Tuesday, April 26, 2016

elvis & ann & george & janet

The curious split-screen finale of "Viva Las Vegas"

In "My Lucky Life In and Out of Show Business: A Memoir" (Three Rivers Press), Dick Van Dyke reminisces about his debut movie, "Bye Bye Birdie" (1963), and director George Sidney's infatuation with Ann-Margret.

In one chapter, Van Dyke describes the moment when he and co-star Janet Leigh walked on to a sound stage to find Ann-Margret sitting on Sidney's lap.  Both looked at each other and, in unison, said, "Uh-oh."

Later, after the first preview of the film, Leigh (who was supposed to be the star of the film and who had worked with Sidney on several films prior to "Birdie") walked up to Sidney and asked, "Where did that song come from?"  She was referring to the new title song that (1) was never in the stage version, (2) apparently was filmed in secrecy and (3) shamelessly showcases A-M. There were other reports - althought not in Van Dyke's book - that Leigh then slapped Sidney across the face. She felt betrayed.

The film version of "Bye Bye Birdie" got off to a bumpy start.  It was supposed to be directed by Gower Champion, who helmed it on Broadway. It was to be his first as a filmmaker.  Champion hoped to cast Jack Lemmon and Debbie Reynolds in the leads. He had wanted Lemmon for the stage version - the two had co-starred years before in a Betty Grable musical, "Three for the Show" (1955) - but Lemmon was already committed to a straight play, "Face of a Hero," the same season. 

And so the stage role went to Dick Van Dyke. Chita Rivera, of course, was his co-star on Broadway, playing the self-described "Spanish Rose."  I've been critical of Ann-Margret's miscasting in the film - and I've no idea if that decision was made by Champion or Sidney - because she's supposed to be playing a character who is either 15 or 16.  But Leigh was also serioulsy miscast as a Latina, as would have been Debbie Reynolds.

Either change the backstory of the character or hire a Hispanic actress.  Why not Rivera?  Or Rita Moreno who has just won an Oscar?

But the casting became a moot point after Champion read Irving Brecher's bowdlerized adaptation of the play and quite the Columbia production, taking Reynolds with him. They went over to Paramount where they made "My Six Loves" instead, which would be Champion's debut as a director. 

And "Birdie" was inherited by Sidney, an old movie-musical veteran who, for some reason, tried to turn the property into a Frank Tashlin film.

But George Sidney was no Frank Tashlin.

It was a huge success, so much so that Sidney and A-M went off to Metro to participate in an Elvis Presley property, "Viva Las Vegas," in which A-M plays a character closer to her own age. The pairing of Elvis and A-M seemed perfect, given that they were essentially mirror images of each other, gender notwithstanding. And publicists wasted no time implying that they were romantically involved, although Elvis himself never verified it.

Turner Classic Movies occasionally airs a fascinating featurette in which Elvis's surviving handlers discuss the making of "Viva Las Vegas" and Geroge Sidney's "crush" (their words) on Ann-Margaret in particular.

There were apparently problems with Sidney giving A-M more close-ups than Elvis until his people tuned him up and explained to Sidney that "Viva Las Vegas" was an Elvis Presley film, not an Ann-Margret vehicle.

Which makes one wonder if there ever was a "relationship."

The final scene in "Viva Las Vegas" is particularly telling.  It's a reprise of the title number featuring Elvis and A-M but they aren't actually in the same shot together, although they are both on screen.

Why?

My guess is that Elvis' people wanted this to be his moment and vetoed the idea of his filming it with A-M.  So did Sidney get around this dictum by filming Elvis separately and then adding A-M to the scene with a split screen?  Whatever the explanation, it's an incredibly awkward finale. 

For those who care, Turner is airing both "Viva Las Vega" and "Bye Bye Birdie" back-to-back Thursday (April 28), starting @ 4:30 p.m. (est).

Friday, April 22, 2016

cinema obscura: prince's "under the cherry moon" (1986)

The death of Prince brings to mind his misunderstood movie masterwork, "Under the Cherry Moon," released by Warner Bros. in 1986.  At the time, it was as reviled as his 1984 debut film, "Purple Rain," was overpraised.

"Rain" was directed by Albert Magnoli, who would make five other theatrical films, but "Cherry Moon" was directed by Prince himself, who would helm only two other titles - the documentary "Sign 'o' the Times" (1987) and "Graffiti Bridge" (1990). Much like Alfred Hitchcock's "Vertigo" (1958), Prince's movie largely drew sneers from outraged critics.  But unlike the Hitchcock, "Under the Cherry Moon" has never been sought out for a serious reassessment and undeservedly remains a lost film.

