And just after my tenth (eleventh?) viewing of one of my favorite film noir, that daylight ménage à trois (or rather, ménage à trois by way of intimidation, which only makes the picture all the more fascinating and kinky) -- Road House -- just when I was really wrapping my head around my obsession with both the movie and that hot blonde laughing lunatic of menace and twisted sex appeal, he ups and leaves me.
An actor who stunned audiences (and earned his one and only Oscar nomination) with his film debut as the giggling psychopath Tommy Udo in Henry Hathaway's Kiss of Death, a character who, in the film's most notorious scene, pushes an old woman in a wheelchair down a flight of stairs, Widmark worked a long career filled with intriguing, daring roles that left a permanent impression on the movie-going public. So much, in fact, that Tommy Udo clubs formed around the country at various colleges, honoring the maniac for not taking any guff from women, men or life itself -- no matter how venal and self destructive he was. But that was part of Widmark's power and subversion -- you enjoyed his lunatics, you almost wanted to be near them, if only for a moment, just to witness that all that live wire insanity and bad seed evil.
But his career wasn't all about scumbags and sadists hassling little old ladies, he also helped create some of noir's most immortal characters including, in my mind, two ultimate existential noir anti-hero icons in two ultimate film noir masterpieces -- Skip McCoy in Samuel Fuller's Pickup on South Street, and Harry Fabian in Jules Dassin's Night and the City.
There was also The Street with No Name, Panic in the Streets (where he made the smart career move by playing the good guy and allowing Jack Palance the role of creepy heavy), the stunning aforementioned Road House (with Ida Lupino and Cornel Wilde), Don't Bother To Knock (with Marilyn Monroe), No Way Out (playing such a convicing racist, that the real life and very passionate liberal apologized to young Sidney Poitier after nearly every take), Judgment at Nuremberg, How the West Was Won, Madigan, The Alamo, The Bedford Incident (co-produced by anti-nuke activist Widmark) and more and more and more.
His presence was always missed once he stepped away from the screen but it was nice knowing the man, one of the last men standing of all the noir legends, was still alive and kicking. That he was enjoying his very non Tommy Udo-like life away from the spotlight in Connecticut, critical of modern movies and soul baring celebrities and the general dumbing down of cinema while keeping his life in healthy perspective. I've got so much more to write about one of my absolute all-time favorite actors, but to put it simply -- he was a rare one.
Rest in Peace Mr. Widmark. We’ll always have Jefty’s. And, here's your famous push...for old time's sake.
There’s a wonderful moment in the musical High Society during which Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra sing an especially rousing version of Cole Porter’s “Well, Did You Evah!” Midway through the charming, inebriated song, in which two “swellegant” party pals swap banter, dish on guests and form a dipsomaniacal camaraderie, Crosby croons to Sinatra with his distinctive “ba ba ba boom” and Sinatra jokes, “Don’t dig that kind of crooning, chum.” “You must be one of the newer fellows,” Crosby answers back.
The idea of Sinatra being one of the “newer fellows” is amusing since, in 1956 (when the picture was released), the big-band, and balladeer musical style of crooning was already on the wane. Sinatra was well on his way to becoming the elder-statesman Chairman of the Board, Elvis would be anointed the King of Rock ’n’ Roll and Bing would be … Bing.
Not that anyone would ever forget Bing Crosby. The crooner, born in Tacoma, Washington, had been cinema’s number one box-office draw from 1944 to 1948 and was an enormous, multitalented star -- radio, recordings and motion pictures all earning him legions of adoring fans. And like another famous crooner who would count him as an influence (Dean Martin), Crosby had his own cinematic comedy team, making the frequently funny (and underrated) “road” movies with wise-acre Bob Hope. He even won an Academy Award (for Going My Way) and received another nomination for his alcoholic role in The Country Girl.
There’s no denying that Crosby was and is big time. And yet … why does he feel just a little slighted through the years? Like the only moment we enjoy his music is once a year, when we roll out “White Christmas” from our holiday collection of old standards?
