Saturday, May 31, 2014

gojira


This is the real Godzilla

Against my better judgment, I ventured out to see yet another IMAX 3-D extravaganza - namely, the latest incarnation of "Godzilla."

This one by Indie fave Gareth Edwards.

Given that the "Godzilla" franchise dates back to 1954, I reasoned that this would be surefire. Wrong. What struck me, once again, is how much big money handily dilutes the simple pleasure of moviegoing.

The pre-CGI wonders of "King Kong," "The Wizard of Oz" and the original "Godzilla" (make that "Gojira") may seem amusingly primitive these days but they somehow remain sublimely jaw-dropping in performance.

My initial, most immediate, response to the new "Godzilla" was just how boring it is.  A good half-hour into the film, I still couldn't decipher the hand-wringing rants of the on-screen experts.  The film careens all over the globe, there's a lot of hysterical talk and yet nothing happens.

My second response was how much Edwards managed to make Bryan Cranston, the chief hysteric here, look uncannily like an animé character.

Which, in and of itself, is pretty nifty.

Finally, there's the venerable monster himself (herself?), who doesn't look at all like your great-grandfather's Godzilla but rather like a svelte, giant Praying Mantis. A fashion model almost.  Or is that one of God's cronies that I saw on screen? Naturally, this being a modern horror film, the monster(s) is/are continually shot in shadows and darkness, turning him/her/them into a filtered blur. OK, one final question...

Is it a requisite now that all IMAX 3-D films be completely joyless?

Just asking.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

"The Children's Hour," eight decades later

Credit: Johan Persson
 Elizabeth Moss and Keira Knightley in the 2011 London revival

Come November, Lillian Hellman's landmark play, "The Childlren's Hour," will be 80 years old.

The story of two teachers - Karen Wright and Martha Dobie - whose lives are ruined by a student named Mary Tilford, by a lie about their sexuality that turns out to be possibly half-true (or maybe not), "The Children's Hour" has been admired, acclaimed, dismissed, condemned, ostracized and rediscovered since it opened on Broadway at Maxine Elliott's Theater on November 20th, 1934, with Anne Revere and Katherine Emery in the lead roles.  It's been revived many times, although less frequently in recent decades, and filmed twice - by the same moviemaker.

Joel McCrea, Merle Oberon and Miriam Hopkins in the 1936 film

William Wyler first tried to get the material on screen in 1936, with Merle Oberon and Miriam Hopkins as Karen and Martha and Bonita Granville as Mary.  Retitled "These Three" and with all hints of homosexuality excised, the first film version revolved instead around infidelity (with Joel McCrea coming between the two friends) and, somehow, it worked. And quite beautifully. On its own terms, "These Three" is a solid film.

But it isn't "The Children's Hour."

Wyler's 1961 adaptation of Hellman's play, with the original title and lesbianism restored, is one of those extremely rare - and fortunate - films whose reputation has grown, belatedly, with age.  There are precious few of them.  I've no idea if this version was simply underrated in its day or if it has improved with advancing years.  Perhaps a little of both.
 Audrey Hepburn, James Garner and Shirley MacLaine in the 1961 film of "The Children's Hour"

It certainly boasts two stellar lead performances. Audrey Hepburn, as Karen, uses her face most expressively, subtly redefining it as the story progresses, and Shirley MacLaine is a revelation as Martha, flawlessly reciting a bravura monologue/confession, carefully written by Hellman, in a concluding sequence. It is nearly impossible to notice anything else about the film when these two are on screen, whether in tandem or alone.

But next time out, pay attention to other crucial contributions to the film, such as Franz Planer's evocative black-&-white cinematography (which makes sure that the material, which is essentially still stagebound, is never static) and the gorgeously spare music score by Alex North.
Balkin with director Wyler and MacLaine

 There is also remarkable ensemble work here by the film's younger actresses, particularly the always good Veronica Cartwright (also of Hitchcock's "The Birds" and, many years later, Philip Kaufman's remake of "Invasion of the Body Snatchers") and, in the difficult central role of Mary, the courageous Karen Balkin who, alas, would make only one more film - Peter Hyams' "Our Times" in 1974. Balkin may have been a little too convincing as the brat who destroys several lives in Hellman's drama.

A sad waste.

And then there's the terrific supporting work by two seasoned Grand Dames, the singular Miriam Hopkins (Martha in Wyler's original film; Martha's aunt here) and the commanding Fay Bainter, who was Oscar-nominated as Mary's monied grandmother and, from where I sit, should have won. The sublime Rita Moreno, essentially too old for "West Side Story" (she was 30 at the time) and only adequate in the role, took home one of the supporting awards that year. But it was a WSS sweep in 1962.

There are few scene more quietly scorching than when Bainter silences Balkin's hysterical excuses for her behavior with the demand, "Be still!" 

James Garner essayed the McCrea role.

Playbill for the 1952 Los Angeles revival 

Among the various revivals, the most notable - and controversial - came in 1952 at the Coronet Theater in Los Angeles, starring Kim Hunter and Patricia Neal as Karen and Martha, respectivaly, and  Iris Mann, a talented child actress who had just played a troublesome teen in "Room for One More" opposite Cary Grant and Betsy Drake, as the disruptive Mary.

