Out now! My essay in the newest Ed Brubaker "Kill Or Be Killed" # 7 all about Noel Black's Pretty Poison starring Tuesday Weld and Anthony Perkins. Art by the great Sean Phillips. Order here.
Here's the first paragraph:
Those little eyes So helpless and appealing One day will flash and send you Crashing through the ceiling -- Maurice Chevalier (Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe)
I got a pretty little mouth underneath all the foaming La la la la La la la lie Sooner or later, we all gotta die -- Nick Cave
There’s a scene in Noel Black’s 1968 Pretty Poison that’s so creepy- sexy, so erotically unnerving, that it still makes a viewer feel off balance and disturbed in 2017. Tuesday Weld’s beautiful, blonde 17- year-old high school majorette has just bashed some poor night watchmen on the side of the head – near dead. She and her new boyfriend, psycho but sensitive Anthony Perkins, have been mucking around at the chemical plant he works for on one of their dates/clandestine missions. Perkins is loosening a chute that dumps chemical waste into the town’s water supply and, filling her head with lies that he’s a spy for the CIA, she’s excitedly helping him. She loves the intrigue and mischief and she loves being bad. The factory guard catches him and Perkins stares back terrified – for good reason – he’s recently been released from a loony bin. Weld is not scared of anything. She’s a remarkably pretty girl with enviable hair and straight A grades and a bright future ahead of her. She calmly brains the old guy, blood oozing all over his face, and she seems a little proud of herself too. Like she just solved a relatively hard algebra equation. Without asking or alerting the freaked-out Perkins she, with all of her sociopathic common sense and know-how, drags the dying man’s body into the water. He’s now good and dead. And then she sits on his back.
Read it all here.
From my piece written for the New Beverly.
“David set it up . . . There are eighteen different places in that film, if you look at it, where he could have stopped the whole thing. He didn’t. He let it go on . . . As so often in life, we let things happen to us because we want it to . . . I’ve had to lecture twice now, really, about the film to psychiatrists . . . They say, ‘How did you find out about this?’ Well, I got married a few times.” – Sam Peckinpah
Romantic relationships, revenge, jealousy, masculinity, femininity… these are complicated matters in life, emotionally messy matters, things that, when up against serious impediments, aren’t easily resolved by valorous, well-adjusted people doing the right thing. And often, when feeling a looming problem, and a looming problem particularly in our relationships, we act out in little ways to both avoid the crescendo of drama while subtly stoking those fires, making what we wish to prevent (total collapse) a self-fulfilling prophecy. Through committing small, nasty acts of reprisal (justified or not justified), grievances and resentment can build and build and build until they are fully ignited, gasoline poured on the flames, the house nearly burned down. This is what happens (and literally) in Sam Peckinpah’s controversial masterpiece Straw Dogs, a movie about a man struggling with his masculinity and what that even means (and unleashing his savagery when pressed in the most extreme way possible) while also observing, in most lacerating detail, a failing marriage – two people falling out of love, and indeed, when all is said and done and killed, hating each other. Scalding liquid thrown on faces, bear trap coup de grâce, bloody bodies piled up in a farmhouse. Through severe, in part, metaphorical terms, Peckinpah’s dysfunctional couple is, by film’s end, stripped of their microaggressions to see things for what they really are – they are not in love anymore and why did they get married in the first place? I can only wonder if Ingmar Bergman saw this picture and admired it. I’m going to believe that he did.
Straw Dogs opens with a Peckinpah motif – children are awful, readying to be awful adults. Like the kids torturing scorpions in The Wild Bunch, the children of this Cornish village (Cornwall, UK) are laughing and screaming and singing while circling a wagging dog in a graveyard. Though the dog’s not tortured, you sense something ominous will happen to the pup, and one can deduce that Peckinpah meant it as such (I highly doubt he opened his film simply to show how adorable little children are). Underneath all of the “cute” childhood play is a creature who could turn around and bite their little hands off. We then see the film’s protagonists walking through town, stocking up on sundries – that’s Dustin Hoffman’s American mathematician David Sumner and Susan George’s Amy, David’s young and beautiful British wife. George gets an eyeful of an introduction, something that’s offended and titillated viewers and critics since its opening: wearing a white sweater and jeans, she is braless, and Peckinpah takes visual notice of this right away.
