?

21 Jul

A friend of mine, someone I respect immensely, recently made the point that an entire genre of movies, such as frothy old-school musicals, could be written off as “objectively bad.” Think about that. Such a movie that by virtually any standard could be uniformly declared irredeemable.

Hmmm….

Is there really a such thing as an objectively bad movie? I’m sure each of us knows a likely candidate with no unanimous choice among us. After all, one viewer’s “objectively bad” film is another viewer’s guilty pleasure.

This image, as far as I can tell, is fan generated rather than a creation of 20th Century Fox though the red shoe with what appears to be a fuse doubling as a shoelace was the focal point of the original marketing campaign. If only the initial effort had been this clever, what with the violin, the crosshairs, the bullet, and the treble clef. As noted, there are two indisputable–objective, even–truths regarding The Man with One Red Shoe. The first is that the film was based on popular French import from the 1970s, that is, The Tall Blond Man with One Black Shoe. The second is that TMWORS was almost universally panned. If memory serves, the then reviewer for the Dallas Observer wrote a generally enthusiastic piece as did, I think I recall, a critic for the trade mag, Film Journal. To almost everyone else, it registered as a stinker. What’s interesting to me is how the 1985 Americanized remake could fare so poorly, considering the popularity of the original–remember, a sequel followed–and how closely the revamp adheres to the original’s blueprint, and that includes incredibly specific plot points and seemingly superficial details, everything from malfunctioning toilet, to a character who spouts soap bubbles, a buffoonish best friend, an unwelcome surprise in a refrigerator, and the backless dress that one character sports in a key scene. One thought is that the remake’s fidelity to the original was too literal for some critics’ taste, rendering it redundant. I know I felt the same about 1996’s The Bird Cage, funny, yes, but not so different from the French La Cage Aux Folles, hardly at all. What was even the point? That’s one consideration. But I still don’t understand all the hate. Check out the trailer for the original’s DVD release: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5reZQqqv_mA (IMAGE: http://www.freakingnews.com/The-Man-With-One-Red-Shoe-Pictogram-Movie-Poster-Pictures-111321.asp)

Meanwhile, what about a movie I pegged as one my favorite guilty pleasures from the 1980s when I wrote my first post for this blog?

When Tom Hanks starred in 1985’s The Man with One Red Shoe, he appeared unstoppable. After bopping around for a few years with a ho-hum résumé that included sitcoms (such as short-lived Bosom Buddies and a recurring role in Family Ties), a high-profile, if problematic,  mini-series (Mazes and Monsters), and an early slasher flick (He Knows You’re Alone), Hanks scored a big screen hit with Splash, an escapist romantic comedy in which he starred opposite luscious Daryl Hannah as a mermaid adrift, so to speak, in modern-day Manhattan.  The Ron Howard film, the first to carry Disney’s “boutique” Touchstone banner, garnered enthusiastic reviews and generated healthy box-office receipts in the spring of 1984, earning a place among the year’s top 10 box office hits. From there, Hanks enjoyed a second, albeit lesser, success with the summer release of the raunchy, yet likeable, Bachelor Party, technically filmed before Splash but advantageously released in the wake of its luster. While hardly in the same league as Splash, Bachelor Party, produced for a relative pittance (about 4 mil), beat the odds in the Summer of Ghostbusters to turn a healthy profit (38 mil, per the IMDb); we played the bachelor romp for several weeks at my old haunt, the UA Prestonwood Creek 5 where, again, it held its own against Billy Murray and Dan Aykroyd’s big budget supernatural comedy.

With two top 20 hits in one year, per Box Office Mojo, Hanks looked to his next triumph–as he should have.

When Stan Dragoti signed on to direct 1985’s The Man with One Red Shoe,  he also had reason to be optimistic.  Seguing from commercials to feature films in the late 1970s, he helmed Love at First Bite (1979). The raucous vampire spoof starred debonair George Hamilton as Count Dracula, recently transplanted to NYC and in heady pursuit of stunning Susan St. James. While hardly uniformly praised by critics, Love at First Bite nonetheless had many admirers among the press, and moviegoers responded favorably as evidenced by robust ticket sales. So far, so good. In 1983, Dragoti scored another hit with Mr. Mom, starring Michael Keaton and Terri Garr. As its title suggests, the two leads portray a married couple who deal with the early 80s economic crunch by flipping the breadwinner role.  Stay-at-home wife and mom (Garr), armed with a degree in advertising, returns to the workforce after her husband (Keaton) loses his engineering job at an automobile plant. He then becomes the stay-at-home dad but has a heck-of-a-time making the adjustment, thereby setting gags-a-plenty in motion as only wily Keaton can. Barely a year after his breakout role in Night Shift, Keaton, much like Hanks, was on a roll; likewise, Garr was also hot, hot, hot at the time, fresh on the heels of her Oscar nominated supporting turn in Tootsie. Oh, and Mr. Mom benefitted from the expertise of National Lampoon contributor John Hughes, still a year away from directing the likes of Sixteen Candles and The Breakfast Club. In 1983, Hughes earned screenwriting credits for both Mr. Mom and National Lampoon’s Vacation, but I digress.

After Mr. Mom‘s favorable showing, Dragoti seemed well-situated for more success.

Next up, producer Victor Drai. The Moroccan-born, Paris based, business man produced 1984’s The Woman  in Red, a modestly successful Americanized take on the award winning French farce Pardon Mon Affaire. Directed and co-written by Gene Wilder, who also starred, and featuring Drai’s then wife, actress-model Kelly Le Brock, The Woman in Red eked only middling business in many markets but nevertheless generated a hit soundtrack full of gorgeous tunes by Stevie Wonder (joined on duets by Dionne Warwicke), winning an Oscar for jingle-friendly “I Just Called to Say I Love You.”

Drai turned his sights on another popular French entry, a spy comedy wordily titled The Tall Blond Man with One Black Shoe. He would be joined in the retitled The Man with One Red Shoe by hotshots Stan Dragoti and Tom Hanks.

A lot of critics and moviegoers would no doubt knock The Man with One Red Shoe as “objectively bad.”

I object.

Don’t misunderstand. The Man with One Red Shoe suffered an objectively humiliating fate upon its release in the summer of ’85 (dominated by Back to the Future, Rambo, and Cocoon). Generally slammed by critics, the public stayed away in droves even with Hanks’ recently cemented star power. Hanks’ stock recovered just a few short weeks later with the mildly successful Volunteers, the making of which served as his introduction to wife Rita Wilson. Clearly, Hanks rebounded from the disappointment of The Man with One Red Shoe, but what about the film itself?

I saw the movie four times, maybe five, during its miniscule-run that summer. First, I caught a free advance screening; then at least once, maybe twice, at a theatre in my neighborhood (NOT the one where I worked), and then again, I shamelessly admit: twice in one day when it hit the local discount ($1.00) house.

I enjoy it that much. I laughed myself into sweet silly oblivion.

As noted, The Man with One Red Shoe is based on a popular French film from the 70s, The Tall Blond Man with One Black Shoe, a movie with such a following that it spawned a sequel. If that isn’t enough to ring a bell,  think about this: The Man with One Red Shoe plays as a big-screen installment of Mad magazine’s recurring “Spy vs. Spy” strip (per Antonio Prohías) as directed by The Pink Panther‘s Blake Edwards.  To Edwards’ fans, the comparison to TMWORS approaches heresy; to those who aren’t necessarily amused by Edwards’ brand of comedy, the comparison doesn’t help.

Simply, Charles Durning plays CIA head honcho while Dabney Coleman, operating on a lower rung, itches to get ahead. Back and forth they go, trying to one-up the other in order to secure the top spot once and for all.  Durning, his back against the wall yet again, conspires with right-hand man, Edward Herrmann, to set a trap that will trick Coleman into incriminating himself–along with his team of operatives.  Hanks’ violinist functions as the proverbial pawn to bait the trap. He’s completely innocent but attracts Herrmann’s attention during an airport stakeout due to his  (Hanks’) mismatched shoes, the result of a practical joke sprung by his friend and fellow symphony member, Jim Belushi. With Herman’s manipulations, Coleman need only believe that Hanks looms as a threat before going rogue, leaving a trail of self-incriminating destruction.

The Man with One Red Shoe is slickly produced with first-rate cinematography, art-direction, and music, along with a an ace supporting cast. Plenty to recommend as far as all that, but it also contains three of the funniest sequences I’ve ever seen, comparable, again, to anything Blake Edwards devised for the Pink Panther movies, starring Peter Sellers as bumbling Inspector Clouseau–or even, later, in Victor/Victoria.  A friend of mine from the movie days agreed that the three specific sequences were indeed funny but also argued that they were the only things in the movie that were funny, and that was a problem.

I object.

Early in the movie, Hanks suffers a tooth mishap, the result of another prank, and schedules an appointment with a dentist that goes horribly wrong thanks to cold feet and the machinations of second and third tier stooges. The whole sequence plays out with little or no dialogue, thereby underscoring the notion that film is a visual medium. As funny as the gag is, some critics carp that it’s part of the film’s mean streak, but is it any meaner than, say, any other slapstick routine? Those who aren’t fans of slapstick will likely say yes–or argue that the comparison is beside the point. The rest of us will roll with it, relieved at our good fortune to be watching safely from a distance. Full disclosure: I visited the dentist earlier in the week.

While Hanks is away, presumably at the dentist, more members of Coleman’s crew invade the violinist’s historic Georgetown apartment, pretty much destroying it in a futile attempt to find evidence of presumed covert activity. The problem is that Hanks returns sooner than expected, requiring a hasty cleanup. This results in a plumbing mess that challenges Hanks when performing routine hygiene.  Mostly silent, as well, the bit benefits from well-timed sound and visual effects, along with Hanks’s physical dexterity, and Dragoti’s smart staging. He parks the camera and allows the action to unfold without a lot of fuss. Perfection.

The third such sequence is set in the lavish apartment of this movie’s Bond-girl equivalent, played adroitly by marvelous Lori Singer. She works for Coleman under the guise of a D.C. tour-guide and plots to capture Hanks’s attention. After a night at the symphony, they end up at her place and enjoy a cozy moment, a little too cozy for Hanks who makes all the wrong moves, humiliating Singer in the process. She recovers, luckily, and gives the gag its coda.

Besides such talents as Hanks, Durning, Coleman, Herrmann, and Belushi, The Man with One Red Shoe features David Ogden Stiers as a frustrated symphony conductor and David Landers (affectionately remembered as “Squiggy” from Laverne & Shirley), an agent tasked with an unenviable assignment, along with Irving Metzman, Gerrit Graham, and Tom Noonan, reliable actors likely better remembered by face rather than name. On the other hand,  Carrie Fisher needs no introduction though she’s cast in the thankless–idiotic–role of Belushi’s flirtatious wife. She’s slumming and appears to know it. Bless her.