This version, staged by Hellman herself, raised some dust as the playwright used her material as a commentary on the House Un-American Activities Committee.  Hellman always contended that "The Children's Hour" was less about homosexuality than about destructive gossip.

MacLaine's big scene

But, in recent years, there have been fewer revivals as the gay community has distanced itself from the material which has been construed as less well-meaning than misleading, particularly the shame and self-loathing voiced in the aforementioned monologue that's so passionately and indelibly read in the '61 film by MacLaine.

Such misgivings, however, didn't stop director Ian Rickson from mounting a London revival in 2011 and with a starry cast in tow -  Keira Knightley as Karen, Elizabeth Moss as Martha and Ellen Burstyn as Mrs. Tilford.  It opened to mixed reviews on February 9th at the intimate Comedy Theater.  At the time, there were talks for moving the production to New York, but three years later, that has yet to happen.

"The Children's Hour" was, and always will be, a period piece.  It is of its time and, as such, it works. 

Note in Passing:  When Wyler filmed his '61 remake, United Artists dickered with the idea of also changing the title a second time - to the nondescript "The Infamous."  The brass thought that "The Children's Hour" would mislead audiences into thinking it was a family film. Wyler balked.

The play's title stayed.

Friday, May 23, 2014

making a case for Logan's "Ensign Pulver"


Guilty pleasure, anyone?

Joshua Logan, who directed "Mister Roberts" on stage and helmed certain uncredited sequences for the John Ford-Mervyn LeRoy 1955 film version, got the bright idea of continuing Thomas Heggen's beloved story by speculating on what happened to Ensign Pulver (the Jack Lemmon character, natch) after Mister Roberts (Henry Fonda) died in combat.

The result was 1964's immediately forgettable but strangely likable "Ensign Pulver" with the Lemmon-esque Robert Walker Jr. (the lookalike son of Robert Walker) assuming the title role.

In this incarnation of the life aboard what Heggen affectionately dubbed "The Bucket," Walter Matthau inherits the William Powell role of Doc and Burl Ives takes over for James Cagney as Captain Morton (a character that was simply billed as "The Captain" in the '55 film).

The plot is negligble, but wait!  Get this incredible supporting cast:

-Kay Medford, always wonderful, this time as a tough head nurse who meets her match in Matthau's Doc.

-Millie Perkins as a young nurse and potential love interest for Ensign Pulver.

-Diana Sands and Al Freeman, Jr., hilarious as two rather worldly south-seas natives.

-Jack Nicholson (yes!), James Coco, Tommy Sands, Jerry Orbach, James Farentino, Larry Hagman, George Lindsey, Gerald O'Loughlin, Peter Marshall and Dick Gautier as assorted sailors on The Bucket.

"Ensign Pulver" is an excellent example of a film that's not especially good but that has a cast that makes it worthwhile.

Case in point: Matthau and Medford,who have impressive comic/sexual chemistry in a ship-to-shore sequence which doesn't even have them in the same frame together. They make a dream team. It's too bad that they never got to make a film in which they sparred face-to-face.

"Ensign Pulver" marked a reunion of sorts for Medford and Gautier, both of whom appeared in the original 1960 Broadway production of "Bye Bye Birdie" - Medford as Mrs. Peterson (Dick Van Dyke's mother) and Gautier as Conrad Birdie.  They were passed over a year earlier by George Sidney for his 1963 film of the musical. Maureen Stapleton (quite good) and Jesse Pearson (quite bad) replaced them in the movie version.

Logan's movie may be negligable, but I will forever appreciate his nimble casting of "Ensign Pulver" - and particularly for correcting Sidney's slight and coming through for both Medford and Gautier.

Note in Passing: Dick Gautier would also be reunited with Dick Van Dyke for Bud Yorkin's astute, hilarious marital comedy, "Divorce, American Style," in which he essays the role of Van Dyke's divorce attorney.

fonda versus "roberts"


It's been well-documented that Henry Fonda was not happy while committing one of his most iconic roles to film in Warner Bros. 1955 movie version of his hit play, "Mister Roberts."

And it pretty much shows in what I see as an indifferent performance in the film.  He seems distracted throughout which, arguably, might make dramatic sense, given that he's playing a career Navy man who feels trapped during World War II because he isn't actually participating in the war.

When the film went into production, the popular thought was that this was the movie that would win Fonda his Oscar. He had been nominated many years earlier for his role in John Ford's "The Grapes of Wrath" (1940).  Tellingly, Fonda wasn't even nominated for "Mister Roberts."

And at 50, he was perhaps a little old for the role.  (He was 43 when the play opened on Broadway in 1948 and, of course, in the theater, there's some physical distance between the performer and the audience.  Not so with the leering eye of the camera.)  That may explain why Jack Warner actively wanted 30-year-old Marlon Brando for the role.  Brando was Warner's first choice, followed by William Holden, then 37.

The film's director, on the other hand, had his eye on John Wayne.  Which was curious as the director was ... John Ford who directed Fonda in the aforementioned "On Golden Pond" and several other titles.

Ford had worked often with Wayne, as well as Fonda - and was friends with both - but even though Fonda had played the role to acclaim on stage, rumor has it that Ford had his heart set on Wayne.  This could not have been a good start for Fonda who of course was ultimately signed for the role. He deserved more enthusiasm from his director and the studio head.

