Wednesday, February 28, 2018

character counts: Carmen Phillips

One of the more appealing character actresses of the 1950s - as well as one of the least known - is the fabulous Carmen Phillips, whose unique persona (read: alluringly strange) may have denied her access to lead roles. She appeared in only 15 films, made between 1958 and 1969.

Her first film was an uncredited role in Jack Arnold's "High School Confidential!" (1958) - there are a lot of uncredited roles on her résumé - and her final part was as a mime in Dennis Hopper's "Easy Rider" (1969).

Phillips had guest roles in about 20 TV series during her short career and parts in such MGM titles as George Marshall's "It Started with a Kiss" (1959) and Ranald MacDougall's "The Subterraneans" (1960), based on the Jack Kerouac novel. Which was apt. She was clearly a character that Kerouac could have created, what with her distracted, whifty air and glazed eyes with their come-hither stare. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer must have seen something in her because she studied acting on the studio lot.

Three of Phillips' performances stand out for me. First and foremost, there's Vincente Minnelli's sublime "Some Came Running..." (1958), in which she and Shirley MacLaine play Rosalie and Ginny, a pair of floozies who hook up, most memorably, with Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra, respectively. MacLaine walked off with an Oscar nomination for her touching, if shrill performance. Phillips, just a good (if not better), isn't even listed in the film's credits.

A year later, Phillips and MacLaine reunited for the Charles Walters comedy, "Ask Any Girl" (1959) and, two years later, they teamed up with Sinatra and Martin again for Lewis Milestone's "Ocean's 11" (1960).

Then there's her hilariously stoic bit (one brief scene, also uncredited) as Martin Gable's bemused secretary in Alfred Hitchcock's compulsively watchable "Marnie" (1964). Gable is every bit as strange as Phillips in the film. It's the perfect match of boss and secretary, a typically nifty Hitchcock touch.

But her most memorable bit came in George Marshall's sharp film of Jean Kerr's "Please Don't Eat the Daisies" (1960), in which she unexpectedly invades the apartment of Doris Day and David Niven with a real estate agent and measuring tape in hand. She's all business - frighteningly so - making it clear that she has every right to see the apartment. They've already handed in their notice, see?

Niven is understandably freaked out. "Look, Mr. McKay," Phillips says with an icy stare, "I’m tired. I don’t like being awake in the daytime.” 

When she heads into the bedroom with her tape, Niven asks, "What is she, a vampire?" The agent: "I've been frightened all morning!"

Niven:“I don’t think she likes men.” Phillips (overhearing him):“I don’t like women any better.” And seeing Niven's infant son locked in a cage usually reserved for a pet dog, she asks, "What’s with him? Queer?”

It's a memorable scene in a rich comedy full of such moments and, for this occasion, Phillips received screen credit: Carmen Phillips as Mary Smith.


Carmen Phillips, an activist for actors' rights and animal rights, died on September 22nd, 2002, 23 years after her last film. She was 65. She was married once - in 1968 to David Morin - and for less than a year.

Regarding Comments: All comments are enthusiastically appreciated but are moderated before publication. Replies signed "unknown" or "anonymous" are not encouraged. Please sign any response with a name (real or fabricated) or initials.  Be advised that a "name" will be assigned to any accepted post signed "unknown" or "anonymous." Thank you.

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~David Niven and Carmen Phillips in a scene from "Please Don't Eat the Daisies" 
~photography: MGM 1960© 

~Carmen Phillips, character actress extraordinaire

~Phillips as Rosalie in "Some Came Running" ... and with Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra in a scene from the same film
~photography: MGM 1958© 

~Phillips in "Marnie"
~photography: Universal 1964© 

~Phillips in "Please Don't Eat the Daisies"
~photography: MGM 1960©

Sunday, February 25, 2018

cinema obscura: Jack Smight's "The Traveling Executioner" (1970)

"The Traveling Execution," inarguably director Jack Smight's best film, contains - again inarguably - Stacy Keach's best screen performance. Now forgotten, it's a hugely eccentric movie that MGM threw away in 1970, failing to see the extent of its depth, aching humanity and originality.

No surprise here.

Smight's quirky little black comedy, like several other unlucky Metro titles of the period, was made during the chaotic reign of James Aubrey.

But this one was ideal for the '70s, when the counterculture was in full bloom and the period's youth audience more than ready to appreciate it.

Too bad the suits at MGM didn't "get it." Again, no surprise here.

The title tells all. Keach, strutting around and flaunting sexual intimidation, plays Jonas Candide who, in 1918, traveled around with his own portable electric chair, going from prison to prison with his protégé - the young assistant/mortician, Jimmy (Bud Cort) - charging $100 per execution.

