Before I forget... please pick up the February edition of Sight & Sound on stands now where you can read my essay on Russell Rouse's "Wicked Woman." Here's an excerpt of my piece, from Sight & Sound's "Lost and Found" column -- "Overlooked films currently unavailable on UK DVD or Blu-Ray." The movie is not on DVD in the US either...
There's something especially mesmerizing about watching Beverly Michaels slump her tired, six-foot tall body through a tiny, dingy room. And not just any room, her depressing end-of-the-line boarding house run by a woman who calls the joint a "respectable place" (which means it most certainly is not). This is the walk of a woman who has spent her entire day pounding the pavement, clad entirely in white, making sure that white stays clean, which isn't easy, making sure her tight clothing doesn’t reveal too much (but maybe just enough), making sure she won’t wobble on those heels and trip up her icy cool. Her beauty is her success in life. It will get her somewhere -- anywhere -- doesn't have to be too far. Even a job would be nice. As Ingrid Bergman remarked about being born beautiful "Aren't I lucky?" Well, yes, but when you have little else to go on, your luck can run out.
As Billie, in Russell Rouse's Wicked Woman, Michaels is so perfectly cast it's unimaginable to think of any other actress in the part. Men gape as she slinks along the street. She's an extraordinary creation. But when she walks into that room -- that sexy, hypnotic gait turns into the angry walk of a woman so sick and tired of life's day-to-day indignities, that you feel like you're spying on her. Tossing her handbag on the bed in disgust, chucking off her shoes, tying on her robe, skulking to her fridge to crack open a beer, she's almost as foot-heavy as Bette Davis in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? opening doors with her ass, sliding across the floor in dirty slippers while bitterly delivering Joan Crawford her lunch. She's not quite Bette yet -- she's too young and lovely -- but she can see that woman in her future. And though she can finally relax in her small sanctuary after a day of slinking, she's never settled -- she's mad at the world. She’s mad at men, particularly her neighboring creep (Percy Helton). And great actress that Michaels is -- you can see it all in her body. She doesn't even need to say it: "What kind of goddamn life is this?"
Under the direction of Russell Rouse, notable for writing challenging, some, seminal pictures with Clarence Greene (who co-wrote Wicked Woman with Rouse) including D.O.A and The Well, and directing, among other pictures, the intriguing, experimental, dialogue empty “The Thief” and the excellent New York Confidential, the rarely seen Wicked Woman plays more like kitchen sink pulp than pure noir (an appellation that's constantly debatable). Rouse, an inventive filmmaker dove right into this world with an almost documentary eye and kept it squarely on his characters, trusting his actors to move around their surroundings with the familiarity of all losers: beds are where you throw your clothes, bar counters are where you lay your drunken head when you can't hold it up any longer and cars are for domestic squabbles. Not surprisingly, Rouse married Michaels after making this picture...
Read the entire essay in Sight & Sound. And also, of course, Jonathan Romney's cover story on the best movie of the year, "Inherent Vice."
Here's on-set pictures I took just about three years ago in Paris while working on what would become Guy Maddin's The Forbidden Room (co-directed by Evan Johnson) soon to be seen at Sundance and Berlin. These pictures are from the project, then called Spiritismes, shot at the Centre Pompidou, which I wrote about here and here. For me, it all started in July 2010, appearing in what was called Hauntings (during that time I also co-wrote with Guy and starred opposite a white wolf in our short/installation project, Bing & Bela.) It then grew and changed (as outlined in this interview with Guy) and has shaped into a feature film. I was happy to take part as additional story writer and actress. Here's the official wesbite with more information to follow.
This has been a long journey (for this writer and contributor, since 2010) for all involved and quite meaningful, in many, many ways, for me.
Here's more of my photos. Click on the pictures for larger images.
Udo and I in The Forbidden Room. Smaller poster created by Galen Johnson.
I finally made it to the Oregon Coast before the year ends, right before returning home to Los Angeles. It may look sunny here, and it is, but it's cold. I yearned for the chilly beach of my PNW childhood.
And, since Paul Thomas Anderson's Inherent Vice was my favorite movie of the year (I will write more on that later), here's Neil Young (who also knows the cold) singing one of his greatest songs, live, featured beautifully in the movie.
Happy New Year.
WE’VE ALL AGREED to meet at Canter’s Deli. George Segal, Joseph Walsh, and Elliott Gould. It’s mid-September, one of those absurdly hot Los Angeles days, and I’m there early, cooling off and biting my nails, excited, but a little nervous to talk with these three men, two of whom I’ve already interviewed, one, at this point, I’ve only met.
After presenting Robert Altman’s California Split at Telluride, doing a Q&A on stage with Segal and screenwriter Walsh, we wanted to extend our discussion. We wanted to include Gould who wasn’t able to attend due to shooting conflicts. It’s the 40th anniversary of Altman’s masterpiece, and we all think it’s worth noting. Gould shows up first. He’s every inch the movie star, absolutely fascinating, disarming, but down to earth, sensitive and warm — and yet, you can’t read him easily. He’s mysterious, but intently philosophical and, of course, still very funny. Amused and bemused — that Gould way of virile masculinity mixed with offbeat, unexpected humor and intelligence that’s gone unmatched. No one is like Elliott Gould. Screenwriter Walsh follows, apologizing for being late (he’s only a few minutes late); he’s gracious, sharp, and comical — and ever the charming gambler. A guy full of stories. Wonderful stories. He always knows the score but is exceedingly generous. You get the feeling a lot of gamblers are. Segal is next, a bit more reserved, but once he opens up, a man who will burst out with a laugh and a quick, brainy quip or observation. You see his Blume from Blume in Love — you see him observe and and soak in the discussion. You see him think. You can see why he’s a star.
The conversation starts immediately. This may be the 40th anniversary of California Split, but these guys have known each other for 50-plus years. And because of that, the conversation goes everywhere. This is living Hollywood history and the conversation is flowing almost like an Altman film. It’s an honor to be at this table.
GEORGE SEGAL: Let me tell you how far back this all goes. The first time I met Elliott was at Adolph and Phyllis Green’s apartment. They were every kind of with it. They wanted to be with Leonard Bernstein and all that. Where everything was happening. They lived in the Beresford. Beautiful! And so I guess Barbra had just starred in …
ELLIOTT GOULD: Funny Girl.
GS: Was it Funny Girl? Yeah, it was Funny Girl. And Phyllis called Marion and me and said, you’re the youngest people we know and we’ve got these two people coming …
EG: [Laughing] And we don’t know them at all …
GS: [Laughing] No, we don’t know them at all … So, it was Barbra and Elliott. So all the women are talking at Marion, and they’re on the sofa, and by the piano is Elliott and me, and we don’t know each other, and Elliott is in a three-piece suit. And he tells me the funniest show business story, which involves me, which I didn’t know, which is all about you, Joey, and it’s about the story of Billy the Clerk. And I’m thinking this is the hippest, funniest guy I’ve ever met in my life. Because he told this story beautifully and built it. I was so completely involved. And it’s based on my movie,Invitation to a Gunfighter, which I was in with Yul Brynner, and I have no idea that there is this simultaneous story going on with Joey who was also in it. So, [to Joey], that’s who you were in my eyes when he was telling the story. I had a vague memory of the poker games. I wasn’t in them.
JOSEPH WALSH: Right. Brad Dexter was in it. I was playing cards every day on the set. Brad Dexter was very funny. Yul would get him in every picture. That was his friend.
GS: Because he saved Sinatra.
EG: He saved Sinatra from drowning …
GS: He saved Sinatra from drowning, and Sinatra would call Yul and he’d say, “You got something for Brad?”
JW: Here’s the story. I’m in Invitation to a Gunfighter. I think I’m playing Billy the fucking Kid in this picture. I think I’m one of the stars of this picture. It turns out I’m Billy the Clerk. So now I’m saying: “Room 310.” I almost hit the director at that moment. I said, No don’t ruin your career right now because he’s really in my face. So, cut, print. Let’s go. That was it. I went back to play with Brad Dexter. Let’s get the poker game going again …
GS: Billy the Clerk. It’s a classic show business story. Because, talk about gambling. It’s all so sad — the whole thing.
JW: Brad, we got very friendly. We’d play poker every day because there’s endless waiting for whatever, especially with the amount of work we had to do in that picture, which wasn’t much. Brad told me: “You know I do every picture with Yul? It’s in his contract almost.” And I say, “Oh that’s great you have a friend.” And he says, “Well … it’s kind of half great. He likes it because I play gin, and he beats me for most of my money.” [Laughs] I said, “You gotta be kidding.” And he said, “No. I gotta play gin. And I lose a lot of my salary on every picture I do with Yul.”
EG: I just saw him in The Asphalt Jungle. I didn’t realize he was in The Asphalt Jungle.
GS: Brad Dexter?
EG: Yeah, Brad Dexter. He was the private detective who worked for Louis Calhern who got shot by Sterling Hayden. It’s a fabulous movie.
GS: He brought a quiet menace with him, Brad Dexter. He was always behind his eyes. You didn’t know what he was thinking. Not much, maybe … [Laughs]
KIM MORGAN: Did you see that Quentin Tarantino has taken over the New Beverly theater and programming himself for three months? And the double feature he’s going to open the theater with in October is [pointing to Elliott] Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice [pointing to George] and Blume in Love.
GS: I’ll be goddamned.
EG: That’s wonderful of him. Really touching.
GS: He came to the Mazursky breakfast table, and all he talked about was Blume in Love.
KM: Yeah, he loves that movie. Well, damn, he loves so many things. We both share a mania for Ralph Meeker.
GS: Nice! I was in a Ralph Meeker movie!
JW: You were?
GS: Damn right! The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. Oh, I loved him. He was great. The Dirty Dozen. They were really getting drunk those two, Marvin and Meeker. And I remember him closing the door in the Mickey Spillane Mike Hammer movie. Closing the drawer on the guy’s hand! Uh …
KM: Percy Helton! I think that’s how he became a hunchback. [joking]
GS: He really was. He was a hunchback. And with that high voice. [Imitates voice]
EG: The first time I remember seeing you, George, you were singing with Mike Nichols in Sardi’s. It was the time when The Knack was off Broadway. And I was just: This is George Segal. You were very handsome.
KM: Elliott and Joey: you two met in Children’s Professional School, correct?
JW: Yeah, I’m glad you brought that up. First time I saw Elliott, he was coming off the elevator. There he is — he’s in his shorts and he’s got a mask on and he’s got a speargun. He’s a frogman. It was April Fools’ Day.
KM: How old were you?
JW: Fourteen or 15.
EG: Fifteen or 16. Probably just to take the liberty of Seniors’ Day. I was a senior. They skipped me in Brooklyn. They skipped me.
JW: I remember saying to you as you were coming out of the elevator, I said, “You’re in big trouble, kid.” This kid thinks he’s coming to this school … Let’s put it this way: he was the last person I thought I was going to become best friends with.
KM: You two have been friends for so long. Joey, you told me that you and Elliott would go to movies together all the time and saw Psycho together. And Kubrick’s The Killing.
EG: Oh, yeah. Many times. Timothy Carey Jr. Peanut butter, right.
JW: Elliott and I were kids. All we knew was, whoever directed this picture is great. And then we got his name. I actually wrote a piece called “Stanley Who?”
EG: Mazursky had worked for him.
JW: But that was a great discovery. And, again, Timothy Carey.
KM: Timothy Carey, Sterling Hayden of course, Vince Edwards, Elisha Cook Jr.
GS: I worked with him later, Elijah Cook Jr.
EG: He was so great.
JW: Was he in The Black Bird with you?
GS: He was in The Black Bird with me.
EG: When he was young, Joey was a significant star. [He co-starred with Danny Kaye in Charles Vidor's Hans Christian Andersen. Here's Joey with Kaye in an iconic moment.]
GS: Oh, yes, yes.
EG: I mean, unapproachable. I mean, how do you do that? And with television. I mean, it was like, the keys to this industry.
JW: I’ll tell you George. This’ll flip George out. First of all, Milton Berle, you remember the show very well, how big he was. Guess who went up against him? Yours truly.
GS: Really? In what?
JW: With The Frank Sinatra Show. Cast in The Frank Sinatra Show. But nobody is watching The Frank Sinatra Show, they’re all watching Milton Berle and now I’m unhappy because I’m not on The Milton Berle Show.
GS: This was live?
JW: This was live. Everything was live. Your career was always on the line back then.
EG: What a career.
EG: The Texaco Star Theater … There was nothing else but that and The Ed Sullivan Show on Sundays …
JW: And Your Show of Shows …
EG: Texaco Star Theater … That’s when we were doing the bar scene inCalifornia Split, we say, “Captain Midnight!”
JW: With Sinatra … there I was in the 1950 show. Joey Walsh. I was there. I was absolutely crazed about Ava Gardner. And she would pick Frank up on the weekends. Frank would get after me a little bit. He would say to me, and he was giving me a little shit, in a little way, he’d say, “What are you doing this week, kid? What are you doing on this show this week?” And I’d say, “I don’t know Frank. I just show up since I have a contract. So you want me to sing ‘The House I Live In’?” And he says, “Yeah.” So anyway, the show is all over. Ava’s picking him up. And I decide I’m going to buy him a tie as a going-away present. I buy him this tie, and I give it to him. A little later, I remember that I forgot something and that I have to go back and tell him. So I go back to the dressing room. It’s completely empty. Just my tie is hanging there.
EG: Aww …
JW: [Laughing] Poor little kid. This Slim Jim you buy for a buck and quarter. I give it to Frank Sinatra.
KM: So you, George, and Elliott were both in movies with Sterling Hayden [Loving and The Long Goodbye].
JW: I loved Sterling in the movies, but I never met him personally. [To Segal and Gould] Did you love Sterling?
EG: I loved him. Dan Blocker was supposed to play the part. He was a very good friend of Altman’s. Dan Blocker died and the picture almost went south. And so then we were talking about John Huston, who I loved. Bob cast Sterling Hayden. So Sterling had been in Ireland doing something with R. D. Laing, the poet and philosopher who wrote a book called Knots. And so I asked to spend a little time, a moment alone with Sterling in the house where we shot, where Kathryn and Bob lived, down in Malibu. So we spent that moment alone. And so I knew that Sterling knew that I knew that Sterling knew that I knew that Sterling knew that I understood him. So I just loved him.
KM: Did you ever read his book Wanderer?
EG: Yes. When he kidnapped his kids, right?
JW: I liked the way he wanted to live his life, Sterling Hayden.
EG: I visited him on his péniche, which is like a barge. He had it in France on the Seine and I saw him there. And then he had it sent to Northern California and I visited him there too. He was a great guy. I think he worked in the Yugoslavian Underground during World War II.
JW: Did he really? Wow. Okay.
KM: And what’s interesting in The Long Goodbye is this modernized Marlowe, from what Bogart or Powell did but …
EG: Oh, Humphrey Bogart was perfect. Our Marlowe was not perfect at all.
KM: No, of course. But that’s what I love about it. And that Sterling Hayden, who is now an icon in film noir, he’s really this counterculture type of guy in real life. He fit perfectly in that Altman universe.
EG: The Long Goodbye has held up too. Not dated. I’m thrilled that it’s held up.
KM: It feels more modern than movies now.
GS: That it opens with that cat. Oh, that’s just fabulous. To take that time and to open with that. At that time, at the top of a movie.
EG: [Laughs] Yeah, and the guy’s sleeping. Oh, Bob. Oh my God [sigh]. We thought Bogdanovich was gonna do it and he couldn’t cast me. He couldn’t see it. And David Picker gave it to Bob Altman. And Bob was in Ireland finishing Images with Susannah York and he called me from the White Village and he said, “What do you think?” I said, “I’ve always wanted to play this guy.” And he said, “You are this guy.”
KM: Casinos are like movie sets. You know, an enclosed world of playing, making money, losing, performing, with the big star and the character actors and the extras. Rules and chaos at every turn. It’s a separate universe that anyone off the street walking into feels immediately intimidated or confused by.
GS: Yes. I like that analogy. It’s a lot like that. We are the living embodiment of a sequel to California Split 2. I mean, this is it.
EG: The level of risk what you’re talking about is for sure …
JW: And they split … these two magnificent actors in this picture, these characters, they split. The beauty, certainly aided with Altman too. And then the idea of gambling. We’ve all been to Vegas. Do you ever watch the faces there? Do you ever watch the people who have never gambled? They are so excited. And you pay for that excitement. But to look underneath, underneath all that, there is a trap. There is a sadness. And for the George character, I always thought, this is the kind who would always end up in trouble. He gambles because something is missing in his life. I didn’t even know what that was. What was missing. Even when I was writing. And we didn’t need to know. His gambling is a way to kill the something that’s missing. Whereas Elliott’s character gambles as a way of life. His emotional content for everything and the laws that he steals time away … these are the words, “I steal time. I can’t steal any more time.” And to see that come together as a writer, and to see the two actors pull that off to such an extent, I’m not even that amazed anymore. You watch it again and it’s not dated at all because these feelings and these things are never gonna stop. In the world of gambling, they will never stop. These emotional feelings.
EG: I take nothing for granted. In our life, I was George’s character. I was Bill Denny, right?
JW: Right, right.
EG: That’s what we lived so …
JW: And … in our life, right. He did Bill Denny and I’m Charlie Walters. That’s how we lived it.
EG: Then it’s a matter of responsibility and so my evolution in relation to Bill Denny in not knowing what to do and not knowing what he was going to do and where I was coming from. Oh, yeah. And I have remembrances almost as far back as an infant. I mean, three and a half, I’ve already had a couple of memories. So it’s really interesting because as I said, it’s not about gambling. It’s not about gambling at all. It’s about staying alive.
KM: And I think that it’s so inclusive in the gambler’s world, and they get everything that you’re saying.
EG: Oh, they love it. And they can relate.
KM: But I think some people outside of gambling can too. Anyone who’s had a substance abuse problem, anyone with a freelance life. It’s a gamble.
JW: Oh, yes. And show business. If you go into show business you could be broke forever and waiting on tables and you have no other skills.
KM: And so, I mean here’s part of the timelessness (and how modern it still feels today). It certainly received good reviews at the time, but the movie has increased in popularity, I think. It’s always been popular for those who love Altman, but it’s moved up. Anyone I talk to, they love it. A favorite Altman. I think my favorite. If I had to choose.
JW: Your favorite and Ken Burns’s favorite movie. And Mike Leigh was there at the Telluride screening. He loves it too.
KM: And, apparently as I heard before, Robert Morley?
JW: George, you told me that, that he loved, on a plane …
GS: No, no, I was in two movies, I was in two things with him.
KM: Who Is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe?
GS: Yup, yup, yup.
KM: I love that California Split was Robert Morley’s favorite movie.
GS: He had a bookie come with to the set. His bookie. They do that in England. He would come to the set. So, he was a veteran.
KM: So, yes, it obviously speaks to a lot of people …
EG: Well, Altman’s work does. Altman’s work is fundamentally all in the now. It just works. Even with MASH. Cause, again, I don’t think we were crazy about MASH when it first happened. Well, I loved doing it, it was great. I remember seeing it, it had a sneak in San Francisco with Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and I thought what? But now when I see it I see — every time I see it I see something I haven’t seen before.
GS: You know how I got California Split?
GS: I came out of a screening of MASH in New York City in a screening room and I said to somebody, “That’s the greatest movie I ever saw.” Or some words to that effect. That remark got back to Altman and that’s how it started, how I came to get the part. Guy McElwaine, I was his client. He had to talk and talk and talk to get me to do it and finally I did it. And he wouldn’t let up on it because he was so convinced I’d be right in it and I didn’t see myself in it at all. I didn’t gamble and I wasn’t interested. It would be like putting me in a hockey film. But he was so convincing and obviously I’m so glad I did it. But back to MASH… that was before anybody even knew what it was. I mean, nobody’d seen it then.
EG: I think Mike Nichols who you know very well was somewhat flummoxed because Catch-22 was supposed to be the picture.
GS: It was the demise of Catch-22.
EG: I only had very limited contact with Mike Nichols. He said to me, I grew up with improvising. I said, well, why don’t you do some in the movies? But then looking at Catch-22 now — it’s a flawed masterpiece. But itis something of a masterpiece.
GS: But Catch-22 was it. That was the war novel to beat all war novels. It caught that spirit of it all. And out comes MASH, which was informal. They had all the antic players in Catch-22, Alan Arkin and Bob Newhart. Wonderful. Marty Balsam. They had a great supporting cast. Everybody. But then came MASH.
EG: [Working on MASH] sometimes Bob would get flustered. We were fighting the clock and he has got to do it a certain way by a certain time otherwise you go into golden hours. And I remember the scene in MASH — and it was actually around that scene that Sylvester Stallone, who I’ve only met a couple of times, said he doesn’t admit that he was ever an extra in any movie but he admits that he was an extra in MASH. And when I told that to Bob he said, “No. I don’t accept that Sylvester Stallone was in my movie. I don’t accept it.”
EG: So that day we have a really complicated, delicate crane shot and we’re fighting time for lunch. And, you know, it’s all the surgeons are working triple shifts and we’re talking non sequiturs and there was the script and then we go to lunch. We were at the Fox Ranch out in Malibu, and Bob said to me, “Why can’t you be like someone else?” And I had my lunch on a tray. And he pointed to Corey Fischer, you know, and said, “Why can’t you be like him?” Who was a part of The Committee, an improvisational group that Altman hired. And I shook my lunch, I threw it up and I said, “You motherfucker. I’m not gonna stick my neck out for you again. You know and I know where I come from. I know precision, I know repetition. You’ll tell me what you want and that’s what you’ll get.” And he said, “I think I’ve made a mistake.” I said, “I think so.” He said, “I apologize.” I said, “I accept.” And that’s when Paul Lewis the production manager for Getting Straight came out to meet with me for the movie which was my next picture. And Tarantino said it’s a part of his library. He’s got Getting Straight there.
KM: Yes, he loves that movie.
EG: Mike Nichols and, if I can take the liberty, Mike Nichols and I double-dated once with me and Barbra and Nichols and Zohra Lampert. The four of us.
GS: I was in a movie with her.
EG: Which one was that?
GS: Bye Bye Braverman.
EG: Oh, that’s right. That was wonderful. What a good picture.
JW: I had left New York before the Barbra thing.
EG: Just before, I was in the chorus. I was in Irma la Douce.
JW: Yes. And Elliott had written to me … You had written something to me that I remember. You wrote, there’s a girl in the show, she’s dynamite. She’s terrific, I’m falling in love with her. I said, oh good, my friend is involved with a girl. That’s good! I knew at the time, you had one schoolyard crush …
EG: Oh my God, I had crushes but, just like that, I couldn’t find myself. There was no one there to calm me. I told Ingmar [Bergman] about it, you know.
GS: What had Ingmar seen you in that got his attention?
EG: He had studied … but Getting Straight. He said, when he saw Getting Straight.
GS: I’ll be damned.
JW: Oh, so that’s how Ingmar Bergman came about?
EG: Yeah, also I was really hot. So, you know, I mean …
KM: What was it in Getting Straight that he responded to so much?
EG: He said it was a scene in Getting Straight — there was something where my character was in such a rage. There was just a rage in me. It would almost be like me facing the Tea Party right now, you know. There was just a rage and an insult and Ingmar said to me, “You showed great restraint in that scene.”
JW: Taking an American actor, that was a big deal at the time.
EG: Oh God, yeah, everybody in the universe was up for it. [For The Touch] I almost didn’t do it. I said, but how can I say no. You know, let’s see if I can …
KM: You almost said no? To Bergman?
EG: Well, here’s the deal. I was making a living for my family for the first time. And you know, and I didn’t understand anything. We had Begelman and them but they were in it for what they could get out of it. I didn’t know. I didn’t understand myself. I didn’t know anything about meaning. You know, if I could do something for my family but even then you get to the family. You’re more educated formally than the rest of us, George? Dartmouth, right?
EG: Columbia? I met somebody who was at Dartmouth. I have his card. I like to get it clear.
JW: I’ve got a few dollars on Columbia.
GS: Oh right, yeah.
EG: So that sort of worked out. But it was tough. Oh yeah, making a living. I don’t know how I’m gonna act with the best actors in the world with Bergman. I mean, Bergman didn’t write scripts like we do with indication of direction; it’s like a novella. I thought, oh my God, I can’t expose my ignorance to that, but I can’t say no. So they had him call me in the West Village. [Does Bergman voice] “Hellloooooo. Little Broooootherssssss.”
