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."

5 comments:

John Elliott said...

1971. Back when homosexuality was still considered a mental disorder. I haven't seen all the film, but the rape suggests that the gay is innately psycho. This type of representation is slanderous and would not be so easily accepted by civilised society, today. Hence, I hope that this film is not seen by some ignorant audiences as their only perspective of gay identity. John Elliott, Peterborough, England.

Brian said...

I vaguely remember Zooey Hall from a late 60s TV series called "The New People." Oddly, my memories of one of his co-stars, the lovely Tiffany Bolling, are considerably less vague. :)

He was also the lead in the notorious "I Dismember Mama," and shortly thereafter started billing himself as David Hall or David Z. Hall. He seems to have no credits after 1982. Whenever 60s and 70s era actors go missing, I always assume "drug casualty," rightly or wrongly. Hope he's doing well.

Michael Greer died of lung cancer in 2002. Wendell Burton found religion and is now a minister. (Thanks, imdb!)

joe baltake said...

Wow. Thanks for the info. I'm dating myself now, but I had a bad crush on Tiffany Bolling back in the day. I have fond memories of her in "The Marriage of a Young Stockbroker," yet another lost movie. Richard Benjamin & Joanna Shimkus, right?

Brian said...

I've always wanted to see "Stockbroker" (isn't Adam West in that, too?). Shimkus was another lovely actress who never seemed to quite take off (preferred married bliss with Sidney Poitier apparently).

My other big memory of Bolling is in the 70s action potboiler "Bonnie's Kids," which I'd love to see again (I rented the VHS many moons ago, but I don't think it's available in any format these days). I've heard great things about "The Candy Snatchers," which IS on DVD, so maybe I should hunt that down.

Sheila said...

It's a great film. In response to Brian's comment, Zooey Hall(credited as David Hall) made an appearance on an episode(entitled Faith, Hope & Charity) of the ABC series Hotel in 1983.