The male gaze is exactly what Peckinpah has placed front and center (even if women also look at and admire George), as you feel a palpable sense of dread, the townies staring at her as we stare at her, making us feel immediately aroused, and some of us uncomfortable, perhaps even complicit, and a little sorry for Susan George who is simply braless. To a young woman in 1971, going braless wasn’t that big of a deal, and for some (then and now), even if she knows everyone is looking, she doesn’t really care. And why should she? Yes, it’s always wise to assess the danger of your surroundings (and David brings it up later, though with little concern, this isn’t James Stewart lecturing Lee Remick about wearing a girdle in Anatomy of a Murder), but the idea that she deserves any kind of aggression based on her lack of an undergarment is absurd. I can’t believe that I’ve read this subtly questioned, even in reviews from the 2000’s. I recall reading that Amy was “gallivanting around” in one piece, which suggests she’s being overtly ostentatious in her attire. Jeans and a turtleneck sweater? I’ve seen sexier getups worn by Marcia Brady on “The Brady Bunch.”
So … maybe Amy just doesn’t like wearing a bra and Peckinpah noted how men view this and placed us directly in that view. It may come off as exploitation at first but it serves a purpose throughout the entire picture. Amy is both knowing and wagging a big middle finger to those who look. Both times she’s caught in erotic visual (topless in the window, or her mini-skirted leg and panties from the car) she stares down her gawkers more with a challenging “what?” than a flirtation. That many critics view this as merely flirting seems strange to me, not taking in the complexities and the impressive subtly of George’s performance.
But that kind of liberated manner is scary in this setting and furthers the animosity the locals feel for Hoffman’s American, whom Peckinpah also describes via wardrobe – ineffectual, sweatered-preppy in white tennis shoes, walking into a pub full of hard-drinking manly men who clomp around in work boots and scruffy beards. David even requests American cigarettes. You feel sorry for him too. He’s immediately an outsider. This is Amy’s hometown and so the watchful locals may make her feel both more comfortably accustomed to their roughness and wary at the same time and yet, she must know they resent this return. Already a man she’s had romantic involvement with, Charlie Venner (Del Henney), is getting aggressively fresh. But you get a feeling, immediately, that something is not right in David and Amy’s marriage; that it likely wouldn’t have worked out even in a different setting. It’s just that this was the entirely wrong town to relocate to. This will be the place to inflame their already apparent strain. Much like the way Guy and Rosemary Woodhouse make a fresh start at the Dakota in Rosemary’s Baby, you can already see the tension before the Satanists show up.
So much of the picture is building on this dread and animosity – between the villagers with the husband and wife, and between the husband and wife alone, that every little infraction is loaded. David has left the states during the Vietnam War (some believe Peckinpah viewed this pacifism as cowardly, I do not think it’s that simple), and he’s trying to accomplish work on complex math problems in the farmhouse. At one point he tells a worker, Norman Scutt (Ken Hutchison), why he ventured out there: “I’m just glad I’m here where it’s quiet and you can breathe air that’s clean and drink water that doesn’t have to come out of a bottle.” It’s an innocuous yet amusing line because, one it’s timeless, someone would say that now, and two, nothing appears bucolic in this town at all – not even the air. Muscularly shot by cinematographer John Coquillon, the town is potently grimy, where nature is tangled and cold, the green of the earth damp and dirty, everything is effectively oppressive, a place where people are self-medicating illnesses (physical and mental) at the pub, and disease-ridden rats are proudly caught by a giggling rat catcher psycho named Chris Cawsey (Jim Norton) who sings this dreary little ditty: “Smell a rat, see a rat, kill a rat!”
Amy and David are always being watched while the men working on the farmhouse lewdly discuss Amy’s attractiveness with perceptible violence, even stealing a pair of her undies. They don’t like David, whom they view as weak, and laugh at him as he attempts to start his sports car – an emasculating moment, backing up when he means to move forward, accidentally turning on the windshield wipers. Amy is the better driver, and the more reckless one as well. People may consider Amy as the most reckless at everything but I believe they both are. Or rather, everything around them is a torrent of recklessness, fueling their normal transgressions.
Adapted by Peckinpah and David Zelag Goodman from Gordon M. Williams’s “The Siege of Trencher’s Farm,” some changes in the script made the disparity between the couple more evident. Their ages – younger – and Amy young enough for us to assume she was once David’s student. The dynamic of teacher-student crush is now colliding with real life, with nature. That whatever intellectual control David had over her before, he is losing his power, and especially in this turbulent, rugged environment. Their bickering is that of a focused academic who doesn’t take his wife seriously (she also seems quite a bit more affectionate than him) and a wife who seeks respect and validation, even if she has to be annoying to get it. Amy is unhappy, even tortured at times (you can see it in her eyes), and young actress George displays this in knowingly subtle ways. She does small things to show her annoyance – crossing out a plus sign to a minus on David’s blackboard, even sticking her gum on it; talking to the workers only to mock David by telling him they think he’s “strange;” yelling at him to question the workers over who hung their cat in the closet (this seems pretty justified, though it would be hard to approach a group of intimidating men, accusing them of killing your cat).
They’re bickering like an old married couple while playing up their roles, perhaps to restore their attraction. In one scene, David gazes at Amy flopped out on a chair and remarks that she looks like a 14-year-old. He playfully drops the age to 12 and then 8, as she vamps up the Lolita wife by smacking and chewing her gum like a sexy teenager. This works for them. In that moment. But not-so-Lolita Amy has her small victories. Like when David says she’s smarter than he thought because she actually understands a mathematical concept or that Peckinpah shows her playing and studying a cerebral game like chess before going to bed. Amy wants to win at something and if chess won’t be taken seriously enough, her sexuality might, and so that sex, her braless beauty, hovers over the picture as, not just a torture device or Amy having it coming, more as impending doom through sexual extremity.
The working men invite David out to hunt and humiliate him further – they ditch him in the woods and one calls on his wife. Charlie Veneer returns to their farmhouse where Amy is alone. Here begins the notorious moment that has been studied, argued about, upset or confused critics to this day: in a meticulously crafted scene, through expertly horrific, ferociously real and yet, hallucinatory directing, editing and performance, Charlie rapes Amy. And then Scutt sodomizes her. It starts with Amy rejecting Charlie’s advances, but he overcomes her on the couch. Peckinpah does not spare Amy, her clothes are ripped off, breasts revealed, her quaking fear so evident you know (and this was indeed true) that the actress is terrified herself. What offends many is that Amy eventually succumbs; she climaxes and holds her ex lover tenderly. When Scutt sneaks in, unbeknownst to Charlie, Charlie at first tells him no, but then, disgustingly siding with a buddy over a woman, holds her down while Scutt rapes her. It’s horrifying, Amy convulsing in terror and pain. Critics who loathe the picture feel that Peckinpah is suggesting that Amy is asking for it, through her attire, through her flirting (I still don’t view her as merely a flirt) or, that craving his masculinity, she’s turned on by Charlie’s brutality. I don’t think it’s quite that simple (though I’m not going to tell anyone what they should or should not be offended by). Amy is being victimized by someone she knows and, in my view, could be submitting to save herself from being further brutalized. She can’t overpower him. She can’t even move. It’s shocking and unhealthy and it makes her feel undeservedly guilty. To underscore this, the scene is intercut with David out in the woods, feeling like an idiot for trusting the brutes, holding a lifeless bird he shot with the look of someone who is thinking, what is the point of this? He’s no idea what is happening to his wife – making the rape also serve the purpose of ultimate cuckolded nightmare – something he’ll later learn and replay in his brain over and over – that she liked it. This is what men might think, even if a woman does not enjoy it. And this it is where many critics draw the line. Amy is traumatized and suffers a traumatic flashing, which returns to her in recurring trauma that will likely never leave this woman. Never mind the man’s issues. Amy has to live with this. It’s a fucked up moment, complicated and troubling but no, nothing Amy deserves. And I don’t think Peckinpah would view it quite that simply either. Though I’m sure some would disagree with me.