JW: What did he say?
EG: [Bergman voice] Liiitttttlle Brottttthhhherrrrrr.
JW: Little Brother?
EG: Little brother. He called me that. And so my hair stood up. And I thought, oh, I can trust me with him and him with me. It’s like I talk to a dog or a baby. And so I came. And, whoa, that was really interesting.
KM: You really liked him …
EG: I loved Ingmar. He showed me Fellini’s The White Sheik. He said with Fellini, there’s always music. Fellini will endure and survive. So, working on The Touch, we met in his office, read everything, I met with the whole team. And it was more than that. I’m doing this to see if I can work with the finest actors in the world, Max and Bibi. And then I had a week off so I went to Paris and that’s where Peckinpah wanted me to do Straw Dogs.
EG: Do you know this?
EG: Straw Dogs. And so he called me, I was at L’Hôtel in Paris and downstairs in the lobby on the phone Peckinpah said, Elliott. You do read between the lines, don’t you? And I said, Sam, I live between the lines. And until such time as I understand the lines it’s way too terrifying for me to think where I live. Now that I’ve started to learn how to work with this instrument, you know, where we can get ahead. Like how I said to Warren Beatty, we’re fucking elderly. Elderly, you know, we are elderly. But our spirit is not.
GS: Well what about Peckinpah?
EG: He just wanted me. But there was Danny Melnick, was, you know, and one of the reasons I didn’t do it is in terms of Jack Brodsky and David Begelman. Because Bobby Kaufman, you remember him? He said, “You’re a moneymaking machine.” And just doing so many things and I didn’t know how to stop. Because Altman also wanted me to do McCabe & Mrs. Miller. And I didn’t do it. I didn’t do it. I did I Love My Wife, which means a lot to us. Not the picture, but the concept.
EG: Oh my God, so that’s where Altman had said with McCabe: “You’re making the mistake of your life.” And I knew there were two reasons. One, I’m being pushed by the boys to do I Love My Wife. And I thought we all know I do. I’m married to Barbra at the time; there was no question about that. But they wanted me to do, at that time, “The Candy Man” in Gene Wilder’s production of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. And me in my putzdom said, “Yeah, I’ll do it, but I want to be Elliott Goldstein. Nobody knows Elliott Goldstein. Introduce me as Elliott Goldstein.” They said, “No, we want Elliott Gould. I said, well. So I didn’t do it.” In my career … there was a big, big logjam which had to do with business people who were here before I understood myself, I felt I couldn’t allow myself if I had the opportunity to be a slave to early success. I want to always continue to grow, you know. I’m very grateful.
But these are mistakes that you gotta make to find out where things are at … For me to be out here and to have to come into contact with people who are running the show, people who are in charge, I don’t know … that’s different. Because that’s how I got into so much trouble. But I had to crack the egg. I had to. I had to. I had to.
JW: No mistakes. It happened exactly — the only way it could happen is the way it happened.
EG: I agree, I agree to that too. I don’t disagree. You might say that that was gambling but gambling to come out here and not know what you are.
GS: It takes time to catch up to yourself. That’s what you said.
EG: So, the week I had off from going back to work with Bergman and when I had that conversation with Sam Peckinpah, I went to Sorrento, the Sorrento Film Festival for a screening of Getting Straight and they sat me next to George Stevens and I didn’t even realize I’m sitting right next to George Stevens. I win best picture. I beat out Jon Voight. I never expect to win anything. But that’s also what it’s not about, right? It’s not about winning, and so I realized, I’m sitting next to this guy where, I could just start to talk to him, we would have perhaps devised a picture.
KM: George Stevens’s last movie, it was a gambling picture. Strange movie I actually really like, The Only Game in Town with Elizabeth Taylor and Warren Beatty.
EG: I know! Right, right. I don’t think the movie worked. Frank Gilroy wrote that. Oh, it’s so weird because Frank Gilroy wrote it and, we were friendly, it was a play first and I went in to read for the play and there was this speech and Willie Mays’s number, I’m sure it was number 24 and they didn’t have it right. And I said, “Listen you know, I understand, but Willie Mays’s number was 24 and not the number you have in the script.”
JW: They had Willie Mays as a different number in the script? They blew the number?
EG: Yeah …
JW: That’s like not having Jackie Robinson as 42. You don’t have his number wrong! I mean, I’ll be offended if you don’t have number 4, Duke Snider.
EG: And number one.
JW: Come on! You give him a bad number on that. Forget that.
EG: So, this guy Douglas Slocombe. You know Dougie?
GS: Cameraman, cameraman.
EG: Dougie … Douglas Slocombe … [mimics a stutter] talked like that. I used to call him Dougie-the-the-the-v-v-v-v-v-very-Slocombe, and, now he had shot Indiana Jones, he had shot Julia for Fred fucking Zinnemann, he had shot the sequences that Steven Spielberg shot in India for Close Encounters of the Third Kind. A major, big-time cinematographer. And he says to me, “How did you escape?” And I said, “Well, first of all, I think you’re paying me a compliment so thank you. But there is no escape. No one escapes life. How I was able to endure and survive is that I hid in my worst fear, which was darkness. And even my beloved parents when they would project a conscious thought to me that was less than positive or divine I withdrew deeper into my worst fear. And I lived in darkness forever until I learned to see through it into the light.”
JW: Your parents could have been easily my parents.
EG: Our parents. But like when you said there are no mistakes. Just think about that then. Because it was necessary. I live with a picture of Sigmund Freud. I can analyze just about anything. I’m studying. I’m trying to get to know my father. My mother, she was extremely influential to say the least.
KM: There’s a lot of family here. It’s interesting that you had worked with George, Joseph, you grew up with Elliott, you know each other’s family and share mutual friends. And, Joseph you’ve talked about Butch Cavell who is in Invitation to a Gunfighter and he’s also in California Split.
JW: Yes, he is. He’s also one of the poker players.
KM: And so all of these people end up in the movie. Just all of these interconnections in life show up in that movie.
JW: Yes. It does interconnect.
I don’t care what people think! If I have a sense that I want to know what someone thinks, I will ask them. Otherwise, if I don’t ask, I don’t want to know. Everybody is their own character.
— Elliott Gould
Honoring the 40th anniversary of Robert Altman’s "California Split," I sat down with screenwriter Joseph Walsh and stars George Segal and Elliott Gould at Canter’s Deli in Los Angeles to discuss the picture and much, much more. Forty years have passed since the film, but these guys have known each other for 50-plus years. Here continues part two of our conversation.
ELLIOTT GOULD: Do you know the original title, the first one that I knew, toCalifornia Split?
GEORGE SEGAL: No.
JOSEPH WALSH: The way that name came out was, Altman and I were down scouting all of Gardena and all of the card clubs, and wondering if we could build it ourselves because we couldn’t get the time from them — it would be four hours a day. And some gambler there asked us what we’re doing. And I said, “We’re going to do a gambling movie,” and he misunderstood because I said, “We’ll open with lowball rather than high,” and he says, “Oh. California Split, you mean?” And Altman and I looked at each other and … “California Split.” What do you think?” That’s high-low poker. That’s what it’s called out here. And that’s how it got its name. We had no idea if it was right or wrong. That just sounds good.
KIM MORGAN: And we talked about this in Telluride, but I’d like to repeat it, just in the history of the film in that it started — you worked with Spielberg before that …
JW: MGM bought it. I’ll give them credit. Danny Melnick and that team. Bought me producing it. Bought Steven directing it. Deal made. And then, of course the smiling cobra Jim Aubrey comes into it. Which you see, no accidents. How it evolves. Because I don’t know how they’re playing the roles then and how Altman directs it. I had lunch with Steven later, and he said, “Let’s talk about California Split” two and a half years after not doing it, right? And I said, “Okay.” Waiting … And he says, “You know. I would have definitely made more money with this film.” Beat. Beat. “But I could never have made a better picture.”
EG: Donald [Sutherland] and I came in to see Bob. You were in the office, Joey. You and Bob over there on Westwood Boulevard. And Donald and I were coming in. Nothing to do with Split … and Bob said to me, “There’s nothing in this picture for you.” And it sort of hurt my feelings because that’s not necessarily what consciously I was there for. You and Bob were there sitting in this office alone. I just was coming back with Donald because there was a pirate picture that Bob had in mind about two guys. So then, when McQueen couldn’t do it, then Bob called me and asked me if I would.
GS: Well, he talked to me about who was going to play the other guy. He had said words to this effect: “I worked with Elliott enough,” something like that. And he was going with Peter Falk.
GS: In my conversation. And then he called and he said, “I’m going with Elliott.”
EG: Oh really?
GS: Yeah. So it was like he was wrestling in his own mind about it. As if, “I don’t want to be associated with this guy with every fucking movie I make.”
EG: Yeah, he would say that to me sometimes.
KM: How did you feel about that?
JW: Probably hurt a little bit?
EG: No … I mean … Let me see, I mean, you can transcend that. The thought hurts. The feeling doesn’t hurt. You know? The feeling sometimes can be, it might be insulting if there’s any ego there, but there’s barely any ego here. Because when he called me I was in Munich doing another B movie with Trevor Howard. I was in Munich, and Bob said, “Would you play the other guy?” And I said, “What does Joey think? This is Joey’s picture. This is Joey’s life. “ And I said, “I’ll do anything you want me to do. But I have to know that it’s okay with Joey.” And he said, “It’s okay.” And I said, “Where’s Joey?” And he said, “Joey’s playing poker.” [To Joey] You were playing poker when he called me. And I said, “If it’s okay with Joey and this is what you want. My God, of course I would.”
JW: Yeah. And, of course, it was the reverse for me because him being the Bill Denny to my Charlie Waters in life, I couldn’t get it. I could see Elliott playing the George role, but I couldn’t see Elliott. When we were growing up, he was the reticent one and I was the one always getting in trouble. “C’mon. Don’t worry about it. You bet your money. Give me your 60 dollars out of your tap dance money. Don’t worry …”
EG: Yeah. My father’s car … oh my God! In Florida.
JW: I would overwhelm him with the reversal. But as Elliott said even before the picture began, it was one of his great lines. Elliott said, “Joey, what you’ve never understood is you have always been the Charlie and I’ve played the Bill to your Charlie for years, ever since we were kids. But to the rest of the world, I’m the crazy one.”
EG: I mean it. And even right now, it’s great for us. As far as the chemistry [goes] because I know how I work when I have the opportunity and I can be free. And I took freedom. Especially on Split, I knew it. Altman, I always had Altman in the crosshairs. Always. Because even with The Long Goodbyehe told me he was afraid of me. That I would just go further than he might consider, but he trusted me and had confidence in me, even when I’m always in character.
JW: When George was set to do it, at that point, you were never really going to do it.
EG: Robert De Niro had been mentioned.
JW: Well, De Niro I brought in but, uh, Bob when it got to that point … he didn’t get De Niro at all. We couldn’t find the right combination to pitch the script. Back and forth, it went on for two months. I had seen Mean Streets. I saw it in the afternoon in the theater across the street from New World. I said, “I just saw some guy, this guy is ridiculously good. The guy could be a great Charlie.” And so Altman said, “Bring him in.” He came in. Bob tried to explain California Split and it was such … [laughing] my skin was crawling. The pitch was so bad. So I jumped right in front of Altman and I said, “Bob [De Niro], here’s California Split. Boom, boom, boom, boom, boom, boom. And of course his eyes were coming alive and that’s what it was.” But Bob explained it, [in ho-hum voice] “Well, it’s two guys. They gamble. Um, um, um …” My head was just going down.
GS: Well that means Bob didn’t want him. That’s a way of expressing he didn’t want him.
EG: What Bob said to me, and he didn’t say it very much, when he asked me to do it, he said, “Because I know, if I give you a nickel, you’ll stretch it more than anyone else would consider.” And I thought, conceptually that sounds interesting and good, you know. It’s almost like, thematically, I’ll stay alive and figure something out and keep it going and that’s sort of what it’s all about.
JW: Well, because Elliott would go … I never feared the one-armed piccolo player.
EG: [Exclaims] Oh my God!
KM: You almost didn’t do it. You were afraid to do that scene.
EG: Of course I was! And so then when we came to the day, and I trust, you know, and Altman says, “Let’s not do it.” I said, “No, let’s do it. Give me a chance. Joey wrote it. It means something to him. It means a lot to him and it’s funny, let me take a shot at it.” Altman was not going to do it.
JW: They didn’t let me know which was interesting because I thought it was a brilliant stroke of writing. This is the one thing I thought so hard about. “How do I get George to take control now?”
KM: Especially since he’s so angry with him [Elliott], you gotta do something to disarm him.
JW: That’s right. He’s been let down by his love, basically, in this film, and Elliott, not in a dream, he gets the reality. He has to stand on his own two feet. I knew it wasn’t about dialogue. And I kept writing it over and over again; I’d say, “Yeah … Oh … that’s terrible.” That’s not gonna bring George back. It’s gotta be physical. And I thought, “Oh, the one-armed piccolo player!”
EG: Oh, it’s great.
JW: When your friend is doing something this outrageous … so he never told me this. That they might not shoot it.
EG: Never told you what? That there was a question?
JW: You told me after it. But I didn’t know about this. He said to me later on, “We almost didn’t film the one-armed piccolo player.” And I said, “What?!” He said, “Altman came to me and said, no I don’t have to do it and I guess it was the thing with a movie star with a trick penis, I don’t know the thing. Maybe he didn’t want to do such a thing in the movies.”
KM: Well, that was kind of rare then …
JW: It never was in my mind! I thought, “It’s gonna work! It’s gonna work!” I said, how’s George? He’s so upset, he’s hawked his car, he’s hawked his things, he’s going to Reno and Elliott has disappointed him infinitely too much, right? It was your moment, and it’s a tough moment for George to play, and George plays it fabulous.
KM: Well, it’s always hard to laugh. To make that look real. But it had to be real, right?
GS: Well, I was really laughing.
EG: Well, we didn’t do it too many times. That was the thing with Bob.
JW: No, no. We only did it once or twice.
GS: I don’t remember doing it twice. I think we did it once.
KM: It seems like Altman had a nice balance where he would allow these great scripts and lines and then he’d allow improv and chance and then take risks too …
GS: Yes, he did. And I got along with him really well. He was a pleasure. It was fun to come in every day. It was like a party. It was so civilized back then. There were no long hours. It was relaxed. That’s why those movies from the ’70s were so good. We were all relaxed and enjoying what we were doing. They’ve taken that out of us now with the 20-minute lunches and the onerous long hours … it’s all different now. It’s all about money now. From the creative point of view, it’s different. It’s work. But it’s also fun to work so there’s that. I’d rather work than not work. But, those ’70s, what we’re talking about were transcendent. It was also, you were allowed to participate. You participated in the creation of the film — the directors encouraged that. That’s not what happens now. There’s Ben Affleck and George Clooney and Quentin Tarantino and they are having a good time and being so artistic and you can feel it in their work and it’s more like the 1970s with them. But they are calling the shots. And they are in their prime. Some wise person said, a movie star gets 10 years. Some, like Dustin Hoffman, are the exception and they get leading parts beyond those 10 years, but it seems to hold true most of the time, even when you look back into the ’30s. There were some like Spencer Tracy and others who came all the way through, but on average, about 10 years was about all you got. And those were also, always, your sexy, sexual years.
EG: I have a question. I have a question for you, George and Joey. When we were doing the film I believe there was a sequence of you, [George] in a car driving …
GS: That was down Wilshire, hitting all the lights.
EG: And why wasn’t that in the picture?
GS: I don’t know. It was brilliant. They had stuntmen at every light on Wilshire.
EG: You’re missing every light?
GS: And the wait for the red lights and I went through all the red lights and as we’re skidding because they were coming out of the side streets. They had a green light. Just risking it.
JW: And I wanted to do that because that was part of you leaving and him frustrated and the girls and all that so we took the risk and the craziness.
GS: That was great.
EG: I wanted to see that. The energy in that.
JW: No, but here’s what happened. We’re going to the scene with the light, George’s scene. He’s taking chances, he’s building something up. The anger, the upset that he’s been on this kind of string-along with a friend and it doesn’t seem like he has a friend out there. All of that stuff is building. So he runs all of these lights and he manages to go through every red light. And, at the end, it’s a very dramatic thing. George, you actually rip the antenna off of the car, which is symbolic of ripping himself off. Bob says to me at one point, and George can probably fill in this story because I always suspected George wanted that scene in. But, Bob said to me, “Don’t you think it’s overdramatic? Maybe that scene?” I said, “It’s pretty dramatic Bob. I understand that but I have a feeling that you might need this from this character.” But I wasn’t fighting hard for it because Bob made his points. And I thought, okay. Now, we’re going to leave it out. Okay. So then … here comes Mr. Begelman on the phone: “Oh, Jesus! You know, we’re hearing about this scene! Where’s this scene?” And Begelman’s pleading. “Put this scene in! C’mon. Put this scene in. We all like this scene where George runs the lights.” And Bob’s saying, “Eh … I don’t know.” And of course there’s the money. Bob’s saying, “It’s going to take money and time.” And they say, “Bob. We’ll pay it. Columbia will pay for it out of our pocket; we’ll pay the extra money. Put it on your budget, we’ll take care of it.”
EG: So what happened?
JW: Well, here’s what happened. Here’s what I learned. You force anything on Bob Altman. You don’t do that. You don’t force anything on Bob Altman. And I know because I saw the dailies of that scene. You guys never did see the dailies but I did watch the dailies of it. And let me tell you, it was as bad as a scene as you could see. I was like, “Bob. You don’t shoot like this.”
EG: He didn’t shoot it well?
JW: Oh, he didn’t shoot it well at all. He didn’t put any attention into anything. It was dead. Dead. Terrible. Dead. And Bob said, “You see? I told them. The scene stinks. It’s no good.” I didn’t want to get into it, but I was thinking, “Bob. You’ve sabotaged this scene. This scene could have been very dramatic. This is a scene Spielberg would have loved beyond everything. Give me a shot at this scene.” Steven later said to me, “You know when they go on the streak? That’s one gigantic orgasm. I would have made that 32 minutes of orgasm. You’d be on the edge of your seat by the time the two guy’s are at the finish with this.”
EG: [So to the ending of California Split.] As far as when Bob came up, he’d say, “We can finish the picture up here to save you time and money and not to go outside” [like in the original script], and that’s when we made up the ending.
JW: Well, the ending had been made up. It just happened. That’s vivid in my mind.
EG: Fine! One of us has a mind, that’s okay. [Laughing]
JW: I was a young producer at this point, so when Altman does something, and calls something: that’s the end of it. That’s it. I got how dynamic it was and how interesting it was, but I’m thinking, you know, as Elliott says, “There’s never any doubts.” See, I never had any doubt about that character. He would always take the best price he can so when, in my original script, when he yells out: “Charlie what are you going to do with your life?” And Elliott, for love, shuts the car door on him, takes him to the airport, makes sure he’s okay, and, again, George yells out, “What are you going to do with your life?” And Elliott says, “I’m gonna take the best price I can.”
EG: “I’m gonna take the best price I can!” Oh my God!
JW: And freeze-frame on him. So, had we filmed that ending that would have played also.
EG: Oh, sure, and with Phyllis singing …
JW: But back to the change. It’s vivid in my mind that scene and what happened. I can give you the dynamics of all the people. I’m close to the scene. Watching this unbelievable scene, the ending. And then Elliott [after changing it] runs over to me and says, “Joey. I’m sorry. I don’t know where that came from.” And I’m saying, “It’s okay Elliott. It’s interesting. It’s very interesting.” At that moment, now George comes and says, “It’s fantastic! It’s fantastic. This is it! I’ve never understood this movie before. I’ve never understood this movie before until now.” I said, “Great. George, I know. It’s very interesting.” Both of them are here, in this moment, right? And I’m thinking, “Okay. I know one thing: Don’t get carried away in the moment. We have it. We could shoot the other scene. We’ll have both.” And then …
KM: And Elliott, you spin the wheel … It’s just … it all fits.
EG: It’s so interesting how the three of us had that.
JW: And then Altman comes in, and George drove it at that moment I must tell you. George says, “Bob! You know we don’t have to go any further! This is it!” Bob is wavering and he’s listening to George at that point and I’m thinking, “Okay. I hope … let’s get both. Let’s get both.” And Bob said: “That’s it. Right. That’s it. It’s a wrap.” And he yelled out, “Wrap! Finish!” And Elliott and George, they completed that scene beautifully, I mean, fabulously, I mean there was never any more than that one take and that’s it, boy. And that was the moment that, flashing back, look at all these combinations.
EG: My father used to count stitches in the garment center. He was a buyer and he had a magnifying glass and part of his job was to count stitches to see how fine the material was. And so when Bob came to me and said, “Can we finish up here,” my mind was like, my father’s being a production manger and “Yes, we could.” But on MASH, the same thing happened where we had built this set and we’re near the end of the picture and it’s when Hawkeye and Trapper are going to go to Tokyo and that’s where we’re gonna play golf. And Bob said, “Let’s not. We don’t have to do that. Let’s not do it.” And I said, “But the sets are built, we’re all ready to do it, we’re all rehearsed, shoot it, and then see it, and then if you don’t like it or if it doesn’t work then don’t use it.” Because I feel I could have gotten him to do that. By playing that little game. But I don’t play that game. I could have …
JW: But interesting what happened. Only in Hollywood. The perfect story. Who got buried for that? For California Split? The young producer. Guy McElwaine calls me and says, “You are getting crippled at Columbia right now. They are saying, ‘You cost this film 10 million dollars.’ Right there.” And I said, “What are you talking about?” And he says, “The ending. By switching that ending, you cost that film 10 million dollars.” Because to them, and [to me] you loved the new ending, but to moviegoers at the time they loved these two guys. They loved them. So the idea that he was still protecting the future of George and you saw the future of the two of them, and to change it, they said, “You pulled the goddamned rug out on the audience.” They weren’t expecting it. I did notice that when we screened it at Tennessee and I went to different cities and every time, everybody was roaring with the movie, they loved it. Well, the ending came and everybody trudged out of the theater and nobody was talking to each other. We kept watching this over and over again. They don’t know what to say; they’re shocked with this ending. They were shocked. And they didn’t know what to do with it!
EG: Awww … [feels bad] I could hit myself over the head with this bottle.
JW: No, you can’t! Because [to me] she says it’s brilliant and there’s no question! Everyone loves it
KM: It is brilliant.
JW: And gamblers get it even more. Dick Shepard, who’s a closet gambler. He says to me, after the film, “Look Joey, I do this every week, on the QT. I go every week to Vegas and I gamble for a lot of money. It’s my outlet.
GS: Excuse me. He was married to one of the Louis B. Mayer granddaughters, Dick Shepard.
EG: He produced Breakfast at Tiffany’s.
GS: [Speaking very quietly and carefully] Dick Shepard, he would get out of bed, after his wife went to bed, and he would go to the airport and go to Vegas for four hours, take the flight back, and then get up.
JW: See, I didn’t know he ever told you that. I didn’t know the details. But he says, [whispers] “The ending of California Split, it’s so brilliant. That’s exactly right. It means nothing to me. What does it mean even when you win? I’ve always left with this empty feeling.”
GS: Then he was an executive at Warner Brothers.
EG: Yeah. He ran Warner Brothers. And then he became an agent again, and we were talking about that, and he said, “Why me?” and I said, “I don’t know anybody else! I know you.”
