Monday, February 03, 2020

encore! the film that defines me

"This film is alive!" Henry Miller once said, "And it speaks to me."

Movies have many voices. Some simply entertain us; others instruct. A few make us feel alive, and even fewer influence our behavior and decisions.

The ones that grip us in a personal way are the truly special movies in our lives. They have the awesome ability to get us to look inside ourselves and to pursue dreams that we otherwise might never consider.

Growing up, we all invariably have used film as a point of reference, a learning tool, an example. We would gulp down our One-a-Day vitamins, check our PF Flyers to make sure that they were double-knotted and then, almost routinely, make a beeline for the neighborhood Bijou where we would lose ourselves in make-believe, fantasies, daydreams and movies. Movies - the word itself sparkles with glitter.
Movies. The special ones stay with us forever. It takes little mental coaxing for me to remember those personal film arousals that have overwhelmed my life. And I've a suspicion that if I were to connect these movies - the way one connects dots - I'd come up with an image that looks, well, very much like me.

Which brings me to Billy Wilder's "The Apartment," my film. A reference to it recently by TCM's Ben Mankiewicz jogged my memory. Turns out, "The Apartment" is not exclusively mine. Ben invoked it when he referred to it in one of his introductions as the all-time favorite of his Turner Classic Movies colleague Alicia Malone.

Yes, great minds do think alike.

Not surprisingly, each of us could be charted by the movies that have guided us, movies we love. As a society, that chart would include such widespread titles as "Gone with the Wind" and "The Wizard of Oz," seminal movie experiences that continue to have an impact on the masses. No question about it.

Then, there is something like more personal, such as"The Apartment."

The beauty of movies of this kind is that they work on us more intimately, directly on our senses. They get us alone in the dark and then, while we're isolated and diverted and vulnerable, they whisper to us, subliminally instructing us in the ways of life. And, yes, sometimes they lie to us.

They may not always change our lives in conspicuous ways, inspiring us to pick up and move away, get married or have a baby (although some can). What the best of them do is to, quite simply, put us in contact with ourselves.
The movies that are special to us - and you know which ones are your favorites - knock us out with some truth or some indication of what can be. We never do quite get our balance back. We leave the theater feeling dazed, irritated, excited, exhilarated and eager to do something, anything.

In my case, movies are more than a profession or even an avocation. I will be frank: They have been my life, I dream about them, the way I do about people. They are my world and it's a wondrous place. But one has to be careful because when one lives in a world of movies, one risks living in a place that's close to, well, nowhere.

So, how did I end up in this place?
It started innocently enough. I used movies initially as an escape, then as a learning tool, looking for examples, for role models, for someone with whom I could connect.

Not easy. I'd sit there in awe of John Wayne, for example - with his cunning and macho prowess, such as when he rescued a teenage Natalie Wood in John Ford’s "The Searchers," knowing that I could never measure up. Never.

It' difficult to feel much kinship with the men I saw on screen, but I tried. The image of Wayne swooping down and scooping up Natalie Wood has a strong, masculine force that is anything but absurd to a little boy.

But then, I saw a movie that convinced me that, somehow, my life could be emotionally mixed up with movies. When I first saw it, Billy Wilder’s “The Apartment" created a longing so ardent that I thought my chest and head would implode.

It was the summer of 1960. I remember little else about that summer or that year, for that matter, except that I loved "The Apartment" and that I related to its star, Jack Lemmon, in the most complete, complicated way possible. A point of reference at last. A role model.

Hearing Ben Mankiewicz reference Alicia Malone compelled me to dig out this old essay, which originally was published August 2, 2006, my second piece for The Passionate Moviegoer. I remember having written that with such dubious assets as his slight build, sagging shoulders, slouching posture and wide-open face filled with basset-hound anxiety, Jack Lemmon filled me with wonder for someone who seemed so much like me - or so I liked to think.
Jack Lemmon was Mr. Joe Average, a guy like a lot of other guys, only with a quizzical alertness and high-strung energy. As Saturday Review aptly put it in its uncredited review of Richard Murphy’s “The Wackiest Ship in the Army” (1961), Lemmon was "the perfect personification of all harassed mankind - the outranked, outnumbered, out-manipulated little fellow with sound instincts and bad judgment. He is the one who is always taken advantage of. And if, in the end, he emerges triumphant, it's because of a basic decency rather than superior cunning or sudden inspiration."
Over the years, I've watched my 16mm print of "The Apartment" at least 50 times, and easily many more times on home entertainment, but I still remember the first time: I was with some Catholic-school friends, kids who tested their tonsils and tangled diction on the screen by shouting obscene words through their cupped hands. We told our parents that we'd be seeing "The Story of Ruth," a Biblical epic released the same summer as "The Apartment." (Blasphemy, I know.)

They goofed off, but I watched. “The Apartment” is the first film that I actually studied, reading between the lines and noting techniques. In my case, I couldn't get enough of  "The Story of Ruth." While my friends moved on, "The Story of Ruth" became my go-to movie that summer. It's like I had invented binge-watching.

I’ve seen a lot of films, and my list of favorites keeps changing, but “The Apartment” – the story of an ambitious office worker (Lemmon) who climbs the corporate ladder by “lending” his apartment to his philandering bosses before getting his priorities straight – has been resistant to any upward or downward revision in my mind. It's been a constant -  the test, I guess, of a truly great personal film.
Few movies, however, have the kind of impact on our lives that “The Apartment” has had on mine. But the infrequent great ones do come along from time to time, films that restore our belief in possibilities and that remain our points of reference throughout our lives.

These movies are like dreams that live on. Each movie, each celluloid dream, becomes a part of our mental scrapbooks. I know that I’ve lingered over movies and movie scenes the way some people reminisce over snapshots of that wonderful vacation in Cape Cod. “The Apartment,” for example, has been carried around inside me ever since that first viewing. It’s familiar and comforting, like an old easy chair that’s been lugged to each new place in which I’ve lived – to remind me of where I’ve been and where I will continue to go.
That movie is like a ribbon, a thread, that has run through my life and I can always go back to it. And, like me, throughout the years, it has evolved and changed. It hasn’t remained the same and, for some reason, I find that reassuring.

I still quote lines of the Billy Wilder-I.A.L. Diamond dialogue from the movie – such as David Lewis' casual shrug, “That’s the way it crumbles, cookie-wise,” or Lemmon's observation to his dream girl in the film, Shirley MacLaine, as they are about to enjoy a spaghetti dinner on Christmas day: “It’s a wonderful thing – dinner for two.” Shirley MacLaine. Yes, she was my dream, too.

Inevitably, I found myself discreetly consulting “The Apartment” as a way of getting through life. A situation would be confronted by speculating how C.C. Baxter, Lemmon’s character in the film, might handle it. I actually thought I’d grow up to be Jack Lemmon or, at least, C.C. Baxter.

Silly right? I was a kid.

Up until that time, I spent endless, sleepless nights as that kid wondering if I’d grow up to look like Jack Lemmon (I didn’t) or if I’d join the Navy the way he did in John Ford and Mervyn LeRoy's “Mr. Roberts” (again, I didn’t) or work for an insurance company the way he did in “The Apartment” (ditto) or if I’d marry MacLaine’s Fran Kubelik (no way). These were actual, recurring dreams. No exaggeration.

Of course, I wasn’t Jack Lemmon and my life that followed wasn’t at all like the one he lived in “The Apartment.” And with this, I realized that movies have the ability to hit us in more ways, and on more levels, than we can ever appreciate.

They are transporting and make us believe.

Ever since I first saw “The Apartment,” my life has been wrapped up, irrevocably, in movies, so much so that, for me, film has evolved into a pop psychology. Film became a part of something larger in my life. Movies and events in my world have tended to blend together.

Along the way, a kid no more, I learned to separate fantasy from reality, to realize that only a few of my movie-fed dreams will materialize. And I’ve also accepted the realization that many of these dreams may fall short of “the way it happens in the movies" - a harsh truth for the movie-loving kid who stayed with me far too long.

Notes in Passing:  No, the Navy no longer holds any glamour or allure for me, and neither do insurance companies (!). And I married someone far better than Fran Kubelik. But I have other, newer dreams, all of which, I’m sure, will also continue to come from movies.

My parents were not happy when they learned that in reality I had spent the summer of '60 watching Jack lend out his apartment to his bosses for sex.

A kid sinner.