Perhaps it’s just how timelss and antiquated his music sounds today -- beautifully, mysteriously antiquated, like something emerging from a dream….or a nightmare. In moody reverie, when listening to the baritone sing “Pennies From Heaven,” “Ol’ Man River” or “Swinging on a Star,” you feel the music form around you, as if you’re riding on an ethereal echo chamber of air coming from a million miles away. It’s spacey, creepy, charming and gorgeous all at once. Which perfectly explains how effective the song “Mairzy Dotes” becomes in David Lynch's Twin Peaks, when daughter-murdering, Bob-haunted Leland Palmer crazily sings it in the midst of his meltdowns. And then there was that pairing of the two Thin White Dukes -- Bowie and Bing dueting “Peace On Earth/Little Drummer Boy” -- ideal. These were two sexy space aliens keeping Christmas a little bit Christian and a little bit pagan. As much as I love Frank Sinatra, this kind of cross generational extraterrestrial-ness could have only been created with Crosby.
All of these elements of Crosby are so marvelously powerful, that his music remains (particularly his earlier recordings) ever haunting, ever romantic and, in some instances, ever celestial. As musicologist J.T.H. Mize put it, Crosby could “melt a tone away, scoop it flat and sliding up to the eventual pitch as a glissando, sometimes sting a note right on the button, and take diphthongs for long musical rides.” In short, Crosby could send you. He still can. And not only at Christmas time.
I've always enjoyed this especially sexist, but hilarious quote uttered by Spencer's Tracy's drinking buddy in Woman of the Year: "Women should be kept illiterate and clean, like canaries." Funny, but...au contraire you jerk. What kind of movies would be made about them?
Whether sleeping one's way to the top, kidnapping a boss for progressive office improvements or embezzling wads of cash, women in the workplace have always made for intriguing cinematic fodder. They also reflect changing, evolving or, sometimes, de-evolving attitudes and actions concerning career gals in society, something that's been relevant since the beginning of film. And Hollywood never tires of the topic. With March's Women's History Month in mind, I'm returning to memorable cinematic depictions of working girls. Some might be considered role models, some quite questionable at their jobs and some just plain mentally disturbed. But all of them are fascinating -- here's my pick of six.
Name: Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway) Job Title: TV executive Strengths: Ambitious, brassy, ballsy, idea-driven, helps create modern television as we know it. Weaknesses: A power-hungry bitch, bad in bed, encourages Howard Beale (Peter Finch) to continue his nervous breakdown on TV, helps create modern television as we know it. Final Analysis: Is this what the modern-day working woman would become? For some work-a-holic ladies, yes. Dunaway's blistering, brilliant performance as Diana shows how climbing the ladder and allowing career to take precedence over every other aspect of one's life could be, well, a tad limiting in terms of leading any kind of nourishing personal existence. Though some view this character as misogynistic, Dunaway's power-hungry future media mogul is just like any human, man or woman, who's entirely caught up in personal ambition -- she's just given some additional symbolic layers as a woman. Deservedly, Dunaway won a Best Actress Oscar for her role.
His Girl Friday (1940)
Name: Hildegaard 'Hildy' Johnson (Rosalind Russell) Job Title: Newspaper reporter Strengths: Crackerjack newswoman, super clever, ultra quick with the quip, has ex-husband/editor Walter Burns' (Cary Grant) heart. Weaknesses: Insensitivity to her fiancée (played by Ralph Bellamy) whom she certainly won't marry. She'll never have any kind of typical family life, but then, when you're with Cary Grant, who cares? Final Analysis: Working in the boys' club of the newsroom, Russell's character isn't an overly ambitious shrew full of swaggering show; she's completely on the same level as every guy tapping out his copy. And the men not only know it, but wholly embrace it. What makes her interesting as an example of working women is that she feels it necessary to begin a "normal life" and attempts an ill-fated second marriage to pushover Bellamy. But ex-editor Grant can smell the play-acting a mile away, getting under her skin as only an ex-husband you're still in love with can (or really, Cary Grant, who has to be the greatest ex-husband a woman could ever put up with). His Girl Friday says, with positive grit, that we need Hildy, not in the kitchen, but in the newsroom, full of rat-a-tat banter and, sometimes, heartless scoops. And you've got to love a movie in which an ex-husband teases, "Why, Hildy! You've got the old-fashioned idea that divorce is something that lasts forever, 'til death do us part.' Why, divorce doesn't mean anything nowadays, Hildy, just a few words muttered over you by a judge." This was made in 1940? Right on.
