Thursday, June 13, 2019

façade: elizabeth hartman & Inger Stevens

Too soon.

Those two words come to mind whenever my thoughts turn to those stars who died young or relatively young, It's not the usual suspects who haunt me - James Dean, Natalie Wood, Steve McQueen, Philip Seymour Hoffman.

No, I think of Carrie Snodgress, for example. True, she wasn't exactly young when she died of heart failure and liver failure in 2004. She was 57. But in my mind, she was still that interesting young actress who commanded attention in a handful of films 30 years earlier, starting with Jack Smight's "Rabbit, Run" and Frank Perry's "Diary of a Mad Housewife" in 1970. Her film career as a major player was painfully short.

In that sense, she died young.

Then, there are two heartbreakers who were indeed young when they passed.

Both suicides.
Frail and incredibly touching, Elizabeth Hartman was arguably the most promising film actress of the mid-1960s, appearing in four diverse films in the space of three years, and then she disappeared, popping up in movies and on TV only occasionally until, sadly, she went away completely.

Time moves on and we tend to forget elusive people like Elizabeth Hartman. When screen writer Gill Dennis, who was married to her from 1968 to 1984, died in 2015, Hartman was just a footnote in his obiturary.

Hartman made her film debut in Guy Green's ”A Patch of Blue,” an unusually unpleasant film about a young blind woman (Hartman) who has an almost accidental relationship with a man (Sidney Poitier) who, unknown to her, is black.  Shelley Winters as her cruel mother, Wallace Ford as her cruel grandfather and Elisabeth Fraser as her mother's cruel friend make the film almost unwatchable.  But the role brought Hartman an Oscar nomination as best actress.  At age 22, she was the youngest person in that category at that time to be nominated for an Oscar.

A year later, Hartman was part of Sidney Lumet's impressive ensemble in his film version of Mary McCarthy's ”The Group,”  playing the key role of Priss. At this early point in her film career, Hartman could do anything she desired.  Hollywood wanted her.

But she responded instead to a young filmmaker named Francis Ford Coppola who needed a "name" for his New Wave comedy, "You're a Big Boy Now," although the film also featured the estimable Geraldine Page and Julie Harris (with whom Hartman was something of a kindred spirit) and another newcomer named Karen Black. The role was Barbara Darling, a go-go dancer, a vamp and a sadist.  And Elizabeth Hartman, to her credit, signed on.  It was the only time that Elizabeth Hartman looked glamorous in a film.

And, reportedly, Coppola was forever grateful.

Hartman then went on to do John Frankenheimer's ”The Fixer” in 1968 as part of a British ensemble that included star Alan Bates, Dirk Bogarde, Ian Holm, Hugh Griffith and Georgia Brown. Around this time, Coppola was preparing "The Rain People" and wanted Hartman for the role of Natalie Revenna, a fed-up housewife who runs away from her marriage.  But Hartman, always insecure, wasn't emotionally ready for the role and Coppola had to opt for one of Hartman's co-stars from "The Group," Shirley Knight, who rewarded her director with a brilliant performance.

After taking off for a few years, Hartman returned to the screen for Don Siegel in his Clint Eastwood psychological Western, "The Beguiled" in 1971, which also features Hartman's "Boy" co-star, Geraldine Page.

It would be her last role in an important film.

Her next film, had she made it, would have been even more important - and perhaps crucial to her career and her health.  She was Coppola's first choice for the role of Kay in his 1972 adaptation of Mario Puzo's "The Godfather."  But, again, life got in the way; Hartman remained insecure and emotionally fraught.  (The director was reportedly so grateful for her participation in "You're a Big Boy Now" that he wanted to reward her with a showcase female role in a big, largely all-male film.) The part of Kay eventually went to Diane Keaton who is the one weak link in "The Godfather," although in Keaton's defense, it's a poorly written role.

Frankly, I'm not sure that even an actress of Hartman's talent and caliber could have made it memorable.

There were a few roles on television after that, very few. In terms of film, the latter part of Hartman's career included only two roles - in the original "Walking Tall" (1973), a red-neck drama starring Joe Don Baker, and, a decade later, as a voice in the animated "The Secret of NIMH" (1982), made by MGM - the studio that produced "A Patch of Blue."

Hartman went full circle, ending up where she had begun.

Before her suicide in 1987, she worked in a museum in Pittsburgh.  Elizabeth Hartman died on June 10th of that year.  She jumped to her death from a fifth story window.  She was 44.

Inger Stevens. Yes, Inger Stevens, whose star - and sweet face - twinkled brightly but briefly from the late 1950s to 1970 when she died at age 35.

She was one of those curious stars whose troubled personal life contrasted sharply with her public persona, which was probably best defined by her role as a plucky Swedish governess opposite William Windom (and the invaluable Cathleen Nesbitt) on the popular TV series, "The Farmer's Daughter," a sitcom with a realistic edge.

Stevens made her film debut in 1957 in the very small Bing Crosby vehicle, "Man on Fire," directed by Ranald MacDougall. She had just turned 20 when she was cast and 22 when it was released, immediately following it with an eclectic collection of titles - Andrew L. Stone's "Cry Terror!" (1958), with James Mason; Anthony Quinn's "The Buccaneer" (1958), with Charlton Heston; MacDougall's "The World, the Flesh and the Devil" (1959) with Harry Belafonte and Mel Ferrer, and an Emmy-nominated role opposite Peter Falk in David Friedkin's "The Price of Tomatoes" (1962), a playlet on Dick Powell's anthology series.

During this period, Stevens reportedly had doomed affairs with most of her leading men, including Crosby, Mason and Quinn.

Like Hartman, the latter part of her career was devoted to television. On TV, she had too many thankless roles. After interrupting her screen work for the small screen, Stevens returned to films in, among others, Gene Kelly's "A Guide for the Married Man" (1967), John Guillermin's "House of Cards" (1968) and, opposite Quinn, in Daniel Mann's "A Dream of Kings" (1969), finally a role worthy of her talents. But it was too little too late.

In less than a year, the ultimately enigmatic Inger Stevens was dead - another Hollywood suicide and also a tragic missed opportunity.

Stevens worked on screen for 14 years. Fourteen years. Way too brief. She left us ... too soon.

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. -J

(from top) 

~Elizabeth Hartman in a publicity still for "The Group"
~photography: United Artists 1966©

~Carrie Snodgress with Richard Benjamin in a scene from "Diary of a Mad Housewife"
~photography: Universal 1970©

~Hartman with Sidney Poitier in a scene from "A Patch of Blue"
~photography: MGM 1965©

~Hartman as Barbara Darling in "You're a Big Boy Now"
~photography: Seven Arts 1966©

~Hartman doing her go-go dance in "You're a Big Boy Now"
~photography: Seven Arts 1966©

~Hartman with Clint Eastwood in a scene from "The Beguiled"
~photography: Universal 1971©

~Inger Stevens in a publicity shot for the TV series, "The Farmer's Daughter" 
~photography: ABC/Screen Gems Television 1963©

~Stevens with Bing Crosby in "Man on Fire" 
~photography: MGM 1957©

Sunday, June 02, 2019


Ben Mankiewicz was diplomatic, as he always is.

Last night, he screened "West Side Story" as part of TCM's "The Essentials." The film was picked by his charming co-host, filmmaker Ava DuVernay, who teased us by saying it is one of her two favorite movies.

"No one wants to see Natalie Wood in brownface, but what do you think of her performance?," Ben asked at the top of the post-screening discussion. "Gorgeous!," a beaming Ava proclaimed.

This was in preamble to a brief conversation about Hollywood's bottom-line decision to cast white performers as people of color because, as Ben summed it up, "We gotta sell this movie." Sixty-eight years ago, MGM cast Ava Gardner as Julie in "Show Boat" when Lena Horne was under contract. Go figure.

But it is Natalie Wood who, since the 1961 release of "West Side Story," remains The Official Poster Child of Misguided Casting, despite the strength and sincerity of her performance in the film.

