Friday, April 21, 2017

what ever/whatever

As Ryan Murphy's "Feud," arguably the quintessential Guilty Pleasure, winds down, there are questions and concerns that have yet to be broached anywhere - neither by the series itself (which, sadly, celebrates its finale on Sunday) or by anyone in the entertainment media covering it.

So here goes...

First, there's a concern with the way director Robert Aldrich is being portrayed. In my initial essay on "Feud," titled when the legend becomes fact, print the legend, I questioned the veracity of the series, wondering exactly how well researched it is versus how much of it is facile speculation.  A good deal of the time, it plays like juicy gossip.

Which is what makes it such a hoot and so entertaining.

But until this show, Aldrich had a place in movie history as a solid craftsman, an effective storyteller and a nurturing director of actors.  Three of his earliest films were "Vera Cruz" (1954) and the two noirs, "The Big Knife" and "Kiss Me Deadly" (both from 1955).  All terrific films.  Before filming "What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?," he helmed the very good Kirk Douglas-Rock Hudson Western, "The Last Sunset" (1961).

Aldrich was no hack, as "Feud" consistently implies. True, immediately prior to "Jane," he had a elephantine flop, "Sodom and Gomorrah" (1962), but he was far from washed-up. His befuddled desperation, as played by Alfred Molina, seems a tad exaggerated. And more than a little insulting.

"Autumn Leaves" - Aldrich's first collaboration with his "Baby Jane" star, Joan Crawford, and a really fascinating dual-character study - won him the best director award at the 1956 Berlin Film Festival. Later in his career, Aldrich directed "The Flight of the Phoenix" (1965), "The Dirty Dozen" (1967), "The Killing of Sister George" (1968),  "Too Late the Hero" (1970), "The Grissom Gang" (1971), "Ulzana's Raid" (1972), "Emperor of the North" (1973), two with Burt Reynolds, "The Longest Yard" (1974) and "Hustle" (1975) and my favorite Aldrich - the camp classic, "The Legend of Lylah Clare" (1968).  And, of course, "Hush ... Hush, Sweet Charlotte" (1964), his sturdy "Baby Jane" encore.

Secondly, the Jack Warner character (a horrible monster as delineated by Stanley Tucci) and others continually refer to "Jane" as a B-movie, even after it's completed and on the screen - where it looks like anything but a B-movie. What it looks like is an artful psychodrama, enhanced by witty (and wicked) comic touches. The final image of Bette Davis doing her little Baby Jane dance on a beach is powerfully evocative.  A B-movie?  Right.

Number Three. Aldrich and Warner aren't the only characters being bashed and debased here. Frankly, no one in "Feud" comes off looking good.  Not one character is redeeming, although Jessica Lange's Joan Crawford is borderline sympathetic.  But this negativity may have more to do with the show's makers than with the people that "Feud" depicts.

Nombre Quatre. The past episode of "Feud," devoted to the early filming of "Hush ... Hush, Sweet Charlotte,"depicts several scenes shot by Crawford, reunited with Davis, before bailing from the film.  And here I always believed that Crawford dropped out of "Charlotte" without filming anything, before she was replaced by Olivia DeHavilland. That said, where is her footage and why hasn't it materialized as an extra on any "Charlotte" disc?

Just asking.

Then there's the bit of trivia that I brought up in the essay bette & joan & anne & faye, namely that Crawford's connection to Anne Bancroft extended beyond the 1963 Oscarcast, where Joan accepted Anne's Oscar for "The Miracle Worker." Two decades later, Bancroft would be Paramount's first choice to play Crawford in its tell-all biopic, "Mommie Dearest" (1981). Faye Dunaway, of course, got the role and ran with it.

Finally, there's the 1991 TV remake of "What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?," directed by David Greene ("The People Next Door" and "Godspell") and starring no less than the Redgrave sisters as the Hudson sisters - Vanessa as Blanche and Lynn as Jane. Does anyone else remember it?  Seems not.  The film has seemingly disappeared but not before its title was shortened (for some inexplicable reason) to "What Ever Happened to...?" for its home-entertainment release.

It originally aired on ABC on February 17th, 1991.

Note in Passing:  But wait! You can view the 1991 remake, courtesy of You Tube, here.