Strikingly photographed in black-&-white by Michael Ballhaus, Prince's movie is part Antonioni, part Hawks, part Warhol, part whatzit - all jumbled together and seemingly influenced also by the mental landscape of its kinetic, eccentric auteur.  Prince's decidedly modernist presence is never quite embraced by his own film's nostalgic Art Deco elements. It's a movie involved in a moody tug-of-war with itself. Which is hugely affecting.

Thirty years later, "Cherry Moon" remains gnawingly elusive, difficult to contain but now has a timelessness. And 30 years later, I still like it. A lot.

The film gets off to a rather curious start with a sequence in which everyone on screen is behaving like a vampire from one of those trendy Andy Warhol/Paul Morrissey horror collaborations from the 1970s.  When bats appear - flying into a cabaret in France, no less - the joke is made clear: This is Prince's "Portrait of the Expatriat as a Young Zombie."

After the bats appear, liberating everyone, "Under the Cherry Moon" settles into what it really is - a stylish romp that could be titled ... "Two Gals in Paris." Only in this case, we get two guys - Prince and sidekick Jerome Benton. Only they're not in Paris, but in Nice, on the Côte d'Azur.

It could have been glib and amoral but instead has a vulnerable charm.

The boys, gigolos hoping to sponge off the jet set and get rich themselves, are shrewd male variations on the characters played by Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell in Howard Hawks' "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes" (1953).

That's right.

Prince is Christopher Tracy, an entertainer who performs nightly in a piano bar and dares to fall in love with a swell (Kristen Scott-Thomas), much to her parents' chagrin, and he plays the part with a mixture of his usual wild-eyed randiness and a certain '50s insouciance.

There's no question in my mind that Prince is doing Monroe here (at times, he affects the same sweet, startled, slightly addled facial expression) or that the speedboat escape at the end smacks of the finale of Billy Wilder's "Some Like It Hot" (1959). This is gender-bending at its most creative.

I've referenced a lot of film titles and filmmakers here and, yes, Prince the director is able to mesh them all.  "Under the Cherry Moon" was a daring risk following the success of "Purple Rain" and in the weeks prior to its release, the buzz labeled it stinker.  Far from it.  It was the boldest film of the summer of 1986.  As well as the most misundersood. Check it out.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

... and, now, about kelly...

Michael Strahan may be ABC's superhero, but the personality who’s really indispensable in the very strange world of Daytime Television is the peerless Kelly.  Yes, Kelly Ripa

Let's talk TV today - daytime TV, to be specific.

Now, before you ask what daytime TV has to do with movies, I hasten to note that there are no longer any barriers that separate the various arts from each other or from the assorted media (including, and especially, social media).  And on daytime TV, it's all one giant mash-up of bold-faced names, film clips, tie-ins, name-dropping and shameless self-promotion.

It's also - except for a quartet of exceptions - dated, repetitious and as depressing as hell.  You have ABC's solitary soap, "General Hospital," which has been an unwatchable mess for about a decade now; the network's "The View," which should be put out of its misery (and misery is indeed the operative word here) and CBS's antiquated game shows "The Price Is Right" and "Let's Make a Deal" where, with scant encouragement, the contestants are more than happy to behave like hapless buffoons.

And so, it came as no surprise that the The 43rd Annual Daytime Emmy Awards (scheduled for May 1st ) would not be televised this year.  I mean, really, how often can one watch the same game shows, the same talk shows and the same soaps win awards that interest no one?

BTW, there are currently only four soap operas remaining on daytime TV and guess how many of them have been nominated this year.

That's right - all four, only one of which is notable.

That would be CBS's "The Young and the Restless," one of the aforementioned four exceptions that make daytime TV bearable and a top TV drama in general (although it is currently being overseen by refugees from the unfortunate "General Hospital," a reason for pause).

The other three are CBS's "The Talk" (despite the fact its five co-hosts, all incredibly personable, have taken it on themselves to do non-stop damage control for spoiled celebrities who pay people to do exactly that for them); Rachel Ray's fabulous food-and-talk show on ABC, and, in a class all by itself, "Live with Kelly and Michael," also on ABC. ("Rachel" and "Live" are both Disney-syndicated but air on ABC channels exclusively.)

The Kelly and Michael of the title are, of course, the peerless Kelly Ripa and the ever-surprising Michael Strahan, a former NFL star who has evolved into an unexpectedly pleasing TV personality - so much so that ABC has elected to remove Strahan from "Live" and situate him on its more valuable morning show, "Good Morning, America," which is arguably the definitive mash-up of all those ingredients listed in the second paragraph here (plus some sociopolitical news for legitimacy).

Strahan has been a twice-a-week contributor on GMA, starting there approximately the same time he joined "Live," where he replaced Regis Philbin.  The pairing of Kelly and Michael, which seemed wildly off-beat on paper, turned out to beterrific -  a match of perfection.

