Tuesday, November 19, 2019

cinema obscura: two robert preston gems

Following his incredible success on Broadway in "The Music Man," Robert Preston went on to give his defining performance in the 1962 film version of Meredith Willson's fabulous musical - a performance which should have earned him at the very least a shot at an Oscar nomination but didn't.

Gregory Peck won the Oscar that year for Robert Mulligan's "To Kill a Mockingbird." Preston's is the better performance of the two, but really, where does one begin to compare? However, with the Willson musical, director Morton DaCosta provided Preston with an awesome second act.

Preston went on to do the incredible work in a dazzling array of films - Sam Peckinpah's "Junior Bonner," Sidney Lumet's "Child's Play," Michael Ritchie's "Semi-Tough," Gene Saks' "Mame," Nick Castle's "The Last Starfighter" (his final film) and, of course, two with Blake Edwards, "Victor/Victoria" and "S.O.B." Then there are two titles that bookend his performance in the movie version of "The Music Man' - the film versions of two other stage productions, both films apparently now lost.

They would be "The Dark at the Top of the Stairs," based on the William Inge play and shot immediately prior to "The Music Man" (and for the same studio, Warner Bros.), and Tad Mosel's "All the Way Home," adapted from James Agee's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, "A Death in the Family."
There are those who thought that William Inge would enjoy the household-name status of Tennessee Williams, given that in the 1950s, he wrote such plays as "Come Back, Little Sheba," "Picnic," "Bus Stop" and, in 1957, "The Dark at the Top of the Stairs," all of which were adapted into films. His 1959 play, "A Loss of Roses," became the 1963 film,”The Stripper” and he also wrote the screenplay for Elia Kazan's "Splendor in the Grass" (1961), in which Inge also plays the small on-screen role of a minister who counsels Natalie Wood.

Kazan also directed the Broadway version of "The Dark at the Top of the Stairs," which opend at the Music Box Theatre on December 5, 1957, with a cast including of Pat Hingle (in the role that Preston would play on film), Teresa Wright and  Eileen Heckart. Once again, we have another dysfunctional family drama about a man who, in middle age and out of work, tries to compensate for a lack of self esteem by cheating on his wife with another woman in another town.

The 1960 movie version, directed by Delbert Mann from Harriet Frank, Jr.'s adapation, cast Dorothy McGuire in the part created on stage by Wright, and replaced Heckart with Eve Arden. Angela Lansbury has a supporting role in the film, and a young Shirley Knight was an Oscar nominee for her debut performance.

Preston, meanwhile, walks the tricky, balance-testing demands of a man teetering between our sympathy and disregard. He's likable but do we like him? (One could stretch this part, seeing it as a somewhat lighter variation on "The Music Man.") It's a testament to Preston's talent that he pulls it off.

"All the Way Home," meanwhile, has something of a legendary history. Based on Agee's Pulitzer Prize book, it was first adapted by Tad Mosel for the stage in 1960. It opened at the Belasco Theater on November 30th of that year, with a cast headed by Arthur Hill, Colleen Dewhurt and - now get this - Lillian Gish and Aline MacMahon. Actors' heaven. Arthur Penn directed.

Set in Tennessee in the early 1900's, "All the Way Home" revolves around a man's sudden, accidental death and the ramifications that it has on his family, especially his young son.

The 1963 Paramount film version, directed by Alex Segal from a Philip H. Reisman Jr. adaptation, starred Preston as the father and Jean Simmons as his wife; Pat Hingle (again) as his brother and, recreating her Broadway role, the great MacMahon as Aunt Hannah. Michael Kearney played the boy, a role performed on Broadway by John Megna, a New York child actor best known for his role on film as Dill in "To Kill a Mockingbird."

Due to its narrative arc, Preston has a smaller role here, but even when he is not on screen, his presence is always felt, a crucial quality for a play/film that examines the process of mourning and the heartache that makes it almost impossible to heal. Another piece of lost filmmaking art, and yet another performance by Robert Preston, that begs to be seen.