Fonda was the only performer from the Broadway production retained for the film.  Ironically, Brando's sister Jocelyn originated the role on stage of the Navy nurse played by Betsy Palmer in the film.  (Jocelyn Brando had replaced Eva Marie Saint in the role during an out-of-town tryout.)

When I interviewed Henry Fonda back in the '70s, I asked him about the "Roberts" situation and, although he was typically discreet and private, he did share two reservation that he had about the film.  For one thing, Fonda disliked  how Ford had turned the seabees on Roberts' cargo ship into a bunch of grinning overgrown kids and I couldn't agree more.  They're sailors by way of The Bowery Boys.  This is especially true of the performances of Nick Adams, Tige Andrews and Harry Carey, Jr.
Fonda (center), seemingly happy with his co-stars (from left) James Cagney, William Powell, Ward Bond and Jack Lemmon

Fonda also objected about how Ford was beefing up Dowdy, the role played by another Ford stalwart, Ward Bond.  This complaint struck me as curious because Fonda, Ford and Bond collaborated often and because, well, could there ever really be too much of Ward Bond in anything?  (Fonda reportedly parted ways with the actor because Bond, with whom he had political differences, had supported McCarthyism.)

According the Hollywood legend, Ford became so fed up with Fonda that, one day, he slugged the actor.  Did that really happen?  Who knows?

One fact is certain: Ford suddenly took ill during production and was replaced by Mervyn LeRoy who completed the film. Both are credited with its direction and, according to Jack Lemmon, who plays Ensign Pulver in the film, Joshua Logan was recruited to shoot a couple of additional scenes after principal photography was completed.  (Logan had directed Fonda in the play.) "So, we actually had three directors on the film.  Which can be fascinating but can give one a small stomach ache," Jack quipped.  

Note in Passing:  Fonda finally won his Oscar in 1981 for Mark Rydell's "On Golden Pond," 41 years after his first nomination.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

cinema obscura: Four with June Allyson

When the eternally youthful June Allyson died at age 89 on July 8, 2006, most of the coverage was devoted to her work at MGM and the various “wife” roles that she played in a string of biopics.

Missing from all career appreciations was any mention of Jean Negulesco's shrewdly pre-feminist, all-star "Woman's World" (1954), a Fox film, and three from Universal - José Ferrer's compelling “The Shrike” (1955), which dramatically cast Allyson against type; Henry Koster's remake of "My Man Godfrey" (1957), which teamed her with David Niven, and Douglas Sirk's version of "Interlude" (1957) with Rossano Brazzi.

All four titles are virtually lost, impossible to see, although for a while, "Woman's World" had been popping up on what's left of the Fox Movie Channel.  Today, we'll correct that.
Jean Negulesco's
"Woman's World" is a hugely entertaining, rather scathing little number that works as a variation on the "three-gal" flicks that the filmmaker perfected at 20th Century-Fox during the 1950s. Negulesco was responsbile for "How to Marry a Millionaire," "The Best of Everything," "Three Coins in a Fountain" - the grand-daddy of them all - and its '60s remake, "The Pleasure Seekers."

"Woman's World" is sly subversion of the formula but every bit as affable and slick as its siblings. The plot - which could easily lend itself to a topical remake - follows the efforts of Clifton Webb, the powerful CEO of Gifford Motors, an auto manufacturer, to find a suitable replacement when he retires. To accomplish this, he wings in his company's three top branch managers - different men from different parts of the country - and their wives for a week of wining and dining and interviewing in New York. You need not ask why the film isn't set in Detroit. New York is clearly more glamorous.

The candidates include ambitious Van Heflin and his grasping wife Arlene Dahl, from Dallas; the contentious Fred MacMurray and Lauren Bacall, a Philadelphia couple on the verge of divorce, and Cornel Wilde as a down-to-earth guy from Kansas City and Allyson as his ditzy wife.

What no one catches on to is the fact that the boss is scrutinizing the wives as much as the men themselves, perhaps even more so.

Webb is at his sauve, sarcastic best - he was the original Kevin Spacey - as he taunts and tests his co-stars and generally has them squirming. The excellent, deliciously sexist ending comes with a twist that was daring for its time but that was totally in keeping with Webb and the advanced mindset he brought to his films.

BTW, the script was written by playwright Russell Crouse (father of Lindsay Crouse) and Claude Binyon, who also wrote Allyson's "You Can't Run Away from It" (1956), the Dick Powell-directed "It Happened One Night" musical remake for Columbia, which has been popping up recently on Turner Classics following many years of absence.

Anyway, the next time Fox screens "Woman's World," watch it. Better yet, tape it.

The disappearance of “The Shrike” is particularly odd, given its credentials. Based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning 1952 play by Joseph Kramm, the stage production won two Tony awards for José Ferrer – as best actor in a play and best director of a play. On stage, Ferrer co-starred with Judith Evelyn, best known as Miss Lonelyheart in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rear Window.”

However, when Ferrer decided to transfer the play to film, his first as a director and with himself again in the male lead, he did the unforeseeable and hired Allyson to play the role of an unrelenting wife who pecks and pecks at her husband – much like the bird of the title – until she has effectively beaten him down.

With this film, Ferrer explored what critic Richard Schickel called Allyson’s “vaunted sweetness,” as well as the perilous state of marriage when one of its partners fairly drips and seduces with venom. “It was a delicious combination,” continues Schickel in his book “The Stars” (1962) – "her surface sweetness and the inner viciousness of the role.”

"My Man Godfrey," of course, is Henry Koster's remake of the Gregory La Cava 1936 classic farce about class differences that starred Carole Lombard (at her most irresistible) and the pitch-perfect William Powell (also irresistible).


Koster's version is amazingly faithful to the original, sometimes slavishly so, and yet it seems rather pale in comparison. Allyson, a true ordinary girl-next-door, is as miscast here as she was in "You Can't Run Away from It." This apple-pure actress was not meant to play screwball heiresses.

David Niven, on the other hand, fills Powell's shoes quite well and, as he proved so often in studio films around this time, he was the most urbane of good sports, embracing the best of both the reserved British and looser American cultures.

James M. Cain concocted the story for Douglas Sirk's "Interlude," which was remade a decade later in 1968 under the same title by director Kevin Billington - although, for some bizaar reason, Cain goes uncredited in the Billington version. Oddly, Cain only supplied the story to Sirk. He didn't pen the screenplay. That was done by a collection of other writers.

Both films are European-based soap operas about a young, impressionable woman (Allyson in the Sirk version, Barbara Ferris in Billington's) who falls for a married orchestra conductor (Rossano Brazzi and Oskar Werner, respectively). The heroines both suffer in achingly beautiful surroundings, although neither film is exactly an emotional knockout. And the remake is as difficult to see as the original

The Sirk version has those matchless Sirkian qualities that he so freely exhibited at Universal during this ripe, productive period, while the Billington's take on it is kept afloat largely by the mesmerizing, mournful Werner, the wonderful Virginia Maskell as his wife and a classic Georges Delerue score. Lots of harpischords. (Frank Skinner scored Sirk's film.)

Sirk opens his film with a song by the MacQuire Sisters; Billington and Delerue use the inimitable Timi Yuro for the remake's haunting title song.

You know, I'd actually like to see both films again.

Friday, May 02, 2014

the contrarian: Billy Wilder's "Irma La Douce"


"This, then, is the story of Irma La Douce..."

So starts Louis Jordan's opening narration of Billy Wilder's songless film version of "Irma La Douce," whose source was a piece of flirty material that was an international sensation (in the truest sense of that expression) in the mid-1950s/early-1960s, moving from the French stage to acclaim in translated form in both London and New York, and finally to Hollywood.

The move, in retrospect, wasn't an easy one for Irma the Sweet.  And for years, I wondered exactly what happened to her/it.  Why did she disappear?  Not Wilder's film, which still survives on home entertainment, but rather some incarnation of the stage phenomenon.

Why has it never been revived?

Well, "Irma" - the musical -will be back on stage in New York, if only temporarily, and with any hope, the old girl has lost some of that saucy flirtiness.  It is being presented by Encores!, under the direction of the estimable John Dolye, at the City Center (131 West 55th Street) for an extremely limited engagement - for five days, May 7-11. Brief and unexpected as it is, Irma's comeback presents me with an opportune reason to consider her history.

The musical - spoken and sung in French, both saucy and soulful - opened November 12th, 1956 at the Théâtre Gramont in Paris, where it played for four years. It boasted music by Marguerite Monnot (famed for "The Poor People of Paris") and book and lyrics by Alexandre Breffort.

 
The London production opened at the Saville Theatre on July 17th, 1958 and ran for a whopping 1512 performances. It retained Monnot's melodies, with Breffort's book and lyrics translated by Julian More, David Heneker and Monty Norman. This production was later optioned for New York by David Merrick and opened September 29th, 1960 at New York's Plymouth Theatre, running for 527 performances. Sir Peter Brook ("Marat/Sade") directed both the London and New York productions of the musical, and his cast from London - Elizabeth Seal, Keith Mitchell and Clive Revill - recreated their parts for Broadway. (Elliott Gould, Stuart Damon, George S.Irving and Fred Gwynne were also in the Broadway production, playing various pimps.)

Then came the Wilder movie version, filmed in 1962 and released in 1963.

Wilder, in New York in 1960 to see Jack Lemmon in the play, "Face of a Hero," caught the Broadway production of "Irma" and immediately saw it as an ideal vehicle for Lemmon.  The premise - nonsense about a guy so deluded and desperate to keep his prostitute-girlfriend as pure as possible  that he dons a disguise and pretends to be her most valuable (and sole) client - had potential to be another winning Wilder-Lemmon collaboration, following "Some Like It Hot" (1959) and "The Apartment" (1960).

With Lemmon signed on, Wilder went into in negotiations with Elizabeth Taylor to play Irma. (Lemmon to the New York Times during an interview at the time: "Lucky girl!")

Enter Marilyn Monroe. She, reportedly, wanted the role. Desperately. But Wilder was still recuperating after their problems on "Some Like It Hot."

Meanwhile, Taylor got caught up in a little number titled "Cleopatra" and Monroe went into George Cukor's ill-fated "Something's Got to Give."

