Happy Birthday Tuesday Weld: Pretty Poison

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“What a week. I met you on Monday, fell in love with you on Tuesday, Wednesday I was unfaithful, Thursday we killed a guy together. How about that for a crazy week, Sue Ann?”

There’s a scene in Noel Black’s 1968 Pretty Poison that’s so unnerving and memorable, it still makes a viewer feel off balance today. Tuesday Weld’s beautiful 17-year-old high school majorette named Sue Ann Stepanek has just bashed some poor night watchman on the side of the head – twice – and he lies on the ground, bleeding, near dead. She and her new boyfriend, disturbed but sensitive Dennis Pitt (Anthony Perkins), have been mucking around at the chemical plant he has been working for (and was fired from) on one of their dates/clandestine “missions.” Dennis is loosening a chute that dumps chemical waste into the town’s water supply and at the same time, filling Sue Ann’s head with lies that he’s a spy for the CIA – she’s excited to help him. She’s really excited.

She loves the intrigue and the mischief, and she loves to rebel. She loathes her mother (when her mother slapped her earlier that night, Sue Ann slapped her right back) and she’s not keen on rules (save for Dennis’s “classified” commands she delights in). And she is her own person. That is for sure. She is, indeed, her own kind of person.

But as Dennis is messing with the chute, the night factory guard, Sam (whom Dennis seems to like), catches him. Dennis stares back terrified – for good reason – he’s recently been released from a mental institution. He’s a man (presumably in his 20s, or early 20s – Perkins was 35 at the time) with a record, a past arsonist who accidentally set his aunt – and her home – on fire (he was 15 then). He’s got a parole officer, Morton Azenauer (John Randolph), who is kind and patient with him. But Dennis – playing around with these spy games with this young woman – and now a nice old man’s got his skull bashed with a monkey wrench? He’s got a lot to be scared of.

DownloadSue Ann, on the other hand, does not seem to be scared of anything. In the universe of Pretty Poison, with its tree-lined, white-picket-fenced setting (the film was shot in Great Barrington, Massachusetts) this might seem surprising, that is, if a person were to apply the common standards of how society thinks of young women (and how they likely do in this town). She’s a remarkably beautiful girl with lovely hair (I always think of Nick Cave singing about blonde teenage murderess, Lottie, from “The Curse of Millhaven” – “My hair is yellow and I’m always a-combing, la la-la-la, la la-la-lie. Mama often told me that we all got to die!”). She’s a straight-A student with a bright future ahead of her. So, she, out there at night with her disturbed boyfriend who has led her into this bad scene – she should worry for her future. She should bemoan over why he dragged her into this. But she doesn’t. And she thinks fast. She calmly, deliberately, brains old Sam, blood oozing all over his face. She seems a little proud of herself too. Like she just solved a relatively hard algebra equation.

Sue Ann: I hit him twice. You see he started to go down and then I bopped him on the side of the head. Oh … he sure is bleeding, isn’t he?

Dennis: Yeah…

Sue Ann: The C.I.A. does cover this kind of stuff, doesn’t it? Hmm?

Dennis: Uh … Yeah … sometimes

Sue Ann: Well, what should we do? (Dennis pulls Sue Ann to him to hug her) You’re sweating.

Dennis: You’re cool.

You’re cool. As in her skin temperature. As in her soul. As in he still loves her. It’s all spinning out of control for Dennis, who thought he was in control with her. So… there she goes… Without asking or alerting the freaked-out Dennis, Sue Ann, with all of her sociopathic common sense and know-how, takes the night watchman’s gun out of his pocket (she’ll save that for later), and pushes the dying man’s body into the water. He’s now almost good and dead. And then she sits on his back. To make sure. To drown him.

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This is when the movie, which has already placed us into the unsettling world of Dennis and his problems, his possible craziness, and Sue Ann’s beautiful strangeness (though, before this moment, we didn’t realize just how fucking weird she is), I think, knows it’s perverse. In the black of night, her yellow hair glowing, her pink cardigan and blue and white plaid dress almost sparkling, she sits on top of the dead man’s back, her bare legs splashing in the water – with just a hint of … something, an erotic suggestion. A hint, which is smart because it would seem cheap and exploitative if it were anything else. The hint makes the viewer feel almost as if you imagined it. (We didn’t because later in the film, in a moment of disturbance, Dennis will flash to this same shot, freaked out.) When she’s done drowning the man, she sensibly tells Dennis: “He was dead, Dennis. The chute’s right over him. When it falls down in the morning, they’ll figure that’s what killed him.”

We see her sitting on this poor dead man, smiling, calm. When she makes her way back up to Dennis, she looks down at the body and says smiling, happy: “God, what a night.” When she and Dennis are back in the car after she’s sat in the water on top of the man she just murdered, Sue Ann then pounces on Dennis. She’s excited with blood lust. She wants to make it.

Pretty Poison was Black’s first and best feature (though his Jennifer on My Mind is such a tonally crazy picture, that I’d recommend it for those curious about contending with dead, heroin OD’ed girlfriends; Cover Me Babe is also seriously flawed, yet fascinating. His short, Skaterdater won the Palm D’or at Cannes and was nominated for an Academy Award for best short film in 1966). It has a dark, deadpan wit, scripted by Lorenzo Semple Jr. (the Batman series, The Parallax ViewThe Drowning PoolThree Days of the Condor) and gorgeous, at times, experimental cinematography by David Quaid (The Swimmer). I love how green the picture looks – so lush and pretty – quaint, but with so much existential dread and angst and dysfunction all around. David Lynch might love this movie.

The daylight exteriors of Sue Ann driving a baby blue convertible, Dennis sitting at the hot dog stand talking about murder, Sue Ann in a green dress looking very pretty as she watches, with binoculars, the night watchman’s body being dragged from the water – the light of the picture makes its dark humor all the more unsettling. The danger and ubiquity of poison all around us – both external and internal rot. Another great moment: The gun Sue Ann stole off of the dead night watchman she murdered – we see it again in her teenage room with flowered wallpaper and a framed picture of ballerinas – it’s in a drawer containing a blue curler, bobby pins, pink beads and other teeny things – a darkly humorous tableau of pretty girly normalcy and female rage. She will shoot her mother, four times, with it – a squinting, focused, intent look on her face and with a twisted smile – tongue protruding from her lips like both a kid and a seasoned pro. And then, everything back to relative calm, considering the circumstances, Sue Ann planning how to get rid of the body (though Azenauer will call soon after and Dennis knows he’s going to eventually be blamed for this). I actually thought Sue Ann might eat the breakfast her mother just made for her (she asked for pancakes) directly after killing her. Instead, she wants to have sex with Dennis, whom she says she wants to marry and run off to Mexico with. She’d been packing her bags and picking out dresses to wear before her mother came home. As her mother lies there dead on the staircase, Sue Ann sits on the bed and hugs Dennis, asking: “What do people do as soon as they’re married?”

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Dennis is (was) an arsonist, and since he accidentally killed his aunt as a teenager, he’s served many years away – and knows a thing or two about trauma. He nervously settles into this new town (his boss is an asshole), and he thinks he’s too smart for his job. His parole officer, Azenauer, agrees about his intelligence – but to stop with the crazy, or play-acting crazy, the jokes, and especially the fantasy. Azenauer warns him at the very beginning of the picture: “Believe me, Dennis, you’re going out into a very real and tough world. It’s got no place at all for fantasies.”

And then… a fantasy emerges. In a dizzying sequence, Dennis spies the beautiful Sue Ann Stepanek, first as a drum majorette, and then at a hot dog stand (as we’ll see later, a lot goes down at that hot dog stand). When they first take a drive in her car, she lies and says she’s 18 – but he knows better. OK, she’s in high school and almost 18, she says. He will fall for her – trying to play it cool at first, trying to take control with his games (fantasies), but when he sees her murderous glee, he realizes he’s not driving this relationship anymore. Nevertheless, he can’t leave her.

Dennis continues this routine of both trying to not play by the rules, while also, actually trying to listen to his parole officer. He’s clearly got some unresolved anger and fear going on, and he needs to feel more significant than he actually is. One reason why an impressionable teenage girl would be a target for him. And he really should not be up to this kind of predation. No, she should not.

He’s a broken man, and it’s often quite sad. In an incredible scene, both heartbreaking and then, darkly funny (because of Weld’s brilliant, perfectly timed response ), Perkins’s Dennis reveals to Sue Ann what happened all those years ago with this aunt:

Dennis: I didn’t know she was in the house. I swear I didn’t. See, I’d been playing with some girl next door. Playing doctor or something. Her name was Ursula. And my aunt caught us. [Crying] It wasn’t bad. It wasn’t bad. My aunt beat me with a pile of sticks. So, I took that pile of sticks into the cellar, and I set fire to them, Sue Ann. But I thought my aunt was out. Oh, that poor fool. She sneaked back into the house after she told me she was going out. I guess she hoped to catch me committing lascivious carriage or something, but I didn’t know it, Sue Ann, I didn’t know she was in the house. You see? You see…

Sue Ann: [Smiling] You’re all sweaty when you were the one with experience in killing people.

Dennis: [Sobbing and slightly laughing] Oh, God. Sue Ann. You say such crazy things. Maybe that’s why I love you.

Sue Ann: Cross your heart? Cross your heart?

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Perkins is so impressive in Pretty Poison – funny and creepy and vulnerable and a bit heart-breaking by the end. It’s a fascinating performance – he’s not really crazy, he’s almost play-acting a paranoid schizophrenic (he listens to radio shows in Russian, and, as said, comes on to Sue Ann through boastful lies about his work with the CIA.), so his actions just leave a question mark, in an intriguing way. As director Black said to writer, Perkins’s biographer, Ronald Bergan in 1994: “He had enormous charm and intelligence, the very qualities I wanted to come through in the role he would be playing. I was looking for the young Tony of Friendly Persuasion and Fear Strikes Out, not Psycho, although commentators naturally made the comparison between Norman Bates and the character in Pretty Poison.”

He’s not really like Norman Bates, though there’s a sex-death dysfunction he’s grown up with. But it’s as if he has no other way but to act crazy because that’s what everyone expects of him. But why pretend all this? Because no one ever believed him before? And fantasies aren’t always a bad thing, even if Azenauer  warns him against them. But this world – Azenauer is right – it doesn’t like those indulging in fantasy so much. As Noel Black said (in a Los Angeles Times story), Perkins’s Dennis is “a Walter Mitty type who comes up against a teeny-bopper Lady Macbeth.”

The act “works” to a certain extent because Sue Ann, likely bored out of her skull from typical boys who’ve romanced her, taken her to dumb dances and copped feels in cars, and who is also clearly damaged herself (her home life is unstable, her mother, doing what she wants, fine, but not necessarily protective, more just repressive to her daughter) is drawn to Dennis. Sue Ann sleeps with the twitchy mystery man (the first guy she’s “made it” with, though, when she brings up a sailor in a photo who creepily looks a lot older than she is, she might be lying – and we wonder if that was something unpleasant for her) and she also falls in love with him.

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Or so she says. We are never sure if she really had any feelings for him. We get the sense that she could have planned a trap this whole time. That she knew, from the very beginning, that he was lying. Or, if she started to catch wind of his lies or got bored, she flipped the switch. The easy read on Sue Ann is that she’s a stone-cold psycho, a bad seed, but she’s also a damaged, enraged young woman with a power and a magnetism all of her own. There’s surely a reason she’s got anger. Yes, she’s mad at her mother, but Dennis becoming her new boyfriend so quickly, thinking he can manipulate her and mold her to what he wants (which will backfire on him in major way – obviously), even if she says she’s in love and wants to run away with him and all that, his attempt to trick her – this probably, deep down, really pisses her off.

Pretty Poison is also tapping into the gorgeous off-center appeal of Weld, while testing our crush on Thalia from Dobie Gillis. She holds so much more – some kind of secret – a joke or a specific knowledge, maybe arcane knowledge, that only she knew but was keeping it to herself. You just try to find out what it is. (Watch other wonderful, complex Weld performances: Soldier in the RainPlay It as It LaysWho’ll Stop the RainLooking for Mr. GoodbarOnce Upon a Time in AmericaThief, and more) Those mysterious eyes, sometimes placid sometimes excited, her curiosity, vulnerability and strength, and beauty mixed with her intelligence and, in Pretty Poison, fascinating wickedness.

Weld was (and still is) cool. You completely get why Sam Shepard, after seeing her on a talk show wrote in “Motel Chronicles:” “Tuesday Weld appeared in bare feet and a full shirt and the interviewer (I think it was David Susskind) spent the whole time putting her down for having bare feet on his show and how this was a strong indication of her neurotic immaturity and need for attention. I fell in love with Tuesday Weld on that show. I thought she was the Marlon Brando of women.”

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She does have that Marlon Brando cool and complexity – but she is a woman and to be the Marlon Brando of women in the 1960s, and particularly the late 50s and early 60s when she was a young woman and in teeny-bopper roles, probably wasn’t always easy (it’s not always easy at any age). And Weld wouldn’t come off as canned, the well trained good little girl. Nor did she appear to be trying too hard, in spite of what David Susskind apparently thought: “Look how crazy I am.” She had been through some heavy shit in her life – between her mother (if you attempt to read it – the strange, questionable “Daughter Dearest” tell-all “If It’s Tuesday….. I Must Be DEAD!” written by Samuel Veta who states that Weld’s mother, Aileen (Yosene) Ker Weld, gave her “blessing” and “narrated” and “supervised” the book, and that “much was taken from her [Ker Weld’s] daily diaries” before Ker Weld died seems only indicative of dysfunction Tuesday Weld must deal with, even beyond her mother – that this was even put out there by Veta), her relationships, her past struggles with alcohol and depression (she had discussed this in earlier interviews – she has for a long time now, remained very private), and her apparent need for freedom – this wasn’t a woman who was just playing a “bad girl.” And she wasn’t just a bad girl; she was going through turmoil.  She also had a rebellious spirit. She likely still does.

Actress Carol Lynley (Blue Denim, Bunny Lake is Missing), went to school with young Tuesday Weld and Sandra Dee – they were her friends. But as she told Dodd Darin in his book “Dream Lovers: The Magnificent Shattered Lives of Bobby Darin and Sandra Dee,”  Weld and Dee (a talented actress who also knew darkness and suffered many traumas herself – this could be an entire essay on its own) were very different. Dee and Weld couldn’t really gel as friends. Lynley said: “Mary [Dee’s mother] and Sandy were very much the same type of woman…. They both had full skirts and coiffed hair, and my best friend, Tuesday, and I didn’t get this at all. Tuesday had a switchblade knife when she was ten, to give you some kind of idea.”

By the time of Pretty Poison, Weld had already been presented by the press (and sometimes by herself) as a notorious Lolita figure (even though she was in her 20s by the time of Pretty Poison). George Axelrod’s Lord Love a Duck had toyed with this in a surprisingly transgressive cashmere orgasm scene involving her laughing-lunatic incest-ready father, Max Showalter (a gloriously insane moment). She’d even turned down Stanley Kubrick’s Lolita saying of her choice, “I didn’t have to play it. I was Lolita.”

Famously Weld turned down many roles, including Bonnie and ClydeBob & Carol & Ted & AliceRosemary’s Baby, and more). As she said in a New York Times interview with Guy Flatley, “I may be self-destructive, but I like taking chances with movies. I like challenges, and I also like the particular position I’ve been in all these years, with people wanting to save me from the awful films I’ve been in. I’m happy being a legend. I think the Tuesday Weld cult is a very nice thing.”

She also said in that same interview, “Do I have hard feelings toward my mother? I hate my mother!”

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Many critics loved Pretty Poison (including Pauline Kael), but the movie made the studio nervous – it was just too strange – and it didn’t do well. Stranger than Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde a year before (which Pretty Poison is often compared to). Though Pretty Poison does contain an anti-establishment bent, it doesn’t have the same kind of romance. Bonnie and Clyde came together as equals in many ways, and we could not help but fall for them, their glamour, their mythology, and we wound up rooting for them, no matter what. Pretty Poison more resembles a slight inverse of Terrence Malick’s later Badlands with Weld becoming Martin Sheen (though Weld and Perkins are less romantic, cagier, even as their chemistry is strangely perfect, just as it was later – as damaged friends in Frank Perry’s Play It as It Lays, a movie I love and wrote about here – they are magnificent, brilliant together). Weld’s Sue Ann is a little more of a Peggy Cummins in Joseph H. Lewis’s masterful Gun Crazy – she takes over – but, still, there’s no one quite like Sue Ann Stepanek. Last year, J. Hoberman wrote a terrific piece about both Pretty Poison and Gun Crazy, writing, “It’s no surprise that Gun Crazy, like Pretty Poison, attained cult status in the late 1960s when it was said that violence was as American as cherry pie.”

You see this cheery, and, as Hoberman said, “cherry pie,” craziness as Sue Ann, after she killed the night watchman, amped up on adrenaline and excitement, is all over Dennis in her cute blue convertible. But, scary for the couple, two police officers shine a light on them. What’s going on in here? She never seems terribly frightened, which makes her seem all the more dangerous. But she’s, again, taking over.

The police don’t like this guy with this young woman in the car at night and question them. So, Sue Ann drives home on her own (Sue Ann is always doing the driving) while Dennis sits in the back of a police car, downcast. What a night indeed. She’s taking them to her mother’s house – to make the police make sure it’s all OK. Mrs. Stepanek (a terrific, harsh Beverly Garland), who likes to entertain men in her house (which, as said, could be fine – Sue Ann hates it, so we wonder what kind of things she’s has had to put up with, what might stoke her anger), assures the police it’s OK.

But Mrs. Stepanek doesn’t like Dennis and didn’t like Dennis from the get-go. But she clearly doesn’t want the cops sniffing around her house or any extra trouble in her life. She also wants to take care of getting Dennis out of Sue Ann’s life, herself. “You’re one lucky kid, buster,” the cop says, annoyed they can’t bust him on anything. The cop continues, “If I were you, I’d get down on my knees to this woman.” It’s a morbidly amusing moment because, once the police leave, Mrs. Stepanek calls Sue Ann a “dumb little slut.” She looks at Dennis, and after revealing to him that she knows he had fibbed to her earlier, she snarls, “Well, what’s the matter? Don’t you have any nice lies already?” You can’t bullshit this woman. She then demands that he get out. He walks out in the night, and looks back at the house, observing the forms of Sue Ann and her mother near the door. He hears Mrs. Stepanek yell, “Why, you tramp!” She slaps Sue Ann. What does Sue Ann do? Sue Ann laughs.

It all starts rolling down and down and down after that. Almost as if Dennis knows he’s done for, but he’s just going with the dreaded flow – the flow that will land him back in the slammer.

So now Dennis is debris- flotsam – trailing in the wake of Sue Ann’s ship. After killing the guard, and showing rage for her mother, Sue Ann amps up the carnage by shooting mom, point blank, and killing her with glee. This is all too much for Dennis (he cowers in the bathroom), but he loves Sue Ann and agrees to dump the mother’s body. He doesn’t though – he goes to a payphone and calls the police, on himself.  He already knows he is doomed.

And he is right: Sue Ann is picked up and blames it all on him – easily – her lies come without a flinch, as if she’s convinced herself they’re true within minutes.

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But we see in Perkins’s emotional look at Weld – his pained but loving eyes – that Dennis still loves her, even while watching her lie, and he tells her just that as he’s carted away. In some ways it speaks to what the picture satirizes: a predatory man taking on a teenage girl, and his predation turns on him. She’s so far advanced, so much angrier than he is, and she’s likely had to shove it in her whole life, that the idea of this malleable innocent is shattered. But, more pointedly, the movie doesn’t attack Sue Ann for her lack of cliched innocence (and I think – good for her), while it shows empathy for Dennis, but it’s not endorsing him either. He’s indulging in fantasy and that cracks wide open. We wonder if he’ll create a whole fantasy life about Sue Ann when he’s locked away – one in which he’s important again.

And, yet, Dennis also seems to love Sue Ann even more for her darkness – even as he is horrified. She’s clever, her mind constantly working; she’s one step ahead (again, part of Weld’s appeal as an actress: that intelligent, darker interior, her beguiling surprises, she’s so much more and we see that instantly, even before she speaks). But how does he feel about himself loving her so much? There’s a reason why, in a fit of Raskolnikovian guilt and dread, Dennis later flashes back to that image of her splashing in the water on the dead man’s back – he’s terrified and probably a little turned on, and he probably feels guilty for being turned on. That wasn’t fantasy, that moment, that was real.

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In some ways, Weld’s Sue Ann isn’t just pretty poison, she’s what lies underneath America’s heartland – the fantasy, to bring that up again – where pretty, blonde high school girls are supposed to be “good” but were not, are not, and should not have to be.

Sue Ann could be read as a reflection of the late 1960s “good” girl turning towards the counter-culture – the good girl going wild or giving the finger to the system. But there’s also direct, real female anger here, thanks to Weld’s performance, who fearlessly, mercurially, plays Sue Ann without trying to make her likable. She gets the humor, and she gets the rage, the madness -sometimes flowing within these emotions in a single scene – and she gets how people are much more terrified by a young woman acting this way. Norman Bates famously said, “We all go a little mad sometimes.” Sue Ann would agree, shrug, laugh – and then clean up the blood before taking her history exam.

How about that for a crazy week, Sue Ann?

Originally published at the New Beverly


Lizabeth Scott & Too Late For Tears

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A somewhat short riff on Too Late for Tears... 

“I let you in because, well, housewives can get awfully bored sometimes…”

“What is it, Jane? I just don’t understand you.” So asks Arthur Kennedy’s upright husband to Lizabeth Scott’s kinked, cryptic wife in Byron Haskin’s Too Late for Tears, a movie as much about one woman suffering her own private hell (infernal boredom with the late 1940’s bonds of traditional marriage, a disgust with patronizing rich people) as it is about a coveted bag of loot. And of course, murder – murder enacted by this “femme fatale” who hides her new furs in the place her husband wouldn’t look and she likely loathes – the kitchen. (He, in fact, finds them and confronts her, and this is where I wonder if he spends more time in the kitchen than she does – which makes me like him more) But she’s not hiding her luxury pieces because she bought them with just his money. The money, in many ways, is her money. Money that quite literally dropped into her lap (dropped into the back seat of her car). Money he is nervous about. Money he didn’t earn. Money she wants to keep. Money that, for her, means freedom from convention. Money means security and fun. For her. He views it with understandable apprehension. He states: “I just don’t understand you,” and you ask yourself if he ever did.

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The movie opens with Kennedy’s Alan and Scott’s Jane driving to a swanky get together one evening in Los Angeles. Jane, cool and beautiful and at times otherworldly in that distinct and timeless Lizabeth Scott way (she’s both dreamy-eyed and steely, rough voiced and soft, vulnerable and determinedly self-sufficient, smart as hell and spacey), objects to attending. Why? She’s says why. And she's pretty honest about it.

Jane: I... I tried to tell you before we left home. I... I just don't like being patronized, that's all. I... I don't think I can take another evening of it.

Alan: Patronized? Oh, sweetheart, Ralph is one of the nicest guys I...

Jane: You know it isn't Ralph. It's his diamond-studded wife, looking down her nose at me like... like her big ugly house up there looks down on Hollywood. Please. I'm just not going. Slow down and find a place to turn.

Alan: Oh, Jane, you're crazy. Alice likes you.

Jane: Please, Alan. I mean it. I'm just not going.

They don’t go to that "patronizing" party because at that very moment, as Jane physically attempts to get him to turn the car around, a bag of loot is thrown into the back of their car by a mysterious sender. God? The devil? Whoever it is -- of all the good luck. And bad luck. When Jane discovers their devil-god-given bounty, she takes charge in a way that befuddles her husband and delights the viewer (we can’t help it  -- Scott makes her such a strange pleasure). Alan never saw this side of her before? He knows her financial frustrations, but what the hell does he think his wife does all day while he’s at work? Stare at recipes of meatloaf? Gleefully chat with his sister who lives next door? It’s not that you don’t feel for Alan, you do (and especially up to the point where she does him in – in one of those little boats in Westlake Park). And as Alan watches Jane becoming more and more obsessive, you start sensing a fatalism in him too. Not just because of her, but because of what he’s supposed to mean as a man— and as a provider. Or, perhaps, what he’s supposed to mean as a good person. Alan wants to report the money to the police, and Jane wants to keep it. So, when the two return home, managing to get past the real recipients and the cops, they empty out the estimated 100 thousand on the bed. Alan is concerned. Jane is practically orgasmic with all of that green luxuriating on the sheets. Surely, to her, this is a more exciting action than anything she’s ever seen or done on that mattress.

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And then Dan Duryea shows up… Not right then but a few days later. Duryea’s Danny walks into Jane’s apartment and starts asking far too many questions -- but she maintains her cool. He takes in lovely Jane and as he gets to know her (or thinks he gets to know her) and begins gathering information that her husband may be cluelessly unaware of – that this lady is crooked, perhaps evil (maybe discontent?). Danny likes it. It gets him going. But Too Late for Tears (written by Roy Huggins from his serialized Saturday Evening Post novel) doesn’t cook up some rote hot-to-trot attraction between them. Never do we think Jane ever gets off on the bad boy sexuality of Danny, instead, she senses something else in him – weakness, depression, that’s he’s not as much the bad boy as he looks. And he’s not. Danny may come in all Duryea sleazy-cool, rolling his menacing words like a verbal cocked eyebrow, but you wind up feeling heartbroken for him thanks to Duryea’s vulnerable, moving performance. He’s two-bit, desperate, he drinks too much and he’s messed up even before he met Jane. He’s not even that great of a crook. We watch him unravel as he’s bettered by Jane time and again until he collapses, poisoned by her in his crummy little apartment. His female neighbor, maybe sometimes lover (we wonder – she seems to care more about him than anyone else does), doesn’t even assume foul play as the cops question her.  She exclaims: “He killed himself. Oh, God have mercy on him."  She cries. He didn’t kill himself, but in the fatalistic world of Too Late for Tears, he kind of did.

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Which leads us back to Jane. She’s high tailed it to Mexico. I haven’t even mentioned the annoying man following her (played by Don DeFore – the most unlikable “good” guy and no one you care about) who knows her even deeper secret (that she murdered her first husband before Alan). I like to block that guy out because, honestly, you are, at this point, rooting for Jane.  Maybe you're not supposed to, but I think the movie actually knows this, in spite of how bad she is. How many women, especially when this film was released (1949) yearned to run away from home with 100K? And today, the viewer is asking similar questions – wouldn’t we be tempted by dirty money thrown into our car? At least for a second? Jane is murderous, yes, and we take a moment to lament when Alan and especially sad Danny are disposed of, but the remarkable Lizabeth Scott is such an intriguing presence, so diabolical, yet so dazed, so elusive, but so understandably disgruntled – a woman whom men want to mold as either the perfect wife or the perfect femme fatale (Danny coos: “Don't ever change, tiger. I don't think I'd like you with a heart.”) – that we cheer for her to smash all of those male preconceptions she's been saddled with. She’s all herself and she’s all she’s got. And so, in spite of her evil deeds, we want her to make it in Mexico. Seeing her in a nice hotel, in her elegant gown, gorgeous and in charge, with a new gentleman on her arm (she declines any nighttime offer – there is a suitcase of money upstairs after all), we think, for a moment, “Jane has made it! She made it!” We know she's going to eventually suffer for it, so we give ourselves that moment to allow Jane her freedom, even if she's done such terrible things. 

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The picture swirls into a mad melodramatic dreamscape that, to me, becomes a kind of allegory of one housewife’s single-minded attempt to bust out of the binding expectations placed on her. I once compared the picture’s ending to Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing, in which another damn suitcase aids in the protagonist’s downfall. But Sterling Hayden, watching his money fly all over the tarmac, looks at it and says “Eh, what’s the difference?” Scott, instead, trips over her’s and tumbles off the hotel room terrace. It’s shocking and yet graceful.  She’s not watching the green fly away with the fatalistic acceptance of Hayden – no – she goes down together with it. She goes down with what she loves. At least she went down with that. And even in death, she creates a gorgeous tableau: clad in an evening gown, smashed on the cement, but looking like an angel, there is all of that money, her money, falling around her like snow. What’s the difference? She’s not getting married again, that’s for sure.


Happy Birthday Marilyn Monroe

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Happy Birthday, Marilyn Monroe.

Here's a letter Thomas Pynchon wrote to his former Cornell friend and roommate, writer Jules Siegel, in the early 1960s. MM is brought up -- she "got out of the game" as Pynchon wrote.  Siegel published a portion of the letter in a 1965 issue of Cavalier magazine. He wrote that, "Pynchon, hiding out from the world in Mexico City, wrote on blue-line graph paper to a suicidal writer friend." 

Pynchon:

"When Marilyn Monroe got out of the game, I wrote something like, 'Southern California's special horror notwithstanding, if the world offered nothing, nowhere to support or make bearable whatever her private grief was, then it is that world, and not she, that is at fault.'

"I wrote that in the first few shook-up minutes after hearing the bulletin sandwiched in between Don and Phil Everly and surrounded by all manner of whoops and whistles coming out of an audio signal generator, like you are apt to hear on the provincial radio these days. But I don't think I'd take those words back.

"The world is at fault, not because it is inherently good or bad or anything but what it is, but because it doesn't prepare us in anything but body to get along with.

"Our souls it leaves to whatever obsolescences, bigotries, theories of education workable and un, parental wisdom or lack of it, happen to get in its more or less Brownian (your phrase) pilgrimage between the cord-cutting ceremony and the time they slide you down the chute into the oven, while the guy on the Wurlitzer plays Aba Daba Honeymoon because you had once told somebody it was the nadir of all American expression; only they didn't know what nadir meant but it must be good because of the vehemence with which you expressed yourself."

And here's my piece on Marilyn for the Los Angeles Review of Books -- how she was on my mind, and everywhere, even on a blanket in Death Valley...


Always Try: Jacques Demy's Model Shop

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Originally published at The New Beverly

“He rushed out and rented a white convertible, and he’d drive around L.A. He’d call and say, ‘It’s a dream here!’” – Agnès Varda on her husband Jacques Demy in Los Angeles

In Jacques Demy’s Model Shop, George Matthews (Gary Lockwood), a 26-year-old unemployed architect, drives. It’s 1968 in Los Angeles (1969 when the movie was released), and he drives and drives and drives – the movie loves to watch him drive (and some of us love to watch him drive) – he drives all through the city – at day, at night. He listens to classical music, rock, and the news on his car radio, mostly about the Vietnam War. Sometimes he drives silent, only the traffic sounds and the wind in his ears. Sitting at the wheel of his vintage M.G. convertible (on the verge of being repossessed) he’s both running away from and towards … something. Some injurious future – he would like to avoid what he views as possible soul-crushing employment or even death (the draft is hanging over him) – and he would like to experience something fulfilling and new, exciting – love? Creation? Keep driving.

The driving matches his mental state, which is not aimless exactly (though his live-in aspiring actress girlfriend played by Alexandra Hay would probably disagree – she is not happy with him at the beginning of the film and their relationship, understandably, is falling apart). But all of this driving is maybe more like searching, wondering what the hell is going to happen, and at the end, as he says himself, trying. And so, he drives. And within this movie that occurs in 24 hours of this young man’s life – he seems to be driving through half of it. This driving is his mental state, and this is Los Angeles. He is full of undefined longing. As Joan Didion wrote, “A good part of any day in Los Angeles is spent driving, alone, through streets devoid of meaning to the driver, which is one reason the place exhilarates some people, and floods others with an amorphous unease.”

You get the feeling George is filled with both – exhilaration in bursts (when the geography of the place inspires him) and an amorphous unease – there are young men and women and bright lights and music and sun all around him, but there’s darkness clinging to every inch of it all. Attraction – a beautiful, dream-like woman in white driving a long white convertible – lulls him out of his torpor. She stands stark and elegant and somewhat a bit out of time and place, but there’s something sad about her – you feel it instantly. Does George as well? You get a sense he does, which makes him more intrigued, more magnetized. George, then, reflects more how Didion continued on her thought:  “There is about these hours spent in transit a seductive unconnectedness.”

Yes, there is that. The seductive. The unconnected. But one reason these hours at the wheel of the automobile are so seductive is the yearning to connect the unconnected. There is something about driving in Los Angeles, driving anywhere in the city, that is formless, yet full of stories – stories within nooks and crannies of shuttered movie theaters or old restaurants or old Hollywood haunts and houses and apartments and hopping club venues. Ghosts haunt the city. That can be unsettling and wonderful and sometimes both at the same time.

But also – the others – the passengers and drivers in the other cars: their stories, their stares, and their own loneliness. Some days it seems it’s a city of, mostly, single passenger cars. It’s often a gorgeous, fascinating city. But there are days where it feels – taking in the sunshine and breathing in the air – chemically off – as in your brain chemicals. I can’t quite put my finger on what it is exactly – those certain days that feel strange yet beautiful, light and dark, but listening to L.A.-made music by the band Love (especially 1967’s “Forever Changes”) or the Beach Boys’ 1966’s “Pet Sounds,” sweeps me into that state of haunted beauty, darkness within sunshine, the enigmatic nature of it, the complexity.

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And so, the woman in white, almost spectral at first, carries a lot more with her than he (he being George) or the viewer might have anticipated – she has a past. And for anyone familiar with Demy, her presence is deepened by her backstory – here in the movie and here in Demy’s work – which seem to swirl together in a personal, tender reverie. With much of Demy, we feel a bittersweet heartache, connections made by chance and often, love that was not returned and, of course, waiting. Driving is a lot of waiting. Making movies is a lot of waiting too.

And sometimes – making movies – you don’t get the person you yearned for – in this case, it was Harrison Ford instead of Gary Lockwood (I think Lockwood is really good here). Columbia didn’t see it and felt Lockwood (after his role in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001), was more suitable. The movie didn’t do well regardless – and has become either a curio or something of a cult film for either Demy-philes, or those simply intrigued by taking in late 1960s Los Angeles – because you see so much of it, you feel its vibe, and you wish a lot of it was still around. But how different this movie might have been received or regarded with Ford? And what to think of Demy’s possible career in Hollywood? Or Ford’s alternate one? One might assume it would have been different. And would Demy have made his superb Donkey Skin?  We’ll never know. And, so, Harrison Ford is even imprinted on the movie, if you know the backstory to it. As Ford tells it in Agnès Varda’s documentary The World of Jacques Demy, he spent time location scouting with Demy, and he and the director did indeed go to a model shop (on Santa Monica Blvd – the exterior painted DayGlo). According to Ford, Demy recreated the interior quite accurately, as you saw it (but, I’m going to assume, with Demy’s visual flair and added color), and he talked about the long narrow corridor they walked down to meet their model – it was painted black. And that they were both shy.

So, here’s Lola (Anouk Aimée) working at such a place. A French woman in Los Angeles, she doesn’t have her work visa, and can only find employment at one of those model shops – a place where men pay by the quarter half hour or half-hour to take pictures of women scantily clad or, obviously, nude (or maybe more if the price is right). So close and yet, so far-distanced by a machine-possessed only in image, a lens and, in a way, defining the only way Demy could capture and enshrine a mysterious and perhaps confusing kind of love at first sight – via his own camera.

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Lola carries a whole past with her, of course, everyone does, but she also carries an entire Demy movie. Two movies, in fact (three if you want to count where her brooding paramour of 1961 ends up – Cherbourg). The foundational movie is, quite appropriately, Lola, Demy’s sublime first picture released in 1961, starring Aimée as Lola, in which Lola worked singing and dancing at a cabaret in Nantes, France, hoping for her great love (and father to her seven-year-old son) to return.

It’s richly rewarding to find all of the inter-connectivity in Demy’s work, so much that you dig for it throughout his movies, afraid you might have missed one reference, one recurring character (and indeed, I may have). It puts you, the viewer, right in his mindset, wondering and longing to assemble what is an intimate fresco of memories or dreams. In Lola, Aimée is much cheerier and more smiling and girlish, while harboring the sadness of waiting for Michel (Jacques Harden). There are imprints of both Michel and young Lola in Aimée’s Lola of Model Shop – she wears a similar white sheath dress, out with a man smitten, here it’s George (in Lola, it’s Roland, played by Marc Michel, who will then fall for Deneuve’s heartbroken and waiting-for-another, Geneviève in Umbrellas of Cherbourg). And then there’s the white convertible she drives. Her beloved Michel opens Lola looking very American in all white clothing including a white Stetson hat and driving a long white convertible Cadillac through Nantes while Lola is not yet aware, he has returned. At the end of Lola, the two reunite and drive off together in that long white Cadillac as lovelorn Roland, sadly walks to a different future.

But as we’ll learn near the end of Model Shop, Lola and Michel will not make it. They will divorce. He’ll fall for another – a gambler in Las Vegas named Jackie Demaistre – from Demy’s second film, Bay of Angels, in which Jackie is played by a tough, but sad-eyed, vulnerable bottled blonde Jeanne Moreau. She, too, is a mother (divorced), going through life at a roulette wheel. Jackie plays with chance, perhaps as a way to control it. In Demy’s universe, chance influences so much of our lives.

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In something like chance, George spies Lola at, of all perfect places within this movie, a parking lot. He’s managed to drive off the repo man for the time being – but only if he can secure 100 dollars to pay off his car loan. He asks a friend who works as a parking attendant for some dough – the friend declines, nicely, since George already owes him money. But there he sees Lola, and follows her (some might view this as creepy), and driving on Sunset he turns to drive up a hill, and finds Lola driving to one of those swanky residences up in the hills – Lola is off to a mysterious meeting or appointment of some kind. She knocks and enters this house. We never know who it is or why or what is happening inside. George sits in his car and then gets out, taking in the view, the sprawling geography of Los Angeles looking beautiful and lonely but full of possibility. He drives away. He picks up a hitchhiker (she rolls a joint – rather expertly as the grass impossibly doesn’t fly out all over the place – and hands it to George for the ride). He deposits her down on Sunset. She walks away – and this being a Demy movie, we almost wonder if she’ll return in some way – she doesn’t. He drives to another friend’s place – the house where the band Spirit practice and live (another imprint of the real invading movie life – this is the actual band who also provide the atmospheric soundtrack for the movie – the gorgeous, melancholic opening tune “Fog” will really stick with you).