JW: Here’s the one I wanted to tell you. Why California Split goes down. This is again, young producer and even Altman didn’t even know this,California Split is carrying on. Every big city. It’s going for seven to eight weeks. It’s getting incredible reviews, right? Incredible reviews, everybody’s carrying on. So now we’re saying, “Okay. We’re gonna make some money out of this picture.” We’re really gonna make it. The picture is working all over the place. Runs eight, nine weeks, breaks records in New York. Now, it’s gonna open worldwide with all the theaters coming in, right? So now we go in, and suddenly … this is the true story why we got hurt on the picture and why it’s not been seen as much. Runs for a week taking tap out business in every theater around the country. One week later. It’s pulled in every theater around the country. And what is it replaced by? The Last Detail. Which opened in ’73, which they lost money with. And now they put in The Last Detail to get the money. Why did they do that? It’s because what we didn’t know was that Begeleman called us in the middle of California Split and said, “Guys, gotta do me a favor. I gotta sell half of California Split to Persky-Bright, it’s a tax shelter group. I need the money. I have no money, I need the money to do Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” Which, by the way, was the first film that [David] Begelman ever greenlit — a gambling movie — California Split. Very interesting, right? That the guy who wrote Indecent Exposure he didn’t mentionCalifornia Split. I mean, talk about gambling. Think about what Begelman did with Cliff Robertson. But anyway, The Last Detail opened a year before and went down the tubes; we were selling out the first week. I’m frantic. I got conned again. I called Altman in Nashville. I said, “Bob, they sold the movie in every theater and they put in Jack Nicholson’s Last Detail. This is unbelievable! This is happening! And Bob said, “Well, get on the phone to them! Get on the phone with them. You’re the producer.” Right. Okay. Get on the phone, I get all the figures, I say, “Here it is. Every city. We’re selling out eight or nine weeks.” They say: “Settle down, Mr. Walsh!” I said, “Settle down, huh? What is this? I don’t know what you guys are trying to pull here but this is so wrong. And that’s how they dealt withCalifornia Split. It was a tax shelter group.
"Non-gamblers tend to look at gamblers like an amusing freak show. We tend to look at them like they barely exist. We match their interest in us, with disinterest in them. Sounds cold, but being a gambler and a wonderful person has its difficulties. Our concentration is so diverted. We barely know who we are half the time, and you want us to recognize our problem?"
— Joseph Walsh, "Gambler on the Loose"
Honoring the 40th anniversary of Robert Altman’s "California Split," I sat down with screenwriter Joseph Walsh and stars George Segal and Elliott Gould at Canter’s Deli in Los Angeles to discuss the picture and much, much more. 40 years have passed since the film, but these guys have known each other for 50-plus years. Here continues part three of our conversation.
ELLIOTT GOULD: Bob had the 20 dollar gold piece that I gave him on Split, because I bought a gold piece for all of us.
JOSEPH WALSH: And you gave me one of your shoes from it. Laminated. And you gave the other shoe to Altman. You know the secretary shoes he wears through all of California Split? Elliott gave me the left shoe, all bronzed, and I still have it.
KIM MORGAN: May I get back to your performance, George? Because, again, you did not gamble, you didn’t know the world of gambling, and you said when you read the script it was kind of foreign to you.
GEORGE SEGAL: Yes, as I said, I had to get talked into it.
KM: So, you’re performing this as something as a fish out of water. What were you pulling from yourself to do this? You’re always on the outside. You are drawn into Elliott’s world, and yet you always remain an outsider. And you’re a darker character in that you really do reveal that you have a problem. By the end, it means nothing. It doesn’t make you happy, nothing.
GS: Well, that’s what I brought. I brought that. That discontent. I’m not competitive. Those guys who play poker, they really want to win. It’s not fun losing. It’s not fun winning. I enjoyed my foray into the world of poker, but I’m also happy to be out of it. There’s a feeling of loss. And trying to fill a void, which just makes a bigger void. But these three guys, these two guys, Joseph, Elliott, and Altman.
EG: These three guys! That’s pretty good!
GS: They kind of folded me in. They understood that. You don’t have to announce it to me, it’s quite clear. And Altman got that guy like me. Two weeks before took me around. Taught me gambling, taught me cards. All that stuff. It still didn’t sink in, but, as Elliott said, it was never really about gambling. It was about what was going on inside. And that was plenty because Altman creates an atmosphere where it frees you up and there’s no restrictions. We came from that school also.
JW: And so did Bob. And Bob was definitely a gambler. Oh my God.
EG: Well, you know, when we were doing Ocean’s Eleven, and this is my first experience with Soderbergh, and it’s 1:20 in the morning and we’ve got the whole gang there. Clooney, everyone. And I don’t like to get tired. If I’m tired I’m like an animal in the forest, I’m vulnerable. So I just know what I have to do, what my words are. And Soderbergh comes up to me and says, “The ink on the face. Was that an improvisation?” And it’s like, “What the fuck are you talking about?” And then I’m thinking, “Okay. Well, now wake up.” I think, “Oh yeah, The Long Goodbye. The Long Goodbye.” I said, “Yes, it was. Was that behavior okay for you?” He said, “Yeah, but it was totally unexpected.” And I said, “But that exhibited the kind of confidence and trust Altman had in me, because movies, it’s about time management and about money and time. Once I committed to it, I committed to it. It wasn’t in the script, when the police were roughing me up, putting the black under my eyes, and then we went even further and did Al Jolson. If I had stopped or had any fear, it would have cost us 25 or so minutes of production time. It’s trust.”
KM: George, on a side note, but very important one and so wonderful in the picture, I love when you sing “Rufus Rustus Johnson Brown.” It’s a charming and pertinent refrain in the movie, and I also loved that you wound up recording that with the great Harry Nilsson. How did that come about?
GS: He was the best. He has a sweet voice that just blows me away, and it’s completely without artifice. He just does it straight. He was a fan of mine, and he stopped by and, just like that, we sat down and played together. He had a Harpo coat on with all those inside pockets filled with Jack Daniels and stuff, and he was on his way to do a session with John Lennon, when John was here in LA. And then we bonded and we became good friends.
KM: That’s wonderful. You keep playing music too. In fact, you play with my doctor. [To Elliott and Joseph] We have the same doctor.
GS: That’s right! We do. Yes, I have played banjo with him. He’s a master musician. A great multi-instrumentalist. This is the first gig I’ve ever gotten through a doctor. [Laughs]
JW: Getting back to George’s thing, I wanted George because I knew he didn’t understand the gambling thing, the loss. So, I got Amarillo Slim, I got Sailor Roberts, Elliott and me, all of these people, all good players and two killers. And I put three other plays in with George. I told George you gotta play in this game because you should have the experience to lose and you’re up against murderers row. And it’s okay if you lose [a little] and play with your own money because I wanted George to experience that one moment when you lose. I wanted George to get the experience of it. How does the loss affect his ego? Does it affect him as a man? Is it the money? I wanted his feeling, like, he would come back after losing about 6,000 dollars saying, “Wow that was weird.” He was a little boy compared to these guys. I wanted whatever was going to affect him.
EG: I remember! That’s also very historic. I mean, that’s a bigger loss than any 6,000 dollars because as you’re telling this and, as a studio, we would never let you lose your own money. You know? That wouldn’t be right, but then, if it was, we’re going to give you the money back. It wouldn’t be the same feeling that you’re talking about.
JW: Yes, yes. I didn’t want him to get his money back. I wanted it to be real. And what happens? George wins all the money that night! So then, he gets no sense of this is what happens when you lose [laughs]. But George, of course, brilliantly understood. He played the loss, the loss of a friend, everything he lost. He didn’t need that. But I thought he needed it. But that’s George’s backfire because he wins the money that night. I couldn’t believe it. In a real poker game.
GS: But Amarillo Slim helped me. I felt really good about the connection I made with Amarillo Slim and how he’d nod to me with every hand. I guess he’s telepathic. That was a remarkable extrasensory type of thing — the bonding that we made across the table. I won because he was telling me what to do from across the table. He’d instruct me not to bet or to bet just by nodding his head. And how he knew what cards I had I have no idea. It was extraordinary.
KM: He did not want you to lose!
JW: Slim, by the way, greatest introduction to Amarillo Slim. Meet him the first day we’re in Reno. He comes down for breakfast. I say to Slim, “I’m gonna give you a bet, Slim, you can’t refuse. A keno game was about to start. “I’m gonna bet you 200 dollars right now, I’m gonna pick one number, and I’m gonna take even money [400 to 200], and without a hesitation he goes right into his pocket with his big bankroll that he used in the picture, but he always carried about 8,000 dollars in hundreds [on him] … and he said, “Okay, all right. Your funeral, son.” And I put the 200 dollars up, and I say, “Number nine.” First number that’s called is number nine. I take the 400 dollars, put it in my pocket. Slim looks at me and says, “You are one spooky bastard, son.”
JW: And then Slim says, “Okay. Next game? We’ll do it again?” And I say, “No Slim, you got one chance. I gave you one chance, and I gave you the best price. You lost.” And then he said, “Well then we’ll get along fine.”
EG: He was nice. I liked him.
KM: There’s that scene between you and George, where you play Sparky.
JW: That was quite a moment. That was quite a day.
KM: That changes the tenor of the film. Everything starts to get a little darker. Sadder. Scarier for George. And you showed up on crutches. And you really had sprained yourself but it makes the character …
JW: A little more dangerous? [Laughs] I had sprained my leg playing a basketball game. Don’t play ball after 25 years. They got me into some basketball game … a couple of agents … I called Bob that night and said, “Bob I can’t walk” and he said, “Use the crutch!”
KM: But Sparky is based on a real person.
EG: Oh my God, I knew Sparky.
JW: Yeah. Cocaine. Three lanes of traffic. He was also living at Liberace’s house.
KM: What? Liberace?
JW: He had bought it from Liberace, and he calls me — the guy was very sharp. Loved that I call him my bookmaker Sparky. “California Split is after me,” but he was a very dapper little guy. At the end, with the cocaine, he’s calling all tense [in clenched, nervous, angry voice]: “Joey! I got to get to the racetrack!” A guy who was once so smooth: “You gotta get me thousands of dollars!” I said, “I wish I had thousands of dollars. What are you talking about?” He says, “I can’t miss the third race! Get it from someone. Call people! Call! Call people!” I say, “I’m not calling. Stop it. Relax! I can’t get the money for you at the racetrack.” Same guy about two weeks later, crashed over on the 405, went through the barrier, crossed over two lanes, killed himself. I don’t know. He killed other people …
JW: Sparky and his whole thing. And that was that cocaine craze at the time. He was going nuts. My ex went up there with the kids, no less, and visited Sparky at his house when he was doing it, and I said, “I don’t know why you ever went up there.” Little dapper guy, that drug, doing it all day long … [makes sound] “scheeew …” [to George and Elliott] You remember that drug. It was around everybody. Everybody’s doing it. It was sociable, like drinking a Coca-Cola at the time in the ’70s, right? [Laughs] Everybody had a little vial.
KM: There were scenes inspired by your brother, Charlie, right?
JW: Yes. My brother Charlie who is still alive today, Ed, you know, who was my older brother, played the heavy in it, but Charlie is still the same. Perfect. Same fun loving …
EG: What a guy.
JW: Goes to the track, gambles, loves it.
KM: And the scene, the punch that Elliott takes in the bathroom, that was based on your brother Charlie, right?
JW: Based on Charlie. Jimmy Caan was there so that was actually authenticated. Jimmy Caan told me that story a long time ago. He says, “I’m with your brother in a bar and we get into a fight and your brother gets hit with a punch that’s unbelievable from this guy, a sneak punch. He says, “The most horrible thing I’ve ever seen.” Charlie’s nose is totally broken, blood gushing and all he’s saying on the way down is, “That was the greatest punch I’ve ever been hit with. Jesus, what a punch. Perfect. Oh, my god.” And the guy is saying, “Get out of here.” And [Charlie’s] saying, “Ah no, no, no … I said it’s the perfect punch, but you’re not going anywhere. I’ll be up on my feet in a second.” And so I knew that’s the scene I wanted to play … the same Charlie Walsh who, when he made a big score at the track gets held up, and he gives him half the money, and he did that exact scene [from the movie] … Some guy at the racetrack held him up, and he said, “No. Fuck this. Take half the money now get out of here you fucking bum.” And that’s exactly my brother because he would never be able to handle that. “I’m not gonna give it to you! Get outta here. Shoot me now. Go ahead, take the 700 dollars.” So, yeah, I used everything I could think of to put into the characters so I had the sense memory, and those kind of things always stuck with me. And so it worked great, both those scenes. By the way [to Elliott], you told me that Altman wanted to cancel that fight scene in the bathroom, with Ed.
EG: No. I didn’t know about that.
JW: Maybe Ed told me. Oh yeah, Ed told me. I was at the track at the time. Ed said we’re not getting it. I said, I knew it because Altman is afraid. Because of The Long Goodbye, he got hit with terrible press for smashing that girl in the face. Everybody said that’s probably the ugliest scene they’ve ever saw in a movie, that scene with Mark Rydell.
EG: Maybe Ed was someplace close to the moment because there was never a question, that scene. That scene was really important. Oh, it’s so funny. What does he say when the guys come in …?
JW: Oh, yeah, call an ambulance, a man lost a race. Tried to kill himself.
KM: [To George] The seven dwarves riff … you started that …
GS: I had an idea. It turns out I was wrong. The idea was, I’m gonna bet that I can name the seven dwarves but …
EG: Like a Gatling gun!
GS: … And then, not be able to. And see where that would go.
JW: And then Elliott with Dumbo.
EG: Not in that cast. Dumbo wasn’t in that cast?
KM: The improvisation continues through the entire film … with the elephant.
EG: Oh sure …
JW: When Elliott rubs the trunk. That was a continuation of what you guys created. Yeah, I wrote almost all the scenes in the movie including all the interior scenes. But the one scene that happens to be my favorite scene in the move, the seven dwarves, I didn’t write it! I said in Telluride, that one scene was my favorite scene, and I didn’t write it!
EG: Yeah, but it’s so the spirit of your script … I remember when Joey first went out to California and a few of us, didn’t we chip in a few dollars to help you get out?
JW: Yeah, I think you did.
EG: And then I got a letter from Joey saying, “It’s really tough out here. It’s really tough to get work. I’ll tell you how tough it is: it’s so tough out here that Bambi is having to do The Yearling.”
KM: The actresses in the movie. They were so unique and lovely. How was it working with them, Gwen Welles and Ann Prentiss?
EG: Oh, it was great.
KM: And they have their own comedic camaraderie too.
GS: Yeah, yes!
KM: And I love that the movie never judges what they do. That they’re prostitutes. They’re human beings and they’re actually really charming and funny too. Which is rare for a movie even now.
JW: Split has no judgment. That was key for me. No judgment.
EG: Ohhh, it’s so sweet! And then there’s Helen Gurley Brown …
KM: Helen Gurly Brown! That scene! You don’t mock her. You call her a classy lady. You flatter her. You’re so nice to her!
EG: [Laughing] Oh yeah … That’s how he is. You’re a very attractive woman. My mother used to wear hats like that … and he was so great.
GS: We loved it. We loved the actor, Burt Remsen.
JW: Burt Remsen … who I told you only came to one thing. He walked in the office. We were trying to think of who was going to play Helen Gurley Brown. No accidents? Burt walks in that day, and we both [Altman and I], one of us looks at each other and — “You thinking what I’m thinking? Why not?”
KM: And he had taken some time off before this because of an injury, correct?
JW: Yeah, it was terrible. That crane fell on him. But his thing was great. We gave him the role right away — we said you can do it. He comes in, he wants to talk to us, and he’s very serious. “What is it, Burt?” He said, “I know you want me to do Helen Gurley Brown, but I’ve got to have a little stipulation here. I hate to put the pressure on you guys and I hate to make a foul play here, but, I’m serious now. I got to be as pretty as I can be. “ And we said, “Absolutely Burt. Elegant. We’re gonna make you elegant.” And he said, “That’s important to me. I can’t be some stupid-looking woman. I want to be pretty.”
EG: That’s so sweet. Because we hardly ever really talked about it, and, I mean, as far as the whole journey of this, George was always in, you were always in, and then from me I feel so fortunate to have been there to be able to play his heart. To play that guy and then to play it with you, which was so interesting because I know it wasn’t a matter of making things easy or difficult, but I have to go with my foot on the accelerator almost every moment but I’m always there for you. Always.
JW: And they were both so unafraid. You know.
KM: I think the reason I love it so much, and a lot of young people so much, all ages love it, because you’re not acting like, I guess how upstanding adults should act, but at the same time, you ARE men. It’s different from current indie movies and, maybe, bromance comedies today, it’s so much more complex and real and still larger than life … and you’re real men. You’re not boys. And I love that you live with those two women.
EG: Through two women?
KM: You live with two women.
EG: Oh, you live with two women. I thought at first you said, through women. Interesting …
KM: You live with those women. You sympathize with those women. You know their lives are tough but you also don’t condescend to them.
EG: No! We don’t. Are you kidding?
KM: And, George, your character really doesn’t either. You’re more curious or maybe baffled. And it’s so sad and funny when you try to romance beautiful Gwen Welles.
KM: At the same time it’s really funny and charming that they’re looking for the TV guide at that moment. Which is rude, I guess, but they don’t really mean it that way … Because she really did like you, George.
GS: She really did. But there was no second act with her. There was nowhere to go.
EG: That scene. I remember that robe that Charlie had; it was a robe I think I got it at Turnbull & Asser, and when she’s in bed and he’s smoking and you, Joey, give me an opportunity with the whale and the cigarette. Oh, you know, and she’s saying you’re saying this to make me feel good. I wound up giving that robe to Jennifer O’Neill. [Laughs] I thought that was the least I could do since I couldn’t marry her.
JW: Has anyone had a cigarette in his mouth better in that scene?
EG: Ahh … you let me do it! It was her! It was her, and it gives him an opportunity to be a little bit of Belmondo. What brings it out is this amazing young woman.
KM: Speaking of great leading men like Belmondo. Some of the leading men, you worked with, we’ve talked about many with Elliott and George. Joey, you with both Robert Ryan and Robert Mitchum in Anzio, two of my favorite actors of all time. And then, of course you guys yourself are icons. I don’t want to butter you up but …
EG: [Sighs and leans on Kim] Ahhhh …
JW: I have some great Mitchum stories. I’d play poker; I have no money at the time. I was making 1,000 dollars a week to be in this picture. By the fourth or fifth day, Mitchum adopted me. He said to me that night, he said, “I watch you every day and you son, are fucking double tough. Fuckin-A. You’re double tough, kid.”
EG: Double tough is great.
JW: Here’s a great story with Mitchum. He loves me, right? So he says, “Kid, what are you doing after this?” And I say, “I don’t know. I’ll be slumming for a job.” And he says, “I’m gonna try to get you in El Dorado.” He was trying to get me Jimmy Caan’s role.
EG: Right. Good part.
JW: Yes! Great part.
EG: I would have loved to have seen you in that.
JW: Anyway, Bob goes out on a limb and so after a while, I’m learning by myself and I’m thinking, he’s a big movie star. So I start to lose confidence and I become self-conscious. What am I gonna do, follow Robert Mitchum every day? He’s gotta do his own work. So he calls next New Year’s Eve, for his party … and finally, I don’t call him anymore. Right? I don’t even get back after a while. Elliott’s now doing a picture with him and finally you’re on location, he’s down there.
EG: Yeah. I was with him all week.
JW: I had just gotten involved with EST [Erhard Seminars Training] at the time. And I’m like, Jesus, Mitchum is right here, he comes out of his trailer, and I say, “Bob! Great to see you!” And he says, “Why didn’t you call me?” And he’s pulling me in.
EG: He was having grass. He would give us lunch every day on the set, and a little grass …
JW: But so I go into this dressing room and now the fear of being confronted by EST. I say, “Bob, I gotta go. I will call you.” And he’s looking at me and I’m trying to explain myself but he’s never heard of EST and he says, “What?” I say this thing. I can’t be late. It’s almost the stupidest thing you ever heard, right? And it goes on and on and that was it. Somehow, I hurt his heart. Somehow, because when I visited him on the set of Matilda, a man who practically adopted me, I went over to Bob and he said [casually, like he doesn’t really know me] “Hi.”
EG: Oh no!
JW: He said, “Hi.”
EG: Oh no …
JW: He said “Hi, Joey” and I walked away.
EG: Oh no, that was a total misunderstanding!
JW: Oh, it was a total misunderstanding.
KM: That’s sad.
KM: George, you must have so many stories. Elizabeth Taylor …
GS: Well, yes. So we’re on our third day of Virginia Woolf. And our producer, Ernest Lehman was a notorious tightwad.
EG: Ernie Lehman? He was a tightwad?
GS: Oh my God.
EG: But he was like a friend!
JW: A tight friend.
GS: So we’re standing around and Elizabeth says, “I haven’t gotten a gift. Usually I get a gift.” And she says, “You see this ring? It’s an emerald.” A huge green ring. She says, “You see this? Ray Stark gave me this ring forNight of the Iguana and I wasn’t even in that movie.” So, the next day she got a big broach from Ernie Lehman.
JW: Did you get her some flowers?
EG: You know my story with Ava Gardner, right?
KM: Nooo …
JW: Recall that one again.
EG: When Barbra and I were living at 32nd Park West, and one night, however it happened, Ava Gardner and George C. Scott came to visit us. And he was so drunk and they were together and they had done The Bible with John Huston and so there was just the four of us sitting there and Ava Gardner says, we’ve got to get back to the Regency Hotel, a friend of mine is there, why don’t you come with us? So, we did. We went back to the Regency Hotel and after a little while there was a knock on the door and it was Frank Sinatra with his hat on, and the coat over his shoulder. It was Frank Sinatra like that, out of one of his albums. They were friends for life.
GS: Here’s a little thing. Begelman and Richard Benjamin and Mel Brooks are all in Begelman’s office because Begelman was the head of MGM at the time and they’re discussing the release of My Favorite Year, which Benjamin directed, and Mel Brooks produced. So, Begelman sneezes and Begelman says, “I really get off on sneezing.” And Mel Brooks says, “Wait till you come, you’ll dance around the room like an Indian!”
EG: Oh Mel, he’s a great guy.
JW: Back to Robert Mitchum — Mitchum’s thing, his philosophy. Big hill in Anzio, right? Running down a hill. Bob’s got to run down this hill. And it’s a long shot from about a thousand miles away. And I say to him, he’s a big movie star, and I say, “Bob? Why would they ask you to do that? The camera is two miles away, running down this ragged, jagged thing.” And he says, “Because they’re fucking stupid, Joey.” And I say, “But why do you think you’ll do it, Bob?” And he said, “Because they’re fucking stupid I’m gonna run down that fucking hill, fuckin-a, jack, and if I fracture my ankle or something, they’re fucking out of luck so fuckin-a man. I am doing this. Proving their stupidity.”
JW: Classic line, Bob Mitchum says to Peter Falk who’s in Anzio. We’re going to the scene across a minefield, he never talks in this movie that I could see at all, never to Peter Falk. Peter Falk, I’ve known him for a thousand years, I talk to him all the time. In the middle of the scene, I’m here, Mitchum’s here, Falk is here, Mitchum turns around to Peter Falk and says, “Do you eat mice?”
EG: Do you eat what? Mice?
JW: “Do you eat mice?” That’s the only time he’d talk to Peter Falk. And then later, Peter says to me, “What the fuck? Do I eat mice? What is that about? The man never says a fucking word to me and he asks, ‘Do you eat mice?’” I never knew what Bob meant. I should have asked him.
EG: Reni Santoni … I visit him occasionally and he sends his love to you. He’s talented. He’s quite talented.
JW: Reni. From Anzio.
EG: He said you took him to school for poker. That you actually took him to school for poker.
JW: I took them all to school for poker. That’s why Mitchum called me “Double Tough.”
EG: That’s who you are.
KM: George, you only worked with Altman once. Did you want to again?
GS: Yes. As a matter of fact, he called me down to be in Nashville. Elliott was in it. He cut me out. Oh sure, I would have worked with him any time, ever. He was so great … I love that kid — who I was back then. I’m always amazed to be there at all. But that, even now, that never wanes. It’s always the first day of school when I work. I love it. I don’t know if it’s going to be there tomorrow. I’m always amazed I’m there. That I’m here. That always keeps it fresh for me.
EG: When Arthur Laurents called me shortly before he died — he was a very smart guy — he said to me, “How have you survived? How could you still be as good as you are? After everything you’ve been through?” And I said, “I don’t think that way, you know? Thanks for the compliment,” but my response is that simply, my mother never gave up. I have no choice. In terms of my father, and that little beat in there, “Do you think I can?” No? You gotta let the audience know that you’re not finished, that so long that one of us is living, I’ll come back around. I will come back around. And it works that way. Life is a reciprocal thing. It’s like a tide in an ocean. But it’s great after 40 years, what we’re talking about here is still vital. It’s still vital. It’s really great.