Woman of the Year (1942)
Name: Tess Harding (Katharine Hepburn) Job Title: Political columnist Strengths: Savvy, worldly, multi-lingual, exceptionally intelligent, has immensely sexy chemistry with Spencer Tracy. Weaknesses: Questionable mother with her short-term adopted child, neglects husband, can't make a proper breakfast. Final Analysis: Can women really have it all? According to Woman of the Year -- no. But then men don't necessarily get everything they want either, especially if married to Hepburn's Tess Harding. She's a revered columnist who's not just a working woman but a national icon. And the film reveals realistic chinks in one celebrated feminist's armor. Sure, she can engage in a whirlwind romance and marry sports writer Tracy, maintain all of her jobs, travel the world, entertain illustrious friends and adopt a Greek orphan, but, like any mere mortal, there's not a chance in hell she can give all these areas equal attention. Especially the orphan, whom Tracy returns (can you imagine this happening in a movie today?) due to his wife's poor mothering skills. Still, neither the film nor Miss Hepburn ever demonizes Tess. She's frustrating to her husband and imperfect, but no one's telling her to change -- just slow down a bit -- and learn how to use a toaster properly. It's something everyone should do.
The Apartment (1960)
Name: Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine) Job Description: Elevator operator Strengths: Personable, a lovely button pusher. Weaknesses: In an office affair with a married man. Clearly a bad idea. Final Analysis: Though Billy Wilder's Oscar-winning picture is really more about the male office world, with Jack Lemmon's amiable, struggling nice guy C.C. Baxter sleeping his way to the top (bi-proxy), its vision of women in the workplace is too intriguing to ignore. Especially those women who aren't necessarily climbing the corporate ladder, but are instead attempting to find a husband -- or break up a marriage. In the process of allowing his bosses the use of his apartment for various amorous dalliances with young ladies, Lemmon stumbles on one affair that rubs both him and the audience the wrong way. The company's cute, clever elevator operator, Fran Kubelik (MacLaine), is having a major fling with personnel big-wig Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray), a married man and certifiable cad who's never going to leave his wife. What's intriguing about this depiction is how darkly but ultimately non-judgmentally Fran's character is drawn. She makes some bad choices (as do many ladies working for him), but clearly it's tough for the lower-rung working girl, especially if she actually finds herself in love. And, other than staying away from lecherous superiors, the movie really supplies no answers aside from this: Try falling in love with the right guy. In this case, Jack Lemmon, which ain't half bad. And yet...I always wonder if they're really going to work out in the end.
Name: Lily Powers (Barbara Stanwyck) Job Title: File clerk and... Strengths: Strong enough to pull herself out of a speakeasy life, terrific powers of, uh, persuasion, hangs out with her maid. Weaknesses: Problems with ethics. Big problems with ethics. But who can blame her? Final Analysis: Among Stanwyck's other sizzling pre-code pictures, including Night Nurse and Ladies They Talk About, Alfred E. Green's Baby Face was so brazen that censors snipped five minutes out of the picture (some having to do with Nietzsche -- so glad those are back in), hoping viewers would leave a little less shocked by the experience. The trick didn't work, as the movie (thankfully now restored with extra minutes intact) is still considered one of the raciest pictures of the '30s and remains controversial even today. Stanwyck is Lily Powers, a young woman who leaves an abusive father and a small-town speakeasy for a job in a New York bank. In a very obvious depiction of sleeping her way to the top, Stanwyck ascends the stories of the office building, leaving scores of used men behind her. She ultimately becomes a kept woman -- happily so -- until a tragedy gums up the works. But she's still hard-hearted and out for herself, something that's surprisingly sympathetic, almost glorified in the film. Commenting on the Depression -- how desperation can crumble one's morality (if morality really matters) -- she's both a victim of her time and nobody's fool. Stanwyck, always game, dived right into the scintillating material with her special brand of plucky, hard-boiled sex appeal; she's likable, awful and totally understandable all at once.