These guys are excited about their new record – they have a purpose George doesn’t seem to have, not immediately anyway – and so, here, we see, not burned-out hippies, but men actually creating and achieving. (We wonder what might be in a few more years – the 1970s are upon all of these characters) George sits with Spirit’s lead singer, Jay Ferguson, as he plays a new song on the piano. There’s something really lovely about this moment – watching George listen, and the look on Lockwood’s face is unsmiling but thoughtful – if you really look at him during this scene, you really feel for him. Jay says, “I haven’t got the words down yet. But I know what I want them to do. I’d like them to be sort of a personal testimony: the insanity of this world. I don’t know. It’s really far out. But, if I could just get it down, like it is in my head.” (A relatable creative desire if there ever was one). Jay asks George what he’s up to; if he’s still at his old job. George says he couldn’t take it anymore; it was wasting him and he tells him he’s broke. He asks (he says he feels weird about it) for 100 bucks. Jay generously gives it to him, smiling and telling him not to worry about it because everything is “going great for us” – his band. Jay is really sweet. It’s touching. Jay asks what he’s up to, what’s next for him:

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“I don’t know. I’m not gonna give up architecture really want to create something. I just can’t seem to wait out the 15 or 20 years it takes to establish your reputation and then for what? To design service stations and luxury motels? (laughs) I keep going around in circles I guess, trying to find out what the choices are, wasting a lot of time. Like this morning (laughs) – I did an incredible thing. I was in my car and I started to follow this …  uh nothing. It’s not very interesting.”

Jay presses that it is interesting and to tell him. George says:

“I was driving down Sunset, and I turned on one of those roads that leads up into the hills – and I stopped at this place that overlooks the whole city it was fantastic. I suddenly felt exhilarated. I was really moved by the geometry of the place; it’s conception, its baroque harmony. It’s a fabulous city. And to think some people claim it’s an ugly city when it’s really pure poetry, it just kills me. I wanted to build something right then, create something. You know what I mean?”

There is the exhilaration Didion spoke of – and George, rather poignantly, opening up to his friend about it. He really loves the city – he’s not cynical or hardened or beaten down by it yet. He’s not felt the deep darkness via the terrors of 1969 Los Angeles yet (chiefly, Manson), but there’s a lingering dread nonetheless. I suppose some found this scene (as well as others), corny or earnest, or “too European,” but I find it moving, particularly in that George (via Demy) is sticking up for Los Angeles. Already at this point, Los Angeles was a city people professed to hate, smudged with smog and a hollow Hollywood dream (of course there is so much more to Los Angeles than Hollywood – if people and certainly cynical visitors would actually drive around more, and take in neighborhoods – they might understand the city’s history and multi-cultural population). This persists – this tired Alvy Singer thought, that Los Angeles’s only “cultural advantage is that you can turn right on a red light…” Not true – about the cultural advantage, the right on red is valid and damn crucial if you’ve ever spent time driving in this place.

In the excellent, essential essay-film Los Angeles Plays Itself, Thom Andersen discusses Model Shop and says he took issue with it when he was younger, not for its love of Los Angeles, but for its limited terrain. But, apparently, with time, he came to find the film moving. As he stated, “Jacques Demy loved Los Angeles as only a tourist can, or maybe I should say, as only a French tourist can. I resented Model Shop when it came out because it was a West Side movie. Its vision of the city didn’t extend east of Vine Street. But now I can appreciate an early poignant Los Angeles, a city. It’s totally incoherent, but if you live here, you have to be moved.” As I’ve said, it is moving. And if you don’t live here, you can be moved as well.

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Demy relocated to Los Angeles in the late 1960s for a time – and he really got into the place. With the success of his third movie, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, nominated for a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar (also nominated for four other Oscars – Best Song, Best Original Score, Best Scoring – Adaptation or Treatment and Best Screenplay), Columbia Pictures called, and Demy took it. (Before Model Shop, he had also directed another sublime musical,  The Young Girls of Rochefort, released in 1967 – nominated for an Academy Award for Best Scoring of a Musical Picture) And so, he, with his wife, the brilliant filmmaker Agnès Varda (Model Shop should also be viewed with Varda’s impressive work made in Los Angeles – among them, 1967’s Uncle Yanco, 1968’s Black Panthers, 1969’s LIONS LOVE (…AND LIES), 1981’s Mur Murs), they found inspiration all over the place – fell hard for it. And like Lockwood’s George, they would drive.

As Varda said, “We had a convertible car. We were playing the game. Then I would drive. I would take Pico and go from the ocean to downtown. I would do Sunset Boulevard that turns a lot. I would do all the streets – Venice Boulevard, etc. I was impressed, absolutely impressed.” Demy spoke of driving as well, and how driving in Los Angeles was in and of itself cinematic: “I learned the city by driving – from one end of Sunset to the other, down Western all the way to Long Beach. L.A. has the perfect proportions for film. It fits the frame perfectly.”

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You see this in Model Shop’s opening shot – set next to George’s Venice Beach home (with an oil rig out front) – Demy films a majestic crane pull back on a camera car as Spirit’s “Fog” plays, and we take in the location and atmosphere of Venice, riding along smoothly with the camera. It’s already automobilized, and it serves a vehicular connection to the opening shots of Lola and Bay of Angels. With Bay of Angels (one can’t help but think, now, as we watch Model Shop, of the City of Angels) the camera executes a vertiginous, virtuoso pull back from Jeanne Moreau walking the boardwalk in Nice, Michel Legrand’s music soaring until we no longer see her, and the city flies by. In Lola, a white Cadillac drives into the frame, a man in white gets out of the car and looks at the sea. He jumps back in, and the camera does a similar crane pullback (albeit much shorter) as Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony plays. With Lola, we see the man in white actually driving the car, and the camera is then mounted on the back, we follow the Stetson-hatted man, eyeing his view. All three movies seem to be taking in surroundings via car (in Lola, most directly), and with music, and it’s so beautiful; so, stirring. Demy’s oblique visual rhyming between the three movies deepens the poignancy. He loved camera movement and music and Max Ophuls (Lola is dedicated to the great Ophuls), and he used all of this love in such a personal way. There is such coveting and longing and missing in the cinema of Demy, making vehicles a perfect encapsulation of this notion – cars and people are in some ways, to use the time-worn Longfellow phrase, ships that pass in the night, only there’s much more connection than we may have thought.

George drives back up to that swanky house in the hills and, this time boldly rings the doorbell.  He asks about the woman who was there earlier, this morning, and the response from inside is – there was no woman here: “nobody came.” As if George saw a ghost. He leaves. He drives again, this time stopping to get a hamburger. By coincidence, he sees the woman in white walking down the street – he leaves his hamburger behind and follows her. She walks into the model shop, and he follows. Inside it’s all red velvet wallpaper with pink curtains and violet paint, black and white photos of models on the wall. A blonde woman in a mini skirt and black boots sits on the couch, watching the T.V., barely noticing him. She nicely hands him a photo album – he can pick his girl – and he comes across Lola. He picks her. It’s a bit creepy and sad and all too easy – you feel for Lola and how vulnerable she is. You wonder if he thinks the same, but he’s stone-faced, probably out of nerves, like young Harrison Ford and Jacques Demy before him. He gets the lowdown – you rent the girl 20 dollars for a half hour, 12 dollars for 15 minutes, six exposures of film, camera and film included. He picks 12 dollars (he just borrowed 100 bucks; you are very aware of George’s relationship with dough right now). A guy older than George in a suit and loose tie comes out with his camera, turning it in after his session. He looks more like the type you’d imagine would haunt this kind of place in 1968 – a guy more of the 1950s, an Irving Klaw enthusiast. The place is never presented as sordid, but certainly detached, and not exactly George’s scene. Demy neither romanticizes the place nor insults it or the women there – it’s just work. And when George is alone in the room with Lola, the exchange is realistically awkward, even a bit lifeless.

He doesn’t really attempt to talk to her, he doesn’t really act like a man who is smitten, he seems sour, disappointed even, but he takes all six photos, Lola posing however she likes because he doesn’t care what she does. It’s all very chaste, Lola mostly wrapping herself in her fluffy robe. It feels off seeing either of them in this place – George is more at home in his car and Lola seems like she should be anywhere else, dancing, smiling, not just posing – if we’ve already seen Demy’s Lola, we are wondering about where she lives, where her son is, if she’s happy. What happened to Michel? If we haven’t seen Lola we just find it even more mysterious. When George is down to his last shot, the conversation goes:

Lola:  You have only one left. If you want me to do anything…

George: I like what I’ve got.

Lola: You don’t seem particularly interested in photography.

George: I’m not. I’m more interested in you. Besides, I don’t think the guys who come here give a damn for the art of photography, do they?

Lola: I don’t judge the customers. It’s not my concern.

George: It’s kind of degrading work, isn’t it? Why do you do it?

Lola: To make my living… But I don’t like this word, “degrading.” After all, I don’t know what YOU do, to make your living.

George: Me? Nothing, right now.

Lola: Then you don’t run the risk of degrading yourself by working.

George: You’re French.

Lola: As you can hear.

George: I followed you this morning.

Lola: Yes, I know… Good-bye.

George: Good-bye.

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Good-bye. And that is that. He doesn’t reach out to her, doesn’t ask for her number, more about her life, nothing. Part of this seems like a good idea – he shouldn’t bother this woman – he shouldn’t walk in and ask aloud if what she does is degrading. But he’ll learn and he’ll think more. George seems slightly surprised by his actions, albeit in a low key way. Demy shows George leave, driving again, taking the film to the designated place on Selma Ave. He drives to extend his car payments (he needs to pay by that night, or his car will be taken away the next morning). He drives more and then winds up at his friend’s alternative newspaper, where they offer him some work. (His friends are so damn nice) “I got the draft hanging over my head, makes it kind of tough to plan anything,” George says. The men discuss the draft, their status within it, and the Vietnam War, and you think anything “heavy” that is said in this picture, well, it’s understandable with this kind of worry darkening these young men, who are trying to smile and laugh it off as much as they can. But not all of them can. And then George calls home, borrows money from his mother (whom he clearly loves) and learns from his dad (whom he clearly does not relate to) what has been hanging over him – that his draft notice has come.

Will George see Lola again? Indeed, he will, as he ventures back to the model shop and finally asks her out. One of the reasons? One he says, anyway? They both share a love for Los Angeles. Lola says she is leaving, anxious to return to France, but admits she will miss the city, that she loves Los Angeles. George says, “Well, that’s surprising, you know, most people hate it. Well, now, there’s two of us that like it. And that’s a good enough reason to get on out and have a drink, isn’t it? When the two meet in the parking lot, their cars vertical to one another, they share some of their life story. How old they are (or around how old they are), what they’re up to, what they came from, and what they are, or are not looking forward to. George, the dismal draft, and Lola (stage name – her real name is Cecile, she tells him), she yearns to see her son whom she’s not seen in two years. He’s about 14 now. It’s a beautiful scene, all the more affecting that that they open up via car – it jives beautifully with Demy’s vehicular lyricism, and we wonder if they would have only opened up while sitting behind the wheels of their convertibles. It shows how cars are not necessarily disconnecting; there’s a feeling of protection that makes one feel safe to utter things they may not have said. So much so that George tells Lola that he loves her.

“You’re very nice. And what you say is very moving. But you don’t know me at all,” a very sweet but tentative Lola says. She wisely understands that he just needs someone – perhaps it’s not just her. He becomes defensive, particularly about the kind of life she lives (she sees this as insulting – it is), but boy, does he not get how much more Lola knows about life and love than he does. But by the time the movie closes, I think he will get it. And he’ll, actually, truly, love her as a person, not as something he needs.

George and Lola will go to Lola’s place and talk more. Here, Aimée is absolutely lovely and heart-rending, showing George pictures of her past (pictures straight out of the movie Lola) – of her ex-husband, Michel, of her former lover, a sailor (also from Lola) whom she intended to catch up with in Chicago, but found out he died in Vietnam. You spy Roland in a photo, but she says nothing of him, but you also see a French magazine with Catherine Deneuve on the cover – Roland’s future. She talks about Michel leaving her for Bay of Angels’ Jackie and how depressed she was. How she has given up on love. It’s such a beautiful performance, and with the imprints of Demy, his movies and Aimee’s Lola (“Lola in L.A.” Varda called in in The World of Jacques Demy) deepening this woman who works at something so simply called a “model shop.” You never know who you might drive up next to in a parking lot in Los Angeles, and George has just found a woman of multitudes. They spend the night together, and George gives her his last bit of dough to help pay for her trip to France. When he returns home, his girlfriend is leaving him (all for the best – even if she is supposedly going to sell out, you don’t not feel for her either) and he’s hoping to see Lola one more time. He calls up her place but her roommate informs him she’s already left. George (and Lockwood especially) is really poignant at this moment. Lola may have given up on love, but she does not believe in giving up on trying, and that really sticks with George. He says to her roommate:

“I just wanted to tell her that I loved her. I just wanted her to know that I wanted to try to begin again. You know what I mean? That I was, I just wanted her to know that I was going to try. Yeah, it sounds stupid, doesn’t it. But, I can, you know. I mean, I personally can. Always try, you know. Yeah, always try. Yeah, always try.”

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Much of Demy’s work is concerned with similar thematic elements: the near misses of love, the aching, longing nature of our solitude and the casual destruction of our destiny by the arbitrary intervention of a superstructure: morals, conventions or the military draft to fight a war that feels alien or downright wrong to us. He seems to really believe in love, or the hope of love or the transforming, musical exaltations of love (and pain), and he believes in trying. Driving forward? Perhaps, within the steel and glass, rolling alongside us in a busy, deceitfully sunny freeway is the very soul that could redeem us from this world and ourselves.

At the end of Model Shop, you see outside of George’s house – his car is, finally, being towed away. And we wonder what George will do now – regarding the draft, regarding his wheels. He takes his freedom very seriously and he loves to drive…  What now? We’re not sure. But we do hope he will drive, again, with his own car, wherever he wants to go. And that he will, indeed, try …. “Yeah, always try.”

From my New Beverly piece.


My Criterion Essay on Jean Arthur

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"She was a nonconformist too . . . a believer in her own intuition. Intuition, that’s what Joan’s voices were. She never killed anybody. She just wanted everybody to go home and mind their own business.” -- Jean Arthur on Joan of Arc

Up now! My Criterion essay on one of my favorite actresses -- the complex, charming, beautiful, funny, serious and seriously smart iconoclastic, Jean Arthur -- a fascinating actress and woman of duality and depth -- for Criterion's Jean Arthur series currently playing on their Channel

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Read my essay here:


Sinatra in a Small Town: Suddenly

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Originally published at The New Beverly

Suddenly is a sleepy little 1950s town that’s a stand-in for any kind of sleepy little 1950s town in the U.S.A.  Not much happens in Suddenly, to the point where residents seem a little bored with life, enough to feel either half-awake or, combustible.

Like any town populated with humans, there’s an underlying threat – often from within themselves: Lust, violence, madness – you feel it creeping – the shadow around the corner on those sunny Anytown, U.S.A. streets. Nothing can be so wholesome and so golly-gee and so clean. Nothing ever is. A little boy wants a cap gun, a sheriff wants love from the little boy’s attractive widowed mother, the widow doesn’t seem to want any of it. That’s pretty normal, but when the widow, still bereft over her husband, who died in the Korean War (hence, her understandable hatred of guns and violence and war movies and men taking up her personal space in the market), denies the sheriff – presumably, a man she’s dating – he states dramatically and rather morbidly: “You’re digging a big black pit and shoving us all down into it.”

When a motorist passes through Suddenly, he asks a police officer about the town’s unique name. He inquires: “Suddenly, what?” as if words need to follow. The police officer, chirpy and wise-cracking enough, tells the man that the town’s name is a “hangover from the old days.” The town once offered excitement – even illicit, violent excitement – and the cop seems a little proud of that. The officer continues: “That’s the way things used to happen here – suddenly. Road agents, gambler, gunfighters …  Things happen so slow now the town council is figuring to change the name to Gradually.”

That exchange happened before we meet the widow, the boy and the sheriff and it’s clearly a portent of things to come in this movie, called Suddenly – things that come not so gradually when a skinny, blue-eyed psycho enters the picture. I wonder if David Lynch saw this movie, what with the corny jokes and the small-town wholesomeness, evil lurking right around the corner. The police officer appears, perhaps, bored with the town, but the sheriff is fixated on the possibility of violence; of dark forces, and how one must combat them. (I kept waiting for the sheriff to utter something Twin Peaks’ Sheriff Harry S. Truman would say: “There’s a sort of evil out there. Something very, very strange in these old woods. Call it what you want. A darkness, a presence. It takes many forms but… it’s been out there for as long as anyone can remember and we’ve always been here to fight it.”)

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The sheriff is Tod Shaw (the great Sterling Hayden – likable and commanding, and just a little wonderfully off, he often appears to know more than what he’s letting on, or grappling with things far more existential than we may realize), whose feelings for widowed Ellen Benson (Nancy Gates) are laid out there for God and everyone to see. He simply tells her he’s in love with her. He’s also gone way too far by buying her son, Pidge (Kim Charney), a cap pistol, entirely against her wishes. He’s attempting to push his views on her about boys growing into men and understanding when violence is necessary, when he may need to defend himself, that kind of thing. “You can’t wrap the boy in cellophane.” He urges. A pacifist, she’s not buying any of this, but Tod persists: “When a house is on fire everybody has to help put it out. Because the next time it might be your house!” These officers of the law are practically willing what will happen.

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What will happen, and, soon, is the aforementioned skinny blue-eyed psycho showing up in his impeccable fedora with his thugs, posing as the FBI. It’s a big day in Suddenly among those who know – the President of the United States is riding through on train, stopping off to take a car to his destination – a fishing vacation. Ellen and her father, retired secret service agent, “Pop” Benson (James Gleason) are busy in their house, arguing about how to raise Pidge (Pop thinks she’s overprotective and lectures her, morbidly: “There’s cruelty and hatred and tyranny in the world. You can’t make believe they aren’t there. And Pidge has got to learn what is the law and what isn’t the law so he can defend it.”). Another typical day in the Benson house – working on the broken television set and arguing about Pidge’s exposure to the vicious, malevolent world (side note: the television set will become an instrument of violence). And now, this is the second man in Ellen’s life to practically summon the fedora-wearing psycho, John Baron (Frank Sinatra) to invade their home and prove their point.

The Benson house is situated in a place with a terrific vantage point to see the president disembark from the train, and we’ll soon learn that Baron has been hired to assassinate the president (For whom? He doesn’t know and he doesn’t care, he just cares about money. He also enjoys killing). And, so, things get really dark, really fast. After Tod happily drops in with Dan Carney (Willis Bouchey), who is leading the secret service team deployed in Suddenly (Carney used to work with Pop – he wants to say hello), Baron breaks his cover and kills Carney. He injures Tod’s arm and threatens to murder Pidge. He then takes everyone hostage. At this point, well, I think Pidge has now had his exposure to violence. Tod? Pop? Is that enough for you?

But it’s not going to stop there.

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Directed by Lewis Allen, Suddenly is a tense and claustrophobic, and sometimes strange experience (and sometimes questionable – there’s a lot to wonder why Baron wouldn’t just kill everyone right away but, apparently, he enjoys an audience) with a crazy-eyed, grinning Frank Sinatra taking over the movie. It’s a powerful, enthralling performance, one of Sinatra’s best (he really should have played more villains), in which the character’s Napoleon complex insecurities (and bad upbringing – his parents were both drunks) are on full display, weakening him with his need to talk. Creeps like him often need to talk and brag and undo themselves and Hayden’s sheriff smells it the moment Sinatra starts gabbing. Unlike other domestic hostage movies, such as The Desperate Hours or He Ran All the Way, in which Humphrey Bogart has his own kind of appeal and John Garfield is attractive and downright sympathetic, there’s nothing attractive about this guy (aside from Sinatra just looking cool and beautifully tailored), and, even with his hard childhood, there’s very little that’s sympathetic either.

Allen knew that Sinatra would be the center of this picture, not the leading man, but the star, and he lights him and shoots him (alongside cinematographer Charles G. Clarke) with great care – all others staged to revolve around him. It’s an intriguing stylization, both real and dreamlike – Sinatra, much smaller and slighter than Sterling Hayden (which isn’t hard – Hayden was 6’5”), appears, at times, diminutive, all mad dog bark, but he’s got bite. Even if Hayden looks like he could just casually swipe one paw and bump him across the room, Sinatra remains threatening.

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Sinatra also steps up to the camera- right up to the lens, in fact – nearly looking into it – an unsettling, confessional act, almost breaking the fourth wall – it’s stagey but captivating almost as if he’s trying to take it the viewer hostage too (“It’s Frank’s world, we just live in it,” indeed). His nerviness, his suit, his hat (which he takes off maybe only once in the film – when he first enters the house, and then never removes) places a certain style, an big-city menace to the Norman Rockwell-esque America held hostage here – his very presence making the picture more cinematic.

Around this time, movie director Allen was starting with his long career directing television (“Bonanza,” “The Rifleman,” “Route 66,” “Perry Mason,” “Mission: Impossible,” “The Detectives” and many, many more, though he was still making movies, A Bullet for Joey, IllegalAnother Time, Another Place and Whirlpool followed Suddenly), and you can see how well-suited he is for the medium. You also see his clear filmic talent and his staging skills, which he acquired in the theater – the place he started from (Suddenly feels adapted from a play even if it wasn’t). Englishman Allen transitioned into movies in the early 1940s, and in 1944 and he directed his first feature film, which is largely considered his greatest film and one of the greatest of the genre – the beautifully crafted and genuinely scary ghost story, The Uninvited. He made some comedies, but his strength, from what I’ve seen, was in suspense and melodrama.

Two of his best pictures, for me, next to The Uninvited, are the blazing technicolor film noir, Desert Fury, starring Burt Lancaster, Lizabeth Scott and Mary Astor, and So Evil My Love, a gaslight noir featuring a wicked Ray Milland. Another dark, interesting picture is Appointment with Danger, starring Alan Ladd as a cynical U.S. Postal Inspector who spits misanthropic lines to a nun he’s protecting with almost comedic affect (“When a cop dies they don’t list it as heart failure, it’s a charley horse of the chest,” he says). Whatever drove the director (when discussing his career in a 1997 interview he said, “That was the way of the studios. You took whatever they gave you … From the time I came to Hollywood, I was never out of a job. The William Morris office treated me as one of their pet directors, and there was always a job for me. When they couldn’t get a movie for me, they got TV.”) he excelled in stories featuring seriously dysfunctional relationships, creating a tense, sometimes gorgeously atmospheric setting and getting some fine performances out of actors.

The aesthetics of Suddenly aren’t immediately evident – it could be described as nice-looking and workmanlike – but there are many compositions that are striking – any time Sinatra frames the window or just stands in the middle of the set – actors orbiting around him – the leanness of his scarred face.  Remarkable.

Suddenly falls in the more hard-boiled realm of Appointment with Danger or one of Allen’s later, lean and mean The Rifleman episodes, but it has traces of gaslight noir, even if unintentional, as the men here are all incredibly manipulative towards Ellen (the poor woman hears enough about understanding violence from the sheriff and her pop, and even Sinatra, who at one point, dares her to shoot him with his gun – knowing she won’t… until she has to).

I don’t think that Allen bought the artificial gee-willikers attitude of the town, making the darkness presented here fascinating in terms of Eisenhower America. Though people discussed such things in the 50s and some movies discussed gun violence (like George Stevens’ Shane), the characters are having the kind of arguments one would hear more openly in the 1960s – about pacifism and duty towards your country. That kind of talk makes Ellen, in this world, a traitor, possibly even a communist.  Pop admonishes her peace talk so much that he says her deceased husband would be “ashamed” of her. Jesus, Pop. Ease up.

But of course, the movie ends with a confirmation of everything the men are telling Ellen: That violence is indeed sometimes necessary, even inevitable in life. OK, got it.

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However, this is where Sinatra’s WWII psycho war veteran – who states that he loves to kill people and that the war gave him that opportunity – acts as a counterbalance. A natural born murderer who, in one discussion with Hayden (who also served), weighs in on how it’s legal to murder for your country, but not in civilian life.  Sinatra’s character presents an either intentional or accidental rebuke to the necessity of violence; the acceptance of it.  A man who is drunk on violence, who feels like a god with a gun, who has set up a high-powered sniper rifle to kill the president (Is he possibly working for the communists? The movie never says but you feel red scare paranoia laced within all of this).

There’s no telling that her heroism hasn’t traumatized her for life. Still. It’s not only Ellen that saves everyone, it is Pidge pulling a toy gun switch with the gun Pop has hidden in his drawer (everyone’s so used to that cap gun that Sinatra doesn’t notice) – and that will turn the tables on the villain too. The comfort of 1950s Americana – mom, the television set and the normalcy of a toy gun – that’s what brings down the attempted assassination of the president.

Since the movie will, later, be viewed with a likely apocryphal story attached – that Sinatra, so upset by the assassination of his friend John F. Kennedy, had this picture withdrawn after he learned Lee Harvey Oswald watched the movie before he killed the president (Sinatra also starred in another plot to assassinate the president – John Frankenheimer’s The Manchurian Candidate) – it carries a darkness with it that the filmmakers and stars could not have foreseen, even if none of this is likely true.

By the end, order is apparently restored: Ellen is softer on Sheriff Tod (they kiss and promise to go to Church), Tod is less frustrated over Ellen and little Pidge will surely get more of his way regarding toy weaponry. Well OK. After all that horror. So … is this a happy ending? I’m sure it’s supposed to be, and if you are pro-gun, you may love that Ellen has supposedly seen the wrongs of her anti-gun ways (I don’t love that – I want Ellen to keep fighting for her beliefs – she’s admirable up against all of these men hollering at her). But nevertheless, the entertaining movie sticks with you and makes you think, even beyond its more direct message. Is there something more ambiguous here? I wonder. And, so, after a massive body count, answering the near invocations of the men around her, the town seems to have earned its name back.

Funny name for a town, says a motorist, prompting  Sterling Hayden to answer: "Oh, I don’t know about that."


Marriage: Dorothy Arzner's Craig's Wife

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“I did not want an actress the audience loved. They would hate me for making her Mrs. Craig. Rosalind Russell was a bit player at M-G-M, brilliant, clipped, and unknown to movie audiences. She was what I wanted.” – Dorothy Arzner (in a 1974 interview with Karyn Kay and Gerald Peary)

Harriet Craig’s vase. It’s such an obvious object, both literally and symbolically in Dorothy Arzner’s Craig’s Wife (1936) – but a powerful object and one that we look at time and time again, waiting for that precious, terrible thing to be shattered on the floor. Knowing it will.

That dark rather mysterious vase is beautiful – so large and precious that it needs to be positioned, oh, so deliberately, in just the right spot for proper viewing pleasure. That vase is status, of course (How expensive was that vase? Is it a museum-worthy antique?), but it’s also something Harriet needs to touch and feel, seemingly on a daily basis. There is some passion connected to that vase as OCD as she is about it. And that vase seems both totemic and vulnerable, seductive and terrifying. That vase is Mr. and Mrs. Craig’s marriage, yes, of course. But, as you go along with the picture and get to know this marriage and these two individuals, you don’t see it as any kind of tragedy that the thing will break – for either Mr. or Mrs. Craig. Smash it.

Indeed, the film opens with that vase as housekeeper Mrs. Harold (Jane Darwell) exclaims, in horror, to the other, younger housekeeper, Mazie (Nydia Westman), never to touch the thing: “She’d about lose her mind if she ever thought you laid a finger on it!” scolds Mrs. Harold. She continues: “Never forget! This room is the holy of holies!” She’s being both serious and overly dramatic for comedic effect, since Mrs. Craig is not there (one can’t imagine what would happen if Mrs. Craig had heard the very likable Mrs. Harold’s tone). But without introducing Mrs. Craig, herself, first, we are introduced to her living room: all classical symmetry and color-control. A little joyless (it doesn’t have to be) but, lovely.

Indeed, Director Arzner shows us that holy room in all of its shimmery glory – the living room becoming a museum hall with that enormous vase on the mantel, a chandelier, a grand piano and a satin chaise lounge in the middle of the room (I think of both a fainting couch and a psychiatrist’s office when I see this piece of furniture – almost as a performative fuck you via Mrs. Craig – there will be no fainting or psychoanalyzing going on in this house – that is not until the end when she really needs to collapse on the thing). There’s also a table and a nice set of chairs likely no one sits at, and statues and busts and candles and other beautiful objects, collected, displayed like one arranges and mounts taxidermy. This is not a critique – this is Harriet’s work of art.

It’s a gorgeous living room, if you could call it a living room, no one seems to live there, however, they do argue a lot in it – feel fear in it – whisper in it…

But her home – it’s Harriet Craig’s pride, dammit. A representation of herself. Presented as uninviting and rather remote and maybe even horrifying to some, but not to Harriet. In her home, she rules – she likes to talk to people in that living room, she holds court there, often while looking in the mirror, right where that beautiful vase is. Double beauty and control reflected, and the danger of everything cracking, all in one shot. As said, this is her art piece, her expression – even she herself is her own creation and she fits in all glamorous and stately with her beautiful pieces. The film’s sets were designed – uncredited – by William Haines (a past MGM star who was ousted from the profession in 1934 for bravely not denying his homosexuality – he became a successful interior designer, working with his life partner Jimmie Shields) and his work here is gorgeous. He understands both the beauty and the remoteness needed to be expressed, but it’s not tacky, it’s both ornate and spare – a paradox. I don’t begrudge Harriet’s obsession with this space because it’s so aesthetically impressive. Honestly, you either love this room, or hate it. I love it. Even if it could be viewed as her mausoleum.

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Harriet Craig (Rosalind Russell) is married to her very sweet, wealthy husband, Walter Craig (John Boles) and has clearly made the “perfect” home for herself. Underscore herself. We don’t see Harriet right away – we see Walter with his down to earth Aunt, Ellen Austen (Alma Kruger), eating dinner together, seemingly enjoying the night, and a night away from Harriet, who is visiting her sick sister and niece in Albany. At least Aunt Ellen is enjoying Harriet being away. She doesn’t like her. 


Walter, who is very likable and who loves Harriet dearly, probably misses her a little, but is off – giddily – to play poker with his friend, Fergus Passmore (Thomas Mitchell), an activity he rarely does anymore because, well, obviously… Harriet. We wouldn’t suspect anything too controlling about this at first – lots of married couples slow down their social lives independent of their spouse – but that vase has already told us what kind of woman Harriet Craig is. And now we’re already worried about Walter and that poker game.

But the movie kicks things to a different level of intrigue, and concern, as another wife is presented, in some ways, quite the opposite of Harriet (or maybe very much the same, if Harriet didn’t care so much about social norms), who is eager to leave her husband with his poker-playing pals. Walter heads on over to Fergus’s house, and rather than meeting up with a fun-loving Fergus, ready for the game, he sees a tense, angry man, already pissed off that other friends aren’t coming over – what’s wrong with all of these men? We are all, of course, wondering – wives? Do these no-fun wives make them stay in? (Oh, it’s always the wives, right? That’s so unfair, really…) But then the film shows us this – that Fergus is despairing over his wife, Adelaide (Kathleen Burke), who is all gussied up and beautiful – on her way for a night out in town – and does not care about the possible male shenanigans about to happen. Fergus is upset that she’s, well, acting more as a man would.

Fergus, begs her to stay in. He leans over her, looking all sweaty and desperate, as she primps in the mirror (Arzner uses mirror shots many times in this picture to great effect) – pleading for her to stick around. Why? We have our suspicions that will be soon confirmed (another friend spies her with another man). She leaves, of course, and Fergus isn’t just upset, he’s disturbingly upset – a twitching mess. “Run on back to your boyfriend, dear,” she says, as she leaves to meet “Emily” at the theater.

Already, you feel the combustion of this marriage – something is going to break, and soon. And already you see there is something dangerous and creepy about Fergus. This is a terrible marriage and the way Thomas Mitchell powerfully shows how on edge he is – you don’t immediately think it’s all his wife’s fault, even if the knee-jerk reaction would be to think that she’s dishonorable or, a worse word someone else might use. So, what happens when the wife comes home? A violent end.

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If you’ve seen many Dorothy Arzner pictures in which marriage is a central plot, you’ve seen a lot of problems within the institution. For the matter of space, I will not mention all of them made by the pioneering female filmmaker (whose impressive career spanned silent films in the late 1920s, all the way to talkies in the 1940s. She started out typing scripts, became a writer and also an expert, innovative editor, working side-by-side with director James Cruze. She then moved on to directing pictures starring Esther Ralston, Clara Bow, Ruth Chatterton, Claudette Colbert, Katharine Hepburn, Joan Crawford, Russell, Lucille Ball, and more.  She was the first woman to join the DGA, and she later worked in theater, taught film and directed Pepsi commercials for friend Joan Crawford. Read more about Arzner at the  Women’s Pioneer Films Project – you’ll be glad you did).

Here, I am focusing on Craig’s Wife (which showed during this, then, New Beverly triple feature of marital, well, marital hell -- that I was writing about here), but I must speak more of hell, chiefly,  the aptly titled, Merrily We Go to Hell (one of Arzner’s best pictures) – I thought of this one because this is the kind of marriage Harriet Craig could not even fathomMerrily We Go to Hell (1932) features charming, drunken cheater Fredric March marrying wealthy and sweet Sylvia Sidney (who loves him) only to put her through the wringer with all of his problems and dalliances. She decides to try out a “modern marriage” complete with affairs.

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That’s not always a bad idea, but that’s not for everyone, and, in the end, not really for her. (God bless her for trying though). By the end of the picture, she loses a baby and he, apart from her (he goes through a lot of changes himself – financially as well), feels terrible about everything and in spite of her father’s protestations – busts into her room to reconcile – they’re going to make it work, he hopes. March says, quite convincingly and movingly, that he loves her, and she says to him, with sweetness, “Oh, Jerry, my baby.” And then pats his cheek and says again, “my baby.” He’s the baby she’ll have to look after now, even if he’s gotten his shit together, supposedly. She still loves him but will that work? We’re not so sure. This couple has broken many vases, so to speak.

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In the 1930 Sarah and Son (playing in a triple feature  with Craig’s Wife and Honor Among Lovers – what a night  of bad marriages!), poor Ruth Chatterton’s awful husband  (Fuller Mellish Jr.), actually ditches her and sells their child  to a rich couple, and Chatterton (who is fantastic) spends  the movie trying to find the little boy (March also serves as  love interest here – a better man than the horrible  husband  who, in a complex, moving scene, dies in a military hospital). And in Honor Among Lovers (1931), Claudette Colbert does not take up with her rich boss, Fredric March (again), who professes his feelings for her (and they do have chemistry), but then fires her for marrying another man (pretty bad behavior but he will make up for it as the movie goes on – to the point of literally taking a bullet).

In Honor, that “other guy” (played by Monroe Owsley) who maybe on the surface for Colbert (for, like, a second, to me) seems OK, turns into a cheating thief, a guy who even lies and rats out his own innocent wife –  he is ten times worse than March’s Merrily We Go to Hell louse. At least Merrily’s March is actually charming and repentant. There is no appeal with the guy Colbert marries. She made a mistake because … life is complicated that way. (On that note – March did tremendous work with Arzner – he also starred in The Wild Party opposite Clara Bow – seek out all of his movies directed by Arzner.)

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But these movies have somewhat nicer endings. In Merrily, the marriage might be saved, and in Sarah and Son, Chatterton (who is constantly punished throughout this movie – life is such a struggle and we root for her in every moment) will be reunited with her son in an incredibly dramatic manner (by water) and find love with lawyer, March. In the elegant Honor Among Lovers, Colbert ends the relationship (finally – you spend the movie almost in disbelief how devoted she is to such a jerk), going off on a sea cruise with her old boss, March, who never stopped loving her. See, if you find the “right” person, or if you finally do the right thing, a good relationship just might work, or at least be possible – these movies could be saying. However, I don’t think these resolutions, as presented by Arzner, are all that easy. Will these relationships end in good marriages? Should marriage always be the end-game? Arzner is complex with these issues – male/female relationships are not always stabilizing, obviously, and they may not always be the answer either, even if you’re off on a sea cruise with March.

But then comes, Craig’s Wife – Arzner’s full of presage and inexorability.

In Craig’s Wife, Harriet Craig already knows how de-stabilizing marriage and relationships can be. She has vowed – willed herself – to always keep the upper hand: To always maintain control. She knows that people marry for love, sure, but what kind of torment could that lead to? She doesn’t want to be Merrily’s Sylvia Sidney, despairing over March, who can’t even show up to their engagement party on time, or sober. She sure as hell doesn’t want to be anywhere within the vicinity of Ruth Chatterton in Sarah and Son, with a husband so abusive he actually steals their baby. And no way is she going to allow her husband to lose all of their money – as in Honor Among Lovers. For god’s sake, no one is allowed to even touch her vase. When a man delivers a trunk and drags it, scratching the impeccable flooring, she seems about ready to kill him (to be fair – I was cringing when the guy was scraping the floor with the trunk, as many others would). So, no way is she going to even allow one iota of disorder. Even the roses her sweet neighbor, the widow Mrs. Frazier (a lovely, charming Billie Burke) brings over, are removed. How dare the maid place them in the living/showroom without asking? And besides, petals will drop all over the place. Unacceptable.

I mean, obviously, “lighten up, Harriet,” we think. Well, that’s not Harriet’s way. She’s made herself pretty and tough. We do see that her husband – he is a good man – he is worthy of love, and we grow to care about him; we do want him to finally stand up for himself. But why did he marry her? He didn’t see any of this coming? His Aunt sure did.

And yet, while the movie could present Harriet as a near-monster, this horrible, castrating wife, there’s a human being in there too, and Arzner (and clearly Russell) wants us to see this. As manipulative as she can be, there is feeling inside Harriet, a woman with a troubled past and genuine fears about surviving as a female in such an un-equal, male-rigged world. Though her husband is a loving person, what Harriet might really crave is the love and warmth of female friendship (not that a man can’t be a part of that, again Walter here is good-hearted – but her family of sister and niece offer an interesting dynamic here).

When she leaves her sick sister’s bed, early, the scene is incredibly sad (This is your sister, Harriet. She’s suffering.) Harriet doesn’t like suffering, however, of any kind.  She doesn’t like to see it. She avoids chaos and the unexpected. She saw her mother suffer through life; she saw that her father cheated on her. Saw him “mortgaging her house for another woman.” And she saw that her mother died of a “broken heart.” Harriet has hardened herself, and you understand. That is not going to happen to her. No broken hearts. Not for a man.