Criterion's two-disc edition of Monte Hellman's experimental, beautiful, seminal westerns, Ride in the Whirlwind and The Shooting is out today. I wrote and narrated the visually rich video essay about Warren Oates as an extra on the disc -- an ode to Oates and specifically his work with Hellman. Here's my extended written piece on Mr. Oates (from the video essay) to accompany the release.
Let's begin with the face. The face of Warrren Oates -- a face like no other. Grizzled, furrow-browed, full-lipped, toothy, sensual, goofy; laser-eyed and softly observing. Empathetic, angry, insane, proud, humble, stupid, intelligent; sexy, uniquely handsome and sometimes ugly, but ugly in a way that made him more beautiful. A face with history and innocence; future and failure. A face with dreams but a face that knows dreams are often just that -- ridiculous bullshit. A face that’s honest at once, mysterious the next. There’s so much written on that face, a face that he himself so lyrically called like “two miles of country road,” that you’re never going to get to the end of it and that’s the way it should be. He’s not spilling his guts out for you, not because he’s being macho or withholding or too proud to reveal himself; he reveals himself plenty.
He allows you entrance, but he isn’t begging for you to understand him. He’s letting you in on something deeper, something larger than himself, something both universal and exotic to the human condition. Oates once said: “I believe what Camus says. When the curtain rings down, your job is done. The responsibility is pitched to someone else as to what the meaning is of what you've played. What you represent is always one aspect of a moral question.”
Oates brought questions but often, you just got it. He’d laser in on some kind of truth, and it made sense, even a mad sense. You got why, in Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, he’s chatting up and unloading to the decapitated head of his now-deceased beloved’s ex, you got why, in China 9, Liberty 37, he, after everything, forgives his wife for sleeping with and running off with the man who he knew was set to kill him, and she nearly killed him: “I want you to forget about what happened,” he says.
You got why in Stripes, he famously tells that psycho Francis to “lighten up.” Hell, you got it so much that he makes everyone else in the movie seem like a bunch of squares. Francis, a psycho? Oates’ Sgt. Hulka has seen his share of nuts. So had Oates – you can read that on his face. And you can hear it in his voice – that deep, gravelly, western Kentucky-tinted burr.
Faulkner famously wrote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” That could apply to Warren Oates. You can even hear Oates saying it, either in quiet contemplation -- GTO drinking a coke at a roadside gas station, or loudly proclaiming it, Bennie unloading a barrel; spraying guts all over his blood splattered white suit – past and present ever contesting with each other in the earthy tumult of his face.
The past and the present -- it’s something that echoes throughout his performance in the masterpiece The Shooting, the first picture he made with one of his greatest collaborators, director Monte Hellman, an artist who saw Oates not simply as a character actor, but as a leading man, and also an emblematic figure of a man, a soul shambling through an elliptical universe. Within Hellman’s artful revisionism and reinventions, he cast Oates in varied states of frustration, melancholy, anger and mystery -- imprinting that face and voice within so many gorgeously shot frames. Hellman understood Oates’ range, casting him as a garrulous, flamboyant wanna-be-gearhead in his brilliant, existential road movie Two-Lane Blacktop, as a mute in his, excellent, rough, though tender and dreamlike Cockfighter in which Oates’ character chooses not to speak, and as a soulful farmer in the captivating and reflective western, China 9, Liberty 37.
With The Shooting Oates is cast with such an enigmatic pull that he and the movie exist almost in their own universe of time. Oates could have stepped right out of the past – right from his Kentucky lineage – but he’s not limited to the retro cowboy, the old timey fella, he’s more emblematic of the picture’s originality, its elusiveness, its take on classic, spare economical westerns, like something by Budd Boeticher, with whom Oates had worked previously (in The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond) but entirely its own thing. The Shooting (screenplay by Carole Eastman, writing under the pseudonym Adrien Joyce) feels simultaneously of the past, and of the future. It’s still radical.
The open-ended, almost Beckett-like story conerns a mysterious, beautiful woman, played by Millie Perkins, who hires Oates’s bounty hunter for reasons we’re never really sure of. They’re interrupted by a brutal, shadowy stranger (Jack Nicholson) who torments Oates and his inept friend (Will Hutchins) while this strange, striking creature leads the way. A dubious trio of men, it becomes maneuvers made in the dark by ignorant,suspicious ardents.They all seem drawn to the woman, but each with their own sense of wariness. Nicholson would appear to be the natural star here (and he is indeed, engaging, as is everyone in the movie), but Oates, no doubt, is the leading man.
And each character feels representative, loading each gesture with portent. Oates is trying to control things as best he can within this perplexing journey, but whatever is out there -- it’s tough to beat. And it’s lonesome. But his lonely character, a fascinating figure in the mythology of the western is altered. He’s even given a Dostoyevskian doubling by picture end.
And the movie star iconography is subtly agitated with these new faces. Nicholson, a creepy Shane like Jack Palance to Oates’ sensible, suspicious Bogart (or Ladd); a fresh-faced Hutchins is turned into a strangely good looking Elijah Cook Jr., making everything feel beguilingly off kilter. It’s curious to simply look at these faces here, and, ever-visual Hellman, knew that Oates was captivating to observe. Just look at this fantastic take – Oates drinking his coffee while Hutchens humorously runs with a sack of flour. Not only does he appear movie-star handsome, he’s mysterious, tough, romantic, pensive. You want to know what he’s thinking.
Is this the face of a character actor? In the strictest definition of that term, no it is not. And then, if meaning a face with character to spare, of course it is. And yet Warren Oates is still tagged as a character actor, which seems unfair to him as well as many other so-called “character actors” in cinema, not for portraying terrific characters (cinema needs them), but for being ghettoized as such. In Susan Compo’s excellent, indispensable “Warren Oates: A Wild Life” (a book that is absolutely essential for those studying the actor and was vital for this essay) she wrote that Oates, “blew hot and cold on the character actor tag. Sometimes he wistfully embraced it."
“I'm not angry because I'm not the leading man.” Oates said, “Whatever they give me to do, I do. I don't want to be typed but I have learned a lesson in patience and resignation. If it's an anti-hero they want, I'm more than happy to oblige.” Oates further said, “ I didn't intentionally set out to be a villain. I do what is given me to do and from there I evolve my attitude and comment. Heavies are closer to life than leading men. The heavy is everyman -- everyman when he faces a tough moment in life. It's the heavy that has to do with the meat of life.”
Born in Depoy, a tiny rural Kentucky town that’s still so small, looking it up now, it hasn’t been included in census counts, one likes to imagine young Oates as a child. Firmly American, but an inquisitive exotic, he was likely a force of nature finding creativity, lyricism and darkness within his surroundings. You see and hear it throughout his life. In an interview recounted in Compo’s book, Oates said:
“What I'm beginning to wonder about myself is, have I removed myself from society? Have I been away too long on all of my location trips? Do I read enough? Do I question enough? My reason for being an actor, like most any other actor, is to really nail something important down, to really find something to say in my work. And I tell myself that if I am sincere about my work, I should understand the time I live in.”
By all accounts it appears he stayed in real life and among real people. He disliked stereotypes and avoided such clichés in his performances. This is wonderfully expressed in his funny and poignant performance as Deputy Sam from In the Heat of the Night, a potentially one-note comical southern stereotype, who, is not only given some kinks (hot sex on cold gravestones) but, in the end, some heartfelt dignity. Goofy parts and southern clichés could have become the thing for Oates -- he could have just played them up his whole life. But he wasn’t that kind of an actor. He had more to give, more to express, more to pull from his performances. Trying or not trying, Warren Oates simply standing in a shot usually knocked down any stock idea of what a character should be. He's too unique.
Even though his TV work he displayed something different. After leaving New York for Los Angeles, he found plenty of work on network television through the late 50s and into the 1960s, often playing what he described -- “heavies.” Or skinny little oddballs. Oates appeared on too many shows to list, from “Have Gun -- Will Travel” to “The Outer Limits” to a recurring role on “Stoney Burke.” His film work is intriguing, filled with movies that reveal a transitional Hollywood throughout his entire career: Old school and new school.
There’s the pictures discussed more specifically in this essay and then there’s Private Property, There was a Crooked Man, Return of the Seven, Chandler, Tom Sawyer, Kid Blue, Dillinger, Dixie Dynamite, Race with the Devil, The Split, The White Dawn, Badlands, The Border, 92 In the Shade, The Brinks Job, 1941, Blue Thunder and more and more and more… And he worked TV and the big screen his entire career, the big budget and the experimental, the pulpy and the literary, and seemingly all possible variations of the above.
A key moment in Oates’ acting career came in 1965 when he played Randall P. McMurphy in the Hollywood stage production of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. As detailed in Compo’s book, Oates, taking on a part originated by Kirk Douglas on Broadway, was a sensation, a revelation, brilliant. The play’s director, John Erman said, “I imagine Jack Nicholson saw it. Jack was very much part of that theater group. Oates was very different. He was such an original in it. I can't tell you how good he was— he was just wonderful. ‘Cuckoo's Nest’ was a watershed for Warren, and for me.” Pity this was never shot.
It was his appearances on the western show “The Rifleman,” where he met Sam Peckinpah, the director who would assert a great deal of influence in both his work and personal life, leading to memorable appearances in the early Peckinpah pictures, Ride the High Country and Major Dundee. And, then, of course, the seminal, The Wild Bunch. Man, is he unforgettable here. In one of the most memorable and oft-quoted moments in the classic, cinema-changing picture, William Holden says, “Let’s Go.” But the real reckless romantic poetry comes when Oates looks at his compatriots, thinks for a moment eyes narrowed, and answers Holden’s suicidal last stand with the question, “Why not?”
Why not? Oates liked to describe acting as his mentor, Ben Johnson, did: “It beats working.” But the man who never saw himself as a John Wayne figure, not “larger than life” but rather, more, “a little shit” (and of course he was more than that), did take acting seriously and, though no snob, he certainly took pride in his work. Though he liked to say Hellman’s Cockfighter was one of his easiest jobs because he didn’t have to talk (to which Hellman said was “one of the grossest understatements of all time”), it takes a special kind of talent to convey so much with nary a word. Both in subtle gestures and in, some cases, amusingly purposefully overstated moments, Oates’ showed all shades to his character with a kind of authority, beauty and depth that seemed singular to Oates, and again, without words. It’s a lovely, startling and ultimately, moving performance.
It’s hard to simply describe an actor who can work so effortlessly, so subtly. It even, at times, feels intrusive like you’re removing the magic out of the moment. To be simplistic -- Warren Oates just nailed it, always, and added an captivating complexity to everything he did. In life and acting, he was an intelligent man, an instinctual man, and a so-called everyman, but let’s not kid ourselves -- he was an extraordinary man.
We are not like him. You can see why so many were beguiled, not just on screen, but in real life, from close friends like Harry Dean Stanton and Peter Fonda to Cockfighter novelist Charles Willeford, who wrote a lost journal about his road trip with Oates called “Remembering Warren Oates; or, The Demise of ‘The First Five in Line.’” (Oh, if only someone could find that buried treasure!). As Willeford wrote in his journal about the making of Cockfighter and Oates playing the protagonist: “I worry constantly that Frank won't come off sympathetically. A hell of a lot is riding on the charm of Oates' smile. Luckily, no one has ever smiled more engagingly than Warren Oates.”
Oates’ work inspires -- and he stirs up multiple feelings and perceptions. In his commentary track for Two-Lane Blacktop, Monte Hellman talked about Oates’ empathy as GTO. Yes. What a fascinating and perfect assessment to make about a character many view as a delusional liar. Indeed, he’s full of shit half of the time, but he’s also loaded with empathy. He listens and tries to understand, which in the end, makes his bizarre-o GTO genuinely lovable. In a moment of charming surprise, after he’s been bragging about his speed and past excitements, he realizes how much faster James Taylor’s Driver’s 55 Chevy runs over his ultra-cool, but off-the-lot GTO -- his reaction is both awe and humility. Energetic humility. It’s also, just, the perfect thing to say. “What are you to trying to do? Blow my mind?”
Two-Lane Blacktop could have just been a “youth” movie, a “car” movie, but it’s working on another level. Its young stars James Taylor, Dennis Wilson and Laurie Bird feel older, carrying a heavy amount of resigned cynicism within their gorgeous, stoic, frames. These gearheads are serious, driving into a void with monk-like intent. As counterpoint, it’s Oates’ GTO who represents a fragmented youth and freedom. A lonely man fleeing life, or whatever is holding him back in the immobile world, he’s full of half-truths, or flat-out- fantasies. We wonder about him. What did he leave behind? Is he having any fun? Is he as cool as he thinks he is? Well, no. And he knows it. And, then, in his own self-made manner, he really is. He’s something, that’s for sure. Again, old school new school.
Warren Oates and his bright sweaters and driving gloves hanging with a jean jacketed Dennis Wilson -- it eventually makes a certain sense. There’s a messy soul in there, trying to control his existence through the focus and excitement of the open road, something Oates never shies from in his performance through curious, often comical outbursts, anger and, once in a while, an enormous shit eating grin. He could come off creepy. He doesn’t. He’s touching. A mid life crisis realized with such bewildering panache, you’re charmed by him.
Even the cryptic Driver and Mechanic seem charmed and, as Hellman pointed out, feel his empathy. Oates has this way of working off of another actor and soaking in their feelings; reacting, revealing and commenting on not only himself but the screen partner.
Take, for instance, his work with Peter Foonda. There are moments in Fonda’s gorgeous The Hired Hand where Oates simply looks at Fonda, eyes wide or narrowed or softly curious and no one need say a word. You feel it. The two friends who worked wonderfully off each other in other pictures (Race With the Devil and 92 in the Shade) had a natural chemistry and knowing with on another. And Oates -- his Empathy. Charm. Poignancy.
From John Milius’ Dillinger (Oates is the supreme John Dillinger, better than Johnny Depp and even better than the great Laurence Tierney) to his small part in Terrence Malick’s Badlands in which Oates’ simply painting a sign is a work of art in itself, certain directors just knew how to cast the man compellingly (not that he couldn’t make even a sub par TV movie interesting with his presence -- he was praised by many as Rootster Cogburn in the TV version of True Grit).
Hellman offered him the greatest range, and some of the most intriguingly experimental movies and roles (even as Oates once poo-pooed “experimental cinema” saying he’d never make a John Cassavetes movie, for instance, and yet, with Hellman he worked in some of the most brilliant art films of the 60s and 70s).
Sam Peckinpah, casting Oates as a version of himself in his masterpiece Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, induced (coerced, bullied, however it went down) Oates to showcase so many edges of himself, that the actor becomes a walking incarnation of romance and ruin, madness and dread, bloodlust and valiance. Oates’ Bennie, the piano playing drifter, the loser with the clip-on tie, the cool sunglasses and those creamy white suits, displays such a desperate determination to make a better life for himself and his girlfriend whom he truly loves (the picture is intensely romantic), that it’s baffling why this movie was considered so inscrutable.
With Oates in charge, intentions and eventual insanity are not that hard to understand. He’s putting it out there in Alfredo Garcia, it, at times, feels like everything the actor could do in one movie, and maybe that was just too much for some viewers. For some of us, it’s never enough.
He died too young. What a major loss. So many roles could have come his way. Imagine what the Coen brothers or David Lynch or Quentin Tarantino or Paul Thomas Anderson or Malick and of course Monte Hellman could have done with him (and he for them)? But he’ll never be forgotten. His very presence on celluloid lingers in minds, hearts, souls, loins, automobiles and head sacks forever. Watching Warren Oates is a wonder of acting, natural charisma, charm, mystery, beauty and poetry. It’s transcendent and satisfying. And, as the great man says in Two-Lane Blacktop, "Those satisfactions are permanent."
Check out Ride in the Whirlwind and The Shooting, watch both masterpieces and take in all of the extras, including a superb essay by Michael Atkinson and my video ode. Drink in the visuals of Warren Oates, his movies and his face. More here at Criterion.
Early in my writing career when I was a film critic for the Oregonian I interviewed William Friedkin while he was making The Hunted in our city of bridges and frequent gloom. It was a beautiful spring day in Portland, nice for Portlanders, not so nice for Friedkin. For his new, moody movie he was promised rainy, overcast weather. He said to me, bemused: "As Rick said in Casablanca. I was misinformed."
When I met him on set, he was wearing grease-monkey dungarees required for filming in a dank, hot North Portland tunnel -- he was shooting a tense scene in which Benicio Del Toro was brandishing a knife. I was also required to suit up in dungarees to watch, notepad in hand. That was exciting for a young writer who'd never stepped on a movie set. I felt like I was in the belly of the beast.
I interviewed him twice, while on a long break from shooting and then later over dinner. Many aspects of his career were covered, all of the movies (we really got into Cruisin' and Sorcerer, two films I loved and still do), we discussed his influences and he talked about numerous films and filmmakers. He was endlessly interesting and charming. Discussing his childhood, I found this fascinating and pertinent: "My main influence was dramatic radio when I was a kid. I remember listening to it in the dark. Everything was left to the imagination. It was just sound. I think of the sounds first and then the images."
Friedkin is famous for his provocative, visceral and ingenious soundscapes and discussing this, I wrote in my profile, "Collaborating with inventive composers such as Jack Nitzsche, Friedkin creates impressionistic symphonies out of animal yelps, voices, footsteps, rubbing leather, natural location noise and existing music. The results are often beautiful, nightmarish and sometimes subliminal, deepening the substantial and creepy feelings emanating from his pictures."
Yes. All of that. And, then, the subliminal, which has always gotten to me. We talked more about sound, which led to The Exorcist, which led, naturally, to how that movie terrified me as a kid, even just watching it for the first time, snuggled up and supposedly prepared, in the living room. I was not prepared. I had to express this since it caused so many months of sleepless nights and likely pubescent powerlessness. Girls who are beginning to feel out of control regarding their bodies and thoughts, their budding sexuality and the realization of how dark the world is, and their curiosity about it, not to mention new fluids emerging from their special places, might possibly respond more to the picture. It did in my case anyway. And all those terrible things you yell at your mother...
But back to sound, Trembling on the basement couch, I was, at one point, not spontaneously covering my eyes, but slapping my hands over my ears. I was horrified by that breathing sound pulsating from Regan's bedroom. I was even scared I could possibly be imagining sounds tumbling out of my subconscious. It wasn't the pea soup and levitating so much as the buildup, the claustrophobia and, again, the sound -- something you can't escape in bed at night, eyes shut tight. Every creaking floorboard, every flapping shutter, rats in the attic, even breathing, it all took on an evil resonance for me as I tried to sleep. I even wondered if I was welcoming evil, which further freaked me out.
But at 12, I was rapt, there was no way I would not watch and listen and I made it through the entire movie, understanding it was a masterpiece. Friedkin found my terror amusing, surely he'd heard how much The Exorcist has scared people a million times, but if it had gotten old for him, he didn't show it. I remember thinking, if my traumatized, evil-questioning 12-year-old could imagine me talking about this now. That girl who was staying awake wondering if evil was going to take over her body and did she really believe that? Would she feel comforted knowing in the future she would be talking to the man responsible for all this? Not sure, given what he then said to me.
Friedkin told me: "I believe in good and evil. I believe that the forces of good and evil are at war within all of us every day, all the time. It's a daily struggle in every human being. It is in me. And I probably would be a seriously screwed up person if I weren't making movies about seriously screwed up people."
Well, thank you for that. And Happy Halloween.
We’re driving around Palm Springs and Udo Kier is asking me to check on his ball. Has it arrived? I’m not certain what he’s talking about. A ball has not been mentioned yet today, but as we slowly creep past his block, I check for a ball as if this is the most normal thing to do. “It’s enormous, you can’t miss it,” Udo tells me in his distinct German accent of Udo-ness; only Udo sounds like Udo. I don’t see the ball. “No. No ball. OK. It’s not here yet, let’s drive some more,” he says with a curious mixture of stern cheeriness. We do just that, eyeing houses, discussing the architecture of Palm Springs, how our mornings went. We discuss his life living in both Palm Springs and out further, far into the high desert. He stops by his other house to show a couch he wants to give me. It’s lovely from what I can see, but dusty and crammed in the back of his garage. It's massive. How will I ever move this thing? He seems incredulous: “Well, don’t you have any strong friends?”
Yesterday Udo and I drove around Morongo Valley shopping in thrift stores. Udo doesn’t care for the antique marts where everything is curated and nicely arranged and usually overpriced. He prefers the hunt, to search through the junk, to stumble on something remarkable and unexpected. And he always manages to do so. We come across a big white desk with pink and gold details – faux neo-classical with those delicate legs. Probably from the 1960s, but very Louis XVI. It’s a little ridiculous but sturdily made and beautiful, bordering on tacky and we both love it.
He says that I must have this desk. He urges me to buy it. I’m waffling but Udo persists. He tells me this is where Marie Antoinette would sit and write letters. He shows me how. He tells me it would look good with my hair. He's ever convincing, but I need to think about it (strong men). We continue to browse and almost immediately see two men, maybe antique dealers, spying the desk, inching closer, checking the price. We return to the desk. Udo says "She is going to buy it." I am? We place it on hold. Oh dear. More things to move. More strong friends.
Everyone in these dusty little shops know him. Some know he’s an actor, a movie star, some probably aren’t so sure. They can tell he’s something famous. He talks nicely and with jovial familiarity to everyone working. When we drive further on to a thrift store in Yucca Valley, an older female employee wearing her Angel Thrift smock stands out front on her smoke break. She greets him with a scratchy, gin-soaked voice, “Hey, Udo. We got some clay pots.” Udo is pleased. She takes a drag from her cigarette and says, “Yeah. But you got too many clay pots.” She cackles and goes back inside. The clerk says an immediate hello -- there's things in the back. Everyone’s happy to see him. Walking through the store, someone asks Udo if I’m his daughter. He says, “Don’t insult her! She’s my granddaughter.”
Driving through the desert, we talk about his life, art, his work (and all the work he's currently doing -- it's a lot), people he’s met, working with Fassbinder, von Trier, Morrissey, von Sant, Argento, Herzog, Maddin and more and, then, movies he’s loved as a kid. He loved watching Errol Flynn pirate movies. He didn’t have much money growing up, but he’d rush to see Flynn on screen. He discusses one of the three pictures he almost made with Alejandro Jodorowsky. It later became Santé Sangre. Before it was to star Udo and Bette Davis. Wait. What? Bette Davis?
Udo says he cried that they couldn’t raise the money back then; that he couldn’t work with Bette Davis. “Originally Bette Davis played my mother. It was a circus family and my father cut off the arms of my mother and I swear to her that as long as she lives, I will be her arms! Imagine! Imagine! Bette Davis and me! And I would have trained how to do it.” Udo adds: “I don’t want to spill a cup of coffee on Bette Davis.”
I mention Davis’ eyes. Udo and Bette, in a staring match! Udo laughs. Bette’s eyes lead to another favorite actress and her famous eyes, Elizabeth Taylor. “I was in love with Elizabeth Taylor when I saw Suddenly, Last Summer. Oh, my god! She should have got an Oscar for that.” He brings up numerous Taylor performances that stayed with him including Reflections In a Golden Eye (“With Marlon Brando when she hits him!” he says), Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Butterfield 8 and X, Y & Z. And then he tells me he kissed her, in real life. “It was at a dinner in Miami … the guest speakers were Elizabeth Taylor and Audrey Hepburn. And I was sitting at one table, with a very famous artist and I was bored. Because the wine, they give it to you and you drink it. But the food takes forever. So I said, I’m going to take a rose from the table and give it to Elizabeth Taylor. She’s at the table with Valentino. The painter I’m sitting with said, ‘You are not brave enough to do that.’ So I poured one more glass of wine, took the rose, walked over to where she was sitting, kissed her on the forehead and said, ‘You are so beautiful’ and gave her the rose. She said, ‘Thank you.’”
“My dream as a young actor was playing Elizabeth Taylor’s son because we had the same eyes. My idea, was, I would be her son, who she doesn’t know about in Rome. And he comes into her life and she’s flirting with him, and then they have an affair and she finds out it’s her son.” I’m taken aback by this. What a wonderfully sexy and kinky idea. (Udo has a lot of intriguing ideas.) I exclaim, “Why didn’t you write and direct this movie?” He agrees he probably should have.