Back to the one and only Singer, a Corpus Christi native. She dead-pans her way through the role of a cunning, well-versed, and irresistible spy. I think her performance is a canny hoot, but that’s almost beside the point, given her impeccable bone structure, long, full-bodied sandy-blonde hair, and lean, limber frame.  Nearing 5’11”,  she’s a perfect match for Hanks, at 6 ft, and looks runway ready whether making a handoff clad in black with luxe shades,  snooping in a white smock, sprinting in teeny running shorts, or playing seductress in a slinky evening gown.  For better or worse, she recalls Hanks’s Splash co-star Daryl Hannah and no doubt scores of moviegoers took her to be Hannah (or were otherwise disappointed that she wasn’t), but Singer appears to be having much more fun than she did in 1984’s Footloose, as the much-feared preacher’s headstrong teenage daughter. Oh, she had her moments in the latter, but she also seemed a tad miscast as a high-schooler–even though she first caught audiences’ attention while in her 20s and playing a teen-aged musician in the TV adaptation of Fame. By the end of ’85 she would earn strong notices and an Independent Spirit Award nomination for Alan Rudolph’s rain-swept Trouble in Mind.

The look of The Man with One Red Shoe is very much in step with music videos of the early to mid 1980s (think Duran Duran), sharp, graphic, with bold colors and dramatic shadows. TV’s Miami Vice comes to mind, as does Risky Business. Or perfume commercials. Cinematographer Richard H. Kline’s considerable filmography includes Oscars nods for 1976’s King Kong remake and 1967’s lavish Camelot.  Kudos, as well, to a production design team led by Dean Edward Mintzer (art direction) and Anne D. McCulley (set decoration). Everything works. The sleekly impersonal-high tech vibe of Coleman’s deep, dark sinister spy lab contrasts with Hank’s more traditional, if tiny, living space, per its hardwood floors, white walls, “antique” furnishings, family photos, and crown molding; however, the centerpiece of the film’s décor is Singer’s art-filled peachy-pink hued apartment with its magnificent chandelier.  The whole thing looks expensive and of the moment, meaning it would not have appeared out of place in any interior design mag of the era. Of course, Singer’s pad is also strategically constructed using two-way glass, providing a convenient wrap-around observation post for Coleman and the rest of the crew to monitor Singer and Hank’s every move. Mintzer ‘s credits include 9 to 5, Disney’s original TRON, and an Emmy and one additional nod for TV’s Homefront (in the early 90s) as well as a third nod for The Flash. He also worked frequently on Charmed. McCulley shared one of Mintzer’s Homefront nods and earned a total of 5 Emmy nominations, co-winning, along with Jan Scott, for the highly acclaimed Eleanor and Franklin: The White House Years (starring Jane Alexander and Edward Hermann).

That’s the good news. Most of it.

If there is an objectively weak link in The Man with One Red Shoe, I would point to Hanks.  Oh, he’s ripe with boyish charm and a lush head of hair, to be sure, but the problem is that he’s just not used imaginatively. Keep in mind that Hanks’ Richard Drew is oblivious to the spy games going on all around him. He’s the straight man in the bunch, and he’s not even given many chances to react with bewildered double-takes.  Again, this isn’t his fault. It’s a conceptual misstep. Audiences in 1985 wanted and expected Hanks to be the funny guy–and if not funny, per se, then at least more dynamic. Still, his performance as already noted isn’t a complete washout, as in the scene when he struggles with plumbing or another instance in which he composes a few bars of music, improvising with a fogged-up mirror in the absence of sheet music. Smart, resourceful actor, but possibly miscast in this specific instance even with his redemptive moments. If the movie works–and I think it does–it does so in spite of Hanks, not because of him.

That noted, the second objectively weak link in the production has to be the way 20th Century Fox promoted it, mainly sans Hanks.  I don’t know all the behind-the-scenes gambits that factored into how the marketing campaign was put into motion, but I know early posters and ads prominently featured a giant red shoe similar to the one Hanks sports in the airport sequence, the lace of which looked almost like a fuse. Yes, it was eye-catching given that b&w was the norm for newsprint ads at the time, but so what?  Sure, Hanks’ name appeared on the poster, but so what? How can a poster sell a movie to paying audiences with an ad portrays nothing more concrete about the finished film than what can be deduced from reading the title, which itself is both wordy and vague, generic. After all, the movie isn’t about a shoe. By the time Hanks’ mug appeared in the promo materials, it was too little, too late; plus, there was nothing exciting about it: Hanks photographed from the waist up, smiling at the camera and looking vaguely eccentric—a word Singer uses to describe his character–thanks to his suspenders. Again, how does this do anything to help sell the movie other than remind audiences that Hanks is a nice guy.  Also, the trailer positions the movie as a loud rollicking comedy loaded with pratfalls, but the tone is misleading even though the pratfalls are real. Once again keep in mind that the same studio, Fox, marketed the heck out of Hanks in Bachelor Party only a year earlier, and in the same season as The Man with One Red Shoe rallied audiences to take a chance on Cocoon, a lite sci-fi concoction  heavily populated by actors in the 60-70 age bracket, not the usual summer bait. But Cocoon thrived.

Oh, and about that Man with One Red Shoe trailer.  The music in the promo is not even close to Thomas Newman’s actual score. Okay, that’s not uncommon. Movie trailers frequently recycle previous themes as a matter of expediency. Maybe the actual score is incomplete at the time the trailer is being produced. Okay. Also, a familiar score works as short-hand for the target audience. In this case, the music in the trailer is kind of chirpy with corny sound effects added to play up the comedy, and that’s pretty much an insult to Newman, he of Hollywood’s legendary clan of composers, per Alfred Newman of the legendary 20th Century Fox fanfare and over 40 Oscars nods (9 wins), along with two time Academy honoree Randy Newman (with more than a dozen nods), among others  This Newman had already been working in movies and TV before he signed on to compose the score for this film, the one component that seems beyond reproach. Objectively.

How to describe the score? While the film is neither a true caper nor an outright spy thriller, the musical antecedents suggest the retro-cool of Henry Manicini’s Pink Panther theme or Monty Norman’s original riff for the James Bond pictures, but there’s also something of the moment, the electronic “switched-on” thrills of the early to mid 1980s, that brings to mind the excitement of Vladimir Cosma’s award winning contributions to Diva or Tangerine Dream’s score for Risky Business (Bob Seger notwithstanding). This is not to say that Newman’s score is derivative, per se but, again, easy comparisons for the sake of context.

That noted, Newman cannot take credit for the film’s love theme, a violin serenade Hanks’ character composes, with a nod to Rimsky-Kosrsakov’s Scheherazade, and subsequently performs for Singer’s temptress. That piece is officially credited to Michael Masser, who is otherwise slighted in the opening credits.  Meanwhile, the music that plays during the closing credits seamlessly incorporates Newman’s theme with Masser’s melody, augmented by exotic jungle sounds (in keeping with a running gag about Tarzan-Jane role play), just a marvelous sonic experience. Btw, Masser previously shared an Oscar nod with no less than Gerry Goffin for co-composing the theme from Mahogany (1975) and co-wrote, as well, “Greatest Love of All” (with Linda Creed), which originally appeared in Muhammad Ali’s The Greatest before becoming a monster hit for Whitney Houston.

It’s a shame that Newman–and Masser–didn’t get more recognition for this score in its time, but I understand that the movie could hardly be described as a significant achievement–naysayers would dub it “objectively bad”–and therefore less likely to generate awards buss, yet what is even worse is that, by multiple accounts, a soundtrack was never released, which is a little odd considering that in the 1980s, releasing a soundtrack was part of the movie marketing gig though, to be fair, the most successful soundtracks were more likely to follow the template of say, The Big Chill (1983), Flashdance (1983), most any John Hughes film (per The Breakfast Club), or the aforementioned Woman in Red, chock-a-block-full of radio-friendly pop tunes rather than a traditional score. Still again, the absence of a soundtrack release only reaffirms what a poor job Fox did in promoting its own film.

As noted, Hanks rebounded, slightly,  from the failure of The Man with One Red Shoe only weeks later with Volunteers though he was still a few years away from a flat-out smash, per 1988’s Big. We know what beckoned after that: superstardom and back-to-back Oscars for Philadelphia (1993) and Forrest Gump (1994) among heaps of hits and wild acclaim.  Bigger and better things also awaited composer Newman. He earned a pair of Oscar nods for 1994’s Little Women and The Shawshank Redemption and since gone on to earn nominations galore–14–though has yet to take home his own trophy despite contributions to such heavyweights as American Beauty, Finding Nemo, Wall-E, and Skyfall.  His Little Women, btw, is one example of a score that gets recycled in trailers for other movies.

Again, Singer generated plenty of awards buzz for Alan Rudolph’s Trouble in Mind and later stole a scene or two playing a cellist–she’s a former real-life child prodigy–in Robert Altman’s star-studded Short Cuts and briefly starred in TV’s VR5; meanwhile, reliable actors Dabney Coleman, Charles Durning, and Edward Herrmann seemingly never lacked for work. For example, Herman also portrayed Susan Sarandon’s lawyer husband in the same summer’s saucy whodunit Compromising Positions, based on Susan Isaac’s best seller about adultery–and murder–among denizens of Long Island’s affluent Shorehaven crowd.

Dragoti and Drai weren’t around much longer. Dragoti directed only a few more films, bailing after 1991’s locally filmed football comedy Necessary Roughness, starring Scott Bakula. Drai fared a little better with the popular Weekend at Bernies comedies though before that he suffered the humiliating fate of producing another summer of ’85 flop, a silly reboot of The Bride of Frankenstein, simply called The Bride and starring Sting and Jennifer Beals.

Besides The Bride and the aforementioned Back to the Future, Rambo, and Cocoon as well as Volunteers and Compromising Positions, the summer of ’85 also saw the release of such hits as Prizzi’s Honor, The Goonies, Fright Night, and Fletch. The latter was a smashing star vehicle for Chevy Chase, a light mystery with laffs in which the SNL alum portrays the sleuthing reporter created by novelist Gregory McDonald. I don’t know how faithful the hit film was to McDonald’s source material, but it doesn’t matter. The movie was funny and a well-deserved crowd favorite with Chase reveling in comic opportunities as his reporter assumes one guise after another while piecing together his investigation. I saw Fletch a handful of times in theatres as well. I think we played it second run. My thought is, and has long been, that anyone who enjoyed Fletch should also consider giving The Man with One Red Shoe a chance. Objectively. At the very least, fans of Harold Faltermeyer’s scores for both Fletch and the celebrated Beverly Hills Cop might even dig Newman’s score of for the Hanks movie. Trust.