Enter Shirley MacLaine, who of course worked with both Wilder and Lemmon on "The Apartment" and who was perfect for the role.

She became Wilder's Irma.

During this period, it was never mentioned in the press that the film of "Irma La Douce" would not be a musical. (Two years earlier, in 1961, Joshua Logan dropped all of Harold Rome's songs from his film version of "Fanny." Logan had also directed the original New York production.)

One has to wonder if Wilder may have entertained thoughts of actually making a musical, given MacLaine's song-and-dance background and the fact that Lemmon had starred in a few film musicals early in his career. Also, one of Wilder's supporting players, cast in the role of Irma's pimp, was Bruce Yarnell, who was a rising young star in the musical theater at the time and had just starred on Broadway in "The Happiest Girl in the World," opposite Cyril Ritchard and Janice Rule. (Yarnell was also under consideration by Richard Lester to play Captain Miles Gloriosus in his 1966 film of "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum," but the role went to Leon Greene. Bruce Yarnell would died young in 1973.)

Wilder also finally got a chance to work with Lou Jacobi on "Irma."  Jacobi was Wilder's original choice to play Dr. Dreyfuss in "The Apartment," having admired his work in George Stevens' film version of "The Diary of Anne Frank" (1959). But Jacobi was committed to a play at the time - Paddy Chayefsky's "The Tenth Man" - and the role of Dreyfuss was ultimately played by Jack Kruschen, who nailed the role.
 
OK, full disclosure: I loved Wilder's film of "Irma"... as a kid.  And, I guess, it helps to be 12 to truly appreciate it. No matter what measure one might use, Wilder's "Irma La Douce" looms as a major embarrassment - a leering piece of "tired businessman's entertainment" that's sexed-up and yet decidedly, strangely, unsexy.

Most upsetting of all, in Wilder's hands, "Irma La Douce" had lost its innate soulfulness.

What's odd is that the material, as mentioned, seemed like perfect pairing for Wilder and his cast, but the filmmaker somehow managed to take what was a light soufflé on stage and turn it into an obvious, leaden and, at 147 minutes, elephantine mess - 147 minutes and that's without all the songs.

  Monnot's clever, likable melodies were promptly deleted from the Wilder-I.A.L. Diamont script, relegated (as with "Fanny") to the background as incidental music, scored by André Previn. Even reduced, however, Monnot's contribution remains the only worthwhile thing about the film. That and designer Alexandre Trauner's sprawling soundstage recreation of Paris' Les Halles district - a "Disneyland for adults," Wilder quipped.

The play's rousing showstopper, "Dis-Donc, Dis-Donc," was retained - well, sort of - as a dance number for MacLaine, a moment in the film which seems to lead up an intermission break that never comes.
 
"Irma" was shot largely on a soundstage in Hollywood, but by the time the crew got to France for some location work, a lot had happened: Monroe had died from an overdose, Taylor and Richard Burton had started their affair on the set of "Cleopatra" and Lemmon had married Felicia Farr (with both Wilder and director Richard Quine serving as his best men in a Paris ceremony).

On the basis of the wild success of "Irma La Douce" and his two films that followed it - "Under the Yum Yum Tree" and "Good Neighbor Sam," both directed by David Swift - Lemmon was the Number One box office star of 1964. He would ultimately disavow both "Yum Yum," which makes sense (it's pretty base; it needed Frank Tashlin's touch and sensibility) and "Sam," which makes no sense (it's an engaging comedy).

Jack would have done well to have distanced himself from the adolescent smirk of "Irma La Douce" as well.

In retrospect, I wonder where Jacques Demy was when the decision was made to film "Irma."  The maker of "The Umbrellas of Cherbourgh" (1964) and "The Young Girls of Rochefort" (1967) seemed like a natural fit for "Irma La Douce."  At least, with Demy at the helm, the material would have returned to its source - as a French musical.  And I see the fabulous Bernadette Lafont as Irma. Another missed opportunity.  Oh, well...

C'est la vie.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

façade: Glenda Jackson

The Great Glenda with Peter Finch and Murray Head in John Schlesinger's lacerating masterwork, "Sunday Bloody Sunday" (1971)

My previous essay on ”Stevie” brings something to mind.  Or, rather, someone...

Watching Meryl Streep giddily go through her "She Can Do No Wrong" phase brings to mind two major actresses from the 1970s who enjoyed the same free pass - Liv Ullmann and Glenda Jackson.

But my mind is really on Jackson. Ullmann still works in movies - occasionally as an actress, more often as a filmmaker herself - but Jackson, always something more of an activist than an actress, made a crucial decision to walk away.

And when she did, people - her fans, the critics - seem to have walked away, too. In the opposite direction. Jackson's name is rarely invoked these days in movie reviews or film essays. I don't know why - because when she was active, she was positively electric. There was always this unquenchable hunger in a Glenda Jackson performance. It was as if she wanted to make acting so much more than what it was.

In retrospect, she was far too serious for what is essentially a silly profession - play acting. At least Streep seems to be aware of the joke (see her performances in "Mamma Mia!" and "Julie & Julia") but Jackson couldn't really make light of it. And so she left.