Names: Marnie Edgar/Margaret Edgar/Peggy Nicholson/Mary Taylor (Tippi Hedren) Job Title: Secretary Strengths: Attempts to stay away from any kind of romantic entanglements with men in the office. Clearly efficient. Smart dresser. Weaknesses: I'll have to go with the massive theft from various employers. Also, her nutty problem with red ink. Final Analysis: You might wonder why Alfred Hitchcock's psycho-sexual thriller Marnie has graced this list, but I think it's not only a fascinating study of repressed childhood memories, Freudian psychology and odd sexual hang-ups (and turn-ons), but a remarkable depiction of a troubled, perhaps insane working woman as well. Hedren is Marnie, a cool blonde goddess and compulsive liar and thief so traumatized by her past that her only arena for both escape and personal gain is work. Moving from city to city, she nabs jobs with her expert demeanor and skills (she is an efficient secretary) only to embezzle from employers along the way. She meets her match at the Rutland Company, where Mark Rutland (Sean Connery) recognizes her for the crook she is. And like so many men facing the siren call of the crazy chick, he wants her -- bad. Though the film covers a lot of ground concerning Marnie's fractured psyche, it's nevertheless a telling representation of just how bitter a woman can turn from men: enough to rob. And I love Hitchcock's fetishistic detail of Marnie scheming and stealing. I could watch Tippi open an close her handbag for hours.
Though I frequently discuss actors I love/am in love with, I've never delved into that simmering, gorgeous genius of masculine menace, charm and vulnerability -- John Garfield. He's one of my favorite actors (among a top three that alternate, but Garfield always remains), and an actor who almost literally knocked me for a loop when I first saw him on screen (in The Postman Always Rings Twice). All that sensitive masculinity, intelligence and intense, noir sex appeal and I was a goner. Forget Jessica Lange and Jack Nicholson's furious, flour-dusted fornication on the kitchen counter in the steamy re-make (which I do enjoy and find erotic), John and Lana need only to simply look at each other and...that's it. You know what they're up to later -- and the wondering is part of the picture’s tremendous turn-on (not to mention Lana's lipstick).
But Mr. Garfield...perhaps like poor Priscilla Lane checking out all your tough guy artistry, smoking that ciggie while playing the piano in your unforgettable 1938 film debut (Four Daughters) you're just too much for me. Like Joan Crawford’s wide-eyed attraction and anger during your virtuoso "Flight of the Bumblebee" interlude in Humoresque, I just can’t function properly when thinking about you. I'm all moony and swoony and tongue tied and, aw nuts...let’s just hitch-hike away from that depressing roadside diner. I don’t care if my white suit gets dirty. And unlike Ms. Turner, I'll knock him in the head with a bottle if you want...whatever it takes. See, I can’t think straight when regarding Garfield’s formidable big screen sway.
But since today is his birthday, I had to discuss for recognition alone. Why isn't he supremely famous? A household name? Why isn't he better recognized (he wasn't even listed in the featured Birthday section of IMDB, though thank goodness TCM honored him). For reasons I cannot decipher, this brilliant, brooding actor, though well respected by those who know better, isn't considered the legend a la Bogart, Clift, Brando or Dean. Why isn’t he better appreciated? This massive talent with genuine bad-boy street cred (he was born Julius Garfinkle and raised tough on the streets of Brooklyn and the Bronx) was a huge star in his day, so much so that his 1952 funeral was attended by more folks than Rudolph Valentino's ceremony. So why have too many forgetten him? Where's his damn box set?
If you've never seen a John Garfield performance, you have been (in a supreme understatement) missing out. If you've only watched one or two, you're sorely behind. If you need to catch up, check (among many other pictures) his intense, oftentimes roughly romantic and edgy performances in movies such as Gentlemen's Agreement, They Made Me a Criminal, The Postman Always Rings Twice, Body and Soul, Force of Evil, The Breaking Point (the superior version of Hemingway's To Have and Have Not), Nobody Lives Forever, Humoresque, Flowing Gold, Between Two Worlds, We Were Strangers and (my favorite) He Ran All the Way -- his last film and a quite fitting one considering how he left this world.