Two of Jonas' potential victims are the Herzallerliebst siblings - Gundred and Willy (Marianna Hill and Stefan Gierasch) - and while he successfully executes Willy, Jonas falls for Gundred, hoping to fake her execution.

Of course, nothing goes according to plan and the film's finale, under Smight's careful direction, is both pitch black and unusually touching.

Stacy Keach, a singular actor, had a flourishing (but brief) starring film career at the time, what with roles in "The Heart is a Lonely Hunter," "Fat City," "The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean," "Doc," "The Dion Brothers" (aka, "The Gravy Train"), "Luther," "End of the Road," "The New Centurions" and, with Cort (and hidden under heavy make-up), in Robert Altman's "Brewster McCloud" (also released in 1970), all within four years.

Smight also had a good year in '70, having also directed the underrated screen version of John Updike's "Rabbit Run," featuring memorable performances by James Caan and the late Carrie Snodgress, and two solid genre films, "Harper" (1966) and "No Way to Treat a Lady" (1968).

Jack Smight died in 2003.

Regarding Comments: All comments are enthusiastically appreciated but are moderated before publication. Replies signed "unknown" or "anonymous" are not encouraged. Please sign any response with a name (real or fabricated) or initials.  Be advised that a "name" will be assigned to any accepted post signed "unknown" or "anonymous." Thank you.

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~Poster art for The Traveling Executioner"
~Photography: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer 1970©

~Marianna Hill and Stacy Keach in The Traveling Executioner"
~Photography: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer 1970©

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

the two pauls: play → film → blu-ray: "the effect of gamma rays on man-in-the-moon marigolds"

~plus: is it plagiarism or simply great minds thinking alike?~ 

Great news found in the latest report on Glenn Erickson's crucial site, CineSavant: Paul Newman's masterly 1972 film adaptation of the terrific Paul Zindel play, "The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds," curiously absent from home entertainment for 45 years, is at long last available. Twilight Time has released the title on Blu-Ray.

Zindel wrote the play, his first, in 1964 and it was opened a year later, on May 12th, 1965, at the Alley Theater in Houston. It would be another six years before the play's New York staging on April 7th, 1970 - initially off-Broadway at the Mercer Arts Center and then moving to The New Theater on Broadway - running for 819 performances. It closed on May 14th, 1972.

Newman wasted no time purchasing the screen rights from Zindel. His film opened in New York at the Cinema II Theater and Paramount Theater on December 20th, 1972, a little more than six months after the play closed. During its run, Zindel's work won both the Obie and the New York Drama Critics' Circle Awards and received the 1971 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

It's easy to see why Newman snagged Zindel's delicious play for wife Joanne Woodward. The lead is a showcase role this side of Tennessee Williams - Beatrice Hunsdorfer, better known in her neighborhood as "Betty the Loon" for her odd behavior. This woman, who has two high-school age daughters (one a sensitive, bookish introvert, the other a troublesome extrovert), is in way over her head as a mother.

On stage, Beatrice was played by Sada Thompson, who was so indelible and riveting that Hollywood became enamored, casting her in movies both theatrical ("Desperate Characters," "The Pursuit of Happiness") and televised (as Jack Lemmon's wife in the TV version of Laurence Olivier's "The Entertainer"). The hugely popular TV series "Family" made her a household name.

There were only five characters in the play, all female, the others being the two daughters Matilda and Ruth (played by Pamela Payton-Wright and Amy Levitt, respectively), their school rival Janice Vickery (Swoosie Kurtz) and Nanny Annie, the silent old woman who boards at Beatrice's (the wonderful Judith Lowry, who at 82 played the same role in Newman's film).

By the time I saw the play, Kurtz had graduated to the role of Ruth. Not uncommon for Broadway, the actresses playing teens on stage were all too mature for their roles. For the film, Newman enlisted two age-appropriate actresses - his own daughter Elinor Teresa Newman, billed as Nell Potts, as Matilda, and Roberta Wallach, daughter of Anne Jackson and Eli Wallach, as Ruth. And both are letter-perfect, particularly Potts.

Characters only referred to in the play - such as Mr. Goodman, Matilda's science teacher - have roles in the film; David Spielberg plays Goodman. And an array of other characters have been added to the film version, providing memorable moments for Richard Venture, Carolyn Coates, Jess Osuna, Will Hare, Dee Victor, Lynn Rogers, Estelle Omens and two other child actors, Ellen Dano (as Janice Vickery) and Michael Kearney.

