Monday, December 14, 2015

making an age-appropriate "gypsy"

Lady Gaga should play Rose in Streisand's "Gypsy"

Arguably, few movie remakes are as good as the originals and, as a general rule, the average film buff is contemptuous of remakes.  But that hasn't stopped any self-respecting buff from indulging in fantasy casting.

Count me in.

Which brings me to "Gypsy" and Barbra Streisand's crusade to film another version, reportedly based on a new script by the estimable Richard LaGravenese ("The Fisher King," "Beloved" and "The Ref").

As regular readers of this site know by now, "Gypsy" remains my favorite musical - I saw the original production as a kid, my first stage show ever (I'm seriously dating myself here) - as well as my favorite movie musical.

Mervyn LeRoy's 1962 film version, with Rosalind Russell's definitive reading of the role of Rose Hovick, is letter-perfect, even with the few ill-advised cuts that LeRoy made following its first previews.

An unnecessary and unmemorable 1993 TV movie, directed by Emile Ardolino and starring a seemingly well-cast but surprisingly ineffectual Bette Midler, succeeded only in making the LeRoy film look even better.

Much better.

Streisand's plan is to direct the new version and play the role of Rose.

The idea of Streisand singing the "Gypsy" score is irresistible.  She would have made the perfect Rose - would have.  Streisand will be 74 in April and may well be a few years older if Universal decides to back the film.

"Gypsy" spans about 10 years, opening with Rose as the mother of two little girls who, I'm guessing, are about seven and eight.  It ends with the still-young title character becoming a phenomenon in burlesque.

Rose should be 30 at most when the show opens and about 40 when she triumphantly/pathetically sings the searingly biographical "Rose's Turn."

Forty years ago, Streisand undoubtedly would have been a revelation as Rose and apparently LaGravenese thinks she is still right for the role.

Recently, Streisand has aligned herself with Lady Gaga and expressed interest in casting her in "Gypsy."  Great, I thought.  Barbra is going to direct Gaga (né Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta) as Rose.

Gaga is 29 and would be a terrific Rose, considering (1) her age, (2) her demeanor and (3) her vocal range.  But I assumed wrong.  Streisand's idea is for Gaga to play Gypsy to Streisand's Rose.

None of this is exactly new. Over the past 50-plus years, there have been only a handful of productions of "Gypsy" and, by extension, a handful of actresses playing Rose, the crown jewel of musical comedy.  But all of them have been examples of ageist casting (yes, ageist, but not in the direction you think). Why has the character of Rose traditionally been cast with an actress well into her 50s (at least)? Imagine how different - and revelatory - it could be with a younger, vibrant performer in the role.

But this has never happened.

Wait. It happened once.  No, twice. In 2004, Andrea McArdle, then 40, played Rose in The Bay Area Houston Ballet and Theatre production of "Gypsy." At 40, McArdle (who has the perfect voice for the role) was a decidedly youthful Rose. It probably also helped that McArdle invariably identified with the material, having started out as a child actress (read: "Annie"). Mary McCarty, who replaced Ethel Merman in the Broadway production in 1961, was 38 at the time. (McCarty played Mother Goose in Disney's "Babes in Toyland," which co-starred Ann Jillian as Bo Peep; Jillian would play Dainty June in the '62 film version of "Gypsy.")

And, in 1964, songstress Gisele MacKenzie played the part in Berkeley at Ben Kaplan's Meadowland Theater.  She was - ta-da! - 37.

MacKenzie is the youngest Rose Hovick to date.

The oldest Rose? That would be Leslie Uggams who was 71 when she played Rose in the 2014 production at the Connecticut Repertory Theater.  Wow!  She is followed, but not too closely by Patti Lupone who was 60 when she undertook the part in the most recent - 2008 - Broadway revival of the show. The talented Lupone was 58 when she also played the role in the 2007 Encores! production and 57 when she tackled it for the first time for the 2006 Ravinia Festival production.

Following Uggams and Lupone, age-wise, are these top-notch actresses, some miscast, some well-cast, but all a tad too old for the role, a trend that I covered in an earlier essay here:

Imelda Stauton, age 59, pictured below (2015 British revival at London's Savoy Theater; see Michael O'Sullivan's coverage here from his excellent site, Mike’s Movie Projector)

Ann Sothern, age 58 (1967 touring Music Fair production)

Ethel Merman, age 57 (original 1959 Broadway production)

Patty Duke, age 57 (2003 Spokane, Washington Civic Theatre production; Duke below with co-stars Danae M. Lowman and Reed McColm)

Bernadette Peters, age 55 (2003 Sam Mendes revival)

Rosalind Russell, age 55 (original 1962 film version)

Tovah Feldshuh, age 55 (2008 Bristol Riverside Theater production)

Linda Lavin, age 52 (succeeded Tyne Daly, below, in the 1989 revival)

Betty Buckley, age 51 (1998 Papermill Playhouse production; Debbie Gibson co-starred as Louise/Gypsy)