I bring up Udo’s beauty. He’s shy about this for a moment. I tell him he’s still gorgeous now, because he really is. He’s lucky in that, as he gets older, he never loses his Udo-ness, it just seems to increase. He’s too interesting a person, too unique, too vital, too great an actor, too smart for anything like beauty to fade. I’m not flattering him. It’s just too obvious. Every place I’ve been with him, Paris or Winnipeg or Los Angeles or in the middle of a dirty thrift store in Morongo Valley, people look at him, things shift, the room temperature changes. Charisma. When he was young, he had to know he was one of the most beautiful men on the planet, I say. He’s very gracious about this. Not boastful. Women must have thrown themselves at you, I tell him. Men and women. It must have been crazy all the time. He is again, humble and discreet but he knows that I know. Yes. It was fucking insane.
I tell him if I looked like how Udo looked as a young man I would have had sex with everything and not just humans. He laughs. I start with animals and he continues happily, “Cars, trees…” I say, “Joshua Trees...” He likes this, at first: “Yes! Oh, but that would hurt a lot. The needles are very sharp…”
We stop off at his halfway finished property in Joshua Tree. A simple, but semi large green structure, set in the vast expanse of desert. His survivalist-looking neighbors, seemingly the only ones, check in and offer a beer from their truck. They invite us to see their pet donkeys. They love Udo. The man hands him a bag full of thrift store neckties. We’ll see the donkeys later.
Inside the house, he’s still putting in the kitchen and the bathroom. The inside is like a barn with exposed beams that he’ll keep that way. It’s gorgeous. It’s filled with all kinds of pretty, strange things, all eclectic and fitting of Udo’s taste. Udo loves the Palm Spring mid century modern aesthetic, and he has an impressive, enormous art collection (and furniture and just about everything), but he’s not boring and strict about it like too many people. An instinctively creative person, he mixes it up with all eras and expression and his own art projects. Udo makes fantastic chairs out of neckties. (Now I understand the neckties.) There’s a box of doll heads and I reach in to grab one. All of the dolls have holes in the back of their heads. He says he’ll put feathers in the holes. He shows me a lovely antique dining room set that he hates to part with but doesn’t have room for. He says I can have it if I can move it. More strong men. He tells me, once it’s all moved and set up in my dining room, he’ll come visit me and the dining room set. He’ll make a movie about it. Elegant and absurd: About a man who comes over to visit because he wants to sit at the table and chairs he gave to his friend. But then he just keeps coming over, repeatedly, over and over, to sit there. He sits in different chairs. He likes to put his hands on the table. He mises the table. He misses the chairs And sometimes he’ll come into her house and just sit there alone. The way he tells this story, off-the-cuff, it's poetic. Like when instructed me to get air conditioning: "You don't want to be a dried flower, Kim."
We drive back to Palm Springs, talking about the desert, why it’s preferable to spread oneself across this hot, high lonesome instead of settling in Beverly Hills or somewhere like that. Udo, who does not have a normal life, but remains down to earth and sensitive, talks about having a normal life. “I don’t want to lose reality. The more normal you feel, the more you have a fantasy of being someone you loved. And that was always my goal, to talk to people, finding out people’s stories… I will look at a man walking in a strange way and I think, that’s great. Maybe one day I will play a role and I will walk like that man or that woman who walks very strange…"
"The problem is that people think that actors live in this mundane world. That they’re driven in a Rolls Royce and all that. And those that do, they lose reality. If you live like a millionaire, and then you play a millionaire, what is there to do? I fantasize of a combination of [things] of what I’ve read in books or magazines or Dostoyevsky or see in real life. If you have lost the reality, you lose the fantasy. You need to have the need for fantasy. The happiest of all the places where I could be is here, in the high desert. There is something magical about it.”
We return to Palm Spring and I stay the night. We wake up, drink coffee and check on his other house. He waters a tree. And, then, back to that ball. We drive down his street. I finally see the ball. He wasn’t kidding about this thing. You couldn’t miss it. An enormous orb taller than his fence, made of steel and iron or something ridiculously heavy has arrived on a truck, a massive sculpture to set in his expansive backyard by the pool. The artist unloads it himself in the blazing sun. Udo is grateful and kind to the artist, a friend, accomplishing something that appears incredibly dangerous. How heavy is that ball? The artist doesn’t need any help, and seems to want to be left alone focusing on this task, so we go back into the house. Udo makes lunch and we talk about work. But we can’t stop eying that ball. Udo decides he likes the ball slightly off center and we interrupt our conversation to peek on the thing’s progress. Udo is correct. The ball is somehow more impressive and interesting when pushed a bit to the left. It takes three hours to unload the ball.
We move outside by the pool and gaze at it. I am oddly moved by the ball, the way it’s just sitting there, tall and round and set against the blue sky. It’s strangely beautiful. You can stand inside the ball and Udo says I can dance in it at night. Udo is thrilled by his newest work of art. He points out that it looks like a giant eyeball. Udo names it, half jokingly, half serious, “The Eye of the Universe.”
I drive back to Los Angeles that night and fall asleep early. I wake up around 6 AM to an earthquake. The bed is shaking, the walls are shaking and I’m confused. I remember I’m in Los Angeles, and not in Palm Springs. I suddenly worry about that enormous ball. I sincerely hope that ball hasn’t rolled into Udo Kier’s house. I reassure myself. It’s an eye. It’s Udo. And Udo is resilient. As large as it is, it won’t win. And if that eye tried, it would make a great movie with Bette and Liz and Udo. The Eye of the Universe.
Happy 70th Birthday to my dear friend Udo.
Udo was recently honored this year by the Munich Film Festival with "An Extraordinary Personality in International Cinema" award. Five of his films where shown and the new documentary "Arteholic" which features Udo discussing work in prestigious art museums throughout the world, was shown. He has many movies coming out soon including Guy Maddin's The Forbidden Room. He's being honored with the prestigious lifetime achievement award, the Teddy, at the 2015 Berlin International Film Festival. The Teddy is also honoring Udo's friend and director, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, for what would have been his 70th birthday in May.
Today Brigitte Bardot turns 80-years old. To celebrate, I've dipped into my archives and voilà! Bardot as Don Juan. Happy Birthday Brigitte Bardot.
In 1973, French director and provocateur Roger Vadim said "The Don Juan of our day is a woman -- Brigitte Bardot in real life." Vadim was addressing his past muse, indeed one of the very reasons he became famous, as one of the ultimate feminists of the last 20 years -- and that man, the topmost gallic pro-woman confessional cad, was absolutely right.
Vadim helped catapult Bardot into the world, as the ultimate sex kitten/lioness/ woman/child in the explosive ...and God Created Woman (1956), and 16 years later he cast her as the ultimate woman/man/female/Errol Flynn in Don Juan (or if Don Juan were a woman). Was he successful? Yes. But really only because Bardot, the woman and star, was the true auteur of the picture. And Vadim, smart, savvy and woman-loving man that he was, absolutely allowed this.
She was Don Juan, or rather, Warren Beatty at that point of her life -- preferring flings to marriage, sunning in Saint Tropez, allowing her second husband custody of their child (unthinkable!) and letting herself age (how dare she!). You see some of that age in Don Juan, a movie shot with unremarkable, almost soft-core sensibilities (though boasting some terrific 70s sets and BB nude) but an older BB is ever-sexy, ever-powerful, ever-Bardot.
Following her character Jeanne on a series of sexual conquests as she relays them to her cousin/priest; she coolly discusses her dalliances, first with Pierre (Maurice Ronet), a married, influential government man. When she gleefully watches a photographer snap his picture at a drunken student orgy (gotta have a student orgy), his personal and professional life is ruined. Next is the humiliation of the boorish Prevost (Robert Hossein), married to the young, vulnerable Clara (Jane Birkin-- yes! Two Serge Gainsbourg girls together!). She ensnares him through Clara, enticing the girl to bed, setting it up so Prevost discovers such a dreamy scenario, only to reject his gluttonous desire to join them. "Je T'aime ... Moi Non Plus" indeed -- throw Joe Dallesandro into the mix and we'd have a real party.
A woman whom Simone de Beauvoir claimed could tempt a saint, it's not surprising that Bardot, with the assistance of her ex husband Vadim, the pimp-like svengali he's unfairly purported to be by some (his career and movies are far more interesting than that) make Don Juan such an intriguing look at both the force of female power and then, in our moments, the female desire to be a man. And yes, there are women who would like to be a man or at least experience their power in the world, at least a few days a week. A summation of just how feminist Bardot really was, the film is fascinating when viewed as one of her bawdy last gasps before cinematic retirement. She's still lovely, still charismatic and still lush lipped, kohl-eyed Bardot bleeding all over the screen, through and through -- and she's one convincing Don Juan at that. To use a common phrase, she is still a force of nature.
When the picture was released, some critics complained that Bardot appeared bored and uninspired, and amidst Vadim's somewhat flat landscape, she is a little sullen. But pouty annoyance is one of her strong points -- it works. It's almost as if she's not making this movie to prove herself to the world, but she's making this movie because she just feels like it that month. And if one day she's irritated by her past husband's direction, well, c'est la vie. She remains gorgeous, bewitching, mysterious, cunning and interestingly human in her conclusion to Bardotlatry.
As Vadim noted, "It was probably her last chance to keep making movies because she'd grown too old to continue playing Brigitte Bardot. But she understood that too. That's why she stopped making movies." She did. Which may seem wrong or ageist towards herself and even undermining her acting ability (see Contempt, her greatest movie) but again, BB was probably just sick of making movies. And so she let herself age, and without surgery. She's frequently deemed a controversial nutter and based on her politics, the anger is understandable. But to go after her face? Fuck you.
Some even recoil at that face (the ultimate sun loving sex kitten is a hag!), even though it was that very lifestyle men so desired -- bikini on the beach, ciggies, wine, sex and song, that helped line it so. Again, this is a feminist -- not just Naomi Wolf and her "Beauty Myth," or all those sensitive men who lust on and on about Helen Mirren (who is gorgeous, don’t get me wrong). Mirren is easy, almost the acceptable older woman to yearn for. Tell me you want some Judi Denich (yes!) or current-day Anita Pallenberg and then I'll be impressed -- that's beyond the "acceptable" desire for the "older gal." And like Ms. Pallenberg, BB's face says, fuck you, this is me. And also, this is wonderful me. Aren't I interesting? And I have a lot stories. A lot. And wisdom. She may not be a supple young thing anymore, but she handles it. She's alive.
I’d love to see more of her all smoker’s cough smiling a la Keith Richards, enjoying her age and wisdom and past beauty. Bikers gracefully grow old -- or rather into calmer versions of craggy, kicking and screaming spitfires, and as controversial as she is, so should BB. With that in mind, I wonder what a BB, Keith reprise of the great Bardot biker ode “Harley Davidson” would be like? For now, take in the original, written by that genius and BB collaborator Serge Gainsbourg for her innovative, sexy, sublime TV special.
Watching this again, and thinking further about Don Juan, I credit Vadim even more for taking his pretty maids, all in a row, and appreciating who they were. As Vadim said, "From the moment I liberated Brigitte, the moment I showed her how to be truly herself, our marriage was all downhill." Many could read this as contemptuous or quite sexist, but since Vadim and Bardot shared a friendship well after their marriage, it's more that Vadim understood Bardot would have to come before anything else.
And of course Bardot liberated herself, but even the man who dished on BB, Deneuve and Fonda in the fantastic "Memoirs of the Devil" (which boasts a wonderfully ridiculous Heavy Metal-looking book jacket cover) got it. She is her own work of art.
Happy Birthday BB.
BY TODD MCCARTHY
Former Telluride tributee Guy Maddin, creator of fantastical film including The Saddest Music in the World, Careful and Twilight of the Ice Nymphs, and film noir specialist Kim Morgan ("one of the best writers on the Internet," according to Roger Ebert) met and married four years ago. They are Telluride's first Guest Director Duo.
TODD MCCARTHY: You are the first couple to serve as Guest Directors. To what extent do your tastes in films overlap? How did that affect the way you approached this task for Telluride?
GUY MADDIN: Wouldn't it be great if we had some sort of adversarial husband and wife relationship? The Bickersons? One of the things that made me fall in love with Kim was not just the number of movie obsessions we already shared but the one she introduced me to. We don't have many deal-breaking obsessions.
KIM MORGAN: Guy introduced me to many things, too. We are voracious in all eras, any type of film and any genres of film. We go on obsessive jags. The last one was Fredric March, or, watching every dirty, sweaty movie from the 70s. It can be anything and everything.
GM: There was a Lon Chaney jag, a William Talman jag, a Ralph Meeker jag. It feels like we should be checking in to a fleabag motel and throwing the empty bottles of corn out the back window.
KM: We don't agree on everything. But I'm trying to think of one disagreement...
GM: When I first met Kim, I clung to my last few prejudices before I could call myself a cinema omnivore. I knew you were supposed to be in awe of 70s American cinema, but I just never felt the urge to put the DVDs in. She can't go too long without looking at something from that era, road pictures, in particular. She turned me on to Monte Hellman's Two Lane Blacktop and William Friedkin's The French Connection.
GM: I liked Altman, but she introduced me to California Split -- I fell in love immediately. It wasn't two people getting together; it was two people and their favorite decades getting together. We've known each other less than four years, but this programming represents kind of the Arthur Murray numbered dance steps of our relationship. You can lay them out on the floor and follow the programming through our first heady days together. Is that too schmaltzy?
TM: No, it's a wonderful new direction for the guest directors. Your program is limited in period between the early 1930s and the 1970s. It excludes the silent era, which is of some interest to you, Guy.
KM: We were trying to get a silent in there ... we both love The Unknown and are both obsessed with Erich von Stroheim [I will also add here -- I really wanted to program Stroheim, and I wouldn't shut up about him for months, but we couldn't decide], but we were trying to find films that hadn't been revived as often, if ever.
GM: When I go back to Telluride, I come home feeling like I've seen something that none of my friends back home have seen. I wanted to give that feeling to this year's visitors. So our picks were rarely seen. California Split was briefly available in DVD, but with footage missing (it's now OP). It hasn't been seen this way since 1974. Man's Castle was never available, even on VHS. It's on my Sight and Sound ballot for sure. It's fun to be able to show a movie I consider almost perfect.
TM: That scene on the stilts...
GM: I got goosebumps just with you mentioning it. I love Frank Borzage's silent masterpieces. To get someone like Spencer Tracy, who is an amazing alpha force, to slow down and simmer -- it's amazing how playful and loving and delicate he gets.
TM: It's admirable to show films that are hard to see. How did you whittle it down to six?
GM: We picked our first five, and had another title, a Mexican film, Crepusculo. But at the last second, we asked if we could swap Wicked Woman, which is the the kind of film that should be rediscovered. It's a Detour-like Poverty Row, or one block over from Poverty Row. It was the first film Kim showed me. It's the kind of film viewers will come away feeling they were having an experience.
KM: There were so many movies! I was holding out. It was stressful picking just six. We were trying to cover each era, just to help us curate it, to give some rhyme or reason. As Guy said, there are so many films that are rarely seen. Il Grido, starring the great actor and notorious Steve Cochran, is not screened often and never revived and rarely discussed. I think it's a masterpiece. I want to see it on the big screen! That one was haunting us. We put it aside. Should we show it? Or not? We'd keep watching it, it's so beautiful, and I kept and keep thinking about it.
GM: I really always wanted to like Antonino more. I was saying, "If only he'd cast Steve Cochran. Or Raymond Burr." You get some noir on my Italian arthouse.
KM: We didnn't get any Joan Crawford In!
GM: Until Wicked Woman went in, we didn't have a gynocentric film. And boy, is that one gynocentric. It really is from the women's perspective.
KM: And then there's Joseph Losey's M -- a film that really needs to be seen. It was the first film I thought of, and it had finally been restored. I had only seen murky grey-market copies. It was a Holy Grail for me, to see it in a restored, pristine copy. Joseph Losey is such an interesting filmmaker [I have to add, Boom! "Injection!"] , and to think of it as a remake is ridiculous. It's the same story, but it's set, gorgeously shot, in Los Angeles, and the performances are so different. How many have even see it?
GM: Or even know it exists?
TM: How about Road To Glory? It's not singled out as one of the great Howard Hawks films.
GM: I know it's not one of your favorites [Todd]. I'm crazy for the romance of films set in the Great War. It's the most romantic of wars. I first came to Telluride in 1991 with my World War I film Archangel. It was too distant for it it to seem as horrifying as it really was, so it became a backdrop for a romance adventure.
GM: I [also] like the presence of William Faulkner... Even just the idea that he and Hawks are in the same credit roll. I know how darkly mischievousness Faulkner can be. I love how the film has Hawks' sense of fraternity and camaraderie along with that Faulkner undertow.
Todd McCarthy, the chief critic for the Hollywood Reporter, is author of numerous books including Howard Hawks: The Grey Fox of Hollywood.
The title is deceptive because, really, Beverly Michaels isn’t wicked, she’s just sick of it all. That whole bit about being a woman in this life, unmarried, down on your luck and, oh, sure, gorgeous, but how far will that lead you? And how you’ve heard and seen it all. The thrill or disgust of a cat call (depending on the day, or the man), the joy of one’s own beauty co-mingling with the bitterness that comes when people think that’s all you’re made of, the creep next door who won’t leave you alone because, in a moment of desperation, you were nice to him once; all of those day to day indignities are so viscerally felt when Michaels just slumps across a room.
That room being her dingy dive in a boarding house, the type of place her landlady hollers is “respectable” (which always means it’s not); the dump she reads her horoscope, drinks beer, and dreams of her new love (and she really does love him), Richard Egan. Only one problem -- Egan’s wife. White-clad drifter Michaels (always white –Michaels tops Lana’s lily-clad faux purity in Postman Always Rings Twice with her getups) sashays into town, nabs a job as the hot waitress at an establishment run by hunky Egan, but owned by his wife, a blowsy and sad drunk (a terrific Evelyn Scott).
What to do? Well, probably something pretty crooked, but surprisingly, when viewed against other devious noir couples, not as evil as you’d imagine. Russell Rouse (The Thief, New York Confidential, The Oscar) directs this 1953 B grade pulp with A plus panache – he allows his actors to take over their sordid surroundings with such power, that you truly feel for them – particularly Michaels.
It’s like kitchen sink pulp, with characters who could seem overdrawn, but are, in fact, very real. So real they’re almost freaks. Michaels is more than leggy, she’s six feet tall, neighborly creep Percy Helton is such a letch he’s a bonafide hunchback and Egan is so obnoxiously handsome he’s managed to grow a dimple between his eyes.
Rouse crafts a dirty jewel with this one, a masterpiece (yes, a masterpiece) that not only speaks vividly of human nature, but also understands women, from the so-called floozies to the sad carping drunks (who often carp for good reason) and even the men pushed and pulled and struggling themselves. Women aren't always "wicked" becuase they're out to get men. Often they need a job, they need money for the bus, they need at least one nice white suit. I mean it. Wicked Woman should be taught in every Women’s Studies class on every college campus in America.
Wicked Woman will be introduced by Kim Morgan and Guy Maddin at the Telluride Film Festival.
"I was friends with Steven Spielberg, and Steven and I were going to do California Split. I worked in Steven's home for about eight months. MGM said yes, and suddenly everything changed. Jim Aubrey, head of the studio, was the smiling cobra -- and the snake struck. He said, 'I want it changed. I don't want what's going on here. I want a straight movie. I want the Mafia to chase the two guys -- they owe the Mafia money. The Mafia catches the two guys, they get away. And I want Dean Martin to be the star of it. He wears a lucky chip around his neck, and he gets shot and the chip saves his life.' He even had the title for it -- 'You call the movie Lucky Chip. You've got to be kidding me. I pulled out of it with a hundred twenty-seven dollars in my pocket. People said, 'You are the greatest moron of all time. You should do what they want.' But to me I couldn't do it." -- Joseph Walsh (California Split screenwriter)
When Robert Altman made a picture about gambling, he didn’t hit you over the head with one of the most obvious and easiest ways to sap “meaning” out of a movie – the overdrawn, bathos-ridden addiction story. The sadness of lost lives, lost money, destroyed relationships, underscored, twice, in ink. But he didn’t make it all Rat Pack glamour either. The complexity and sorrow are all there, of course, but Altman allowed these feelings and concerns to creep up on you as you observe, laugh and, in the end, feel a little blue for two characters you grow to love. There’s a melancholy to winning and Altman got that. But there’s also a whole lot of fun in a life unfettered, especially when you’ve just met an exciting new friend. He got that too. There’s a reason people do things like gamble excessively – it can be thrilling tossing the dice, staying out all night and drinking in bars where some women don’t even bother to wear pants. How can we not get it?
And how can we not with Elliot Gould and George Segal as our guides? Paired with the wise words within screenwriter Joseph Walsh’s autobiographical screenplay, based on his own gambling predilection and problem, Altman crafted one of those movies so special it’s hard to even write about. It’s just so alive and breathing and real and charming and sad you can practically smell it. It’s a movie I turn to time and time again because, even if I know it’s not a healthy world, I want to be in that world again. I want to experience its off-kilter cool, its bummer vibes. I want to, once again, fall in love with its scruffy-cool, wisecracking, charismatic leads.
And you do fall for them. Segal, as magazine writer, Bill Denny, who bonds with Gould’s Charlie Waters, the more experienced gambler in something like their own love affair. Their relationship is one of camaraderie but, not so fast. Even Altman doesn’t let that become an easy kind of connect the dots. These men have mutual mysteries, are their own men, and probably, won’t ever truly understand one another like brothers. Gould, the fast-talking, charming rogue; Segal the more pensive, lonely and wary of the two. Their friendship always contains an edge – and since the movie feels so real and unexpected, you’re never sure what that precipice entails. Bill does find himself circling further and further into the money pit, which leads to a trip to Reno in a game in which former world champion Amarillo Slim (who plays himself) is one of participants. Bill wins and wins and wins and… what does that do for him? You have to think about it. And wonder if he’ll be OK. And if these two guys will ever be friends again. Probably not. And with no showdown between them, no big speech; you don’t need one. All you need is to look at Gould and Segal and you… just know. Through all of this winning, something has been lost.
Reviewing Karl Reisz’s fine The Gambler (written by another great gambling enthusiast and addict James Toback), Pauline Kael made a point of mentioning California Split’s wonderful inclusiveness: “The big difference is … not just that Altman’s allusiveness is vastly entertaining while The Gambler seeks to impress us, but that California Split invites us into the world of its characters, while The Gambler hands us a wrapped package and closes us out.”
Along with the fantastic pairing of Segal and Gould, Walsh’s script helped allow us in, and he fought to maintain his voice every step of the way. That tension obviously worked onscreen, lending the performances such freshness, that no matter how many times you watch the movie, you feel a little disarmed. It always feels so new. On top of that, Altman cast many real-life addicts as extras, carpeting the movie wall-to-wall with lived-in faces, utilizing hise eight-track sound system to wonderful effect -- the gabbing of a minor player could add weight or humor to a scene. Gould and Segal are central, but everyone has a part, and even, at times, a voice, in California Split.
Altman places us in this unbalanced world of gambling addicts and eventual friends, with their varied adventures, games, female friends (or hookers, Ann Prentiss and Gwen Welles, who are never demeaned or condescended to and are given their own humor and humanity, something you wouldn't even see today), goons, oranges and conversations – conversations that veer from betting on the names of all Seven Dwarfs (“Dumbo wasn’t in that cast?”) to the fantastic statement, “Everybody's named Barbara.”
It all comes together so naturally that, at times, you can’t believe you’re watching a movie. And yet, it doesn’t feel like a documentary or something so real that you could view it all on your next jaunt to Reno. It’s pure Altman. He’s working in a universe that knows it’s human, knows it’s cinematic and knows it’s meaningful but isn’t going to tell you what to think or even what it all means.
You must decide that for yourself. Along the way, you spend time with two effortlessly natural actors playing such incredibly different men, but ones who give you so much fun that when you feel the movie’s underlying sadness, it makes it all the more aching; all the more human, all the more bittersweet. And utterly inimitable.
California Split was followed by a discussion with me and Guy Maddin talking to George Segal and Joseph Walsh. Elliot Gould was set to attend, but was called unexpectedly for a shoot on "Ray Donovan." More to follow about our conversation, which was fantastic. Segal and Walsh are funny, smart, obviously enormously talented and incredibly sweet. They were the absolute highlight of Telluride for me. And, the below picture with George Segal, well, this was more than wonderful.