It's too bad that Mankiewicz's chat with DuVernay was limited to about five minutes because there are other issues about "West Side Story" that have never been considered and could use some scrutiny. First, It's worth noting that a precedent of casting a white actress to play Maria was set by the original 1957 stage production, which starred Carol Lawrence in the role and, frankly, no one noticed and certainly no one cared enough to comment or complain. But, fair or unfair, film is somehow different, largely because of the camera's eye with its uncanny ability to magnify images a thousand times over.

A quick aside... None of the stars of the original Broadway version were considered for the film (just a few of the dancers). Only Michael Callen - billed as Mickey Calin when he created the role of Riff, leader of the Jets, on stage - ended up with a movie contract in 1959. But it was with Columbia Pictures, not United Artists which released WSS. Columbia put Callen in such titles as "Pepe," "The Interns," "Gidget Goes Hawaiian" and "The Victors." It was Russ Tamblyn who was cast as Riff in the movie.
And if Natalie Wood was "miscast" because she was white, then so was George Chakiris who plays her brother Bernardo, leader of the Sharks, in the film. Like Wood, Charkiris is decidedly not Puerto Rican. He is the son of Greek immigrants and also went brownface for the movie. Unlike Wood, however, his casting in the movie has never been questoned. Ironically, Chakiris played the role of Riff in the 1958 London production of the show.

Then there's the close proximity of another major 1961 movie musical at the time. Universal's "Flower Drum Song" was released almost in tandem with "West Side Story" and it is difficult not to notice the difference in casting choices. The leading roles in "Flower Drum Song," produced by Ross Hunter, were cast with Asian actors (both Chinese and Japanese), a truly enlightened move at the time. The original 1958 stage version?

Not so much.

Composer Richard Rodgers, speaking strictly as a Caucasian, had been quoted saying that "what was important was that the actors gave the illusion of being Chinese." He said this because of the difficulty of casting the role of Sammy Fong. Larry Storch played it during the Boston tryout but Larry Blyden took over the role when it opened on Broadway.

Storch and Blyden - two white men.

Hunter and director Henry Koster wisely cast Jack Soo for the movie version. (Soo, who had played another role in the Broadway production, succeeded Blyden as Fong and played Fong in the national touring company of the show.)

If "West Side Story" can be criticized for anything, it's not for the casting of Natalie Wood but rather for the cringe-inducing stereotypical performances that director Robert Wise coaxed out of the actors who play Puerto Ricans in the film, the various performers who were cast as the Sharks and their women, including the film's two Oscar winners, Rita Moreno and Chakiris.

Actually, it's almost cartoon-like, something jarring for a work that has congratulated itself for five decades now for being a "serious musical."

Perhaps, Steven Spielberg, working with scenarist Tony Kushner, will get it right with his planned remake. He's already cast a Latina as Maria.

That said, Mankiewicz' discourse with DuVernay is a good start that will lead, hopefully, to lengthier discussions, especially since so many of the classic musicals on TCM routinely include blackface sequences featuring the likes of Judy Garland, Mickey Rooney, Fred Astaire and Dennis Morgan.

Once enjoyable, they are now something of head-scratchers: "What on earth were they thinking?" Or maybe for other decision-makers - "artists" like Richard Rodgers - only illusion really matters. At one time, at least.
click on photo to enlarge

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. -J

(from top) 

~Natalie Wood performing a dance created for her by Jerome Robbins for the film version of "West Side Story" 
~photography: United Artists 1961©

~TCM host Ben Mankiewicz
~photography: Turner Classic Movies 2018©

~Filmmaker Ava DuVernay

~Rita Moreno and Wood in the "A Boy Like That"/"I Have a Love" duet in the film
~photography: United Artists 1961©

~Chita Rivera and Carol Lawrence performing the same duet in the stage version 
~photography: Friedman-Abeles 1957©

~The cast of the film of "Flower Drum Song" - Jack Soo, Nancy Kwan, Miyoshi Umeki and James Shigeta
~photography: Universal-International 1961©

~Natalie Wood in a publicity photo announcing her casting in "West Side Story." She's holding a copy of the song score autographed by Leonard Bernstein
~photography: United Artists 1960©