Joanne Worley, age 51 (1988 The Civic Light Opera of San Gabriel Valley; Audrey Landers co-starred as Louise/Gypsy)

Angela Lansbury, age 49 (1973 London production, followed immediately by the first Broadway revival in '74)

Bette Midler, age 48 (1993 TV-movie remake)

Vicki Lewis, age 48 (2008 California Musical Theater production)

Betty Buckley, age 45 (1992 Southern Arizona Light Opera Company production)

Tyne Daly, age 43 (1989 Broadway revival)

Betty Hutton, age 41 (1961 National Tour)

But somehow, the role has evaded such powerhouses as Carol Burnett, Liza Minnelli and ...Streisand! And Stockard Channing  would have been an absolutely terrific, atypical choice for the part but a natural.

But back to "a younger, vibrant performer in the role." Well, that would be Gaga, hands-down, who could be easily aged for the later scenes. ("Youthening" someone - is that a word? - is much more difficult and rarely convincing.)  Plus - and this is probably important to Universal - Gaga would bring bodies into the local multiplexes to watch her in action.

While we're at it, let's cast the other roles, all within the right age range.  (It's called fantasy casting, see?)

Herbie:  Adam Levine (he would match up well with Gaga, his personality would fit the part and, of course, he can sing)

Louise/Gypsy: Jennifer Lawrence (she could be a-mazing.)

Tulsa: Zac Efron

Dainty June: Elle Fanning

Miss Cratchet: Allison Janney

Tessie Tura: Tina Fey

Electra: Amy Poehler

Miss Mazeppa: Amy Schumer

Baby June: Alyvia Alyn Lind

Baby Louise: Sophie Pollono

That said, wishing Barbra the best of luck with her dream project.

Below: Audrey Landers (left) and Joanne Worley (center) in The Civic Light Opera of San Gabriel Valley production

Friday, December 11, 2015

cinema obscura: Maddow/Meyers/Strick's "The Savage Eye" (1960)

A major independent film of the early 1960s, "The Savage Eye" had become something of an enigma in the past five decades, forgotten about until the UCLA Film and Television Archive inexplicably but bravely revived it in 2008, jogging my memory. A rush of stirring black-&-white images, courtesy of cinematographers Jack Couffer, Helen Levitt and Haskell Wexler, reminded me of what a vivid experience it was - and still is.

Then the film disappeared again.  Until now.  New York's Museum of the Moving Image (36-01 35th Avenue, Astoria) has unearthed it for a screening on December 13th, as part of its "Lonely Places: Film Noir and the American Landscape" series.  Good news for serious film aficionados - and fans of its fabulous star, Barbara Baxley.

"The Savage Eye" is very much a celebration of  the invaluable and singular Baxley, too long a neglected actress.

The dual-level film is part narrative, part documentary.  Directed in tandem by Ben Maddow, Sidney Meyeres and Joseph Strick (who also produced and edited the film), "The Savage Eye" is ostensibly about a woman named Judith McGuire, who spends the day waiting for her divorce to come through by wandering around Los Angeles.
Baxley, a popular New York stage actress when the film was made who had just appeared and, of course, she would go on to famously play Lady Pearl in Altman's "Nashville" (1975), her defining role.

The year in "The Savage Eye" is 1959. Jaded and now seeing life in a more realistic way, Judith serves as a guide through a city which, seen up close, looks dirty and disreputable - bustling yet empty. The rose-colored glasses are off.

The result is a narrative which works also - largely - as a documentary about the city and its assorted haunts, a narrative whose compelling supporting cast is a vast array of Los Angeleans, most of whom come across as emotionally and culturally impoverished. There's no sense of joy here because priorities have been skewed in favor of relentlessly shallow needs and goals.

Gary Merrill co-stars as a character called The Poet, who gives voice to the city, and Herschel Bernardi is on board, too. Leonard Rosenman wrote the score for this vivid journey through hopelessness.

For its 2008 screening of "The Savage Eye," the UCLA Film and Television Archive utilized The Billy Wilder Theater on its campus. More please.
Note in Passing:  When I originally addressed "The Savage Eye" back in 2010, I heard from a reader named Mark who wrote, "The film was restored by the Academy Film Archive. As a preservationist there, I was asked to present a program in the context of UCLA's 2008 "Out of the Past" series, and I chose to show this film (along with our preservation of Strick's short film Muscle Beach), as we were proud to have worked on it, and, indeed, it is too little known today. It was great evening, and we even had some late 1940s Muscle Beach folks in the audience, a couple of whom show up briefly in the short! UCLA does excellent preservation work and programming, but I wanted to make sure that credit was given where due in this case - at the archive, we were thrilled the Academy supported this restoration. Thanks for writing about the screening!"

Saturday, December 05, 2015

cinema obscura: Don McGuire's "Johnny Concho" (1956)

Much has been written about Frank Sinatra's decision to suppress - momentarily, at least - two of the titles in his filmography, Lewis Allen's "Suddenly" (1954) and John Frankenheimer's "The Manchurian Candidate" (1962), both considered too politically incendiary by the actor-singer.