Note in Passing: Re my earlier reference to the history of "All the Way Home," the material was filmed twice more, both times for televison - first in 1971, with Fred Coe directing Richard Kiley, Joanne Woodward and (again) Hingle from a teleplay by Mosel. The second TV version, shot in 1981 by Delbert Mann (again), stars William Hurt, Sally Field, Ned Beatty and Polly Holliday as Aunt Hannah. Between Mann and Hingle, there are a lot of cross-connections shared by these two plays and films.

 Regarding Comments: All comments are enthusiastically appreciated but are moderated before publication. Replies signed "unknown" or "anonymous" are not encouraged. Please sign any response with a name (real or fabricated) or initials.  Be advised that a "name" will be assigned to any accepted post signed "unknown" or "anonymous." Thank you. -J

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(from top) 

~Preston with his wife Catherine Craig backstage at the Majestic Theatre where "The Music Man" had opened in 1957 
~photography: Friedman-Ables 1957© 

 ~Preston with Dorothy Maguire in a scene from Delbert Mann's film of "The Dark at the Top of the Stairs" 
~photography: Warner Bros. 1960©

~Playbill from the stage version of the William Inge play, "The Dark at the Top of the Stairs"

~Preston with Jean Simmons and Michael Kearney in Alex Segal's "All the Way Home"
 ~photography: Paramount Pictures 1963©

~Poster art for "All the Way Home"
~Paramount Pictures1963©

~Preston and Simmons in a scene from"All the Way Home"
~photography: Paramount Pictures1963©

Sunday, November 17, 2019

shirley maclaine, heartbreaker

I suppose that the "movie-star crush" is something of the distant past, a phenomenon of the 1950s and '60s experienced by some little boys (and a few girls) who were fated to become movie nerds in their adult lives.

Marilyn Monroe comes immediately to mind as the most popular object of affection among children back then, even if they had no appreciation of exactly why. My theory is that Marilyn came with an innate child-like quality that made her seem like a peer, despite her physically adult, womanly attributes. She was an innocent. She had no plots or designs.

A child.

But my personal crush was Shirley MacLaine. I was so enamored of her that, when I was about 11 or 12, I devoted my budding artistic skills to a little pencil caricature (see above) that, I thought, captured her appeal.

Fast forward several decades and I am a working movie critic. I spent 35 years reviewing and, occasionally, interviewing film people. Hundreds. But, somehow, never Shirley MacLaine. Never. But I finally met her in 1991 when Jack Lemmon was honored by the Hollywood Foreign Press with the Cecil B. DeMille Life Achievement Award at the Golden Globes that year. Jack and I were friends and I was invited to join in the celebration.

Connie McCauley, who served as Jack's career-long secretary and assistant and was vice president of his Jalem Productions, arranged the seating at Jack's table. Jack was with his wife Felicia Farr and, among the other guests, were Walter Matthau and his wife Carol Matthau (aka, Carol Grace and Carol Marcus and who had just written the fabulous autobiography, "Among the Porcupines"), their son Charlie Matthau and his wife Ashley and ...  Shirley MacLaine! Whom Connie sat next to me.

She appeared to be attending with either her agent or manager.

Shirley smiled and said hello - and then studied me with a steely gaze. A pause. "Didn't we work together on "Madame Sousatzka"? In retrospect, I probably should have said yes and engage her in a one-sided conversation about the 1988 John Schlesinger film. She would do all the talking and reminiscing. Opting for honesty, I said no. "I'm a friend of Jack's."
I turned to my wife Susan, who was sitting on the other side of me, planning to introduce them. When I turned back, almost a split second later, Shirley was gone. Her agent/manager was now in her seat and he sheepishly explained that Shirley needed private time to prepare her notes for the presentation. And Shirley? She was now sitting with Carol Matthau.

Oh, well. What can I say? Needless to say, it was a disappointment. Huge. Perhaps she thought that we'd have nothing to say to each other, And she probably would have been correct. Or - dare I admit it? - I simply wasn't important enough for her company. Either way, it seemed like bad form.

When Susan and I got home that night, I immediately logged on to "Madame Sousatzka" on IMDb to see what part I could have played. Had I been better versed on the film, I could have said yes to Shirley - that we did work on a couple scenes in the movie. I just needed a name. "I could have played 'Ronnie Blum'," I thought, oblivious to the fact that my decades-old crush, decidedly one-sided, was over. Goodbye, Shirley.

 Regarding Commensts: All comments are enthusiastically appreciated but are moderated before publication. Replies signed "unknown" or "anonymous" are not encouraged. Please sign any response with a name (real or fabricated) or initials.  Be advised that a "name" will be assigned to any accepted post signed "unknown" or "anonymous." Thank you. -J

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~Caricature of Shirley MacLaine
 ~Art work: Joe Baltake 1958©

   ~Poster art for "Madame Sousatzka"
~photography: Universal Pictures 1988©

Thursday, November 14, 2019

willfully taken. every time.

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When I first read Jack Finney's "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" in novel form a lifetime ago in 1955, it seemed a natural for movies, specifically a B-level black-&-white movie, the kind that Hollywood produced also a lifetime ago - the tale of curious seeds that grow as people sleep, replacing the human form. Finney (1911-1995) originally wrote the piece - set in his (and my) beloved Mill Valley, California - for Colliers Magazine in 1954. Then came the movie. Enter Don Seigel who made just such a modest fifties-B-film classic some 63 years ago. Perfection. It remains so. It remains inimitable.
There was no need to tamper with or remake the material, rebooting of course being Hollywood's wont. Enter Philip Kaufman. It's 1978. Another version, also a California-set thriller. Almost as classic as the original.
It's 1993 now and Abel Ferrera, the king of New York raunch, brought just that dubious quality to Finney's narrative and - guess what - it worked!

Yet another. The playwright Oliver Hirschbiegel whipped the material into a surprisingly credible indie in 2007. Unusual but hugely watchable.
In short, this fabulous material is surefire as the stuff of movies.

I like them all - all the invasions.

Take me...
I'm next!


 Regarding Comments: All comments are enthusiastically appreciated but are moderated before publication. Replies signed "unknown" or "anonymous" are not encouraged. Please sign any response with a name (real or fabricated) or initials.  Be advised that a "name" will be assigned to any accepted post signed "unknown" or "anonymous." Thank you. -J

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~The various incarnations of an effective invasion, poster-wise

~Poster art: "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" / Allied Artists 1956©
 ~Poster art: "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" / United Artists 1978©
 ~Poster art: "Body Snatchers" / Warner Bros. 1993© 
 ~Poster art: "The Invasion" / Warner Bros. 2007©

Monday, November 11, 2019

"the young and the restless": utterly torturous

We're not in Genoa City anymore, Toto.

No, this feels as if we are doing time in some ink-stained writers' room at CBS where scenarists are desperately struggling - but failing -  to restore the greatness of one of the network's crown jewels. That would be "The Young and the Restless," once a resounding sensation of either the station's daytime or nighttime schedule - but now virtually unwatchable.

I've written previously about the pure pleasure of daytime dramas that my wife and I have enjoyed for decades, recently singling out "The Young and the Restlest" here and here, the former of which celebrated the writing - for the show's female cast in particular. But almost immediately, the writing went into a serious decline, with one actress after another dropping out.

The show never rebounded. Frankly, matters have become worse, exacerbated by the bad casting decision to bring back old characters (to appease the fan base) and other decisions - artistic, narrative or otherwise - that border on the grotesque. It's been utterly painful to watch.

One could blame the writing exclusively, but the pathetic writing and other dubious decisions are ostensibly based on executive orders.

While my eyes were once glued to the screen for each plot turn, I now find myself taking mental notes (pick up dry cleaning, take Peanut to the vet's) or simply walking away from the TV for minutes at a time, confident that I am missing ... nothing. I tried to make sense of the addlepated decisions.

Case in point: The Genoa City Athletic Club (also called the GCAC and The Club), the cozy, woody, viewer-friendly hotel-gym-bar-restaurant combo that has been seemingly abandoned without notice for the awfulness of a trendy new place called The Grand Phoenix. This new place boasts a discordant production design that’s truly unattractive, almost toxic.

Its lobby looks as if some out-of-control production designer simply threw ugly furniture and decor against the walls, letting the mess stay where it all landed; the guest rooms are even worse - uninhabitable.