One more note. In this post I have made multiple references to Jean-Jacques Beineix’s Diva, one of my all-time favorite movies (since the first frame, back when I saw it at the Inwood way, way, back in the day), and Paul Brickman’s Risky Business, the flick that effectively launched Tom Cruise toward major stardom. In my mind, the films are connected. I’d already seen movies galore before I ever watched Diva that first time, but its mix of romance, cat-and-mouse thrills, a chase through the Paris metro, souped-up visuals, and a score that covered everything from opera (per La Wally by Alfredo Catalini) to new age-y Zen to pulsating electronica, blew my mind. Slightly more than a year later, I felt that Brickman’s film with its arty mix of dreamy, perfume ad imagery, forbidden sex, double/triple crosses, dark humor, trains, a cool chase sequence, and hypnotic score evoked a similar sensation, not to mention that both films’ plots turn on the romantic ideals and foolish whims of young men whose paths cross with pimps and/or sex traffickers.  The Man with One Red Shoe is definitely lighter and lesser, with a lesser train scenario, than those antecedents though it shares a similar sense of style, that is, romantic lyricism juxtaposed with the snap, crackle, punch of early MTV videos as punk gave way to New Wave. And, importantly, the music. Here’s the thing. After all this time, I learned over the course of researching this piece that famed composer Vladimir Cosma, whose superlatives include France’s César Award for Diva, coincidentally wrote the score for TMWORS’s original French incarnation, and the circle is complete.

Thanks for your consideration…please take a moment to follow the links….

 

Here is a link to a portion of Thomas Newman’s score for The Man with One Red Shoe:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RYGqu_7U42o

Here is a link to a take on Masser’s love theme from The Man with One Shoe as arranged by Claudio Olachea:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y9BYVdGiwT0

 

 

 

 

 

 

Welcome to Jerry’s Dollhouse

30 Jun

In 1954, a production design team comprised of Joseph MacMillan Johnson and Hal Pereira (Art Direction), along with Sam Comer and Ray Moyer (Set Decoration) worked movie magic with the completion of the magnificent set that anchors Alfred Hitchcock’s suspense classic Rear Window.  Hitchcock tasked the group with creating a series of apartment buildings clustered around a courtyard in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village, effectively a mostly exterior set built on a soundstage with extraordinary attention to detail.  The specifics include structures of varying sizes  (two-to-four storeys), colors, and surfaces marked, per verisimilitude,  by a lack of uniformity among awnings, windows, flowerbeds, fire escapes, and balconies; moreover, Hitchcock’s camera, parked a safe distance away in the interior set of lead Jimmy Stewart’s compact apartment, affords both its spying protagonist and the audience more than a mere peek into at least four of the apartments, all of which are sufficiently furnished and reflect the sensibilities and economic statuses of their respective tenants, among them a buxom dancer, a lonely middle-aged woman, a struggling composer who knows how to throw a great party, and the bickering couple at the center of a developing mystery.

Nothing cookie-cutter, nothing generic.

The work doesn’t stop there. Besides Stewart’s aforementioned apartment, the totality of the Rear Window set extends beyond the courtyard to the busy “street” across the far side of the courtyard, complete with moving vehicles and even what appears to be a bustling bar and grill which the lonely middle aged woman (“Miss Lonelyheart”) frequents out of desperation. Oh, and don’t forget the rainstorm.

The full effect is complete immersion in this community, meaning total suspension of disbelief. At first, it’s hard not to be impressed by the size and scope of the team’s achievement, which can be problematic if viewers care more about the set than the story unfolding within it. No worries. By the end of the film, audiences are caught up in the characters’ crisscrossing storylines, looking past the artifice of Hitchcock and company’s contraption–and into danger unfolding in real-time.

A well-reviewed audience favorite in its day, Rear Window barely rated a blip on the Academy’s radar. Oh sure, as the architect, so to speak, of the ingenious flick, Hitchcock rated a Best Director nod as did screenwriter John Michael Hayes, cinematographer Robert Burks, and sound mixer Loren L. Ryder, none of whom emerged victorious. More disheartening is how the Academy shunned the design crew, not even a nomination. Inconceivable.

In that year’s race for the Academy’s art direction/set decoration trophy among color films, Walt Disney’s 20, 000 Leagues under the Sea, adapted from Jules Verne’s early science-fiction classic, bested all comers. Okay, I get it. Disney’s mammoth underwater hit took audiences to, well, a whole new world, uncharted territory as it were, and apparently spared no expense in the creation of Captain Nemo’s  fantastic submarine, the Nautilus, with its ornate flourishes–the precursor to what we now refer to as “Steam punk.”  Full-tilt everything. The competition also included A Star is Born with its extravagant “Born in a Trunk” movie within a movie production number. Good enough. Historical epic Desiree? Okay, sure. But who can explain the inclusion of Brigadoon, the curiously flat rendition of Lerner and Lowe’s musical, set in the Scottish highlands, filmed on tacky sets–that look like tacky sets–on MGM soundstages? Or what about the musical western spoof Red Garters? I’ve never seen it, but I’m petty certain that it lacked the allure of a Hitchcock film. On the other hand, Red Garters was a Paramount Picture, like Rear Window, which means the nominated team included three of the four Rear Window team members: Pereira, Comer, and Moyer. I guess that’s better than nothing.

Imagine my surprise when I began utilizing the wonders of the Internet Movie Database, back around 2000, researching some of my favorite movies and learning that two individuals from the Rear Window bunch also collaborated on one of my favorite movies, Jerry Lewis’s The Ladies Man, from 1961.  Of course.

I’m getting ahead of myself. The Ladies Man stands as Lewis’s second directorial effort, after The Bellboy. The story begins on college graduation day for Lewis’s “nervous” Herbert Hebert. Diploma freshly in hand, he suffers rejection from the woman of his dreams. He then sets out to remove himself from the situation or anything resembling love and romance by catching a bus to the big city where he immediately encounters one babe after another, each one seemingly more terrifying than the last. In short order, he finds both shelter and a job as a handyman at a rooming hotel; however, he is initially ignorant to the-all female clientele, mostly showbiz hopefuls. That’s it: nervous Herbert reconciling his fear of females in a place wherein women pop-up around every corner, 24/7.  Let the laughs–and the slapstick–begin. [To clarify, Lewis’ film is in no way connected to SNL alum Tim Meadows’ 2000 flick of the same name in spite of the Paramount connection.]

Besides sharing the talents of Hal Pereira and Sam Comer, as well as costumer Edith Head, The Ladies Man and Rear Window both carry the Paramount Pictures’ stamp of approval. This explains the overlap among crew members, provided, of course, that the likes of Pereira and Comer were under-contact at the studio during that period, the waning days of such a system.  Of course, moneymaking machine Lewis had a sweet production deal with the studio, even claiming his own soundstage. That’s not all. There’s more.

I first saw The Ladies Man, oh, way back when, probably around 6th, 7th, or 8th grade, on the channel 8 Dialing for Dollars afternoon movie. It was a seminal experience in my growth as a movie aficionado.  See, fairly early in the film, the women in the house rise, shine, and begin their various morning rituals, a highly intricate routine set to music and choreographed by no less than fabled song and dance man Bobby Van [1]. Lewis and his crew, aided by an elaborate camera rig, glide viewers from one pastel room to the next, ultimately pulling back to reveal a massive structure that for all practical purposes resembles, no, functions, as, well, a gi-normous doll house.  As a child, I could scarcely believe my own eyes as I took in the full-effect of the colossal, luxuriously appointed, set. How did they do that?

How, indeed?

Ever since, I have pined for the opportunity to see The Ladies Man in all its glory on a big movie screen as Lewis intended.

Between my the DVD commentary provided by Lewis himself, with likeable sidekick Steve Lawrence of all people, and other sources, I learned that the totality of the set occupied not one but two full soundstages on the Paramount lot, one of which gave Lewis the home base he needed to house the crane that could steer the camera to one of a few dozen fully furnished rooms at all points among the sprawling four storey contraption, occupying the entire adjacent stage. Kinda-sorta Rear Window-ish. With virtually all the action contained to the central, multi-purpose set, Lewis minimized time between setups as lighting/lighting cues could be set in the evening before the next day’s shoot. Furthermore, each individual room was conveniently miked for sound. Efficient but also visually thrilling since, after all, Lewis enjoys the freedom to attempt all kinds of camera angles, delighting audiences at every turn.

Don’t believe me? Just watch:

 

I will not argue that The Ladies Man is an all-time comedy classic, but it is consistently entertaining. What it’s not is seamless. No, the plot, such that it is, is barely more than a framework for Lewis and co-scripter Bill Richmond to hang various gags and set pieces, not so much to advance a story but to treat audiences to a good time at the movies. As long as viewers understand up front, a good time may be had by all. For example, one recurring bit involves Lewis’s daily mail deliveries, going from one woman’s room to the next, always encountering a surprise.  One visit brings a modern Southern belle (Caroline Richter) whose drippingly sweet and saucy accent renders her unintelligible, reducing Lewis to a series of double-takes before a translator intervenes. Elsewhere, Lewis encounters a sultry Marilyn Monroe-alike, keeping in mind that MM was still very much with us at the time of the film’s release. Perky Hope Holliday scores big laughs of her own as an aspiring actress, eager for Lewis’s assist as she runs her lines, running a gamut of big emotions and bigger zingers. In another vignette, Lewis and various women stage a talent show as part of a TV broadcast, two highlights of which include a tap dance duo [2] and a chanteuse named Vicki Benet performing a piffle about Paris. The number is pleasant enough, and Benet certainly looks smashing in her Edith Head designed black cocktail dress; however, nothing compares to the elaborate fantasy sequence featuring trumpeter Harry James and his band along with leggy Sylvia Lewis–no relation–a black clad hoofer whose fluid moves easily rival those of Cyd Charisse, legendary for her work in such classic MGM musicals as Singin’ in the Rain, The Band Wagon, and Silk Stockings. Ms. Lewis, head-to-toe, is more than a match for Charisse.  Also, this same sequence, a snippet of which is seen in the video clip, may very well surprise moviegoers who fondly remember that moment in 2002’s Spiderman in which Tobey Maguire descends upside down into the frame, replete with Spidey regalia, and enjoys a wet kiss, literally, with Kirsten Dunst. Lewis and Lewis share a similar moment way ahead of its time.  To his credit, director Lewis seems quite generous when sharing the screen with his co-stars, despite reports to the contrary.