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~top: Vanessa and Lynn Redgrave in the ABC 1991 television remake of "What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?"
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~middle: publicity shot of  Robert Aldrich; a shot of the director on location for "Autumn Leaves" with Joan Crawford and Cliff Robertson, and companion shots from "Hush ... Hush, Sweet Charlotte," comparing Crawford with Olivia De Havilland (in a scene with Agnes Moorehead).
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~bottom: Aldrich directing Crawford and Bette Davis on the set of "What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?"

Sunday, April 16, 2017

horton's affection for life's unremarkable people

Arguably, Horton Foote (1916-2009) was America's premiere regional playwright, a poet who appreciated the underdog and the forgotten, small men and women with limited vocabularies and even fewer hopes.

He wrote innumerable heart-breaking plays, often in cycles, but is perhaps best known by the moviegoing masses for his faithful adaptation of Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird" for director Robert Mulligan in 1962.

His other film scripts include Arthur Penn's "The Chase" (1966) and Otto Preminger's "Hurry Sundown" (1967), both all-star affairs, and many of his plays have been filmed, usually with Foote himself attached as scenarist.

Two of these films are based on lesser-known Foote plays - "The Traveling Lady," written for the stage, and "Tomorrow," written for television.  These are works which share a gnawing sense of desolation felt by characters who have been overlooked, written off and often condescended to - and they also shared the same leading lady, the singular Kim Stanley (right), who may or may not have been Foote's muse for a while. Stanley herself was seen far too infrequently on screen but was showcased brilliantly in two of her films, John Cromwell's "The Goddess" (1958), based on a Paddy Chayefsky script (with Stanley's character reputedly modeled on Marilyn Monroe), and Bryan Forbes' intellectual creep show, "Seance on a Wet Afternoon" (1964).

If "The Traveling Lady" is unfamiliar, it's because it was retitled "Baby, the Rain Must Fall" when Mulligan filmed Foote's play for Coumbia Pictures in 1965. For the record, the stage production opened on October 27th, 1954 at New York's Playhouse Theatre and closed after only 30 performances. Stanley played the show's delicate, yet tough-willed heroine, Georgette Thomas, and Jack Lord ("Hawaii Five-0") co-starred as her incorrigible convict husband, Henry. Vincent J. Donohue ("The Sound of Music" on stage and "Sunrise at Campobello" on stage and film) directed.

"Baby, the Rain Must Fall" fits rather snugly into the satisfying output of Mulligan and his partner, produce Alan J. Pakula.  It was the fourth of seven titles made by the prolific team, who collaborated on films for about 10 years. Some of their other titles include the aforementioned "To Kill a Mockingbird," "Love with The Proper Stranger" (1963), "Inside Daisy Clover" (1965) and "Up the Down Staircase" (1976). How their output has managed to evade a major retrospective is beyond me.

Lee Remick more than meets the daunting challenge of standing in for Stanley on screen as Foote's traveling lady, a young transient mother who seeks out a new life in Harrison, Texas, which is close to where her husband Henry is imprisoned. Steve McQueen, in one of his smaller, straight-acting roles, is perfect as the rough-edged, troubled Henry.

McQueen's singular (albeit, not single) contribution to the screen was that he brought his Method Acting background to the action genre, as evidenced by his moody yet muscular work in "The Great Escape" (1963), "Bullitt" (1968), "Le Mans" (1971) and particularly Sam Peckinpah's "The Getaway" (1972). But he also lent his estimable talents to more intimate, lesser-known efforts - "Junior Bonner" (another '72 film with Peckinpah), "The Reivers" (1969), "The Sand Pebbles" (1966), "The Cincinatti Kid" (1965) and ... the Mulligan-Pakula "Love With the Proper Stranger."

As the film begins, Henry is already out of the penitentiary on parole and and performing in a local saloon with a band. Trying to escape from the disapproving grip of Miss Kate, the indomitable woman who raised him, and also avoid the demands of Georgette and their young daughter Margaret Rose (Kimberly Block), he drinks too much and self-destructs a little more.

The acting here is of first order, dominated by Remick who really has the lead role, and by McQueen who slips into the role of Henry as if it might have been written for him specifically. Remick is especially wonderful in her scenes with the charming Block (a plainspoken, unprecocious child actress) as they make tentative plans to settle in Harrison and talk of planting a Chinaberry tree in the front yard of their future dream house.

There is nothing wrong with "Baby, The Rain Must Fall," which was casually dismissed by both its studio and critics in its day - nothing except its title.