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When traveling by train back from visiting her sister, Harriet breaks down her marital philosophy to her rather shocked niece, Ethel (Dorothy Wilson) who, one senses, Harriet is molding and manipulating, or at least giving some hardened advice to. Ethel is discussing her fiancée and how much she loves him, and here’s how the conversation goes:

Harriet: Does it ever occur to you Ethel, that love, as you describe it, this feeling you have for this boy, is a liability in marriage?

Ethel: Good heavens, Harriet, what a terrible thing to say! You married Uncle Walter because you loved him, didn’t you?

Harriet: Not with any romantic illusions dear. I saw to it that my marriage was a way towards emancipation for me. I had no private fortune, no special training, so the only road to independence for me was through the man I married. I married to be independent.

Ethel: Well, you don’t mean independent of your husband, too?

Harriet: [Primping her hair in small compact mirror] Independent of everybody.

Craig’s Wife was adapted (by Mary McCall Jr.) from the 1925 Pulitzer Prize-winning play by George Kelly (Grace Kelly’s uncle) and, according to what I’ve read (chiefly, Judith Mayne’s indispensable biography/critical study, “Directed by Dorothy Arzner” which helped me greatly while researching this piece), Mayne felt that Arzner and Mcall Jr.’s version tweaked the play’s tone towards a more critical take on society rather than just a damnation of Harriet. From Mayne:

“In the play, Harriet is a one-note failure, a woman doomed to a life of bitter loneliness, just like the widowed Mrs. Frazier across the way. Again, Mrs. Frazier represents Harriet’s one last chance for human community, and the film reads less as an indictment of a willful woman than as a critique of the culture in which so few choices are available to a woman like Harriet.”

“So few choices” for sure. As I said, Harriet has seen her mother rely on a bad husband and then, die. Harriet’s exchange with her niece about independence in the movie (I’ve read Kelly’s play and Harriet does discuss independence in the play as well – in a much lengthier, materialistic manner) – it is shrewd, it is cold, but not as simply villainous as one might think. Not if you think about it further. Biographer Mayne felt Arzner’s film wasn’t taking a shot at early feminism: “In Kelly’s play, Harriet’s argument for marriage as a business contract and a home as capital is presented as a caricature of feminism, whereas no such intimation is made in Arzner’s film.”

I agree with Mayne in many aspects when it comes to the film because as you may think you’re about to watch a movie about a controlling monster, and you do feel yourself wishing Harriet would soften a bit (I wish she had more friends, at least!), you also understand the tough world she came from – even if she’s not romantic at all, and in terms of control, seriously overdoing it. And, while a fearful force, and at times, a horrifying one, the brilliant, beautiful Russell is domineering, yes, she’s quick and mean, but even charmingly acerbic at times – you come near liking her in moments. Her “fuck you” laugh as she leaves a room is both unsettling and fascinating.

But this woman Harriet Craig would probably be hard to like, outside of your fascination; she’s intriguing as hell (it really depends on how the actress reads much of these lines, too, her facial expressions, that kind of thing – and Russell is so impressively complex here). We don’t have to like her, however. But we’ll see by the end, that this is a sad, lonely, woman, deep down, and she’s perhaps not as cruel as she seems. She at least doesn’t need to be so cruel, she doesn’t need to be so controlling, as unfair as the world was to her mother. This, she may learn.

But to say Harriet is lonely – she’s not just lonely because her husband leaves her – that will likely wind up a relief for everyone. You don’t get the sense that either one is going to run back into each other’s arms and apologize, or promise to make changes. She seems so lonely, rather, when her sister dies. That is when Harriet completely loses it and collapses on that chaise lounge in that beautiful, pristine living room, in tears. The beautiful room is useful, you see.

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In Arzner films, female relationships can be complex, very real, vital, and in Craig’s Wife, we witness what I feel could be a joyous companionship happening between two characters (this is in the play as well). Later in the movie, when everyone is sick of Harriet, when they can’t stand living there or working with her and are departing (either by being fired or of their own accord, her niece takes off too), beloved housekeeper Mrs. Harold decides to go on a trip around the world with Aunt Ellen. Mrs. Harold is done enduring Mrs. Craig (she’s especially upset after Harriet fires Mazie) and Aunt Ellen has made it known that she not only dislikes Harriet, but is quite unhappy stuck in this gorgeous house. That two unattached women, of different classes, who are now running off together, could be read a couple of ways – romantic or platonic – and in either case, it’s a wonderful moment when Mrs. Harold tells Harriet her plan.

Harriet: Where are you going with Ms. Austen? I didn’t know she planned to keep house.

Mrs. Harold: She don’t. We’re going to the Ritz Carlton Hotel in New York and then we’re going all around the world as soon as she can get the tickets.

Yes. I love that these women are going to travel the world. Talk about independence.

There’s another moment that really stands out in Craig’s Wife. When Mitchell’s Fergus is under obvious suspicion that he murdered his wife before killing himself – the police are sniffing around the Craig household. Harriet presses Walter to not get involved – what would people think? Walter was there that night, quite innocently, witnessing Fergus’s erratic behavior, and he’d like to discuss. But Harriet doesn’t even care about guilt or innocence, she only cares how their social standing could be affected by any sort of scandal. Walter, honorably, argues with her and we get why this would be the breaking point in their marriage. The movie is placed within a short time frame in the life of Harriet Craig so Walter must move from adoring husband to a man who sees the light, pretty quickly. The murder, though quite a dramatic plot device, works. He’s been keeping a lot bottled up, but a close friend’s fatal, violence-ending marriage would obviously, be the thing to shake one up – in every aspect of his life.

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Later on, when Harriet and Walter read in the paper that, indeed, Fergus’s gun shot the bullets, Walter says something that I wasn’t expecting in a movie involving two negative marital situations – really, two negative wives. He, in a way, argues for Fergus’s philandering wife, Adelaide, rather than damn her as just a harlot or femme fatale (and, from what I remember, this is not explicitly stated in the play on behalf of Adelaide – not in this way). As Harriet reads the paper:

Harriet: Oh, so the bullets were from his gun. Murder and suicide. Well, if anyone ever had a good reason for doing a thing like that it was Fergus Passmore.

Walter: You think so?

Harriet:  You know yourself how that woman behaved.

Walter: Yes, I know a lot about Adelaide. She fell in love with Fergus. Something went wrong, he failed her. She couldn’t love him anymore so she fell for another man.

Harriet: Does that seem right to you?

Walter: No, it doesn’t seem right. But I think I can understand it. There was one thing about Adelaide, she wrecked herself and Fergus because she loved somebody.

“She wrecked herself and Fergus because she loved somebody.” That’s quite an open-minded thing for Walter to say in a film of 1936. You don’t get the sense that he agrees she had it coming; that she should have merely respected her twitching, angry out of control husband. No, as a humanist, he understands her. She needed to love and to be loved in return (as the song goes). And so, does he. As much as we will feel for Harriet by the end, we feel something for Walter as well. Arzner does not oversimplify this.

But back to the vase.

It is at this point when Harriet learns that Walter is the one who smashed her beloved vase. (We know he did, we saw it, and it’s his big defiant act, also a bit terrifying) Fergus, it’s said, murdered his wife and took his own life with him. Walter, rather, murders that vase, leaves the broken pieces for Harriet to see, and then escapes the home and her, in hopes to find, one day, presumably, love. He also leaves Harriet with what she seems to love most – the house.

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So, Harriet has the house – and she can re-adjust the busts on the mantel (we see her do this) as she likely, plans which new vase she’ll purchase and proudly showcase again. But … now Harriet realizes that she does need someone or at least something, but not necessarily her husband. What? And then … she receives a telegram about her sister’s death, she is despondent. She needed her sister. Obviously. She needed to have expressed more love for her. Overcome with grief, trembling with the telegram, her widowed neighbor, Mrs. Frazier (Burke) enters the house again, and with roses. We could read this is as tragedy – Harriet is now all alone with only the widow next door.

We can only imagine what Harriet is thinking as she takes in her surroundings, letting the tragedy and loneliness sink in. She tells Mrs. Frazier her sister has died and that she, Harriet, should have done more. Mrs. Frazier, full of empathy, expresses her sorrow and asks her if there is anything she can do. Harriet is in shock – and says to herself, “I’m all alone in the house now.” Burke’s Mrs. Frazier has now slowly backed away, she is literally walking backwards from Harriet (it’s an incredible moment) full of sadness and really, fear, like … what do I do with this woman? Presumably, Mrs. Frazier wants to give Harriet her space, but it reads deeper than that – and she also looks a little horrified by Harriet’s absolute. truth and raw feeling. Harriet continues, “I’m all alone here so if you wouldn’t mind, I …” And then Harriet turns to look. But Mrs. Frazier is gone.

When Mrs. Frazier leaves – again, this plays more heartbreaking than Harriet’s husband exiting the house. That needed to happen. But Mrs. Frazier with her roses? We don’t want her to leave.

Russell is so magnificent; we are almost leaning in to observe her actions. Will she be defiant? Will she be stoic? Or will she let her emotions flow? In a brilliant moment of pantomime, Harriet rushes to the door, Mrs. Frazier’s roses cradled in her arms – and she sees the door shut. And then Harriet’s hand – it reaches out to … Mrs. Frazier, yes. But her hand is reaching out … to many things. In gorgeous silent moments, the camera fixed on Russell, her house, her living room, her anguished face filled with tears, Harriet is, again, reaching out. Her heart, her hand, her eyes… to the deceased sister, she can no longer touch, to the woman she could possibly be friends with. To that living room that now frightens her as she cowers next to it in the frame – afraid to enter it. It’s an extraordinarily moving ending where, in spite of everything, we hope that Harriet will weather this. We hope she’ll enjoy her living room again – that gorgeous Harriet space. A place where, perhaps, in the future, Mrs. Frazier might actually drop in to actually sit at the table and… talk.

It’s fascinating to watch Craig’s Wife today – and wonder how much Arzner, perhaps, rooted for Harriet – for all women, indeed. The movie had also been made in 1928 (directed by William C. deMille and starring Irene Rich and Warner Baxter) – that picture is now, alas, lost. The movie would be remade again as Harriet Craig in 1950, directing by Vincent Sherman and starring Arzner collaborator Joan Crawford (The Bride Wore Red) and Wendell Corey. For many years, I found the Sherman/Crawford version as equally as great as the Arzner/Russell version (maybe even more focused – and Crawford is superb), but watching Craig’s Wife again, I think there’s a bit more complexity to Arzner’s version. (That being said, watch Harriet Craig as a follow-up to Craig’s Wife if you’ve not done so because Crawford is excellent). Crawford’s take is perhaps better known since that era seems more the time to take on the perfect 50s housewife. And then of course, for better or for worse, the movie has been, through biography and gossip, intertwined with Crawford’s actual personality/persona. To some, it may even feel like a horror movie. But, by the end, I feel for her Harriet as well, as much as she terrifies, even reminds me of people I’ve met in my life.

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But Russell is so commanding, so smart, so stylish, so sly and strong,  that when she is slumped, in tears, when she is allowing such feeling to overwhelm her, you are gobsmacked by her emotion. As stated (and through multiple viewings), I feel obsessive, scary control and then, empathy for Joan in moments of Harriet Craig because Crawford possessed such tremendous vulnerability. But Russell knocks you for a loop at the end – you are not prepared to be that moved by her in the film’s final moments. It’s a tremendous performance.

Playwright Kelly did indeed write Harriet to collapse in tears at the end, the widow does come by, but Harriet does not reach out to her when the door closes. Instead, a very sad Harriet “steps up to the door and clicks the latch.” Harriet’s not happy, but I’m not sure if Arzner’s ending is what he had in mind (and I’m not sure if he ever saw the final picture). As Arzner told Karyn Kay and Gerald Peary in an interview later in her life:

“George Kelly had nothing to do with making the picture. I did try to be as faithful to his play as possible, except that I made it from a different point of view. I imagined Mr. Craig was dominated somewhat by his mother and therefore fell in love with a woman stronger than he. I thought Mr. Craig should be down on his knees because Mrs. Craig made a man of him. When I told Kelly this, he rose to his six-foot height, and said, ‘That is not my play. Walter Craig was a sweet guy and Mrs. Craig was an SOB.’ He left. That was the only contact I had with Kelly.”

We’re glad he wrote such a fascinating character, of course, to be adapted and played on-screen by three actresses who captivated (Rich, Russell and Crawford). And we’re glad that Arzner and McCall Jr. crafted a powerful, complicated picture, with Russel as star, and one that makes you think about love, marriage, independence, and yes, the meaning of such a beautiful vase.

If we feel for Harriet here, we only hope that Mrs. Frazier will come back. Could they become friends? Relationships – romantic or friendship – are never easy. And surely not with Harriet. But perhaps Mrs. Frazier’s roses can fill Harriet’s beautiful new vase of the future? The two women can look at each other in the mirror (and smile)? And maybe even plan for something to do either together, or on their own – supportive, but without each other. “Independent,” as Harriet stated earlier. Is that too much to hope for?

Originally published at The New Beverly 


Liz & Losey: Boom! & Secret Ceremony

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“So enough of films. This was prompted by my excitement about ‘XYZ’ [that it] will be a ‘big one’ for E [Elizabeth Taylor]. By talk of distinction and by talk of Oscars. I know she is brilliant in the film and I know the film is good but I thought almost as highly of ‘Boom!’ and that went BOOM.” – Richard Burton, ‘The Richard Burton Diaries’”

Liz and Losey. The dreams the two must have had. At least in 1967, 1968. Not in the aspirational sense (though they, actress Elizabeth Taylor and director Joseph Losey, had those of course – aspirations) but in the sleeping-hallucinatory-fanciful sense. The living of one’s life half as fantasia, half in reality. Not insanity, not entirely on a cloud – but in dreams – and, yet, dreams that are… honest, sometimes even brutal. To them. Asleep in bed dreams, drugged out in the hospital dreams, wide-awake dreams, drunken dreams, dreams inspired by decadent décor, jewels, headdresses, caftans, elaborate abodes, hallucinatory dialogue, trays of food, hair, wigs, makeup, mirrors, witches (of Capri), wild-eyed child/women/Mia Farrow, samurai swords, the sea, the sounds of the sea. The sound of … Boom! Their dreams – I am just speculating and creating my own fantasy and we won’t ever really know. A Secret Ceremony, indeed.

With their two films released in 1968 – Boom! and Secret Ceremony – I, again, can’t help but wonder about Taylor and Losey’s dreams. Not, just, what were they thinking (as some might ask – for both films are often met with such bafflement or derision or, of course, mystified love – money was part of it, if you do ask, as was art, which both movies aspire to and succeed at – I don’t care how bad some think either are – I love these films) – but what were they dreaming while conjuring these movies?

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These grand, decadent, perverse, and very lonely stories about lonely women living in big lonely homes facing loss and grief and trauma and inebriation and possible insanity and death. Losey had great success with Pinter, but in Boom! (based on the play The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore by Tennessee Williams) and Secret Ceremony (adapted from the story by the Argentine writer Marco Denevi, by screenwriter George Tabori), I thought, via esteemed film historian and author Foster Hirsch, of Pirandello, (Hirsch discussed Secret Ceremony as such, writing, “In its Pirandellian oppositions between appearance and reality, the story palpitates with fashionable modernist themes, but the parade of intellectual motifs has less substance than show…. Losey at his most pretentious.”). I wonder what Pirandello would think of these films? As Pirandello said:

“I think that life is a very sad piece of buffoonery; because we have in ourselves, without being able to know why, wherefore or whence, the need to deceive ourselves constantly by creating a reality (one for each and never the same for all), which from time to time is discovered to be vain and illusory . . . My art is full of bitter compassion for all those who deceive themselves, but this compassion cannot fail to be followed by the ferocious derision of destiny, which condemns man to deception.”

There is a “bitter compassion” to these films, a creating of a reality that may be illusory, by way of Losey and Taylor. Not an easy compassion, not a sweet understanding – a simultaneous delusion and honesty (it’s possible – and these two manage it – and it’s too odd to be merely pretentious, I think, or I don’t mind that either films could be considered pretentious – I’m still working this out). With that, there is a raw vulgarity within the pictures that is, indeed, brave – especially on the part of Elizabeth Taylor who is unafraid of appearing unlikable. Or unrelatable (oh, stars, they are just like us!). And, yet, she hollers, she moans, she even, in Secret Ceremony, belches. It’s a unique mixture of glamour and uncouthness that still feels refreshing (have I seen any other beautiful movie star act like this? And in such a natural, not trying-to-be-gross-or-funny way? To my mind, no).

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Still a movie star in the late 1960s, always a hot news item (she and Richard Burton stalked by paparazzi, still, post-Cleopatra), but an actress allowing audiences to see something darker inside that decadence, sadder, meaner, hilarious too, and to some, fading (though she’s gorgeous – critics were sometimes cruelly remarking about her weight creeping up on her – she looks staggeringly beautiful in both films). She is glamorous times ten, and yet, profoundly human.

Taylor, even if she didn’t write either movie, knew the jabs against her, and seemingly took them on – even on film. At one point in Secret Ceremony Robert Mitchum’s terrible Albert (Mitchum is a scary force – mightily creepy here), calls her something bovine: “You don’t look like my late wife at all,” he says, “She was well-bred and rather frail… you look more like a cow… Oh, no offense,” he continues, “I’m very fond of cows.” And then he moos. How awful. We shudder on behalf of her character, sitting on a picnic blanket in her brightly patterned dress enduring this (and much more when Mitchum’s character really let’s go with his repulsive talk), and we shudder on behalf of Taylor. And then we applaud her for taking that line in stride. And she often did. She would poke fun of herself in real life too – or at least comment on how people seem so stupidly obsessed with her weight. As Peter Travers wrote of Taylor, when she passed away in 2011:

“Nearly two decades ago, I enjoyed lunch with Taylor at a Manhattan restaurant where the stares of accompanying diners would have thrown a tower of lesser strength. ‘They just want to see how fat I’ve gotten,’ laughed Taylor, lifting one untoned bare arm for all to see. Taylor howled at their shocked reaction.”

My god, how can you not love her?

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But it must have hurt at times. This meanness towards her figure, as if, “How dare this beautiful woman pack on a few pounds! How dare she!” It did concern her health-wise (later on in her life she discussed her loneliness and weight gain with Elizabeth Takes Off, though she was worried about more than just her weight: ”’I was almost 50 when for the first time in my life I lost my sense of self-worth,’ she writes of her ‘gluttonous rampage.’ She was lonely and bored; she felt that her husband, John W. Warner, a Republican Senator from Virginia, didn’t need her.”) But you still hear that kind of “How dare she!” Again, I love that she howled at people staring. How dare they!

But back to Mitchum and that mean moo – it’s nothing like Noël Coward’s Witch of Capri in Boom! who calls for Taylor’s Sissy Goforth with a friendly, though bizarre birdlike “Yoo-Hooo-hoo!” and she answers back the same. (In real life Coward adored Taylor, more on that later), but both movies like to hear men emit animal-like sounds – it’s off-putting and nasty in Mitchum’s character’s case and sweet and then obnoxious in Coward’s (when his character is plastered – you can see why Taylor’s character begins to grow tired of him) and… it’s quite … something.

Well, the movies are, for lack of better words … quite something.

Boom! is often referred to as terrible, or so terrible it’s wonderful, or as John Waters (who famously loves it and has shown it around the world) said to me in an interview for Sight & Sound: “It’s so great and then so awful. So that means it’s perfect, really.” It is perfect, really. Whenever I watch it, I think of it being made in a different way and I think… no. It has to be THIS. So, yes, perfect.

Secret Ceremony offers more weird, gloomy perplexity to viewers over the sumptuous spectacle of Boom! (which provides more joy, in spite of its heroine dying) but it was also often considered a misfire too (particularly in the States at the time – a double dose of bombs via Liz & Losey). Though many take Secret Ceremony much more seriously than Boom! and consider it either an excellent Losey film, or at least a very interesting one, worthy of study and discussion (Indicator came out with a Blu-ray giving the film the respect it deserves), it’s still a curio to viewers. At the time, however, some did value the picture. Renata Adler said positive things. She wrote in the New York Times:

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‘[‘Secret Ceremony’ is] Joseph Losey’s best film in years—incomparably better than ‘Accident.’ The opulent, lacquered decadence works well this time, with Mia Farrow as a rich, mad orphan, whose mother Elizabeth Taylor pretends to be and, in effect, becomes. Robert Mitchum is good as Miss Farrow’s stepfather, in a relationship as violent and complicated as relationships in movies like ‘Accident’ and ‘Reflections in a Golden Eye’ tend to be. The lines are spoken so slowly, with such long pauses in between (it is as though a speech guidance drama class were reciting immortal iambic pentameters) that one thinks for a time that all this affectation is going to be unbearable. But there is something not at all arbitrary and far-out at the heart this time, with people – essentially confidence men – drawn into the frank needs of the insane, until their confidence roles become a personal truth about them.”

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Wisconsin-born Losey, who directed, among other excellent pictures, The Boy with Green HairThe ProwlerThe Big NightMThe CriminalAccident, The Go-BetweenEvaThese Are the DamnedThe Servant, and more, was blacklisted around the time his incredible, powerful remake of Fritz Lang’s M was released. HUAC target Losey would leave the country instead of naming names for that ghastly, career-destroying committee. He moved to Europe and become one of the more interesting, daring, and unique filmmakers of the 1960s (there are a lot of informative, deep-dive studies on Losey – essays, books – Tom Milne’s Losey on Losey is a great, earlier one – published in 1967 – as is James Palmer and Michael Riley’s The Films of Joseph Losey, published in 1993, to name a few). The great Losey is a fascinating director to dig into – and I include Boom! and Secret Ceremony – most certainly as something to really dig into – and both, like all of his work, even his flawed work, exceptionally interesting.

In fact, Boom! and Secret Ceremony are, to me – I can’t use the word bad. And I won’t – because I don’t think either are bad. Many would likely agree with me regarding Secret Ceremony but would draw the line with Boom! – even if they love it – but in the case of Boom! I feel like it’s too otherworldly, too its own unique creature to be bad or terrible or the worst. And often well-written. Good seems too simple a word but… it’s not just good, it’s grand.

Both pictures are unforgettable. Eminently watchable. Weirdly wonderful.

And in many cases, touching and thoughtful. By the end of both movies, I find myself moved. For Taylor’s character and her pain and injections and rejection of death (even chucking that X-ray machine off the cliff – did I get that right? An X-ray machine? Whatever it is, she doesn’t want to see that – I get that), for poor, traumatized Mia Farrow’s character and those rows of pills she will swallow only to call out to her mama (who isn’t Taylor but has finally become, here, her sole protector, her real mother), for Richard Burton’s Angel of Death dropping of the ring in the glass and thrusting it into the ocean (it’s a beautiful moment). And then I extend being moved to the real-life characters behind the camera – to Tennessee Williams and to Joseph Losey for making these movies in the first place.

As I read in David Caute’s Joseph Losey: A Revenge on Life, Losey, feeling defensive and hurt, wrote to Tennessee Williams of Boom!“I’m appalled for all of us, but particularly for you, by the scurrilous, ignorant and personalized reviews which I’ve seen … I am struck by the fact that the ‘critics’ seem determined to destroy successes and idols that they have built up – namely the Burtons, you and me.”

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Those who find Boom! dreadful likely see this as Losey not taking responsibility and just lashing out at critics – they don’t get it! – that kind of response. And I can see that point because it’s a hard movie to get. Williams liked the movie and considered it the best adaptation of his work (hey, are we going to argue with Tennessee Williams on this?) Of this, John Waters said: “And Tennessee Williams did say … that it was the best movie ever made from his work, and I think maybe I, and Tennessee are the only people who agree with it…”

And yet, watching Boom!, to basically live in its odd tone and intent, to drink in the scenery and costumes, and to watch and listen to Taylor and Burton, I do wonder how they (the filmmakers) would consider the cult-embracing of the picture now (Williams died in 1983, Losey in 1984, Burton in 1984). There are plenty of people who maybe don’t get it (and many who probably do – or in their own way) but they love it regardless. Taylor, for one, heard about the love.

Film critic and author Alonso Duralde, an earlier champion of Boom! (we must thank our champions who are instrumental in spreading the word and finding these movies, helping them to get properly released, so Boom! fans, thank Mr. Duralde) tracked down a print and showed it at the USA Film Festival in 1995 in Dallas, Texas (Duralde was artistic director for five years there). He had John Waters introduce the picture (what a night that must have been). Duralde said in his fascinating featurette on the Boom! Blu-ray release (from Shout Select – which also features commentary by Waters) that Elizabeth Taylor was actually in town that night – at a department store promoting her perfume (!). They tried to get her to come but, to no avail. However, according to Duralde, she was asked about the showing, and said something like: “I hope they had a good laugh.” Oh, Ms. Taylor.

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In an interview with Vice, John Waters said that he met Elizabeth Taylor once and told her how much he loved Boom! Waters continued:

“…And she got real mad and shouted, ‘That’s a terrible movie!’ And I said ‘It isn’t! I love that movie! I tour with it at festivals!’ Then she realized I was serious. Because it is a great movie. I feel like if you don’t agree with that I hate you. If you don’t like ‘Boom!’ I could never be your friend. Right now, I live by the water and every time I see a wave hit a rock, I shout, ‘Boom!’ like Richard Burton.”

The full quote of Burton from the picture is: “Boom. The shock of each moment of still being alive.” Well, it’s not a bad line, I don’t think. He says “Boom” again – and Taylor says it back to him at one point (of course, this seems so underscored since it became the title of the picture). In her character’s case, there is a shock, perhaps, of still being alive, and, I suppose, a strange celebration of still being alive, so why not make something of this whenever you can? Why not say “Boom?”

While making Boom! Richard Burton wrote in his diaries:

“E [Elizabeth Taylor] and N. [Noël] Coward are madly in love with each other, particularly he with her. He thinks her most beautiful which she is, and a magnificent actress which she also is. We all saw rushes [of ‘Boom!’] and some assemblage last night. It looks perverse and interesting. I think we are due for another success particularly E. I was worried about her being too young but it doesn’t seem to matter at all.”

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Boom! was, at first, not a movie to star Elizabeth Taylor or Richard Burton. Taylor’s character, Flora “Sissy” Goforth, the millionaire multiple widower ruling over her elaborate, gorgeous, guarded compound on an isolated island in Italy was much older, and dying – around 75-years-old in fact. Taylor was 35-years-old, and though she’s still playing a dying woman, she looked healthy. But what does that mean? Looking healthy? She is so convincing in the movie that she doesn’t sound healthy, so no matter of how she looks. And, Taylor, in real life, had been near death a few times before this. She nearly died of pneumonia during Cleopatra. I also recall a photo of her with Burton – around 1973 – being wheeled in a fur coat (I am not making light of this – the woman was often ill – and likely needed a nice wrap).

Anyway, as Burton said, her age doesn’t matter at all since the movie works on a symbolic/surrealist/artistic level, and this is how one looks (or rather, how Elizabeth Taylor looks) and dresses when one is sick. I sure would if I could – in gowns designed by Tiziani of Rome – with help by Karl Lagerfeld. It is not a surprise then, that the picture is also a fascination for those in the fashion world. As Amy Spindler wrote (in 2001) of Boom! for the New York Times Magazine:

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“The film was all André Leon Talley, the Vogue editor, wanted for Christmas. Anna Sui and Marc Jacobs had told him about it while dining at Mr. Chow’s. Cathy Horyn, the New York Times fashion critic, tracked him down a copy. Anne Fahey, the public relations director of Chanel, also helped join in the search… Let’s call it free-associative filmmaking. It’s all Mediterranean-Gehry architecture accented with key pieces of the era, like the Arco lamp by Achille and Pier Giacomo Castiglioni. And there are hints of Calder and Chagall and even Easter Island sculptures — although ‘Boom!’ was filmed in Sardinia. And while the Roman couture Taylor wears certainly looks like her own by Valentino (the huge rock on her finger and the Shih Tzu running around look like her own, as well), it is credited to an atelier called Tiziani of Rome. Talley called a few days ago to say that while he was expounding on the virtues of ‘Boom!’ to Karl Lagerfeld, the designer said he had a hand in the costume designs. He was working for Tiziani at the time. Alexandre of Paris did Taylor’s hair. Bulgari supplied her jewels.”

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There are many reasons to admire Boom! but the very idea of an inspired André Leon Talley talking to Karl Lagerfeld to discuss the picture and then Lagerfeld just dropping an, “Oh, yes, I helped design the costumes” (I imagine this dropped very casually – I have no idea – I just like thinking it this way)… and after seeing those fantastic costumes… how can you dismiss such a movie? I mean, on design alone, it’s worth watching.

So, Taylor – fine. Great. She’s perfect. Cast correctly – never mind her age. Who else could wear that Kabuki-inspired costume and elaborate headdress with such ease? She even removes it – likely annoyed by its weight – and even that seems like, “Sure, place that thing anywhere. Tiziani and Lagerfeld can make another one.” She didn’t say that, but that just occurs to me…many things do when I watch Boom!

And then there’s Burton’s character – poet Chris Flanders/The Angel of Death who was younger in the play than Burton (Burton was 42 at this point – not old, but older than Taylor – obviously this had to just work differently). Burton’s voice is brought up in the movie – his voice as a seductive force. And it is. Watching him saunter around Sissy’s property in the samurai robe and carrying a samurai sword (the outfit belonged to one of Sissy’s dead husbands – and is sent down to his quarters after dogs nearly rip him to shreds) should feel ridiculous, and it is, I think, a bit on purpose. But it becomes as natural as her extravagant attire. Also he appears to like wearing that outfit – for, presumably, the way it compliments his strides, the way it looks cool in the air, the way he looks rather handsome in it, and for the sword, surely an easy indicator of Freudian phallic armament, or an instrument of divine justice, like an arch-angel. Perhaps some viewers wish he were the younger stud, but I find his handsome, world-weariness befitting in this dreamscape. He’s seductive, he’s compelling, he certainly never appears bored. And he and Taylor – they do have chemistry – even when she’s yelling at him. Especially when she’s yelling at him.

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Tennessee Williams, who had put on the play twice – first in 1963 with Hermione Baddeley and Paul Roebling, then in 1964 with Tallulah Bankhead and Tab Hunter (both times the play didn’t fare well, receiving mostly bad reviews), was thinking, for film, more of Simone Signoret and Sean Connery. Losey, later, wanted Ingrid Bergman and James Fox. According to Sam Kashner’s and Nancy Schoenberger Furious LoveElizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, and the Marriage of the Century: “Bergman had turned down the role as too vulgar (‘I can’t say the word ‘bugger’ without blushing,” she’d told the director).” Another who famously turned down a part was Katharine Hepburn for “The Witch of Capri” (the part was originally written for and played by a woman) – Hepburn was reportedly insulted by the offer. In a bolder choice of casting, Noël Coward was offered the part and agreed (according to Caute’s Losey biography, Dirk Bogarde was asked first and said, “No, thank you!”), and the gender of the character changed.

And so, went the shoot, which is a story in itself… and then the story. How to describe? Flora “Sissy” Goforth (Taylor) is, as stated, a dying multiple widow/millionaire recluse, who has, rather symbolically, taken refuge on an island of her own. She’s living there, like a mythic, capricious creature with a coterie of servants tending to her, both visible and almost invisible. Her head of security is Rudi, a little person with a gun (played by Michael Dunn), and she recites her memoirs to her secretary, Miss Black (Joanna Shimkus), or “Blackie,” as Sissy calls her. It is upon this island that a dark stranger/poet arrives, or rather, trespasses, invades – both seductive and aloof (and hungry – it takes quite some time for Sissy to order him some food – she instead, drinks a lot. And takes pills. And yells for injections). This man that might be death itself, as indicated by his nickname “The Angel of Death” (Coward’s Witch of Capri fills Sissy in on the grim details of the women this Chris Flanders has visited before her).

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What follows is a game of seduction and finality, a stylized game of wit, caprice and carnality as Burton talks much, and in his way, coaxes Taylor into accepting the possibility of death. She has been pushing it away -who wants to think of that – and would like death on her own terms (who wouldn’t) – and is generally in a foul mood as she recollects her past. Well, she’s not feeling well. She hollers at her doctor, her servants and Blackie – she hollers at the sky. One of the most incredible moments comes when Sissy orders her morning needs:

“Now tell them to bring the table over here, so I can put my chair in the shadow when I want it in the shadow. My skin’s too delicate to be in the sun for more than half-hour intervals. Now tell them what I want put on the table: a cold bottle of mineral water, suntan lotion, cigarettes, codeine tab, a bucket of ice, a glass, a bottle of brandy, my newspapers. The Paris Trib, The Rome Daily American, The Financial Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Daily Express.” 

This provokes laughter for being so … demanding of course, and then for being delivered with such unhinged anger and brashness on Sissy’s part. It continues when she notices the mobile Burton’s poet has made (Sissy has yet to meet him – he’s down in the guest quarters) and asks Blackie, “What’s that goddamned thing?” When Blackie informs her it’s a mobile to give to Sissy, she says to her, “Does he seem like some kind of a nut case to you?” (I think that’s a very good question, frankly.) It continues on with Sissy: “Help me up, will you? The sun’s making me dizzy. Oh… God damn, you… broke the skin with my ring!”

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I mean, everything, everything is wrong and annoying to Sissy. But people do act like this – I guess seeing it on screen and with such poetry – it’s wonderfully discombobulating.

Sissy is walking back into the house/compound and demands, “Bring a telex report out to me.” She then bumps into a servant with a tray and furious, yells the movie’s most famous insult: “Shit on your mother!”

(Try not yelling that after seeing this movie. Try. You won’t be able to resist.)

Sissy continues damning the world with: “God damn it, I’ll sign myself into a criminal institution!”

When she finally meets up with Burton’s Chris – the power play between the earthly and the eternal, the perishable and the sublime, is enacted by all characters in hyperbolic and, occasionally, moving ways. Burton’s Angel of Death (whom we are constantly befuddled by – is he evil? He’s not good, necessarily. What the hell is he?) takes from Goforth what one might presume to be her earthly vanity and power – he removes/steals her jewels. He speaks a beautiful, succinct parable – perhaps one of the best monologues in the film – and tosses her diamond-studded gems to the everlasting tide and the crashing waves below: Boom!

There’s so much to discuss and discover with Boom! (the wonderful music is one – by John Barry), the gorgeous cinematography by Douglas Slocombe, the costumes (as stated earlier), and the dialogue – both overwrought and weirdly beautiful- but also, funny. There’s an exchange between Chris and Sissy that I just think had to be funny. As Chris, with that gorgeous Burton theatrical lilt, recites Samuel Taylor Coleridge: “In Xanadu did Kubla Khan, a stately pleasure-dome decree. Where Alph, the sacred river, ran through caverns measureless to man down to a sunless sea.” Taylor’s Sissy simply exclaims, befuddled or perhaps making fun of him, her voice rising:

“WhaaAAAT?”

I think many understand that question. But to some of us – in a glorious way – we want to figure out, at least some, not entirely, some of that … “WhaaAAAT?” Which brings us over and over again to Boom!

Thinking they had something interesting on their hands (they did!) and a possible hit (alas, not a hit – at all), Elizabeth Taylor thought it would be good to work with Losey again. From Caute’s Losey biography:

“Late in 1967, while in Rome dubbing ‘Boom!’, Losey was with the Burtons in the Grand Hotel when Elizabeth Taylor remarked (it is said), ‘Why don’t we do something again?’ No more inclined than Winnie the Pooh to remove his head from the honey pot, Losey remembered a script by George Tabori originally written for, and turned down by, Ingrid Bergman. For Losey and his flamboyant designer Richard Macdonald, ‘Secret Ceremony’ was to be the second décor-riot of the ‘time of the Burtons.’ [Producer] John Heyman’s role was to raise the money and assemble the cast: ‘I was the shoehorn,’ he says. Universal put up the cash – several months before ‘Boom!’ hit the rocks.”

That Taylor was intrigued by such challenging, strange material – and that she used her star power to, essentially, help Losey get these odd movies made is to her credit – so the Boom! / Secret Ceremony double dose of 1968 makes that year in movies most intriguing to me. It should be appreciated.

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The great award-winning screenwriter, director, producer and ultimate cineaste Larry Karaszewski (he of the classic Ed WoodMan on the MoonThe People vs. Larry FlyntBig Eyes and one of this year’s best movies – Dolemite is My Name) has discussed his appreciation for Secret Ceremony on Trailers from Hell. I love how he describes this period of Taylor, who was, at one point, the most famous woman on the planet – both as a movie star and as a tabloid queen, thanks to her infamous marriage to Eddie Fisher (who was before married to Debbie Reynolds), winning an Oscar for Butterfield 8 and then dumping Fisher for her highly publicized affair with Burton on the set of the grandly expensive Cleopatra (a whole other story – and one I wrote about, in part, in regards to Walter Wanger’s (with Joe Hyams) My Life with Cleopatra: The Making of a Hollywood Classic for the Los Angeles Review of Books), and their marriage. And then, acting opposite Burton, she won her second Oscar (for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in which she is indeed brilliant) – she’s a movie star, a serious actress and a source of never-ending public fascination. But as Karaszewski says:

“… And, bam! Something changed, and she never quite made another good movie again. She became some sort of alcoholic celebrity monster, so famous that she couldn’t really play normal, and the pictures she chose to appear in are some of the oddest movies ever made. They’re almost their own genre – weird and depressing …” 

He cites Secret Ceremony, the trailer and movie he digs into, as one of them.

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And he’s right – it’s a depressing movie. Much sadder, and in many ways, much darker than Boom! If Boom! has sunlight and sea and Richard Burton’s lulling voice to carry you to death, Secret Ceremony has grey skies, construction sites and sad public buses (terrific cinematography by Gerry Fisher), a sick-o, somewhat terrifying Robert Mitchum (who is fantastic here), and sad Mia Farrow hollering, in death, alone in a house for any kind of mother she will ever have. Though Sissy must face death in Boom!, she’s at least able to breathe in the air, gaze at the ocean, be mindful of a cliff without balustrade: “I’m frankly scared of a cliff without a balustrade…” (after Boom! that has become a forever favorite word for me – balustrade). In Secret Ceremony, Taylor’s character is left on a sad little bed by the end, reciting a fable.

But there is glamour here, on the part of Taylor, as her costumes are splendid, and seem to grow more beautiful and intriguing as the movie goes on. The controversial Camille Paglia discussed Secret Ceremony in Penthouse, in 1992, and she highlights just how powerful a screen presence Taylor was:

“One of the most spectacular moments of my movie-going career occurred in college as I watched Joseph Losey’s bizarre ‘Secret Ceremony’ (1968). Halfway through the film, inexplicably and without warning, Elizabeth Taylor in a violet velvet suit and turban suddenly walks across the screen in front of a wall of sea-green tiles. It is an overcast London day; the steel-grey light makes the violet and green iridescent. This is Elizabeth Taylor at her most vibrant, mysterious and alluring at the peak of her mature fleshy glamour. I happened to be sitting with a male friend, one of the gay aesthetes who had such a profound impact on my imagination. We both cried out at the same time, alarming other theatregoers. This vivid silent tableau is, for me, one of the classic scenes in the history of cinema.”

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And there are parallels between the two movies. In keeping with Losey’s idea of edifices acting as surrogates for the human mind, in Secret Ceremony, two women are thrown together by fate into a striking, decadent mansion in London (another house as character as in Boom! – another stranger entering the house and undergoing power plays). One, Leonora (Elizabeth Taylor), first clad in black, is a religious lady, but a lady of the night who has lost a daughter and seems to be repulsed by the brutality of men – probably for good reason. Watching her remove a long blonde wig at the beginning of the picture and vigorously washing her face in the mirror seems to speak of an alternate reality – or a role playing – she’s furiously scrubbing away – at that moment. The other one, Cenci (a wild-eyed Mia Farrow – cast right before Rosemary’s Baby was released and a huge hit –  according to Caute’s biography, Losey, as yet, had only seen her on Peyton Place) is a daughter who has lost a mother and roams aimlessly, at the mercy of scavengers. She, with her long black hair (the long dark hair to Leonora’s long blonde wig from the beginning) spies Leonora on the city bus, Leonora’s dark hair wrapped up in a black scarf and … she just thinks … that’s her mother. Her dead mother. Both women wear black – and watching Farrow’s Cenci follow Taylor’s Leonora is haunting – as if the two are going to merge at one point – there’s already mirroring going on here and the movie holds our interest, right away.

Cenci is a stunted child – her age defined in her twenties but enacted as if she was prepubescent. Farrow is quite good enacting trauma here – sexual trauma – and her scenes that are deemed possibly seductive with Taylor could be read in myriad ways – lovingly needing a mother, needing maternal touch, acting out her own abuse, or childlike, confused – or all of it. She is certainly not well; she is certainly traumatized – her problems are deep. At one point she feigns pregnancy with a stuffed thing under her dresses.

Both Cenci and her mother’s fortune seem entirely unguarded and vulnerable, which really underscores the power of this movie – just how vulnerable both Cenci and Leonora are – in their grief, in their station in life, and in their dealing with predators. And the automatons Cenci plays with – seen so often in the picture – are characters themselves – sometimes tinkling with music box tunes, sometimes simulating movement, but not truly alive. As if these have been the only friends Cenci has ever had. The only things she can trust.

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And, so, a psychodrama starts to develop between Cenci and Leonora who is a facsimile of her dead mother – and, in many ways, Cenci herself. What’s so moving, is, after Leonora enters the grand home (and of course helps herself to Cenci’s deceased mother’s fabulous clothes and a gorgeous white fur coat), bit by bit she grows protective of this woman/child and projects so much upon the young, odd woman, as if by saving her, she can save herself, and regain the grace lost with the death of her daughter. The vulgar, dirty world, which encircles the mansion (in real life Debenham House, a fabulous convolution of architectural styles in West Kensington), invades the power play between the women – an ambiguous role-playing ceremony that tries imposture as a way to reach real healing. You play my mother; I play your daughter… maybe we can save each other?

But even more darkness descends with Albert (Cenci’s stepfather, played by Mitchum), who insinuates himself, perversely with his flowers – and then in an abusive, invading manner – becoming the catalyst for tragedy. There’s also Cenci’s two vermin-like antiquarian aunts who scavenge routinely the diminishing splendor of the desolate mansion—it’s touching when Leonora sticks up for Cenci to these women – women who seem to laugh off the perversions of Albert, as if Cenci should know better. Leonora says, aghast: “But Cenci’s still a child!” One aunt says, “Cenci a child?” And the other states that Cenci is 22-years-old. Old enough they are saying. Never mind this is her stepfather taking advantage of a damaged young woman. Leonora says, “Well, she’ll always be a baby to me.” And then one aunt says, rather ominously, “Crazy people never look their age.”

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Cenci has gone crazy – from grief and abuse by the hands of Albert, who has been violating Cenci for – we don’t even know how long – and from who knows what else. Leonora yells at Albert: “You dirty bastard! You raped her!” He then laughs, “I couldn’t rape a randy elephant. I’m much too tentative. I need encouragement. And I loved her. I always loved her…I make her feel like a woman. What do you make her feel like? A retarded zombie?” Defiant, she says “I tried to protect her from…” Albert cuts her off, calling her a “mysterious bitch,” and, again, a “cow” and tells her to leave Cenci … with him. Leonora wants to continue protecting her (quite understandably). Later that night, however, Leonora forcefully pulls the fake baby out of Cenci’s clothes – and Cenci, upset, will order her out. “Why are you wearing my mother’s clothes?” Cenci asks. ‘Get out.”

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The world and its dark desires prove too much for Cenci’s fragile mind, and she – in a complex scene (lining up pills, treating a visiting Leonora like a servant until she, in dying breath is calling for her again, as a mother – only it’s too late) – commits suicide.

And then… in a startling moment – Leonora – grieving another daughter – will kill Albert in a bizarre, but beautifully offhand manner. You don’t expect it. But the revenge is not so sweet – you get the feeling Leonora will never be the same (well, what is the same to her?), that she’ll never be “healed,” and yet, she may endure. In the final scene, she recites out loud a fable (about the two little mice who fell into a bucket of milk) – and, I suppose, she’s holding on to the merits of resilience and will. But she almost seems to be talking in her sleep.

The ending works wonderfully because, truly, watching this movie feels like a dream one had. A nightmare. And even describing it – I had to search – am I right? Am I remembering this correctly? I could very well not be.

Again, it’s a sad movie, and it’s worth noting that making the movie was hard on Taylor – she was in physical pain. As discussed in Kashner and Schoenberger’s Furious Love:

“Halfway through filming [‘Secret Ceremony’], Elizabeth could no longer work through her constant visceral pain. After a series of tests, Elizabeth was admitted to a London hospital for a hysterectomy. ‘Elizabeth had her uterus removed on Sunday morning. The operation began at 9:30 and ended at 1:00,’ Burton wrote in his diary, marking some of the most awful days of his life… ‘There was nothing before,’ he wrote when she was finally out of danger and recovering at home, ‘no shame inflicted or received, no injustice done to me, no disappointment professional or private that I could not think away…But this is the first time where I’ve seen a loved one in screaming agony for two days, hallucinated by drugs, sometimes knowing who I was and sometimes not, a virago one minute, an angel the next, and felt completely helpless.”

Secret Ceremony was released to mostly bad reviews (as stated, Renata Adler was kind, as was The Guardian) – still, Taylor, again, to her credit, continued to take on challenging roles, bizarre roles, and do so glamorously, even if critics began taking her apart – her acting, her looks – she was still her own creature, and, as Karaszewski astutely said, making movies that were something like their own genre.

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As Walter Wanger wrote of Taylor in My Life with Cleopatra, “It is not a far stretch of the imagination to compare Elizabeth with Cleopatra. She has the intelligence and temperament of the Egyptian Queen — and she has the honesty and directness that characterize all big people.”

As I wrote of her in regard to Wanger’s observation – in Boom! and, I will add now, in Secret Ceremony, Taylor showed us the dark side of excess, the desperation of love, and the disillusionment of lust and she is … fantastic. It is real, it is a dream. Liz & Losey – we don’t know their dreams but with these two pictures, here is the “the honesty and directness that characterize all big people.”

Originally published at the New Beverly.


Have a Violent Saturday Christmas

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Coming soon, Dec. 25 -- Ed Brubaker's CRIMINAL # 11 featuring my essay on Richard Fleischer's incredible Violent Saturday.

Happy Violent Saturday Christmas! Order here

A snippet from my piece:

As this film shows, being a lot of things is, as Shelley said, normal and human. The picture is both wonderfully melodramatic in the very best way and powerfully down and dirty violent – bizarre, darkly funny at times, and then bitingly real as only our sometimes bizarre, darkly funny lives can be. The robbery feels real, but it also works in a metaphorical manner. A nightmare. But a nightmare some people don’t wake up from. And one that lingers on Boyd’s mind with almost nihilistic reflection. The grief-stricken Boyd spits, “It’s so stupid and pointless to be alive in the morning and dead in the afternoon.” Pray for a peaceful Sunday. Or never pray again.

Merry Christmas!

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Criminal: The Threat

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Look for Ed Brubaker's newest CRIMINAL in which I write about Felix E. Feist's The Threat starring the great Charles McGraw, who, as Red is so intense, so naturally frightening that everyone around him look like mice circling an enormous cat – one who will casually swipe his paw and lay any one of them flat -- and easily dead. As enormous cats do.

You'll also never forget how McGraw sits in and utilizes a chair...

Out now -- came out Nov. 27 -- order!


Interviewing Tarantino: Once Upon a Time

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From my New Beverly & Sight & Sound interview:

In Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, we are watching Los Angeles: a Los Angeles of 1969 that actually happened, a Los Angeles of 1969 that could have happened, and a mythical Los Angeles – a vision of the city and of Hollywood that we might dream about, or a part of our memory that is real.

A memory that still lives within this city. And in this city, if you live here long enough or if you grew up here like Quentin Tarantino did, the visual effect – the way the geography of the town spreads out, and the way we drive through it, the way we look up at the signs, the marquees, the movie posters – often makes reality and dreams merge together, it melds in our mind. Some days it feels normal and other days, not so normal. It makes you wonder about Los Angeles, or Hollywood, rather, and what that means to different people – and not just people in Hollywood, because there’s so much more to this city than Hollywood. But we’re talking Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood. So, from watching movies about the city, to being in the city while watching movies about the city, and seeing movies all around you – like Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) driving to his trailer right next to the Van Nuys Drive-In, or the real life Jay Sebring living in Jean Harlow’s house for a time (where Paul Bern killed himself), to walking past a specific old house or apartment where a movie may have been shot or a person may have lived – history, ghosts, movies, real life… It’s both in the now and it’s a memory floating around you.

Here, it’s Hollywood, 1969, where ageing, ex-Bounty Law star Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), insecure about his future, worrying he’s a wash-up (“It’s official, old buddy, I’m a has-been.”), and wondering about the emerging, younger talents and wunderkinds of the film world – like the neighbors he discovers living next door to him on Cielo Drive: Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) and Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha). Rick is a heavy drinker, an alcoholic, with enough drunk-driving offenses that his closest friend and confidant, his stunt double, tough but charming Cliff Booth – a man with a mysterious past, shrouded in darkness – has to drive him everywhere. That can be a big deal in Los Angeles – when someone else has to drive you everywhere.

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And so here we follow Rick and Cliff and Sharon. We follow them as they talk, drive, work, run errands and, by the end, a hell of a lot more. They are living their lives. There’s Sharon, driving around, seeing friends and watching one of her movies, in one of the picture’s most beautiful and charming scenes. As Tarantino said, “When Sharon’s on screen we need to slow everything the fuck down. Just slow the whole damn thing down and just hang out with her… it’s about behavior; it’s about what people in Los Angeles do.”

And that leads up to that tragic, horrifying August night in 1969…

The result is a poignant, elegiac Tarantino masterpiece – one of memory and history and myth and darkness and humor and sadness and mystery and tragedy and love. And that brilliant, incredible ending… it leaves one breathless, and then by its final moment – many of us are moved to tears.

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Tarantino met me at his house in Los Angeles, and we talked at length about many things. Parts of this interview are excerpted from my September Sight & Sound cover story on Tarantino (pick up, or order digitally that issue, and read more of that interview – we talk about the genesis of the movie, Tarantino’s writing process, Sharon Tate and more here). As said, our discussion went on far longer, and so I’ve added more of it here, for the New Beverly – still condensed and edited (because the interview was even longer!). We talked about Los Angeles, about movies, about music, about Ralph Meeker and Vince Edwards and Toni Basil, about Sharon Tate’s talent, specifically in The Wrecking Crew which Robbie as Tate watches in a movie theater, (Tarantino said: “Sharon does her pratfall, our audience in the theatre laughs. So, I love that Sharon’s getting a laugh. The real Sharon Tate gets a laugh…”), and about the movies he watched in preparation for Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood and, of course, about the film itself, his ninth. And a whole lot more.

This is a movie you can’t stop thinking about. This is a movie that you want to see over and over (read my long deep dive into this movie here). And reading this interview now, which was conducted in June, before the movie opened (so we couldn’t talk spoilers, and I omitted discussion that veered there – specifically the bravura ending set-piece), there’s even more I now want to talk to Tarantino about – more questions. With that, I’ll go see the movie, which I’ve already watched numerous times, again…

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Kim Morgan: In your film, there’s the myth-like idea of LA and the geographical idea of LA, and you’ve merged them together beautifully: all of those gorgeous shots of Cliff driving – everyone drives a lot, of course, this is Los Angeles, except for Rick Dalton [who has too many drunk driving incidents]. And the way you’ve recreated 1969 LA, the movie posters, the radio channels in the car, looking out at all that – it’s mythical and real.

Quentin Tarantino: I gotta tell you something. We can get actual photos of what Sunset Boulevard looked like in 1969 or what Riverside Drive looked like, or Magnolia, we can do that. And we did it. But the jumping-off point was going to be my memory – as a six-year old sitting in the passenger seat of my stepfather’s Karmann Ghia. And even that shot, that kind of looks up at Cliff as he drives by the Earl Scheib, and all those signs, that’s pretty much my perspective, being a little kid…

6a00d83451cb7469e20240a47008b8200c-800wiKM: We’ve talked a lot before about Jacques Demy’s Model Shop – I think he would have loved this film.

QT: Yeah. “The Umbrellas of Van Nuys”; “The Young Girls of Toluca Lake” (laughs). Again, that’s an aspect of a memory piece because I remember what it was like. But, also as a little kid – and probably now too, but especially as a little kid – you see what you want to see. You throw the things you don’t care about out of focus and you throw sharp focus on the things you care about – so… I’m looking out the window and see Los Angeles out in front of me and I’m being more selective about what I’m looking at as opposed to Demy in Model Shop. So, it’s the movie billboards and it’s the soda pop billboards. I’m not seeing the Geritol billboard, but the Hollywood Wax Museum with the Clark Gable picture. And so, in doing a memory piece, I create that landscape.

KM: So, who is Rick Dalton based on?

QT: I like talking about these guys. George Maharis, Ty Hardin, Vince Edwards, Edd Byrnes, and Fabian a little bit, and Tab Hunter a little bit too… So that sets [Rick Dalton] up, he’s not of this generation, he’s not a New Hollywood type of actor – you don’t see him fitting in with Peter Fonda or Jack Nicholson or Donald Sutherland or Elliott Gould or any of these guys. Those are the actors of the time.

KM: Which directors do you think Rick Dalton would have worked with?

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QT
: He would have worked with guys like Paul Wendkos… If he was lucky, he would have worked with Phil Karlson, Leslie Martinson, people like that. One of the things about the actors of that era [and Rick Dalton], like I said, they were status-conscious, so they would love to be in a Burt Kennedy western. Not because they think Burt Kennedy is the greatest director in the world, but because he makes movies for Warner Brothers. And 20th Century Fox… If Rick were offered an AIP [American International Pictures] movie, [he] wouldn’t do it: “Well, of course, I’m not going to work for AIP. That’s where the losers work. That’s for fucking Ray Milland. That’s for fading stars like Milland and slumming stars, like Bette Davis, and phony non stars like Vincent Price and Fabian.”

Marianne-Gaba-with-Edd-Byrnes-from-TV-show-77-Sunset-Strip.-Gaba-was-a-guest-star-on-the-show-and-requested-a-lock-of-22Kookies22-hair-to-which-Byrnes-obliged-January-1960KM: And his career could have been different had he worked with AIP or something like that…

QT: In that chapter I wrote on [the book about] Rick’s career, “The Man Who Would Be McQueen”, I actually have that in that version, and I did it in a scene with Marvin. OK, Rick’s contract is over with Universal and now he’s a free agent and having to fend for himself. In that prose, I’d written that he did get one offer for a movie after the Universal contract was over. The movie offered was John Cassavetes’ role in Devil’s Angels, which was Roger Corman’s follow-up to The Wild Angels. And he turned it down: “I’m not gonna work with Corman. I’m not gonna work with AIP. That’s junk.” These TV guys were taught: if you’re gonna be a TV star, you have to be likable. But so, he’s using old-world rules. So those are all reasons that Rick would have said no, but the reality is, that that would have given Rick everything he wanted if he had done it. It would have been his one, along with “The 14 Fists of McCluskey” – his one genuine hit. This wouldn’t have been a movie that is stuck with the other movies in the early part of the 60s. It was zeitgeisty. This was a movie that actually young people would have went to see.

KM: Yeah. And he would meet people like Jack Nicholson, he would have met Bruce Dern [who plays ranch owner George Spahn in the film] …

QT: Absolutely! And, I had it, that actually AIP was really into the idea. So, if he had done Devil’s Angels, they probably would have plugged him into like, three other biker movies that they had on deck… He would have been a young people’s actor. But through his class consciousness, he threw it all away and wonders why he’s standing on the outside of a cultural shift.

KM: And … Rick Dalton is in his late 30s in 1969, he’s getting older, but even Nicholson and Bruce Dern, though younger than Rick, and a different generation, they were in their early thirties by 1969…they had already worked for a while, and on TV, and worked in AIP films…

QT: No, but you’re right though – Nicholson – Bruce told me that he and Jack killed themselves trying to get on western shows. And I mean, guesting on them… The Virginian is on for nine years – Doug McClure and James Drury stayed there, but then the rest of the cast like rotates every four years…. They wanted to get on a series… Like Nicholson would have loved to have been on The Virginian in its sixth season. Bruce said, at that time, we wanted Robert Fuller’s career (laughs): “We wanted to be on our version of Laramie we wanted to join Wagon Train in their color years.” (laughs) Bruce Dern actually did get on a show – he and Warren Oates were Jack Lord’s sidekick on the show, Stoney Burke … and Bruce Dern said “Oh, it’s one of the worst jobs I have had!” And I asked, “Why?” and he said, “Well, I’m on it for like two fucking years and every week it just boils down to a reaction shot of me watching Jack Lord – the biggest prick in the business – riding a bucking bronco and yelling “You got it Stoney! Ride ’em Stoney!” (laughs) “That was like, my part!”

MV5BZTcwZGQyYTEtM2ZiNC00ZDA1LTg5ZTYtMGI3ZTczNWMxN2Y5XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNTM3MDMyMDQ@._V1_UY268_CR87 0 182 268_AL_KM: Bruce Dern has such a long, wide-ranging career and worked with guys like Rick. He must have had a lot of stories.

QT: He [played] such interesting bad guys on these western shows, like his characters in the stuff he did in ’64 or ’65 or ’66 could be a main character in a 70s western. Like he did a Big Valley episode where it’s him and Lee Majors doing a lot of stuff together and he’s a bounty hunter, but his whole thing was to dress like a priest, so if you’re his bounty, he approaches you on a horse, with a collar and the black frock and the bible, and he asks to have some beans at your little campfire and you say yes because he’s a priest, and then he shoots you dead. (Laughs) That’s his modus operandi. That’s a fucking great character…. Bruce Dern, all those guys: Robert Blake, Burt Reynolds… they remember every episodic television director they ever worked with, Bruce better than all of them. If you name an episode and the director, Bruce will tell you a little story about that guy…

KM: Well, that was smart, considering who some of those guys were who were directing episodic television, like Sam Peckinpah…

QT: Well, actually, of that whole group that I call the post-60s anti-authority auteurs, a lot of them came from television. He’s the only one whose television work represents his feature work. I mean, like the only one. Mark Rydell can direct a really good episode of Gunsmoke and Michael Ritchie can direct a really good episode of The Big Valley, but they don’t necessarily look like [Ritchie’s 1972 film] The Candidate. But Peckinpah’s stuff, even the scripts he wrote that he didn’t even direct, have a Peckinpah feel – the way I think there’s a Corbucci West – suggest a Peckinpah West. That even in his random episodes that he wrote for Gunsmoke – it’s right there.

KM: And then Dern must have had some thoughts about 1969 in particular…

QT: Yeah, he had a huge memory because one of the weird dichotomies going on was everybody, [Dern’s] whole circle, is blowing up and becoming superstars, and he’s still stuck doing this episodic television stuff and doing this B-movie stuff and playing western scoundrels in these other movies, while Peter Fonda and Jack Nicholson and Dennis Hopper are starting to run the damn town. So, look at it in perspective – so, in 1970 Jack Nicholson does Five Easy Pieces, directs Drive, He Said, and then is brought into On a Clear Day You Can See Forever to bring youth appeal to the movie. That year Bruce Dern guested on a Land of the Giants and starred in The Incredible 2-Headed Transplant. (Laughs) He also gives the best performance in Drive, He Said, but all that had to be hard for him. But it all changed the next year. The next year he does The Cowboys and Silent Running.

KM: How much did you work with Burt Reynolds before he sadly passed away? He must have been great to talk to.

HqdefaultQT: When I was getting to know him, I was really taking advantage of that: I’ve got Burt Reynolds to talk to, and he understands the politics of this movie, of where Rick’s coming from. So, I’ve spent my whole life hearing Burt Reynolds tell stories on talk shows, so our time spent together was him telling Burt Reynolds stories, and me telling Burt Reynolds stories. And I was just trying to ask him everything I could. What did he think about Sergio Corbucci? What did he think about Raquel Welch? What did he think about Jim Brown? And so, we’re doing this script reading and we have a break in the middle, and Burt was pretty fucked up in terms of his mobility: when he sits down in the chair, he’s gonna be in the chair for a while. And so I’d get up, and walk around, he’d be at the end of the table, and I’d sort of get down on my haunches and start talking to him, and every time I’d see him, I’m thinking, “Who am I gonna bring up this time?” I’m gonna ask him about William Witney. And I gotta set this up a little bit. Now, he only worked with William Witney three times. Three episodes of “Riverboat” in the 50s – that’s it. Now, I’m expecting him – I’m gonna bring this up and he’s not going to remember. So, I ask him, “I wanna ask you a question about the show you did, Riverboat. And he says, “Oh boy.” And I say, “Look you probably don’t remember who he is, you only worked with him three times, but you worked with a director named William Witney. Do you remember him?” [Reynolds says,] “Of course I do.” One of the perfect Burt Reynolds line reads. [I say,] “Oh. You do! Wow. Great. Well, I think he’s terrific. I mean, I think he’s one of the most underrated action directors that there ever was, and especially westerns.” [Burt says,] “I agree. You’re very true. William Witney was under the belief that there was no scene that had ever been written that couldn’t be improved by a fistfight. And that’s kind of the way the guy would direct. You’d be standing there doing a scene, and he would be like, ‘Cut. Cut. Cut. You guys are putting me to sleep. Here’s what I want to happen. You say this, you say that, you say this, you say that, now you get mad at him and you punch him. And now you’re mad at him, so you punch him back. And now we have a scene!” (Laughs) I can’t guarantee, but I can practically guarantee that nobody has brought up William Witney’s name to Burt in 55 years, and I bring it up. Not only does he remember the guy, he has perfect Burt Reynolds stories – ready to go, as if he’d been telling these anecdotes for years because they were funny. He has a perfect description, and they are all funny and they all have a punchline to them. Those are not ready-to-go-to stories. He just pulled it out of his head from 50 years ago. It was just a masterful moment. And it is like, “This is the most charming man who maybe ever lived.” …

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KM: Speaking of Witney [Rick has a William Witney The Golden Stallion poster hanging in his house] …though I’ve seen some things, I feel like Witney, who you love, is still not really discussed enough, not that I’ve seen anyway, but I’m sure I’ve missed something…

QT: Well, people have given me some things – like Films in Review, in the 1970s – had a piece on him that was really cool. And somebody sent me a Cahiers du Cinéma article… but they were talking about random things… It was kind of funny because I went to a big event in France and Bertrand Tavernier spoke about me at the event and he said, “Quentin is a film fan and a film scholar. And I am a film fan and a film scholar. And we have similar tastes and similar obsessions and interests. However, I have one thing over Tarantino that he will never have! I have it and I’m very proud that I have this over him. I have met William Witney! And he will never meet William Witney!” (laughs) I met William Witney’s son…

KM: William Witney lived a long time – he died in 2002 if I’m not mistaken…

QT: When I first did my piece on him… he was still alive. But he was a little out of it…

KM: That is nice that he got to probably know that, that he was able to see your appreciation…

QT: Yes, they said that. He can’t talk, but his family has passed on to him my admiration… [But] he was so unknown that he wasn’t even included in the Oscar Farewells.

KM: As for Rick Dalton – who do you see in the future, who he could have worked with…

Lead_720_405QT: We did that thing – the alternative careers Rick could have. He could have had the George Maharis career – which is basically, he’s always Rick Dalton, he’s a name, but he goes into the 70s, and he continues on as guest spots. He’s on The Streets of San Francisco, he’s on Cade’s County, he’s on Shaft, he’s on Cannon he’s on Barnaby Jones – those kinds of shows. Shows that didn’t survive that long – a show like Chase – things like that. And doing the random TV movie whenever it would come up SST: Disaster in the Sky, I can see him in that. Now, oddly enough, it’s interesting because in the George Maharis version of a career is, one of the roles in a late 60s movie that you can imagine – I mean one of the roles you can imagine him in is The Great Escape, or you can imagine him in a great “masculine” adventure from ‘64 or ‘65 or ‘66 – whether it be a war film or a detective movie or a cop movie or a western. But, a new Hollywood movie, that he could have been in, one that he could have been cast in, and a role that he could have been good in, is as Rosemary’s husband, the Guy Woodhouse role in [Roman Polanski’s] Rosemary’s Baby – [the role] that John Cassavetes plays. And, I mean, I actually don’t think Roman [Polanski] would have cottoned to Rick. I think Roman would have been immediately suspicious of a guy like Rick…

KM: Interesting… Well, he did reportedly have problems with John Cassavetes too …

QT: And he had problems with McQueen…He hated McQueen. He talks about it in his book… and McQueen didn’t like him. When they, Roman and Sharon [in the movie] show up at the Playboy Mansion, and Sharon runs up to Steve, Roman didn’t like it, but Steve was one of her big friends when she moved out here, so he had to put up with it. But the first thing McQueen does is he picks her up and spin her around … so that’s the kind of dynamic they have. But having said that though, while I don’t think Roman would have cottoned to Rick all that much, if he had met Rick especially, and Rick could have come in and read for Guy, I think he would have thought Rick is very much like this guy. And I actually think Polanski would have thought that was good casting. And it would have been good casting. Now, the interesting thing is, if Rick actually had George Maharis’ later career in the 70s, that would have included Rick playing that role eventually, because in the mid-70s there was the TV movie Look What’s Happened to Rosemary’s Baby, starring Patty Duke, who was actually considered for the role, in the original movie. In [Look What’s Happened to Rosemary’s Baby] she [Duke] played Rosemary, and George Maharis played Guy Woodhouse. But then if you also look at Edd Byrnes. His Italian western career is, more or less, what I modeled Rick’s career on – his Italian spaghetti western career. [And] when he came back it was like he wasn’t even famous anymore… His name didn’t mean anything. He’s just like a regular working actor now. And so, he continued to work in episodic television and things, but he wasn’t like George Maharis or Vic Morrow guesting on your show, he’s just Edd Byrnes, another actor. And it was pretty degrading frankly. But then that changed when he was put in Grease, because his whole persona was brought up again, and you have the whole aspect of mothers taking their daughters to take Travolta, and saying, “Well my Travolta in my day was that guy.” And then that actually made him famous again. And so, then he continued to do episodic television shows, but now he’s Edd Byrnes again, so now he had the cache. He had a big up-spike in popularity. So those are those careers.

KM: We were also talking about Vince Edwards before…

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QT: Vince Edwards, on the other hand, never did really guest on other people’s stuff after he became big, into the 70s, but he had his own series, for a while called Matt Lincoln but it didn’t quite last. But big guest stars and ABC, they put a lot behind it. But – Vince Edwards – like Vic Morrow, like a lot of these guys who were big-time guest stars on shows and starred in some really good TV movies in the 70s. And would appear in a couple of exploitation things at the same time and then kinda got – what happened to a lot of these guys – the later career. From a lot of these more 50s leading men was the later television career – where in the late 70s, you’d see them get in another series, but on that series, they wouldn’t be the lead, [and] it would usually be a cop show, and some young cop, whatever the deal is, the star, and they’re [the older actors] are their boss. The guy who sends them on their mission. Or who reprimands them when they cross the line. And actually, Vince Edwards had a show like that with David Cassidy… David Cassidy is an undercover cop and he’s sending him on missions. But that’s similar to Jack Kelly being Christie Love’s boss on Get Christie Love! or Earl Holliman being Angie Dickinson’s boss on Police Woman. Vic Morrow was on the show B.A.D. Cats which starts a Dukes of Hazzard kind of thing… Of all of those [guys], I would actually think the Earl Holliman character in “Police Woman” would probably be the best fit for Rick. And then you have somebody like Ty Hardin who, in the early 70s, who went off to Australia to do a show called Riptide and it was a very successful show. But as far as America was concerned, it was like he just disappeared – the show never got syndicated. But that happened to a lot of [those] guys. Robert Vaughn went to England and did the show The Protectors. So, someone would do, like, a weird German show, and they’d be a superstar in Germany, but no one knows what happened to them out here. But now, all that… that keeps Rick in the box he’s in and he never kind of broke out of that. But there is another world where, another alternative version, in post 70s kinds of thing…

KM: What’s that?

QT: I think Rick and Tom Laughlin were friends, and so they did some things together, so I can actually see Tom Laughlin casting Rick in the Kenneth Tobey role, the sheriff, in Billy Jack and that would be a big role, in a movie that was a smash hit, very zeitgeisty, very hippie-ish movie, that young people would have seen. And I can see Rick doing a good job in that role.

KM: He really would have…

6a00d83451cb7469e20240a4aaf48a200d-400wiQT: But there is also something else – that suggests I think there’s a suggestion that something else could have happened for Rick – a better future for Rick. But I wouldn’t want to say what the future is for Rick. I would want the audience to come up with it on their own. Because if I say what that future is then that becomes the future. I’d rather use these other examples. But here’s the thing – when Rick meets Marvin [played by Al Pacino] at Musso & Frank, I don’t think Marvin says it out loud, but it’s gotten across that the culture has changed, and he’s on the outs. You know, it’s 1969, and Rick still wears the pompadour. He puts pomade in his hair … even Edd Byrnes didn’t wear a pompadour anymore. He was famous for doing a hair spray commercial where he said “I used to be Kookie … the dry look is where it’s at baby!” So, that sets him up, he’s not of this generation, he’s not a New Hollywood type of actor – you don’t see him fitting in with Peter Fonda or Jack Nicholson or Donald Sutherland or Elliott Gould or any of these guys. Those are the actors of the time. But, I think when Sam Wanamaker the director of “Lancer” puts the mustache on him and puts the longer-haired wig on him, and the hipper jacket, I think Rick has never seen himself that way … Rick has kept one hairstyle his entire career… he’s had one look his entire career … even when he goes off to do the spaghetti westerns, the outfits you see him in seem a little flyer that the stuff he wore on television… So, I think you see that he could be a 70s actor, he could be a New Hollywood actor and the performance that he ends up giving in his last “Lancer” scene that we see, that suggests more that type of actor…

KM: Yes. And Trudi [played by Julia Butters] is impressed – she says it’s the greatest acting she’s ever seen…

QT: Yes. And he’s playing a real sadistic bad guy. Not just a standard-issue bad guy of the week. He’s actually playing almost like he’s a Hells Angels gang. And all of those rustler guys with him are his gang mates… But I like the fact that with that long hair and that mustache and the cooler more zeitgeisty jacket, is this could be the guy he could be …

KM: What was with critics not liking what was called, well, a derogatory term then, spaghetti westerns? How could they not see the beauty and innovation when they watched those movies? The music? It baffles me to this day. Even Rick Dalton didn’t want to make them…

QT: Look, the answer, when it comes to Rick, when it comes to a lot of the Hollywood actors out there at the time who grew up on American westerns and doing TV westerns, and even the critics, that, at the time, grew up with American westerns, it was a combination of a generational divide that they couldn’t see it. And, a healthy, healthy dose of xenophobia. A healthy, healthy dose. It was like, “We’re Americans! We make westerns. This Italian’s doing this? It’s just fucking ridiculous. It’s fucking ridiculous that Italians would try to do westerns. This is our thing. Fuck those guys they don’t know what they’re doing – it’s crap.” And generationally they couldn’t understand it, they couldn’t see the innovation, they just couldn’t see it. But just xenophobically they rejected it on general principle. But that wasn’t even new, the Italian westerns are the later generational biggest examples, but I mean, like, guys in Rick’s era, they were pissed that Dean Martin’s in Rio Bravo. (imitates voice) “Eh, that fucking spaghetti bender in fucking Rio Bravo, what the fuck is that about? Get that guy out of here.” That’s just how they talked, it’s how they thought…

KM: And you love all those [different] eras of westerns…You embrace classic westerns, you love William Witney as we talked about, and then Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo and obviously revisionist westerns…

QT: You know, Burt Reynolds [was] dining out, through the 70s making fun of Navajo Joe on talk shows.

KM: I love Navajo Joe!

QTNavajo Joe is great! It’s great!

KM: Yeah, he did make fun of it…

Navajo-Joe1QT: He was constantly making fun of it. “Oh, I’m wearing a Natalie Wood wig.” And he would describe on talk shows the post synchronization aspect where everyone was speaking their own language … His joke used to be (imitating Burt Reynold’s voice), “Navajo Joe, a movie so bad they walked out on it on airplanes.” (laughs)

KM: Yes. Ha.

QT: Even when I got on the phone with him, I was like, “OK, I got a bone to pick with you, you’ve talked shit about Navajo Joe forever and you’re wrong.” [He asks], “What movie?” [I say], “Navajo Joe.” [Burt says], “You can’t like that movie!” “[I say], “Yes, of course I like that movie, it’s fantastic and Sergio Corbucci is like one of the great western directors of all time.” [And Burt says], “Well I didn’t say I didn’t like Sergio! Sergio was great!” (laughs)

KM: And in spite of what some critics think, Rick and Cliff are not based on Burt Reynolds and Hal Needham.

QT: They wish they had those guys’ careers.

KM: And so, what about Cliff? Is Cliff a composite of anyone?

QT: That’s a really good question. Cliff is based on two things – it’s when I worked with an actor, I can’t say his name, who had once had a long-time stunt double. And we really didn’t have anything for that stunt double to do. But there was one thing he could do and so the actor would ask, “Can my guy do that? I haven’t bugged you about him because there haven’t been many things for him to do, but that’s something he could do, and if I could throw my guy that thing, that would be really great.” [I say,] “Yeah, sure, OK, bring your guy in.” And so, this guy shows up and it’s like they’ve been working together for a long, long, long, long time. But you could tell, OK, this is the end. Because everyone’s gotten older. And it was also interesting, because I tend to talk to stunt guys like they’re actors, because that’s how I like to talk to people who are in my costumes, and I learned really quick that this guy, who was a great guy, he’s not here working for me, he’s working for the actor. And so, he did one of his stunts and I asked, “Hey, are you OK?” And he said, “Yeah, I’m fine, fine.” [I ask,] “Are you happy with it?” [And the stunt guy says,] “If he’s happy with it, I’m happy with it.” And I thought that’s an interesting dynamic. I thought, if I ever do a movie about Hollywood, that would be an interesting way in because I don’t think I’ve ever seen that before. But then another actor I worked with mentioned a stunt guy. And this guy was like the closest equivalent to Stuntman Mike [played by Kurt Russell in Death Proof], and although he isn’t like Stuntman Mike, he’s a notorious guy. And he was never a big stunt guy, he was never a stunt coordinator, but he’s done enough to be legit, and people know who he is. But there were three things about this guy that were absolutely indestructible. He could not be hurt. He could do nine stair falls that would put some of the greatest athletes you’ve ever seen in the hospital after one, and he could do it nine times in a row. Two, he scared everybody. Men who pride themselves on not being intimidated by other men were intimidated by this guy because he was just dangerous. If he wanted to kill you, he could have, and he was just a little off enough. And the third is, he killed his wife on a boat and got away with it.

Ouatih-cbprev-main1KM: Cliff also has a real likability and charm about him…

QT: But I think this guy did too. But [Cliff] he knows how dangerous he is, so he’s clamping down on the monster that’s inside of him and he’s actually quite Zen about the whole thing. But that monster is always there.

KM: Yes. And also Cliff seems like he’s a little calmer in his way… or so we think, he’s certainly mysterious …

QT: He’s more than that, I think that’s one of the things that’s actually very funny about the twosome is by comparison, Rick has everything and he’s completely unsatisfied, and by comparison Rick has a great life, but he can’t see it. He keeps getting in his own way. All of his anxieties and dilemmas are of his own making to one degree or another. Where Cliff is Zen. Cliff … knows he could be in jail for the rest of his life, so anything that happens to him, and if he’s not in jail, is all great…

KM: And what made you return to LA with this movie? It doesn’t feel like a nostalgia piece – did you feel a deeper understanding or something else you wanted to say?

QT: No, I didn’t want it to feel nostalgic… I came up with those characters… I did like the idea of taking on the industry I did spend the last 30 years in, but doing it from a more historical perspective.

KM: I’m thinking of how Leone was mythologizing our west, and of course the “Once Upon a Time,” the fairy tale quality – you are doing it too, but you also live here, and there is a haunted quality to all of this. And Los Angeles still feels that way – not just driving up to Cielo Drive, but going past houses and places here. Like the real Jay Sebring [played by Emile Hirsch] who lived in Jean Harlow’s old house [the Harlow/Bern house where Harlow lived with husband Bern] where Paul Bern killed himself and where Sharon Tate visited and lived with him for a while, and Tate thought it was haunted…

QT: Yeah. Not only that, we shot there. We had a whole big scene there but we ended up cutting it out… But when Jay is working out with Bruce Lee, that’s at Jay’s old house – the Jean Harlow house – with the faces, carved into the wood…

KM: You only use the one scene of Manson [played by Damon Herriman] himself, and he’s coming up to Tate’s house and I was thinking about the 60s in Los Angeles, specifically, not the 60s or counterculture in New York or in San Francisco, which was a different vibe, I’m thinking. And before Manson and through the 60s – you hear it in two masterpieces, The Beach Boys’ “Pet Sounds,” you hear it in Love’s “Forever Changes” – that there’s some kind of darker feeling because of the sunshine in LA – there’s this sort of beautiful but crazy element of chemical imbalance of the sun and the darkness in this city…And you really feel it in this movie…

1_MansonQT: More than in San Francisco which is so compact, and more than in Manhattan, which is so compact or Greenwich Village which is so compact, the hippie culture [in LA] started having a more effect like Nomadic tribes…because everything is spread out, and it’s easier to have a commune out here. And people were like, “Oh, so-and-so are away for the summer” and so they just take over their guest house… And people not literally having addresses. People just moving from this couch and this situation to that couch and that situation…

KM: I think driving is so cinematic and there’s so many connections made via car in your movie – and, as we talked about this with Model Shop, that Jacques Demy totally got this…

QT: What better way to get Los Angeles across? If we were in New York and I was staying in Greenwich Village, you might take a subway there, you might even walk there to do the interview. Here, you drove! (laughs)

KM: A lot of things can happen along that drive!

QT: Exactly (laughs)

KM: So, I really got the interconnections that happen – when Rick first sees Sharon Tate and Roman Polanski, in person, it’s from his car. And the first time Cliff sees Manson girl, Pussycat [Margaret Qualley], it’s from the car. And then when Sharon Tate picks up the hitchhiker (I love this whole scene and sequence), and it shows the generosity and sweetness of her…

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QT: It also shows that she’s down with the new culture. And it also shows how ubiquitous hitchhiking was back then. I mean, people just did it. They just did it. It was the way.

KM: In that incredibly creepy Spahn Ranch part of the picture, I like that you’re showing how all of the Manson members are hanging out at that ranch, watching TV. It’s like they’ve spent the day watching TV…

QT: Oddly enough, that was something that had deeper levels in it because the thing is, Charlie [Manson] didn’t let watch them TV…

KM: Oh, and so he’s gone in that moment…

QT: Yeah, he’s gone. So, when he was gone, they’re watching TV. [And] everyone was jealous of Squeaky because she was always up at the house, so she had TV watching privileges. So literally in my conception is that, well, Charlie’s gone so she has them all come up and watch It’s Happening – watching a youthful music show. But if Charlie was there, they would not be all up in there. But even the concept of everyone always has a TV on, everyone always has a radio on. It’s going on constantly. And that’s how I remember it.

KM: And that is threaded throughout the film, which I love. You hear the radio DJs, you hear the music, you see the TV shows, you see the movie marquees all around them…Movies and mythology are all around you, and yet there, in terms of what their lives are, the reality around Rick and Cliff… They’re outsiders in some way, in the insiders’ world…

QT: The insiders who have become outsiders.

KM: And I love that Cliff lives right next to the drive-in (and that gorgeous shot) – movies all around… I also thought, wow that would be great!

QT: That’s the One from the Heart section of the movie (laughs) where everything is operatic and slightly larger than life… but I love that about it. That’s the part that Jacques Demy could have done… (laughs)

KM: There’s so much to say about the music in this film…

QT: One of the best recycling of scores in this movie that I’m really proud of is, there’s this great theme and it’s only used in one scene in Lamont Johnson’s terrific western Cattle Annie and Little Britches, it’s got this great music bit when the Doolin-Dalton gang actually enter the town for the first time and I thought, I wanna use that bit in this movie. And so my music supervisor Mary Ramos, she’s magnificent, she just finds all this stuff but she couldn’t find anything for that… and all I had, I don’t think it’s ever been out on DVD, I just had not only an old videocassette of it, like a Good Times videocassette of it, which means it was done in the six-hour mode… and so I took my audio from the cassette and there’s even talking during some of the musical sequence and my musical editor had to cut it out and he did – he did a good job with it. And so, we kind of made it work for one sequence. But then Mary my music supervisor talked to the composer of it and he said, “Look I don’t have any masters or anything – of any of the things we recorded, but I wrote the piece. I know the piece. Would you like me to do an acoustic version on the guitar and I’ll send it to you?” (claps hands) “Fuck yeah!” So, he just did his own acoustic version with a guitar, put it on file, send it to us. That’s the music we use when Tex Watson rides up to confront Cliff.

KM: That’s a great moment… So, what else about the music… you choose pretty much everything – right?

Beyond_current_mediumQT: Yeah, for the most part, yeah. It was actually interesting because for like five years, I thought about the music… and for instance, an idea I had three years ago, I had a couple different tapes that I’d made that I’d listen to for years as I’d do this movie, this will be the soundtrack. And just to give you an example… I want the movie to be extremely realistic, but the “Once Upon a Time…” suggests that it’s taking place in a vaguely alternative universe. Not that I wanna make a big deal about that, but it is. And I think, when you think, “Once Upon a Time,” that is part of the implication. So, I didn’t want to do anything super big – but I wanted to have little tiny touches, of, “Oh, OK, if you’re hip enough, you got it.” And one of the things that I thought would be kind of cool is …one of my absolutely favorite imaginary bands is The Carrie Nations from Russ Meyer’s Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. And so, I thought it would be kind of cool at some point that they’re driving around and “Look on Up from the Bottom” plays, and the announcer says, “OK, that’s the Carrie Nations, those girls are just tearing it up!” And so, if you’re hip enough to catch it, you’re thinking, the Carrie Nations weren’t a real band, so ultimately this isn’t real… (laughs) If this exists in a universe where the Carrie Nations are real; the Partridge Family are real…

KM: But the Partridge Family kind of are real!

QT: They kind of were! (laughs) Everything was real except Danny Bonaduce’s bass playing (laughs). So, I had that idea but then I also had the idea to have the KHJ, to have most of the music to come out of KHJ. And so, I got about 14 hours of KHJ shows, and literally, the research people came to me and gave me all of this stuff and it’s fantastic. And no radio station or TV station of that era kept anything. So, anything that I’m listening to – these 14 hours, how you got it, oh, somebody in 1968 or 1969 had their tape recorder turned on “The Real Don Steele Show,” and they hit play record and recorded it for an hour.

KM: And that’s what you got? That’s pretty amazing…

QT: And, it’s also kind of interesting because we put a song from my tapes in the movie, and then we’d get the master for it, and we’d realize that our version of it was way slower…because we were going off whoever’s batteries were in [there] from 1969 in that tape recorder. And so, it all sounds fine, but it goes at a slightly slower rotation. And I go, “Well, we have to use that version, because that’s what we cut everything to. We can’t use this other version. And actually, some of them were so different because we’ll get a stereo version but KHJ did it in Mono. So, you get the masters of some of this stuff and it’s not right, it’s just a different song. [And] we gotta make this work. But once I got used to hearing 14 different hours -of hearing KHJ – and kind of making my own version of it, I realized that, if it’s coming from the radio, it has to be the real KHJ show. So, any songs I had in mind of putting in the movie, at least coming from the radio, unless I can find it in those 14 hours, I’m not including it. It just became this integrity thing. And a couple ideas I had, if it’s not coming from the radio I can use. For instance, that song I play when Cliff is walking the gauntlet of the Spahn Ranch and they’re all “Get out of here man, get fucking lost…” that’s actually from the soundtrack from the Roger Corman movie Gas-s-s-s – a great song, I’ve always liked that song, I like that movie too. But one of the things that was interesting to me in listening to the KHJ recordings was the fact that KHJ had a sound, the way the 80s KROQ had a sound, and then other radio stations tried to buy that sound, they tried to take that format and do it in other cities. It was the same thing with KHJ. And it was even kind of interesting the way KHJ would print up their Top 40 or something, and they were so into what they were doing themselves, that their Top 40 wasn’t just exactly based on Billboard. It was a mixture of Billboard, it was a mixture of what people called up and would request, it was a mixture of what the DJs liked, and just a mixture of what they thought was good for the KHJ sound… So, fuck Billboard, we’ll do a little bit of them, but we’ve got our own dynamic, we have our own algorithms that we’re going to use. And, so, I’m listening to them, and you know, I’ve been buying record albums since I was a little boy, and I’ve got a pretty good record collection. And, so, you know, you buy a Box Tops album – Rhino came out in the 80s with “The Box Tops Greatest Hits” and there’s “The Letter” and “Cry Like a Baby.” Is there anything else? Well, yeah, there was. I think I knew this before, but until I listened to the KHJ tapes, I never had it that clear of, yes, The Box Tops definitely had “The Letter” and “Cry Like a Baby” – those were the hits that went national; they were hits everywhere. But, The Box Top’s version of Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released,” “Sweet Cream Ladies,” “Choo-Choo Train,” “Neon Rainbow” – they’re all really good songs and they were played on KHJ. And they did OK on KHJ, they just didn’t break national. And I realized there’s a whole lot of songs like that. You know, like the Buchanan Brothers’ “Son of a Lovin’ Man” – it didn’t go national, but it did really well in Los Angeles and probably a few other markets. And so that was the case. A lot of songs did well, but they only did well in those markets… The whole trick was to have it go national so it was playing on every radio station in America and some of them didn’t breakthrough, but they were perfect examples of the KHJ sound.

KM: So, like the Bob Seger System’s “Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Man”… I have never heard that song in a movie and I love that song…

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QT: I had a friend in Detroit say “I never even knew that that song ever played outside of Detroit!” (laughs)… I wanted to play [The Box Tops’] “Sweet Cream Ladies” so much but the only place that I figured it could work – but it’s just too obvious – is when the Manson girls walk in front of their windshield. OK, but I might as well be playing “Baby Elephant Walk” at that point – I don’t like songs being on the money.

KM: It was really moving when you played “Out of Time” by the Stones (outside of the radio songs)… because it just fit perfectly and so beautifully in so many ways – and the gorgeous moment of all the signs lighting up, all that, how that makes one tearful) …

QT: It fits perfectly and it’s terrific. I was a little worried it was too on the money though. I really don’t like on the money…

KM: But it’s just too perfect – and very touching, it’s incredibly moving…

QT: Well, I think why I think it works is… maybe it seems a little on the money in the Rick section and you think that’s what it’s going to be, talking of Rick coming back home, but then when it cuts to Sharon and the lyrics still apply, then it starts becoming heartbreaking. So much that I even questioned using it…

KM: Which movies did you show the cast to prepare?

Sharon_Tate_Valley_of_the_Dolls_1967QT: We watched Valley of the Dolls to see Sharon, but the three movies more or less trying to show Los Angeles at that time [were] Alex in WonderlandPlay It as It Lays and Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice.

KM: I thought of Hal Ashby’s Shampoo a lot in this picture – all of the different characters converging together in Beverly Hills (counterculture and squares) – a hairdresser who just wants his own shop, the woman he loves, Julie Christie, marrying Jack Warden…

QT: It takes place [around] the same year. If I was going to show one more movie it would have been that one [Shampoo] – it’s one of my favorite movies… The image of Los Angeles is George [Warren Beatty] in his Jim Morrison shirt riding his motorcycle right where the Sunset Strip starts, just like when I think of the other George, Gary Lockwood, making that turn off on Sunset Plaza…

KM: Though it’s not necessarily like your movie, but for some reason I was just going to bring up the [Bob Rafelson directed Monkees] movie, Head 

QT: There’s a connection with me and Head. Toni Basil choreographed my musical sequences! I think one of the best choreographed sequences of all time is her and Davy Jones’ number together….

KM: When he sings the Harry Nilsson song, “Daddy’s Song” …

QT: Yeah, yeah… it’s one of my favorite musical moments in any movie…

KM: She’s in Easy Rider too, so there’s another connection, 1969, Rick Dalton screaming “Hey Dennis Hopper!” at Tex Watson…

QT: Yeah, that’s another connection … I always loved it when Toni Basil would show up in movies. She’s the one who kills Bruce Davison in Mother, Jugs & Speed. [But] if I were doing the top 50 movies of 1969, I would not think twice at all about putting Head in the top five movies of 1969. It would have been unfathomable for a critic of that day to put Head in the top five movies, it just wouldn’t have happened! They just don’t think like that! And, now, how can you not think like that?! It’s obviously one of the most inventive movies ever made…

KM: Were there any writers who were an influence?

QT: Joan Didion. I actually think people who are fans of Joan Didion are going to respond to this movie. It’s my LA but it’s not too far removed from Didion’s LA – the biggest difference is I think I’m more affectionate towards it than she is. I’m self-aggrandizing myself, and don’t take this too seriously, but one of the things that I actually thought was kind of neat that’s been out there is, I love the Frank Perry version of [Didion’s novel] Play It as It Lays, but somebody who wanted to do it was Sam Peckinpah, and then the studio wasn’t really into him doing it. To me, there is a small aspect of this that might be as close to the Sam Peckinpah Play It as It Lays as we’re gonna get.

KM: What else did you discuss with DiCaprio for preparation?

QT: The thing is, Leo’s around ten years younger than me or Brad. Me and Brad are around the same age. Leo didn’t grow up watching The Rifleman or anything like that, so those kinds of shows were all brand new to him. So, I watched a bunch of Wanted: Dead or Alive [starring Steve McQueen] so I could cherry-pick the episodes [for Leo] because it was the closest to Rick Dalton’s Bounty Law. I sent them over to him, and he watched all six or seven of them, and he likes Steve McQueen more on Wanted: Dead or Alive than some of the movies he’s done. But the guy and the episode he went nuts over – and you’re gonna get a kick out of this – is the Wanted: Dead or Alive with Ralph Meeker and James Coburn. So, we’re talking about it, and literally, his eyes light up and he’s like, “Who the fuck was that guy?” And I go, “That’s Ralph Meeker.” [DiCaprio says,] “He was fucking amazing! Can I play that guy?” [I say,] Well, it’s not exactly the right idea but I love Ralph Meeker, so feel free. If you think you’re Ralph Meeker, then be Ralph Meeker.” It’s actually one of the proudest things of this entire movie that I have made Leonardo DiCaprio this huge Ralph Meeker fan. He’d already seen Paths of Glory, so he watches it again, and then he watches The Naked Spur and Kiss Me Deadly and I think I gave him Glory Alley and I sent him The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. And then he comes back to me and he goes, “I’ve been studying Meeker in these movies.”

KM: Oh my god, I love this!

ImagesQT: I was just as tickled as you are; I didn’t expect this to happen. And he goes, “I realized one of the things that Meeker does that makes him so powerful and he does it in all of his scenes in The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre…” and I’m like, “Well, what are you talking about?” Leo says, “He doesn’t blink. When he’s having a confrontation, which is almost every scene that he has in The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, he just doesn’t blink. And there’s really only one way to do that. You just have to work on the muscles of your eyes and everything and it takes control and it’s a hard thing to do. But he’s learned how to do it – Meeker. And people aren’t going to notice it, but it has this power to it. So, we go do the movie and then I go to Leo and say, “Guess who does a full-on Meeker in this movie?” He goes, “Who?” [I say,] “Dakota Fanning [as Manson Family member Lynette ‘Squeaky’ Fromme].” In the scene behind the screen she doesn’t blink. It’s a full-on Meeker. And, she knows: “If I blink, I lose the scene.” And over the years she’s worked on it so she can control her eyes and she can lock it in for the course of a scene. And it has the same power it has with Meeker in The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. And she’s the most formidable character Cliff comes across. She’s like a concrete pillar on the other side of that screen door (laughs). And when she acquiesces, it’s kind of sinister, because she had won the stare-off.

KM: And Brad Pitt?

QT: Now, Brad Pitt, he grew up like me, he has a lot of the same references. So one of the things Brad is really responding to is a lot of the guys are the guys that Brad Pitt’s father dug. He loved that Burt Reynolds was in the movie, because his dad loved Burt Reynolds. He was so fucking happy. And it was written in the script – I didn’t throw it in later – that Cliff was a Mannix fan. He goes, “My dad was such a fan of Mannix. He watched Mannix every week.” And so the fact that Mannix was Cliff’s go-to guy [felt right to him], and even in the scene when Cliff makes his macaroni and cheese to the Mannix theme – now it’s just a Cliff theme. But also, [Brad and I] had a really interesting discussion about how when we were little kids – like seven and nine – we really loved the 70s western show Alias Smith and Jones – we watched it every week. And I don’t think I’d ever had this conversation before and I don’t think he’d ever had this conversation before – and then we started talking about when Pete Duel [who played Hannibal Heyes/‘Joshua Smith’ in the show] killed himself and we both realized that that was when we learned about suicide for the first time.

Pete_Duel_1971KM: Wow.

QT: That one of our favorite actors on our favorite shows committed suicide during the run, and that was when we first contemplated what that meant. And I’m sure in both cases, as I talked to my stepfather, and he talked to his dad, the conversation went something like, “Well, well, what happened to Hannibal Heyes? “Uh, well, he committed suicide.” “What’s suicide?” “Well, it’s when you kill yourself.” “You kill yourself? Why did he kill himself?” “Well, I don’t know Quentin, I guess he was depressed.” “What does he got to be depressed about? He’s fucking Hannibal Heyes! He has it made.” (Laughs) I started doing some research into it. When he killed himself it was a weird thing: he had a drinking problem and, according to his brother, he had mood swings, and nothing in particular happened that day – he had worked that day – and nothing, in particular, had happened that night, and he was lying in bed with his girlfriend and got up and excused himself and an hour later shot himself. And we realized, he was probably undiagnosed bipolar and self-medicating for his mood swings, and the mood swing got the better of him that night. Well, I told that to Leo and he thought that would be a great thing for Rick. That, you know, in the script, Rick wasn’t quite the alcoholic that he is in the movie. He was a heavy drinker, he drank at night, but he drank to loosen up. In my original script, he wasn’t showing up for work with a horrible hangover from drinking by himself. The character already had mood swings, so that was in the material, and he was already a drinker, so that was in the material – but when we got this bipolar idea this gave him a reason to do everything, and it gave him a reason for his anxiety, and it gave Leo something to actually play. And so that became a really exciting discovery for us, and it all led from that conversation Brad and I had about Alias Smith and Jones.

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KM: The movie is gorgeous, mysterious, the way it moves… Was there anything technical you did with this movie that was more challenging or different for you – you maintain your own style but you seem to always be challenging yourself in each one…

QT: That’s a good question. Me and [cinematographer] Bob Richardson, have been starting from Inglourious Basterds on, we’ve been, and we even get a big leap from Inglourious Basterds to Django, we started operating more and more and more on the crane… we used the crane like, a lot more. It looks better than a dolly, it’s smoother, and we worked the crew up enough that they’re used to doing it, so it’s not a thing. They’re just used to Bob being on the crane. And [so] we started doing everything on the crane from that point on – things that don’t need a crane. It’s not always about rising and falling, it’s going parallel, but a real smooth parallel. So, we’ve been operating on it more and more and more. And we were really operating a lot on the crane on Hateful Eight, even when we were just inside the cabin, but that’s its own thing. Here, almost everything was shot on the crane. And I think there’s a fluidity to the camerawork that suggests that, that’s kind of called for in the movie … and I think it’s also kind of the marriage of me and Bob visually just finding [a] true sweet spot by movie five. It’s very visually sophisticated, but in a way that doesn’t call attention to itself either. It has a classical cinema [feel]. We’re trying to be like Ophuls (laughs). Most people don’t even realize that the Bruce Lee [scene] is one shot. Until he crashes into the car – it’s one shot. From the opening of his line to the crash in the car, it’s all one take.

KM: I love this line – When Mike Moh as Bruce Lee says to Cliff, something like, “You’re kinda pretty for a stunt guy.” It’s a direct line, and so something that would be said to a stunt guy who looks like he could also be a movie star.

QT: OK, I gotta tell you, that was a suggestion. I did not come up with that. Burt Reynolds read the script, and he knows a lot of stunt guys. And Burt said, “So Brad Pitt is playing the stunt guy?” And I said, “Yeah.” And Burt says, “You gotta have somebody say, ‘You’re kinda pretty for a stunt guy.” (Laughs) And the thing is, Brad doesn’t like making his looks a thing in a movie, but he couldn’t say no to that because it was Burt Reynolds’ line! And watching Brad grin and bear it is really great. Because he doesn’t really dig it. (Laughs) But the fact that Burt Reynolds came up with it – he can’t say shit!


Criminal: Gunman's Walk

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Out now! My piece in Ed Brubaker's latest Criminal. I dig into Phil Karlson's fantastic Gunman's Wal(1958).

A sample of my piece:

Phil Karlson, who directed some superb tough-as-nails noirs (99 River Street, Kansas City Confidential and The Phenix City Story) – working from writers Hardman and Nugent – seems to wonder – why in hell do these people have to be so violent? Does it solve anything? This is a film questioning authority; looking at how we blindly believe in institutions – one of them being “manhood,” domination, the way one moves through the world (do you walk with a gun?). And Karlson gives Van Heflin, James Darren and Tab Hunter plenty to explore here – these are fascinating character studies, both deeply human and symbolic.

Heflin’s Lee – god knows what he did to his sons and god knows why he is so obsessed with Ed. What is going on there? There’s an inverse to Martin Ritt's Hud here – Heflin’s character puts up with so much regarding Ed, irritated by his gentler son, Davy, while Melvyn Douglas’ righteousness clashes with his bad-boy son (whom Douglas does not love – which messes up his son – that dad has got to account for that too).

You get the feeling that Heflin’s Lee would get along well with the cynicism and corruption of Paul Newnan’s Hud. But would Hud hate him too? Probably. But to Heflin and Hunter’s immense credit and their brilliant performances (this is one of Hunter’s greatest roles) – we, the audience, don’t hate them. We can’t. We get that they are damaged men – and that there is something about the world, something about what is expected of masculinity, that can twist these two men and turn them crazy. The resulting movie is heartbreaking ...

Read the entire piece in Criminal -- order here


Criminal: Ladybug Ladybug

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How quickly the veneer of childhood innocence, of safety, can be shattered. The look of uncertainty and sadness on Mrs. Forbes’ face as she walks through an empty schoolroom, picking up the tiny chairs, organizing the miniature pots and pans on the play stove, placing a tiny man and woman together, staring out the window adorned with paper children, is so beautifully realized, so mysterious, so sincere...  Characters are trapped in the Perrys’ films, literally, in refrigerators, or swimming pools, or in marriages and affairs giving no profound satisfaction or release. Burt Lancaster banging on the door of his empty house, as if he’s trying to break through to another consciousness or world (one he’ll never reach) while revealing how lonely and empty he feels, is a refrain in the Perrys’ work. Here, he and Eleanor are working more overtly within a trapped landscape... 

My next piece for Ed Brubaker's CRIMINAL -- on Frank & Eleanor Perry's haunting, beautiful, powerful and still timely, Ladybug Ladybug -- I love Sean's art here. Look for it Sept. 25.


Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood

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“And the seasons they go round and round. And the painted ponies go up and down. We’re captive on the carousel of time. We can’t return, we can only look behind from where we came. And go round and round and round in the circle game…”

A moment can sneak up on you… and break your heart. And in Quentin Tarantino’s elegiac Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood, there are obvious reasons to feel such things – you know history, something tragic and terrifying is going to happen, or could happen, but throughout the film you also feel something mysterious that you can’t quite place, and that feeling seems both universal and personal – regional, too – this vibe, both dark and light – that pours over Los Angeles like a promise or a threat. A light that can be both warm or blinding. And when it’s dark here – a dark night in Los Angeles – especially up in the silent canyons – often gorgeous – but winding and a little scary and enigmatic. It can feel like something Raymond Chandler wrote, “The streets were dark with something more than night.”

There are some things that movies and music can pull out of you. Things deeply embedded – what you grew up with – songs you listened to and fell for after digging through your parent’s LPs. Stories you heard, movies and TV you loved or were baffled by or haunted by, whether you lived with them at the time or found them later: they are imprinted in your brain, and flow out of you at unexpected moments – making you reflective or happy or freaked out or yearning. And it’s not just nostalgia – it’s something else. It’s wistful, at times, but also not something you’d necessarily want to return to. It’s too complicated and thorny. I don’t know what the word is – or even if a word in English exists for it…

And then, there’s the beauty of light and night. And the danger there too – danger that sometimes felt interwoven in those songs and TV and movies – mythic but real in your imagination. Emotionally honest to you – which can feel as real as a lived memory.

In Once Upon a Time, moments feel beautiful and happy and funny and disturbing and cathartic and sorrowful. And they make you yearn for … what? Not just a happy ending but something that’s hard to articulate. The Mamas and the Papas sing something akin to this, written by a rather ominous figure, the “Wolf King of L.A.,” John Phillips: “To feel these changes happening in me, but not to notice till I feel it…”

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So, a moment that night in August, 1969, Once Upon a Time … Jay Sebring smiles at Sharon Tate. He places the needle on the record in her room – the Paul Revere and the Raiders album she was listening to earlier that year (and sweetly mocking Jay for dancing to: “Are you afraid I’m going to tell Jim Morrison you were dancing to Paul Revere and the Raiders? What? Are they not cool enough for you?”) is on display. But it’s not Paul Revere and the Raiders Jay puts on – it’s The Mamas and the Papas’ “Twelve Thirty (Young Girls Are Coming to the Canyon).” It’s a night of The Mamas and the Papas, it seems, as their good friend and houseguest Abigail Folger had just played the piano and sang “Straight Shooter” to her friends – a lovely little moment: “Don’t get me mad, don’t tell no lie. Don’t make me sad, don’t pass me by. Baby are you holding, holding anything but me? Because I’m a real straight shooter, if you know what I mean.”

Jay looks at Sharon – a moment – a quick moment – and we don’t see Tate smile back or look pleased or sad or overheated (as we saw her before) on one of the hottest days of the year (Tarantino poignantly keeps Sharon off screen from now on and until the last shot of the film. A subtle but powerful decision).

But we see Sebring look at her, lovingly, he looks like he feels this is the perfect song to play for Sharon, which is mysterious, perhaps, but it’s such a beautiful song. So pro Los Angeles. So wanting to be trusting. And, yet, so doleful and sung in a minor key and … is this really a happy song?  We feel that care and sweetness as the song he chose begins playing. The lush harmonies of John Phillips, Cass Elliot, Michelle Phillips and Denny Doherty: “I used to live in New York City. Everything there was dark and dirty. Outside my window was a steeple. With a clock that always said twelve thirty…”

And then, from Jay looking at Sharon, we cut to stuntman Cliff Booth walking his beloved Brandy, his female pit bull, a languorous walk while he’s trying an acid-laced cigarette for the first time. He’s wearing white jeans and white jean jacket, it glows in the night as he strolls Cielo Drive, up in the hills of Los Angeles. It’s a gorgeous shot, man and dog on the road, and we wonder how Cliff will handle that drug trip and then we see … that car. That old busted up loud car passing him – heading in the opposite direction – with Tex Watson, Susan Atkins, Linda Kasabian, and Patricia Krenwinkel chugging up Cielo. The volume of the song hauntingly rising: “Young girls are coming to the canyon. And in the mornings, I can see them walking. I can no longer keep my blinds drawn. And I can’t keep myself from talking.”

It’s such a powerful sequence that it goes beyond its own history and burrows into my soul and gives me chills. It’s also, on Tarantino’s part, a moment of brilliance and a tremendously skilled choice – it visually and narratively bisects reality, sending us into the veritable “Once upon a time…” and you feel it. We are now heading into “What could’ve been…”

It was upon reflecting after the movie, when that scene continued to haunt me, that I understood and pieced together technically, how powerful Tarantino’s cinematic phrasing was (and Robert Richardson’s cinematography). And then what follows… Tarantino could have done numerous things after Watson, Atkins, Krenwinkel and Kasabian (played by Austin Butler, Mikey Madison, Madisen Beaty and Maya Hawke) drive to that street – he could’ve intercut the two homes, thus diminishing and making the whole third act pejorative, or he could’ve “thwarted” the Tate home invasion halfway – but what he does is so intelligent, so precise, so well thought out, that it’s no surprise audiences respond so strongly – and not just for the reasons one might initially think.

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That man, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), out walking Brandy, is a long-time stunt double and best friend to actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) – and he’s hanging out at his buddy’s house for a sort of farewell, for a “good old fashioned drunk.” But more on that later. These two are not as “in” with Hollywood as they used to be, but they have a camaraderie that feels very Hollywood, very mythic and old-school-cool – and Pitt and DiCaprio are such charismatic movie stars you feel like you’re watching a new kind of Newman and Redford on screen. The moment you even see their shoes emerge from Rick’s car -cigarettes spilling on the pavement – you see Rick’s boots and Cliff’s moccasins – it feels instantly iconic. And then they walk into Musso & Frank – Cliff in his denim, Rick in his brown leather jacket – it’s just a pleasure to see these faces together. And as the picture moves along, their close friendship will become immensely touching.

Rick lives on Cielo Drive – up in those beautiful winding roads – and he’s a proud “solid Los Angeles citizen” – a homeowner – something “Eddie O’ Brien” advised him about – to always own. Rick’s a famous actor – most famous for his starring role as Jake Cahill on the western show “Bounty Law” – a sort of variation of the “Wanted: Dead or Alive” western that starred Steve McQueen. But McQueen’s star ascended – Rick’s did not – and he’s now feeling miserable for himself – all those guest spots on TV shows playing villains, feeling less in demand, feeling, as he movingly sobs while reading and describing a western novel to the talented child actor on set, about a character named Easy Breezy, “a little more useless.”

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In Tarantino’s movie, Rick’s new neighbors are a recently married couple, but not just any couple – Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) and Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha) – a beautiful young actress, her future unfolding before her, and the wunderkind director of Rosemary’s Baby – one of the hottest new filmmakers around. After Rick gets teary-emotional in the parking lot of Musso & Frank (“Let’s face it, I’m a has-been old buddy,” he says to Cliff) – after a confidence shaking meeting with Al Pacino’s character, agent Marvin Schwarz, who upsets him into a near breakdown, Cliff drives Rick (Rick, an alcoholic, has too many DUIs to drive himself) in his big Cadillac to his house while Rick throws a fit in the car. We hear a report of Sirhan Sirhan on the news in the car radio and the Vietnam War and here’s Rick – kicking the seats and cursing hippies (the new blood – the new Hollywood competition). There are larger problems out there and Rick is having a tantrum over his career – I think this is intentional –  a bit like the way Hal Ashby’s characters (scripted by Robert Towne and Warren Beatty) in Shampoo wander around Los Angeles during the day of the election, 1968, news all around them, worrying about themselves (though Shampoo is directly dealing with the election night). A character, partly inspired by Jay Sebring via hair stylist George (the character was based on different people), played by Beatty, wants to open up a hair salon. Shampoo (released in 1975) was also a period piece, and it also felt a dread descending … As I wrote in my New Beverly piece on Shampoo:

“… the world was already dark under all of that California sunshine, and bleaker because of all that sun – you can’t possibly live up to the Los Angeles dream because it is a dream. So, when George wants to marry Jackie at the end (who knows if it would ever work out? But it’s a genuinely heartfelt, romantic proclamation. And that’s something), it’s heartbreaking:

George: I’m a fuck-up, but I’ll take care of you. I’ll make you happy. What do you think?

Jackie: It’s too late.

George: We’re not dead yet. That’s the only thing that’s too late…”

So what are the dreams of these characters? Can one, namely Rick, just appreciate how far he’s gotten already? No. There needs to be more. And that’s not to criticize Rick – it’s part of what makes him tick, probably part of why he’s a good actor, he does want to do better, to do more. But it’s seriously fucking up his moods to the point of self-destruction. But when Cliff and Rick pull up to Rick’s house – Rick spies his neighbors in their vintage MG convertible – it’s Tate and Polanski. It’s the first time he’s actually seen them and he suddenly feels hopeful. He’s possibly “one pool party away” from a better role, a better future. The cheerful mood doesn’t last too long – Rick clearly has more problems beyond his career – chiefly a drinking problem and a likely mood disorder. But he seems slightly OK for that night, drinking and floating in his pool and learning his lines, preparing for the next day, while his neighbors speed off to the Playboy Mansion, Sharon happily (and charmingly) meeting up with friends, including Michelle Phillips (Rebecca Rittenhouse) and Mama Cass (Rachel Redleaf) to dance together.

It is here that Steve McQueen (Damian Lewis) breaks down the relationship between Jay Sebring (Emile Hirsch) – whom she also partners up with at the Mansion – while watching Sharon dance, Polanski and Sebring boogieing nearby. McQueen, talking to Connie Stevens (Dreama Walker) gossips that Jay, an ex of Sharon, who has remained close to her (so close that Polanski has accepted their friendship and is also friends with Jay) and is just waiting for Roman to fuck up – and when he does, Jay’s going to be there for Sharon. When Stevens responds that Sharon sure has a type – something like short talented men who look like 12-year-old boys – Steve opines, “Yeah, I never stood a chance.”

It’s an amusing moment, watching McQueen lament about not getting the girl, but it’s also another smart choice on Tarantino’s part. People were gossiping about Sharon and Roman and Jay, and had Tarantino put obvious words in Sharon or Jay’s mouths, he would have possibly cheapened that touching bond. It could have read insulting. Instead, the actors show it – hanging out at the house together listening to records, Jay checking on Sharon, saying domestic terms of endearment to one another like “honey,” the way Jay answers the door when Charles Manson (Damon Herriman) drops by (not knowing who the hell he is but wanting him out regardless – “Who’s this shaggy asshole?”). Another astute decision – to barely show Manson. As good as the actor Herriman is, people leaving the theater are not going to be lingering on Manson so much (who has been talking forever – he died in 2017 and he still seems like he’s talking), they’ll remember and feel the darkness he wrought, but they’ll be remembering or be thinking about or discovering Sharon Tate a lot more. The real-life victim is no longer defined as just a victim.

When Manson drops by, that’s the same day Cliff, a war veteran, not getting work as a stuntman anymore, not because he’s not able (as he leaps up to the roof, you can see he’s certainly agile) but because of his mysterious past (he may or may not have killed his wife and gotten away with it – we never find out). As amiable as he is, some people don’t “dig” the vibe he brings on set – and as we see in flashback, he was fired from “The Green Hornet” doubling for Rick, and tussling too hard with the great Bruce Lee (an excellent Mike Moh). This moment and the on-screen depiction of Lee has been discussed with some understandable controversy, but it shows that Cliff is an incredibly skillful fighter (though there really is no victor at the end – it’s cut short by Zoë Bell’s Janet) and that he also plays a bit dirty in this moment – he chucks Bruce Lee into a car – he deserves to be thrown off set for that. “Fair enough” Cliff mutters to himself over the memory. He’d like more stunt work than he’s getting, but he’s right now more of a gofer, and is up on Rick’s roof, fixing the antenna. It’s essentially day two of the movie as the film is split into three days-in-the-life, with flashbacks of Cliff’s past and Rick’s career sojourn to Italy to make spaghetti westerns – but the picture, moving along with its characters being very human – follows Rick, Cliff and Sharon during those days.

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We’ve already seen Rick’s previous night – gorgeously speeding his blue Karmann Ghia through Hollywood and beyond, the AM radio blasting various songs (Tarantino uses the real radio station KHJ, and the DJs and advertisements almost like a kind of narrator – everyone has the station blasting from their cars) including The Bob Seger System’s “Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Man” as Cliff takes the Exit 68/ Panorama City, and ends up in his trailer with an oil rig out front (homage to Jacques Demy’s great Model Shop?) I felt Model Shop quite a bit in this movie – the walking around Los Angeles, and especially all of the driving – something that’s so integral to LA, not just by getting from one place to another, but in how we connect – friends, couples, driving solo, picking up hitchhikers – and Tarantino’s fondness for Los Angeles, as Gary Lockwood’s character feels as well (and Jacques Demy). The driving also reminded me of Maria in Joan Didion’s Los Angeles-based Play It as It Lays, Maria who is always driving, even imagines driving:

She had only the faintest ugly memory of what had brought BZ and Helene together, and to erase it from her mind she fixed her imagination on a needle dripping sodium pentathol into her arm and began counting backward from one hundred. When that failed, she imagined herself driving, conceived audacious lane changes, strategic shifts of gear, the Hollywood to the San Bernardino and straight on out, past Barstow, past Baker, driving straight on into the hard white empty core of the world. She slept and did not dream.”

Cliff lives right next to the Van Nuys Drive-In (we take in a beautiful shot floating over the cowboy mural-sign and to the automobiles watching the movie) and we see, on the marquee, a double feature of Lady in Cement and Pretty Poison (starring Tuesday Weld, star of Frank Perry’s adaptation of Play It as It Lays – also, naturally, a movie with lots of driving). And, again, we see cars, all those cars – another way of looking – out of our windshields – cars in Hollywood and Los Angeles and driving – they are almost extensions of our own bodies. Avatars of our status and of ourselves. And Cliff, when not working for Rick, drives around a lot – in his car and in Rick’s car.

It’s moving to see Cliff’s austere life compared to Rick’s – feeding Brandy her Wolf’s Tooth dog food (and getting some foreshadowing about how well trained she is – “click click”), making some mac n’ cheese and settling down to watch “Mannix.” The drive-in movie is blaring outside, Robert Goulet is on TV singing “MacArthur Park” when Cliff walks in (entertainment for Brandy while Cliff is out? Or a lonelier existence?)

Cliff may not be as much a part of Hollywood as he used to be, he may live in Van Nuys, but music and storytelling are still all around him, even in his humble dwelling – you can hear the movies as he parks his car out front. You notice his albums. His food is off-the shelf, his comic books are not well-known titles, his Anne Francis poster was maybe a magazine pullout, and he’s got TV Guides lying around (and a gun) … The cliché would be to make well-trained Cliff’s place sparse or perfectly ordered in its simplicity – but he’s something of a slob – which manages to humanize and even deepen him even more. Cliff would like to (as he does) warmly greet Brandy, hang out, and watch TV. Relax. But, then, thinking of Cliff getting older and doing the same seems a bit sad. Is he truly satisfied with this life? We don’t know – making him more compelling. But as we see him here – he’s this mac ‘n cheese fueled killing machine. And he likes to watch “Mannix.”

Cliff is a likable character – Pitt plays him effortlessly cool and, in many ways, admirable. But Pitt (making it look all so easy – it’s not) also gives Cliff enough shading to sense something more damaged and darker going on under that agreeable exterior. His austere way of living is perhaps a way to contain something combustible. As Tarantino told me in my Sight & Sound interview with him, “[Cliff] knows how dangerous he is, so he’s clamping down on the monster that’s inside of him and he’s actually quite Zen about the whole thing. But that monster is always there.” You feel that – ever so subtly.

So back to Cliff on the roof, taking off his shirt, revealing his scars (and what great shape he’s in), and while up there, noticing Sharon listening to music from her bedroom window and, then, that “shaggy asshole” driving up the road in a Twinkies truck (which Manson really did drive – there’s something both disturbing and poisonously perfect watching Manson emerge from a truck promising many a kid’s favorite snack cake/junk food). Cliff watches for a moment, but keeps on working. He’s not a snoop, and he’s got a task to accomplish.

Sharon may have started her day with a creepy visitor, but the rest of that day is a joyful one (beautifully realized by Robbie). And this is one reason why the “day in the life” interlude with her is so moving and special: Tuned to Buffy Sainte-Marie’s beautiful rendition of Joni Mitchell’s “The Circle Game” (“Yesterday a child came out to wonder. Caught a dragonfly inside a jar. Fearful when the sky was full of thunder. And tearful at the falling of a star…”  the lyrics actually make me teary thinking about Robbie’s Sharon dreamily driving, and I now associate this song with Sharon Tate), we follow her as she enjoys driving, picks up a hitchhiker (Sharon has no issue with hippies, it seems), laughs with her and hugs her goodbye, wishing her luck. Without dialogue you see these two women connecting and they just seem so… free.

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And then Sharon goes about her day, happily. Tarantino doesn’t show her hustling, networking or at Bel-Air brunches, she’s not even meeting a friend, she’s just relaxing on a day with herself. Walking around Westwood Village, she drops into a bookshop (Clu Gulager assisting her) to pick up a first edition of “Tess of the D’Urbervilles,” a book she has already read and is gifting to Polanski (in real life Tate did love Thomas Hardy’s novel and told Polanski to read it – and that she thought it would make a great movie – and of course he did make Tess, dedicating it to Sharon). And then after passing by a theater a few times – she decides to drop in on her own movie, The Wrecking Crew, starring Dean Martin, showing at the Bruin. Throughout the movie you feel people are looking at Tate, talking about her, but here she is watching herself (and no one in the dark of the theater sees her – she even explains to the theater employees she’s one of the stars when they don’t recognize her), and she movingly enjoys the audience's reactions to her comic performance. It all seems so casual, this drop-in, and she knows this is a goofy comedy (but Sharon Tate in interviews said she wanted to do more comedies – and she received some nice notices from her performance in The Wrecking Crew) and probably a nice memory. While watching, she has a sweet flashback of training with Bruce Lee – and in the theater, she re-enacts them a little, proud of her moves. Making this scene even more poignant is Tarantino respecting Tate’s memory by showing the actual Sharon Tate scenes on screen – and we see what a charming comedic actress she was (she had more range than given credit for – I also find her supremely touching in Valley of the Dolls). It’s a lovely, blissful moment, and, in this, we have already forgotten about the visitor earlier that day.

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We see the various days of all three characters – we hang out with them, we watch them work, experience their demons, we watch them walk, we watch them drive around. And the driving, again, is so beautiful – Tarantino’s period detail is perfection, a time machine that makes us swoon a little. It’s hard not too if you want to go see The Night They Raided Minsky’s right on Hollywood Blvd. or Pretty Poison at the Drive-In – this isn’t simple nostalgia, this is just … I would like to see those movies on the big screen, and it’s exciting when we can. (A great case for revival houses and Tarantino’s theater itself, the New Beverly, which gets a nod as the “dirty movie theater” down the street from El Coyote).

On this day, we watch Rick work on a western TV show while Cliff enters into something of a real western – Spahn Ranch. Rick is dropped off on set by Cliff to film an episode of “Lancer,” directed by Sam Wanamaker (a terrific Nicholas Hammond), and Rick, hungover, looking worse for wear, hacks and spits towards his makeup trailer, already showing insecurity and worry about how he’s going to do.

It is here he meets the talented Trudi (a tremendous Julia Butters) who is reading a biography on Walt Disney. As writer Dan Leo pointed out, Tarantino likes to see characters in his movies reading. Here, it’s Trudi fascinated by her Disney bio, Tate buying a copy of Thomas Hardy’s “Tess,” Abigail Folger (Samantha Robinson) reading (what I recall seeing)  “Madame Bovary,” and Rick reading the western story about Easy Breezy – getting choked up over how much Easy Breezy’s life is resembling his own.

In the course of the shooting day, Rick, decked out with a big mustache (“Zapata!”) and a fringed jacket (to look more hippie-ish – but as Wanamaker reassures more of a Hells Angels type hippie (“Vroom! Vroom!”), acting opposite James Stacy (Timothy Olyphant), Rick will succumb twice to his hazy memory, forgetting some lines and breaking down because of it. When Rick blows a gasket in his trailer, hollering at himself for being an embarrassment, an alcoholic, a loser, making fun of his own stutter (DiCaprio creates a slight stutter as Rick Dalton and it comes out in nervous moments, however, never when he’s acting – it’s subtle and beautifully played by DiCaprio, and like Pitt making it look easy, this isn’t easy to do either) – this scene is extraordinary (DiCaprio’s entire day on the set is some of the actor’s greatest work ever on screen). And, knowing a bit of the backstory about how DiCaprio came to that character – scarily sad. When DiCaprio threatens to himself, in the mirror, that he’ll blow his brains out, he’s not entirely expressing just a bout of self-pitying melodrama. As Tarantino told me in our Sight & Sound interview, some of this character was inspired by Pete Duel from “Alias Smith and Jones” (a favorite show for young Tarantino and Brad Pitt, back in the day), an actor, who, in 1971, shot himself, dead.

But Rick does overcome his trailer breakdown with true craft and emotional commitment – he uses his anger, his self-hatred, his dangerous mood-swing and he fuels it into menace. Delivering a threatening scene with Trudi (and featuring a terrific Luke Perry playing the character Wayne Maunder), Rick earns the significant praise of not just Sam Wanamaker (“Give me evil sexy Hamlet”!), but also Trudi. Rick is impressed by Trudi, a formidable and intense new breed of actor (she prefers to be called actor instead of actress and doesn’t like cutesy terms like “pumpkin-puss”), she’s focused but sensitive, and after watching him deliver this stellar scene, she deems his craft “the best” she’s ever seen.

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Rick, all bloodshot-blue-eyed and worn-looking but still handsome as hell, tears up to her whispered declaration in a moving closeup. He is a talented actor – so what if he’s guesting on TV – and I love that Tarantino reveals how much Rick still has to offer – and the kind of incredible performance you could very well catch on a TV show back in the day, or in re-runs or syndication as a kid – and never forget. It’s also important that Trudi, the up and comer, validates him, the past. Trudi, much like Sharon Tate, represents the promise of renewal and faith – the future – what is to come. The surprise over Trudi but, then, warmth and respect coming from Rick towards her is another lovely addition to this incredibly complex, layered film.

But Rick is still guesting on TV and Tarantino shows the Hollywood divide between TV and movie royalty. Not that there should be necessarily – but that there is, or was. The Polanskis may be next door to Rick, and Rick hopes they’ll meet, but he seems almost intimidated by his neighbors. After all, he’s doing villain spots on TV now  – and though he’s an old pro, and he was a star with “Bounty Law” (which people do remember, even, and not surprisingly, Tex Watson, who gleefully talks about his childhood “Bounty Law” lunchbox in one creepy star-struck scene) – it’s a big deal to be in people’s living rooms every night – critical snobbery or no snobbery, you’ve made an impact.

But Rick’s not feeling confident. He feels left out, washed up – passé… Which is why I think, in part, Rick is hollering about hippies. The counterculture represents the changing business, one he’s not feeling a part of – even if he thinks he may not want to be a part of it (the counterculture anyway), it bothers him. When Tex Watson and crew loudly drive up to his house, Rick, whipping up margaritas while Cliff is out walking Brandy (DiCaprio is hilarious here – stumbling in his robe, swilling from his margarita pitcher, muttering to himself “property taxes up the butt!”), peeks out of the blinds and exclaims, pissed, “It’s a bunch of goddamn fucking hippies.” (This moment cracks me up every time) When he comes out to yell at them about their shitty car and muffler and that this is a private road and they need to back it, Rick hollers at Tex “Hey! Dennis Hopper!” Easy Rider probably wasn’t Rick’s cup of tea (or whiskey sour) … but then, he’s probably been re-thinking this kind of thing, furious, because Easy Rider was a game-changer.

Tarantino underlines the gulf between the Polanskis and Rick in several ways – visually he does it with a beautiful crane move (a kind of god’s point of view that is peppered throughout the film almost as a visual commentary) that goes from Rick, floating in his pool, alone, memorizing his lines for “Lancer” and over the rooftop and hedges and all the way to the Polanski’s driveway as they prepare to leave for the crowded scene of stars and luxury at the Playboy Mansion.

Tarantino then reaffirms this divide via the Pacino meeting, which is essentially a reprimand to Rick for having precipitated his “downfall” of sorts. Movies are movies – even if the movie is an Italian western (which, factually was a successful, but frowned-upon, subgenre – absurd that it was looked down on when you see the innovation and beauty and craft in so many – chiefly Sergio Leone). Tarantino shows, however, how omnipresent TV is – at the Spahn Ranch, at the bar frequented by Pacino, greeting Cliff at home, on at Rick’s household when Cliff and Rick watch his “The F.B.I.” episode (also a sweet moment – at least Rick’s still got a sense of humor and a sense of pride in his work – Cliff, best buddy that he is, is there to cheer him up and cheer him on). Voytek Frykowski (Costa Ronin) watches a late show – and thinks how much better American TV is than Polish TV.

The showtimes of most any popular program existed in the vernacular: everybody knew when everything was “on” and they ruled their days, dinners and mornings by it. Even the Manson Family (minus Charlie), you see them sprawled out watching TV while Charlie is out, and that Squeaky and George Spahn have their planned TV watching time together. Squeaky doesn’t like it when George falls asleep.

And speaking of George Spahn – of particular interest on this second day-in-the-life is Cliff’s excursion to Spahn Ranch. Cliff, who unlike Rick, doesn’t seem to be too bent out of shape about hippies, in general (Cliff kind of lives closer to something like that, or at least a beach bum kind of life – his trailer, crashing at Rick’s house when he’s away, and probably sleeping on his couch a few nights when they’ve had too much to drink. Cliff is also curious about that acid cigarette he bought off the hippie girl. Rick is not. His “booze don’t need no buddy”). Cliff picks up Pussycat (Margaret Qualley) a young hippie woman he has crossed paths with and admired before (from his car – always his car). There is a clear attraction but even when he agrees to drive her out of town, Cliff turns down her sexual advance. This young woman is clearly a minor, and we get that Cliff has some sense of decency (Pussycat even seems taken aback by it – the fact that he even asked her age is a shock to her – no one else does – as in other dudes who pick her up and take advantage). But, also, Cliff doesn’t want to go to jail for “poontang” – so this is a mixture of morals and jailhouse wisdom.

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Upon arrival at the Spahn Ranch (more echoes of the ruinous past) where he often shot “Bounty Law” with Rick – his worry is not for his own safety, even in light of the many spectral signs and omens – all of these creepy Manson-hippies (these don’t appear to be peace-loving hippies, but those who, with this family and their leader, will, later, make others paranoid, unfairly of nice, peace-loving hippies). He is concerned for the well-being of old George Spahn (Bruce Dern, taking over for his friend,  Burt Reynolds, who sadly, passed away before shooting begun), whom, after getting a terrible vibe off this place, he’s now definitely going to check on. This place does not look right.

Cliff is now in a real-life Western (the shots of Tex riding his horse to check out Cliff are gorgeous – but it’s Tex Watson, so here comes the proverbial black hat…) Cliff walks down the main street, heading towards the dilapidated cabin like a Hawaiian-shirted Gary Cooper and goes into the lair of the wolf. The ensuing scene between him and Squeaky Fromme (Dakota Fanning) is remarkably tense and precisely laid out and staged, Fanning radiating unblinking menace in a stare down (she’s incredible here). It’s a face-off with Cliff and all that divides them is a flimsy door with a mosquito screen and a flimsy hook-lock. But, make no mistake, it’s a Rubicon for Cliff. And a beautiful way to show how principled he is. Whatever his ethos may be – he gains access into the cabin – and walks through that terrifying messy little house, observing a rat caught in a glue trap and Squeaky watching TV – there’s calm to Cliff but a palpable horror present. This scene is one of Tarantino’s best suspense set-pieces ever because so much is implied and so many tenuous lines are almost crossed. We can sense the menace that lies under the chirpy smiles of Pussycat and the sunbathed hills of yore.

It also sets up what will come later – when Cliff remembers Tex, and is diminishing him (“You were riding a horsey!” Cliff, high as a kite, chides). When Cliff is trying to recall his name, Tex says, gun pointed at Cliff, “I’m the devil and I’m here to do the devil’s business.” To which Cliff says, hilariously, “Nah, it was something dumber than that…” Watching Brad Pitt as Cliff Booth make fun of Tex Watson as a stupid clown, well it’s pretty damn satisfying.

But, again, that comes later. When Cliff leaves the ranch, and then goes to pick up Rick after his day on “Lancer,” and Sharon leaves the Bruin after watching “The Wrecking Crew” – we hear Jose Feliciano’s poignant version of “California Dreamin’” and we feel something so bittersweet and almost indefinable – a day winding down. We even see James Stacy leave the set on his motorcycle and, knowing what happened to Stacy a few years later, you feel a pang of sadness. We know something is coming in the next act… we don’t know what that will be. And even if we’ve seen the movie more than once and do know what’s coming, we still feel this portent of something – both gentle and heartbreaking.

A brief interlude is dedicated to Rick and Cliff in Italy – this the prelude to the darkness descending in the third act. From frame one, Tarantino and his production team, have managed to create some of the most convincing reproductions of the period cinema and TV. Everything in the Hollywood moments of the picture looks authentic and sounds authentic and feels spot-on: the lines, the haircuts, the fabrics, the movie posters, the billboards, the interiors, re-creating the streets as they were – but also in the Italian interlude, the promotional materials, the editing, cinematography and staging of the scenes is absolutely immaculate: the choice of lenses, the pushing of the film material, the editing patterns. This interlude – importantly – provides only temporary relief for Rick (new haircut, 15 pounds heavier) and returns him home to resume life, again, not as successful as he’d like to be. He’s now married to a beautiful Italian actress Francesca Capucci (a memorable Lorenza Izzo), but he’s overspent and needs to buy a condo in Toluca Lake. And… sigh… he can’t afford Cliff anymore – signaling the end of Rick and Cliff’s partnership. They are both uncertain of the future.

And now we get to the fork in the road… the night starting on August 8, 1969 and going into early morning of the 9th. It is at this point, that the audience is expertly guided into the fairy tale, in which we see Cliff (the ablest character to confront the “family”) walking down with Brandy as the car rolls uphill, muffler rumbling. Those in the car encounter margarita-swilling Rick, back up their car, drive down Cielo Drive and then… walk back up (a scared Kasabian taking off in the car, which she never did). But they don’t walk up to Tate’s house, they walk up to Rick Dalton’s. To, in a way, Jake Cahill’s.

At this point, Tarantino makes another significant decision: As we’ve seen – Cliff rarely makes sudden moves – he waits – he waits in the car, waits in the golf cart, sits on the hood of a car, waits for the Manson member, Clem (James Landry Hébert) to change his tire (after Clem slashes it and Cliff bloodies his face – then, Cliff certainly moves) etc. So, when Cliff moves, if he moves, he makes it count. He seems to live by this rule so strongly, that he instructs Brandy not to move and not to whine. The dog being almost an extension of himself (“click click”). Cliff’s affable and he loves hanging with his best buddy Rick Dalton, helping Rick – a friendship, a brotherhood that’s almost like a marriage – but there’s something deeper and darker about Cliff that Pitt gives us in glimpses – there’s something even about his stillness that connotes both ease and anger – and Pitt presents this so skillfully, it’s truly something to behold.

And then … the would-be killers break in, perfectly and scarily synched to Vanilla Fudge’s psychedelic, hard-edged version of “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” (Cliff’s song of choice while high). It’s baffling, even amusingly unreal to Cliff at first (Tex says to him, “I’m as real as a donut, motherfucker”). Once Cliff recognizes that the threat is real (no matter how much he makes fun of them), his violence is unleashed in the much-discussed (and brilliant) final confrontation/set piece. Powerful in this moment is how the picture leads towards this peak (all the way through – expertly orchestrated by Tarantino and editor Fred Raskin) – and yet we’re still knocked out, surprised, even, not at all knowing how this showdown is going to play out. The crisscrossing of destinies, the varying fortunes of careers and the bond of friendship form an inexorable knot – one that underlines how quickly, how irreversibly destinies can be altered within a matter of minutes. And then the “click, click” to Brandy. Another powerful element is tonal (and this shocks and offends some people). To me, the tone of the violence, has to be this fevered, this fantastical, this “high.” Yes, Cliff smoking that laced cigarette has some bearing on this (there’s also some discussion out there about that cigarette. One thought – that Cliff thinks it’s LSD but is, instead, DMT or PCP, which would be more intense. In this universe, it would not be a stretch that Cliff just calls all hallucinatory drugs acid) but even without the drug high, the violence itself is almost hallucinatory.

The overzealous dispatching of the one member of the family that actually stabbed him (a knife Cliff, presumably – and this is how I saw it – can’t pull out of his side or he might bleed to death – did she hit an artery?) shows that he’s efficient, and yes, full of accumulated rage. Again, as Tarantino said of Cliff “that monster is always there.” Well, here is the monster. And putting aside the over-the-top insanity of this sequence, in “realistic” terms – this may be how a stunt man (Cliff anyway, I am not saying all), a rumored wife murderer (we don’t know for sure if he did it – but he’s considered dangerous), who has previously escaped a chain gang (he says so when first meeting Tex, though he could be, as one reader thinks, talking about stunt work in movies or TV. I didn’t hear it that way and thought this more mysterious Cliff lore, so, print the legend), a guy who has seen combat, and a guy who realizes this violent trio are probably taking advantage of his old friend, George Spahn, and who are now in Rick’s house, intent to murder Cliff, Rick and a terrified Francesca (who gets a punch in) – again, this may be how he’d handle such an invasion. He’d for sure take them all on.

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It’s a vicious, outlandish murderous takedown. That is for damn sure. But for the final “Once upon a time…” to truly stick its landing, anything more “realistic” would be not only insufficient but a betrayal – a trade of “factual violence” for “factual violence” – and that would feel cheap. What you are given instead is insane and huge and involves an actual flame thrower via Rick. It’s cathartic – (think of the spectacle of violence in something like the far bloodier Titus Andronicus) – particularly when we think of what happened in real life to the Tate household next door – even if Cliff doesn’t know that was the original intent, and the killers, in Tarantino’s revision, change course. And with catharsis, in this fairy tale, in this dream, the collective Wicked Witch (all three here – Watson, Atkins and Krenwinkel) will melt with almost surreal extravagance. But, in that movie, Dorothy will wake up at the end.

But the Once Upon a Time characters don’t wake up from that cathartic dream after the violence, and that is what makes the ending so heartbreakingly moving. Police and emergency vehicles now gone, (Cliff carried away in the ambulance “and awwaay we go,” a la Jackie Gleason; Rick knocking on the window and saying lovingly: “You’re a good friend” and Cliff replying with a supremely cool and moving: “I try”), Jay Sebring calls out to Rick from his gate (a wonderful moment between the actors). Everyone in the Tate household has lived, everyone sent to slay them dies. And those gates – the one that “shaggy asshole” managed to walk through while open earlier that year – appear like some kind of doorway to paradise on that now finally quiet night. The gates of the future seem to open for Rick, the has-been. Sharon is heard on the intercom, a sort of voice coming from heaven – and she opens the gates.

Then we hear the lilting, melancholic, dreamy (and very appropriate) notes of Maurice Jarre’s “Miss Lily Langtry” music from John Huston’s “The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean” and Rick walks through. It is so powerful – it’s hard to describe – as I cited earlier it goes beyond anything obvious here. This may be one of the most moving scenes Tarantino has ever filmed. No, to me, right now, it is the most moving scene he’s ever filmed – and his most poignant, personal movie. A love letter to Hollywood, both real and mythic, and an ode to what could have been, and yet, not simple nostalgia. I don’t think Tarantino is simply trying to “save” us from the darkness that ended the 1960s.

We know it’s a dream – that final god’s view crane that defined their divide, now shows Rick crossing through the gates, everyone greeting him excitedly – we know that never happened.

Extreme violence was shown preceding this ending, but it didn’t flatten anything for me; it didn’t take me out of the movie. Instead, I felt in a dream, and yet I knew it was a dream. Knowing once the lights went up, I’d, in a sense, awaken. This fantasia, seeing all of the living in that overhead shot, I did not feel de-sensitized, I felt re-sensitized. Growing up hearing about these murders my whole life, seeing that “shaggy asshole” on TV talking too many times – I was always sad when I’d read or hear about the victims, see pictures or footage or films of them, but this time, I was besides myself. Once Upon a Time… in one movie… these people lived. And then the song ends. I know it’s a song, but losing yourself in music – it’s one of the great pleasures of life, even if it makes you cry, even if you know some songs aren’t always the way real life goes. But the feelings sure are real, and that yearning sure is real. This is a Tarantino masterpiece. So I want to take that needle, place it on the vinyl, and play that epic song once again.

Originally published at the New Beverly.

 


Criminal: Rumble Fish

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Hours are like diamonds, don't let them waste

Time waits for no one; no favors has he

Time waits for no one, and he won't wait for me – The Rolling Stones

Time. Once you hit the teen mark in life – what a beautiful horrible time that is. Dreamy and crazy and banal and violent – in action or in mind – melodramatic and real and hormonally addled. In the case of Rusty James – sometimes not so smart, but oftentimes intensely poetic – in movement, in words, in the way you look at your surroundings – be it your drunken dad’s apartment, your girlfriend’s intelligent beautiful face, your older brother’s odd, sad, sleepwalking swagger, and listening to that older brother even if you don’t understand half of what he says. And then there’s those brightly colored rumble fish in the pet store… they need to be free. And they have very little time.

Francis Ford Coppola’s Rumble Fish presents and ponders these dreamlike feelings of teen-hood as an expressionistic mood piece – a reverie that feels of this world and out of this world but so rooted in an emotional truth that the picture, at times, feels Shakespearean.

The start of my piece on Francis Ford Coppola's masterful, beautiful "Rumble Fish" -- in Ed Brubaker's next Criminal -- read the rest in the newest issue --  look for it today.


Sight & Sound: My Talk With Tarantino

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Out now! The Newest Sight & Sound with my interview with Quentin Tarantino. Quentin and I dig into a lot. You do not know just how thrilled I was about our Ralph Meeker discussion and DiCaprio’s discovery of him, among other things...

"Across an effusive nine-page interview with Kim Morgan, Tarantino unpacks the alternative history he invented for his star creation, shares the deep-Hollywood tales he gleaned from Bruce Dern and the late Burt Reynolds, and explains how both DiCaprio’s discovery of Ralph Meeker and Brad Pitt’s father’s love of TV westerns fed into DiCaprio’s characterization."

Buy a digital copy or look for on US newsstands....


Ten with Tarantino: Once Upon a Time ...

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Excited to announce this film series --  starting tonight

In anticipation of Quentin Tarantino's Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood, Quentin curated ten films from the Columbia Pictures library -- the dates ranging from 1958-1970. Ten films that influenced his masterful movie. I've joined Quentin to dig in and discuss these fascinating movies (our conversations all shot at the fabulous New Beverly Theater) so please, do yourself a favor, and check out these pictures.

Watch on the Sony Movie Channel from July 21-25 -- the series airs five nights, in more than 80 territories worldwide. There's also some sneak peek scenes from Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, opening this Friday, July 26.

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Here's the list of movies:

Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969; director: Paul Mazursky)

Cactus Flower (1969; director: Gene Saks)

Easy Rider (1969; director: Dennis Hopper)

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Model Shop (1969; director: Jacques Demy)

Battle of the Coral Sea (1959; director: Paul Wendkos)

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Getting Straight (1970; director: Richard Rush)

The Wrecking Crew (1968; director: Phil Karlson) Hammerhead (1968; director: David Miller)

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Gunman’s Walk (1958; director: Phil Karlson)

Arizona Raiders (1965; director: William Witney)

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Be there or be square!


Rip & Tuesday: Farewell, Rip Torn

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Farewell to a goddamn original, baby. Rip Torn, whose career lasted from the 1950s and into the 2000's has left us and there are many roles I want to write about -- Payday, Maidstone,  Sweet Bird of Youth, Coming Apart, Cross Creek, The Man Who Fell to Earth... and so much more, but here's one I love of early Rip Torn -- on the early 60s TV show Naked City. He tore up the small screen here... He was one of my favorites. Won't be another one like him ever again.

Young and beautiful oddballs Tuesday Weld and Rip Torn -- together -- in sickness and in health. Underscore sickness.  Madly in love, madly in lust, the actors play two recently married, demented hillbillies in heat like ardent caterwauling kitties -- cute as hell but dangerous to disrupt lest you’d like your eyeball torn out of your socket. Gorgeous, wild-eyed sociopaths (named Ansel and Ora Mae) driving down from the hills of Arkansas and into the mean streets of New York City, they yell about traffic, argue over dolls, fix their sites on wedding rings, grab guns and gobble frog legs cooked up by Torn in their dingy motel room. They also get it on -- obviously. After child bride Tuesday playfully antagonizes Rip, laughing and hitting him with a pillow, they fall to the bed in a haze of pillow feathers, picking feather from hair, lip and lashes. And then kiss passionately.

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We don’t see them consummate their lust further than that. We don’t need to because it’s all there. But we see them kill. They shoot a police officer, a guy selling a gun, customers, and workers in a bank, among other victims who are also assaulted for their car or punched for money and attacked for dynamite.  Yes, Rip Torn manages to steal some dynamite if that’s not poetic enough considering his presence. And when she, Weld, witnesses any of this mayhem, we see Tuesday get turned on by it. This is not some movie I dreamed up. This is an episode of a television show that those familiar with it surely know what I’m talking about, and one that likely lodged in many lucky kid’s minds after he or she switched on their parent’s GE console in 1962.

Riptorn1This was the third season of the excellent, influential television show Naked City -- episode 13 -- entitled “A Case Study of Two Savages,” scripted by Frank Pierson (who would later co-write Cool Hand Luke and Dog Day Afternoon) and directed by William A. Graham (who directed series like 12 O’ Clock High, The Fugitive and the TV movie, Guyana Tragedy: The Story of Jim Jones). As with many Naked City stories, this one (from 1962) dared to not only shock early TV viewers with its outburst of violence, but offer little relief or explanation about such real-life occurrences inspired from the outside world (this one, by Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate who had rampaged only a few years earlier and who are mentioned in this episode specifically.) The influential, gritty and still-hard hitting Naked City (created by Stirling Silliphant, who later wrote In the Heat of the Night), shot on location in New York City (the series was inspired by the superb 1948 Jules Dassin noir, The Naked City, which was inspired by famed NYC photographer, Weegee), offered no easy condemnations of the criminal’s actions and instead a cynical, searching dose of complexity and shading. There’s a lingering question that hangs over many episodes featuring future movie stars (just to name a few: George C. Scott, Robert Redford, Dustin Hoffman, James Coburn, Burt Reynolds) -- Why? And that why is not answered. It’s never going to be answered.

As the two young ones drive into the city, the narrator attempts to present some reason for their casual approach to killing, Torn’s in particular: because men are born to kill. It’s only that society has progressed and kids might have been raised semi-right (and Torn’s character ain’t), that they might overcome the killer instinct. As he intones:

“15, 000 years ago, man came out of the caves. Today, whenever we encounter the violence and the savagery to which belonged to those times, all we can do is marvel at how far the human race has come in only 15,000 years. When Ansel Boake was four-years-old he killed his first thing: one of his mother’s chickens. After Ansel killed his mother’s chicken, his father thrashed him. By the time he was 16, Ansel had thrashed his father. Ansel Boake had no friends, he never learned to read, he never held a job longer than three months. But he could wander in the woods without a compass and not get lost. He could live off the land, killing food with gun, knife, snare, fishhook or rock or his bare hands equally well. Ansel Boake met Ora Mae Youngham eight days ago. Six days, fourteen hours and nine minutes ago, they were married. In the last six days, fourteen hours and nine minutes, Ansel Boake and his wife Ora Mae have shot and killed a filling station attendant in Frankfurt, Kentucky during the course of a hold-up, knifed a motel manager in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania and shot and killed a hitchhiker they picked up in Elizabeth, New Jersey.”

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And then they drive into the city … oh, boy. While the show’s lead, Det. Adam Flint (Paul Burke) has run into a drugstore while his partner, Det. Frank Arcaro (Harry Bellaver) waits in the car, Arcaro notices an automobile next to him with a broken plate. Arkansas. He nicely warns the drivers. He’s just letting them know. Ansel quarrels, alarmed or maybe just itchin’ to kill, and he shoots an officer dead. He also shoots Arcaro. Bang. Bang. It’s a stunning moment to see straight away, loyal viewers wondering if Rip Torn just iced a favorite character. Arcaro doesn’t die, but he’s later seen in the hospital, high on morphine talking about how his mother made sure he wore clean underwear every day as a kid (an intriguing moment of vulnerability), and then asks Flint, Why? “Find out why that character shot me. It’s on my mind. Why?” Flint becomes obsessed, even a bit crazed, trying to find out. Meanwhile, Ansel and Ora Mae wander around the city, taking a carriage ride (Ansel drives the horse and whips it, which feel perverse when Torn does it), robbing a bar, a gun store and stealing a car. By the time they decide to rob a bank, Flint’s caught up to the lovers and suddenly the near hour-long running time feels too short. Ansel’s shot dead and Ora Mae sobs over his body. It’s done? We want more of them.

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What a sight, those two massive talents – these two one-of-a-kinds. Titans. The future Pretty Poison and that sexy hothead who later bashed Norman Mailer’s head in with a hammer. Man, they should have made a movie together. They did, The Cincinnati Kid, but that wasn’t together. But they should have done something like this again. They’re just burning with charisma here. Two brilliant actors in their youthful prime, already notoriously tempestuous and unpredictable off-screen, not quite knowing the cult figures they’ll become a few decades later. They are so believably psycho, yet so watchable that they feel dangerous to desire (and many desired Weld at this time; getting turned on by Torn must have been a radical jolt). And though playing backwoods scumbags, the actors brought such counterculture hipness and unusual feral intensity to their parts that you had to wonder what people were thinking as they watched in their living rooms. Do I like them? Terrence Malick would weave his transcendent tale later.

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Invading Gotham from the country, Weld and Torn mirror the city’s instability, darkness and kink. They’re scary. They’re beautiful. They’re sexy. How can they not be? The show had to know by casting Torn and Tuesday as thrill killers, the viewers would feel a stirring that made them either exhilarated or uncomfortable. Torn’s cocked-eyebrow handsomeness, his native Texan authenticity, his puckish sometimes demonic grin, his eyes, brooding to laughing to inviting to downright insane is electric bouncing off of Weld’s teenage talent and loveliness, her lushness and mysterious eyes, sometimes placid, sometimes excited, her curiosity and, here, kittenish sexuality mixed with her intelligence and her weird, fascinating wickedness -- she can be sweet as pie but also, wonderfully, not right in the head. We’re drawn to this pair, they promise sex but they also promise violence. We wonder why they’re so fucked up. (We wonder if we’re fucked up) We’ll never know. Nor does Naked City, which, once again, asks, why?

Burke understands the reasons why Ansel shot everyone else (to steal), but why Arcaro? He asks the girl: “Your husband shot him also. Why?” Ora Mae answers: “I don’t know. Just for the hell of it, I guess.”

From my Kill or Be Killed essay.


Criminal: Woman on the Run

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Out today! Ed Brubaker's newest Criminal in which I write about Norman Foster's atmospheric, gorgeous & moving "Woman on the Run" starring Ann Sheridan in one of her greatest performances. Order here

From my piece:

"Ann Sheridan (the “Oomph girl!” – a moniker she detested. She once said: “Oomph" is what a fat man says when he leans over to tie his shoelace in a telephone booth.”) gives one of her greatest, perhaps her greatest performance here: Tough, but vulnerable, jaundiced but sophisticated, she’s able to light up when she really starts to see that her marriage has been muddled by a dreary fog. And they both (she and her husband) let it happen. It’s powerful and disarmingly moving that the picture’s finale occurs on what’s often representational of love: a rollercoaster (up and down and up and down and a lot of screaming and laughing and fear) and Sheridan is so moved to finally see her husband, that she screams his name with fear and love. It’s a beautiful moment... 

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"Sheridan plays a woman who appears to have a hard heart tamped down by disappointment and marital atrophy – but as the movie reveals, she is full of love and understanding once she really opens herself up again. Marriage is viewed through a dreamy, demented landscape here, but it’s part of the institution’s tumultuous journey. A key moment in Woman on the Run occurs when, before Frank flees, he’s asked by an inspector if he’s married. His answer: “In a way.” Yes, in a way. But by the end of the movie, what that really means, romantically, is, it’s their way."

Read the whole essay here

 


Happy Birthday, Marilyn Monroe

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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 offer 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 . She was never pleased about that centerfold, though she handled it with great spirit, as nothing to be ashamed of ).

Marilyn 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.” I had to film it.

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.

Out there in the desert, I thought of Marilyn and John Huston’s gorgeous sad end of the line, The Misfits — one of my favorite Marilyn performances and movies. And, again, I thought of the other misfit, Marilyn. I thought of her marriage to Arthur Miller (and I thought of my own marriage which was worrying me ... and staring at the lonely blanket of MM, for the purpose of decoration and for the purpose of warming a stranger, almost brought me to tears).

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End of the line ... Her once hope-filled marriage -- this brilliant, world-weary, haunted, mischievous, smart, artistic woman emulates The Misfits fading cowboys. A movie star in a cruel industry wondering how much time she has left. But still a movie star for sure, but one beset with a gorgeousness that's a little beautifully worn, wise. a little, almost, sick of herself. Troubled ... Which, to me, makes her all the more beautiful. Real. And real life spilled into the picture with Miller — sick of her marriage, but really did she want it to end? Probably she did. Perhaps she didn’t. One thing is for sure: the movie had to end. The marriage had to end too.

Marriages end in Reno. They start there too but they end in that dusty strange place. As Marilyn said:

“When we were first married, he saw me as so beautiful and innocent among Hollywood wolves that I tried to be like that. I almost became his student in life and literature . . . But when the monster showed, Arthur couldn’t believe it.” “I disappointed him when that happened. But I felt he knew and loved all of me. I wasn’t sweet all through. He should love the monster, too. But maybe I’m too demanding. Maybe there’s no man who could put up with all of me. I put Arthur through a lot, I know. But he also put me through a lot.”

Indeed he did. But Marilyn is so charitable here. As Miller, said, “I had no inkling of what to do or say anymore and sensed she [Marilyn] was in a rage against me or herself or the kind of work she was doing. She seemed to be filling with distrust not only for my opinions of her acting [in The Misfits], but also for Huston’s.” Her rage. In herself in Miller. Her distrust."

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He had “no inkling” what to say but he has a pretty good inkling regarding her rage ... take a look deeper regarding that rage. And those reservoirs of rage under that beautiful blonde face and body is why she is brilliant in the movie. It’s hard to know what to say. Just let Marilyn release it. So as Monroe screams, in her big, blistering moment in The Misfits, filmed in a haunting, almost unmerciful long shot, making Monroe a speck of blonde hair and denim in the desert while the men observe and comment on her words from afar — Ii’s perfect. And so powerful. She has to scream, almost an invisible creature in the desert and the dust as the men look with differed expressions. She needs to be heard. Monroe hollers:

"Killers! Murderers! You're liars! All of you, liars! You're only happy when you can see something die! Why don't you kill yourself to be happy? You and your God's country! Freedom! I pity you! You're three dear, sweet, dead men!” 

She understood those words. Miller must have too. And we do too... We try to understand and we never forget Marilyn.

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.

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That year of 2012 Marilyn deluge found her gracing magazine covers from Vanity Fair to Playboy, and starring in a new documentary (Love, Marilyn) as well as several new books (Marilyn by Magnum, Marilyn: The Passion and the Paradox, and a rerelease of Norman Mailer’s 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 in 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 that year: she was elevated, in stature and in sophistication.

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Now that the anniversary had passed, the flood has slowed but had 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. The comic covered 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 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.

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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.

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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."

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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. 

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Jump Into the Fire: GoodFellas

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"Rock ‘n’ roll is an attitude: it’s not a musical form of a strict sort. It’s a way of doing things, of approaching things. Writing can be rock ‘n’ roll, or a movie can be rock ‘n’ roll. It’s a way of living your life.” – Lester Bangs

“I thought of it as being a kind of attack… Attacking the audience. I remember talking about it at one point and saying, ‘I want people to get infuriated by it.’  I wanted to seduce everybody into the movie and into the style. And then just take them apart with it. I guess I wanted to make a kind of angry gesture.” – Martin Scorsese (Conversations with Scorsese, Richard Schickel)

GoodFellas is music. It’s like a concept album. I don’t know which album specifically – but an album all its own.

And it’s not just a Martin Scorsese mix-tape, it’s something the director manipulated through his vision – as his own production – he laid the tracks. Romance, sex, menace, murder – he thought of the music intertwining in the scenes, commenting on characters and actions, music moving alongside the characters, getting into their heads. He wrote the music into the script before shooting. He was thinking in pictures and thinking in music. And he crafts a kind of magic here that vibrates. It’s the double album with the epic scope of “Exile on Main Street” (even if none of those songs are in the movie – it’s songs from “Let it Bleed” and then Mick Jagger’s solo record “Memo From Turner”) but then of course it’s, among many others, Harry Nilsson and the Cadillacs and George Harrison and Muddy Waters and Tony Bennett and Cream and Derek and the Dominos and The Crystals and Donovan and Sid Vicious singing “My Way” because there is no way that movie is gonna end with Sinatra singing it (no offense to Frank). And that’s just the half of the music. It’s an album I can listen to over and over and never grow tired of it. It pulls a lot out of me – it’s still dangerous, soulful, sexy, scary, innovative, crazy…

This is not to glamorize GoodFellas – the end result of the movie is a brutal, bloody, sad decline –  a giant stumble from an illusory life of “brotherhood” and into dishonor, the end of a marriage, the end of an era.

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When people think this movie is some kind of guidebook to cool (as cool as many of these guys look – check out Ray Liotta’s sharp-suited, sexy-as-hell introduction, with the camera tilting up adoringly), or the way tough guys should behave, they’re not getting it, they’re not getting what Scorsese pulls on all of us here, they’re not even remembering the ending. It’s Joe Pesci as Tommy’s dark “funny like a clown” humor proving to be deadly – once poor, timid Spider decides to stick up for himself, he’s done for. It’s your wife flushing the cocaine down the toilet because that is the only sensible thing to do and then yelling at her because that’s the only source of income you’ve got. It’s Henry Hill saying this as the movie’s nearing the end:

“If you’re part of a crew, nobody ever tells you that they’re going to kill you, doesn’t happen that way. There weren’t any arguments or curses like in the movies. See, your murderers come with smiles, they come as your friends, the people who’ve cared for you all of your life. And they always seem to come at a time that you’re at your weakest and most in need of their help.”

And Scorsese said as much in Richard Schickel’s “Conversations with Scorsese:” “Everyone paid for the privilege eventually. The danger of the picture is that young people could look at it and think, Hey, what a great life. But you’ve got to see the last hour of the picture when things start going wrong in a big way.” But – Jesus – the goddamn excitement of the movie, even when everything is falling apart, it’s still so breathtaking to watch. And at times, so darkly funny you have to catch yourself. And once you start watching, you can’t turn it off. You’re not skipping to better songs on the album. Every song is great and the structure is so perfect- You’re hooked.

GoodFellas is a gangster picture, of course, but it’s a rock ‘n’ roll movie if I ever saw one. At times it’s, in an oblique way, one of the greatest rock ‘n’ roll movies ever made, which may sound hyperbolic because, yes, there are actual, direct rock ‘n’ roll movies that are great (and Martin Scorsese had made a few of them – The Last WaltzNo Direction HomeShine a LightGeorge Harrison: Living in the Material World…) There’s also Jailhouse RockA Hard Day’s NightPurple Rain… There’s The Girl Can’t Help It. There’s PerformanceEasy Rider (where creepy Phil Spector memorably shows up), HeadTommyQuadropheniaThis Is Spinal Tap … the list goes on and on, I am missing many here … But GoodFellas makes me feel like I’m not just inside the lifestyle of a rock star, but inside the songs, the sex, drugs, romance, violence and downfall. The paranoia. The combined power of cast and crew pulls me into its thrall. But as flashy as the characters are in the movie, as they live a rock star life, it’s the creators who are the real rock stars: Scorsese, co-screenwriter Nicholas Pileggi, cinematographer Michael Ballhaus, and editor Thelma Schoonmaker. These artists are swaggering with style, but never style over substance. They, in fact, transmutate style into substance – the sensory/sensual overload is a weapon. And it is meant to be. The characters in GoodFellas are sensualists, some are also sociopaths, but they do indeed have soul – dark as it is, paradoxical as it is.

Pauline Kael, whom I admire, was mixed on the movie and said this, “Is it a great movie? I don’t think so.” (She’s wrong! It’s more than a great movie, it’s a landmark) However, she goes on to say, “But it’s a triumphant piece of filmmaking – journalism presented with the brio of drama. Every frame is active and vivid, and you can feel the director’s passionate delight in making these pictures move.” Passion. Yes. And this passion is so important here. Her piece is called “Tumescence as Style” – I think this is meant as an insult – tumescence – but I love how swollen and engorged the picture is, so alive and scary, ready for sex or on the verge of limp death – shambling towards doom. That is what we return to. And it is through that passionate, sensual style – the excitement of the soundtrack, the colors, the groundbreaking camera moves and “The life” that are such a huge part of it. I was thrilled to see it turn up again in two other Scorsese masterpieces, Casino (epic sibling to GoodFellas), and The Wolf of Wall Street (the scrappy, silk-suited bastard brother to GoodFellas). Watching Scorsese’s virtuosity – the zooms, the dolly/zooms, the freeze-frames, the variable speed shots, THAT tracking shot set to the Spector-produced “Then He Kissed Me.” Scorsese is creating his own Spector-like wall of sound (and image) in GoodFellas, or Brian Wilson producing the album “Pet Sounds” or “Good Vibrations” – the ingenuity of it all, the obsessive attention to detail. But – those sounds and those images in your brain – it’s gorgeous, but it’s got to be hard, too, carrying all that around on your own.

And as I said: It’s not for show, it lends feeling and weight and emotion to the proceedings: It’s like an injection of a drug and cruises, quickly, through your bloodstream. It’s a thrill.

As I write this, I think of Lorraine Bracco’s Karen – and, to my mind, we, the viewer, are Karen – and Henry – we are seduced by the bright lights, the power, the violent power of it all. There’s some part of us that wants to partake, our blood rushes, our heart pumps. Scorsese knows this, after all why do people live lives like this? He sees this as seductive, as dangerous as scary. Scorsese described how he saw these men in his introduction to Nicholas Pileggi’s 25th-anniversary edition of Wiseguy:

“I wanted to stay as close to the facts as we could. There was a natural rise and fall narrative there, but that wasn’t what made it special. It was the places, the restaurants and bars, the food they ate; the clothes, the sense of style; the gestures, the body language, the way of being with one another; the ease with which they committed murder. On the one hand, an immersion in detail that was sensual and documentary at the same time; on the other hand, a forward propulsion that moved with their energy and exhilaration, and then with their paranoia and stone-cold fear.”

Stone cold fear. It all goes bad. But Scorsese sees that you’re attracted to it – until you can take only so much. That’s the thing – we, again, like Karen, start to think… how far would we go with this? She was taken in by the excitement and romance – that date set up with the historic tracking shot into the Copacabana tuned to “Then He Kissed Me” – walking through the service door, through the kitchen, Henry knowing everyone (“Every time, you two! Every time!”) – the table floating in, especially for him, like he’s royalty. Or as Scorsese said, his “Valhalla.” The “Court of kings.”

Karen feels like a princess. It’s so romantic and no one can deny it – even when she asks what he does for a living and he answers “Construction.” We laugh knowing, yeah… that’s not all together true. The song swoons: “All the stars were shining bright and then he kissed me…” Well, that is perfect. Too perfect of course. Move forward in time to Sunday, May 11th, 1980, 6:55 am, the bravura sequence which serves almost as a short film all its own but fits seamlessly within the movie – Harry Nilsson’s fantastic, nervous breakdown of a love song, “Jump into the Fire” starts the ball rolling, excitedly amping up the harrowing, sometimes hilarious proceedings. (All of the songs, from “Monkey Man” to “Mannish Boy” to “Magic Bus” to “Memo From Turner” to “What is Life” have a stream-of-consciousness, mood-altering power, overlapping to underscore, comment and echo Henry’s mind) Henry is seeing helicopters, picking up guns, grabbing and snorting cocaine, meeting his mistress, instructing the babysitter, making sure his brother stirs the sauce, etc. and so on… music is all over the place, but there’s something about Nilsson scream/singing: “We can make each other happy!” almost like a threat. As if screaming is the only way he’ll be able to shout out all the dysfunction to delusionally convince himself these two will ever be happy again. Of course, they won’t be.

Karen’s a romantic to some degree, likely a girl staying up at night as a young woman listening to records, dreaming of love, but also not taking shit from a guy who jilts her (as she does so beautifully when Henry dodges her: “You’ve got some nerve standing me up. Who do you think you are? Frankie Valli or some kind of big shot?!”). In the Scorsese world, she’d be listening to Phil Spector produced songs (which are already dysfunctional and dangerous and yet swooningly romantic – songs written and produced by a psychopath) but there’s a sensuality and danger in those songs there that Scorsese well understands (think of the opening to Mean Streets with “Be My Baby,” a song Brian Wilson said was like having your mind revamped.”) And then there’s, Scorsese, who, perhaps, like Henry, watched the wise guys from his fire escape ladder, saw the Cadillacs, the shiny sharkskin suits with his own score playing in his head. You feel all of this swirling together – the characters, the creator, the music – and Karen is key to understanding the attraction. The songs and dates and sexy temperaments and crossing the street to pistol whip an asshole, things that we know are red flags, they pull Karen in (“I know there are women, like my best friends, who would have gotten out of there the minute their boyfriend gave them a gun to hide. But I didn’t. I got to admit the truth. It turned me on.”) And they pull the viewer in too.

But it’s not all fireworks and bravado – it’s something much more totemic, and essential, rhythmic, choral – something in our very life blood. We want to feel alive, on fire, and GoodFellas makes us, at the very least, live vicariously through these cock-of-the-walk men who live life on their own primal terms, just as we would like to. Take for instance, the Billy Batts/Tommy get your shine-box scene. Do you know how many women relate to this moment? The condescension of Batts towards Tommy? How he’s telling him to know his place and then making him feel hysterical for becoming so pissed off about it? (Forget any idea that women can’t understand this picture…) Tommy’s reaction before the murder – we get it, we even relate to it. Of course, until we can no longer and watch the destruction. Like any great dramatic rock band story, there’s a downfall.

The Band breaks up…

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Scorsese meticulously maps out each betrayal, he choreographs them: each of them as dazzling a set-piece as the adrenaline-pumping “Side A” tracks he presented us with – the pink Cadillac with two dead bodies laid to rest as Derek and Dominoes’ lush piano coda from “Layla” begins, moving to the bodies in the garbage truck, the cranes jib down and push into a meat-freezing truck, all the way to the frozen body of Carbone. This is a song that makes you want to cry, Clapton and Duane Allman working together here – Allman’s sweet slide guitar and Jim Gordon on piano (I will add here that Gordon also played drums on two other GoodFellas’ tracks – let me know if there are others – Nilsson’s “Jump into the Fire,” and Harrison’s “What is Life” – and in real life, suffered from schizophrenia and murdered his mother. He, like Spector, is currently in prison. Also, reportedly, by some insiders including Rita Coolidge, he stole that piano coda from Coolidge, his ex-girlfriend. The dark resonance to this beautiful song has so many layers it’s kind of mind boggling). And so here we are, looking at all of these sleazeballs dead and feeling it. I mean, really feeling it, beyond who they are because do we really feel for them? I don’t know – it feels more as some kind of sad statement about life. Of what we stupidly reach for. Of our mistakes. Another beautiful moment is when Scorsese shoots a close up of Robert De Niro (cued to the opening chords of Cream’s “The Sunshine of Your Love”) at 32 frames per second so the camera can linger just oh-so-long in the glint of his eye – so he can bronze the moment Jimmy the Gent decides he doesn’t need living partners – or liabilities. He might as well keep the Lufthansa bounty all to himself. Another – Billy Batts is murdered to Donovan’s elegiac, epic “Atlantis,” an unexpected, genius decision that felt so surprising and yet so perfect the first time I saw it, I could never think of the song the same way again. It’s a sad song about a disappearing continent, a disappearing culture. Pesci kills a made man thinking he’s invisible. “Hail Atlantis!”

Scorsese also takes us down with Karen and Henry, we experience (in one of the most suspenseful scenes in the film) Karen almost getting killed with great ease by Jimmy as he offers her “…some beautiful Dior dresses…” for free – if only she would go into a dimly lit warehouse where ominous silhouettes await her.  She comes out of this encounter, trembling and joining Henry in the driveway in a perfect symmetrical callback to the moment where Henry, like a focused, fast-walking knight in shining armor met her in the driveway after swiftly beating her offending neighbor to a pulp. This is the end, my friend, and Scorsese makes sure to rhyme with the opening thrills: Henry was getting hundreds of dollars when he was a kid, parking Caddies for the mob and now, when he goes to Paulie he is worth just that: a few hundred dollars. That is all he will harvest.

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Oaths of loyalty are overturned, once more, in symmetry – Henry came out of jail, and into that fellowship, with a few words of advice from Jimmy “Never rat on your friends” and now, in the final act, he will.

Loyalty, family, identity and homeland will be foregone. Fingers will be pointed, like muzzles. Each of them, an assassination in court – each of them underlined by the camera pushing in – killing what is left of the life and the lights and the glory. And then Scorsese caps it all off with a POV shot of Tommy – gun straight at us, firing.

You’ve been hooked, lifted and dropped to the ground. And it is then that we figure it out: these songs, this album, like most of the best music, is about heartbreak. “You can jump into the fire, but you’ll never be free.”


Rest in Peace, Seymour Cassel

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Here's my New Beverly piece John Cassavetes' romantic, poignant, emotionally volatile and movie-drenched, "Minnie and Moskowitz -- one of my favorite Seymour Cassel pictures. May the great man Rest in Peace. 

“I wish my life was a non-stop Hollywood movie show. A fantasy world of celluloid villains and heroes. Because celluloid heroes never feel any pain and celluloid heroes never really die.” – The Kinks, “Celluloid Heroes”

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Movies set you up. That’s what movie lover Minnie Moore (Gena Rowlands) emphatically states to her older friend and co-worker, Florence (Elsie Ames), after the two women spend an evening out watching Casablanca. They drink wine in Florence’s dark little apartment and they talk; they talk like real women. It’s a disarmingly frank discussion between a much older woman with a younger woman about sex, men, doing what they can to please men (who seem to want everything from them, their heart, their soul, as Minnie states, only to learn men really don’t want it when they finally get it), loneliness and… movies. And yet, that “set up,” that fantasy, hangs over Minnie and Moskowitz in a complicated manner that neither damns the siren call of cinema nor negates their delusional pull. Perhaps we need movies. Perhaps we need them to realize we don’t need to believe in them? Perhaps to realize they’re often lovely, but often a lot of lovey bullshit? That’s how beautifully complex writer director John Cassavetes makes Minnie and Moskowitz  – it’s just not that simple. Nothing in the Cassavetes universe is that simple.

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As Minnie says: “You know, I think that movies are a conspiracy. I mean it…. They are actually a conspiracy because they set you up, Florence. They set you up from the time you were a little kid. They set you up to believe in everything. They set you up to believe in ideals and strength and good guys and romance and of course, love. Love, Florence… So, you believe it. You go out. You start looking. Doesn’t happen and you keep looking…. There’s no Charles Boyer in my life, Florence. I never even met a Charles Boyer. I never met Clark Gable, I never met Humphrey Bogart. I never met any of them… They don’t exist, Florence. That’s the truth. But the movies set you up. They set you up and no matter how bright you are, you believe it. ”

Minnie’s monologue is a potent clarification within a movie full of movies, a movie in which characters go to the movies, talk about movies, even drive past movie marquees. And that the film, set in Hollywood, was a studio picture, a supposed “youth movie” (if Lew Wasserman had his way) and also, according to Cassavetes’ biographers, a movie inspired by the director’s own courtship with his real life wife Gena Rowlands. It’s both a valentine and a warning tale. Don’t believe all that movie mush but don’t deny your feelings either. Don’t harden. Don’t get cynical. Don’t shove it all away. Love is the thing, but how we get there is a frustrating almost violent struggle. It is not gorgeous, suave and smooth, like Charles Boyer; it’s embarrassing, volatile and weird, like Seymour Cassel.
 
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The picture works as a subversion of the romantic movie and the screwball comedy in that the “opposites attract” story is layered with pain, alienation and often at times, violence. The beautiful, blonde museum worker, Minnie, in opposition to the scruffy, long-haired, unpredictable Seymour Moskowitz – a man whom she states straight to him, is not her romantic ideal – could not be any more different. But Seymour is not going to take no for an answer.  And that’s where the movie builds and spirals and literally screams into another realm – where the adorable troublemaker woman, Katharine Hepburn of Bringing Up Baby, will win Cary Grant by following him, nearly stalking him and perpetually putting him in peril, becomes the obnoxious almost unlikable man Seymour, who causes fights and arguments at every turn. A man we’re not sure about. Should Minnie even succumb to this guy? Is this healthy? I believe Cassavetes would say yes. After all it’s a version of him (and that marriage lasted until his death). But as a movie, we’re not so sure how this will end up, making it extra poignant and multidimensional. We’re happy they will feel happy, but… will it last?
 
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Well, who knows? And considering Rowlands’ Minnie has been contending with so many messed-up, oppressive and abusive suitors at least Seymour sticks up for her, clumsily, when the moments arise (and they arise a few times, sometimes, his own fault). When she returns home after her night with Florence, a man is in her apartment. That man turns out to be her married boyfriend Jim (played by Cassavetes), whom she thinks she loves. What does he do? He hits her and knocks her on the ground. Why? Because he’s jealous (he justifies his behavior with the “I love you so much I just get jealous” routine.) Of course he’ll go back to his wife (after his wife attempts suicide) and Minnie’s left both depressed and disgusted. Then, in a standout scene, there’s another man (in a complicated scenario, he’s an accidental date) who berates her after she says she’s not interested in him over lunch. In a funny, sad and acerbic moment with a magnificent Val Avery as the never-in-a-million-years potential partner, Minnie listens to all he can give her (he’s very aggressive and nervous about this) only to get hollered at upon rejection: “Blondes. What is it with you blondes? You all have some Swedish suicide impulse? Huh? I took a blonde to lunch once, next think you know she wanted me to kick her… Bleached blonde, 90 dollar a week worker. I just wanted to take you out! Give you an education! Show you there’s a little love and understanding left in the world!”

And that’s where Seymour steps in to save the day. You know, like in the movies. Sort of. He really starts driving poor Minnie insane, even when he takes her to Pink’s (there are so many wonderful Los Angeles details in this movie). Seymour has just freshly arrived in L.A. from New York where his dating life wasn’t exactly aces either. But we learn that he does have at least one thing in common with Minnie – he loves movies too. The picture begins with Seymour watching The Maltese Falcon and also having a conversation with a fellow loner, in this case a stranger in a diner played by the brilliantly bizarre Timothy Carey (who adored working with Cassavetes). Carey is the unforgettably named Morgan Morgan and in a magnificently manic, sweaty scene, talks and yells about a lot of things: Aging, the kind of women he likes, his wife’s death… and again, movies. Seymour asks: “You like movies? I just saw a movie called The Maltese Falcon. You ever see that?”

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Morgan Morgan: “Uh-uh. I don’t care anything… I don’t know anything about cinema. I don’t like it. Bunch of lonely people, looking up. Forget about it.

Seymour: You don’t like Bogart?

Morgan Morgan: I only like one: Wallace Beery

See, even Morgan Morgan likes one movie star.

By allowing all of these scenes to unfold with remarkable but very real people, movies and real life intertwine in Minnie and Moskowitz showing both the naturalism and uniqueness of everyday individuals. Real people may not be movie idols, but they’re often interesting and different. And scary. Seymour’s love for Minnie verges on the frightening. He violently threatens, fights, yells and punches things in her bathroom (reminding me of the rage-filled, frustrated love outburst in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love only, Adam Sandler’s Barry Egan explodes with violence from repression whereas Seymour is constantly at full volume). Seymour exclaims: “That’s what happens when you love someone! You punch doors! You make a fool of yourself!"

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But there’s a lot of tenderness here too. And, in one scene, while watching Casablanca together. Seymour tells her that she looks like Lauren Bacall from the side. She smiles and leans her head on his shoulder. Movies. When they take a night swim, they return to her apartment and she begins singing the song she sang earlier in the film with loneliness towards Jim: “I love You Truly.” But this time Seymour sings along. It’s a lovely moment and it’s another movie moment. The song is indeed evergreen, many singers have sung it, but I thought of Ward Bond and Frank Faylen lovingly serenading James Stewart and Donna Reed on their wedding night in Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life. Cassavetes loved Capra.

From Ray Carney’s “Cassavetes on Cassavetes”: “I loved Frank Capra when I was a kid. I saw Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and I believed in it. I believed in the people in our country and our society. I believed that the rich were not that bad and that the poor had a gripe, but that people could come together and that made America a better place for me to live in and be proud of. And every Capra film I’ve ever seen showed the gentleness of people. There were corrupt people within that framework, sure. The poor people were always oppressed, but they were oppressed with such dignity and loveliness that they were really stronger than the rich; the rich had to be educated. I grew up with that idea. I grew up on guys that were bigger than life. Greenstreet, Bogart, Cagney, Wallace Beery. Those were my favorite guys. I’d think, God, what a wonderful life they had – to have an opportunity to stand up there in front of people, in front of a camera, to express yourself and be paid for it, and say things and have it mean something to the audience.”

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Movies a conspiracy? Is it a wonderful life? Like Capra, John, Gena, Minnie, Moskowitz, Florence and Morgan Morgan, it’s never that easy to answer.


Criminal 3: The Color of Money

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Out now in Ed Brubaker's Criminal number three...

I dig into Martin Scorsese's The Color of Money -- a strangely under-discussed Scorsese featuring a wonderfully weird Tom Cruise before he was doing wonderfully weird and Paul Newman in all of his wizened movie star glory. This is like a samurai movie with pool cues for swords... it's also something of a vampire story ... I love it.

Order here.

 


This Town Doesn't Change: The Late Show

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“Back in the 40s this town was crawling with dollies like you. Good looking cokeheads trying their damndest to act tough as hell. I got news for you: they did it better back then. This town doesn’t change. The just push the names around.”

“Jeez, Charles, he doesn’t look so hot to me.” So says Lily Tomlin’s new agey Margo when she first spies Art Carney’s retired private investigator, Ira Wells. She’s scoping him out at a place many young people think guys his age are about to set one foot in – a cemetery. A seemingly anonymous old looking guy in a rumpled suit paying his respects to a dead person and the dead person’s loved ones, Ira walks past crypts on one of those sunny, deceptively cheery Los Angeles days that would feel strangely depressing even if he wasn’t in a cemetery. It feels a little impersonal too, all out in the open with those rows of crypts, and especially as Margo is sizing him up for hire. The camera follows Ira and you can hear a plane passing overhead. It’s an interesting way to introduce Tomlin’s character as she’s introduced to Ira – just her voice and her first impression observation – and then her sleazy-slick pal Charlie (Bill Macy) reassuring her: “Let me tell you kiddo, Ira Wells used to be one of the greats.”

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Used to be. We’re still not so sure even after we’ve been introduced to Ira in the opening scene of Robert Benton’s 1977 picture, The Late Show. When we first see Ira, he’s sitting in his little room – not in an apartment we don’t think at first – but what looks like a room in a boarding house. An old movie plays on his TV. This is a lived-in space and it’s nice that the movie takes the time to show us his surroundings: there’s books stacked around and taped up photos of the old days, socks hanging to dry, a messy bed. We’ve noticed from the start that he’s working on a memoir, the title reads: “Naked Girls and Machine Guns: Memoirs of a Real Private Detective.” Well, that’s quite something. Who is this guy? If we had no idea what this movie was about before watching, we’d wonder how much of that title is an exaggeration. Or, is he writing a detective novel? But, right away, we think, this man – this man in this humble, rather touching room – thinks of his life as something to remember (as he certainly should. As anyone should.) And he also thinks that his life is something others should remember, hence, a memoir, or writing based on himself. And he’d like to grab people right away with the pulpy title: “Naked Girls and Machine Guns” (kind of ridiculous and “immature,” as Margo might say, but, hey, it grabbed me too). Obviously, Ira sees glamour in his old, sexy dangerous days, and maybe at this point of the movie, he’s content to drown himself in times past. The present? Watch another old movie and go to the race track.

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As he sits in this somewhat sad, sagging room, we see some glamour in a framed photo of a beautiful young woman. An ex-wife? An old sweetheart? Probably not, as the woman is actress Martha Vickers, so memorable in Howard Hawks’ The Big Sleep. A noir-soaked nod on part of the filmmakers, a fan photo for Ira and, at first glance, a possible old flame of Ira’s. An old flame is not likely but … you never know. Ira may have had an even more exciting past than we will ever know. This is a room of memories. Not cool or flashy or dingy in a hardboiled, black & white, neon-sign-flashing-in-the-window kind of way, but the room of an old man. The room of someone’s grandfather. But. We suspect that this guy doesn’t have any grandkids. Or any kids for that matter. Or, any grandkids or kids that he’s ever kept in contact with, anyway.

His peaceful night of old movies and writing is interrupted when his old partner, Harry (Howard Duff – Duff played Dashiell Hammett’s private eye Sam Spade on the radio, and appeared in Brute ForceThe Naked CityPrivate Hell 36 and While the City Sleeps – he was also married to Ida Lupino for a time) pays him a bloody visit. And then promptly dies in his room. He’s been shot. Ira is both pissed off and heartbroken. Now we see the tough guy Ira once was and still is: “God damn you, Harry! Letting someone walk up and drill you like that. Point blank. Nobody can palm a .45. Jesus Christ. You never had the brains god gave a common dog!” And then we see how heartfelt Ira is too: “Sorry you’re going off, pal. You were real good company.”

Ira starts tearing up.

Late-Show-FeaturedHarry is the dead man Ira is seeing off at the cemetery, so it makes sense he’s so grumpy from the intrusion of Margo and Charlie. Let the man mourn his friend and partner for chrissakes. And worse, the case seems two-bit to him. You see, Margo wants to hire Ira to find … her cat. (We can’t help but think of Carney’s recent starring role in Paul Mazursky’s Harry and Tonto, though Ira does not give a toss about Margo’s cat). Margo owes a guy 500 bucks and, to settle the score, the guy has stolen her cat – he’s threatening to kill the animal if she doesn’t pay him. “So pay him!” Ira barks at her. Angry at Charlie he walks away muttering about how younger people should respect their elders. He’s sick of this shit, and he’s got other things to do. Like get on the bus. Go to the races. Sleep. Something. But soon enough, Ira knows there’s more going on here if Charlie is involved. In a terrific exchange, while Ira and Charlie are seated for a shoe shine (Charlie, wearing his flashy brown leather jacket, polyester shirt, orange pants and yellow socks, is reading The Hollywood Reporter – there’s ragged reminders of supposedly glitzy Hollywood all over this picture), Ira asks him what the hell is going on here with this “dolly” and the cat. Ira breaks it down: “Somebody puts the freeze on Harry Regan. Next thing I know you show up at Harry’s funeral with some dolly and a song and a dance about a stolen cat and all that hot comedy. What’s it all got to do with Harry?”

Well, something has got to do with Harry in this mess with the cat and “all that hot comedy,” and so Ira is on the case, discussing details with Margo in an amusing scene in her apartment, a space very different than Ira’s living quarters. Cat pictures, lots of plants, tapestries, bright colors, rock posters, there’s a meditation recording playing (she wisely turns it off), Ira shifts uncomfortably in his chair, while listening to her brief life story (wanted to be an actress, gave it up because she couldn’t play the Hollywood game, is now designing clothes, used to deliver items for some guy – probably hot – and split the money with the cat kidnapper. Only, one time she didn’t – here’s where Harry gets involved…). A woman of the 1970s, one who openly talks about her period and her therapist and astrological signs, Margo is a woman who’s seemingly trying anything in Hollywood, not just out of desperation, but out of, what she says, to “go with the flow.” I thought of the scene in Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye (Altman produced The Late Show) when Elliott Gould’s Marlowe tells bumbling Harry (David Arkin) what his scantily clad neighbors do for a living – they dip candles and sell them in a shop on Hollywood Blvd.  Harry exclaims: “I remember when people just had jobs.”

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Tomlin makes Margo lovable and smart – not just kooky and stereotypical hippy dippy – and a little mysterious too. For how much younger she is, and all of her more youthful of-the-time speak, does she have any friends, really? Other than the singer she manages? And are they even friends? Surely, she has a whole other life, but as presented here, it seems Charlie is her only friend. You start to understand that Margo, like Ira, is actually lonely. And that Los Angeles can be an alienating town whether you were a once aspiring actress, or you’re a retired private eye. You feel like people don’t care about you anymore. You’re don’t have that “it” factor. You feel disposable. It’s this observation of the fringes of Los Angeles, the “real” people (who may have had extraordinary lives if you bother to ask them about it), that makes The Late Show so intriguing and moving. It’s showing the sleazier side of the city; one in which people are still hanging on – some, by their fingernails. But they’re not all down-and-out, not yet, though one day they might be.

As the complicated mystery unfolds, Ira and Margo grow closer, and his crankiness softens. He seems amused by her, even likes her. And, in one scene at a bar, she tells him that she confessed to her shrink that she thinks he’s cute. He’s not sure what to make of that but the old guy must be flattered. She is thrilled after a high-speed chase in her van and she delights at the idea of them partnering up – a P.I. team. You feel for Margo as she suggests Ira move in to the apartment next door because, well, not only is she thinking of her new venture past designing clothes and managing talent, but she’d like to have this guy closer to her. She likes his company. He tells her he’s a loner. But the movie never turns this into a typical May-December romance – their attraction works as friends, as potential partners, as two different generations who have found something within each other that works, even if they drive each other crazy. And the movie never makes fun of them either. Margo may be a little zany, even annoying at times, but she’s got a heart, she’s got substance. And Ira may be cantankerous, walking around with his bum leg and aching gut, but he’s not always cranky, he’s witty, he finds joy in some things. And he’s got a good soul. Also – he’s still a good shot. In a remarkable scene, Ira aims fire at a car, but before he shoots, he pulls out his hearing aid. Somehow this is not funny, it’s just badass.

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Benton (who earlier had co-written Bonnie and Clyde) wrote and directed this picture, his second directorial effort after Bad Company, and before his next picture, the Oscar-laden Kramer vs. KramerThe Late Show, mostly acclaimed upon release, but underseen, is one of his best, if not his very best (I also like his later work with Paul Newman, Nobody’s Fool and Twilight). This is a gentle character study about the seamier side of Los Angeles that’s also violent, funny and melancholic – not super striking cinematically-speaking, certainly not showy, but deeply felt and nuanced. And the actors are all splendid here including Eugene Roche as fence Ronnie Birdwell, John Considine as the creepy/stupid gold chain-wearing henchman, Lamar, Ruth Nelson as Ira’s sweet landlady Mrs. Schmidt, and a terrific Macy who is both fantastically oily and entirely human.

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Carney, famous for his comedic (though touching) role as Ed Norton on the television show The Honeymooners was enjoying a resurgence in the 70s on the big screen (he hadn’t been in many motion pictures before), winning an Oscar for Harry and Tonto and co-starring in Martin Brest’s Going in Style (among other pictures). His performance here is beautiful. He’s rough and gruff and no-nonsense, spitting out hard-boiled dialogue naturally (he’s never forced, he never plays cute, he never fills his character with easy bathos), but he’s also poignant and real. There’s an inner life going on with this guy, one of regrets, surely, one of sorrows, but also one of past excitement. He doesn’t just play this simply as an aging tough guy gumshoe, as Mr. Cool, and that makes his performance even cooler. There’s a wonderful moment where Ira is trudging down the street, dragging his laundry along in a sack (he doesn’t have a car) and Charlie and Margo drive by, asking him where he’s headed. He’s snaps back, “I’m on my way to the Brown Derby to meet Louis B. Mayer! Where does it look like I’m headed?” The humbleness of the laundry, and the idea that he both doesand does not give a f*** about what it looks like, his quick-witted delivery –  it’s both charming and moving.

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And the ending of the picture is charming and moving, circling back to the beginning of Ira and Margo and where they met – at a cemetery. Another friend is buried, and the two walk along to the bus stop. They sit on a bench that’s advertising the Hollywood Wax Museum: “Mingle with the Stars,” it proclaims. There’s nothing much star-studded going on as they sit on the bench, on a typical smog-choked Los Angeles street, wondering what to do next. But it appears hopeful. Maybe they’ll even partner up. After all, he’s still great at his job – age is experience, in spite of Hollywood’s endless quest for new stars, for youth – and he’s got a connection with Margo. And they’re in Los Angeles, a town, that Ira thinks, even as he grows older, never really changes: “The just push the names around.”

From my essay at the New Beverly


Criminal # 2: Angels With Dirty Faces

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I forgot to mention ... my piece on Michael Curtiz's Angels with Dirty Faces in the Feb. 13 edition of Criminal. Artwork by the great Sean Phillips.

“The character I played in the picture, Rocky Sullivan, was in part modeled on a fella I used to see when I was a kid. He was a hophead and a pimp, with four girls in his string. He worked out of a Hungarian rathskeller on First Avenue between Seventy-seventh and Seventy-eighth streets—a tall dude with an expensive straw hat and an electric-blue suit. All day long he would stand on that corner, hitch up his trousers, twist his neck and move his necktie, lift his shoulders, snap his fingers, then bring his hands together in a soft smack. His invariable greeting was “Whadda ya hear? Whadda ya say?”  -- James Cagney from “Cagney By Cagney”

“You'll slap me? You slap me in a dream, you better wake up and apologize.” – Rocky Sullivan

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Order here


He Ran All the Way: John Garfield

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My full piece from Ed Brubaker's Kill Or Be Killed

“When an actor doesn't face a conflict, he loses confidence in himself. I always want to have a struggle because I believe it will help me accomplish more.” – John Garfield

Nick Robbey is trapped. Everywhere. No matter what. The man can’t even escape this claustrophobic life he trudges through while sleeping. Sleep – a place where you can run through sunny fields, bask in wealth, make it with beautiful girls, or just truly, actually sleep – enjoy the warm cocoon of dark nothingness; your body restoring itself for another good or bad day of something – anything – at least you slept well. No such luck for poor Nick – you get the sense this fella is always being chased and traumatized and worried and haunted, awake or not. Running. All the Way. Where? By the end you see where and it’s not through some sunny field – it’s staggering in a gutter with Shelley Winters close behind.

HqdefaultThat Nick is brilliant John Garfield in director John Berry’s tough, poignant and doomed (on and off the screen), He Ran All the Way – a movie that opens with this beautiful loser tossing and turning in his bed, sweaty and convulsed in bad dreams. But he wakes up to something worse – reality – his mother (a harsh as hell Gladys George). After hollering at him for moaning in his slumber (no maternal instinct in this woman), she pulls open the dingy shades of his room and screeches: “If you were a man you’d be out looking for a job!” His reply? “If you were a man I’d kick your teeth in.”  This ain’t no happy family. But family will become something important to Nick in this picture – even if he has to force his way into one.

When this over-age punk emerges into the light of the city streets, seemingly to do something else (perhaps look for a straight job?) he’s beckoned by one of his criminal friends – wormy Al (Norman Lloyd) – who convinces poor Nick to join in on a payroll robbery. Nick’s worried – he tries to discuss his bad dream, he was running, running, and he’s seeing it as some kind of portent of doom (he’s not so dumb after all). Al brushes it off and talks of his dream – wealth and sunny Florida. They go on that heist and the movie wastes no time in showing it all go to hell very quickly – like so many two-bit crimes do. Nick winds up killing a payroll guard. Shit. He didn’t intend for that. He didn’t want to kill someone today. He’s probably never really wanted to kill anyone, not even his mother (later on in the picture she doesn’t give a damn if he dies or rots). But he’s gotta run. He’s got the case of money (freedom! Yeah, sure) and so he runs and runs. It’s like his dream never really ended. He runs all the way to a public pool, a curious but ingenious place for a quick hide-out, shoving his money in a locker next to the guys with wet towels and swim trunks, Nick looking out of place but tough enough for people to just get out of his way. He’s jittery and worried about his locker and you feel for him, no matter what, something the movie and Garfield hold on to as rough as he gets. You can’t help it.

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This guy was born under a bad sign and you know he’s never been treated right. There’s a vulnerability here that’s not forced by Garfield, it’s just there, so much so that even as he changes into trunks and jumps into the water, you feel for him. It’s so normal, but not. And water— it should be cleansing, so refreshing but it isn’t. However, it is there that he meets another worried, sad soul – Shelley Winters’ Peg Dobbs. She’s shy and charmed by this handsome creature offering her such attention in the pool (as usual Shelley has some weird fate with water – see A Place in the Sun, The Night of the Hunter, Lolita and The Poseidon Adventure), and soon she’s bringing him home to family.  Poor Peg. She thinks this is a proper pick-up and she landed herself a sexy bad boy (with depth) John Garfield. Even her sweet, welcoming family – Papa Dodd (Wallace Ford) and Mama (Selena Royle) along with kid brother Tommy (Bobby Hyatt) – seem a bit excited that she’s brought over this good-looking stranger, even if he’s sweaty and nervous and a little feral. They even go out for a spell, presumably so she can be alone with him. When they return, the entire family is held hostage.

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It’s an intriguing set up – Nick running and holing up with this terrified family (a la The Desperate Hours before that movie was made, and this one is the grittier, better version) – and enclosing himself in further— a trapped rat. The romance, of sorts, between Garfield and Winters just feels tragic and awful – there’s nothing sexy or come hither about it. But as he’s pacing and planning his next move, he grows closer to the family, he does anyway, they really don’t – a nice family, something he’s never experienced. Watching him interact with the brood is fascinating. He threatens, sure, but he also wants to have family time, even setting up a turkey dinner for everyone to eat. The patriarch does not want to. He just won’t. And then Nick gets angry, forceful, hurt, actually. Eat the turkey! (I always think, Jesus Christ people, just eat the goddamn turkey).

He-ran-all-the-way-1951So, it’s constant stress and worry and where he is going to go? Run off with Peg? Really? And why does it become increasingly important that this family accept him? Or in any way love him? Well, clearly he desperately needs love – but he has to reject it because, really? By the end of the picture, that’s what he’s screaming about to Peg in a beautifully acted (and shot) sequence as he shoves her down the stairs with him. Love. He’s yelling that she never loved him. Never. With the family turning on him, there’s no love anywhere in this world: “Nobody loves anyone. You, your old man, your family, the cops, my old lady, Al Molin! Garbage. Garbage!”

It’s a powerful scene that kicks you in the gut. You really believe John Garfield. You believe every move he makes here, in fact, and every line on his face says something. Ingeniously shot by James Wong Howe with some powerful deep focus close-ups, particularly of Garfield’s face, you get a visceral sense of dread – you want to wipe the sweat dripping from Garfield’s brow, and his eyes are so expressive and troubled that even when he twists into hoodlum mode, slapping Ford around or scaring Winters, you know it’s not out of mere power (though he wields it over them) but out of absolute panic. And watching this film now, and knowing what happened to its lead and its makers – damn. The experience is extra tragic. Victims to one of cinema's darkest, most shameful moments, the scabrous House of Un-American Activities Committee, Berry was blacklisted, two of the screenwriters, Hugo Butler and an uncredited Dalton Trumbo were blacklisted already, Lloyd was blacklisted for a time (he came back, thankfully, and is still with us) as was Royle. And of course, John Garfield. A serious actor and movie star (he trained in the Group Theater), a progressive man (and patriotic, he helped create The Hollywood Canteen) was called to name names and unlike many other actors, writers and directors, Garfield, both a once young street tough and a man of principle, refused to rat. Hero.

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Work was then harder to come by and at the young age of 39, this great actor died of coronary thrombosis. Many speculate an already present heart condition was worsened by the stress caused by the House's inquisition, and that is probably true. Here was one of cinema’s greatest actors who looked fantastic on screen, pure charisma and craft and a precursor to Clift, Dean and Brando. His career with intense, funny, heartfelt, 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, Nobody Lives Forever, Humoresque and so many more, was cut short because of the HUAC abomination. He Ran All the Way was his last movie. Watching the final shots of the picture – Garfield’s Nick staggering and slumping into that gutter – Jesus Christ, what a bad dream poor Nick had. Why didn’t anyone listen? Simple answer: no love. Well, we love you Nick. And we love John Garfield. And we’ll never forget him. He didn’t rat and he didn’t run.  


Elliott Gould & The Long Goodbye

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From my New Beverly interview with the great Elliott Gould:

Talking with Elliott Gould is a unique, enriching experience. He philosophizes, he riffs, he free-associates in an erudite, non-linear way that recalls jazz. Jazz – which is how he describes the movie we’re talking about  Robert Altman’s masterpiece, The Long Goodbye, in which he unforgettably stars at Philip Marlowe. I met with Gould recently in Los Angeles to discuss Altman’s seminal picture, and the conversation moved to multiple subjects – Altman, Bergman, Chandler, Bogart, identity, freedom, how you can’t double cross a cat … so many things. It’s never not fascinating talking to Gould…

Kim Morgan: I’ll start with the genesis of the project …  Can you discuss the journey of this version of The Long Goodbye?

Elliott Gould: I went to visit my friend David Picker who was running United Artists, I went looking for a job or looking to see if I could produce something with someone who seemed to get me. And David Picker gave me Leigh Brackett’s script. And, at the time, I didn’t know if there was a formal attachment with Peter Bogdanovich. I read the script – and I thought it was somewhat old-fashioned … the word pastiche doesn’t come from here, but, still, I was always interested in the genre. I was told that Peter couldn’t see me in it. He saw, in his mind, Robert Mitchum or Lee Marvin. And I said to David Picker, “I can’t argue with them, they’re like my Uncles. But we’ve seen them, and you haven’t seen me.” And then out of the blue I got a call from Robert Altman to whom United Artists had given the material. Altman called me from Ireland where he was finishing Images with Susannah York. And Altman said, “What do you think?” And I said, “I always wanted to play this guy.” And Altman said to me, “You are this guy.” And that was it.

KM: What made Altman decide to get involved …

EG: Well, we didn’t do McCabe & Mrs. Miller (You know I couldn’t do it at that point) and still McCabe & Mrs. Miller didn’t suffer, although I understand that wasn’t so easy for Bob to work with Warren [Beatty]. Bob had said to me, at that time, “You’re making the mistake of your life.” And I said, “Well it’s not my life yet and you can’t take away that I was your first choice for this and someday I will look at this and say, wow what a masterpiece and you wanted me to play it.” Meanwhile Warren and Julie were great. But, Bob and I had done so well with MASH and I guess it was just such a blessing because I was not only out of work, I had gone too far… being that I was producing. But I didn’t understand limitations with the business. I didn’t understand realty with the business. But Bob was certainly perfect for me and we really did great. I thought we might have done perhaps a Raymond Chandler every three years. Just to do the whole thing…

KM: It was already an iconic character but you made it iconic in your own interpretation … but it doesn’t sound like you had any trepidation with this character…

EG: No! Bob gave me so much freedom…. When we [with Steven Soderbergh] were all shooting Ocean’s Eleven, and it was 1:20 in the morning and we were set to do the scene where George Clooney tells everyone what it’s going to be, and I had a little scene with Matt Damon and all of us – the whole group was there – and just as we’re ready to shoot at 1:20 in the morning, Steven Soderbergh walked up to me and said “the ink on the face…”

KM: Yes…

EG: You’ve heard this and you know this. “Was the ink on the face an improvisation?” I’m ready to do my scene with Matt Damon, hit my marks and play my part, and I thought, what are you talking to me about? I have to wake up to respond to your question. And then we said, at the same time, “The Long Goodbye” –  I said, “Yes, the ink on the face was an improvisation … was that behavior acceptable to you?” And Stephen said “Yes, but it was so unexpected.” I [told him] that exhibited the kind of confidence and trust that Bob had in me…  Here’s this fascist cop who was questioning the character of Marlowe in this little room which was being observed from a two-way mirror, right? I thought in terms of the irreverence of the character and the core, the substance of somebody who will not deviate when it comes to pure nature and justice and what we need to believe in…  And the cops saying, “What are you doing?” And I’m saying “I have a big game.” (You know in football they put like charcoal under their eyes to take the glare away) … and just being totally irreverent to the authority that is [pauses]… trying to build a wall on our Southern Border. It’s the same thing…

KM: Yeah …

EG: Yeah, it’s the same thing. Yeah. And then I went even further and put it on my face and started to do Al Jolson … I said, “So once I committed to putting ink on my face… If I had stopped and hadn’t continued and followed through and done it, it would have taken us about twenty-five minutes to clean me up and as you know, movies are about time management in relation to resources. Everything to me is about nature. Everything is about nature. And it exhibited Bob Altman’s confidence in me. I could weep, you know. And his trust in me.

KM: That he let you really improvise.

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EG: More than that… because I know when we did MASH, he said to me, a couple of times, and I don’t like the way it sounds but it’s true, “I can’t keep my eyes off of you …I don’t know what you’re going to do.” And I said, “Then don’t look at me. I’m always in character. My presence here once you have a camera and you’re working, I’m always in character so don’t kill what I’m doing until you see it in consort with everyone else. Then, if it doesn’t work, you tell me and I’ll change immediately.” And the next day, Bob came up to me and said, “You’re right.” Bob always had a problem with authority. So, did I… With The Long Goodbye, I felt it was, the first picture for me. The first picture for me…

KM: Really?

EG: Well, I remember each up to The Long Goodbye

KM: Yes, we talked about all of the movies leading up to this and how important they were to you …

[Gould discussed all of the pictures leading up to The Long Goodbye, what he learned, and the experiences associated with them, from his first picture, William Dieterle’s The Confession, also called Quick, Let’s Get Married, to William Friedkin’s The Night They Raided Minsky’s to Paul Mazursky’s Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, a movie in which Gould said it was where he discovered his relationship “with the camera and that the camera is my first friend. It doesn’t lie to me, it doesn’t tell me do, or don’t, it just reports. It’s objective. Everything was subjective to me. That was a breakthrough for me. That was a great opportunity for me.” To, of course, MASHwith Altman, and how he was first offered Tom Skerritt’s part but said to Altman, “I could do it. I have a very musical ear, I could do it. But this guy Trapper John, if you haven’t cast it. I got what that character is. Even if it’s a certain color, a certain energy.” And then Altman gave him the part. He did Move and I Love My Wife. He did Richard Rush’s Getting Straight. And then he starred in and produced Little Murders, directed by Alan Arkin, based on the Jules Feiffer play… And then Ingmar Bergman’s The Touch – “I can’t say no to Ingmar Bergman, I want to know if I can act” –  which was a meaningful experience for him –  to work with Bergman and to talk to Bergman about many things – “In recent times I had seen an article which quoted Ingmar Bergman as saying I was difficult to work with. And that wasn’t true, nor is it true. But Ingmar is no longer living. Fortunately, there was an interview with Dick Cavett when The Touch was going to be released, and I couldn’t attend it, which was a disappointment to us… but Ingmar said on the Cavett show, which is on YouTube, that the day I showed up it was evident to him and his whole family, the crew, that I was a team player.” We led up to his ill-fated project A Glimpse of Tiger. So much interesting stuff – I will try to work on a second part of this interview to dig in deeper regarding all of those movies before and beyond The Long Goodbye…]

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EG: The Long Goodbye was like a movie, movie, this was like in relation to movies I had seen growing up. And what with Altman giving me the kind of freedom he gave me, and for to have played a classic character out of time and place, it was like, in a way, a first movie for me…The Long Goodbye was the perfect vehicle for me to live in… I had come back from working with Ingmar Bergman [on The Touch], to do another picture, which was an error. There’s no shouldas… Once I could see that mostly people were in it for mostly what they could get out of it – and I don’t have necessarily a false value – but a great deal of what I could bring to it. You know, become a part of something. And so, that picture didn’t get made. But I started it and I didn’t finish it and I had to pay for it… and it was thought that I was nuts. And I must have been a little nuts in terms of not fulfilling my commitment to a picture…

KM: Oh, this was the project…

EG: It was called A Glimpse of Tiger and it emanated into What’s Up, Doc? which had nothing to do with what I was talking about [A Glimpse of Tiger]. My picture was like The Little Prince in urban American now, and the prince was this young girl, played by Kim Darby. They let me cast Kim Darby and they fought me all the way with Kim Darby and we couldn’t find anyone. And I remember meetings that I had … but that’s a different story… So, then I’m not working. I can’t work and they, being the establishment, without me being examined, they collect an insurance policy based on me being nuts. And I wasn’t. But in terms of understanding what I was doing and what I was trying to do, I didn’t quite know boundaries and limits. I thought I had earned the right to create. I thought I had earned the right to be in charge. We already made Little Murders I could do almost anything and… I had a very fertile potential to produce. I know chemistry in terms of nature and what worked together and there’s nothing more important and therefore, I just need writers… so I had no work. And then David Picker gave it to Robert Altman and here we are…

KM: I read that Altman had people read “Raymond Chandler Speaking”… which brings me to the beginning of the picture with your cat, a famous scene, which I love, and is an extension of Chandler because Chandler loved cats. I read that Altman said the cat is key because you can’t lie to a cat.

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EG:
 Well, sure that was Altman! Altman said to me before we started to shoot, he told me the first sequence with the cat and the food. He said, “That’s the theme of the picture.” And that’s all Altman. It’s all Altman…

KM: And then the line throughout the movie is “It’s OK with me…” which was you …

EG: Altman gave me that freedom. It’s always the way I am. That was the first day. What that reflected to me was, I don’t necessarily know what anything means, I don’t know what’s going on and here we are after having awakened and trying to replace my cat’s food with something concocted. And again, this scene is not in it – the first day of shooting, we went to the CBS Radford Studio because we wanted an office building where a lot of different, like if you’ve got dentists, or a lot of different private eyes, or even Sam Spade at one point – and when I’m there and I say “It’s OK with me” … meaning, like I don’t understand what you’re doing or what any of this means, just don’t tread on me. And think what you think, do what you want to do, but I’ll just go my own way.

KM: It’s such a wonderful refrain throughout the movie…

EG: I had a little house in the beach… and Altman hired a skywriter to fly over my house and write, “It’s OK with me, too…”

KM: Really?!

EG: Yes, isn’t that sweet?

KM: Yes, that’s incredible. Do you also believe that by the end of the film that it’s not OK for Philip Marlowe?

EG: No, it wasn’t. He killed him [Terry Lennox]. No, it’s not OK.

KM: The setting is that present – the early 1970s Los Angeles,  which is so much different than now, in Los Angeles, but… in some ways, not entirely different…

EG: No, it’s not different than now. That’s the title for the sequel that I’m still interested in making – It’s Always Now [an adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s story, The Curtain]. The Chandler Estate gave me the rights to (I no longer have them) The Curtain… this [Chandler’s story] was pre-The Big Sleep and pre-The Long Goodbye. The character’s name [is different] and they said I could be Philip Marlowe… The character is much older but he still has the same spirit and the same mind and the same focus… I did a little work with Bob on it, I’ve got a first draft screenplay from Alan Rudolph… It’s a very interesting project, and you can see where The Big Sleep came from…

KM: Working with Sterling Hayden – he’s so raw and touching.

EG: You know the history was that Bob cast Dan Blocker and then Dan Blocker died and it was almost the end of the picture. And then I thought about John Huston, but then Bob cast Sterling Hayden. And I asked to meet Sterling Hayden, I just wanted to sit alone with him. And in a dark room in the house that Bob had been living in…

KM: The house in Malibu…

EG: Yes, which was the Wade House [in the movie]. I was in a room like this, and he had recently come back from Ireland where he had some work with R.D. Laing… and so I knew that Sterling knew that I knew that Sterling knew that I understood him… So, at one point when we were in Pasadena working at the sanitarium where we find Sterling Hayden in that cottage that he’s in with Henry Gibson (you know, that specific cottage was where W.C. Fields lived the last part of his life…) And when Altman would be stressed… Sterling would say to me, I don’t know how he phrased it exactly, but, “Is the old man giving you a hard time?” something like that… And I said, “A little bit.” It didn’t have to do with the work but it probably had to do with my response to what Bob needed, and I’m always looking for something. And Sterling said, “Just vamp.” [And] what does vamp mean? It means, to hold time, meaning, when you vamp with music you hold time.

KM: Sterling Hayden and you … your chemistry together is beautiful.

EG: And the kind of man that he was! That scene where we’re sitting down and [having the drink] … Bob had designed it so that the camera is circling the two of us. And we couldn’t even know whether it would be able to be edited, but I didn’t have any doubt, and I don’t think that Bob has doubt, and so we did that with the aquavit.

KM: And part of it was improvised?

EG: I knew there were certain pieces of information that had to be in that scene so I could help with that [improvising], otherwise it was just about getting to know and see this relationship between these two different generations of men, and that was pretty amazing…

KM: I know you loved Hayden – was Hayden during the whole shoot, working with Altman – was he fine all during the production?

Longgoodbye-coffee_1050_591_81_s_c1EG: Yes. [Gould nods a decided yes]. He hit me in the ear. When he comes home the night before he goes to sleep and I’m there, the “Marlboro Man,” he hit me on the ear – it really hurt. He really gave me a whop on the ear. Oh my god. It’s there in the picture too. I almost saw stars. Sterling was fabulous. Just fabulous…

KM: His frustration, his anger is so palpable, his drunkenness so real, it’s just such a powerful performance…

EG: Oh yeah, I sometimes think about establishing or seeing what it would take to establish a new category, several new categories at the Academy for performances that were not only overlooked, but not recognized, and his would be one.

KM: I like the little touches of old Hollywood in the film kind of living there on the periphery

EG: Of course! Bob does that in the beginning and the end. And then, the end, “Hooray for Hollywood…”

KM: The security guard who does the impressions, he is so lovable.

EG: Oh, I know. He’s so charming! I wouldn’t have used the car… that was my car… the 1948 Lincoln Continental Convertible. I had won a bet once, and I don’t gamble anymore, as much as I love to win, I hate losing more and there’s nothing I need that I can win… I won the money to buy that car. And Bob used it. I didn’t even charge them for it. But I wouldn’t have used that car. I thought it was sort of obvious, I must say. It was called the Last American Classic. And John Wayne had one earlier. It was green. I gave it to Harrah’s Museum and they re-painted it and it’s there in the museum right next to the car that James Dean used in Rebel Without a Cause… It all connects. You know, it all connects…

KM: The casting is so wonderful and unexpected throughout – two of the main actors had never acted before…

EG: Yes. Jim Bouton. And Nina van Pallandt. She was a singer…

KM: And then, Henry Gibson – this was his first time working with Altman and he was so perfect…

EG: Henry Gibson. Yes, he was great. He was really scary in it. A really scary character.

KM: And Mark Rydell is also so scary in it…

EG: Oh, he was fabulous in the movie…

KM: As you obviously know, Rydell, a director… and he directed you…

EG: Yes, in Harry and Walter Go to New York…

KM: And I read that Rydell and Larry Tucker – who wrote with Paul Mazursky as you also know – that Tucker and Rydell re-wrote the Marty Augustine character …

EG: Larry Tucker and Paul Mazursky – they wrote I Love You, Alice B. Toklas, and Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice. And then they did some other pictures. They did Alex in Wonderland. They were pleading with me to do Alex in Wonderland but I wanted to do Little Murders. And again, not to be sorry… I have no regrets…

KM: And Little Murders is such a great movie! I love that movie.

EG: Me too. I know. Oh, I know. But… I would have met Fellini…

KM: I’m curious about how the movie, the way it was shot, the camera movement, all of that, and how all of the actors flowed together as you were working…

EG: I read Luis Bunuel’s autobiography and there’s a story in it about when someone asked him to do a movie. And he asked, “How much do you have for the movie?” And at the time they said $75,000 and he thought, and then said, “I’ll do your movie for what you have for it, but you’ve got to stay away, I don’t want anyone else there thinking. No one else can be involved. It’s just us.” Do you know what I mean?

KM: And so, was Altman like that on the set – and with you?

EG: He said to me, when he called me in Munich another time, to take over what we thought Steve McQueen was going to do in California Split, he said, “I know if I give you a nickel, you’ll stretch it more than anyone else would consider.” And, well yeah. We want to work, we want to continue to work, but we have to be free…

KM: Did you have the most freedom with Robert Altman? It sounds like you did, of all of your directors you worked with, that he gave you that freedom…

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EG: Well, I took it. I took it… Altman needed so much freedom to do what he did. I breathed it in. I took it… On The Long Goodbye, he told me I scared him. In terms of being free, and in terms of adapting to where we were at. Because even with the drowning scene and having waited for the high tide, Altman said to me, “Do you think we can do the two days work in one night?” Being that the first part was Sterling [when, in the movie, he’s walked out to the water], and the next was me running down, and the next part was waiting for the high tide, and then me going in there and coming out – and I nearly drowned. I literally nearly drowned… I had been playing basketball all day, and then I ran down to the beach several times… I thought, “You can’t go down, Elliott, there’s no one here to bring you back up.” And I was able to bring myself up and be able to go to her [Nina van Pallandt] and she was acting right there. She did great, she was perfect. And then we had to do it again, and I was really scared. And so, I could act a little more. I didn’t realize this was the mother ocean. And, I was aware that I was out of control, and if I went down, I was really close to drowning, because there was no one there with me… And I said, we could do it. Because I might have had shots with the sun coming up – in the scene where I talk about Ronald Reagan and throw the bottle of liquor – and I can see that people are lying – the police are playing parts, and she’s lying. And also, something interesting, if you want to look at it and analyze it, that Altman gave me all of that room, you know, all of that room. And … we did [the scene] three times… and we could have done it [again], but Altman came to me and said, “I’m tired. We can’t do it.” And I was all ready to do the two nights together. But it worked. But I would have loved to have seen sunrise in it. I would have loved to have seen the light change. Using light in relation to our mind.

KM: The movie is referenced in other films, you see the influence – like The Big Lebowski and you feel it in Inherent Vice… you see how much people return to the picture…

EG: It’s an American jazz piece… Sometimes I’ll study a generation later [in life]. Like I started to study High Sierra, and [John] Huston wrote that… Yeah. Ida Lupino. And I remember seeing it at the time. Now that I understand myself, and I could see through it. Bogart was fucking perfect… You talk about things that hold up. I mean, I watched Casablanca [again], not to be sentimental. I don’t want to deny it – if it touches me, it touches me. It means I’m still living.

KM: But no one’s ever been able to do you – you are so one-of-a-kind, I don’t think anyone could really emulate your performance, there’s no one like you.

EG: I would rather not ever go there… I should really go out and find all of the books on tape that I did [reading] Chandler, I think I did all of them – but I don’t want to go there. I find a personal identity in that. But it’s very hard to do. Because you have this character. This guy. I mean, he’s, it’s, a unique character. There’s no ego there…

KM: No, and it’s not a stereotypical type of masculinity either…

EG: Well, whatever masculinity is…

KM: And how Marlowe talks to himself, your interior monologue that you’re vocalizing…

EG: Always! Don’t we all have that?

KM: There’s such alchemy with this picture. Did you know you were making something so masterful, so magical while you were doing it?

EG: No, no you can’t… And sometimes we hope for things, and we don’t necessarily know what we hope for. We hope to do well enough to validate continuing to work. I’m sure that there have been some pictures as far as seeing some magic, or seeing something fuse; seeing different ideas fuse… But the idea… it’s Altman. It’s Altman. It’s Altman’s chemistry. And of course, me, being in the right place at the right time … It’s so close to me. It’s so close. It really is. I mean, again, Bogart was sublime. Dick Powell – he’s interesting, I look at some of his work, he’s a very fine actor and director and smart business man. And then you had several people, and even afterwards, like Robert Mitchum, and I love Mitchum… But, no, no, I’m glad Bob and I made the one. And… it breathes.


Happy New Year and Hell Upside Down: The Poseidon Adventure

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There’s got to be a morning after
If we can hold on through the night
We have a chance to find the sunshine
Let’s keep on looking for the light

It’s New Year’s Eve on the SS Poseidon. And New Year’s Eve is often horrible. I’m sorry, I’m sure there are many who love New Year’s Eve and that is a wonderful thing, but good god it can be depressing. And especially at a party – crammed in a room (or on a boat) with people you’re supposed to be having a good time with. But there’s also something a bit mysterious about how woeful it can be. It’s not like you really want the same year to continue, not even if it was a great one, we all need a refresh of course, so that is the hope – a fresh start, a new beginning and, in some more dramatic circumstances, light out of the darkness. As Maureen McGovern sings, “There’s got to be a morning after…”

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And that can happen for people. People who have permanently good attitudes, loads of self-motivation, or good luck. But with time and wisdom (and cynicism), you often know the next day, the New Year, really makes no damn difference from the day before. Unless you make it so (for yourself – for your community, or for the world, that’s something else). So here come the reflections about your life, which can fill you with melancholy or anxiety. And here come the resolutions. But will you empower yourself to even start them? Will you not, as Gene Hackman’s The Poseidon Adventure preacher testifies, “pray to God to solve your problems!” But instead, “Pray to that part of God within you! Have the guts to fight for yourself!” Maybe.

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Or maybe you need an enormous push – a holler from a malevolent God, or a mischievous Devil (your choice), or, you need to take an absurdist journey through the looking glass. Or maybe you just need to freak yourself out. That all sounds so dramatic – it doesn’t need to be that dramatic, not in real life, and so this is why cinema is so glorious. You can, in the Ronald Neame-directed, Irwin Allen-produced, John Williams-scored, The Poseidon Adventure, live through all of these other people’s lives – their and hopes and their dreams and their freak-outs on New Year’s Eve. And enjoy the hell out of it. You can forgo a party or watching the ball drop or falling asleep early on the couch and experience the surreal hellscape of this aging luxury liner. There they go, sliding sideways across a dance floor, screaming. Here they are, terrified, hanging upside down from a table in a 1970’s party pantsuit. They’re not taking down the Christmas tree this year, they are, instead, climbing up it.

The passengers of the Poseidon, including four past Oscar winners, are facing the fight of their lives in an otherworldly realm of water, fire, explosions, and shimmering holiday tinsel. It’s ridiculous, it’s bizarre, it’s weirdly beautiful, it’s silly, it’s exciting, it’s, at times, incredibly human. You want a memorable New Year’s Eve? Or at least a pleasant kind of drunkenness? Watch Gene Hackman and Ernest Borgnine yell at each other about the right thing to do stuck in a capsized ship and watch Borgnine usually (always?) be wrong about it. No wonder, even beyond the whole disaster he’s found himself in, he’s often in a rotten mood.

And from the start, he’s sour – even as none of the sliding-across-the-dance-floor or hanging-upside-down has happened yet (the only one aware of danger is Leslie Nielsen, the ship’s captain, and his immediate crew). But Borgnine’s cop, Detective Lieutenant Mike Rogo, is, from the first scene, dealing with his sick wife, Linda (Stella Stevens), who is also upset. She’s often cranky and snips at him (“To love, dummy” she says later during a toast), but he clearly loves her. She’s a former prostitute (it’s discussed a few times after this moment – she’s worried someone on board recognized her – so much for new beginnings) and he’s bickering with her about suppositories (he doesn’t know where you put them – she does). He’s also annoyed with the doctor for taking so long, but, a portent of doom – three quarters of the passengers aboard the Poseidon are sick. New Year’s Eve is already starting off terribly.

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On a more positive note, there’s sweet Belle Rosen (Shelley Winters) and her husband, Manny (Jack Albertson), a loving, retired couple who are traveling to Israel, thrilled that they’ll finally meet their grandson. Belle notices the older bachelor James Martin (Red Buttons), speed-walking on deck, an activity that looks wobbly and weird – it seems like he’s both running away from something or towards a goal he may never reach (it’s hard not to think of Buttons’ marathon dancer in They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? – and Jane Fonda’s Gloria dragging his dead body on her back across the dance floor). Belle thinks the health-conscious haberdasher is lonely. “That’s why he runs. So he won’t notice,” she says. God, what a bummer, Shelley, and on New Year’s Eve of all times. But she’s right.

Then there’s the rogue preacher, Reverend Frank Scott (Gene Hackman, who was in two great, very different pictures than this one –Cisco Pike and Prime Cut – the same year Poseidon was released), whose gotten in trouble with his church for, I suppose, being so rebellious, and is being sent to Africa. He thinks that’s just fine as he’s the best kind of reverend, he says: “Angry, rebellious, critical, a renegade. Stripped of most of my so-called clerical powers. But l’m still in business.” (He sounds like Royal Tenenbaum at that moment) We don’t know how to feel about him, he seems a little unstable, and he is going to become the hero of this movie, which is fantastic – a refreshing change of pace. He’s certainly not typical, he’s not square-jawed boring, this is going to be interesting…

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He is full of New Year’s Eve assuredness and an almost creepy, all-powerful positivity towards the future. His punishment is, in fact, to him, “Freedom! Real freedom. Freedom to dump all the rules and all the trappings. And freedom to discover God in my own way!” He’ll discover something like God soon enough.

Later on, he’ll preach to a group of passengers – including a young woman (with a resourceful gown, we’ll learn that night) that he’ll bond with, Susan Shelby (Pamela Sue Martin), who is traveling with her ship-curious younger brother, Robin (Eric Shea), and the sensitive singer Nonnie Parry (Carol Lynley), who will form a connection – traumatized – with James Martin. The Reverend is sermonizing that God wants “winners, not quitters.” And he will, indeed, bring up, quite forcefully, New Year’s resolutions:

“So, what resolution should we make for the New Year? Resolve to let God know that you have the guts to do it alone! Resolve to fight for yourselves and for others and for those you love. That part of God within you will be fighting with you. All the way.”

He really seems to vibing something here, like perhaps a major catastrophe (or maybe he was really upset by the state of the world, hated Richard Nixon) and that is surely the point, but some of this preaching seems like it would creep out half of the ship. But Hackman is so good, so angry/charming, that he makes this guy’s weirdness riveting. I’d go see him preach if I were on that boat. I’d sit there all entranced and scared like Red Buttons in his natty scarf hoping his multiple doses of vitamins keep him virile enough to find a girlfriend or a wife or survive a 90-foot tidal wave. New Year’s Eve is awful anyway. Why not?

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Once we get to the New Year’s Eve celebration, we’ve now met a likable waiter named Acres (Roddy McDowall), who is digging the young people and their music, and Arthur O’Connell as an older Chaplain who seems a bit disturbed by Hackman’s iconoclastic Reverend. Everyone’s celebrating in the grand, holiday-decorated ball room where the Captain doesn’t sit at his table for long – he and the greedy Linarcos (Fred Sadoff) must leave as there is an emergency (the undersea earthquake and all) – and Reverend Scott will take over as Captain. At the table anyway. But then he already seems like he has taken over. And then…  the boat, described by the purser as “a hotel with a bow and a stern stuck on,” will capsize. Spectacularly so.

It’s an incredible, strangely beautiful, artfully composed sequence. The passengers, adorned in bright gowns and suits with frills and funny hats, fall to one side, tumbling over chairs and tables and musical equipment. They keep rolling along with the boat as its turned over by the tidal wave – the floor becoming the ceiling. They slide on a surface strewn with colorful New Year’s Eve confetti, trying to grab on to anything, desperately attempting to hang on to loved ones. The tables now have screaming topsy-turvy passengers clinging to them as they hang in the air. It’s insane, wonderfully surreal – Alice in Wonderland going down the rabbit hole by way of Hieronymus Bosch mixed with a Max Ernst collage. The Day of the Locust’s Tod Hackett could paint it in his mind – and go crazy for sure – or maybe Shelley Winters would save him.

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And from then on, the movie does not stop. These passengers, who really become only the handful of survivors/movie stars (all mentioned above) – the ones who climbed up that Christmas tree (save for Roddy McDowall who was already at the top, and then poor Arthur O’Connell stays down with all those who sided with the by-the-book purser instead of the rebel Reverend), will work through an unearthly quagmire within this upside-down abyss. They are moving up, from the top of the ship to the bottom (insane), to the outer hull, and they climb and crawl and swim through various stages of hell. Belle, who is constantly worried that her weight will impede her, will perform her heroic, sacrificial swim (she was once the underwater swimming champ of New York) and it’s quite moving. People argue – Rogo and the Reverend, Rogo and Linda, some are braver than others, some nearly lose their minds, and some of them die. And they’re all being led by a Reverend who is so challenged by God that, in his last act, he screams to the big man upstairs: “How many more sacrifices? How much more blood? How many more lives?! Belle wasn’t enough! Acres wasn’t! Now this girl! You want another life? Then take me!”

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The Reverend, who has not wasted any time praying, something he seems not to believe in (for good reason in this case, he’s got to keep himself and everyone moving, what good would praying do?) is fueled with an anger at a blood-thirsty God that feels damn righteous at this point. If God set up this entire catastrophe as a test – why? Why did brave Shelley Winters have to die a watery death again (remember A Place in the SunThe Night of the Hunter, the rain storm in Lolita)? Yes, I am blurring Shelley Winters with Belle, and with everything else she’s played (am I forgetting another cinematic water death?), but this is what The Poseidon Adventure does to me. Why take out any of these people?

And more about God – God is all over this picture, and yet, it really feels like God isn’t around much, not any sort of benevolent God. This God is furious. This God does not give a good goddamn while they’re twisting through this upside-down underworld of a ship. (Maybe a kinder God helped with the Christmas tree?) Or, to go further, there is no God – how could one not feel that while being so tested and enraged by a higher being? There is a Devil, likely. And maybe nature is God. (Maybe Gene Hackman’s Reverend is really getting to me…)

Well, wait a second… perhaps there is something more powerful up there to believe – a divine intervention. Near the closing of the movie, when they reach the end of the line, their only chance out of this netherworld, Rogo hollers out, “My God, there is somebody up there. The preacher was right! The beautiful son of a bitch was right!” (That would be a terrific bible verse – someone should work on that) Rogo once angrily accused the Reverend of thinking that he, himself, was God. Now Rogo may think that “beautiful son of a bitch” was some kind of Christ figure.

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But does everyone believe now? I don’t know. Certainly not all of the viewers. The movie’s power is from how punishing and surreal it is – not entirely spiritually, even if religious allegory is all over the picture and surely meaningful to some – there’s something more potent about it being a crazy, screaming spectacle intertwined with all of this God business – it moves into another realm, one of wonderful epic absurdity. It spins through your brain like those Alice in Wonderland passengers rolling through the ball room in loud clothing with confetti and pianos flying everywhere. It manages to be both mind-numbing and invigorating, inane and inspiring. Is that possible? Sure it is. Life can be like that. And the movie is strangely satisfying. What you might need as the year comes to a close. What you might need on a day before the morning after.

Originally published at the New Beverly.


Christmas With The Cobweb

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“On The Cobweb, I’d arrive on the set and there he’d [Vincente Minnelli] be up on the boom, zooming up to the drapes, and I thought to myself, ‘He’s really in heaven now.’ The bloody drapes. It was all about the goddamned drapes in The Cobweb.” – Lauren Bacall

The drapes. The drapes in the library of the high-end private psychiatric clinic. Those dreary old Lillian Gish Miss Inch chosen drapes just hanging there for decades – taunting, not only the patients, but the doctors even more – enough to cause tense confrontations, enraged phone calls and … if you put your subtitles on while watching the movie, “fabric ripping.” Anyone who’s seen Vincent Minnelli’s The Cobweb (1955) knows what I’m talking about because those drapes and the trouble they cause – who will order them, what will they cost, which material will be chosen, colors, colors are so very important, who will design them, will it benefit the patients, will it help Gloria Grahame’s marriage, will it ruin her marriage, will those drapes ruin everyone, will people die – are the dramatis impetus of the entire movie. It sounds absurd – drapes – and at times it very much wonderfully is, but it’s an absurdity rooted in a reality in which something as supposedly inconsequential as window dressing pulls out heightened emotions in various people – people at vulnerable stages in their lives. Focusing on those damn drapes, something to prettify a room, to obscure outsider view, to showcase taste, it is also a focus that could create anxiety and depression. It also works to detract a person from their actual problems. I’m fine! It’s the drapes!

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What’s powerful about The Cobweb is that the coverings always unmask rather than obscure – which speaks to the filmmaker as well – color, patterns, furnishings, design were important to Minnelli, who shoots these details with such intensity you can practically feel the hues vibrating from the scene (Some Came Running, The Bandwagon, Meet Me in St. Louis, An American in Paris, Two Weeks in Another Town, are some examples – his Vincent Van Gough biopic, Lust for Life, was reportedly his favorite picture, not a surprise for a few reasons, some being Van Gough’s bold colors, thick strokes and then, his madness). In The Cobweb, swatches of vivid drapery fabric sitting on a table between two characters, indeed just the word “swatch,” has never felt so lacerating and intense. Whenever Gloria Grahame holds a swatch in her hand or tosses it on the bed, I get nervous. It’s not crazy to think this material would attract Minnelli. As Mark Griffin wrote in “A Hundred or More Hidden Things: The Life and Films of Vincente Minnelli”:

“For a decor-obsessed director like Minnelli, being handed a story in which interior furnishings play a pivotal role must have seemed like a gift from the cinematic gods.” ‘The Cobweb was a psychological story that appealed to me greatly,’ Vincente said. ‘The thing that attracted me was that it wasn’t about the inmates, although the inmates happen to be strange. It was about the doctors and the foul-ups in their lives… It was so rich in possibilities that I volunteered to direct.’”

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And he fulfilled all of those possibilities directing this movie (in Cinemascope, gorgeous Eastman Color, cinematography by George J. Folsey, a 12-tone score by Leonard Rosenman), with a cast that’s so star-heavy, you expect an Irwin Allen earthquake to shake up such icons. Nope, all Minnelli needed were drapes: Richard Widmark, Lauren Bacall, Charles Boyer, Gloria Grahame, Lillian Gish, Oscar Levant, Adele Jergens, Fay Wray, newcomer John Kerr (Minnelli originally wanted James Dean for the role) and Susan Strasberg inhabit this tony asylum –  the real one and the elegant homes and beatnik apartments – housed by the clinic workers and their wives. It’s fitting then, that the movie opens with the young, troubled artist, Stevie (Kerr) running down a road, only to be picked up by a doctor’s wife, Karen (Grahame), the neglected, kittenish and often angry stunner married to Widmark’s Dr. Stewart McIver. Their discussion? Color: Stevie says: “Red and green… Derain died last fall in a hospital. You wouldn’t know who he was …  He died in a hospital in a white bed, in a white room – doctors in white standing around – the last thing he said was ‘Some red, show me some red. Before dying I want to see some red and some green.’”

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We get to the drapes before Karen even drops off Stevie – their ride to the clinic intercuts with Stewart discussing the new drapes with the dour, by-the-book clinic administrator, Victoria Inch (Gish), who is cheap, and sees no reason to be the least bit extravagant about curtains. Karen later notices the swatches and without telling her husband orders up the new drapes herself – and much more colorful and expensive drapes, to the later horror of Victoria. Karen’s action becomes a bigger problem when Stewart agrees with his patients and the clinic’s beautiful, slightly bohemian crafts director Meg Faverson (Bacall). Stewart and Meg are for the patients designing the drapes – chiefly Stevie. They think this is great therapy, something that will make the patients feel happier and satisfied and useful. But oh my god… the drapes. So much drama in the drapes. More time spent with Meg makes Stewart start falling for her, and less time with Karen makes Karen start unraveling even faster. The carousing medical director Douglas Devanal (Boyer) coming on to her after she strategizes with him and opens up about her marriage, doesn’t help. And it just goes on and on in circles – arguing about the drapes – until Karen becomes furiously proactive and drives to the clinic, hanging those drapes up herself. We should be proud of Karen at that moment, even if it’s destructive. My god, someone did something about the drapes!

We observe the patients, the so-called mad ones, and we see them lose it a few times, chiefly Strasberg’s agoraphobic Sue, and of course Stevie – once the new drapes are put up, he runs again, suspected dead. There’s also the acerbic Levant taking hydrotherapy baths and uttering darkly amusing, disturbing observations (some based on his own psychiatric problems – the movie was adapted by John Paxton from the 1954 novel by William Gibson). But the non-patients are the ones going crazy in The Cobweb and madness seems inescapable – nothing can seemingly contain it – certainly not those goddamn drapes. Grahame (who gives the picture’s best performance – pouty, insolent and vulnerable) talking in a phone booth to a grim Victoria during a symphony is so unusually dynamic, you can truly feel how “sultry” the air is, as Karen explains in the overheated booth. And they’re talking about … well, what do you think they’re talking about? The small, stuffy phone booth is an apt place to be arguing about drapes – these are characters contained in their marriages, their rigidity, their guilt, their losses, their need for expression, and all feel, to varying degrees, on the verge of exploding, of running, whether out of something or back into their own torment.

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There’s hints of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” here (“It is the strangest yellow, that wallpaper! It makes me think of all the yellow things I ever saw-not beautiful ones like buttercups but old foul, bad yellow things.”) though Minnelli’s characters are stuck in an unstable rest cure in their own minds, with drapes and bright flowers and Gloria Grahame’s red lipstick, which at times looks almost running from the corner of her mouth – she always seems just a little mussed, not matter how beautifully dressed. Mussed seems appropriate as Minnelli cracks his characters over the head with the drapes and he never let’s go of those swatches for a second. Stewart says, Before we know it, we’ll have so many drapes around here we’ll wrap the clinic up in them.” He’s almost right. By the end, someone will be wrapped in those drapes. Literally. For comfort. For calm. Watching Karen wrap Stevie up in the dreaded drapes like a blanket – oh, god – it’s not so calm. And, yet, the drapes have served some kind of utilitarian purpose. Which, seems at this point, well, insane.