And God...what an exit Mr. Garfield. A serious actor and movie star (he trained in the famed Group Theater and worked with Clifford Odets), he was also victim to one of cinema's darkest, most shameful moments when the left-wing, progressive actor (and patriotic actor, he helped created The Hollywood Canteen for heaven's sake) testified at the scabrous House Un-American Activities Committee, who suspected him and certain colleagues, Communist. Unlike many other actors, writers and directors (including one of his former directors, Elia Kazan), Garfield refused to name names. As both a once young street tough and a man of principle, Garfield would not rat. Not surprisingly, work was then harder to come by and at the young age of 39, Garfield died of coronary thrombosis. Many speculate an already present heart condition was worsened by the stress caused by the House's inquisition. I think this assumption is correct. His mislabeling and death is so tragic that it angers me to this day.
Another reason I find it tough to write about Garfield. But I’ll never stop watching his movies -- in many cases multiple times. Right now, in fact. He Ran all the Way awaits. Happy Birthday to this hot genius piece of work. And here's to dropping that lipstick. Lana was lucky.
Next to the cinematic milestone of watching Humphrey Bogart in High Sierra and promptly falling in love with him (at age seven) my other girlhood crush was Desi Arnaz -- cool cat Cuban bandleader extraordinaire and husband to the luckiest redhead in New York City.
Other than The Addams Family, no other TV domestic situation seemed as attractive and as liberating as Desi's Ricky Ricardo and Lucille Ball's Lucy. Already sour on the idea of marriage at a young age, the Ricky Lucy dynamic not only seemed the real way a marriage could work but tremendously sexy. (I had yet to learn of the real life couple's eventual divorce, and that their fights gave George and Martha a run for their money).
But back to fantasyland. Let's see...living in a cool apartment directly in the city, falling into mischief with best pal and ex-vaudevillian Ethel, adorning various disguises to trick your hot Latin husband, working in a candy factory for a day, and getting into furniture smashing arguments only to cool that mad flow of Spanish with humor and yes, crying, which I realize annoys many contemporary viewers. But so what on Lucy’s pouting? I always sensed Ricky was getting something on the side with all those luscious dancing girls and back-up singers so his guilt was a little justified. But then I also figured the couple had some kind of an arrangement -- a don’t ask don’t tell policy -- which seemed so thrillingly modern. Although I was never certain what sort Lucy might be mixing with, I deduced a few wild encounters with crusty cab drivers, scarred, sweaty dock workers and hopped up jazz musicians a la Margot Tenenbaum. Frankly, I could see no downside to any of this. Still can’t.
And then there was the Hollywood phase -- William Holden at the Brown Derby, Rock Hudson, Cornel Wilde's hotel room, shopping with Ethel at the Farmer's Market and goofing around with Harpo Marx?! I don't care how many times Desi yells at you, it's all worth it. If you're gonna be a housewife, this is the one to be. You’re coming home to Ricky Ricardo.
Today is the late, great Mr. Arnaz's birthday and I'm wishing him a happy one. The man had quite a life -- leaving Cuba with his father for political exile in Miami (his family's fortune was destroyed and his father banned from Cuba under the Batista regime), teenage Arnaz was discovered by band leader Xavier Cugat, and was soon leading his own band in Miami Beach. From the late 1930’s-1940’s, he rose in prominence as a spectacularly talented drummer, singer and band leader of Afro-Cuban music. And then he met Lucy -- they then revolutionized television.
So again, Happy Birthday Mr. Arnaz. Thanks for providing my now life-long crush, thanks for your underrated humor and timing and thanks for your music. Also, thanks for nearly ruining all other relationships of my future. (I’ll extend thanks to Mr. Bogart as well -- and how Bogie and Desi swirling around my desirous, youthful brain aided and abetted my love for tough guy/dancing womanizer Roy Scheider's Joe Gideon...another beautiful destructor.)