Which brings me to the great Alvin Sargent, the screenwriter with a jaw-dropping résumé: "The Sterile Cuckoo," "Julia," "Paper Moon," Dominick and Eugene," "Ordinary People," "Straight Time," "Unfaithful," "Anywhere but Here," three "Spider-Man" flicks and the 1971 John Badham-Carrie Snodgress TV movie, "The Impatient Heart." With his "Marigolds" adaptation, Sargent lovingly took Zindel's fragile play, honoring its core, and expanded it to include scenes and characters not easily forgotten.

His additions include the haunting sequence where Beatrice dances in a dark, dank antiques shop (owned by the Hare character); her impromptu reunion with a guy she knew in high school (Osuna) and who is now a cop (Woodward is especially outstanding in this scene); her tactless intruding upon her sick brother-in-law (Venture), her late husband's brother, while he is in the bathroom (hilarious), and her unexpected arrival at the school science fare in which Matilda is participating and where Woodward delivers the staggering line reading, "My heart is full!," as a defiant, desperate pronouncement.

Woodward is the titanic supporting structure here, carrying the film in a performance that is at once heartfelt and hateful - outsized and yet subtle. She won the Best Actress award at the 1973 Cannes Film Festival but received no Oscar nomination for her remarkable performance. Adding insult to injury, the Oscar winner that year was Liza Minnelli for "Cabaret."

While Newman worked wonders with his actors, he was abetted by the reliable Adam Holender, who did the evocative cinematography, and Maurice Jarre, who wrote the moody, tinkly score. All in all, perfection.

Now, getting back to Paul Zindel... If his name is familiar, it probably isn't because of "Marigolds" but because he is at the center of an unpleasant dispute - and a charge of plagiarism - between his estate and Fox Searchlight. Zindel, who died in 2003 at age 66, went on to write several more plays ("And Miss Reardon Drinks a Lot") and did a few screen adaptations himself ("Mame" and Barbra Streisand's "Up the Sandbox").

It might be helpful to note that, before he became a playwright, Paul Zindel was a chemistry teacher, which brought something of an autobiographical touch to "Marigolds" and also played a role in one of his other plays - "Let Me Hear You Whisper," written in 1969. It was adapted by Zindel and filmed by Glenn Jordan ("Only When I Laugh" and "Mass Appeal") for the National Educational Television (NET) Network the same year. The A&E Television series, American Playwrights Theater, also aired it - in 1990 - and the title was once available on DVD from something called Kulture and, for all I know, may still be available.

The plot of "Let Me Hear You Whisper" is about a lonely woman who works at a research facility and bonds with and talks to a dolphin there, hoping to free it using a laundry cart. Sound familiar? It should. It's curiously similar to Fox's Oscar-bait movie, "The Shape of Water," whose script is credited to its director, Guillermo del Toro, and Vanessa Taylor. A compelling, detailed comparison of the two films is on the Hollywood Nerd site.

The filmed Zindel play stars Ruth White in the role compared to the one essayed Sally Hawkins in the del Toro film. It co-stars a list of Broadway veterans - Jean Stapleton, Elizabeth Wilson, Phil Bruns, Anthony Holland, Rue McClanahan and Iggie Wolfington (Marcellus in the original stage production of "The Music Man"). Puppeteer Bil Baird (Fox's "The Sound of Music") provided the dolphin and its voice.

Anyway, back in January, David Zindel (Paul's son) contacted Fox Searchlight about the similarities between his father's play and the new film. At the time, the studio issued the following statement to The Hollywood Reporter: "Guillermo del Toro has never read nor seen Mr. Zindel’s play in any form. Mr. del Toro has had a 25-year career during which he has made 10 feature films and has always been very open about acknowledging his influences. If the Zindel family has questions about this original work, we welcome a conversation with them." From the sound of that, Fox was ready to talk, but since then, a copyright lawsuit has ensued.

"This troubling matter was brought up with Fox five weeks ago but was met with inertia," David Zindel told Ashley Cullins for a blog post in The Hollywood Reporter, which also reported his comment that "producer Daniel Kraus is a known 'admirer' of the playwright's work. He claims Kraus pitched del Toro the idea of  'a janitor that kidnaps an amphibian-man from a secret government facility' after learning the director was looking to create his own take on 'Creature from the Black Lagoon.'"

In the lawsuit as reported by Kristopher Tapley and Gene Maddaus in Variety, "David Zindel argues that Kraus must have seen an A&E adaptation of his father’s play, which aired in 1990. The lawsuit notes that Kraus, a novelist, is familiar with Paul Zindel’s other work, having put Zindel’s novel 'The Pigman' on a list of The 50 Best YA Novels of All Time."