Perhaps The Grand Phoenix is supposed to reflect the messed-up personality of  Phyllis who allegedly designed the place. More likely, it's the result of a professional's inept design. The bottom line: I miss the GCAC!  In my mind, I always wanted to stay in a room there and share a drink with Jack or Abby at the bar or join Nick in the gym. One can dream.

Moving on, what's with the show's preoccupation with the letter "C" - Chelsea, Chloe, Connor, Christian, Cane, Charlie? Cccconfusing. A minor complaint but also unnecessarily annoying. And Chelsea always screaming for and shouting at Connor is like chalk against a blackboard for me.

Which brings to the show's worst offense - its cast of characters. 

In a naked attempt to pander to the show's so-called fan base, the producers have restored recently departed familiar faces to the canvas – Chelsea, Chloe, Kevin and Hillary (now named Amanda). Chelsea has been given the most to do, which largely means looking nervous and edgy in scene after repetitive scene. In the two or three months since she's been back, Chelsea has struggled to crack a smile, producing a performance dominated by darting eyes. Not good. Meanwhile, the charmless Kevin wore out his welcome at least several comebacks ago.

And a little bit of Chloe - whinny, mannered and bad-quirky - goes a long, long way, while a recast Phyllis (recast with the original) has been a bust.

Other characters have morphed (in a bad way), seemingly taking the show hostage. There's Billy. Once an incorrigible schemer, he's now an unattractive, judgmental prig. Much worse is Mariah, an unctuous know-it-all who seemingly is in every scene with every other character, except (strangely enough) for Tess. Tess, yes, Tess. She is supposed to be Mariah's inamorata, involved in a curiuos lesbian relationship that is strictly non-sexual, so as not to turn off the show's right-leaning fan base.

The routine Mariah-Tess romance goes as such: The template is always the same - some grotesque gourmet dinner, always planned by Mariah, that ends with Mariah (always again) praising Tess to high heaven in an overdone testimonial and then planting a tiny, chaste kiss on Tess's tear-stained face. Tess, easily the most useless character on the show, never reciprocates. Never. She behaves like a piece of wood.

Meanwhile, the once-promising character of Kyle is currently in the throes of being rethought into an entitled baby; Rey remains a big snooze; Cane the most repellent among all the characters, hands-down; Nate a pointless addition to the cast; Adam recast by a reptilian stick-figure; Devon continuing to make no sense whatsoever in terms of anything/everything he does, and Jill, who has become reason not to watch the show at all. 

So does anyone, any character, make the quickly-declining show worth watching these days? Well, actually, yes - and it has everything to do with the joy in their work that the actors achieve, in spite of the bad material.

First and foremost, Sharon and Jack, followed by Summer, Traci, Abby, Lola, Dina and the fabulous new addition, Theo. Wishing them my best.

Now, if only I can join Jack and Sharon at the GCAC bar for a Scotch neat.

If only.

Note in Passing: Sharon Case (as Sharon), who has incredible chemistry with everyone in the cast, remains the best actor on daytime, hands-down, and Peter Bergman (as Jack) always seems to be having a blast.

Their enthusiasm can be - and is - contagious.

 Regarding Comments: All comments are enthusiastically appreciated but are moderated before publication. Replies signed "unknown" or "anonymous" are not encouraged. Please sign any response with a name (real or fabricated) or initials.  Be advised that a "name" will be assigned to any accepted post signed "unknown" or "anonymous." Thank you. -J

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~Where terminal daytime dramas go when the end is close

Wednesday, November 06, 2019

façade: hal ashby's third act

Hal Ashby, who died 30 year ago at age 59, enjoyed a brief but exhilarating directing career. The former house editor for Norman Jewison (and 1967 Oscar winner for Jewison's "In the Heat of the Night"), he was prodded by Jewison to transition into directing, helming eleven narrative films, plus one documentary, in the modest span of about 15 years.

Ashby's debut, 1970's fabulous "The Landlord," was something of a happy accident. Jewison had commissioned Kristen Hunter's novel to direct himself, but sidelined by pre-production work on "Fiddler on the Roof," he generously handed the material to his invaluable editor.