According to Wikipedia, after Strahan teamed with Ripa, "ratings instantly surged, impressively generating year-over-year time slot gains across all key demographics, towering over its nearest competition, the fourth hour of NBC's 'Today Show,' by 87 percent."  As it is with Wikipedia, I'm not exactly sure who wrote this impressive info/blurb, possibly a Strahan assistant. Anyway, ABC apparently took note and, shortly after his debut on "Live," Strahan joined GMA for occasional weekly appearances.

Since then, Strahan has been seemingly everywhere and dabbling in seemingly everything. He has an eponymous men's clothing line and a motivational book, "Wake Up Happy: The Dream Big, Win Big Guide to Transforming Your Life"; he's been the spokesperson for the P&G Meta products; and his other TV work includes his role as a FOX NFL Sunday analyst and the host of the upcoming ABC (yes, ABC) game-show reboot, "The $100,000 Pyramid," airing this summer. Have I missed anything?

Whew!

So his ascension to a top spot on GMA is just the latest stride for Michael Strahan and, while no one would begrudge his apparently unquenchable ambition, the circumstances surrounding this latest move seem dubious at best.  It's great that Strahan is going to GMA and terrible that he's leaving "Live."  What's disturbing in the secrecy about the move - so secret that reportedly (if one is to believe reports) not even Ripa or (reportedly) "Live" producer Michael Gelman knew about it until it was announced by an ABC honcho, James Goldston, president of its news division.

And one would think that Ripa and Gelman, of all people, deserved the courtesy of a heads-up at the very least. Strahan's stock has risen largely because of "Live" in general and his chemistry with Ripa in particular.

Strahan has been admired for his accessible "everyguy" demeanor and I guess ABC is counting on that quality to help GMA as it struggles to surmount its rival, NBC's "Today Show," which has snapped up the "people between 25 and 54" demographic so valued by advertisers.

But the questionable way this has been handled, the perceived deception, is not something that viewers associate with Strahan's "brand."  (Full disclosure: Having worked for newspapers for an unhealthy number of years, I'm accustomed to overpaid people making bad decisions.)

This could be potentially damaging.

As for Kelly Ripa, I have every confidence that she will do just fine.  She has that rare ability to pair up perfectly with just about everyone, not just Michael Strahan, as evidence by the revolving-door of guys who auditioned for the seat that Strahan successfully won four years ago and who have replaced him during his days off.  Plus, unlike many of her co-hosts (Strahan included), Ripa is quick on her feet and a natural comic.  And she's immensely likable. I guess what I'm saying is, she's perfect.

Or at least, the perfect TV host.  And on morning TV, she's like a tonic.

She's also a pro, a top professional.  But even a pro can be pushed too far.  And so it came as no surprise that, the day after Goldston's big Strahan announcment, Kelly was absent from today's "Live" telecast. Ana Gasteyer filled in. She was competent.  But she's no Kelly Ripa.

Michael Strahan will be easy to replace - I have no doubt about that - but "Live" is unthinkable without Kelly. And so, the next time ABC and Goldston are looking to clandestinely snare someone away from an ABC syndicated show, I suggest that they aim higher (read: Kelly Ripa).

Wednesday, April 06, 2016

adventures in movie reviewing: "caddyshack"

From Cindy Morgan's Twitter page
Co-stars Cindy Morgan, Scott Colomby and Bill Murray at the "Caddyshack" premiere in New York 

One of the highlights of my movie-reviewing career was the 1980 New York press junket for Harold Ramis's "Caddyshack," which included the film's premiere on a summer Friday night at the Lowes' State theater (prior to its national release) and an interview session the following Saturday morning at Dangerfield's, a club owned by one of its stars.

But the event was a highlight in ways that I didn't quite expect...

It started off well. The premiere was smashing, free-form and informal and appropriately chaotic.  The entire cast showed up, as well as the comedy ensemble that was currently appearing on "Saturday Night Live," in attendance to support their cohorts Chevy Chase, Bill Murray and Brian Doyle-Murray.  Sitting in front of me were Al Franken and Tom Davis. 

The movie itself, which remains a favorite of mine, was a treat, deliriously funny - a sort of live-action Looney Tune.  Which is apt since Warner Bros. released it. Murray was/is the film's standout, improvising a variation on Wylie Cayote opposite a little animatronic gopher's Road Runner. Bliss.

The next day, a bus was waiting outside the hotel to whisk the press off to Dangerfield's.  Here's where matters got strange.  I'm in the hotel elevator with about six other people.  One guy, thirtysomething, is talking particularly loud and sounds angry.  There's profanity.  Then I notice that he's looking at me.  He's yelling at me. Huh?  I assume he's drunk.  Or on drugs. I get on the bus and he's there, too, still lashing out.  But why?

This is clearly a verbal assault.