But missing from the discussion is another compelling Sinatra film that went missing seemingly decades ago - Don McGuire's "Johnny Concho" (1956), a flawed but gripping character-driven Western in which Sinatra skillfully plays a cowardly punk who exploits the notorious reputation of his brother, a ruthless killer.

His Johnny, a pathetic, reprehensible figure, bullies his way through life by referencing his brother's dubious accomplishments.

Sinatra's urban profile works well to disconnect his character from the sagebrush mise-en-scène here. He's clearly out of his element, just as Johnny is alien in this landscape of rough-hewn people. Johnny is a poseur, giving a "performance" based on terror and sadism, and Sinatra nails this aspect in a portrayal impressive for its subtlety.

A definite bonus: Sinatra's leading lady here is the criminally underused Phyllis Kirk.

Tuesday, December 01, 2015

my rodgers & hammerstein dilemma

I've something of a love-hate relationship with Rodgers and Hammerstein - mostly love, of course. Who couldn't love their melodies?


As is true with most of R&H's shows, the glorious songs are the point, the only point. But are we really expected to forget the deadly dull stretches and arch dialogue that invariably come in between? Some people do.

Most people, unfortunately.

Composer Richard Rodgers and lyricist Oscar Hammerstein collaborated on one original screen musical ("State Fair"), one musical conceived directly for television ("Cinderella") and nine stage musicals, six of which have been filmed. The shows that never made it to the big screen are "Allegro," "Me and Juliet" and "Pipe Dream."

For the record, the two "State Fair" films (1945 and 1962), "Carousel" (1956), "The King and I" and "The Sound of Music" (1965) were all produced by 20th Century-Fox, while the films of "Oklahoma!" (1955) and "South Pacific" (1958) were produced independently by Rodgers and Hammerstein's own Magna Corporation - but released by Fox.

Only "Flower Drum Song" (1961) was made by another studio, Universal, and for me, it's the most durable of the Rodgers and Hammerstein films.


The fact is, as grand as they may seem on the surface, just about every one of the beloved Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals comes with a nagging sense of déjà vu. This is something that's particularly evident on film because of the camera's relentless knack for picking up every flaw.

I call it The Rodgers & Hammerstein Formula.
"Oklahoma!" successfully introduced this formula, something that Rodgers and Hammerstein would slavishly rework and rehash for the rest of their careers together - namely, the confrontation between an innocent but headstrong young heroine (gingham-clad Laurie, in the case of "Oklahoma!") and an incorrigible sexist (cowboy Curly, in the same piece).

This basic theme would resurface between lovelorn Julie Jordan and petty criminal Billy Bigelow in "Carousel"; between hayseed Nellie Forbush and shady Emil De Becque in "South Pacific," and between the title characters in "The King and I." Even the modern, jazzy "Flower Drum Song" was affected by this by-the-numbers plotting, initially pairing sweet Mei Li with swinging Sammy Fong.

If "The King and I," based on a true story, seems slightly more progressive than the team's musicals that preceded it, it's because at least its heroine, Anna Leonowens, is drawn as a mature, intelligent woman who's as savvy as the King - and knows it. She doesn't take any guff from him; she doesn't back down. The battle of the sexes - something on which Rodgers and Hammerstein commented with some regularity - is much more evenly executed in "The King and I."

As the show was a huge family success, both on stage and film, it's little wonder that, toward the end of their united careers, when they were in desperate need of a hit, the team did something shameless:

They ripped off "The King and I."

"The Sound of Music" may be based on a true story of its own, but it is a virtual clone of "The King and I," what with its story line about a man with a lot of children and the feisty woman who invades his household as the children's teacher. Along the way, she teaches the man something, too.

The similarities are striking, right down to the heroine-sings-with-the-kids novelty numbers - "Getting To Know You" in "The King and I" and "Do-Re-Mi" in "The Sound of Music." Oddly enough, "The Sound of Music," a show not considered top-notch Rodgers and Hammerstein when it opened on Broadway, has managed to surpass its inspiration in terms of popularity. The masses just can't get enough of it.

Just as the use of children in "The King and I" revitalized Rodgers and Hammerstein's schtick, the addition of nuns and Nazis in "The Sound of Music" somehow made their formula even more irresistible to the public.

Nuns!  Nazis!  Kids!


This formula, of course, doesn't stop with their plotting or characters. If their heroes and heroines are interchange-able from show to show, so are the big dramatic numbers - the songs with a message, if you will - that are always belted across by a secondary - and older - female character.

Usually at the top of the second act.

In "Carousel," this big inspirational number is "You'll Never Walk Alone"; in "South Pacific," it's "Bali Hai"; in "The King and I," it's "Something Wonderful"; in "Flower Drum Song," it's "Love Look Away"; and in "The Sound of Music," it's "Climb E'vry Mountain." Not to diminish any of these songs - they're all genuinely beautiful, after all - but there's something gnawingly familiar in the way that they are all utilized.

Still, the assembly line quality of these songs is much less offensive than Rodgers and Hammerstein's penchant for always finding new ways to slip a wildly sexist song - one that denigrates women - into their shows.

At least, "The King and I" avoided this.

We all know about "There Is Nothing Like a Dame" in "South Pacific," but in the same show, Nellie Forbush also gets to sing about what a silly little "Cockeyed Optimist" she is. It's a shrewd conceit about Rodgers and Hammerstein shows - having women sing sexist things about themselves.

In "Flower Drum Song," for example, just about every condescending female stereotype is dragged out for Linda Low's "I Enjoy Being a Girl." In "Oklahoma!" Ado Annie sings that she's just "A Girl Who Can't Say No." During the big wedding scene in "The Sound of Music," the nun chorus does a reprise of "Maria": "How do you solve a problem like Maria?"


Why you marry her off, of course.

And don't get me started on "Sixteen Going on Seventeen."

Even worse is Julie Jordan's "What's the Use of Wondrin'?" in "Carousel," in which all you women out there are advised to put up with grief and abuse from some guy because "he's your man and you love him so."

The topper, however, came in a song that was added to the 1962 remake of "State Fair" for musical veteran Alice Faye (making a comeback) to sing to her screen daughter, Pamela Tiffin. It's called "Never Say No." 

Here's how it goes:

"Never say "no' to a man
Simply avoid saying "yes' to him
That leaves the ultimate guess to him
Darling, don't ever say 'no'!"

How's that for a musical invitation to date rape? (The makers of the constantly touring stage version of "State Fair" have wisely elected to pass on this particular song for its current incarnation. And not to denigrate Hammerstein, Rodgers wrote this one by himself after Oscar passed.)

There were never any equivalent songs for Rodgers and Hammerstein's male characters to address questionable things about themselves. Never.

With the exception of "The Sound of Music," all of Rodgers and Hammerstein's stage musicals have been filmed with some fidelity to the originals (although "Carousel" and "The King and I" both had numbers deleted after their previews). In the case of "The Sound of Music," however, scenarist Ernest Lehman revamped the material with the active cooperation of Richard Rodgers. Hammerstein was deceased by the time this 1965 Oscar-winner (!) was made.
The changes that Lehman made didn't improve "The Sound of Music"; they only Disney-fied it. While the stage play had a certain rumpled maturity about it, the movie is all sun and sugar, moving Pauline Kael to called it "The Sound of Mucous."  Christopher Plummer was also widely quoted with this quip, although lately, he's come around.  He's now a fan of the film.

For the movie, Rodgers was encouraged to drop three of the lesser known stage songs and replace them with new two ones, for which he wrote the music and lyrics - and both new songs proved to be wildly mediocre.

The cynical "There's No Way To Stop It," one of the original songs to be eliminated from the film, is excellent and "How Can Love Survive" is the one (the only) truly adult song in the original score.

And the sturdy "An Ordinary Couple" is a far, far better song than the one that replaced it, the terminally inane "Something Good." Julie Andrews has noted how she and Plummer had a difficult time with "Something Good."

"We kept getting the giggles," she's reminisced.

One can understand why, Julie. The song is ... unsingable.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

happy gratitude day!

Everyone routinely mistakes George Seaton's "Miracle on 34th St." (1947), featuring a young Natalie Wood and John Payne (above) and Edmund Gwenn (below), for a Christmas movie. 


It's actually a Thanksgiving movie.  Well, almost.

Monday, November 09, 2015

delon et schneider

Alain Delon and Romy Schneider were the "it" couple when movie stars actually gave off some heat - and when their names weren't "cleverly" spliced together by some socially stunted journalist (read: Brangelina).

The affecting Romy passed way too young in 1982 (of cardiac arrest) and Delon has outlived her by 33 years.  He was married once - to Nathalie Delon from 1964 to 1969 - but only once.  His relationship with Romy both predated his marriage and followed it.  She died; he never married again.

Alain Delon turned 80 yesterday.  Joyeux Anniversaire!

tonight at 8. center orchestra. two on the aisle.

Turner airs "the best damn musical!" this evening.  Can't wait.  It is possibly my all-time favorite film (as anyone who follows this site surely already knows).  Two items on my wish list, however. 

First, I hope that Robert (or Ben, or whoever introduces "Gypsy" tonight) doesn’t remind us for the 1,438th time that the role of Madam Rose was written for Ethel Merman.  (We know already. Besides, Roz rules.)  And, two, that the character isn't referred to - for the 1,439th time - as "Mama Rose."  She isn't called that in either the play or the film (as author Arthur Laurents kept reminding people).  She's called Rose, Madam Rose and Mama.

But never Mama Rose.  Never. That said, bring on Caroline!

Sunday, November 01, 2015

cinema obscura: Peter Ustinov's "Romanoff and Juliet" (1961)

Ignored by its distributor, Universal Pictures, for almost five dacades now, "Romanoff and Juliet" is Peter Ustinov's Cold War satire that playfully juxtaposes the familiar Shakepeare plot with the political atmosphere that was simmering in 1961. To the best of my knowledge, it has never been available on home entertainment in any form and I can't recall the last time it was televised. I'm guessing forty years at least.

I'm seriously dating myself here.

Sandra Dee and John Gavin (above), who also teamed the same year in Henry Levin's "Tammy, Tell Me True" (also for Universal), play the title characters - he being the son of the Soviet Ambassador to Concordia and she the daughter of his American counterpart. Ustinov essays the role of the leader of Concordia, virtually playing it drunk, and makes a most disarmimg cupid for Romanoff and Juliet.

Ustinov's satire compares favorably with "The Mouse That Roared," Jack Arnold's Cold War satire from the same period, but it inexplicably remains less known than Arnold's film.

The 1958 play which Ustinov wrote and on which his film was based was directed by none-other-than George S. Kaufman and included incidental music by Harold Rome ("Fanny") with lyrics written by Ustinov and ... Anthony Hopkins. Elizabeth Allen played Juliet and Edward Atienza played Romanoff. Ustinov recreated his original Broadway role for the film.

Note in Passing: Speaking of "Tammy, Tell Me True," it is available on DVD in a boxed set from MCA/Universal that includes "Tammy and the Bachelor" (1957) and "Tammy and the Doctor" (1963). I don't know about the other two "Tammys," but I'm a sucker for "Tammy, Tell Me True."

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

cinema obscura: two with don johnson

Don Johnson is one of those effortless actors who rarely, if ever, attracts praise. His softshoe performances, more often than not expended on worthless films, have battled against the distraction of his tabloid life.

His signature role remains one that he played on TV - as Detective "Sonny" Crockett on the TV series, "Miami Vice" (1984-1990) - although he was much more commanding in the Paul Newman role in the 1985 TV adaptation of "The Long Hot Summer," playing alongside Judith Ivey, Jason Robards, Cybill Shepherd and Ava Gardner.

His film career has been largely negligible.

But for one brief moment, he shined in two too-little-seen films that should have jump-started a life on the big screen.

"Sweet Hearts Dance" - a 1989 effort by writen by playwright Ernest Thompson ("On Golden Pond") and directed by Robert Greenwald (who also helmed "Xanadu" and who now makes excellent liberal-leaning political documentaries) - is a lovely, mournful little film about disillusionment, about being young but not as young as you once were and realizing that time has passed while you're still waiting.

Waiting for what?

For something, anything - for your life to get started.

That's what hits Johnson's character, Wiley Boon, and to a lesser extent his best friend, Sam (Jeff Daniels). Wiley has everything that has evaded Sam - a wife (Susan Sarandon) and kids - and Sam can't understand why Wiley is so unhappy. Sam, on the other hand, is self-aware. He knows what ails him - and Adie (Elizabeth Perkins), a new teacher in town, just might make a difference in his life. We get two duets here.

This tiny ensemble settles in nicely under Greenwald's direction, with Johnson in particular exhibiting strong innocence and innocent strength.

His is a solid performance.

In 1991, Johnson teamed with his then-wife Melanie Griffith for "Paradise," Mary Agnes Donoghue's evocative American remake of Jean-Lopu Hubert's 1987 rural French film, "Le Grand Chemin" ("The Grand Highway"). Hubert's fragile material travels well to America under Donoghue's careful, sensitive direction, which honors elements otherwise abandoned by the American film industry - namely, attention to people and the common issues and crises in their lives.

Johnson and Griffith play a childless couple whose young son died two years earlier and whose lives are disrupted, blissfully, by the arrival of a little boy (Elijah Wood), a friend's son who has come to spend the summer with them in the wetlands of South Carolina. (A very young Thora Birch, in her film debut, charms as a local kid who befriends Wood).

Johnson summons a natural honesty and candidness that provide the supporting titanic structure for Griffith's major performance - a great piece of film acting by Melanie, well worth checking out.

Much of what happens in "Paradise" is moodily emotional and internal, which may explain why the film came in under the radar when it was initially released - and why it is now, sadly, a lost movie.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

to dub or not to dub / part two

Continuing the topic addressed in the previous essay, much more troublesome - for me, at least - than singing being dubbed in musicals 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.

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 established 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 some of 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.

Am I the only one who finds all this distracting and disturbing? I mean, a person's voice is a big part of a performance - nay, it's 100% of the performance. I don't know how it can be easily replaced.

Is any artistic excuse legitimate?

More troublingl is what director Hugh Hudson 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 patrician tones of Glenn Close, his decision never explained.

It was a situation that humiliated both actresses. (I've never interviewed either MacDowell or Close but I spent most of my career dying to ask them about it.)  It's evident how MacDowell was humiliated but Close was also affected, put in a bad light.  At the time, she was brand-new to films, but successfully so:  She had received three consecutive Oscar nominations for her first films - George Roy Hill's "The World According to Garp"  (1982), Lawrence Kasdan's "The Big Chill" (1983) and Barry Levinson's "The Natural" (1984).  From that vantage point, Close was arguably the  biggest name attached to "Greystoke," but it was understood that her participation would be uncredited and, on-screen, she wasn't.

But someone attached to the production decided to leak the information to the press, possibly because Close was indeed its biggest name and perhaps also because the film had been plagued with problems.  The director reportedly changed so much of Robert Towne's script that the writer had his name removed from it; Towne is credited instead as P.H. Vazak (which, legend has it, was the name of his sheepdog.)

Anyway, Hudson's decision could have easily derailed MacDowell's acting career and ruined her reputation. But luckily, somehow, that didn't happen. She actually flourished in some very good films - among them, "sex, lies and videotape," "Groundhog Day," "Unstrung Heroes," "The Muse," "The End of Violence," "Green Card" and  "Four Weddings and a Funeral." Hudson, meanwhile, hasn't had a film in more than a decade. (He recently completed "Altamira" with Antonio Banderas and Rupert Everett.)

And get this:  Fifteen years later, in 1999, Close would do the voice work in another "Tarzan" - as the character Kala in Disney's animated "Tarzan" (encoring in the direct-to-video "Tarzan II" in 2005).

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.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

to dub or not to dub

Roz singing in "Gypsy" - But whose voice is it anyway?

Those moviegoers who don't like film musicals - or, more accurately, don't understand them - find assorted reasons to support their clueless bias.

The most common excuse is that musicals are simply unrealistic. "No one just bursts into song in real life!," they'll say.  But exactly how many movie genres, particularly those popular with audiences, are realistic?  SciFi?  Superhero flicks?  Action movies?  Easy answer:  Few of them.

Then there's the usual snark about who should be allowed to sing on screen.  There's this rigid dictum among casual moviegoers that only professional singers should be in film musicals - a Frank Sinatra or a Judy Garland.  Whenever someone not known for singing is cast in a musical, the put-downs, criticisms, eye-rolling and snickering are immediate and relentless, no matter how well the non-singers acquit themselves.

And if an actor's singing voice is dubbed, the drubbing is even worse.

Well, I beg to differ - about all of the aforementioned complaints and petty gripes.  Why do singing voices on screen have to be perfect anyway?

There have been many theories about why "Together, Wherever We Go" was excised from the release print of "Gypsy" and why "You'll Never Get Away from Me" was shortened - both of which featured Karl Malden singing. But the film's director, Mervyn LeRoy, told me that at the New York preview for the film, the audience laughed whenever Malden opened his mouth to sing and he simply wanted to protect his actor.

Hence, the decision to edit.

There was nothing wrong with Malden's singing voice; in fact, it was much better than Jack Klugman's. (Klugman originated the male lead in "Gypsy" on Broadway.) At least, Malden could carry a melody. The problem was the audience - or rather, audience expectation. Again, the average moviegoer becomes uncomfortable when confronted by a musical performance by a personality not known for singing. Anyway, Malden's songs were cut/shortened simply because  audiences couldn't handle the idea of Karl Malden singing. (But at least, they survive in DVD/BluRay outtakes and on the soundtrack CD.)

Sure, Audrey Hepburn may hit a sour note or two in "Funny Face," but it's a kick to hear her sing.  And her own voice, which was distinctively hers, is certainly preferable to the souless one (Marni Nixon's, natch) that comes out of her mouth in "My Fair Lady."  And that lovely moment in "Breakfast at Tiffany's" wouldn't be as special if she didn't sing "Moon River" herself.

Someone at the New York Times who probably works on the features copy desk and occasionally writes movie shorts once complained in a capsule that Clint Eastwood "sings like a moose" in "Paint Your Wagon."  What?  A moose? That would be incorrect.

Think about it: If Clint has such a soothing speaking voice, how can his singing voice sound like a moose?  No, Eastwood gives near-definitive readings of his renditions of Lerner and Loewe's "I Still See Elisa" and "I Talk To The Trees." (And for the record, Eastwood has also sung in "Honkytonk Man," "Any Which Way You Can" and "Gran Torino." So there.)

The hasty Times writer probably confused Eastwood with his co-star Lee Marvin who does sound like a moose - and is supposed to. Marvin's version of "Wand'rin' Star" has become iconic in the decades since the film's release.  It's irresistible - and much better than Harve Presnell's voice-trained "They Call The Wind Maria" in the film.  But that's just me.

More recently, the snide remarks flew when Pierce Brosnan sang in "Mamma Mia" and, earlier, when Julia Roberts sang in "Everyone Says I Love You."   I love Brosnan's voice in his film. He sounds like an old rocker. More to the point, he sounds like Pierce Brosnan.

Same with Roberts.

Peter O'Toole did fine with his own voice in the musical remake of "Goodbye, Mr. Chips," but he was dubbed - badly - in "Man of La Mancha."

As for the reviled dubbing process, it's just another bit of movie magic, especially when it's done right and with creativity.

Case in point: Rosalind Russell had sung both on screen ("The Girl Rush") and on Broadway ("Wonderful Town") when Jack Warner cast her as Madam Rose in "Gypsy," whose Jule Styne-Stephen Sondheim score was written specifically for the stage Rose, Ethel Merman.  In the finished film, Russell handled as much of the singing as she could, with the great Lisa Kirk enlisted for the more demanding musical moments. Kirk successfully approximated Russell's inimitable voice and there are moments when the two voices are seamlessly blended by vocal coach Harper McKay. Yes, movie magic!

The point here is that Russell was the right actress for "Gypsy," if not exactly the right singer, and Warner Bros. accommodated both Russell and the film with the perfect compromise.  Frankly, I can be rigid myself and, from where I sit, it is much better to cast the right actor, not necessarily the right singer, in a film musical.  While a studio can make allowances for singing limitations, it is hamstrung by a lacking performance in general.

Unfortunately, more often than not, dubbing can leave a lot to be desired.  Both Hepburn and Natalie Wood wanted to do their own singing in "My Fair Lady" and "West Side Story," respectively, and actually test recorded their songs - but both were ultimately dubbed, and poorly so.

Wood was dubbed in WSS (again by the ubiquitous Nixon) but, inexplicably, so was her multi-talented co-star, Rita Moreno, another trained singer. Moreno was dubbed by Betty Wand. And her co-star Russ Tamblyn, another musical player, was also dubbed in WSS by his co-star, Tucker Smith. It's disconcerting to hear Smith's voice come out of Tamblyn's mouth in "The Jet Song" and then hear the same voice come out of his own mouth later in the ensemble number, "Cool."

Wand also did the singing three years earlier for film-musical regular Leslie Caron in "Gigi." Ah yes, one of the great movie secrets from the past, oh, fifty years, is that Caron, mainly a dancer, did not do her own singing in "Gigi."  She was traditionally dubbed, although she did manage to handle the slight title song that highlighted "Lili" and rather charmingly.

And here's a jaw-dropper: Juanita Hall sang the role of Bloody Mary on Broadway for Joshua Logan in "South Pacific," but when he made his 1958 film, 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?

And then there are those actors routinely tied to musicals - but also routinely dubbed.

Mostly dancers, like Caron.

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. Cyd Charisse, meanwhile, 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 Vera-Ellen's singing voice was often supplied by Anita Ellis.

The plot of Stanley Donen-Gene Kelly's "Singin' in the Rain,"considered by many to be the most effective film musical, tackled the singing/dubbing situation in a shrewd, clever way.  In it, a little unknown named Kathy Sheldon, struggling to make ends meet in Hollywood during the silent era, is brought in by Monumental Pictures, to dub in the voice of tempermental movie queen Lina Lamont in its first singing-talkie, "The Dueling Cavalier." Of course, Debbie Reynolds played Kathy and Jean Hagen was Lina.

The odd thing here is that life imitated art: Reynolds, a song-and-dance pro, was herself dubbed for a couple songs in the movie - but not, as initially reported here, in the film's 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. And so, Lina quietly takes a bow and, with Kathy behind the curtain, she mimes the lyric of "Singin' in the Rain," while Kathy actually sings it. The curtain is lifted and the fraud is revealed.

You know all this if you've seen the film - and who hasn't?  And yes, that is indeed Reynolds doing the singing.

However, for the songs "Would You?" and "You Are My Lucky Star," Reynolds' was dubbed by Betty Royce.

Why? Who knows.  I can't imagine Reynolds not being able to handle either of those songs. But  I would bet the rent money that directors Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly were playing around with an inside joke here.  My hunch is that they were simply being creatively mischievous.

And perhaps Debbie was in on the joke.

In his response here, reader Jimbo noted that Lina's speaking voice in ""The Dueling Cavalier" is also dubbed - but not by Reynolds.  For the spoken part of "The Dueling Cavalier," Donen and Kelly recruited Hagen to dub herself, using her regular (i.e., non-cartoonish) speaking voice.

Got that?

Anyway, "Singin' in the Rain" was made more than 60 years ago and film types are still complaining about dubbing, something nearly as old as movies themselves.  So get over it, folks, because, as bizarre as it might be to imagine, even the most adept musical talents have been dubbed.

Note in Passing: We can't discuss singing and dubbing in movie musicals without at least mentioning the art of lip-syncing - something which all film musical stars have to do whether they do their own singing or are dubbed.  Barbra Streisand is a great star and an even better singer, but in her debut film, "Funny Girl," her lip-syncing is off.  Her words and mouth are rarely together during the big, pre-intermission "Don't Rain on My Parade" number, for example. Sure, Streisand can sell a song, but for lip-syncing, she should have studied non-singer Natalie Wood's precision in "West Side Story." (Wood did do her own singing in "Gypsy," however.)

