Thursday, July 26, 2018

Sheldrake & Trump / Baxter & Bush

~how Billy Wilder anticipated the #MeToo movement and that "Access Hollywood" tape
"What's so interesting about looking at movies again - you're different and they're different."
-Molly Haskell
Inevitably, I return to Billy Wilder's "The Apartment."

I celebrated it as "the film that defines me" when I introduced this site back in 2006 and have referenced it multiple times with each additional viewing - and with the recognition that I saw a slightly different movie each time. When it was new, in 1960, the film was praised for how masterfully Wilder combined equal measures of the bitter with the sweet, but as it seemingly morphed decade after decade, that balance played out.

With each passing year, its affable hero and lovelorn heroine have become a little less innocent - and much more complicit in their respective situations, losing the sympathetic appeal that made them so likeable in 1960. As a result, the movie itself has taken on a dramatic muscularity.

Suddenly, years on, it had a notable toughness.

And as it approaches its 60th anniversary, "The Apartment" has remained remarkably modern. All that's missing really are cell phones and laptops - and self-service elevators, of course. It could pass for a recent movie. Yes, modern - and pertinent.  During my most recent engagement with "The Apartment," two moments struck me with their relevance to today.

But, first, a little set-up: C.C. (Bud) Baxter (Jack Lemmon) is an ambitious puppy who works in the company's Premium Accounting Division (desk #861) of Consolidated Life of New York and who (1) "lends" his apartment to several of his superiors for their extramarital affairs and (2) has this crush on Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine), an elevator operator in the Consolidated building who is otherwise committed to an ill-fated affair with J.D. Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray), the (married) head of Consolidated personnel. Baxter is so delusional that he actually thinks he is in a relationship with Fran because they speak whenever he's in her elevator.

Anyway, Sheldrake finds out about Baxter's apartment and, in exchange for a big promotion, Baxter promises the boss exclusive use of it. The day Baxter moves into his new office, he is confronted by the executives who have been using the place - Dobitsch, Kirkeby, Eichelberger and Vanderhof - and who are unhappy about its unavailability, making veiled threats.

These subservient chimps are interrupted when the dominant ape, Sheldrake, appears. Clearing them out, he has the following, rather familiar conversation with a very unctuous, eager-to-please Baxter:

Sheldrake: Well, how does it feel to be an executive?

Baxter: Fine! And I want you to know that I'll work very hard to justify your confidence in me!

Sheldrake: Sure you will. (a short pause) Say, Baxter, about that apartment - now that you got a raise, don't you think we can afford a second key?

Baxter: Well, I guess so.

Sheldrake: You know my secretary - Miss Olsen...

Baxter: Oh, yes! Very attractive! Is she the lucky one?

Sheldrake: No, you don't understand. She's a busybody, always poking her nose into things - and with that key passing back and forth, why take chances?

Baxter: Yes, sir! You can't be too careful! (a pause) I have something here - I think it belong to you.   

Sheldrake: To me?

Bud hands Sheldrake a make-up compact.

Baxter: I mean - the young lady - whoever she may be. It was on the couch when I got home last night. The mirror is broken. It was broken when I found it.

Sheldrake: So it was. She threw it at me.

Baxter: Sir?

Sheldrake: You know how it is - sooner or later, they all give you a bad time.

Baxter: (acting like a big man himself) I know how it is!

Sheldrake: You see a girl a couple of times a week - just for laughs - and right away she thinks you're going to divorce your wife. I ask you, is that fair?

Baxter: No, sir! That's very unfair ... especially to your wife!

Sheldrake: Put me down for Thursday again.

Baxter: Roger! And I'll get that other key!

A few scenes later, during an office holiday party at Consolidated, Baxter invites Fran into his new office to model something - a black bowler hat called the Junior Executive. Not sure how he looks in it, Fran hands Baxter her compact so that he can see for himself. He looks surprised.

Fran: What is it?

Baxter: The mirror - it's broken.

Fran: I know. I like it this way. Makes me look the way I feel.