It was during her last few years of acting that Jackson became actively involved in politics in her native Great Britain and she formally and officially retired from acting in order to enter the House of Commons in the 1992 general election as the Labour Member of Parliament for Hampstead and Highgate. She is currently Labour MP for the constituency of Hampstead and Highgate in the London Borough of Camden.

I feel fairly confident that she is giving an on-going passionate performance in her new role. It would be nice to once again witness that no-nonsense Jackson drive - that sometimes frightening energy that she brought to not only the aforementioned "Stevie" by Robert Enders, but also such Ken Russell films as "Women in Love" (her Oscar winner) and "The Music Lovers" - as well as John Schlesinger's "Sunday Bloody Sunday," Charles Jarrott's "Mary, Queen of Scotts" (opposite Vanessa Redgrave!), John Irvin's "Turtle Diary" and even her wicked cameo in Russell's "The Boy Friend" and her romcom turn in Melvin Frank's "A Touch of Class." I could go on.

Thinking about her makes me long for her once again. Glenda Jackson will turn 78 on Friday (May 9th). It is unlikely she will ever make another movie.  It is also unlikely that we will never see the likes of her again.

But thank heaven for film!

cinema obscura: Robert Enders' "Stevie" (1978)

Jackson with Washbourne, wearing the flowered dress that Jackson's Stevie wittily describes as "they all came up."

Robert Enders' endearing "Stevie" (1978), adapted by Hugh Whitemore from his West End stage play, is essentially a precise acting duet between two titans of the British stage and cinema, Glenda Jackson and Mona Washbourne, respectively playing the poet Stevie Smith and her beloved aunt (who remains agreeably nameless throughout).

Yes, the piece is stagebound but also, somehow, surprisingly cinematic because Enders (a novice filmmaker at the time who worked largely as a producer) fills his movie with a sharp array of words - the tricky, observant wordplay of Smith's poetry (which Jackson reads directly into the camera at intervals) and Whitemore's affectionate imagination of the bracingly articulate conversations between Smith and her aunt, who lived together.

Through all the talk we come to know Stevie and her emotional problems.

Intimately.

All of this is staged in a cozy cottage designed by John Lageu and photographed by Freddie Young with an eye for the prevading warmth of the central relationship and Stevie's work.

There's a third character on the periphery - Freddy, a close friend played on stage by Peter Eyre and in the film by Alec McGowen - as well a Stevie as a child (Emma Louise Fox) who appears in flashbacks, moments that were only spoken about on stage. The addition of the flashbacks, as well as a narrator for the film (courtesy of Trevor Howard's marvelously sonorous intonations), are the only filmic compromises made by Enders, whose fidelity to the piece's frail nature is remarkable and admirable.

"Stevie" remains the only film directed by Enders, who died in 2007. His film was picked up for American distribution by First Artists, a fledgling company which had a short life in the late 1970s and which had little faith in "Stevie." It opened the film for two weeks in Los Angeles in 1978 and then promptly shelved it. Two years later, when First Artists was long gone, Enders bought back his film and opened it on the East Coast in 1980, where it was a huge hit with the critics and art-house patrons.

Other limited engagements in other cities followed.

It was made available on home entertainment in Great Britain, but never here. "Stevie" remains a lost film.

Note in Passing: Because of her film's irregular release pattern, Jackson never received the Oscar nomination that she so fully deserved. But the Golden Globes honored her and Washbourne in 1979 and both the National Board of Review and the New York Film Critics Circle Awards gave the best actress and supporting actress awards to Jackson and Washbourne in 1981. Washbourne, who died in 1988 at age 84, was honored by the Los Angeles Film Critics Association Awards in 1978 as supporting actress.
* * *

"Not Waving but Drowning"by Stevie Smith

"Nobody heard him, the dead man,
But still he lay moaning;
I was much further out than you thought
And not waving but drowning

"Poor chap, he always loved larking
And now he's dead
It must have been too cold for him his heart gave way,
They said.

"Oh, no no no, it was too cold always
(Still the dead one lay moaning)
I was much too far out all my life
And not waving but drowning."

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

cinema obscura: Harvey Hart's "Fortune and Men's Eyes" (1971)


Aficionados of the unapologetically harsh HBO series, "Oz," may be under the impression that Tom Fantana's creation was mining something new in its uncensored depiction of the homoerotic tensions that seemingly permeate every inch of the prison system.

But the fact is, John Herbert's play, "Fortune and Men's Eyes," produced in the late '60s, got there first, and Harvey Hart's extremely faithful 1971 film version took the piece one step further, depicting things that eluded the constraints of the stage. Herbert's title is taken from a Shakespearean poem entitled "When in disgrace with fortune and men's eyes".

As up-to-date as the material was - and is (even with the passage of time) - the plot of "Fortune and Men's Eyes" is simplistic, almost following a forumula. Call it Prison Film 101. In it, an innocent - the naïve Smitty (Wendell Burton, that's him in the photo, caged) - lands in jail for six months for possessing drugs and is immediately exposed to the horrors of the place. The familiar denizens are all there - the brooding, quick-trigger Rocky (Zooey Hall), the sensitive, sonnet-spouting gay man Mona (Danny Freedman) and the more flamboyant Queenie (Michael Greer, the Rupert Everett of his day), whose name says it all.

Rocky offers Smitty his "protection" - but for a price. The sequence in which Rocky rapes Smitty, in seemingly real time, in the showers was a cause celebré in its day and probably still packs a punch. That's if you can see the film. Which you can't.

I'm not sure who staged that sequence. The film's original director, Jules Schwerin, was replaced nine weeks into the shoot by Harvey Hart ("The Sweet Ride" and "Bus Riley's Back in Town").

The cast is exemplary. Greer, one of the original actors in the Los Angeles stage production of the play (which starred Don Johnson and was directed by Sal Mineo) is postively electric. And whatever happened to him anyway? Both Burton and Hall, who also disappeared, were fresh late '60s faces at the time, both having made their movie debuts in 1969 - Burton opposite Liza Minnelli in Alan J. Pakula's debut movie, "The Sterile Cuckoo," and Hall in a crucial yet curiously uncredited performance in Gordon Parks' debut movie, the autobiographical "The Learning Tree."

The film, incidentally, is a French Canadian production and, in its homeland, was known as "Aux yeux du sort et des humains."

Monday, April 14, 2014

indelible moment: "Mean Girls" (2004)


Gretchen Weiners: "That is so fetch!"

Regina George: "Gretchen, stop trying to make 'fetch' happen! It's so not going to happen!"

Rachel McAdams as the alpha mean girl of The Plastics setting Lacey Chabert straight on her phraseology in Mark Waters' delightful teen comedy.

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

dubbing drubbing

The Curious Mystery of the Dubbed Voice...

Once upon a time, a little unknown named Kathy Sheldon, struggling to make ends meet in Hollywood during the silent era, was brought in by Monumental Pictures, to dub in the voice of tempermental movie queen Lina Lamont in its first singing talkie, "The Dueling Cavalier."

That's the plot of Stanley Donen-Gene Kelly's "Singin' in the Rain" (1952), of course, with Debbie Reynolds as Kathy and Jean Hagen as Lina. The odd thing is that life imitated art, in that Reynolds, a song-and-dance pro, was herself dubbed in the movie - at least, in its climatic scene. That's when Lina, who has a cartoonish, high-pitched voice, is brought on stage following the premiere of "The Dueling Cavalier" and is cheered on by the audience to sing live. She can't.  That's because Kathy dubbed both her speaking and singing voice in the film. And so, with Kathy behind the curtain, Lina mimes the lyric of "Would You?," while Kathy actually sings it.

You know all this if you've seen the film - and who hasn't? But the funny thing is that Reynolds herself was dubbed in the scene - by Betty Royce.

So you have a situation of Royce singing for Reynolds who is pretending to sing for Hagen. Got that?

"Singin' in the Rain" was made more than 60 years ago and film types still complain about dubbing - which, frankly, is nearly as old as film itself and, for me, one of its more magical qualities. Most of these complaints, not surprisingly, are leveled at non-singers who need to be dubbed.

But wait! There are a lot of musically talented people in film who were routinely dubbed. Cyd Charisse was an MGM contract player who made musicals almost exclusively. She could dance but she couldn't sing. India Adams was brought in by Metro to fulfill that aspect of her performance.

And Rita Hayworth's house dubber at Columbia was Jo Ann Greer, whose voice was so remarkably close to Hayworth's that most people have assumed that the star did all her own singing. She didn't. Never.

Rita Moreno, another trained singer, likes to point out in interviews that Natalie Wood had to be dubbed by the ubiquitous Marni Nixon for "West Side Story," but fails to mention that she - Moreno - was dubbed in that film by Betty Wand (who also did the singing for film-musical regular Leslie Caron in "Gigi"). Co-star Russ Tamblyn, another Metro musical player, was dubbed by his fellow Jet in the film, Tucker Smith. It's odd to hear Tucker's voice come out of Tamblyn's mouth in "The Jet Song" and then hear the same voice come out of his own mouth in "Cool."

And here's the clincher: Juanita Hall sang the role of Bloody Mary on Broadway for Joshua Logan in "South Pacific," but when he made his 1958 film version, Murial Smith (who played the role in London) was brought to supply Bloody Mary's singing voice, at the request of Richard Rodgers. Huh?  Why was Hall hired in the first place?  Why not go directly with Smith?

So get over it, folks, because even the most adept musical talents have been dubbed, as bizarre as that might be to imagine.

Much more troublesome - for me, at least - are those players whose entire vocal performances have been dubbed.

Case in point: The charming singer Joanie Sommers who made her inauspicious film debut in the 1961 Don Taylor film, "Everything's Ducky," starring Mickey Rooney and Buddy Hackett.

Taylor, the affable actor who played the groom opposite Elizabeth Taylor in Vincente Minnelli's "Father of the Bride" (1950), directed a few episodes of several TV series before making his big-screen directorial debut with "Everything's Ducky," a comedy for Columbia.

It's about two sailors (Rooney and Hackett) and a talking ... duck.

Sommers had a distinctive speaking and singing voice - soft, velvety, with a slight tomboyish pull to it. She is perhaps best-known for her hit version of the song "One Boy" from the play and film, "Bye Bye Birdie." But her voice is unrecognizable - alien - in "Everything's Ducky." For some bizarre reason, Taylor (or someone) decided to completely re-record her dialogue using another actress's voice. They even dubbed over Sommers' giggles in the film. It's an insane conceit - akin to replacing the singular voice of, say, a Debra Winger or a Zooey Deschanel.