The film was rather hastily released in January of 1965, with most of advertising hinged to a song that was written for it. Somewhere along the way, Columbia Pictures had become disenchanted with the title, "The Traveling Lady," and went with the song title. It's a good song but it had a double-edged affect:  It brought the film a modest amount of popularity but it also seriously marred it. And as a title, it flatly misrepresents the movie and even undermines the moody opening credits (designed by Vance Jonson) superimposed over a long, extended shot of a highway speeding by, accompanied by some vintage Elmer Bernstein music. These titles were clearly designed when it was called "The Traveling Lady."

There were also two television productions of "The Traveling Lady," both starring Kim Stanley that aired a year apart in the 1950s. A "Studio One" version of the play, directed by Mulligan, aired on April 22nd, 1957, and a version for something called "Armchair Theater," directed by Dennis Vance, aired August 3rd,  1958. I've no idea if a kinescope still exists of the "Armchair Theater" telecast, but the "Studio One" version has been preserved and is available (in five parts) on You Tube.

And a bit of trivia: Pakula was married to Hope Lange and hired his wife's first husband, Don Murray, for a supporting role in "Baby, The Rain Must Fall."  Lange and Murray met while filming Joshua Logan's "Bus Stop" in 1956 and were married for six years.

The film "Tomorrow" had a fascinating journey to the screen.  Foote adapted it, originally for television, from a William Faulkner short story that first appeared in The Saturday Evening Post on November 23rd, 1940 and is included in Faulkner's anthology of stories, "Knight's Gambit."

The TV production aired on Playhouse 90 on March 7th, 1960, with Stanley and Richard Boone performing the lead roles, under the direction of, yes, Robert Mulligan (again). "Tomorrow" remained dormant for about a decade before Foote adapted it for a curious stage production, performed in a New York church in 1970 with Robert Duvall and Olga Bellin starring for Joseph Anthony, an underrated, now-forgotten stage and film director ("The Rainmaker," "Mary, Mary," "The Best Man" and "Under the Yum Yum Tree" on stage; "The Rainmaker," "The Matchmaker," "All in a Night's Work" and "Career" on film).

Duvall plays the monosyllabic dirt farmer Jackson Fentry,  illiterate and remote, who befriends Bellin's pregnant and homeless Sarah Eubanks and ends up raising her son after she dies. (I've never read the Faulkner story but, on the page, Sarah apparently was a black woman.)

In the work's most piercing scene, Sarah's brutish kin come to claim the child, almost literally swooping down and scooping him up, returning Jackson to his sadly solitary life. The twist in this story is truly original, heart-breaking and cathartic.

The aforementioned TV production of "Tomorrow," starring Kim Stanley and Richard Boone, has also been preserved and is also available (in seven parts) on You Tube.

If you ever wondered where Billy Bob Thornton got his idea for his Karl Childers character in "Sling Blade" (1996), look no further. He was obviously inspired by Fentry. And, curiously, Duvall did a cameo in "Sling Blade" for Thornton as Childer's father.

There are other Duvall/"Tomorrow" connections.  Duvall's role in Aaron Schneider's "Get Low" (2009) owes a great deal to Jackson Fentry as well. (And guess what. Lucas Black from "Sling Blade" is in it.)

And you could also say that Foote himself appropriated a good portion of "Tomorrow" for his original screenplay for Bruce Beresford's "Tender Mercies" (1983), which, of course, starred Duvall and won him the Oscar that he rightly deserved for "Tomorrow."  This is Duvall's best film performance ever, period.  But, surprisingly, even some of his most ardent fans are unfamiliar with this singular film and his work in it.

The supporting cast includes the invaluable character actress Sudie Bond ("Cold Turkey," "They Might Be Giants," "Silkwood" and "Come Back to the 5 and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean") and, as a lawyer, the actor-director Peter Masterson, father of Mary Stuart Masterson and Foote's cousin. As an actor, Masterson starred as Katherine Ross's husband in Bryan Forbes' "The Stepford Wives" and, as a director, he helmed Foote's "A Trip to Bountiful" on screen (the 1985 version which won Geraldine Page an Oscar) and "The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas" on stage.

And then there's the haunting Bellin, who matches Duvall every step of the way in Anthony's sad, heart-breaking love story. (Bellin's husband, producer Paul Roebling, originally presented the play on stage and, with Gilbert Perlman, produced the film version.) The actress, who could have been a silent-movie heroine, made no other films. Bellin passed in 1987.

Note in Passing: This is a revised compilation of two previous essays.

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~top: Horton Foote at New York's Booth Theater
~photography: Carolyn Cole / The Los Angeles Times 2008 ©
* * * * *
~middle: publicity shot of the fabulous Kim Stanley; still shot of  Steve McQueen and Lee Remick in "Baby, the Rain Must Fall"; Playbill for "The Traveling Lady," and McQueen and Kimberly Block on the set of "Baby, The Rain Must Fall"
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~bottom: title card for "Tomorrow"; Robert Duvall in an ad for the film, and Olga Bellin in a scene from the film

Sunday, April 09, 2017

bette & joan & anne & faye

Ryan Murphy's FX extravaganza, "Feud: Bette and Joan," has managed to top itself week after week. Compulsively watchable, the series is a party that shouldn't end and it will be a sad day when it does screech to a halt.

The show outdid itself on April 2nd with an episode titled "And the Winner Is... (The Oscars of 1963)," directed by Murphy himself who reaches something of a woozy high with his jaw-dropping vision of the backstage activities/antics of the '63 Oscarcast, a recreation that required what looks like thousands of dress extras in the auditorium and behind-the-scenes.

Bette Davis (absolutely nailed by Susan Sarandon) was nominated for her performance in "What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?," while her co-star, Joan Crawford (Jessica Lange, who turns grande-dame seething into an art), was snubbed. But there were four other Best Actress nominees...

Crawford, ever resourceful and crafty (read: street smart), made arrangements to accept the award if one of two other nominees should win - Anne Bancroft and Geraldine Page, both New York actresses, who were ensconced in Manhattan and had not planned to attend the awards.

Joan also made herself available as a presenter and the episode's standout moment comes just after she presents David Lean with the Oscar for Best Director for "Lawrence of Arabia." Lean offers a terse "thank you" and walks off the stage with Crawford, asking her where he should go.

"Follow me," Joan says. Follow, indeed.

What comes next is a lengthy and expansive tracking shot that is reminiscent of - and tops - a famous similar shot by Michael Ballhaus in Martin Scorsese's "GoodFellas" (1990). Winding through the innards of the backstage area where there are people and more people in every room, nook and cranny, Murphy's cinematographer Nelson Cragg brilliantly captures the organized chaos of an event that is ostensibly well-organized.

In an earlier essay devoted to "Feud," I expressed some concern about how much of the show is fact versus how much of it is speculation, also questioning how well-researched it is. I'm sure Murphy and company had to fill in holes and imagine a lot, but the huge amount of research that went into the show is terribly impressive and is all there on screen.

There are tiny bits of information and trivia that only an obsessive buff would know - such as Davis' appearance on "The Ed Sullivan Show" to promote "What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?" and to sing the hilarious rock-&-roll title song written by Frank DeVol, with lyrics by Bobby Helfer.

Speaking of trivia, it will be interesting to see if Murphy can figure in another bit of information, even though it is not relevant to the period being covered in his series.

As the show details, Crawford went backstage of the Martin Beck Theater in early 1963 when Bancroft was performing in Jerome Robbins' production of Bertolt Brecht's "Mother Courage and Her Children" (with Gene Wilder, Zorha Lampert and Barbara Harris). Crawford's goal was to finesse Bancroft into letting her accept the award if Bancroft should win for "The Miracle Worker." But that wasn't the end of their relationship. About 20 years later, when Paramount was planning its film version of Christina Crawford's book about her mother, "Mommie Dearest," the studio's original choice to play Joan was - ta-da! ...

Anne Bancroft.

At the time, playwright James Kirkwood ("A Chorus Line") was enlisted to do the adaptation and Franco Zefferelli was to direct. After all this was announced, Bancroft backed out and the project fell through and was reconceived with Faye Dunaway as Crawford and Frank Perry directing.

It remains Dunaway's best screen performance, hands-down, but one that, for some bizarre careerist reason, she no longer includes among her credits. The film no longer exists, see? And neither does her performance in it. Ryan Murphy could have a field day with this. More strange Hollywood stuff.

Bancroft, of course, won her Oscar for "The Miracle Worker" and after she accepted for Bancroft, Crawford posed for pictures with the evening's three other winners - Gregory Peck, Patty Duke and Ed Begley.

By hook or crook, Crawford got to hold the Best Actress Oscar that night.

Brilliant, Joan, absolutely brilliant.

Note in Passing: And by all means, check out John Greco's precise deconstruction of "What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?" on his terrific site, Twenty Four Frames, as he strips away its layers in his astute analysis.