Baxter's phone rings, Fran leaves and then he also leaves, disappointed and disgruntled that she's Sheldrake's paramour. He ends up in a cheap bar with a pick-up who he takes home - where he finds Fran, passed out on his bed. Suddenly, Baxter - of all people - is self-righteous. The hypocrite starts talking gibberish about how it's "all over" between them:

Baxter: All right, Miss Kubelik - get up! It's past checking-out time, and the hotel management would appreciate it if you would get the hell out of here. (a pause) Look, Miss Kubelik, I used to like you - I used to like you a lot - but it's over between us!  So beat it!  O.U.T.!  Out!
I can't think of the number of times that I've watched these sequences and simply took them in stride - the "locker-room talk" between Sheldrake and Bud (much less graphic than the boasting Trump-Bush "Access Hollywood" incident but still offensive) and the way Sheldrake, your standard entitled bully and liar, steamrolls/threatens Miss Olsen (Edie Adams), his secretary and former mistress; Fran, a lowly elevator operator and current mistress; Bud, so desperate for recognition of any kind, and of course his wife.

I believe the current word of choice for his behavior is "inappropriate."

It would amazing if Billy Wilder and his co-writer A.I.L. Diamond were still with us to discuss the dynamics of their ever-relevant script and how their film has turned out to be so prescient - so much more than "bittersweet."

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.

(from top)

~The opening title card for "The Apartment"

~Fred MacMurray and Jack Lemmon in a scene from "The Apartment"
~photography: United Artists 1960©

~A mirror reflection of Lemmon; Shirley MacLaine, and Hope Holliday with Lemmon
~photography: United Artists 1960©

~a hypocritical Lemmon berating an unconscious MacLaine
~photography: United Artists 1960©

Monday, July 23, 2018

cinema obscura: Peter Medak's "The Third Girl from the Left" (1973)

In 1973, Kim Novak was 40 and hadn't made a film in four years, not since the 1969 Zero Mostel vehicle, "The Great Train Robbery," directed by Hy Averback. Her last great role came the year before - in Robert Aldrich's deliciously campy (and very twisted) "The Legend of Lylah Clare."

She had never made a TV film - and, reportedly, was reluctant - but decided to take the leap with Peter Medak's "The Third Girl from the Left," perhaps because she related to the material in a meaningful way.

Its storyline - about an aging chorus girl with diminishing choices - approximately mirrored where Novak was at in her own career. It could also be viewed as a fataslistic update of Linda English, the character that Novak had played 16 years earlier in George Sidney's "Pal Joey."

 "The Third Girl from the Left" came with an enticing pedigree - a script by the famed composer-lyricist Dory Previn (based on her own experiences) and direction by Medak, the estimable Hungarian-born filmmaker who had previously helmed "Negatives," "The Ruling Class" and "A Day in the Death of Joe Egg" and, later, "The Krays," an eclectic filmography.

Previn's screenplay is an acute observation of a woman with dashed dreams and no more self-delusions, played moodily by the always introspective Novak. Like Linda English, her Gloria Joyce here also has her Joey. In the Sidney film, it was Frank Sinatra as Joey Evans, a n'er do well crooner; here, it's Tony Curtis as Joey Jordan, a n'er do well stand-up comic. Previn also carefully works in a role for Michael Brandon as a younger man - also all wrong from Gloria - who, thanks to the vagaries of timing, comes along just when she is at her most vulnerable. As its title suggests, "The Third Girl from the Left" is about a woman isolated.

Novak's last film appearance, in 1991, was in Mike Figgis' "Liebestraum," the end of an incredible movie run which included work with Alfred Hitchcock, Billy Wilder, Richard Quine, Mark Robson, David Hemmings, Delbert Mann, Phil Karlson, Otto Preminger, Joshua Logan, J. Lee Thompson, Freddie Francis, Terrence Young, and Sidney and Aldrich.

Note in Passing: "The Third Girl from the Left" aired to ABC on October 16th, 1973 and is available on DVD, via the Warner Bros. Archive Collection.

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.

(from top)

~The opening title card of the film

~Kim Novak performing in "The Third Girl from the Left"
~Photography:  ABC 1973©

 ~Novak with Tony Curtis and Michael Brandon in a scene from the film
~Photography: ABC 1973©

~With Curtis in another scene
Photography: ABC 1973©

Thursday, July 19, 2018


Exactly what is "acting"?

Fool that I am, I always believed that it was the process of someone abandoning his/her own identity for the opportunity to examine and define someone else's. For years - nay, decades - British actors have been hired routinely to play Americans, and vice versa. No problem. It's called acting.

But with special interest groups and political correctness, the rules have changed. Unofficially. I bring this up because Scarlett Johansson stepped down from Rupert Sanders' planned film, “Rub & Tug,” after LGBTQ campaigners complained that the casting was “insensitive.” She was to play transsexual Dante “Tex” Gill, a woman who transitions in the hopes of boosting her massage parlor/prostitution business in 1970s Pittsburgh.

On the other hand, there are too few opportunities in mainstream entertainment for LGBTQ actors. A rare (extremely rare) case in point is Ryan Murphy's revolutionary FX series, "Pose," a compelling hybrid of Joseph Mankiewicz's "All About Eve" and Armistead Maupin's "Tales of the City" that has showcased trans performers in a most extraordinary way.

Set in 1987 and against the backdrop of the era's Vogue-ing nightclub scene and the emergence of the AIDS crisis, "Pose" is superficially about the competition between an imperious mentor, self-named Electra Abundance, and her former protégé (now competitor), Blanca Rodriguez.

Electra, a true diva, oversees her group of bejeweled strutters in what she calls the House of Abundance, while the maverick Blanca has named her creation the House of Evangelista (named after Linda Evangelista, natch).

Both Electra and Blanca also pride themselves on being doting "mothers" to an assortment of outcasts, each of whom form an alternative, rag-tag family, very reminiscent of Maupin's cozy San Francisco of the 1980s. 

While every performer excels in this specific universe meticulously recreated by Murphy, there are two outstanding performances that make "Pose" accessible even to the reluctant, resistant viewer - MJ Rodriguez, so heart-breakingly soulful as Blanca, and the incredibly charismatic Indya Moore as Angel (one of Blanca's "children"), a streetwalker caught in a hopeless relationship with a sexually ambiguous married man (played by the very good Evan Peters).

And a special bravo for Billy Porter (from Broadway's "Kinky Boots"), who is authentically touching (and impressively restrained) as a vibrant man, now deflated and yet aggressively defiant while in the throes of AIDS.

That said, both the success of "Pose" and the empathic decision by Johansson reminded me that transsexuals are not exactly a new movie/TV novelty. There have been many occasions, off and on over the years, in which actors (none of them trans, however) have excelled in these roles and have honored the people that they've portrayed. Today, these 15...

Jean Arless (aka Joan Marshall) in "Homicidal" (1961) - William Castle's modest masterwork is about (spoiler alert!) a little girl who is raised as a boy by her mother because the father wanted a son. Joan Marshall, who was billed as Jean Arless here (and who went on to marry filmmaker Hal Ashby), is incredible both as "Warren," the boy who has grown into a faux man, and as "Emily," the caretaker (created by Warren) who oversees an old family retainer (the great Eugenie Leontovich) who has the misfortune to know the Warren/Emily secret. Uh-oh.

John Hanson in "The Christine Jorgensen Story" (1970) - A very good exploitation film, directed by veteran filmmaker Irving Rapper ("Now Voyager" and "Marjorie Morningstar") and released by United Artists, that contains an impressively committed, heartfelt performance by Hanson as real life George Jorgensen Jr. and his brave decision to transition.

Rex Reed and Raquel Welch in "Myra Breckenridge" (1970) - This landmark but now forgotten film, directed by Michael Sarne and based on Gore Vidal's book, has pedigree to spare, what with John Houston and Mae West (!) in the cast. It's about Myron (played by movie critic Rex Reed) who undergoes gender reassignment surgery and becomes aspiring actress Myra (Raquel Welch), who travels to Hollywood to claim an inheritance. Why has this film remained virtually unseen in recent yeears?

Chris Sarandon in "Dog Day Afternoon" (1975) - Based on a true story, this Sidney Lumet hit details a chaotic bank robbery, staged by a guy (Al Pacino) who needs the money to pay for his boyfriend's gender-reassignment surgery. Sarandon is the boyfriend and Lumet made the relationship palatable for audiences by keeping the two actors apart. They are never in a scene - or rather, on-screen - together. They connect only via telephone conversations. 

Tim Curry in "The Rocky Horror Picture Show:" (1975) - Curry, as the masculine-feminine Frank-N-Furter, sings "Sweet Transvestite" in this iconic fringe movie. Say no more.

John Lithgow in "The World According to Garp" (1982) - Arguably, the greatest transsexual performance committed to film. Under the direction of George Roy Hill, Lithgow was/is indelible as Roberta Muldoon, a character who is the size of a large man but has the warm empathy and gentleness attributed almost exclusively to women. Lithgow was nominated for best supporting actor. He should have won.

Karen Black in "Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean" (1982) - In one of Robert Altman's best (and least-seen) films, adapted by Ed Graczyk from his play (which Altman also directed on stage), a gay man named Joe returns to his unforgiving and small-minded home town as trans woman Joanne, a role absolutely nailed by Black.

Jaye Davidson in "The Crying Game" (1992) - The talented Davidson seemingly disappeared after turning in an indelible performance in this Neil Jordan film (an indie exploited to the hilt by Harvey Weinstein's Miramax), in which an exposed penis reveals her character's true identity.

Liev Schreiber in "Mixed Nuts" (1994) - I first encountered Schreiber on screen in this underrated Nora Ephron remake of a French comedy. I actually thought that Ephron hired a transvestite to play the role of Chris, clearly a cross-dresser who, at one point, invites star Steve Martin to dance (rather awkwardly). A terrific, under-seen performance.

Hillary Swank in "Boys Don't Cry" (1999) - Another true story, with Swank in a much-deserved Oscar-winning performance as Brandon Teena, who was actually born a female named Teena Brandon, but pursued a life as a man. Swank is abetted by strong performances by Chloe Sevigny as a woman who thinks she's having real sex with Brandon and by Peter Saarsgard who brutally exposes the Brandon/Teena identity.

John Cameron Mitchell and Miriam Shor in "Hedwig and the Angry Inch" (2001) - Mitchell, who wrote the role and created it on stage, is outstanding as a transgender punk-rock singer and Shor may be even better as her "husband," Yitzhak.

Tom Wilkinson in "Normal" (2003) - Playwright Jane Anderson adapted and directed her play for HBO in which Wilkinson stars as a Midwestern husband and father who announces plans for a sex change operation. Beau Bridges played the role on stage, with Laurie Metcalf as his wife - essayed by Jessica Lange in this excellent film version.

Gael García Bernal in "Bad Education" (2004) - Pedro Almodóvar takes on Hitchcock and Bernal is his Kim Novak in this compellingly evasive psychodrama that flits from time to time as it embraces the idea of sexual abuse and the fractured identity that results. Bernal is dynamite.

Felicity Huffman in "TransAmerica" (2005) - Hoffman was Oscar-nominated for her performance as a man who transitions to a woman in this little-seen indie. Hoffman made the decision to specifically play up the character's innate masculinity and she's never less than convincing.

Jared Leto in "The Dallas Buyers Club" (2013) - Leto is Rayon.

Note in Passing:  Finally, a special bow to actor Jeffrey Carlson who, in 2007, played a character named Zarf on Agnes Nixon's soap opera "All My Children," who transitions to Zoe, a first for daytime drama and a storyline which AMC took time unfolding with care and credibility. 
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.

(from top)

~MJ Rodriguez in "Pose"
~Photography:  FX Networks 2018©

 Indya Moore in "Pose"
~Photography: Ogata 2018©

~Chris Sarandon in "Dog Day Afternoon"
~photography: Warner Bros. 1975©

 ~John Lithgow and Robin Williams in "The World According to Garp" 
~photography: Warner Bros. 1982©

~Hilary Swank in "Boys Don't Cry"
~photography: Fox Searchlight 1999© 

~Jared Leto in "Dallas Buyers Club"
~photography: Anne Marie Fox/Focus Features 2013 ©  

~Jeffrey Carlson and Eden Reigel  in "All My Children"
~photography: ABC 2007 ©