It was never revealed exactly who dubbed Joanie Sommers in "Everything's Ducky," although Columbia did manage to credit the actor - Walker Edmiston - who provided the voice of the duck. Go figure.

Yes, shades of "Singin' in the Rain."

This wasn't the first time that a studio did something drastic with an actress' voice. When Ingrid Thulin's voice in Minnelli's 1962 version of "The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse" was considered too thick and indecipherable for the average American moviegoer, Metro recruited no less than Angela Lansbury to read all her lines.

At least, Thulin was already an establish actress - well, certainly in Europe. But Sommers was brand-new to acting. And so was Jacqueline Bisset, who had one of her more memorable early screen roles in Stanley Donen's "Two for the Road" (1967) - and her husky, trained voice, also very familiar, was dubbed. Word is that Donen actually needed Bisset to reloop someof her dialogue but, as she was already off, working on another film, and unavailable, another actress, also never identified, was brought in to dub her entire vocal performance.

I personally find all this distracting and disturbing. I mean, a person's voice is a big part of his or her performance - nay, it's 100% of the performance. I don't know how it can be easily replaced. Is any artistic excuse legitimate?



Most disturbing of all is what director Hugh Hudson (strangely silent lately, but not missed by me) and what he did to Andie MacDowell in her first screen role in his "Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes" (1984). He took MacDowell's charming, enticing twang and replaced it with the dull patrician tones of Glenn Close, his decision never explained.

And neither MacDowell nor Close has ever discussed it, although I spent most of my career as a working critic dying to ask Close exactly why one actress would do that to another.

Hudson's dubious decision could have derailed MacDowell's acting career and ruined her reputation. Luckily, it didn't. She flourished in some very good films - among them, "Groundhog Day," "Unstrung Heroes," "The Muse," "The End of Violence," "Green Card" and, yes, "Four Weddings and a Funeral" and "sex, lies and videotape.".

Hudson, meanwhile, hasn't made a film in more than a decade.

And according to Hollywood legend, James Keach dubbed the voice of then-newcomer Klinton Spilsbury in the "Legend of the Lone Ranger" movie - a move that I think may have aborted Spilsbury's career - and Lindsay Crouse came in and dubbed Lysette Anthony in "Krull."

Getting back to Sommers, she made out much better in her second film, 1964's "The Lively Set," with James Darren and Pamela Tiffin. Director Jack Arnold, always a pro, was smart enough to retain her seductive purr.

Thursday, April 03, 2014

what a great day!

 •*¨*•♫♪ ░H░A░P░P░Y░ (¯''•.¸*♥♥♥* ¸.•''¯) ░B░I░R░T░H░D░A░Y░
♪♫•*¨*•.¸¸♥ ¸¸.•*¨*¸.•*¨`*░T░O░░Y░O░U░♪♫•*¨*•.¸¸♥
And to...
  • Beverly ("I'm a pig!") Boyer / "The Thrill of It All"
  • Cathy Timberlake / "That Touch of Mink"
  • Margaret Garrison / "Where Were You When the Lights Went Out?"
  • Kit Preston / "Midnight Lace"
  • Georgia Garrett / "Romance on the High Seas"
  • Kitty Wonder / "Billy Rose's Jumbo"
  • Josie Minik / "The Ballad of Josie"
  • Erica Stone / "Teacher's Pet"
  • "Dynamite" Jackson / "April in Paris" 
  • Martha Gibson / "My Dream Is Yours"
  • Isolde Poole / "The Tunnel of Love" 
  • Carol Templeton / "Lover Come Back" 
  •  Jane Osgood / "It Happened to Jane"
  •  Nanette Carter / "Tea for Two"
  • Judy Kimball / "Send Me No Flowers" 
  • Laurie Tuttle / "Young at Heart" 
  • Melinda Howard / "Lullaby of Broadway"
  • Josephine Conway McKenna / "The Man Who Knew Too Much"
  • Jo Jordan / "Young Man with a Horn"
  • Judy Adams / "It's a Great Feeling"
  • Abby McClure / "With Six,You Get Eggroll" 
  • Jennifer Nelson / "The Glass-Bottom Boat"
  • Janet Harper / "Do Not Disturb"
  • Ellen Wagstaff Arden / "Move Over, Darling" 
  • Patricia Foster / "Caprice"
  • "Babe" Williams / "The Pajama Game"
  • Julie Benton / "Julie"
  • Marjorie Winfield / "On Moonlight Bay" & "By the Light of the Silvery Moon"
  • Lucy Rice  / "Storm Warning"
  • Calamity Jane / "Calamity Jane" 
  • Jan Wilson / "The West Point Story"
  • Grace LeBoy Kahn / "I'll See You in My Dreams"
  • Kate Robinson McKay / "Please Don't Eat the Daisies" 
  • Aimee Alexander / "The Winning Team"
  • Ruth Etting / "Love Me or Leave Me" 
  • Jan Morrow / "Pillow Talk"
  • Doris Day / "Starlift"
  • and (drum roll please!) Doris Mary Ann Kappelhoff