 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

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(from top)
 ~Opening title card for "The Apartment"
~design: United Artists 1960©

  ~Turner Classic Movies host Alicia Malone
 ~photography: TCM 1960©

~Assorted still shots of Jack Lemmon, Shirley MacLaine, Fred MacMurray, Hope Holliday and Billy Wilder in "The Apartment" (Publicity shot of Jack Lemmon as C.C. "Bud" Baxter in "The Apartment"; still shot of the office Christmas party, and Lemmon and director Billy Wilder, a "mutual admiration society" on the set)
~Photography: United Artists 1960©

Wednesday, January 29, 2020

cinema obscura: Dorothy Malone's "Too Much, Too Soon" (1958)

Katharine Hepburn and Bette Davis.

There are actresses about whom enough can't be said. Hepburn and Davis are inarguably two of them. And then there are those, equally accomplished, whose careers receive precious little acknowledgement or recognition.

An excellent case in point is the fabulous Dorothy Malone, a staple of the 1950s who glided effortlessly through such dubious-sounding films  as Gordon Douglas' "Young at Heart" (1954), Raoul Walsh's "Battle Cry" (1955), Frank Tashlin's "Artists and Models" (1955), Douglas Sirk's "Written on the Wind" (1956) and "The Tarnished Angels" (1958), Joseph Pevney's "Man of a Thousand Faces' (1957) and Robert Aldrich's "The Last Sunset" (1961).

And Charles Marquis Warren's "Tension at Table Rock" (1956) and  Richard Thorpe's "Tip on a Dead Jockey" (1957). What titles!

For the sheer fun of it, Malone also did William Asher's highly disposable "Beach Party" (1963), paired with an also-slumming Robert Cumming.

But her best role was in Art Napoleon's missing "Too Much, Too Soon" (1958), a steamy biopic in which Malone played the rebellious Diana Barrymore to Errol Flynn's John. Naturally sensual, Malone specialized in characters who had an "itch" - an itch for men, an itch for sex, an itch for highs and an itch for risks and adventure. "Too Much, Too Soon" presented Malone with material that she knew best - and which only she could pull off.

You can't imagine anyone else in the role. Not Elizabeth Taylor. Not Joanne Woodward. Not Piper Laurie. Not Jean Simmons. Not Shirley MacLaine.

This is the only film that truly showcased Malone in which she is/was The Star  and she rewards her director and the viewer to an intricate, multi-faceted performance that is at once exhilarating, scary and sad.

And she is ably abetted by Flynn, who is very moving as Diana's father, and by such B-level actors as Efrem Zimbalist, Jr., Ray Danton and Martin Milner as the assorted men who flit in and out of Diana's life - and bed.

The maker of "Too Much, Too Soon," one Art Napoleon, is also a curiosity. He made only three films in his lifetime, the other two being "Man on the Prowl" (1957), his debut feature starring Mala Powers and James Best, and "The Activist" (1969) which, to the best of my knowledge, was never released. All three films were written by Napoleon's wife, Jo, who also worked with him on several TV shows - "Whirlybirds," among them.

 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
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The lost performances of Errol Flynn and Dorothy Malone as John and Diana Barrymore in Art Napoleon's biopic, "Too Much, Too Soon"
~photography: Warner Bros. 1958©

Thursday, January 23, 2020

a fan's notes

A trio of observations, pronouncements, insights or whatever...
First up... "A Face in the Crowd," the compulsively biting character study from 1957 by scenarist Budd Schulberg and director Elia Kazan, was impressively prescient in its improbable, hugely disturbing national prognosis. In retrospect, it remains exactly the same. Except in one area.

Ostensibly, the film's chief (and only real) focus had always been its lead character, Lonesome Rhodes, given a lustful reading here by a riveting Andy Griffith, a performance driven by Lonesome's  narcissistic, power-driven appropriation of the country. But, arguably, more unsettling is the "journey" of Patricia Neal's Marcia Jeffries, created by the collaborating auteurs.

Initially a small-town journalist who works for her uncle's modest media outlet in Pickett, Arkansas, she produces a popular, raggy radio show titled "A Face in the Crowd" that exploits Lonesome's conservative radicalism and, by extension, celebrates Marcia as his most enthusiastic benefactor/enabler. 

At the outset, oblivious to his danger, Marcia wears a little straw hat (photo above) and brandishes a tiny, hand-held tape recorder. She's rather quaint. Towards the end of the film, her transformation/makeover into a Martini-sipping sophisticate who hangs out in dark bars is complete (photo below).