How to remake one of Fritz Lang's greatest pictures? Joseph Losey found a way. But many, including Lang, did not embrace Losey's vision. I had longed to see this film for years in an at least semi-decent print. I could never find anything but the murkiest of copies but I managed to track down a muddy, barely watchable version and I took it in -- even as the picture quality frustrated me. I could still see it was so beautiful, so wonderfully shot, so powerful, even within all that murk and muck. I revere Joseph Losey, from his masterworks such as The Prowler to Big Night to The Criminal Accident, also The Boy with the Green Hair, These Are the Damned, Modesty Blaise and of course, The Servant and The Go Between. And Boom! One can't forget Boom! One shouldn't forget Boom! "Injection!"
There are those who just don't take to remakes, tiresome souls they are. To those, I say, calm down and watch Sirk’s Imitation of Life and realize it can be done, brilliantly, and with some unique deviations. I’ve also heard non believers grouse about actor David Wayne filling in for Peter Lorre’s brilliant performance -- that he’s too understated, too boring; there’s just no heft to him. Well, the subtlety works and he comes off not only incredibly creepy and heavy breathing sexual but an effective cipher and just terrifying (he's different than Lorre) who allows Losey’s spectacular supporting cast -- Martin Gabel, Luther Adler, Norman Lloyd, Raymond Burr and Jim Backus -- to work off and perhaps even through him by going larger (Luther Adler is especially strong here).
And the locations they go through as well, Ernest Laszlo’s cinematography and depiction of 1950s Los Angeles is exceptional -- from the seedy Bunker Hill settings to a terrific use of the Bradbury Building where the killer is hunted, to the use (and abuse) of mannequins (women, children, sexuality, parts), all winding up and and swirling together into a powerful, sexual mob hysteria, underscoring that era’s political paranoia and what would happen to the soon-to-be-exiled HUAC target Losey.
The director wanted to make some interesting changes from the Lorre kiddie killer to the Wayne child murderer, and he did. It's not that one is preferable (Lang vs. Losey), it's just that both are intriguing. The production notes were based on a study of two real life murderers, and according to David Caute's fine biography on Losey, in files Losey wrote, "Harraw was isolated in his youth by religion and by poverty. He is suffering from hyper sensitivity. He was sexually attracted to his mother. This resulted in frustration, hatred of father." Losey continued, "The shoe and foot as sexual symbol -- contact with earth, fecundity... And I wanted to present him as a product of a mother-dominated and materialistic society of lower middle-class America, where everybody had to be big he-men otherwise they were sissies... this man undoubtedly was a concealed homosexual, totally in conflict with everything including his own mother whom he adored and hated."
Oh, yes. The mother. The kinky shoes. But the environment. Los Angeles has never looked so lonely and vulnerable, from the creepy killers to those kids walking around downtown Los Angeles, looking in windows, walking out of theaters. One still feels this way in Los Angeles -- both cramped and wide open, friendly and sinister. You never know what is lurking. Even in the most innocent of circumstances.
So, finally! A restored copy of Joseph Losey’s underseen, under-discussed, and that overused but, in this case, apt term, underrated M, here at Telluride. Lang never saw it but was pleased that it bombed and based on what he had heard, disagreed with how Losey discussed the killer's motives and psychology. Again, we can agree to disagree Mr. Lang. And I think your version is a masterpiece. Nothing will take away from that. Losey's is just too different.
Losey, pursued himself, and during the very year this picture was released, the HUAC target would leave the country instead of naming names for that ghastly, career-destroying committee, only to return in 1952, blacklisted. Thankfully, he embraced Britain, and become one of the more fascinating filmmakers of the 1960s. He also, in Secret Ceremony, got Elizabeth Taylor to take an on screen bath with Mia Farrow… He’s a treasure. And now, his picture has been restored. I can't wait to watch tonight.
Presented at the Telluride Film Festival by Kim Morgan, Guy Maddin and special guest Pierre Rissient who has been championing Losey's M for decades.
The plane leaves this morning and I'm excited, nervous, prepared and ready for anything. I also have a cold. Out! Devil Cold!
The Telluride Film Festival begins Friday, and I, along with Guy Maddin have been chosen at Guest Directors of this year's festival. We programmed six films -- no easy task. We've been sworn to secrecy but the cat's out of the bag today (I think). Maybe Friday it'll be in the river. I'm still not sure. Soon, we can spill!
As we said in our joint statement:
“We are honored and thrilled to be guest directors at Telluride, by far the most concentrated, smartly curated, and enchanting of all the film festivals. More than any other festival, Telluride is driven by the sheer love of cinema -- discovering new talents, honoring titans and unearthing neglected masterworks and geniuses. The opportunity to share our favorite films with Telluride and its always-discerning audience is not only exciting but an absorbing, wonderful challenge. There are so many movies we love, and to program a selection of six... where to begin? We really wanted to show those masterpieces we felt hadn't been revived enough, if ever, and to see them as they were meant to be seen -- on the big screen. We can’t wait to watch!”
And we can't.
You make friends at Telluride and, as much as I wanted him to attend Norman Lloyd (who appears in one of the pictures we programmed) could not make it. He's turning 100 in November and is as sharp as a tack, I've me Norman numerous times, had l had lunch with him, attended his birthday celebration at the Egyptian, even went to Oliver Stone's Savages with him (he thought it was ho-hum -- Design for Living did it bettert), At our Spago Telluride Dinner, we sat next to each oher and talked endlessly. Too bad he can't attend this year (we have a treat, not to be revealed). Telluride reveres Norman Lloyd.
The header photo of two fantastic faces is from the first Telluride in 1974, Gloria Swanson sitting with her soon-to-be- enemy, Kenneth Anger (Swanson, Leni Riefenstah and Francis Ford Coppola all won silver medallions), what a trio that must have been!
And here's Guy with the Surrealists, winning the Telluride Silver Medallion in 1995.
I'll end this with my favorite Telluride experience from 2012, presenting two of Jack Garfein's woefully underseen masterworks, Something Wild and The Strange One. Interviewing Jack on stage, walking around the festival with him, talking to him about life (and man, does he have so many interesting stories), visiting him in Los Angeles, and keeping in touch, giving me some of the most useful advice, he's become a good friend. Telluride is always rewarding. Now pray this cold lifts. Perhaps the mountain fever will take over and the cold will cower in a corner. Onward!
Read more about Telluride here.
Followup: They've been announced!
Here's our list:
CALIFORNIA SPLIT (d. Robert Altman, U.S., 1974) ·
IL GRIDO (d. Michelangelo Antonioni, Italy, 1957) ·
M (d. Joseph Losey, U.S., 1951) ·
MAN’S CASTLE (d. Frank Borzage, U.S., 1933) ·
THE ROAD TO GLORY (d. Howard Hawks, U.S., 1936) ·
WICKED WOMAN (d. Russell Rouse, U.S., 1953)
Ten years. August 13th marked ten years of Sunset Gun. Of course I forgot the actual day. I've been prepping for Telluride, my mind focused on what occurs a week from now. And I'm not good with birthdays or anniversaries or certain holidays and when it comes to myself, I don't like fuss. It makes me nervous. It's my birthday. Great. Let's move on. The forgetfulness is likely a learned avoidance. But it occurred to me this morning when I realized it was Dorothy Parker's birthday, the writer who inspired the name of this blog. I thought, "What day did I start this thing?" My next thought was, "I need to post as much as I used to." Well...
I could go through the history, the work, the movies, the ups and downs, the personal drama (no), the claw machine videos, the road trips, Los Angeles, Joshua Tree, Winnipeg, Paris and back to Los Angeles, the cars and why I haven't changed the graphics, but who wants to hear all that? That's ten fucking years of ... stuff. I will say this -- the pink. I wanted my blog to look like a Nancy Sinatra album I've cherished from Chung Sheng Records, a label from Tawain "of doubtful legality." I loved the murky, photocopied cover (the records were for US soldiers stationed in Taiwan in the 60's and 70s) and the vinyl is orange. The pink and white gingham of Dare Wright's The Lonely Doll book also figured into the mix. If I knew what I was doing it would be a Bang, Bang Doll mash-up of Nancy and Dare simplicity but I don't so ... pink.
And then there's Patty. My first post was about The Bad Seed ("You Lie All the Time,") a movie I have loved since childhood and a movie that would return to this blog, quite happily, in the real life form of the great Patty McCormack herself. Rhoda Penmark started my blog and became my constant, and an oddly comforting brat in times of frustration. There's something exhilirating about watching little Rhoda threaten handyman Leroy, especially if you've been condescended to or left with one of those delightful comments that pop up every once in a while, and depending on the post, often. There are variations of this comment, but everyone's favorite seems to be, "dumb whore." In those get-your-shine box moments, Patty as Rhoda demanding, "Give me those shoes back" is deeply satisfying.
So The Bad Seed seems a fitting marker of these ten years (and yesterday was Patty McCormack's birthday -- Penmark to Parker) as if Rhoda survived that lightning bolt and kept this whole thing going. She even made my flu better on a "horrible Halloween" ten years ago when I rhapsodized about not only seeing The Bad Seed for the first time on the big screen (it was my first year in Los Angeles), but seeing Patty in person. I wrote, in 2004:
"So as I write feeling as if a knife is scraping the inside of my throat... I will report that Halloween weekend was still perfect for the unexpected pleasure that occurred the day before. Never having seen one of my favorite blonde, psychopathic movies on the big screen, I journeyed over to Long Beach to witness The Bad Seed, writ large. But get this, not only was I allowed the joy of watching a larger than life Rhoda Penmark 'tap, tap tapping on the walk' but I was granted the honor of seeing Ms. McCormack in the flesh! I've been to Q&A's, big deal, but this was like viewing Pretty Poison only to have Tuesday Weld saunter out.
"I rarely bound up to celebrities but I had to at least shake Patty's hand. So not only did I get to meet Ms. McCormack (who was charming, funny, warm and just dark enough to understand why she was such a genius at age ten) but talk to her about what that movie meant to some girls (like me). We, Bad Seed fans would all like (or secrectly have) a little Rhoda Penmark in us, and Patty, with relish, agreed. 'It's scary for men,' she tod me, 'but girls get it! They want to do all these things, maybe not kill, but you know, work it...' Of course."
Five years later, when presenting movies at the Palm Springs Film Noir Festival, I thrillingly learned that the festival had programmed The Bad Seed with Patty McCormack in person. Great! No, it's not a noir, but the esteemed Foster Hirsch told me it was his favorite movie as a boy. He was obsessed with it. He was going to talk about it (I jokingly told him he better do a good job or he'd get the shoe). His obsession made for a perfect on stage interview -- a wonderful balance of Bad Seed fandom with academic assiduousness, discussing her performance first on the stage and working with Mervy LeRoy on the picture.
I breathlessly reported in 2009: "I've written about this movie too many times to count... you have no idea how excited I am in the above photo." Talking with her (she had most recently played Pat Nixon in Frost/Nixon) and trying to shield her from the mob of fans, she was "relaxed, funny,down to earth and beautiful." Here I am talking to Patty in this little clip (special guest: the fantastic Robert Loggia. And a bit of me introducing Lewis Allen's Desert Fury). It has now occurred to me I have never actually interviewed her, officially. What is wrong with me? That needs to change.
And now five years later it's back to Patty. So far she has not reappeared in person again but her director, the inventive, often ingenious LeRoy (he's directed some masterpieces and some of my favorites including, I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang, Two Seconds, Little Caesar, Gold Diggers of 1933, Random Harvest, Home Before Dark) made an appearance in my last post. I revisted, briefly, his excellent pre-code Heat Lightning which like The Bad Seed also features some arousing fulmination. The man knew how to throw a bolt.
And he knew how to open up both a stage play and a young actress with scary and frequently funny power, unleashing this conniving, faux-hysterical psycho on the screen with a unique blend of camp and seriousness. It's not his greatest picture (it's not Fugitive, Gold Diggers or Random Harvestt) but it is excellent -- it's so fun and fascinating and intelligent and McCormack is such a wonder (and so wonderfully horrifying) that it's nearly impossible to dislike. And it keeps returning to me. There's many movies, interviews and music write-ups I could discuss, but I'l keep things Seed-centric,, I'll close this with my first post, ten years ago.
The baby blonde. That symbol of purity, beauty and goodness. In 1950’s America who wouldn’t want to have a lovely, flaxen haired child to adore and spoil? Who wouldn't now? But by 1956, two important films emerged -- showing the underbelly of these perfect specimens. The more esteemed, and notorious (it was condemned by the Legion of Decency) was Elia Kazan’s Baby Doll, in which the gorgeous child bride Carroll Baker destroys Karl Malden’s masculinity whilst sleeping in a crib and sucking her thumb. While other relevant issues pervade Kazan’s masterful take on Tennessee Williams, the lingering image is of Ms. Baker in that crib is an iconic, powerful vision of arrested sexuality.
But just as viewers took a heated look at Baby Doll, they had another blonde to contend with -- a younger and deadlier one -- The Bad Seed. Pretty 10-year-old Patty McCormack playing an 8-year-old, owning her pig tails and pinafore skirts as Rhoda Penmark, a curtsying, cutie-pie brat who’ll manipulate, terrorize and kill anyone who gets in her way. Both actresses’ were deservedly Oscar nominated for their performances, both pictures became the more cultish movies in these filmmaker's canons (Bad Seed and Baby Doll fans are a devoted group) and both have felt a touch underrated through time.
In the case of The Bad Seed, part of the problem may lie in the transfer from play to film. Director Mervyn LeRoy rightfully transported nearly all of the actors from the successful stage play (adapted by Maxwell Anderson from the novel by William March), but was forced to change the ending. In the play, an unstoppable Rhoda continues her evil while after her killings, she chillingly plays her continual practice piece, "Claire de Lune" on the piano. Perfect. In the picture, however, she is socked with a lightning bolt. O.K, also perfect. But, (and I'm not endorsing the harm of children here, even evil children), Warner Brothers instructed LeRoy to further punish Rhoda, or in this case Patty, by having cast members spank little McCormack, assuring the audience this was all a bunch of fun. You know, burning, drowning, murdering kids with tap shoes...
But The Bad Seed is fun. Gleefully, unapologetically and relevantly fun. In its own way, the tweaked ending just makes the picture even more inadvertently subversive and experimental, calling out to the audience that you've just seen a motion picture and haven't you enjoyed watching this cute little killer? The picture knows how we love to hate little Rhoda, and some of us, how we love to love her. She’s just too damn full of vicious personality. I'd even go so far as to nearly (I say nearly) champion her spirit (even if patholoical) and wish she would invoke more of that personality before her inevitable demise. She's such a fascinating vixen villain. More women, or little girls in this case, should be blessed with such material.
Living with her mother Christine (an understandably neurotic Nancy Kelly) and mostly absent father (William Hopper, Hedda Hopper's son) Rhoda's life is one of privilege and attention. When kissing her father goodbye he asks “What would you give me for a basket of kisses?” Rhoda coos back: “A basket of hugs!” Landlady and supposed expert in psychology, Monica Breedlove (Evelyn Varden) dotes on Rhoda, applauding her out-moded manners and showering her with presents, one, being rhinestone movie star glasses. Of course Rhoda loves those glassess and admires herself in the mirror like a little movie star. As Breedlove (the name!) prattles on about Freud and abnormal psychology, the rather ridiculous woman simply cannot see the freakish behavior in front of her. She's blinded by all that bright, beauteous blonde and fakey, clenched smiles.
But Leroy (a scene stealing Henry Jones), the disturbed, somewhat perverse handyman disrespected by the household can see right through Rhoda. You even get a sense he's got a thing for her, splashing her with the hose and harassing her tea parties. He understands her pathologies because he's pathological -- they'd make a fine pair. He's just not as smart as she is. Their scenes together provoke some of the picture's most inspired moments. Man, does Leroy get off digging into Rhoda, and especially after that fateful class outing leaving one child dead; not coincidentally, the classmate who won the penmanship medal over the all perfecting Rhoda (“Everyone knew I wrote the best hand!” she sulks in sour grapes dramatics). The little boy is drowned and Rhoda returns home as if nothing happened. "Why should I feel bad? It was Claude Daigle got drowned, not me" she insists. And then she goes roller skating.
Meanwhile, her poor mother becomes increasingly rattled and the boy's mother (a heartbreaking Eileen Heckart), stumbles around in a dipsomaniacal stupor, trying to understand the death of her son by making everyone uncomfortable, which is refreshing. Everyone should feel uncomfortable.
Though some have a tough time with The Bad Seed’s talkier sequences (especially when Rhoda’s not around), to me they are an intriguing look into ideas that would later be seriously considered in American life. They also point out how psychology can’t explain everything (hence, a bad seed) as the one woman (Breedlove) who brags of her knowledge, fails to sense anything wrong with a child who is, at the very least, self obsessed to the point of dangerous narcissism. Never mind she’s a murderer, she's an ungrateful, vapid manipulator.
And, the golden moments come, again, between Leroy and Rhoda who argue like two prison inmates waiting for lockdown, they're not gonna narc on each other. Though Rhoda finds him revolting, he’s the only adult who can actually frighten the child with his taunts of “stick blood hounds” or the dreaded electric chair, a fate he swears she'll meet. “They don’t send little girls to the electric chair!” Rhoda protests. “They don’t?” He answers. “They got a little blue chair for little boys and a little pink chair for little gals!”
Films like The Omen or The Good Son or Orphan have tried, but nothing compares to The Bad Seed, and no child actor has out-seeded McCormack (Nick Cave knows). Calm and cool, she can also rip into fits of rage that are both terrifying and hilarious. Perfectly balancing a disarmingly adult demeanor with the tantrums of a little girl, her performance is even more impressive in that it’s the blueprint. Where did McCormack learn this wonderful balance of over-theatrical camp with an icy, realistic serenity? And before John Waters became obsessed with her?
A first of its kind, the then shocking Bad Seed holds up, albeit with a tad more camp to some. Though I would say stylized and intriguingly formal, while also terrifying, touching and real, particularly in moments between mother and daughter. Nancy Kelly is superbly moving in her need to believe and her realization that she can't any longer. But the psychotic gusto of Rhoda! You hate her. You love her. And she's devilishly entertaining. Revel in her. Agree with Leroy who spits out: “I thought I saw some mean little gals in my time, but you're the meanest!” What a character. The itty bitty ultimate ice queen bitch goddess. Future Pretty Poison. The original Curse of Millhaven. "My hair is a-yellow and I'm always a-combing. La la la la La la la lie!"
Here's to ten. I can't imagine ten more but... perhaps. Perhaps. When I shut this pink thing down I'm hoping, well, I pray for that bolt of LeRoy lightning. It parts your hair, neat!
And here's Patty McCormack's 1957 single "Bubble Gum."
I haven't done one of these in a while.
Three obsessions. Here's some recent ones...
1. Heat Lightning (1934)
Just rewatched Mervyn LeRoy’s Heat Lightning. A 1934 Pre-code desert drama and sweaty, in the-middle-of-nowhere lust and intrigue with Aline MacMahon and Ann Dvorak as sisters working in the Cal desert. The auto garage, diner and road side motel are a literal hot spot for all sorts of dubious, mysterious and amusing characters/situations… Preston Foster and Lyle Talbot show up, on the lam. Also Glenda Farrell as “Feathers” and Ruth Donnelly as “Tinkle,” rich divorcees road tripping with their jewels and chauffeur, of course. The camerawork is exceptional — beautiful and interesting.
I especially love the tracking shot at the beginning when we’re introduced to the sisters — tough minded McMahon and pretty, frustrated Dvorak — while McMahon is walking to the car she’s working on. Dvorak storms away, angry, and LeRoy shoots from McMahon’s POV under the car. MacMahon and Dvorak are wonderful here — really appealing and touching.
2. The Big House (1930)
An uncompromising prison picture with powerful performances by Wallace Beery, Chester Morris and Robert Montgomery (while making the movie, director George W. Hill reportedly stated he’d fire the first person he saw "acting"). Beautifully shot — both claustrophobic and vast, endlessly institutional — I love how the story turns as well. You’re expecting Montgomery to be the hero but, nope, he’s a coward, a rat, and yet, not simply villainous. He’s acting like a lot of terrified newbies when first incarcerated.
This has to be the best Chester Morris performance too. I've always liked him, but he was never so tough and likable as he is here. I always saw something like a cross between Franchot Tone and future Ralph Meeker in Morris, hoping for the meatier Meeker to surface. Here, the Meeker comes forward, toughening up and de-blanding the Tone out of him. Interesting casting note: Lon Chaney, Sr. was originally going to play the Beery role but he tragically died. That would have been something to see. I wonder how he would have transformed himself for that part? Chaney was brilliant, but Beery is exceptional here and probably didn't need much transforming as a big, loud, violent thug. And, as stated ealier, the picture is wonderfully framed -- that we start with Robert Montgomery, thinking we'll be following this poor guy through the hell of his inmates or teaming up with them and we will, perhaps, identify with him. Not really. I never stopped feeling sorry for him but did get to the point where I was like, "F you, Robert Montgomery, you creepy coward." And yet, the movie never makes you simply turn on him. Or any of the three leads for that matter. When Montgomery loses it at the end, it's just sad. Prison is sad, the movie reminds you. It's rare and more complicated than most modern prison movies.
While doing screen grabs (there are so many fantastic shots in the movie), I remembered George Hurrell took some great publicity stills of the picture, posted here. In between shooting a glammed up Norma Shearer and Joan Crawford, Hurrell snapped Chester Morris as an emaciated jailbird. The dungeon walk is a gorgeous Hurrell here but the scene itself is as gritty and as stylish and a standout in the movie.
3. Looking forward to Paul Thomas Anderson's Inherent Vice
Inherent Vice. Incredibly excited for this one, more than any other upcoming film. Also, I love this photo and how it looks like a much more artful picture my Dad snapped in the 70s of his cop friend Carl — a guy who ate blocks of cheese like candy bars.
More about Inherent Vice, Paul Thomas Anderson’s take on Thomas Pynchon and more at Cigarettes and Red Vines.
Mel Brooks once described David Lynch as “Jimmy Stewart on Mars.” I get that.
But I also hear a lot of Ned Sparks in Lynch, albeit a less crankier one. That deadpan delivery creating strange, almost-aphorisms and random, absurd insults, Sparks and Lynch could split the same cherry pie. And insult the same special agents.
“COOPER, YOU REMIND ME TODAY OF A SMALL MEXICAN CHIHUAHUA.”
Check out more pictures, observations and obsessions at my Tumblr Blog, Sunset GunShots.
I wasn’t certain what to except when I ventured up to Winnipeg with Bing Crosby and Bela Lugosi on my mind. I did know that I would be working on a short film with Guy Maddin, something both exciting and anxiety-inducing.
We had been hatching an idea together. Since we both love Crosby and Lugosi, we were intrigued that these two titans had been buried so close to one another in Holy Cross Cemetery. Curious. And yet, this disparate duo, one of the black cape, the other of the White Christmas, seemed right in their proximity. Guy had been especially obsessed with this, for years it seems, and came to me.
As I had written about Crosby in 2008, Bing's music remains both timeless and antiquated, "beautifully, mysteriously antiquated, like something emerging from a dream.... or a nightmare. In moody reverie... you feel the music form around you, as if riding on an ethereal echo chamber of air coming from a million miles away. It’s spacey, creepy, charming and gorgeous all at once." I could have written something similar about Bela. His voice and physicality, his haunted poignancy: “Listen to them, children of the night, what music they make."
Though I was initially set to wail at these legend's graves, the story changed when I spied a wolf in the props room while Guy was working on Keyhole and various other Hauntings (three, of which, I appeared in). I hauled him out, called him my dead husband and away we went.
Bing & Bela has been been shown in various installations, including the Bell Lightbox in Toronto, the 2011 Berlinale, the La Maison Rouge in Paris and the 30th Sao Paulo Bienal. You can now watch our little short here.
With Kim Morgan and shot by Kim Morgan & Guy Maddin, edited by John Gurdebeke. Wolf by Jason Gibbs.
Funded by The TIFF Bell Lightbox. Produced by Noah Cowan, Laurel McMillan and Jody Shapiro. "Hauntings" co-ordinated by Evan Johnson.