OK, now we're at Dangerfield's.  It's packed.  Murray shows up needing a shave, wearing a swim suit and matching top and carrying a pizza.  Rodney Dangerfield plays maître d, seating everyone. Memorable.  But that serpentine guy, now sitting in the back of the place, is still yelling at me. Everyone is staring.  Studio people try to quiet him to little avail.

By now, he knows who I am - that I'm with the press - but the irrational attack continues. I'm told his identity by a Warners person.  He's someone important, very important, someone intimately involved with the film.

Wow.

"Is this guy nuts?," I think.  "I'm here to help him sell his film."  And, let's get something straight, contrary to Hollywood legend, it is decidedly not part of a critic's job to help sell a film. (At least, it shouldn't be.)

When I get back to the office the following Monday, I receive phone calls from Elijah "Lige" Brien, the head of Warners publicity in the New York office at the time, and from his colleague, Carl Samrock, both apologizing for the bad behavior.  My editor asked me how everything went.  I tell him about the incident and we agree that instead of running any interviews, I'd write something else: a column about how good-natured films are often made by mean-spirited people - a dichotomy that still fascinates me.

The movie industry has never been big on decency.  It's never been able to cope with success and power.  But what happened to protocol?  In the bad old days, a Harry Cohn or a Jack Warner would have fired the guy.

I wrote the essay but never named the person involved.  What was the point?  It didn't matter.  He was one of many movie people who disappoint and disillusion. And I won't name him here. He passed a while ago.

Back in the 1970s, Sydney J. Harris, then columnist for the Chicago Daily News, summed up the entertainment industry most succinctly when he wrote:

"There's no business like show business - and it's a good thing there isn't ... No other business engages in so much public boasting about its 'big heart' and indulges in so much private malice with its little head."  Amen.

Note in Passing: Warners Bros. never addressed my column or questioned why we didn't run any interviews, but it was less less than happy when a colleague (who reviewed for the Wilmington News Journal) wrote about the same incident. That critic was unfairly admonished.

Typical.

Friday, April 01, 2016

cinema obscura: Bobby Roth's "Heartbreakers" (1984)

Five years before Steven Soderbergh's "Sex, Lies and Videotape" took Sundance by storm in 1989, officially kicking off the New American Indie Wave, there were two provocative "in-between" films that, well, sadly fell through the cracks. By "in-between," I'm referring to those identity-crisis movies that are neither studio titles nor strictly independent ventures. There's something mainstream about them and yet they really aren't mainstream.

Coyote! He's Blue, the lanky, not-exactly-sensitive artist

The titles in question, both released in 1984, are Alan Rudolph's "Choose Me," which opens with Jan Kiesser's "swoony cinematography" (Pauline Kael's expression) following along with Lesley Ann Warren's sensual movements as she sashays down a noir street, and Bobby Roth's "Heartbreakers," a provocative piece about something that's seemingly impossible - namely, true friendship among men.

I'm less concerned with "Choose Me," because Rudolph went on to have something of a career (albeit in the shadow of his mentor, Robert Altman) and, therefore, his films are remembered. Well, sort of.

Roth, on the other hand, made a detour into TV and pretty much stayed there, his most impressive title being the HBO movie, "Baja Oklahoma" (1988), adapted by Dan Jenkins from his novel and starring Warren and Julia Roberts, compelling as mother and daughter. Peter Coyote, who co-starred, is also one of Roth's two male leads in "Heartbreakers."

Coyote is Blue, a lanky, overgrown boy who ostensibly works as an artist but is not commercially successful at it. He's the kind of guy who easily attracts women, but Blue stuck with one woman, someone who finally could no longer take his rampant immaturity and left. Nick Mancuso is Eli, a driven, successful businessman (he's largely in the "son" business) and experienced womanizer. Women are drawn to him, too.

These are an odd pair to be friends but this is the kind of situation where one guy fills in the blanks of the other.

Their supposed friendship is tested when a new woman - France's Carol Laure (from Bertrand Blier's "Préparez vos mouchoirs"/"Get Out Your Handkerchiefs") - comes on the scene, and both respond to her.

Roth, who made one small impressive feature prior to this ("The Boss's Son," starring Asher Brauner as a possibly autobiographical character named ... Bobby Rose), economically conveys the competitiveness between the two men in an early gym scene where they stand in front of a mirror, both shirtless, sizing up each other's chests.

The supporting cast includes Kathryn Harrold, Max Gail, George Morfogen and the invaluable Carol Wayne, excellent here. The great Michael Ballhaus did the cinematography; Tangerine Dream the music. It's troubling that this fine film remains virtually unknown.
Mancuso! He's Eli, the killer-businessman, utterly driven

Note in Passing: Roth's "Heartbreakers" is not to be confused with David Mirkin's 2001 comedy, "Heartbreakers," starring Sigourney Weaver, Jennifer Love Hewitt, Ray Liotta, Jason Lee and Gene Hackman.