Two more big name talents appear in extended cameos, both of them smartly executed. In the first, comedian Buddy Lester plays straight man as a tough guy who remains scarily stoic as Lewis’s bumbling Herbert annihilates the gentleman caller’s hat. A hilarious coda ensues. Also, no less than silver screen gangster George Raft appears as himself  and sweet talks Herbert into dancing with him. Must be seen to be believed though the Raft sequence once again provides Lewis the director an opportunity to make stunning use of the set via exquisite lighting cues–with assist, of course, from W. Wallace Kelley (director of photography) and Carl Manoogian (crane operator).

Special shout-out to the late great Kathleen Freeman who plays a formidable housekeeper named Katie, only slightly dotty around the edges. If Freeman’s name doesn’t ring a bell, the face and the voice surely will–especially to anyone who has ever seen Singin’ in the Rain, in which she portrays–unbilled–a simply mahvelous dialect coach hired to help squeaky voiced silent screen star Lina Lamont (Oscar nominee Jean Hagen) make the transition to talkies. During the course of her lengthy career, Freeman was one of the most in-demand second and third banana character players in the biz (gruff here, zany there), with nearly 300 TV and movie credits (not to mention who knows how many commercials) [3], and she and Lewis play off each other like troupers.  Years ago, maybe early 2000s, Lewis incited quite a controversy when he claimed that women were not as well suited to comedy as are men, ignoring the contributions of such luminaries as Lucille Ball, Carol Burnett, and, yes, Freeman. He then spent years trying to qualify his comments, but actions speak louder than words. Freeman appeared in 11 films with Lewis  [4], so, clearly, he recognized comic gold when he saw it despite his misspoken words.

The other major roles are enacted by Helen Traubel and Pat Stanley. The former, a well known singer with a background in opera, and occasional mystery novelist, plays Lewis’s put upon employer, Miss Wellenmellon (quite funny in her own right) while Pat Stanley, fresh from winning a Best Featured Actress Tony (the musical, Goldilocks) plays a young woman who grows fond of Herbert and comes to value him for who he is rather than what he does as handyman. It’s not much of a role, but Stanley has a lovely presence.

So, there it is.  When Alfred Hitchcock developed Rear Window, he and his team crafted the big screen equivalent of, for all practical purposes, a massive dollhouse mostly viewed from the back, something akin to peering through to the inside from the outside. In The Ladies Man, Lewis and his team go one step further, not quite looking from the inside out, more like inside looking even further inside. Even in his DVD commentary, Lewis never pushes the dollhouse metaphor (not that I can recall after dozens of viewing),  but the effect is apropos. Welcome to the dollhouse, and all its living dolls, indeed.

I once read a comment from an industry insider that, regarding, say, the Oscar for Best Costumes, if a moviegoer, or potential Academy voter, notices the work involved, then the effect is too much. In other words, the work shouldn’t draw so much attention to itself and should exist only to advance the story or comment on the characters in some way. I have wondered many times if the obviousness of the sprawling sets in both Rear Window and The Ladies Man were indeed big turn-offs to Academy members. Previously, I explained why I think that should not have been a concern per Rear Window, but it’s harder to argue in defense of The Ladies Man in that regard because, clearly, Lewis is fond of his team’s creation and wants to show it off to audiences. But should that really be a concern since the set does indeed serve Lewis’s concept?  Maybe, regarding both films, Academy members were jealous–or maybe they held prejudices against both filmmakers, especially Lewis. I can imagine that.  I also think that’s stupid, but I’ll also consider the times.

With all that in mind, please note that Hal Pereira and Sam Comer were hardly Academy wallflowers. In his career, Pereira garnered 23 nominations, including Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief and Vertigo, winning for 1955’s The Rose Tattoo (in the B&W category), while Comer’s accolades include 26 nominations and two wins (the aforementioned Rose Tattoo and the color production Frenchman’s Creek in the 1940s). Furthermore, the rest of The Ladies Man team fared well with the Academy over the long haul. Ross Bellah scored a mention for 1956’s The Solid Gold Cadillac, and James W. Payne shared honors for 1973’s Best Picture winner The Sting, his third nod, btw. Backing up even further, to the remaining members of the Rear Window quartet, J. McMillan Johnson and Ray Moyer, they also were no strangers to the Academy. For example, Johnson was a six-time nominee who’d actually won as part of the special effects team for 1948’s Portrait of Jennie; meanwhile, Moyer reaped a dozen nods and actually won twice during the 1950/51 ceremonies, for B&W (Sunset Boulevard) AND color (Samson and Delilah). So, no, these artisans were no lightweights, nor were they forgotten geniuses, and I don’t know if any of them even considered Rear Window and/or The Ladies Man among their best works though I surely cannot imagine otherwise, and I do not think any of them would have scoffed at Academy recognition.

This is Amazon’s default image for Lewis’s much valued, highly collectible,  book The Total Film-Maker, spotlighting the superb achievement of a production design team consisting of Hal Pereira and Sam Comer. Yes, in many ways Lewis was, indeed, the total filmmaker even if members of the Academy failed to take notice. He passed away last August at the quite ripe age of 91. IMAGE: https://www.amazon.com/Total-Film-Maker-Jerry-Lewis/dp/039446236X

I know Lewis would not have scoffed at Academy recognition. Late in life, into his 70s, Lewis earned Academy recognition in the form of a Jean Hersholt Humanitarian award for his decades long commitment to hosting annual telethons and raising money for the Muscular Dystrophy Association. While that is an incredible honor, it doesn’t acknowledge Lewis’s contributions as a first-rate filmmaker. Of course, I know scads of people (my own late mother included) who despise the actor’s brand of juvenile slapstick, many of whom also sneer at the notion of the French pronouncing reverence for him as though they were easily enthralled by pratfalls, funny voices, and rubber-faced goofiness. Not quite. It’s not that simple. My take is that the French appreciated Lewis not so much for his onscreen antics, but for his work behind–and with–the camera as demonstrated in this movie and even The Bellboy, his directorial effort. In that one he cameos as himself, more or less,  while enacting the title character, a silent role in an otherwise talking picture. Lewis shot the black and white film on a shoestring during the day while appearing at Miami’s Fontainebleau Hotel at night. He then completed the production in the midst of his subsequent gig at the Sands in Las Vegas. Of course, such esteemed filmmakers as Francis Coppola and Martin Scorsese revere Lewis for his book The Total Film-Maker (culled from his stint as a lecturer at USC in the early 1970s, one edition of which features a shot from The Ladies Man set on the cover) as well as innovative use of video assisted technology, which in the era before digital everything gave filmmakers a chance to see a scene exactly as it was captured on film–only sooner rather than later.  Lewis was already perfecting video assist by the time he directed The Ladies Man, btw, in 1961.  Elsewhere, lest not forget his superb skills as mime in the typewriter scene in Who’s Minding the Store, or his comparable routine to a Count Basie tune in Cinderfella–both, to clarify, along with one of my other faves, The Geisha Boy, are directed by Frank Taleshin rather than Lewis.

Then, of course, there’s Lewis’s classic performance, self-directed,  in The Nutty Professor (1963), a modernized comedic riff on Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in which he ostensibly plays two roles and which legions, beginning with Cult Movies author Danny Peary, believe to be Oscar worthy. Oh, and, speaking of Scorsese, Lewis earned high-praise indeed for his startling turn as a comedian-TV talk show host (not unlike Johnny Carson, or, well, Lewis himself) in the director’s satirical The King of Comedy (1983).

Oh, backing up to Pereira and Comer, which is where we began, they were, not, as mentioned, strangers to the Academy. Indeed, both men earned double nominations in the color category for their work in two other 1961 productions, both Paramount: Breakfast at Tiffany’s AND Summer and Smoke. They lost to the team from West Side Story, and now  I get it. The members of the production design branch simply could not reconcile nominating the same team three times in one season. Make sense. I forgive you, Academy, for holding back on anointing The Ladies Man, but what about Rear Window?

Plus, I still cling to the idea of seeing The Ladies Man up on the big screen one day.

Thanks for your consideration.

[1] For the uninitiated, Van first made a name for himself as a young enthusiastic MGM star in the likes of The Adventures of Dobie Gillis, Kiss Me Kate and, perhaps most famously, Small Town Girl in which he hopped his way through an entire musical sequence a la a small-town Pied Piper (“Take Me to Broadway”), a bit that was replicated by Hugh Jackman during a gig hosting the Tony awards a few years ago.  Van, who passed away from brain cancer in 1980 at the relatively young age of 51, earned a Tony nom for his role in the early 1970s Broadway revival of No, No, Nanette, and frequently appeared on many of the biggest TV variety, talk, and game shows in  the 60s and 70s, often with Elaine Joyce,  his wife, famous in her own right for, among others, starring in the title role of the Broadway musical Sugar (based on Some Like it Hot, meaning Joyce starred in the role made famous by Marilyn Monroe). I loved watching Van on all those old shows.

[2] That would be Lewis, a showbiz jack of all trades born into a family of vaudevillians who hit the boards early, and a less easily identified co-star as all of the following are identified as “Dancer” per the IMDb: Francesca Bellini, Bonnie Evans, and Gretchen Houser. Furthermore, the actress who translates Miss Southern Belle’s dialogue is not clearly identified in the credits, nor is the Marilyn Monroe lookalike; others are easier to figure per the IMDb credits and Lewis’s own DVD audio-commentary.

[3] Ever the showbiz trouper, Freeman scored a Broadway triumph as the rehearsal hall pianist in the musical version of 1997’s indie smash The Full Monty. She earned a featured actress Tony nod in the spring of 2001, but left the production during the summer due to health complications, specifically lung cancer. She died only a few days later at the age of 82.

[4] Sources vary regarding the number of times Freeman and Lewis collaborated partially because, per the IMDb, Freeman sometimes appeared uncredited, likely in smallish walk-ons or cameos. Those credits include the early films in which Lewis successfully co-starred with Dean Martin, such a Three Ring Circus and Artists and Models, in the 1950s before the famous duo split.

 

 

 

Grace Perfected

3 Jun

Hello, again. Breaks happen. Where were we? Oh, yes. The Oscars had just happened when I wrote my last post. I followed my awards coverage with a piece about Joanne Woodward, the beneficiary of Best Supporting Actress winner Allison Janney’s gratitude.