And the process doesn't take very long.

Punctuation Police...  For close to 30 years, I've engaged in a running battle with copy editors about the absence of an apostrophe in the title of D. A. Pennebaker's 1965-67 Bob Dylan documentary. It's "Dont Look Back," not "Don't Look Back." Editors have invariably added the apostrophe.
As explined on Wikipedia, "The original title of this film is Dont Look Back, without an apostrophe in the first word. D. A. Pennebaker, the film's writer director, decided to punctuate the title this way because 'It was my attempt to simplify the language.'"

Despite the DVD's title, Dylan never never recorded a song titled "Dont Look Back," per reader Bill Wolf in his response below.

In the commentary track to the DVD release, Pennebaker said that the title came from the Satchel Paige quote, "Don't look back. Something might be gaining on you," and that Dylan shared this view.

That voice!: And it's rarely noted, but director Morton Da Costa provided the voice of Edwin Dennis reading his last Will and Testament during the opening moments of Da Costa's film of "Auntie Mame."

 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

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 (from top)

 ~Still shots of Patricia Neal in "A Face in the Crowd"
~photography: Warner Bros. 1957©

 ~D. A. Pennebaker
 ~photography: Leacock-Pennebaker, Inc. 1965-67©

 ~Morton DaCosta 
~photography: Warner Bros. 1962©

Monday, January 20, 2020

cinema obscura: J. Lee Thompson's "John Goldfarb, Please Come Home!" (1965)

No one would ever mistake J. Lee Thompson's "John Goldfarb, Please Come One" for a good movie.

Aside from being director Thompson's second back-to-back collaboration with star Shirley MacLaine in 1965, its only real claim to fame during its brief life in theaters during the spring of  '65, was that Notre Dame University threatened Twentieth Century-Fox with a lawsuit for defaming both the school's name and its football players (as buffoons, no less).

"John Goldfarb, Please Come One" is a mess but it's an eccentric mess. It's certainly better (just barely) than the previous Thompson-MacLaine pairing - "What a Way to Go!," a bloated, conventional pseudo-musical dud and shameless vanity production for MacLaine from the year before.

But you have to love a D-level film like "Goldfarb" that conjurs up a buffoonish CIA Chief, names him Heinous Overreach and casts the great Fred Clark in the role.

The plot, concocted by no less than William Peter Blatty, involves a dim-witted U-2 pilot for the USAF, nicknamed Wrong Way Goldfarb, played by Richard Crenna (in his first major film role following decades on television). While en route to the USSR on a spy mission, former Notre Dame football star Wrong Way Goldfarb crashes in a mythical Arabian country called Fawzia. He is apprehended and held captive by King Fawz (Peter Ustinov), who happens to be a football-obsessed tyrant and who wants Goldfarb to organize a local team for him.

MacLaine plays a mouthy reporter for Strife magazine who happens to be on assignment in Fawzia and unwittingly ends up in Fawz' harem and in Wrong Way's arms.

Aside from Clark, the supporting cast consists of such ace character actors as Jim Backus, Harry Mogan, Richard Deacon, Scott Brady, David Lewis, Jackie Coogan, Chalres Lane, Leon Askin, Jerome Cowan, Milton Frome and the great Wilfred Hyde-White. And keep an eye out for a young Jerry Orbach.

Yes, the film is awful, but this cast is compulsively watchable.

MacLaine, meanwhile, plays her character as a fractured cross between an over-aged cheerleader and an over-heated harem contestant.

By the way, Blatty and MacLaine worked together in the 1960s and, when he wrote "The Exorcist," Blatty modeled the character of Chris MacNeil (played by Ellen Burstyn in the film) after MacLaine, a dubious tribute of sorts. Bottom Line: This film was made for Frank Tashlin to direct. Period.
Note in Passing: Oh, yes, John Williams' score for the film, never recorded, was released belatedly in 2007 in a limited-edition CD. Shirley MacLaine, ever the good sport, honks out the cacophonous title song.

Blatty also attempted to adapt "Goldfarb" into a musical comedy back in 2007, with music and lyrics by Michael Garin, Robert Hipkens, and Erik Frandsen, choreography by Jennifer Schmermund and Anahid Sofian, and direction by Jeffrey Lewonczyk. It was staged for four performances only in August of that year at The Skirball Center for the Performing Arts, 566 LaGuardia Place.

 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

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 (from top)

 ~Poster art for "John Goldfarb, Please Come Home"
 ~photography: Twentieth Century-Fox 1965© 

~Publicity shot of Fred Clark in "John Goldfarb, Please Come Home" 
 ~photography: Twentieth Century-Fox 1965© 

~Two still shots of Shirley MacLaine in "John Goldfarb, Please Come Home"
 ~photography: Twentieth Century-Fox 1965©

Saturday, January 04, 2020


Something different. A "cinema obscura" entry that's a true original - a modern screen comedy that compels one to continue smiling in retrospect, days after its closing credits have expired. Not surprisingly, the movie itself - shot and released back in 2011 - is largely, sadly forgotten now.

Cinema obscura - the price paid for being ... different.

The film is Jim Field Smith's "Butter" and, in terms of its "style" - which is blissfully scattershot, anarchic and irreverent - one would have to wander back to 1980 and to Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale's ”Used Cars” in a bedazzled state to locate a screen comedy this delightfully addelpated.

Smith, a British name new to me, made only one feature prior to "Butter" (the Jay Baruchel 2010 comedy, "She's Out of My League") and seemingly has worked in TV exclusively ever since. So, until I have the opportunity to experience any of his future work, I'll binge on "Butter" indulgently.

Its plot, solipsistic to the extreme, centers on a butter-sculpting event in suburban Johnson County, Iowa whose piddling four contestants are soon reduced to two - Laura Pickler, an ambitious, uptight conservative who sees her win as a rare political opportunity, and Destiny (just Destiny), a foster-care child looking for a forever home. On paper, it sounds like the stuff of an arch Hallmark/Lifetime movie or, at the very least, a spoof.

But Smith is ruthless, playing it for dark, wicked laughs and buoyed by a game cast driven by Jennifer Garner as the twitchy, shameless Laura.

Garner has carved out a curious niche for herself, excelling as compulsive, type-A, genuinely frighteningly women (see HBO's "Camping") who double down and dig in, eschewing any hint of weakness. Somehow, she manages to make her scary machinations downright hilarious. Garner is an original.

Ty Burrell plays Laura's husband Bob, also a butter artist who has won awards for his specialty, namely religious-right sculptures based on The Last Supper and The Passion of the Christ, among others. He's also been lauded for his carving of a Newt Gingrich likeness. You get the picture.

Laura has talent but she's no match for Destiny, played here by the preternaturally gifted child actress Yara Shahidi, who was 9 at the time of filming and is now a grown 19. Destiny has true vision, and there's some warm, lighthearted chemistry between Shahidi and  the very good Alicia Silverstone and Rob Corddry, who play Destiny's latest foster parents and who are, of course, the polar opposites of the hypocritical Picklers.

"Butter" is one of those films which showcases every bit of talent on screen, and Corddry gets a prime shot with an anxiety-ridden diatribe/monologue against the evils of butter, while a most companionable Silverstone shrewdly exploits her off-screen status as a practicing vegan.

The always welcome Kristen Schaal plays one of the other contestants; Phyllis Smith (of "The Office") is Nancy, the calming presence who oversees the event; Ashley Greene ("Twilight") is Bob's teenage daughter from his first marriage, and Olivia Wilde is a, well, wild as an aggressive prostitute to whom Bob still owes $600 for services previously rendered.

Finally, Hugh Jackman does a witty turn as Laurel's old high-school crush, an illiterate lummox who agrees to help her rig the contest. Her entry for the latest competition? A butter reproduction of something I could not possibly invent: "Wait!," I said to my wife as the sculpture took form. "Is that Jacki Kennedy crawling on the trunk of a convertible trying to save Jack? Has she actually carved a butter rendering of the JFK assassination?"

Scenarist Jason Micallef is credited with the film's quick-witty, gutsy, and at times tasteless script, but whether the culprit is Smith or Micallef  - or the two working in tandem - the various sculptures here are at once hideous, hilarious, delicious and actually quite artful. They still have me smiling.

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

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(from top)

 ~Poster art for "Butter"
 ~photography: TWC/Radius 2010©

   ~Laura's novel, notorious butter rendering of the Kennedy assassination
 ~photography: TWC/Radius 2010©