Thursday, July 27, 2017

a heartfelt plea to tcm: "stop already!"

In the words of Howard Beale, the unhinged newscaster created by Paddy Chayefsky, “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!

I exaggerate. Actually, I'm more annoyed - and disappointed - than angry. My exasperation is in response to the introductions and post-screening discussions that run in tandem with the films screened by Turner Classic Movies in prime time and on weekends. There's this exhausting tendency by TCM hosts to reiterate the same information - sometimes facts, mostly opinions - over and over and over and over and over again. And again.

This is beyond redundancy, way beyond.

Case in point: Did you know that Ethel Merman, the star of the 1959 stage version of "Gypsy," was passed over when the 1962 Warner movie was made and that Rosalind Russell got the role?  This bit of information, which has been stale since 1962, is repeated every time Turner screens "Gypsy," which is a lot. "Gypsy" is a TCM staple and deservedly so. It's terrific.

Object lesson number 2: Did you know that Alfred Hitchcock's original choice for the title role in 1964's "Marnie" was Grace Kelly and that Tippi Hedren got the role after Kelly, pressured by her royal in-laws, demurred? Turner treats this as a newsflash every time "Marnie" is aired, even though your average movie buff (of a certain age) has known this since, well, 1964. Whoever writes the Turner intros needs to find fresh information.

It would also be an improvement if the intros avoided facile gossip, a la "No one expected Monroe, Grable and Bacall to get along," a sexist tidbit mentioned whenever 1953's "How to Marry a Millionaire" is screened.

What's particularly annoying (disturbing actually) about the "Gypsy" and "Marnie" examples is that both come with the implicit message that Merman and Kelly would have been superior to Russell and Hedren in their respective films when the preserved performances clearly say otherwise.

Anyway, I've lost count of the number of times (hundreds?) that the Merman-versus-Russell/Kelly-versus-Hedren discussions have taken place.

Let's start with "Gypsy" which was showcased on June 22nd during TCM's Gay Hollywood celebration - the gay connection being Arthur Laurents, who wrote the book for the original stage production (and continued to needlessly tweak it until the day he died).

It was hosted by Dave Karger, a former Entertainment Weekly writer, and author William J. Mann, neither of whom gave any indication of having seen the original stage production but nevertheless talked authoritatively about both it and Mervyn LeRoy's '62 film (whose fidelity to the play is impressive).  Sure, both may have heard about the '59 stage "Gypsy," but frankly, opinions based on hearsay are worthless.

I winced on cue when they brought up the dog-eared Merman information and generally dismissed Russell's definitive performance in the film. Mann commented that she was "pretty good."  OK, I'm seriously dating myself here, but I actually sat in a theater and saw Merman in "Gypsy."

It was my first Broadway show and I was taken to see it because my friend Steve Curry played one of Baby June's newsboys in the show. I remember Merman being extremely broad in the role, almost a caricature, and that she tended to sing directly to the audience rather than to her co-stars on stage (something which Laurents himself observed and disliked).

My recollection may be based on a childhood experience (I was a fairly observant kid) but, unlike the theater freaks who pontificate ad infinitum about "Gypsy" and Merman, I actually experienced both.  Russell, a world-class actress, brought nuance and compelling patrician airs to the role.

She's more than just "pretty good."

"Gypsy" became something of an obsession early on.  I've seen as many productions of it as I could - and more than one Madam Rose, which as Mann astutely pointed out is what the character is called in the show, never Momma Rose (something which also bugged Laurents). Linda Lavin, Tyne Daly, Bernadette Peters and others all brought something to the role but none of them fully located the tragic figure that Russell so effortlessly captures in the film.  Her line readings, her razor-edge timing and Warners' creative commingling of her singing voice with Lisa Kirk's conspired to create a fully-formed character that has been only two-dimensional on stage. Russell is flat-out excellent. Hands-down.

The Kelly-Hedren reference came up yet again following the July 21st screening of 1954's "Rear Window," which features Kelly and is one of many titles in Turner's on-going "Fifty Years of Hitchcock" series. TCM's Ben Mankiewicz hosts with the Swiss documentarian Alexandre O. Phillipe, whose latest work, "78/52," is a full-scale examination devoted to the filming of the shower sequence in "Psycho" and who, for lack of a better description, is "Hitchcock literate."

Phillipe's observations, to date, have not only been well-reasoned, intuitive and informative, but also refreshingly adventurous, not at all predictable.

Anyway, after the screening, Mankiewicz brought up Kelly and, without missing a beat, mentioned that Hitchcock originally wanted her for "Marnie."  I appreciate that Phillipe immediately stepped up and flatly stated that Hedren "crushed" the role of Marnie - a "tour-de-force" performance, he added.  At last! Another champion for a criminally underrated performance. Kelly was a limited actress who often could be charming, but I can't imagine her meeting the intimidating challenges of this role.

Hedren turns in revelatory, intricate work as a damaged woman caught in a destructive cycle, a performance that has grown in retrospect for many critics (see Richard Brody below). Turner will air the film again tomorrow (July 28) at 8 p.m. (est) and, this time around, listen to the sad, child-like voice Hedren affects whenever she regresses into her past. And she's matched by Sean Connery as the man, curiously both empathetic and brutal, who is intrigued enough to take the time to understand her.

I'm really curious about tomorrow's discussion of the film. On the one hand, "Marnie" is a Mankiewicz favorite, having been one of his monthly picks back on September 23rd, 2009. On the other hand, the usually affable Ben has been a tad combative in his stint with Phillipe.

Their chemistry hasn't been exactly smooth and, after Wednesday's screening of "Vertigo," Mankiewicz was curiously and uncharacteristically negative, calling the film's ending "contrived." Phillipe argued compellingly in its defense (does the ending imply that the James Stewart character commits suicide?) but to little avail. It was an interesting dynamic to say the very least. (If all this was an attempt by Ben Mankiewicz to bring an added dimension to TCM by incorporating a little verbal fisticuffs - a friendly arugument, an occasional debate about a film- I say Bravo!)

But back to "Marnie." Much like "Vertigo," its spiritual twin, it was critically maligned upon its initial release. And also much like "Vertigo," contemporary critics have stepped back and found much to praise about the film, particularly Hedren.

"Vertigo" is now viewed as a masterwork and I've a hunch that the status of "Marnie" will take the same route and continue to grow.  That said, I'm turning the remaining space over to Richard Brody, the movie editor for The New Yorker magazine and the author of “Everything Is Cinema: The Working Life of Jean-Luc Godard.” He's also one of our best movie critics. 

In his capsule review of "Marnie" for the magazine, Brody has had this to say about Hitch's minor masterpiece and its luminous star:

"Tippi Hedren’s cool grace in 'The Birds' hardly prepares a viewer for her porcelain froideur as a sexually traumatized kleptomaniac in Alfred Hitchcock’s psychologically resonant, visually transcendent film, from 1964. Sean Connery co-stars as a businessman who hires Marnie as his secretary, lusts mightily after her, and, catching her with a hand in his till, takes it upon himself to win her heart—and, above all, her body—by healing her mind. Borrowing liberally from himself (notably, several tropes from 'Spellbound,' 'Vertigo,' and 'Psycho'), Hitchcock gives his obsessions luridly free rein—intentionally and not. He was, in fact, obsessed with Hedren, whose rejections he repaid with harsh treatment, and it shows in his images: few films have looked as longingly and as relentlessly at a woman, few onscreen gazes at an actress have so perfectly crystallized an integral and unique style of performance, and few performances have so precisely defined a director’s world view, even unto the vanishing point. He could, and did, go no further."

*  *  *  *  *
(from top)

~Tippi Hedren in "Marnie"
  Universal Pictures 1964 ©

~Dave Karger and William J. Mann
  Turner Classic Movies 2017 ©

~Ethel Merman in "Gypsy"
 Friedman-Abeles 1959 ©

~Rosalind Russell performing "Some People" and "Rose's Turn" in "Gypsy" and
with Ann Jilliann in the "Dainty June and Her Farmboys" number
 Warner Bros. 1962 ©

~Ben Mankiewicz and Alexandre O. Phillipe
 Turner Classic Movies 2017 ©

~Grace Kelly
 Paramount Pictures 1956 ©

~Alfred Hitchcock with Hedren on the set of "Marnie"
 Universal Pictures 1964 ©

~Hitchcock in his cameo for "Marnie"
 Universal Pictures 1964 ©


Sheila said...

I've had the same reaction, Joe, every time someone on Turner talks about who was originally supposed to play a famous role, the implication being that the first choice was the best and that the subsequent performance by the replacement was our loss. It's totally unnecessary.

Tim K. said...

You said it! I have little patience for people who give opinions of films and performances that they haven't seen themselves, only read about or heard about. "Worthless" is a good word.

Wendy Scott said...

Never got Grace Kelly. Why all the fuss? She made only a few movies and only the Hitchcocks are any good. But people are crazy about her. Can someone please explain?

Kevin Barry said...

I saw Merman twice on stage - in the original Gypsy and a revival of Annie Get Your Gun when she was way too old. She was rudimentary in both and famous for giving her best for the critics on opening night, then walking through the role for the remainder of the run. Take a look at the film version of Call Me Madam to see why she never became a movie star. Grace Kelly was glorious to look at, especially in Rear Window, but she was no actress. Groucho Marx said that Kelly beating Judy Garland for the 1954 Oscar was "the greatest robbery since Brinks."

Gypsy and Marnie each have a moment that I cherish and wait for: Rosalind Russell's face after Herbie leaves her as she tosses aside some sheet music; Tippi Hedren's plaintive and pathetic "There, now" after she has to shoot her horse, Forio. Superb performances.

joe baltake said...

Thanks, Kevin. I also love the two moments that you mention. The break-up scene in "Gypsy" between Rose and Herbie is beautifully staged (and scored) in general, with Russell feeling the top of her head where Herbie kissed her and breaking into a live reprise of "Small World" (with Russell doing her own singing on the set). It ends with her stroking the bridal bouquet that Herbie gave her and picking up with white gloves for Louise to wear during her first strip.

Hedren's heartbreaking reading of that line in "Marnie" is repeated by her, of course, after the flashback of the child Marnie shooting the Bruce Dern character.

Gorgeous performance.

As for Kelly winning the Oscar for "The Country Girl," that's the only time she really stretched herself as an actress. I'm sure the Academy voters, who already loved her, were impressed that she was cast against type. She's very good in the film.

I wish I could say that I am a fan of Garland's performance in "A Star Is Born" but I'm not really. I get anxious - nervous - watching her in the film. Anyway, 1955 was a fairly weak year for Best Actress nominees, the others being Dorothy Dandridge for "Carmen Jones," Audrey Hepburn for "Sabrina" and Jane Wyman for "Magnificent Obsession." I guess I would have gone with Dandridge because she would have made history.

Marvin said...

Excellent post.

Tracy said...

Happy that you mentioned Steve Curry, Joe. He was in the original stage production of "Hair" and it was his face that was used on the poster and in all the ads. -T

joe baltake said...

Thanks, Tracy. Steve met Shelley Plimpton in "Hair" (where she sang the iconic "Frank Mills") and they were a couple for several years, eventually married and appeared together as the title characters in Jim McBride's alt-film classic, "Glen and Randa." She, of course, is the mother of Martha Plimpton, her daughter by Keith Carradine.

BTW, Steve's real name was Steve Cuprice, although that wasn't pointed out in either his New York Times obit (Steve died in 2014) or in his profile on IMDb. Curry was his stage name.

Alex said...

Shelley Plimpton was also in "Alice's Restaurant" as a teen who offers herself to Arlo Guthrie

Brian Lucas said...

I like the idea of a little combativeness on TCM. I never liked The Essentials because Robert Osborne seemed to expect everyone to agree with him. I remember him being testy with Drew Barrymore about "My Fair Lady," a movie which seemed to be picked by Drew. MFL would seem to be an Osborne film but he made it clear that he didn't think it qualified to be an essential. It was a conversation stopper. I hope that Ben and his guests continue to challenge each other. It's refreshing.

Walt said...

I realize that there are always new viewers to TCM who might not have this information but I agree that it's tiresome to hear the same facts and opinions rehashed so many times over.

charles said...

I'm a huge Merman fan, and was lucky enough to see her perform one time. sure I would have liked to have seen her in a film version of Gypsy. Still,I have no problem with Russell's performance, and in a way I'm kind of glad she get that role. It freed up Ethel to play the Mother in law "from Hell", Mrs Marcus in It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World Her performance in that film is the glue that holds it all together, and without it, would not be as great a comedy. That part was written for Groucho; and it would have been great watching him heckle Berle, but the dynamic would not have been the same. Remember, every male character HATES her, and the other women don't care much for her either. Merman's performance in the film is her greatest cinematic moment, and is what most people remember her for nowadays.

joe baltake said...

Charles! Merman is the highlight of "Mad World," a film not as funny as it tries to be. And I love the inside joke of her yelling to Jack Benny, "We don't need any help from you!," given that Benny put in a cameo appearance in "Gypsy" the year before. Merman is also one of the highlights of "Airplane!" Thanks for the reminder. -J

Mike Schlesinger said...

"a film not as funny as it tries to be"

Okay, Baltake, you are officially ON NOTICE!!!

BTW, Groucho was never intended for that role. He wrote that as a joke in a letter, and when his letters were published as a book, the rumor started and hasn't been killed yet. We thoroughly debunk this on the MAD WORLD commentary track.

As for disagreement: Remember how boring Siskel & Ebert could get when they agreed on everything?

joe baltake said...

Mike- Much like "Casablanca," Stanley Kramer's epic comedy is something that I think I should enjoy/admire more than I actually do. I remember seeing it in college with a bunch of friends and then, backing off, when the editor of the campus newspaper asked me to review it. Everyone loved it but me, so I took the easy (read: cowardly) way our and demurred. But, hey, I love the titles sequence. Thanks, btw, for clearing up that Groucho story. (Your "Mad World" DVD remains on my Amazon wish list; I now have the urge to purchase and watch it - yet again.) -J

Kiki said...

I didn't leave the US going nigh 30 years ago because of the boring TCM commentators but ... it is another good reason. I was a lecturer at the University of Westminster, my whole section (Media) took the front row and had an after show party in Chelsea after a performance of "The Hitchcock Blonde." It was about Hitchcock's fascination with a certain type of woman (Kelly/Hedren) and it all started when he was at Lavender Studios in London. Alma Redding knew all about it and was complicit because nothing sexual ever happened. In fact, the daughter (Pat) came as quite a surprise. It was a good show but never got much publicity or roadshows. It was competing with those horrid musicals like Phantom, etc