When Grace Kelly won the 1954 Best Actress Oscar for The Country Girl, she didn’t just triumph over Judy Garland for A Star is Born, she also beat Dorothy Dandridge’s historic turn in Carmen Jones, along with previous winners Audrey Hepburn (Sabrina) and Jane Wyman (Magnificent Obsession). Coincidentally, Kelly turned down a strong role in On the Waterfront, the year’s Best Picture winner, in order to continue working with Hitchcock on Rear Window (Humphries 119). That role eventually went to Eva Marie Saint, who won that year’s Best Supporting Actress Oscar. A few years later, Saint would assume what was clearly intended as a Grace Kelly type role in Hitchcock’s North by Northwest. (IMAGE: https://people.com/celebrity/top-10-oscar-looks/)

Okay, now back to business. I want to revisit one of the Academy’s most, well, infamous picks. Allegedly. I’m referring to the time when the Academy lavished Best Actress honors on Grace Kelly (The Country Girl), bypassing Judy Garland, whom many believe was the presumed frontrunner, giving her all in the spectacular, big-budget musical reincarnation of venerable Hollywood tearjerker, A Star is Born. The second official, and third unofficial, incarnation–in blazing Technicolor, no less [1]. Dynamo Garland, long a fan favorite, had not made a movie in a few years, following a period of emotional upheavals and a painful dismissal from MGM where she had toiled in one picture after another since her teens. In the interim between her last and most recent film, she re-established herself as a top concert draw. With her luster restored, she and then husband-manager Sid Luft used their new found clout to set-up shop at Warner Bros where they produced, through the auspices of their Transcona Enterprises, what was heralded as a stellar triumph, the comeback of all comebacks: the story of a Hollywood ingénue who rises to the peak of stardom while her husband (in this case, played by James Mason), already well established in the biz, suffers a downward spiral brought on by his own self-destructive tendencies, chiefly alcoholism (Peary 126; Wiley and Bona 246).  The star-studded premiere was, in a TV first, broadcast live–coast to coast with studio honcho Jack Warner famously boasting, “It’s the greatest night in the history of the movies,” to which the Hollywood Reporter‘s  Mike Connolly enthusiastically concurred (qtd. in Wiley and Bona 246).  So far, so good. Furthermore,  as Scott Schechter reports in his book Judy Garland: The Day by Day Chronicle of a Legend (2002), a reviewer for Time proclaimed that with A Star is Born, Garland had effectively nailed “the greatest one-woman show” in all of Hollywood moviedom (qtd 197), but that statement can be read more than one way, meaning it might not be a compliment, considering A Star is Born, or almost any movie, really, is hardly a solo enterprise.

When Garland lost the Oscar, no less than Groucho Marx famously harrumphed that it was the biggest robbery since the Brinks job (qtd in Wiley and Bona 254). Whoa. That’s some kind of heavy-duty robbery, Mr. Marx. To this day, cinephiles, Oscar enthusiasts, and Garland fans still harrumph.

I’m not sure I agree with Marx and the other harrumph-ers. Call me a heretic if you wish, but I actually think the right actress won the Oscar that year.

Backing up a bit, in 1953 Grace Kelly was still a relative acting novice with a smattering of stage, TV, and film credits, including the high profile role of young bride to marked lawman Gary Cooper in 1952’s taut Western drama High Noon (for which Cooper won his second Oscar). Not much of a role, but Kelly proved her mettle and moved on to Mogambo, alongside luminaries Clark Gable and Ava Gardner. Incredibly, Mogambo was actually a remake of Gable’s own Red Dust (1932), in which “the King” shared the screen with Jean Harlow and Mary Astor. Stepping into the role originally played by Astor, Kelly caught the attention of the Academy, earning a Best Supporting Actress nomination–in addition to a Golden Globe. She lost that first Oscar race, btw, to Donna Reed in From Here to Eternity. Fair enough, but Kelly was only getting started.

1954 was the year in which Kelly proved her star wattage. In The Country Girl she held her own against the likes of previous Best Actor winners Bing Crosby and William Holden. In a scenario somewhat similar to that of A Star is Born, Kelly plays the dutiful, deceptively mousey wife of an alcoholic, has-been actor (Crosby) attempting a comeback in a play directed by Holden’s character. The whole enterprise soon becomes a contest of wills for all three leads with Crosby, as is likely for a chronic substance abuser, playing one side (Kelly) against the other (Holden); moreover, The Country Girl was only one of Kelly’s three hit films in 1954 [2]. The remaining two were both directed by the then highly popular “Master of Suspense,” Alfred Hitchcock: first-up was Dial M for Murder, effectively filmed in 3-D, and then came the enduring undeniably classic Rear Window.

The Country Girl garnered a total of 7 Oscar nominations during the 54/55 awards season, including Best Picture, Best Actress (Kelly, natch), and Best Actor (Bing Crosby). George Seaton was nominated for both directing the picture and adapting Clifford Odet’s play. Seaton won for his screenplay while Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront took Best Picture and Best Director honors. For context, consider that the same year Crosby played against type in The Country Girl (and lost to Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront), he also enjoyed  what used to be known as boffo box-office in the now holiday perennial White Christmas (a revamp of his own Holiday Inn), which duked it out for top box-office status with Rear Window and 20,000 Leagues under the Sea  (starring no less than James Mason). Finally, William Holden famously plugged The Country Girl when he guest-starred on a memorable episode of I Love Lucy. (IMAGE: https://www.pinterest.co.uk/pin/115897390388276376/)

Those in the pro-Judy/Anti-Grace contingent regarding the 1954 Oscars  often carp that Kelly won not so much for acting, per se, but for, again, playing against type, going mousey, playing down her glam looks in favor of a drab hair do, shapeless sweaters, and little or no makeup. Sometimes wearing less than flattering glasses; sometimes not (Matthews 189; Peary 126) [3]. All in Black and White, btw. Throw in a calculated emotional outburst or two, a few tears, and Kelly wins an Oscar, right?  I don’t think so. That’s almost too easy, and it ignores the powerful dynamics at play in The Country Girl, which, per this viewer (and keep in mind, I grew up around addiction), includes possibly the truest portrait of a substance abuser I can recall. Crosby, in an Oscar nominated turn (same as Mr. Mason in the Garland film) is eerily convincing as someone who uses passive-aggression to serve his own interests. In his own way, Crosby is so good that he’s downright ghastly. And Kelly has to keep up with that. I tend to think of Kelly in The Country Girl (which I first saw on TV, maybe PBS, back in the early 90s), in the same way I think of Helen Hunt and her Oscar winning turn in 1997’s As Good as it Gets, opposite hammy Jack Nicholson. Basically, the success of both actresses is that they give as good as they get, so to speak, in the presence of co-stars who might have easily devoured them.

Again, The Country Girl is only part of the story as Kelly worked in back-to-back productions for Hitchcock. In Dial M for Murder, she portrayed a woman on trial for a crime that both she and the audience know was self-defense. What she and the authorities don’t know is that her attacker was hired by Kelly’s jealous, fortune seeking husband, but his plans for a so-called “perfect murder” go horribly wrong. A frame-up seems the next best thing. In Rear Window, she scored as James Stewart’s fashionable steady turned would-be sleuth. As with Dial M for Murder, Rear Window was an instant hit that thrilled audiences and took its place as one of the year’s top box office earners. As well, please note that in the weeks and months leading up to the Oscars, Kelly nabbed honors for all three films (The Country Girl and the two Hitchcock offerings) from both the National Board of Review as well as the New York Film Critics Circle. Furthermore, Kelly also claimed a Golden Globe–for Best Actress in a Drama. With that in mind, please remember that the Academy–whether explicitly stated–aims to honor achievement when handing out its annual awards, and Kelly provided that opportunity, all wrapped in quite a pretty package.

Back to Garland. While reviews for her performance in A Star is Born brimmed with praise galore, and she also nabbed the Globe in her category, the project while stunning in many regards serves more as a personal triumph for its star rather than as an across-the-board achievement.  Consider that the film’s production was fraught with delays and cost overruns, partially due to interference from Warner execs but an echo, as well, of Garland’s MGM travails (Eastman 325; Matthews 813). Such woes don’t escape the Hollywood grapevine, rest assured. Next, the finished film originally ran a hefty three hours, presenting a marketing challenge. Sure there are always exceptions, most notably at that time Gone with the Wind (clocking in at close to 4 hours), but movies with lengthy running times can only be shown easily 2-3 times a day rather than 5-6, especially in single screen theatres–the norm in the 1950s. Still, Hollywood has always been an industry town, and as is so often the case with many businesses, all is mostly forgiven if and when the coffers fill.  Therein lies the problem with A Star is Born. Simply, the film was hardly a roaring success at the box office. As oft reported, the story goes something like this. When the returns failed to match all sky-high expectations, the first move was to re-edit the film to a more manageable length though that only made the movie shorter without necessarily improving its performance. The effects of all this Scissorhands-ing, if you buy into the myth, is that given the film’s disappointing performance Warner nixed the idea of sinking money, that is, more money, into an Oscar campaign. Furthermore, the frequent charge is that those Academy members who bothered paying any attention to A Star is Born made their judgment based on the re-edited version, with as many as 30 minutes worth of Garland’s best scenes scrapped, abandoned on the cutting room floor; thus, the race is thrown in Kelly’s favor (Peary 126-127).

If one buys the myth.

Therein lies the problem. 30 minutes more of Garland would have only made her movie longer–as Ronald Haver’s famously cobbled together restoration (dating back to 1983) attests. Here is where the whole proposition gets tricky. I do not want to go so far as to suggest that Garland merely plays herself in A Star is Born. No, I believe she is fully invested, fully believable each and every second, and that she hits all the right notes, emotionally, that is, but the concern is that Garland is doing nothing in A Star is Born that she hasn’t–hadn’t–already done in her previous films. The difference is that she does so on a much grander scale For example, is Garland in drag as a tattered newsboy singing “Lose that Long Face” such a big stretch from her and Fred Astaire’s “A Couple of Swells” hobo routine in Easter Parade?  For all Garland’s big powerful moments, of which A Star is Born–at any length–is jam-packed, the performance isn’t as shaped, as nuanced, as her splendid turn in The Wizard of Oz, in which the audience falls in love with her Dorothy without being beaten over the head with cues about how worthy she is of being loved.  Again, Garland is always well-worth watching, but the shortcomings, the limitations, of her performance might be forgiven if, well, if A Star is Born were a better–more balanced–picture, but it is too singularly conceived as a testament to Garland’s gosh-darn, misty-eyed exuberance as a performer, per the overblown “Born in a Trunk” number (directed by choreographer Richard Barstow, as sources indicate, well after director George Cukor wrapped production [4]) rather than as a love story equally weighted between its two leads but as has often been noted, the material is weighted such that the audience is cued to react to Garland’s suffering as she watches helplessly while Mason unravels. In other words, the emphasis is on how she suffers because of him rather than how his demons affect him and how he suffers accordingly (Kael 240-241) [5]. Garland ripping into “The Man Who Got Away” is magic. If only the film had ended there. Garland enacting a scene in which her character wins an Oscar, only to be humiliated in the process by Mason, is overkill. Since she played a role in developing the project, she shoulders some responsibility for a nagging sense of self-indulgence. [To clarify, yes, “Lose that Long Face” was one of the items cut in the re-edit, but even in the shortened version Garland is still seen having a moment in the tattered newsboy garb, and it still registers as familiar, per the earlier bit with Astaire in Easter Parade.]

Back to Kelly. No, her performance in The Country Girl, isn’t as big and colorful–literally–as Garland’s, but does it represent a more significant achievement, all things considered? How about this? How about that Kelly’s achievement is the triumph of versatility in a year of one success after the next? Remember: two high profile organizations honored her for work in multiple films. Furthermore, per Tom O’Neil, in its final week Variety‘s straw poll clearly favored Kelly over Garland (174). And The Country Girl, tellingly, was a Best Picture contender. Okay, but maybe you believe it shouldn’t work that way? That the award should go to the nominated performance, per se, rather than special consideration for “body of work” stuff. Okay, so let me amend my original claim by specifying that the right actress won the 1954 Oscar, but for the wrong film.

If Kelly had won for Rear Window, I don’t think we’d even be talking about any of this anymore. As a friend of mine recently noted, Grace Kelly achieves perfection in Rear Window. How so? Without actually playing a movie star, she gets to be both a star and a consummate actress. That’s quite a feat. Hitchcock became so enamored of Kelly during production of Dial M for Murder, that he decided to feature her prominently in his follow-up, based on the story “It had to be Murder” by Cornell Woolrich (writing under the pseudonym “William Irish”). As the scenario unfolds, a temporarily laid-up photographer (James Stewart) becomes suspicious of activity he spies in the apartment across the courtyard from his own. Kelly, in a role created especially for the film, plays his glamorous, devoted, and socially well-connected girlfriend.  She’s head over heels, but Stewart has doubts. His occupation as a globe trotting photojournalist dictates that his assignments often come without much warning and require him to live by his wits under extreme conditions in far-flung locales for weeks and months at a time. He can’t imagine that Kelly’s elegant “Lisa Freemont” could keep up with his demanding lifestyle. To Jeffries, Lisa is far too preoccupied with her career in fashion and hobnobbing with newspaper columnists and assorted Manhattan swells, but Lisa is made of sterner, and far more adventurous, stuff than her cool exterior suggests.

Grace Kelly makes her stunning Rear Window entrance in this much adored Edith Head creation, a frock that has been copied endlessly for proms and even weddings. Google it. Head designed exactly six costumes for Kelly in Rear Window, including a much more understated little black dress,  a sophisticated suit, a floral print, and, most scandalously, a cream colored gown and negligee set which Kelly’s Freemont brings with her for an overnight stay in Jefferies’ apartment. Quite a forward move for a young woman in 1954. The Academy was not inclined to nominate Head for her work in this particular film though she rebounded for her even more fabulous contributions to Hitchcock’s next offering, also starring Kelly, To Catch a Thief–though she lost that race (to Charles LeMaire of Love is a Many Splendored Thing) and remained sore about it for a good long while. (IMAGE: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/a/af/Grace_Kelly_Promotional_Photograph_Rear_Window.jpg)

In his directive to Rear Window costumer Edith Head, Hitchcock stressed that Kelly should be presented as though she were a fine piece of Dresden china (qtd. in Humphries 120; McGilligan 488). But that’s a bit of an illusion. Yes, Kelly makes one heck of a stunning entrance in Rear Window, outfitted in black and white, cinched at the waist, dripping with black beaded vines atop layers and layers of  white chiffon and tulle. And , yes, Hitchcock frames her in ravishing close-up, replete with silken blonde hair, irresistible gaze, and ruby lips. Let the fun begin. Over the course of the film, however, Lisa demonstrates that she is much more than a delicate fixture as she matches wits with Stewart’s “L.B. Jefferies,” his detective friend (Wendell Corey), a police squad, and, yes, a cold-blooded murderer (Raymond Burr).  She scales the courtyard and places herself in danger in order to retrieve evidence that will convince the police that a crime has indeed occurred when the initial investigation proves inconclusive.

Stewart’s character may very well serve as the audience surrogate in Rear Window as we see the story unspool from his perspective–but make no mistake, it is Kelly who asserts herself as the story’s dynamic hero. Interestingly, even with all the changes the audience sees in Lisa as the story progresses, she never loses her identity. She is still Lisa. She has not reinvented herself to accommodate Jeffries or to prove a point.  That remains incidental. Instead, she shows herself to be more resourceful, more complex, than her seemingly more seasoned boyfriend could ever imagine. And he digs it, but Lisa remains her own woman, not a fixture. Again, Kelly manages to be both actress and movie star.

Of course, no one thinks of big emotionally demonstrative speechifying scenes in a Hitchcock film. Certainly not, so Kelly’s role in Rear Window, in all its vibrancy, pales next to the histrionics of The Country Girl, but that’s what also makes Rear Window a richer experience.  Consider that though Hitchcock periodically shifts the camera to visually eavesdrop on the activities of those who live in proximity to Stewart’s digs, much of the verbal exchanges are solely between Stewart and Kelly–and, again, all within the confines of Stewart’s relatively cramped living space. The spotlight, so to speak, is squarely on the two leads, and they have to be on-point. This is where Kelly most impresses, not in her ability to spar with Stewart, though there’s plenty of that–and it’s exciting–but in the way she seems genuinely invested in listening, in reacting. Moreover, in its talkiness Rear Window asks an audience to listen attentively through a number of shifts in tone. One minute Kelly and Stewart are hurling quips and accusations in a battle of the sexes; then, they’re almost ghoulish players in a macabre comedy of manners, that is, before the talk becomes philosophical and Kelly admonishes the both of them for being disappointed that the man they’ve been spying on might NOT have committed a crime, to which she adds that she’s certainly not an expert on “rear window ethics.” This is the challenge for viewers. Of course, that’s Hitchcock’s genius though the two leads so fully inhabit their roles that audiences are willing to follow. Think about it, a movie designed with the inherent limitations of a self-contained world (an apartment and only that which can be seen beyond the back window) featuring a key performance by a glamorous movie star that doesn’t “read” as a performance but as a progression. Now that’s an achievement.

Thanks for your consideration.

 

Rear Window, along with Vertigo, and Rope, was among 5 Hitchock titles re-released to theatres between 1983 and 1984. It has since been the subject of an intensive restoration, and subsequently re-released (circa 1999). Since then, it has been revived in TMC’s Big Screen Classics series. I see it in theatres every chance I get, and even played it during my theatre days. In 1954 the Academy saw fit to nominate Alfred Hitchcock for directing the modern suspense classic, along with screenwriter John Michael Hayes, and sound engineer Loreen L. Ryder. Who can account for the Academy overlooking it as a Best Picture candidate, especially given the inclusion of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers and Three Coins in a Fountain, both lightweight enterprises compared to such heavy contenders as On the Waterfront and The Caine Mutiny. Also jarring is the Academy’s neglect of A-1 character actress Thelma Ritter in the role of Stewart’s health insurance nurse who drops in daily to check up on her patient and also gets caught up in the ensuing mystery. For my money, Ritter has simply never been better than she is as no-nonsense Stella, which is a huge statement given that she was a 6-time Best Supporting Actress nominee who, alas, never won–an unfortunate Academy record of sorts. More puzzling is the Academy’s failure to recognize the stunning design work by the team of Joseph MacMillan Johnson and Hal Pereria (Art Direction) along with Sam Comer and Ray Moyer (Set Decoration). Together, these guys created a multi level set on a Paramount soundstage that allows viewers to peak into multiple, seemingly fully-functional, apartments, around a central courtyard all from Jimmy Stewart’s perspective. Kudos are warranted, likewise, to cinematographer Robert Burks. In my next piece, I propose to write about another fabulous entry, also slighted by the Academy, by two members of the Rear Window design team.

 

[1] The highly lauded 1937 original, starring Oscar nominees Fredric March and Janet Gaynor, with a screenplay co-written by Alan Campbell and Dorothy Parker (and award worthy Technicolor cinematography), owes a great deal to 1932’s What Price Hollywood, starring Constance Bennett and Lowell Sherman. The common link between those two films is producer David O. Selznick; meanwhile, George Cukor of What Price Hollywood? was hired to direct the Garland version in 1954.  Furthermore, in the 1970s no less than Barbra Streisand co-produced a rock-n-roll themed update with her then s.o., Jon Peters–and won an Oscar not for acting but for for co-composing the movie’s love theme (“Evergreen”) along with Paul Williams.

[2] Technically, Kelly starred in a 4th pic that year, Green Fire, opposite Stewart Granger, a flick that made almost no impact and may have very well been a contractual obligation for the actress in exchange for high profile loan-outs.

[3] I take tremendous exception to Charles Matthews’ claim that Kelly’s Oscar for The Country Girl came essentially for the effort that went into the performance rather than the “real acting” exhibited by Garland in her film (189). Yeah, I get it. The effort is definitely on display in Kelly’s offering, but what I see is that Kelly’s effort is in service of a character far removed from her poised persona and that is surely worth as much as Garland’s go-for-broke comeback vehicle.

[4] The film-buff world is apparently divided into two camps: those who marvel at “Born in a Trunk,” and those, such as me, who find it distracting. While thrilling in its use of color, design, and wide-screen camera setups, not to mention Garland’s raw talent, it runs far too long and disrupts the narrative flow. Plus, as noted in multiple sources, it contributed to the film’s already bloated budget though it might have seemed like a good idea at the time given the era’s preoccupation with filling movie screens with spectacle in order to lure audiences away from their television sets; plus, similarly conceived production numbers, such as the one in 1951’s Best Picture winner An American in Paris, had achieved the desired effect by most accounts.

[5] Kael’s complaint is directed at both Garland’s ’54 incarnation and Barbra Streisand’s “rock musical” take, opposite Kris Kristofferson, in 1976, widely panned but hugely popular nonetheless. This prompts further exploration, if not criticism, in that the title is A Star is Born, but both Garland and Streisand were already well-established not as mere talents but mega-talents, with devoted followings, so where is the joy of discovery, the element  of awe, for audiences in seeing that talent uncovered and nurtured before taking its rightful place in the spotlight? Especially, that is, when Streisand, like Garland, had an active role in developing her project?

 

Works Cited

Eastman, John. Retakes: Behind the Scenes of 500 Classic Movies. Ballantine, 1989.

Humphries, Patrick. The Films of Alfred Hitchcock. Portland House, 1986.

Kael, Pauline. When the Lights Go Down. Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1980. 240-241. Print.

Matthews, Charles. Oscar A to Z: A Complete Guide to More than 2,400 Movies Nominated for Academy Awards. Main Street Books, 1995.

McGilligan, Patrick. Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light. Dey St., 2003. 2004.

O’Neil, Tom. Movie Awards: The Ultimate, Unofficial Guide to the Oscars, Golden Globes, Critics, Guild & Indie Honors. Foreword by Peter Bart.      Perigee Books, 2001.

Peary, Danny. Alternate Oscars: One Critic’s Choice for Best Picture, Actor, and Actress–from 1927 to the Present. Delta, 1993.

Schechter. Scott. Judy Garland: The Day by Day Chronicle of a Legend. 2002. Taylor Trade Publishing, 2006.  http://Web.https://books.google.com/books?id=GMtT0rOMyS4C&pg=PA197&lpg=PA197&dq=the+greatest+one+woman+show+in+the+history+of+movies+AND+Judy+Garland+AND+A+star+is+born&source=bl&ots=Ch8kZeyM-6&sig=XSvT3s11LOtmj1mZlWbkdOi5UzE&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjamqrt173bAhWhyoMKHZ6vDcg4ChDoAQhFMAc#v=onepage&q=the%20greatest%20one%20woman%20show%20in%20the%20history%20of%20movies%20AND%20Judy%20Garland%20AND%20A%20star%20is%20born&f=false

Wiley, Mason and Damien Bona. Inside Oscar: The Unofficial History of the Academy Awards, 10th Anniversary Edition. Ballantine, 1996.

Also, see Frank Miller’s notes on A Star is Born at the TCM website:

http://www.tcm.com/tcmdb/title/12836/A-Star-Is-Born/articles.html

 

 

On Thanking Joanne Woodward…

18 Mar

“Joanne Woodward: I want to thank you for your encouragement and generosity…”

Allison Janney, accepting her Oscar (March 4, 2018)

 

Few if any of us were surprised when Allison Janney won this year’s Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress, per her to-the-hilt portrayal of  bulldozing LaVona Golden, disgraced figure skater Tonya Harding’s ornery tank of a mom in I, Tonya. Golden is a big personality, to be sure, and Janney played her the only way she could be played: straight over the top, but deftly so, enough that the audience finds her absurdly comic. A feat, that.  In the weeks leading up to the Oscars, Janney took a commanding lead, leaving likely nearest competitor Laurie Metcalf (Lady Bird), well, back on the ice, let’s just say. Again, no surprise. Janney is a formidable talent whether  in the movies, TV (including Emmy winning roles on Mom and The West Wing), and even Broadway. Her stage credits, btw, include a Tony nomination for Best Actress in a Musical for assuming the role of Violet, originally made famous by Lily Tomlin, in the musical adaptation of 9 to 5.

So, good for her, and, again, no surprise.

JWoodwardOscarGown57_58 (1)

When Joanne Woodward won Best Actress for 1957’s The Three Faces of Eve (as seen here with no less than John Wayne in the background), she rocked a home-sewn emerald-hued strapless gown. She reportedly spent $100.00 on the fabric and worked on it for two weeks. When asked to donate it to a museum in her home state of Georgia, she declined, explaining that she was almost as proud of her handiwork, designing and sewing the dress, as she was of her Oscar (qtd. in Wiley & Bona 290). Meanwhile, Hollywood style maven Joan Crawford was not amused, lamenting that, “by making her own clothes,” Woodward set “the cause of Hollywood glamour back twenty years” (qtd. in Wiley and Bona 291).  Sorry, J.C., but I like the gown, and have from the first time I saw a picture of it, and that was before I knew she made it herself.  IMAGE: http://therecessionista.com/oscar-dress-cost-100-joanne-woodwards-gown/

Yet for all that, Janney’s Oscar victory very much came with a surprise, at least to me, and that was the moment when she offered kind words to no less than Joanne Woodward during her acceptance speech.  Once upon a time, Janney was directed by Joanne Woodward’s husband (you may know him as legendary superstar Paul Newman) in a college production. That is how Janney and Woodward met, and it was Woodward who later encouraged the young actress to move to New York and audition for the Neighborhood Playhouse. Janney did just that, and the rest is history. Indeed, the actresses even worked together in 1993’s Hallmark Hall of Fame TV special, Blind Spot–for which Woodward earned an Emmy nod. I have seen/heard Janney deliver acceptance speeches at plenty of awards shows over the years (Emmys, SAGs), but I do not recall her ever mentioning Joanne Woodward.

Per the IMDb, Joanne Woodward is now 88. She hasn’t acted for either big or small screen in a few years, but her filmography speaks for itself.  Among the American name-brand actresses who rose to prominence at the same time as Woodward, Elizabeth Taylor and Audrey Hepburn no doubt achieved the pinnacle of superstardom [1], but Woodward accomplished the feat of longevity, continuously acting in worthy projects in a career that spanned decades. Consider, if you will, the simple fact that Woodward’s four Oscar nominations date from 1957’s The Three Faces of Eve through 1990’s Mr. and Mrs. Bridge–with highlights along the way including 1968’s Rachel, Rachel, and 1973’s Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams. That’s not just four Oscar nominations. That’s four nominations in four decades, a nifty trick for anyone.

The 70s also brought acclaim, and a Cannes Best Actress award, for 1972’s The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man in the Moon Marigolds, and stellar TV work with the likes of Sybil (as controversial psychiatrist. Cornelia Wilbur) and See How She Runs, as a fortyish woman who enters the Boston Marathon; Woodward earned an Emmy nomination for the former and the actual trophy for the latter. To clarify, Woodward spent many years honing her craft back in the days of live TV, well before her big screen breakthrough in The Three Faces of Eve, and to TV she often returned in prestige projects.

The 1980s began with Emmy nominated Crisis at Central High (1981), depicting the 1957 integration of nine African American students into an otherwise all-white high school in Little Rock, Arkansas–with Woodward on board as the assistant principal, Elizabeth Huckaby, upon whose account the movie was based. In the same decade, Woodward won her second Emmy for 1985’s Do You Remember Love?, a for the times groundbreaking look at Alzheimer’s disease. In 1987, she attracted awards buzz for tackling the legendary role of Amanda Wingfield in husband Newman’s big screen adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ classic The Glass Menagerie, a recreation of a successful staging of the play for the Williamstown Theatre Festival sometime earlier. Woodward’s Amanda earned the actress an Independent Spirit nomination.

After the relative success of 1990’s Mr. and Mrs. Bridge, Woodward continued in a variety of projects, such as providing delectable narration for Martin Scorsese’s heady imagining of Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, portraying Tom Hanks’ stalwart, yet devastated, mother in Philadelphia (both in 1993). Once again, the small screen provided such opportunities as the aforementioned Blind Spot and yet another Emmy nominated turn–for an adaptation of Anne Tyler’s Pulitzer winning Breathing Lessons, opposite James Garner. Arguably, Woodward’s last role of consequence was in the 2005 mini-series Empire Falls, also translated from a Pulitzer novel, per Richard Russo. Woodward yet again earned an Emmy nod; more significantly, perhaps, is that Empire represents the last time Woodward appeared in a project with her longtime mate, Paul Newman–even if they did not necessarily share intersecting storylines. Newman passed away in 2008.

In between her awardworthy roles, Woodward enjoyed as many big screen hits as misses, no doubt, often though not always paired with Newman (many of which I’ve seen at least once); among them: A Kiss Before Dying, The Long Hot Summer, Rally Round the Flag Boys, From the Terrace, The Stripper, Paris Blues, A New Kind of Love, They Might Be Giants, along with forays into television, including All the Way Home and even a “fresh” teleadaptation of Come Back, Little Sheba along with The Shadow Box. Once again, per the IMDb, Woodward’s filmography, strictly as a performer, boasts an astonishing 79 credits, starting with 1952’s Tale of Tomorrow all the way up through 2013’s Lucky Them.

The Three Faces of Eve (1957):  Woodward had been working steadily in films, TV, and onstage since the early 1950s when, at age 27, she landed the plum role of a young woman with what was once known as Multiple Personality Disorder. First, Eve White, the despairing milquetoast housewife, slowly coming apart at the seams, with blackouts on top of debilitating headaches. Next, Eve Black, party girl and a threat to everything Eve White holds dear. Finally, Jane, not another splinter but the best of who Eve really is with the identities merged into one new and improved self.  To get there, the woman must first revisit the traumas of the past. Of course, we now know a lot more than we did back in 1957. To begin, as noted, no one uses the term Multiple Personality Disorder. The more correct, more descriptive term is Dissociative Identity Disorder, and even now it’s still a controversial diagnosis. Second, The Three Faces of Eve is  loosely based on an actual case study. Years after the film’s release, the subject was revealed as Chris Costner Sizemore. She wrote her own book, The Final Face of Eve, revealing far more struggles with reconciliation, years’ worth, that the film could scarcely portray. So, by today’s standards, The Three Faces of Eve seems heavy-handed and might prompt snickers as a result. Nonetheless, Woodward, for all that, is extraordinarily watchable; moreover, she proves her versatility in one bold stroke. Of course, she won an Oscar for such a demanding role, one ripe with conflict and emotional complexity–and against serious contenders: Deborah Kerr (Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison [a personal fave]), Anna Magnani (Wild is the Wind), Elizabeth Taylor (Raintree County), and Lana Turner (Peyton Place). Interestingly, Woodward’s was her film’s sole nominee. And she won. She won without the p.r. boost of a film with multiple nominations to generate and maintain voter interest, reportedly the first in the Best Actress category since Bette Davis triumphed with 1935’s Dangerous. And we all know Davis’s first Oscar was a consolation prize for bad luck the previous season with the missed opportunity known as Of Human Bondage. No such overture for Woodward. She won because Academy members had their respective socks knocked-off. Clearly, this role primed Woodward for her later turn as Dr. Cornelia Wilbur, the woman who treated the similarly afflicted title character known as Sybil, an Emmy worthy turn by Sally Field, in the mid-70s TV adaptation.