Monday, October 12, 2015

cinema obscura: Reed's "The Public Eye" (1972) / Hutton's "The Pad (and How to Use it)" (1966)

In 1964, two delightful one-act plays by Peter Shaffer opened on Broadway, titled "The Public Eye"/"The Private Ear."

Or perhaps it was the other way around.

Shaffer also wrote "Equus," "Amadeus," "The Royal Hunt of the Sun" and "Five Finger Exercise," all plays eventually made into movies.

Universal, which was busy in those days scouting Broadway productions, immediately snapped up the film rights to "The Public Eye"/"The Private Ear" and then didn't know what to do with two one-act comedies. Both were eventually made into very pleasing, if little-seen movies.

"The Private Ear" was filmed by Brian G. Hutton in 1966 and retitled "The Pad and How to Use it" - a title inspired a little too obviously by Richard Lester's successful "The Knack and How to Get It."

It's thin but appealing plot - about a shy man who finally has the nerve to approach a woman while at a concert, only to lose her to his more dashing friend - provided material in which the film's young stars: Britain's Brian Bedford (a holdover from the play) as the nerd, James Farentino as the dashing hunk and especially Julie Sommars as the girl all truly excelled.

Essentially a glorified TV movie that was released, albeit briefly, to theaters, "The Pad and How to Use It" deserves to be rescued.

And seen.

"The Public Eye," finally filmed in 1972, had better luck. Well, sort of.

It was adapted for the screen by Shaffer himself and directed by the estimable Sir Carol Reed.

In it, a dull British banker named Charles (played by Michael Jayston) hires Julian Cristo (Topol), an odd, eccentric private detective, to follow his American wife, Belinda (Mia Farrow), whom he suspects is cheating on him. (The film was titled "Follow Me" in all other countries, except the United States, which honored Shaffer's original title.)

When Belinda becomes aware that she is being followed, she's flattered by the attention and starts to play games with her potential paramour. The private eye figures everything out - that the wife isn't unfaithful at all, but merely looking for something that her husband isn't providing - but that she's getting from him. It's a truly enchanting film.

"The Public Eye" made it into theaters - but just barely. Universal opened in unannounced and without any advance critics' screenings.

Tuesday, October 06, 2015

au revoir, chantal...

The singular Chantal Akerman has died. The Belgian feminist-auteur designed films that were artistically daring and sophisticated, even for France where she worked for 45 years. And yet, they were spare, minimal.  She made minutiae painterly and utterly fascinating.

Akerman began making shorts in 1968 and had one amazing short feature,"Hôtel Monterey," before she broke through in 1975 with the ambitiously modest (or modestly ambitious) “Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles.” With these two films, she secured a rarified niche for herself in filmmaking, a place where she was the only denizen.

"Hôtel Monterey" is a 65-minute portrait of the New York residential hotel, in which her camera eyes every nook and cranny, almost compulsively so.

With “Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles,” starring the hugely affecting Delphine Seyrig in a one-woman, three-hour-and-21-minute exercise, expands the previous film's vision and extends it to a human. Both films are constrained by time - with the Hôtel Monterey profiled during one long night and Jeanne Dielman during a single day.  And both are haunted by loneliness and a sense of emptiness. 

Human interaction is an infrequent, alien notion in these films, daringly so. One can hardly imagine an American studio supporting such eclectic, challenging work from any filmmaker, least of all a female director.

Akerman, who was 65 when she died on October 5th, made 47 features and shorts, too many of them unseen in this country or by me.  Included were the 1986 musical, "Golden Eighties" (aka, "Window Shopping") and the 1983 document about its painstaking preparation, "Les années 80."

Then, there was the atypical movie in which Akerman seemed to be invading Nora Ephron/Nancy Meyer territory - 1996's  "A Couch in New York"/"Un divan à New York." Much like Meyer's "The Holiday," this is the one about two people who switch residences - in the case of the Akerman film, Juliette Binoche, a Parisian woman feeling pressured by all the men in her life, and William Hurt, a New York psychotherapist tired of his patients and their problems. (BTW, "A Couch in New York" predates "The Holiday" by ten years.)

So, the two swap places - and, by extension, lives. Yes, both also become involved in the other person's life, with Binoche actually counseling Hurt's patients and Hurt being pursued by one of Binoche's jealous boyfriends. When he finally gets fed up, Hurt moves back to New York, meets up with Binoche and, to paraphrase the old song, something gives.

What sounds like a generic, formulaic sitcom turns into something quite magical in Akerman's hands. She deftly targets the hapless transfer of people to different places as something not just playful but potentially unstable and dangerous. Relationships usually take one into uncharted territory and that's what Akerman toys with so cynically here.

What makes her two difficult people seem so wrong for each other is exactly what makes them so exactly perfect for one another.

Not surprisingly, "A Couch in New York" has the kind of foreign fizz that's an acquired taste, especially for American audiences who are too easily put off by anything even remotely, well, foreign.

The film may be Akerman's most accessible and commerical, but its distinctive technique is pure Chantal, resplendent with tiny bits of business and, again, hugely observant. A prime Cinema Obscura.