“A sex symbol becomes a thing. I just hate to be a thing. But if I’m going to be a symbol of something I’d rather have it sex than some other things they’ve got symbols of.” -- Marilyn Monroe
Jack Garfein vividly remembers first seeing Marilyn Monroe in person. She was almost overwhelming to him. It wasn't just that she was gorgeous, there was something more -- something expressed in her flesh that was both magical and moving. He remembered how she glowed, how she laughed and lived. When Jack talked about her, this intelligent, mischievous spirit, I thought of how Montgomery Clift recalled Marilyn.
“She listens, wants, cares. I catch her laughing across a room and I bust up. Every pore of that lovely translucent skin is alive, open every moment-even though this world could make her vulnerable to being hurt. I would rather work with her than any other actress. I adore her.”
Jack met Marilyn when she was in New York City during the time she was studying with Lee Strasberg at the Actors Studio. He saw her walk into a party. Everyone saw her walk into that party. Elia Kazan introduced them. (Jack would later work with Marilyn's ex husband, Arthur Miller, producing two of his plays, The Price and The American Clock.) Deeply attracted, he also deeply respected her -- her acting talent and potential, her power in front of the camera and just her beguiling way. A friendship developed.
I became friends with Jack after I was honored to present his two brilliant pictures, Something Wild and The Strange One, at Telluride in 2012. He'll be turning 84 in July and he's still one of the most liberal-minded men I've ever met. So full of life and so free-thinking, Jack is warm, wise, bracing, funny and incredibly empathetic. I understand why Marilyn liked him so much. He got her. Or, at least, he tried to.
Nothing happened between them (Jack was married to actress Carroll Baker at the time) but he was clearly smitten and still is. To him, Marilyn was a good person, a woman who took her craft seriously and a woman who thought her sexuality was often funny, and certainly nothing to be ashamed of. After Telluride, Jack spent some time in Los Angeles and we discussed many things -- his career, his life, his art (and art and life), people... And then he told me this story about Marilyn. I love this story. Happy Birthday, Marilyn.
Marilyn. Return of the Silve Witch. On the eve of her birthday, here's my piece from last year for the LA Review of Books. Happy Birthday, Marilyn.
One of the most arresting images I’ve ever seen of Marilyn Monroe came not from a movie or newsreel footage or one of her many photographs. It came from a blanket.
Driving through Death Valley on a long road trip, I stopped in a tiny town for gas and a cold drink. Few seemed to live in this town: it served as a pit stop, a place to either check your radiator or check your mind (or, in my case, both) — one of those locales that offers such a bare minimum of services that a candy bar has never tasted so good. Delirious from hours of 70 mph signposts, I stumbled back into my car, feeling as if modern civilization had melted around me. For months, I’d been working on a piece about Marilyn (a cover story for Playboy, to honor their first, and most famous, cover girl and centerfold), and she had been on my mind nearly every day.
And then … there she was. Driving away, I spied Marilyn on the side of the road, 20 feet from the gas station. With a mixture of excitement and a strange sadness, I jumped out of the car and stared. Her face was hanging from clothespins, blowing in the breeze, next to an open garage. A warm blanket in the hot sun, set against the blue sky, flapping and undulating in the merciful wind, her face changing shape and expression. This desolate desert Marilyn, so frank and alone, just hanging there, cleared away all the clutter of so many T-shirts, stickers, shower curtains, pillows, purses, wall clocks, and coffee mugs — all those Marilyns you walk right past in any given gift shop on Hollywood Boulevard. A little hypnotized and maybe a little crazy, I thought of how Marilyn described herself, as the woman who “belonged to the ocean and the sky and the whole world.”
That was the summer of 2012, the 50th anniversary of Marilyn Monroe’s passing, a year when Marilyn was on many people’s minds, whether they wanted her there or not. I did want her there, so much so that I was flooding my mind with all things Marilyn, which, given the seemingly infinite amount of material out there, isn’t hard to do. Reading and rereading the books and biographies, rewatching her movies, staring at her photos, and visiting the Hollywood Museum’s Marilyn exhibit (where, among other personal effects, dresses, shirts, telegrams, prescription pill bottles, and notes to Dr. Greenson were on display), I became consumed, as so many have before me.
Why is this so? Why Marilyn? I’m not entirely certain, unless it’s because she’s so ever-present that you start to project your own qualities and feelings onto her. The more you study her, the more you excavate her history and personae, the more you find yourself using her as a mirror, and the more you find that she reflects something back at you. It seems silly at times, this obsession, this rendering, this exorcism: she’s just a movie star. Yet “her story continues to grow,” as S. Paige Beatty reflects in American Monroe: The Making of the Body Politic (1995),
"And as it grows it assumes new meanings and possibilities. Those who tell Marilyn’s tale negotiate myriad ways of being in America past and present. The dreams, conspiracy theories, photos, tributes, postcards, and refrigerator magnets run together with increasing speed only to crash in a heap of detritus at the feet of the angel of history. Looking back over her shoulder, Marilyn rushes forward, compelled by the wreckage piling in her wake."
Beatty wrote this beautiful passage almost two decades ago, and Marilyn’s still rushing forward, still looking over her shoulder nearly 20 years later. It’s doubtful she’ll ever stop.
2012's Marilyn deluge found her gracing magazine covers from Vanity Fair to Playboy, and starring in a new documentary (Love, Marilyn, which recently showed on HBO) as well as several new books (Marilyn by Magnum, Marilyn: The Passion and the Paradox, and a rerelease of Norman Mailer’s brilliant Marilyn, with photographs by Bert Stern from her last sitting). She inspired a storyline on the TV series Smash, a line of MAC makeup (the color collection was referred to as “distinctly Marilyn”), and starred as ghost spokeswoman for a lovingly crafted, surprisingly moving Chanel No. 5 commercial, which used her famous, provocative answer to the question of what she wore to bed: “Just a few drops of Chanel no. 5.” Chanel surprised viewers with Marilyn’s own voice, taken from an interview conducted soon before her death, as if she were speaking from the grave. And Marilyn loomed large, quite literally, when, last May, a 26-foot tall, 34,000-pound statue, “Forever Marilyn,” was moved from Chicago to downtown Palm Springs, her white Seven Year Itch dress fluttering and enormous. Marilyn was not only everywhere last year: she was elevated, in stature and in sophistication.
Now that the anniversary has passed, the flood has slowed but not let up. In March 2013, a 33-page comic book titled Tribute: Marilyn Monroe, written by Dina Gachman, illustrated by Nathan Girten, and colored by Dan Barnes, was released through Bluewater Productions. The comic covers the star’s sad, glamorous and tumultuous life: her humble, heartbreaking beginnings when she was shuffled through foster homes, her young marriage to Jim Dougherty at age 16, her divorce, her early modeling career, her struggle and rise in Hollywood, her famous marriages to Joe DiMaggio and Arthur Miller, her movie roles, and her eventual downfall. It’s a sensitive, celebratory ode to Monroe, with some charming, unexpected details that prove Gachman did her homework: for instance, the fact that teen Norma Jeanne cooked peas and carrots because she liked the colors (something ex-husband Dougherty relayed in an interview), and the story of how Marilyn and her early roommate, Shelley Winters, got drunk with Dylan Thomas, who then crashed into Charlie Chaplin’s tennis court.
I was worried, for a moment, when I read Gachman’s Indiewire essay, in which she admits that, upon receiving the assignment to write about Marilyn Monroe, she didn’t have a “huge amount of respect for her.” But, predictably, extensive reading and research resulted in a newfound appreciation and admiration of her intelligence and talent. In Tribute, you can sense Gachman wanted to do Marilyn justice, and with the fresh, excited perspective of a newly christened devotee. “I really fell in love with her,” she writes.
And new love is refreshing. One would think that this woman — the woman Mailer so eloquently called “more than the silver witch of us all” — had already been represented to death. And yet, she remains, decades after her death, enthralling. Ubiquity may cause some to take Marilyn for granted, or even to become tired of her, but it will never, ever diminish her. Andy Warhol, the first artist to put her in what was, essentially, a comic-book setting, knew it right away. His Marilyn Diptych (1962), created weeks after her death, with its rows of colorful Marilyns juxtaposed with the inkier, moodier black and white Marilyns, is a prescient, powerful work. Placing a picture that already seemed like a relic (a va-va-voom publicity shot from Niagara) into a modern pop art tableau, he exposed her timelessness and her versatility. Each of the 50 duplicate images, on closer inspection, are different.
It’s easy to say that the two halves of the picture represent the two sides of Marilyn: one side the bright star, the other the darker, moodier Marilyn who is fading away. But the work is more surreptitious than that. Warhol seemed to know instinctively that the viewers would project their own thoughts on her image. Helpless victim, powerful sex goddess, movie star, beauty icon, camp icon, cartoon — we take her in many ways, positive, negative, or a mixture of both. Warhol, bless him, catapulted Marilyn into the modern era after she lost the ability to do it herself (and, rest assured, she would have).
What did Marilyn want us to see? Well, of course we’ll never really know, and that is an enormous part of Marilyn’s power. You can see this in her work in front of the camera, as a brilliant, creative photographer’s model, with, among other greats, Andre de Dienes, Eve Arnold, Milton H. Greene, Bruce Davidson, Richard Avedon, Erich Hartman, George Barris, Bert Stern, Phil Stern, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Dennis Stock, Philippe Halsman, Elliott Erwitt, Douglas Kirkland, and Inge Morath (who shot some of the more powerful photos of Marilyn alone and with her husband Arthur Miller as their relationship was disintegrating — and, who, interestingly, became Miller’s next wife). Morath loved photographing Marilyn. Most photographers did. As Eve Arnold said:
"I never knew anyone who even came close to Marilyn in natural ability to use both photographer and still camera. She was special in this, and for me there has been no one like her before or after. She has remained the measuring rod by which I have — unconsciously — judged other subjects."
Marilyn died young and beautiful, but she still inspires, beguiles, and offers new gifts, like that cheap blanket I encountered in the middle of nowhere.
I hope that blanket is keeping someone warm at night, as Marilyn famously claimed her work failed to do: “A career is wonderful, but you can't curl up with it on a cold night.” But thank God for that career — the movies, the photographs, the life. Even after tragically expiring on that lonely mattress, nude, in her rather humble Beverly Hills hacienda, she never lost her mythic power. In her last picture, The Misfits, Montgomery Clift’s cowboy poignantly and revealingly tells Marilyn’s Roslyn, “Don't you let them grind you up. Hear?” Decades later, we still hear you, Monty.
“Starting to see pictures, ain’t ya?” -- Major Marquis Warren
Without seeing a shot of it, not one spectacular sweeping frame, not one lovely snow-covered panorama, not one majestic vision of horses, “rip snorting through the bottom of the landscape,” I got it. I got it on stage with chairs and actors and pantomimed guns and imagined stagecoaches and blue coffee pots laced with poison. Quentin Tarantino is (hopefully) gonna shoot the hell out of his newest script, The Hateful Eight, and, importantly, in “big super CINEMASCOPE 70MM filmed gloriousness.” Those are Tarantino’s words, spoken directly from his script; words he repeats with a giddy exultation of cine-love that becomes both exciting and funnier the more you hear him say it. We see it in our mind’s eye and we truly understand it: super CINEMASCOPE 70 mm is fucking glorious.
But will he direct it? That was the lingering question after the script was leaked, Gawker media was sued for copyright infringement (the suit has since been dismissed, with Tarantino allowed to re-file by May 1st) and Tarantino decided to do something unprecedented – perform a live read of the script, on stage with actors, and for just one night. Those of us who watched Saturday witnessed something special, once-in-a-lifetime, but something we’ll hopefully view in… “big super CINEMASCOPE 70MM filmed gloriousness.” Tarantino said before that, after the script leak, he wouldn’t shoot it, that he would publish the work instead. And now we've heard he will shoot, this winter, and then… this one-night-only event. Oh, he better make this movie.
Taking the stage at the beautifully renovated downtown Los Angeles United Artists Theatre, a movie palace at the Ace Hotel on Broadway, Tarantino, clad in black cowboy shirt and black hat, announced to the eager audience how singular this event was. “This is the first draft,” he said. There will be changes, second and third drafts. One major change will be the script’s final chapter, titled “Black Night, White Hell.” He’s re-writing that. “This is the only time you’ll see this version,” he declared. Suddenly this all seems so intimate.
Sure, a person could have read the leaked first draft online, but sitting here on a Saturday night after walking from your downtown parking spot, leaving your cell phone in the trunk of your car and working your way through the throng of attendees who are keeping to themselves, searching for their seats or ogling others (people were so loud returning from the intermission, Tarantino had to tell them to keep it down), it’s an entirely different experience. Tarantino is in control of this read – and it’s so physical and direct. You are inside of his process. They’ve only rehearsed a few days, but they got it. The writer-director himself read from his pages, passionately imparting to us his intended camera moves, coolly raising a coffee pot for occasionally mimed pouring. And then the actors: Kurt Russell, James Parks, Amber Tamblyn, Walton Goggins, Denis Ménochet, Tim Roth, Bruce Dern, Michael Madsen, Dana Gourrier, Zoë Bell, James Remar and Sameul L. Jackson. This is exciting.
The story, briefly: Set sometime after the Civil War, we’ve got bounty hunter John Ruth (Russell), his “N” word-spewing prisoner Daisy Domergue (Tamblyn -- ode to Howard Hughes' Howard Huges' protégé, actress Faith Domergue?), bounty hunter, former Union Cavalry officer Major Marquis Warren (Jackson -- ode to western writer, producer, director Charles Marquis Warren?), and Red Rock sheriff Chris Mannix (Goggins). They stop off at Minnie’s Haberdashery (with their stagecoach driver, played by James Parks) and are faced with a gallery of mixed nuts, of mysterious intent and geographically diverse origins (Roth, Ménochet, Madsen and Dern). Words are exchanged, ambiguities presented, revelations unveiled and, again, that goddamn blue coffee pot. (I grew to love that coffee pot and how QT would raise the thing – it became its own character).
Everyone’s blizzard-bound, and, as such, stage-bound, which is interesting given the “big super CINEMASCOPE 70MM filmed gloriousness.” But who says 70 mm should be strictly David Lean or Cleopatra? And clearly the script, as read by Tarantino, utilizes wide-open spaces, flashbacks set outside the haberdashery and a stagecoach traveling through snow. And a face in 70 mm close-up can be a thing of magnificence – think Joaquin Phoenix’s injured, feral mug in Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master.
And voices are cinematic too. Kurt Russell was intoning John Wayne here, which carried well from the stage, Amber Tamblyn delivered her lines with a hard-ass intensity, spitting out insults and assertions that put the viewer on edge (I kept thinking of the aptly named actress Quentin Dean, roughly announcing, “I’m PREGNANT!” in In the Heat of the Night) and then Tim Roth, who did “foppish” with an amused mellifluousness. The standout, for me, was listening to the cantankerous, slow-talking voice of a hateful, racist Confederate General Bruce Dern scowling at that sonic powerhouse Samuel L. Jackson. When Jackson relays one of the script’s most provocative high points – that he not only killed Dern’s son, but had the young man perform fellatio on him – with pleasure -- my mind lingered on the visual force of watching those two faces on the big screen. And then the subject at hand: Cocksucking, in “big super CINEMASCOPE 70MM filmed gloriousness.”
The script’s fittingly been compared to The Petrified Forest and Key Largo, and even Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians. I see other works in there, like Tarantino's own, Reservoir Dogs, but also confined, pressure cooker pictures like Felix Feist’s The Threat (1949), Mervyn LeRoy’s Heat Lightening (1934) and Howard Higgins' High Voltage (1929), a movie recommended to me by a friend after I described the reading to him. (QT influence by proxy). The tense High Voltage features a group of also snow-bound bus passengers stranded in a church with their driver, a female prisoner (Carole Lombard) with her lawman keeper (Owen Moore) and a mysterious man (William Boyd) already hiding out, on the lam.
High Voltage isn't a perfect movie, and it’s not no where near exactly like The Hateful Eight, but the snowy spirit contains some similarities, even if Lombard never, ever drops an N bomb (a word used frequently in The Hateful Eight, which QT amusedly warned the audience of the first time it's uttered). Samuel L. Jackson would have livened up High Voltage movie enormously.Thank god he exists in cinema in general, and to be the stirring Lee Van Cleef-looking centerpiece of The Hateful Eight, much like the gravel voiced Charles McGraw's inspired ferociousness in The Threat. Do not mess with these men. Ever.
I’m not sure if Tarantino was thinking of any of these movies while writing his script (and the script is distinctly, terrifically pure Tarantino, right down to Kurt Russell instructing one to move "molasses like") but regardless, it further proves how Tarantino can drift you towards other movies, even if unintended (a wonderful thing). For instance, there’s also Burt Topper’s entertaining, down and dirty, The Devil’s 8 (which I know Tarantino admires), a 1969 AIP picture starring the diverse crew of, among others, Christopher George, Ron Rifkin, Fabian, Cliff Osmond and, my favorite, Ralph Meeker. The similarities are really in title only, but dammit,Tarantino knows a great title.
And he knows a great motion picture. We saw it read, live, on stage, now let’s see it sweat and bleed and pulsate on the big screen in, of course, “big super CINEMASCOPE 70MM filmed gloriousness,” grateful to be hateful.
Here's an excerpt from my piece, "The Endless Push and Pull of Lindsay Lohan's Reality Show" at Vulture. Happy Easter.
I love watching Lindsay Lohan sort through clothes. It's strangely soothing, like sitting on the bed watching your older sister prepare for a date. Lindsay sorts through boxes of things, her ciggie dangling, stopping once in a while to put on a jacket, moving her shoulders forward and smoothing down the front. She shifts her body to make it work. Her face has focus and when she observes a piece on her terse little frame, she is usually pleased. A pro smoker, she talks through her cigarettes, keeping those cancer sticks clenched in her teeth, like the way Edward G. Robinson chomps a cigar. “This is good.” She smirks. She almost laughs. Those laughs come liberally throughout the day, throaty laughs with hard-earned miles on them. When you hear that laugh, she isn’t your older sister anymore; she’s your hot divorced Aunt, the one who lets you smoke pot in the basement.
Lindsay is, naturally, the star of her own reality show, aptly titled Lindsay. But this isn’t really a “reality” show. This is a documentary series. They say. Featured on the Oprah Network (OWN) and directed by Amy Rice, Lindsay, which ends its run this Sunday, has chronicled Lohan’s life post rehab as she moves to New York City and attempts to stay sober while navigating through the fractured state of her career. Cameras document her struggles and, as you can imagine, there are many. Her life is chaos, partly because she makes it so, partly because the world does. Photographers crouching outside her apartment are her normal. She’d probably feel lost if the paparazzi weren’t there. Yes, they’re often unpleasant, but irritants, even scary ones, buffer all those internal aggravations knocking around one’s brain. And who wants to listen to those? Turn up the fucking music.
The paparazzi seem less the issue. On Lindsay, she seems more overwhelmed by little things, like the missing bedding she can’t locate after she unpacks her belongings, baffled that the delivery drivers can’t just fish through a fully packed semi, despite the fact that it would take them hours. This doesn’t make her so much a diva, but more a dizzy movie star, a screwball who taxes everyone’s patience. She’s charming and also really fucking annoying. She knows exactly what she’s doing and then… she loses something. Like a white couch. She’s a delightful little pain in the ass.
I’m not trying to make light of her problems. Lindsay is in recovery. Movie star or not, it’s a precarious place to be in and one to take seriously and sympathetically. Add a camera crew to chronicle your every move and your life becomes like the display window Lindsay placed her sister, herself and the actors playing her parents in for her video, “Confessions of a Broken Heart (Father to Daughter).” Lindsay directed that video when she was just 18. Watching it now – as she wails in a ball gown in a dirty bathroom -- it’s actually quite disturbing. It’s not just a cry for help, it’s a scream. I don’t think anyone listened. I don’t even think Lindsay listened.
Nine years later Oprah listened, placing Lindsay back in that display window. In Lindsay’s first seven episodes, the talented, unsettled star has juggled the dysfunction of her parents (mama Dina is slapped with a DUI in the second episode), wrangles with her sleep deprived three-piece-suit wearing personal assistant, Matt, her life coach, AJ and her sober coach, Michael, who leaves when his work is done. Sort of. He’s well meaning, I suppose, but I wouldn’t trust him with my secrets. When asked if Lindsay is sober, he gives the longest, most drawn out, read-between-the-lines answer possible: “You know, I don’t know whether or not… (pause)… You know, the truth is that… (long pause)… (sigh)… I’m not gonna. I mean. Let me…(long pause)… You know, I’m not gonna discuss whether or not Lindsay. Is. Still. Sober. That is between Lindsay and Lindsay. I have no hard evidence that she’s not.”
There’s a lot of talk about navigating through the struggles of daily life. There’s lateness. There’s crying. There’s realness. There’s fake realness.
We have no idea how forthright Lindsay is here, where the acting stops and the inner truth begins. Lindsay is trying to control her narrative. Yes, she signed on to do the show. Yes, she’s a grown-up 27-year-old woman. Yes, she should supposedly “know better.” Oh, shut up. When do we magically “know better”? A person can fuck up at any stage of his or her life. When George Jones rode his lawnmower, drunk, to the liquor store, he should have “known better.” Are you gonna wag your finger at the Possum?
All this pushing forward and pulling back is what simultaneously bothers and entertains me, making Lindsay uneasy viewing. I don’t believe in the term “guilty pleasure,” but those exact words come to mind while watching the show. Lindsay is Lohan’s attempt to document a return (Not a “comeback.” “I hate that word,” says Norma Desmond), but it’s also a set up for viewers and critics to judge her. Harshly. And often with such sick misogyny. What a drag to feel this way about a mixed up human being. How reductive. How tiresome. She’s supremely imperfect. She’s absolutely right and frequently wrong. She’s interesting. She’s charismatic.
She’s also not stupid. She’s simultaneously fighting exploitation while exploiting the hell out of herself. Why not? Though this is Oprah-approved right down to O hugging Lindsay’s grandma, when Lindsay senses something more invasive and icky, she backs off, she makes excuses. (She makes excuses for work obligations too, but I’m not going to judge.) And then the show goes back to her endless unpacking of clothes. This, she needs help with. Enter a young, pretty English woman Michael Lohan met through a guy he worked with at a treatment center. She’s hired to help Lindsay sort clothes. She’s quickly fired. She was drinking in front of Lindsay.
And yet, in spite of her resistance to full disclosure, she’s often open and reflective during interviews. She admits that her career is in danger, likening herself to a “flight risk.” She films herself and sobs. She admits to slipping up and drinking. Chatting with her crew, she’ll drop little things about her past dramas, something that could make for five Lifetime TV movies. She doesn’t go into all of it, but she knows we know. Just a sample: Six mug shots, six stays in rehab, a mix-up of someone else’s cocaine in her pants, jewelry “accidentally” stolen, jail time, SCRAM bracelet lockdown, court, ridiculous replacement lawyers with Louis Vuitton briefcases, daddy on Dr. Drew, New York Times on set… For salacious pulp, Lindsay has given a lot of herself. She even painted “Fuck u” on her pretty little fingernail in court. Mean Girl Film Noir.
There were times when I thought her less in the mold of the oft-invoked Marilyn Monroe (whom I’ve never thought she resembled) but tragic, beautiful, bad girl Barbara Payton. I hope to God Lindsay doesn’t go down Payton’s dark and destructive road (alcoholic Payton was arrested for prostitution) but I do want her to declare and feel what Payton titled her autobiography, “I Am Not Ashamed” ... Read the rest of my piece at Vulture.
I asked the easy, but often hard to answer: "Who was the greatest director you ever worked with?" He answered, without hesitation, "John Huston."
That was Michael Caine and this was 2009, when I sped up from an away-from-LA respite in Joshua Tree to talk to the legendary actor among a small (surprisingly small) roundtable of film writers. When he walked into the suite, he was casual cool, but burning with that kind of charisma that makes the entire room feel a little high. Actors are actors and often not so exciting in person but Caine, an icon, was thrillingly magnetic. We all looked at him. Stared. I want to say a woman dropped her cookie though I don't think that happened. We couldn't turn away.
And then he talked. Discussing his current movie (Is Anybody There?), a few of his classics, Batman and more, he was even game when a reporter brought up the Christian Bale Terminator: Salvation outburst. He was surprised by it ("completely out of character" for Bale) but understanding of his co-star. He laughed and said, "I’m more like that than he is. You’re liable to get a volley off of me if you walk around during my takes."