Rachel, Rachel (1968) :  Woodward married Paul Newman in early 1958. It was his second marriage, her first. He was five years older.  Their partnership endured for 50 years, with multiple professional collaborations as well, including this 1968 feature film, Newman’s directorial debut; to clarify, he did not actually appear onscreen. Woodward plays, alas, a bit of a cliché, a small town “spinterish” school teacher who lives with her mother (Kate Harrington), but the story cackles with promise as Rachel enjoys a summer rendezvous with a former classmate, also a teacher (James Olson); he’s not exactly a scalawag, but he’s hardly a pillar of virtue either, and the romance, such that it is, does not end well though Rachel emerges with hope; elsewhere, Rachel experiences an awkward encounter with yet another teacher, played by the one and only Estelle Parson, fresh from her 1967 Best Supporting Actress victory in Bonnie & Clyde.  The cast is rounded by the great Geraldine Fitzgerald, as an evangelist,  and Nell Potts (daughter of Woodward and Newman), as a younger version of Rachel in flashbacks.  Rachel, Rachel not only earned Woodward her second Best Actress nod, 11 years after her triumph in The Three Faces of Eve, but also scored nominations for Best Picture, Best Supporting Actress (Parson again), and Best Adapted Screenplay (Stewart Stern, from the novel A Jest of God by Margaret Laurence). Still, love was not all around as the director’s branch overlooked Newman in his category even though he’d been so nominated for a Directors’ Guild award and even though he and Woodward won his and her accolades from the New York Film Critics. Of course, this kind of omission happens frequently, per the recent Oscars in which director Martin McDonagh was glossed over by the peers even though his film, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri was up for Best Picture in addition to three performance nods, resulting in wins for Best Actress (Frances McDormand) and Best Supporting Actor (Sam Rockwell). Back to Woodward.  Understandably livid, she threatened to boycott the ceremony in light of Newman’ snub, but she experienced a change of heart. Even so, 1968 was extremely competitive, with three of the five Best Actress nominees, including, again, Woodward, starring in Best Picture contenders. When Ingrid Bergman announced the winner, the results were a tie between Katherine Hepburn (The Lion in Winter) and Barbra Streisand (Funny Girl). The lineup also included Patricia Neal (The Subject of Roses) and Vanessa Redgrave (Isadora). Parson lost to Ruth Gordon (Rosemary’s Baby), and Oliver! snagged the Best Picture trophy.

This image, likely from a VHS edition, looks pretty much the same as the film’s poster, less all the critical blurbs and the immortal tag: “Beautiful. Frigid. She is called a Snow Queen.” How ominously alluring is that? (IMAGE: By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15359180

Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams (1973): Hard indeed to explain the hold this movie had on me back in the day. Of course, I didn’t see it. I was an 8th grader living in Garland, Texas, at the time, for cryin’ out loud, and we didn’t have that many opportunities for moviegoing in our household; plus, while Garland was hardly a barren wasteland in regards to movie screens, I somehow think a movie, a character study about a 40ish woman, wife of an eye-doctor (still reeling from his own trauma) and mother to two grown–estranged–children, experiencing mid-life crisis, exacerbated by the sudden death of her mother, would have been playing at any of the neighborhood theatres. Nope, this would have meant destination movie-viewing in Dallas, and, again, why does an 8th grader in Garland, TX, circa 1973, want to see a movie called Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams?  Anyway, so this was Woodward’s third Oscar nod. Maybe it was her cool–frosty–glamour (see image on right), or maybe it was a clip featuring a dramatic scene, amid bustling New York streets, with veteran great–and Best Supporting Actress nominee–Sylvia Sidney that prompted my attention, but what mother would drive an 8th grader to see such a movie? At any rate, I caught up with it decades and decades later and like the landmark An Unmarried Woman (1978) starring the late great Jill Clayburgh, Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams, looks hopelessly dated now, especially in its treatment of, gasp, homosexuality. Nonetheless, when Oscar time rolled around, Woodward, who’d already claimed Best Actress honors from the New York Film Critics, among other accolades, appeared to be neck and neck with no less than Barbra Streisand, iconic in the extremely popular The Way We Were.  That’s my recollection at least. I do not remember Marsha Mason (Cinderella Liberty) being lauded as a heavyweight contender, in spite of wonderful reviews (and a Golden Globe). I also do not remember so much Ellen Burstyn (The Exorcist) and Glenda Jackson (A Touch of Class) generating considerable heat even though they both starred in Best Picture contenders. No, I’m pretty certain the heavy betting was on Woodward and Streisand.  The winner? Jackson, generally perceived as a surprise if not an upset. She had won three years previously for Ken Russell’s beguiling–artsy–adaptation of D.H. Lawrence’s Women in Love. A Touch of Class was a light, frankly adult comedy about a married man, American, (played by George Segal), who embarks on what is supposed to be a no-strings affair with Brit Jackson.  At any rate, Jackson didn’t attend that year’s ceremony. She feigned work obligations, perhaps underscoring the idea that even the lady herself didn’t feel she had much of a chance. Sidney, meanwhile, lost to child actress Tatum O’Neal in Paper Moon; meanwhile, please consider the following. First, the film was written, presumably with Woodward in mind, by Stewart Stern, who also scripted Rachel, Rachel. (Stewart also tackled the job of adapting Sybil for the small screen.) The film was originally titled Death of a Snow Queen, which is problematic enough. Woodward, reportedly found the resulting title too generic (qtd. in Wiley and Bona 484). I won’t disagree, but I also find it part of the movie’s mystique. The director,  btw, is none other than Gilbert Cates, with hefty credentials though perhaps best known as the producer of the annual Oscar telecast during the years in which the show was revitalized by the presence of frequent host, Billy Crystal.

Behold the former Miramax’s tricky marketing ploy. Cast middle-aged superstars in leading roles and then obscure their faces in the promotional materials, lest anyone confuse the film with, say, Driving Miss Daisy. IMAGE: By POV – Impawards, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6196057

Mr. and Mrs. Bridge (1990): I have written about this movie at least once over the years, most notably when I looked back on the films of the Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvala triumvirate. This is without question my favorite Joanne Woodward performance, and, I believe, a far worthier choice for that year’s Best Actress Oscar than Kathy Bates (Misery), and I like Bates. A lot. But I find that 99% of the time in Misery Bates’ portrayal of a deranged–fanatical–caretaker plays like, well, a performance, a feat of acting  calisthenics. But enough about Bates.

Mr. and Mrs. Bridge, which once again, pairs Woodward with Newman is based on two novels by Evan S. Connell. He published Mrs. Bridge in 1959, and Mr. Bridge followed in 1969 though, to clarify, each novel reportedly tells the same basic story, save for difference in point of view; moreover, the stories are set much earlier, beginning in the 1930s and continuing through the 1940s. Connell long went on record that the Bridges were based on his own parents, an affluent couple raising their children amid Kansas City, Missouri’s, privileged country-club class. Mr. Bridge, seemingly having no patience for emotional displays (though not without moments of hard-earned tenderness), is a lawyer of some renown while Mrs. Bridge is cheery, gracious, a bit naïve, and, like her husband, prone to self-protection in the form of good ole Midwestern reserve. Okay, let’s be clear. The lead actors are probably a bit too old, honestly, to be cast in their roles. When the story begins, at least one of their three children is still in high school; the other is soon off to college. Teenagers, right? 40ish, right? Mid-forties, maybe? But the stars were 60ish when they shot the movie, so what gives? Well, it works because one gets the impression that, at least by today’s standards, the Bridges thought and acted, well, you know, old.  Fuddy-duddys. Plus, Woodward and Newman look great, all things considered between the hair, makeup and lighting crew–and with Woodward’s eyes being especially clear and bright.

Here’s the thing, and I think I have written about this at least once, previously. As Mrs. Bridge, Woodward brings to mind a high school classmate’s sort of eternally perplexed mom. Stay at home wife and mother, excellent homemaker, dabbles in art-classes, defers to the husband even when he is being negligent (if not outright cruel), dotes on her unforgiving kids, oh, and, of course, passive aggressive to a fare-thee-well. Still an essentially good and kind person but almost unable to help herself from, at least, appearing ridiculous when, perhaps, she sees herself as sensible. It’s all there in one devastating performance, one without a single false note and several more-than-right ones.  To clarify, it’s a subtle portrayal with few opportunities for histrionics, and that may very well prove problematic for fans accustomed to bigger-means-better acting demonstrations. Among the choices bits are:

  • An especially awkward–painful–moment during son Robert Sean Leonard’s Eagle Scout ceremony. (Again, it plays as uncomfortably true to life based on my own observation.)
  • India Bridge (Woodward) sounding positively daft as she explains what she knows, or doesn’t know, about voting to her flighty pal (Blythe Danner) during, what else, art class.
  • Back to Leonard: late in the movie, Woodward can’t stop herself from resorting to the strategies she once used to motivate her son when he was a small child; the effect is heartbreaking and, again, maybe even embarrassing.

The films of Merchant-Ivory were noteworthy because they afforded compelling talents, such as Woodward and Newman, to practice their craft in prestigious projects, but they did so in films justifiably celebrated for richly detailed production design and costume design–on, by all accounts, miniscule budgets and, even more miraculously, breakneck shooting schedules.  Mr. and Mrs. Bridge was no different with locations ranging from Kansas City, Missouri, to Canada, and Paris, France. The grueling pace prompted Woodward to describe the experience as “tough” and explain that after working for 14 hours at a stretch, she was ready to slip into “the tub with a glass of sherry and two Advils” (qtd. in Wiley and Bona 790). Good story. Another good story is that I have great confidence that the Kansas City home that houses the Bridge family is now a popular B&B, the very one that Michael and I stayed in when we finally made it to the beautiful, fountain-filled city. Kind of surreal, that, and definitely a coincidence.

So that’s that. 4 Oscar nods, for Woodward, including one win (on the first try) spread out over 4 decades.  Maybe one day, you should scroll through her entire list of accolades, per the IMDb. The awards and nominations are far more than I can list here.

So, I began writing this piece about a week after the Oscars, most of it in one quick burst, but I got lazy over spring break and then stopped completely after I learned some discouraging news about a friend who’d been very ill. Still, I managed to finish at last.

Now, especially, all things considered, I want to thank Allison Janney for inspiring me to write about Woodward in the first place. Now, especially, I am grateful for the opportunity to pay tribute to the great Joanne Woodward while she is still very much with us.

Thanks, Joanne.

[1] Yes, technically, Elizabeth Taylor was a working actress, a child star, well before moviegoers had ever heard of Woodward, but Taylor’s most successful career stretch began as a young woman in the 1950s, comparable to Woodward in that regard. Indeed, as noted, Taylor’s first Oscar nomination was for 1957’s Raintree County, the same year that Woodward triumphed with The Three Faces of Eve.

Wiley, Mason and Damien Bona. Inside Oscar: The Unofficial History of the Academy Awards, 10th Anniversary Edition.  Ballantine, 1993.

Janney’s interview in Forbes, detailing her early days and the Woodward-Newman connection: https://www.forbes.com/sites/russespinoza/2018/02/18/why-oscar-nominee-allison-janney-never-cashed-in-her-favor-from-paul-newman/#74f7e0ba4a3a