Variety also reports that, in interviews, "del Toro and Kraus have said that del Toro was interested in making a film in the tradition of 'The Creature From the Black Lagoon' but could not find a way into the story. In a breakfast meeting in 2011, Kraus suggested a story about a janitor who kidnaps an amphibian from a government research facility."

In response to Zindel’s suit, as reported by Gene Maddaus in Variety, "Fox Searchlight suggested in a statement that the claim was timed to hurt the film’s Oscar chances and stated that the studio would 'vigorously defend' itself in court." The Maddeus article further reports that "Zindel, who runs a book publishing company, claims he is not motivated by animosity but is simply standing up for his father’s rights. 'I have no ill will towards del Toro,' he says. 'He’s a very accomplished filmmaker and it’s a good film. The problem is, a fair amount of it is taken from my dad’s play.'"

And Zindel’s attorney, Marc Toberoff, adds: “There’s no conspiracy here to interfere with the Oscars. This is a deflection… David Zindel has no dog in the race. It’s not in our interest to to derail the film by causing it to receive less awards. The more Oscars it receives, the more profitable it will be.”

While this situation has been (understandably) reported at length in trade publications, there has been scant coverage of it in the mainstream press.

Meanwhile, an anonymous Academy voter is quoted in Maddeus' Variety piece: “I don’t think anything like this changes anybody’s mind. People either like the film or they don’t. What Guillermo put on screen is what he put on screen. It’s not this other guy’s work.” "This other guy's work"?

Hmmm. This is a somewhat condescending way to describe a Pulitzer Prize winner. Paul Zindel was certainly no hack. He was a serious playwright who happened to write a play more than four decades ago, a work that now is irrevocably - and unfortunately - intertwined with a very important film that's the property of a very powerful movie studio.

Plays exist only when they are being performed. In general, there is no recording of them except as text, words written on a piece of paper. But in this case, the play is something that can been seen. It actually exists.


Anyway, with the coveted Oscars scheduled to be doled out on Sunday (March 4th), it should be interesting to watch how all of this proceeds.

To say the very least. 

Notes in Passing: Speaking of similarities between films, The New York Times ran a compelling Sunday piece by Monica Costillo in its Arts section, comparing Greta Gerwig's "Lady Bird," also an Oscar favorite this year, with Patricia Cardoso's 2002 critical favorite, "Real Women Have Curves." The storyline in Gerwig's script is almost identical to the screenplay written for Cardoso's film by Josefina López. Good reading. Makes one think.

In 1978, I interviewed actress Carol Kane, who was in Philadelphia rehearsing for the tryout engagement of a revival of "Marigolds." Kane had been cast as Matilda, opposite Shelley Winters as Beatrice. The subject of the movie version came up. Kane questioned the casting of Nell Potts and Roberta Wallach as the daughters, saying they were too young for the roles. Huh? They were the same ages as the characters they were playing, high-school students.

In 1978, Kane was 26.

Kane was a delight. We got into a friendly debate about it. Anyway, the Philly tryout was subsequently canceled but the revival did open in New York - at the Biltmore Theatre, running from March 9th, 1978 (including previews) to March 26th, 1978, a scant 17 performances in all.

 Not good. 

Regarding Comments: All comments are enthusiastically appreciated but are moderated before publication. Replies signed "unknown" or "anonymous" are not encouraged. Please sign any response with a name (real or fabricated) or initials.  Be advised that a "name" will be assigned to any accepted post signed "unknown" or "anonymous." Thank you.

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~Quote-heavy display ad for the 1972 film version of "The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds" that ran in the trade papers in 1973

~Playbill for the original 1907-71 stage version of  "The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds"

~Sada Thompson as Beatrice in the stage version of  "The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds"
~photography: Friedman-Ables 1970©
~Character actress Judith Lowry 

~Joanne Woodward and Nell Potts in the film version of  "The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds"
~photography: Twentieth Century-Fox 1972© 

~Roberta Wallach in "The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds"
~photography: Twentieth Century-Fox 1972©

~Scenarist Alvin Sargent

~Woodward  as Beatrice in the film version of  "The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds"
~photography: Twentieth Century-Fox 1972©

~Playwright Paul Zindel

~Dust jacket for the DVD of "Let Me Hear You Whisper"
~Ben Chapman as The Gill Man in "Creature from the Black Lagoon"
 ~photography: Universal-International 1954©

~The coveted Oscar (formerly The Academy Award)
 ~~photography: The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences©

Poster art for the 1978 Broadway revival of "The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds"