Tuesday, January 22, 2008


Not surprisingly, there was an immediate, overwhelming groundswell of shock, emotion and genuine affection following the announcment of Heath Ledger's untimely, premature death today.

His is an uncommon celebrity death that stops the world in its tracks and forces people to take stock and actually consider the loss that's at hand.

Ordinarily, reactions to the death of a public person fall in one of two camps: There's the creepily ghoulish (Anna Nicole Smith) or the respectfully sad (Suzanne Pleshette). But Ledger's passing has engendered something more personal and urgent and frustrating.

We don't want to believe it.

That's because Ledger was so young, so alive, so talented and so charismatic - an approachable icon about whom one feels very proprietary and protective, but who will now remain gnawingly unknowable.

And so it's easy to understand the comparisons to James Dean - and the need for this generation to have the same ritualistic love affair with a handsome, shadowy figure upon whom we can project all kinds of ideas, ideals and unfulfilled promise.

Sleep well, sweet prince. You've left more than a handful of fine film performances behind you.

You made people care again.

Now let's remember him at his best -- in the closing scene from "Brokeback Mountain."

(Artwork: The late Heath Ledger, the young prince in his prime)

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Anyone interested in perusing some 2060 of my film reviews, dating back to 1994, can do so by simply going to RottenTomatoes.Com

Suzanne Pleshette & "The Honeymoon Machine"

Suzanne Pleshette's death on Saturday, January 19th prompted an immediate wave of love letters from the media, all of them exceedingly well-deserved - and there's not much more that I can add to the mix.

Like everyone else, I was seduced by her husky voice and dark, smokey good looks.

Unlike most admirers, however, I could never quite understand why Alfred Hitchcock was the only director who seemed to know what to do with her. (See "The Birds.") My immediate impression is that Pleshette's natural sexuality intimidated directors and scared the bejesus out of male moviegoers.

Otherwise, it's curious that she didn't bloom into "the next Natalie Wood," which is obviously what Jack Warner had in mind for her when he signed her to an exclusive contract in the early 1960s. (Perhaps not coincidentally, Warners has the same exact problem with Mimsy Farmer during the same period.)

Like Lois Nettleton, who died the day before her, Pleshette ended up on television, most notably on "The Bob Newhart Show," and it was in this medium that she became reaquainted with Tom Poston, with whom she had starred on Broadway in 1959 in Lorenzo Semple, Jr.'s antic comedy, "The Golden Fleecing," directed by Abe Burrows.

The play wasn't a tremendous hit (84 performances, running from October 15 to December 26 at the Henry Miller Theater), but it was likable enough for MGM to buy the rights and produce a film verson, retitled "The Honeymoon Machine," directed in 1961 by Richard Thorpe.

Neither Poston nor Pleshette was recruited to recreate their roles, however. They went to Steve McQueen and Pleshette-lookalike Brigid Bazlen. (And whatever happened to her?) The popular MGM team Paula Prentiss and Jim Hutton, plus Jack Weston, had supporting roles. This most companionable little film has become something of a Turner Classics staple in recent years, and it's not hard to imagine Poston and Pleshette in the McQueen-Bazlen roles.

Anyway, "The Honeymoon Machine," which naturally went unmentioned in all of Pleshette's obits, provides a kind of lefthanded footnote to her career and her life: She and Poston married in May of 2001, a little more than 40 years after they first met in "The Golden Fleecing," and they remained married until his death in 2007.

Note in Passing: Pleshette's first marriage was, of course, to Troy Donahue, her leading man on her first film for Warners, Delmer Daves' "Rome Adventure" (1962), based on Irving Finerman's novel. (She played Prudence Bell.) In-between Donahue and Poston, she was married to businessman Tom Gallagher for more than 30 years.

(Artwork: The inimitable Suzanne Pleshette in a vintage shot from her Warner Bros./starlet days and poster art for MGM's "The Honeymoon Machine")

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Anyone interested in perusing some 2060 of my film reviews, dating back to 1994, can do so by simply going to RottenTomatoes.Com

Lois Nettleton, 1927-2008

The appealing Lois Nettleton, who died on Friday, January 18th, was one of those criminally-neglected talents so pervasive in show business - an accomplished stage actress who was wooed into films by a studio that had no idea of what to do with her and left her to bide her time in the vast wasteland of television.

With the proper handling, she could have been a formidable competitor for Joanne Woodward.

Nettleton was already 35 - and had several Broadway credits behind her - when she made her official film debut in MGM's adaptation of Tennessee Williams' only comedy, the underrated "Period of Adjustment," a vivid criticism of unchecked, all-American male chauvinism. (She had a bit part five years earlier in Elia Kazan's "Face in the Crowd.") The film also marked the directorial debut of George Roy Hill, and I'd like to think that Hill was instrumental in the signing of Nettleton.

She played the role of Dorothea Baitz, a housewife and mother living under the crush of her overbearing husband Ralph (Tony Franciosa) - a woman whose long-delayed libertion unexpectedly comes under the guidance of a ditz named Isabel Haverstick (Jane Fonda), who is married to Ralph's best friend, George (Jim Hutton.) On stage, in the 1960 Broadway production, also directed by Hill, these roles were played by Rosemary Murphy, James Daly, Barbara Baxley and Robert Webber, respectively.

Despite enthusiastic reviews for her performance, Nettleton was rushed by MGM into two of its less illustrious programmers - Henry Levin's "Come Fly with Me" (1963) and Burt Kennedy's "Mail-Order Bride" (1964). And then she languished in TVland until the studio cast her in 1969's "The Good Guys and the Bad Guys" and 1970's "Dirty Dingus Magee"," both directed by Kennedy.

Uneventful best describes what follows. She played opposite Richard Harris (and the child Jodie Foster) in Don Taylor's "Echoes of a Summer" (1976) and had the truncated role of Burt Reynolds' temporary love interest in Colin Higgin's film of "The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas" (1982), nothing of great interest. Nettleton's most interesting late-career credit may have been a film directed by the actor Conrad Janis, 1994's "The Feminine Touch," which reteamed George Segal with Elliott Gould. I never saw it and I know of no one who has.

Nevertheless, if she did nothing else on film, her commanding, heartbreaking turn in Hill's "Period of Adjustment" was enough to qualify Lois Nettleton as a great American screen actress.

(Artwork: Lois Nettleton, circa 1962)

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Anyone interested in perusing some 2060 of my film reviews, dating back to 1994, can do so by simply going to RottenTomatoes.Com

Saturday, January 19, 2008

cinema obscura: Tom DeSimone's "Chatterbox" (1977)

Mitchell Lichtenstein's game new horror flick, "Teeth," opening January 18th, isn't the first film about a very resourceful vagina. In case you haven't heard, the star vagina in "Teeth" is "dentally augmented," as The Village Voice's Jim Ridley puts it.

As Ridley wittily describes it, the film's "imperiled virgin quickly learns to clamp down and twist, parting franks from beans and leaving plenty of dismembered members and spurting stumps." And unlike most modern movies, Lichtenstein's movie leaves the men and their privates vulnerably exposed, while the woman in question is discreetly proteted from any hint of nudity.

While Lichtenstein's movie may seem like an original, it owes its outrageousness to a tacky but entertaining soft-core feature from 1977 - Tome DeSimone's "Chatterbox" which stars the game Candice Rialson as Penny, a beautician who discovers that her vagina can talk and that it isn't always tactful. A genuinely funny comedy, "Chatterbox" is about a vagina that spouts the most politically incorrect things at the most inopportune times, much to the chagrin of the dubious assortment of men who want to bed Penny.

Some day, one of these films will make a great double bill with Doris Dörrie's "Me and Him" ("Ich und Er," 1988), in which Griffin Dunne discovers that - you guessed it! - his penis can talk.

Note in Passing: Mitchell Lichtenstein is the son of Pop artist Roy Lichtenstein.

Cinema Obscura is a recurring feature of The Passionate Moviegoer, devoted to those films that have been largely forgotten. Suggestions welcome.

(Artwork: Poster art for 1977's soft-core "Chatterbox" and Mitchell Lichtenstein's brand-new "Teeth")

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Anyone interested in perusing some 2060 of my film reviews, dating back to 1994, can do so by simply going to RottenTomatoes.Com

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

façade: Jack as Jack

First, a big bravo to Sean Burns, a movie critic at The Philadelphia Weekly, who summed up Rob Reiner's unfortunate "The Bucket List" by quipping that "it makes Mitch Albom look like John Cassavetes."


Distracted during the screening of "The Bucket List," I started to play mind games about its star, Jack Nicholson. I wondered, exactly when did Jack Nicholson become Jack Nicholson?

I found myself fondly remembering the subtle Jack Nicholson of "Carnal Knowledge" and "The King of Marvin Gardens." But when did he become that potentate in sunglasses sitting in the front row of every movie awards show? When did it start? Was it "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest"? "The Shining"? "Terms of Endearment"? Or was it as recent as "As Good as It Gets" or "Something's Gotta Give"?

When did Jack Nicholson go from being one of our premiere actors to being ... Just Jack? Maybe you have an answer.

Note in Passing: Our guy did take a break from being Jack in Martin Scorsese's "The Departed." He hasn't completely disappeared within a mist of Hollywood hype.

(Artwork: Jack Nicholson, morphing)

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Anyone interested in perusing some 2060 of my film reviews, dating back to 1994, can do so by simply going to RottenTomatoes.Com