Actors are human, after all. He told us this story:
“I lost my temper on a movie years ago when I was doing a movie called The Last Valley. James Clavell was the director. I’m not a very good horseman and they put me on this horse that they knew was a killer and it ran away with me for two miles and I brought it back at a slow pace and then I got off and all the unit were laughing. And then I started and I outdid Christian by about 30 minutes with more language than he knows. So James Clavell broke the crew for an hour and he said, ‘Let’s have a cup of tea.’ And so we went and had a cup of tea."
"James Clavell was captured in Hong Kong when he was 14 by the Japanese and spent the first part of his life in a Japanese prison camp. He said to me, ‘The way I survived was I became Japanese in mentality. So I knew where they were coming from in their treatment of us and I knew where I should be in everything.’ He said, ‘The one thing that the Japanese never do is they never lose their temper because anger is an emotion that you should never show to strangers because you expose too much of yourself.’ He said, ‘You must never expose yourself like that to strangers.’ And he gave me this long lecture on the Japanese and anger and I have never lost my temper on a set since. I go home and I scream at the kids. (Laughs) But I have never lost my temper on a set since.”
He also discussed retirement, something I just can't see yet. Can anyone?
“You don’t know when your time is up so to speak. There just goes a period of time when the right scripts don’t arrive. And it hasn’t happened to me yet. It might have happened now. I finished this last picture, as I said. I don’t have another picture to do. If a script doesn’t come, then I won’t do anything and I’ll be retired. There won’t be any announcement or anything. I remember MacArthur saying ‘Old soldiers don’t die. They fade away.’ Well, old actors don’t die. They fade away."
Well, he won't. Happy Birthday Michael Caine.
2014. Oscars. I've been behind here for over a month. Apologies to those who read me and who believe I should post, at the very least, twice a month. I should! But I've been working on other projects, keeping me away and in some cases, ridiculously stressed. To relax reading has trumped extra writing and so I've devoured seven books in less than two months. I have potential stories on the docket -- Eric von Stroheim's Queen Kelly, D.W. Griffith's The Struggle, Joseph H. Lewis' Pride of the Bowery and many more. And a lot of stories music-related.
I thought I wanted to write about the Oscars but I couldn't muster the excitement for it. I don't really care about Oscars save for the telecast during which I hope something interesting happens other than the tedious roll call speeches thanking agents, god and loved ones. Bring back streakers, Joan, Bette and whatever on earth Cher is wearing. I miss Bjork. I want Sean Penn to be angry about something. Mickey Rooney better show up. It's all about the speeches, the gowns, the gaffes, the spectacle.
But I will say this: what I want. I want Martin Scorese's audacious, brilliant, darkly comic The Wolf of Wall Street to win. I want it to win Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor. And to underscore, Best Actor. Leonardo DiCaprio is brilliant here, making a scumbag dangerously likable yet loathsome while being hilarious and perfectly not tragic. If you think he's going to be OK by the end of the film, he is. Which should enrage us enough to want to see Joe Pesci jab that pen Leo's so good at selling right into his character's greedy eyeball. But we're not enraged. We're both strangely invigorated and depleted and that feels... wrong. Maybe dangerous. Probably how the real Jordan Belfort made people feel. Is that glamorous? Yes and no. Which is what has put a lot of viewers off. They can't pinpoint exactly where Scorsese's morality lies. I say, good. Let us figure that out for ourselves.
Wrestling that kind of shady morality isn't easy -- this kind of performance isn't easy to do. DiCaprio balances his character's evil, humor and movie star charisma with a unique sociopathic dimension. Is that possible? Yes, it is. And he makes it look all so effortless. Elizabeth Taylor once said (I believe it was Taylor) something to the effect of, screaming and hollering and playing drunk is easy, walking through a door and saying, "Hello, I'm home" is hard. In the case of DiCaprio, who dynamically drinks and drugs and yells and rages (I get excited watching him and largely because of him, I've seen the movie three times), it's also his quiet act of bitterly drinking a Near Beer that impresses. When DiCaprio answers how sobriety is faring he states it perfectly: "It fuckin' sucks... So boring. I'm gonna kill myself." He's also bad in bed. A flop, as Taylor's Martha would say.
So, my vote is for Wolf. It won't win. But who cares? No one's gonna forget the movie. It and DiCaprio's performance is going to become a classic. No one's ever going to forget that masterful Quaalude crawl. And then there is this:
Be back soon...
Mike Tyson has been a long standing fascination for me. From first seeing his explosive power in the ring to this new kind of palpable excitement (he was so electrifying, so young, so real...) to witnessing his terrible downfall (and downfalls, and then, revivals, good and bad), to me, he's one of the most intriguing American figures of the last thirty years. I've just read Tyson's excellent memoir "Undisputed Truth" (with Larry Sloman) and wish to write on that later. Powerful. raw, insecure, boastful, honest, bizarre, scary, at times, beautiful, it's all Tyson. Unvarnished. Crude. Ugly. Lovely. The book made me return to my 2009 interview with James Toback, the director of the great documentary Tyson and close Tyson friend. He loves him. You feel he's not only drawn to his strength, but his vulnerability. And his deep study and reverence for boxers of all eras. Reading "Undisputed Truth" makes one feel many things, but like Toback, you find yourself feeling protective of Tyson too. He's done some truly awful things. He admits it. But there's that tender soul in there. Like this gorgeous passage -- Tyson describing pigeons at the end of his book:
"It's no surprise that I have an affinity for rollers. It's really something to watch them fly higher than all the other birds, way up to the top of the sky and the clouds and then just roll and roll and roll down and if they're lucky, pull out in time before they crash headfirst into the ground. Rollers who are the offspring of a pair of deep rollers can't do that. They roll so fast that they create a suction and they can't open their wings and they just explode on impact. It looks horrific to us if we put ourselves into the heart of that bird there's nothing like that feeling of plummeting down and rolling. It's a smorgasbord of endorphins and and dopamine and adrenaline. A little like snorting coke and drinking Hennessy while being hooked up to a morphine drip.
"Both of my parents were deep rollers. I was bred to climb to the top of the sky and tumble down. And I'm truly grateful that I found my wings before I hit the ground."
Read the book. Here's my interview with Toback....
Mike Tyson has made me almost shockingly emotional. More than once. From discussing all the love he has to give, and how he can’t receive it, to his genuine tenderness and nostalgia for his former trainer and father who adopted him, taking him out of reform school (Cus D'Amato), to all the women he mistreated, to his violence and vulnerability, to the pigeons he’s been raising since childhood and adores (a la Brando’s On the Waterfront Terry Malloy), the man’s troubles hit me to the core. You can say I’m being conned or manipulated or white-washed by director James Toback who clearly loves his friend. Say what you want. This fascinating, deeply flawed American icon moves me. Like Gary Gilmore moved me in Norman Mailer's The Executioner’s Song or in Mikal Gilmore's beautiful Shot in the Heart, Toback took on a troubled, talented man turned criminal with a raw, yet lyrical sensitivity, and a deeper awareness of how both the world and the man, can misdirect their power and passion to crush themselves -- no matter how much potential they’ve got. With Mike Tyson, add collective racism. He's often viewed as some sort of primal animal, and you’ve got multiple issues to contend with -- personally and politically.
Heady, poignant, scary, humanist, controversial, heartbreaking, and maddening, Tyson pushes potent buttons. The director who made, among other pictures, his excellent, Fingers, The Pick Up Artist and the terrifically underrated Black and White (which featured a stellar, scary turn by Tyson in a brilliant scene with Robert Downey Jr. ) turned his camera on his friend of many years, former heavyweight champ, fallen icon Tyson and the result is hypnotic. Shot entirely from Tyson’s perspective, the style will unnerve those who have serious problems with the former boxer. But many will see a man in pain, and a man who’s never resolved his pain, and perhaps a man who never will. Which in our current culture of constant. empty apologies -- those PR tours of redemption -- Tyson’s emotional honesty is deeply refreshing. Yes, he’s still fucked up. And yes, he’s the first to admit it. For 90 minutes we watch Tyson's captivating face, world-weary and at times, teary-eyed, discuss his life -- from the heavyweight championship he won at 20, to his the trainers, to his wives, to his loves, to his pigeons, to his rape charge, to his stint in prison and then some -- and it becomes mesmerizing, poetic.
I talked with Toback about his movie and our lengthy discussion went to many places (our mutual love of Thomas Hardy and Dostoyevsky and our frequent siding with the supposed “bad guy”) so I’m parceling out some key moments, proving, once again, that Toback is a man who is never at a loss for words, ideas, or demons -- demons he embraces like a familiar friend.
Thomas Hardy as related to Mike Tyson:
Re-occurrences are not unlikely in fact, they are inevitable and you put them in movies and people say, “Oh get the fuck out of here” that’s too convient. And then you say, read some Hardy and live a little and you’ll not only see it’s not convenient, it’s inevitable, these things that you feel fit too neatly are constantly occurring. One of them happened to Tyson. When he got out of prison, I was thinking, I’m going to use him now in this next movie Black and White…and I was just visiting my mother and I’m walking down 72nd Street to Columbus Avenue…thinking whether Mike has his old cell phone number which I’m sure he hasn’t so I can call him about the movie and as I’m thinking this, there’s a knock on the window of the City Grill Restaurant and there’s Mike sitting there with a friend and I come into the restaurant and I say, "You are not going to believe this. I was just thinking about getting your number and calling you to ask you to be in… Black and White" and he says, "You’re not gonna believe this(and he says to his friend) ‘Who was I just talking about?’" The guy says 'James Toback' and he says (points) "this is James Toback." So that was a truly Hardy-esque moment. I love Hardy.
Favorite Thomas Hardy?
Jude the Obscure by far…
Of course. The darkest one of all . . .
Yes, of course.
And, favorite Dostoyevsky?
My favorite is The Possessed. Stavrogin's confession -- one of the greatest chapters in the history of world literature. And I love The Brothers Karamazov and I love Notes from Underground, which I used with Jimmy Caan in The Gambler: “I am a sick man, I am a spiteful man, and I think my liver is diseased.” Once you’re a devotee of Dostoyevsky, you feel a kind of allegiance to his spirit. I literally feel that my life could not have been what it became without him, he was the only writer, I’m not so insane that I literally think it’s true, [but he’s the only writer] who ever addressed me directly and personally. I actually felt he wrote this to communicate it with me. He is speaking directly to me. And I will someday answer. I regard my movies as a response to him. Not an argument. But an extension and a feeling that I am somehow carrying out his inspiration.
This was a very Dostoyevskian line: Mike Tyson saying “My insanity is my only sanity.”
That’s right. That is exactly what happened with me when I flipped out on LSD when I was 19 and a sophomore at Harvard. I lost my sanity for eight days. And that was my sanity. Those voices, that madness. And you can know it’s insane and at the same time say that’s all there is, everything else is just an illusion. And of course it’s tough to fit in the social universe with that attitude and that psychology. But what can you do, if that’s what you believe? Fortunately I gave up that belief…but I knew that I’d never get over it. I knew that if I ever became an artist that it would become the subject of my work so that even if I’m doing a movie about Mike Tyson, I’m really doing a movie about how madness lurks under the primary layer of consciousness and is ready to erupt at any time. And how the behavior of people who are living in some kind of close juxtaposition to madness is always going to be potentially disruptive, subversive and radical because one is not subject to the normal restrictions and limitations that a quote un quote ‘sane person’ who has never been quote un quote ‘insane’ has had to deal with.
The rape charge and critics as lemmings:
First of all there’d be no reason on earth for him to spend 15 years lying to me about it… He’s always told me, not told me, it’s far too impassioned to use a verb like “told” -- he has always insisted that it is a horrifying example of railroading and that he under no stretch of the word could possibly be thought of as having raped her…In fact, he said if 500 people were watching he said there isn’t one who could legitimately say that’s what happened. But when you put in the fact, as you’re just talking about, people don’t see anything but the outside information surrounding context and that’s what they believe. Because it’s easier to do that. It’s easier to go through life always believing what the herd mentality leads you to believe because you’re always on safe ground. As long as I say what I am supposed to say, no one can nail me, because I’m just saying what everybody else is saying or everybody in my group is saying. It’s like opinions of movies. There are film reviewers who are incapable of having an opinion till they have polled the group they are part of and make sure they are not going to be off base. It’s embarrassing to a point of being ugly and creepy. The idea of that I would ever have an opinion because I thought I was supposed to have it is so nauseating to me that I would rather slit my throat. You’ve packed it in as a human being… I cannot say what I think because I’m afraid of what people I want to be a part of might not like me and will be upset that I said it or think there’s something wrong with me? Fuck them and their ancestors.
The rape charge was always suspicious to me -- and what does convicted really mean anyway?
You start to look at it and say, this is fucking ridiculous. What do you mean, convicted as if it were a word we should be in awe of and the case is closed, discussion is over. Oh my god! It means he did it! No, it doesn’t. It means it was he was convicted. The reason I have this fresh in my mind is because many people ask me about it. Convicted rapist. Convicted, convicted. This is why Wittgenstein was my favorite philosopher because he was the first one when I read him when I was 15 who started making me think about language as a suspect. That language can be used to conceal, to deceive to mislead even uncousiously as much as it can be used to reveal. And that often, we use language as a tool of preventing meaning from coming through not as a way of creating meaning or truth.
Yes, writers say a lot and mean nothing, even when they’re being supposedly “out there” -- it’s often always just enough to please their group.
Yes. I think this kind of group thinking, class thinking, is the bane of any kind of honest approach to life and I am always so antagonistic towards it wherever I see it, that I’d rather defend someone who is guilty then convict somebody who is whether he is innocent or not, the conviction is based on this kind of group thinking…where we all know this. Everybody knows that. Who’s everybody? Well, I and my friends. It's always going back to the basics. This is why Dostoyevsky was the greatest novelist who ever lived, because he assumed nothing. He started with the notion, (well that’s not true he assumed the Russian Orthodox Church was perfect, but if you put aside that insanity) everything else he did started with a fresh perspective of human personality and the dynamic of human behavior and love and sex and madness and money. Nothing was assumed. Everything was original.
Tyson felt like a tragic Greek figure in this movie...
That’s the first thing he said [when] the movie ended. He said: “It’s like a Greek Tragedy the only problem is I’m the subject.” And then he saw it for the third time, he came up to me and said: “You know people always said they were scared of me and I always thought ‘what are they talking about? Why are they scared of me?’ and he said tonight I was watching the movie and I thought,’ I’m scared of that guy.’” One of the reasons Mike Tyson is a great “fictional” character, a great leading man in the movie that is about Mike Tyson where he’s playing himself is precisely that he’s a character who really only tells the truth, he gets through to you as who he is. There is no evasive misleading stuff…
That Holyfield fight and the ear:
You end up saying he should have had a third ear to bite. Because Holyfield is clearly intentionally head-butting him to the eye…Holyfield is a dirty fighter…and Mike snaps. And he goes crazy. And, as he says, I don’t regret having bitten him, I regret that I lost my discipline because that’s the one thing a fighter needs is his discipline, and I lost it. So I lost my faith in boxing and I lost my faith in myself. That was a real turning point for him, not because he bit his ear, or ears, but because he lost his sense of control. He went insane in the ring... you’re watching a person whose gone insane and that’s one of the wildest and weirdest moments in film history to me. He went back home drank some wine smoked some pot and fell asleep. You have this image of a billion people arguing and talking about this crazy event that happened and he’s sitting there alone.
And... one of the most moving moments of the picture, the famous: "I'll fuck you till you love me..." Watch James Toback discuss that chill-inducing, sad, scary and complicated moment with me.
It's often those little moments. What happens while waiting for the train, walking with a girl, sitting at the desk, working your tedious job. Those little things -- they work so beautifullly in Italian filmmaker Ermanno Olmi's maserpiece Il Posto (1961), a film that observes work (“Il Posto" means "The Job") through the orbs of a teenager (the saucer-eyed and touchingly languid non-professional actor Sandro Panseri) entering the work force. Olmi displays those little heartbreaks that lead people to inspiration or desperation with a beguiling combination of warmth and melancholia. An auteur whose attention to the small details of everyday life creates quiet character studies of tedium, irony, hilarity, and sadness, he had a marked quality of making the hum-drum almost fantastical.
Reality depends on how you look at it (after all, what is reality?) and Olmi's aggressively common, poignant depictions can veer into Kafkaesque torture while remaining sweet and perilously hopeful. It's not a surprise then, that that perilously depressing (even potentially suicidal) day, New Year’s Eve, showcases a scene so touching, that you find yourself in a place that moves beyond bittersweet. It's more agonizingly human. And then, just lovely.
After Panseri has conformed at his job (or is understanding that's what his future holds), it’s at at, at first, empy, cold New Year’s Eve party that the tenative teen will finally let loose, surrounded by the dreary commonality of his future. Though he hopes to meet the pretty woman he’s smitten with, he instead enters this rather sterile, flavorless party, and talks to an older couple at a nearby table. As the evening opens up and revelers have downed extra liquids, the shy young man unleashes a joy, perhaps a desperate joy, dancing, smiling, resigned to his sure night of singledom.
The fact that he's momentarily happy, widening his usual placid face with toothy grins and jumping in a circle with other party-goers, makes the sequence all the more heartbreaking. Especially since the New Year brings a new position, as well as a potentially endless life -- he will be staring at the back of his co-worker's head for the rest of the year. I always hope his year will be better. It probably won't, but perhaps his life will. And he should always dance. Especially when the girl doesn't show up.
Happy New Year.
Another Christmas, another posting of one of my favorite holiday movies -- Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut starring Nicole Kidman and that bizarre force -- Tom Cruise. A movie star and a fascinating, sometimes, brilliant actor, Cruise is an actor who thinks he's sincere. And he is. But is he? You really believe that he thinks he's sincere but... there's something off. Something he doesn't seem to understand (or perhaps he does?), which makes him extra compelling. He's charismatic. Charismatitcally creepy. And Stanley Kubrick understood this -- all of that mega star weirdo power hiding in plain sight. He might be crazy. He might be a tedious square. Whatever he is, Kubrick and company are dragging out the fubar. All that insanity-inducing yuletide anxiety (and then some) is so perfectly conveyed in Eyes Wide Shut via his leading man that Cruise is Christmas stress -- pretty, festive, overly serious, overly grinning, and often hilariously, creepily Christmassy.
And then, scared. Terrified, even, delivering Kubrick's social, sexual, surrealist themes within the director's gorgeous holiday milieu. Bathed in Christmas style, Eyes Wide Shut uses Christmas lights, background Christmas trees and traditional colors of red and green with almost perverse relentlessness. With that, I'm dipping into my archives for my annual posting of one of Kubrick's most underrated pictures -- a film that in terms of love, sex, death, fear and träume remains timeless. And again, it's a perfect Christmas movie...
In Kubrick's cinematic universe, reality, dreams, order and insanity progress on distinct, intersecting planes. Whether he was depicting an absurd, chillingly real war room in Dr. Strangelove, the disturbing but oddly sexy ultra violence of an Orwellian future in A Clockwork Orange, the siren call of insanity in The Shining, the hyper fantastical yet authentic Vietnam War in Full Metal Jacket, or the irony and powerlessness among such transcendent opulence in Barry Lyndon, life was a surreal work in progress -- an ambiguous joke that veered from hilarious to sexy to terrifying, sometimes within seconds. Attempting to understand order, or how any system designed to make our universe more rational or safe seemed fruitless. Think Sterling Hayden approaching such a predicament at the end of Kubrick's The Killing. He watches his life literally fly away on an airport tarmac and bitterly spits one of cinema’s greatest final lines: “Eh, what’s the difference?”
Which brings me to the final line of Kubrick’s frequently misunderstood Eyes Wide Shut in which Nicole Kidman states rather flatly, “Fuck” -- as in, that’s the answer, that’s what we need to do. A movie I’ve defended since its release, it’s a picture that deserves closer inspection and a worthy finale for the enigmatic auteur.
The controversial movie (some thought it silly, some, un-erotic) Eyes Wide Shut found the director once again studying the perplexing nature of dreams and reality, this time exploring them in a more personal and private arena: sexuality. As he did with Lolita, Kubrick created more than a film about sexual desire; he created a film about bitter romance, troublesome marital bonds, societal contradictions and, significantly, the fear of death.
An updating of the 1927 Traumnovelle (Dream Novel) by the sardonic Austrian writer Arthur Schnitzler, the picture remains an unsettling blend of antiquated garishness and modern transgression -- an alternate sexual universe haunted by ghouls of the past, present and future.
In this universe “live” the healthy, handsome walking dead -- Dr. Bill Harford Cruise) and his wife, Alice (a slinky, wonderfully creepy Kidman), a glamorous, rich couple who appear the picture of storybook perfection. But like most supposed perfection, there are cracks in that portrait, and in their case, it’s the usual: they want to screw other people (or at least they think they do). At a sumptuous party given by Bill's obscenely wealthy friend Victor (Sydney Pollack), Bill almost strays upstairs with two models while Alice flirts with a strange Hungarian man who looks like one of the cadaverous party-goers from The Shining. The next evening, in a fit of jealousy over Bill's near indiscretion (he ended up contending with a beautiful, naked drug overdose instead of a debauched roll in the hay -- though the way her body sits in this shot is disturbingly erotic), Alice confesses that she’s had thoughts of cheating and, even worse, reveals that if things had been different, she would have thrown her entire life away for one flight of sexual fancy.
Unmasking something that should remain one of those deep, dark secrets you never confess to your significant other, Alice deftly rattles Bill's perception of her fidelity and the strength of their marriage in a speech that makes his mind spin out of control (Kidman's performance here is superb). After this confession, Bill is abruptly called away to confirm the death of a patient and keeping in tune with the love/death/sex of the picture, the daughter of the deceased makes a pass at him. The grief stricken but, considering the circumstances, kinky gesture aids in Bill’s decision to not immediately return home. Instead, he wanders the streets of New York and embarks on a sequence of actions that, though not as outwardly comic, somewhat resemble those in the Scorsese movie After Hours: He discovers a surreal sexual underworld that he’s both attracted to and repelled by.
A prostitute, a piano player, a peculiar costume-store owner and his Lolita-esque 14-year-old daughter lead Bill to the film's infamous ritualistic orgy sequence, during which participants are cloaked and masked, and naked women are used as sacrificial sex lambs. The gothic, terrifying yet titillating feel of this sequence walks a fine line between horror and parody and true to Kubrick’s genius, manages to cross into both camps. The magnificent, exacting camera work and unrelenting music compel us to look, no matter what happens, and though I was actually a little scared the first time I saw this moment, I found myself highly amused, laughing even. If ever a person was out of place in a Bohemian Grove-like orgy, it is Tom Cruise’s Dr. Bill. And yet, I was absolutely hypnotized, watching these moments like a waking dream and investing it with multiple meanings. What the hell is going on here besides a bunch of silly old rich men getting their jollies with beautifully breasted, long legged Helmut Newton models? And further, what do all of Bill’s adventures mean? Are Bill's encounters simply nightmares that will damage his marriage beyond repair, or are they mere titillating fantasy -- fodder for a closer relationship and better sex with his spouse?
Well, I can’t answer that. Given the picture's ominous tone, however, there is something definitely rotten within its slinky, Christmas-lit loveliness. Like the impeccable environment of The Shining, the aura of Eyes Wide Shut is one of beauty ready to be defiled, sexuality ready to be slaughtered, lovely exteriors that reek of formaldehyde. The pall that hangs over this picture is fear: fear of the unknown; fear of yourself or of others; and fear that if sex can lead to freedom, it can just as easily lead to death.
In fact, the picture can be viewed as a commentary on sexual attitudes in the last few decades -- a time when meaningless indiscretions can lead to horrifying blood-test results. It is no surprise, then, that Bill is a doctor and that throughout the film, he flashes his physician's ID as a police detective would his badge. "I'm a doctor," he constantly says, for both reassurance and intimidation.
In a profession that requires intimate investigation of flesh that may well be on its way to the morgue, sex is serious. These unsettling references to AIDS, necrophilia and forbidden sex (not to mention Kubrick's own death upon bringing the film to completion, une petite mort of sorts) permeate the picture like one giant prick tease. In today's world, sex is still there for the taking, but at what cost and for what gain? Kubrick's frustrating, brilliant coda neither answers nor ignores its own questions. Rather, it leaves us in a mysterious, contradictory mishmash of dream and reality, where not only are our eyes wide shut, but our legs are too.