This was Ashby's Act One as a budding auteur. A year later came the seminal, ready-made cult classic,  "Harold and Maude." Two brilliant movies, neither of which was immediately embraced by critics or audiences. He would have turned 90 this year and I've a hunch both titles would not only be embraced but celebrated for his birthday.
Ashby's Act Two was something of a jaw-dropper - rich, beautifully realized films starting with "The Last Detail" in 1973 and continuing with near-breathlessness with "Shampoo," "Bound for Glory," "Coming Home" and "Being There." Much of what is written these days about Ashby revolves around these particular titles.

Ashby's Act Three, however, produced during a particularly troubling time in his private life, is no less interesting. His choice of material was as personal and idiosyncratic as ever and his eye for casting remained fresh and sure. Less sure was his directorial confidence but the shared erratic quality of his final four films only make them more fascinating.

Either by accident or perhaps on purpose, Ashby's work on "Second-Hand Hearts" (1981), "Lookin' to Get Out" (1982), "The Slugger's Wife" (1985) and "Eight Million Ways to Die" (1986) mirrored much of the expressionism that John Cassavetes was specializing in at the time.

"Second-Hand Hearts"
(aka, "The Hamster of Happiness"), a shaggy-dog tale about losers, offers the singular team of Robert Blake and Barbara Harris, who are compulsively watchable here.

"Second-Hand Hearts" may be a genuine lost title, although it popped up on Turner Classic Movies recently, while "Lookin' to Get Out" managed to make it to DVD in a "narratively enhanced" version that restores footage excised by Paramount.  Working with Jon Voight and Ann-Margaret, Ashby took rather routine buddy gambling material and somehow twisted it into something vaguely existential.

Mainstream and middlebrow, "The Slugger's Wife," an original screenplay by Neil Simon, comes with an unexpected melancholy with Michael O'Keefe and Rebecca DeMornay, fine performers who never hit the big time, as two people - a ballplayer and a singer not entirely made for each other.

The film lingers almost in spite of itself. (Martin Ritt puts in a bit as the wittily named Burly DeVito, manager of the Atlanta Braves, the team for which O'Keefe slugs.) More memorable but no less erratic is "Eight Million Ways to Die," an atmospherically sordid character study with Jeff Bridges outstanding as detective who uses booze to self-destruct, seesawing between his planned rehabilitation and the vices that permate his personal/professional lives. Rosanna Arquette and Alexandra Paul are the atypical female leads here.

Fascinating. Ashby both opened and closed his career as a narratve filmmaker with The Brothers Bridges.

Ashby's documentary was The Rolling Stones' "Let's Spend the Night Together" (1983). Trailing off towards the end, he directed Neil Young in something called "Solo Trans" (1984); the pilot of Dennis Franz' TV series, ""Beverly Hills Buntz" (1987) and his last, "Jake's Journey," a 1988 British TV film with Graham Chapman and Peter Cook.

He died in in December of that year of liver and colon cancer.

 Regarding Comments: All comments are enthusiastically appreciated but are moderated before publication. Replies signed "unknown" or "anonymous" are not encouraged. Please sign any response with a name (real or fabricated) or initials.  Be advised that a "name" will be assigned to any accepted post signed "unknown" or "anonymous." Thank you. -J

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~Hal Ashby 
 ~photography: United Artists 1970©

~Beau Bridges in a scene from "The Landlord"
 ~photography: United Artists 1970©

~Mood shot of Bud Cort and Ruth Gordon in "Harold and Maude"
 ~photography: Paramount 1971©

~Peter Sellers as Chance, literally walking on water in "Being There"
 ~photography: United Artists 1979© 

~Caricatures of Robert Blake and Barbara Harris for poster art for "Second-Hand Hearts"
 ~photography: Paramount 1981© 

~Poster art for "Lookin' to Get Out"
 ~photography: Paramount 1982©

~Ashby with Rebecca DeMornay on the set of "The Slugger's Wife"
~photography: Columbia Pictures 1985©

~Jeff Bridges and Rosanna Arquette in "Eight Million Ways to Die
~photography: PSO International 1986©