And this movie was very personal to him, according to Peckinpah biographer David Weddle (“If They Move . . . Kill ‘Em!: The Life and Times of Sam Peckinpah”). As discussed in the biography, the director’s soon-to-be wife Joie Gould was apparently a version of Amy, and David a version of Peckinpah:
“The costumes used for Amy in the final film bore a striking resemblance to Joie’s own wardrobe, and Dustin Hoffman wore many items that could have been pulled out of Sam’s closet. (Peckinpah was dressing – coincidentally or purposely – more preppily than he had in the States.) Peckinpah was not only using his own past as raw material for the film, but manipulating his present, himself and the people around him, to help feed the psychodrama. A dangerous game, as Joie would learn the hard way … The slightest smile or exchange of pleasantries with another male would throw Sam into a fit of jealousy. By the time they returned to the house in the evenings his eyes were two red pulsing sores and his mood swings were rapid and unpredictable. He flew into a rage at the slightest provocation.”
That some critics believe Peckinpah sided with the savage men of the town, and the savage unleashed in passive David seems too simplistic – that he was picking sides and not, perhaps, addressing problems within himself. Pauline Kael famously called it “the first American film that is a fascist work of art.” (Peckinpah was incensed by this review). The director likely viewed himself as both type of man, which, by film end, David is. The film is hard to wrap one’s mind around, or place tidily in a box (just as A Clockwork Orange, also released that year, was and still is) as it confronts the difficult realities of innate savagery – and not for the better of us. But not for any better or for worse – that Peckinpah is observing it’s there and in David’s eventual circumstances, he’s going to unleash (for protection, but also for satisfaction). Even as the brilliantly choreographed siege (arriving from even more violent/sexual hysteria) which takes over the final third act of the movie, is as exciting as hell, it also underscores how fucking unfair everything in this movie (and life) is.
The emotionally disturbed (or simple, one might say) Henry Niles (David Warner) has gone off, quite innocently, with teenager Janice (Sally Thomsett) which enrages her father – the stupid, volatile Tom (Peter Vaughan) – and he rounds up a group of townies, including Amy’s rapists, to find her. Of course they blame Niles who, in an Of Mice and Men-Lenny moment of fear, accidentally chokes Janice to death. Amy and David have left the church party since Amy cannot stand the sight of her rapists, and David hits a fleeing Niles with his car. Taking him home against Amy’s objections (no one in the town trusts Niles), David refuses to release him to the lynch mob outside the house. David finally takes a stand, and not necessarily for his wife – she has turned against him but is now forced to help him because what else can she do when marauders are breaking into her house, ready to kill them? David is sticking up for himself, for his home and for Niles, though Niles seems more a symbol of his rage and pent up frustration, an innocent who inadvertently isn’t innocent (and maybe a savage too, after all he attacks Amy; David slaps him and says, “No,” to him like a misbehaving child). Niles is an enormous organism of confused impulses and guilt, and perhaps, helps David focus his rage to act and think. And David thinks fast when combating such radical violence and horror.
A few critics at the time saw this as implausible and even melodramatic, but to me it’s a vicious fever dream of not just David’s inner barbarian, but of marital discord exploding to bloody bits – every passive aggressive slight, every sexually unfulfilling night, every jealous moment, every moment of feeling lesser, either intellectually or physically, coming to a literal boiling point of hot oil tossed in a rapist’s face. Much like Warren Oates’s Benny channeling his pain and rage and revenge into a flurry of focused madness, driving with that bloodied head in a sack in Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, David must preserve his self-respect, through retribution. But does he? Oates’s Benny has more loving reasons – he’s lost his love to death, and, dammit, “nobody loses all the time,” as he says, but, perhaps through everything, David loses anyway, because there’s nothing romantic about his vengeance. The brilliant Alfredo Garcia, though dark and unsparing, is also romantic, as is The Ballad of Cable Hogue and The Getaway. But David’s just lost his love to … life. To marriage. All pretense is removed as David (and Amy, I think people forget Amy does help David, even if she resists, ready to bolt out the door towards the townies) defend what’s left of themselves against this leering, loathsome, all-impulse, no-thought mob – hypocrites, since they see no connection with their rape of Amy to anything Niles has done.
Amy is just doing what she’s told, we’ve no idea if she’s going to stick around (doubtful she will) as this Frankenstein creature is saved, the child they wrought. The idea that this is a merely anti-liberal, pro-violence movie in which savagery triumphs over passivity seems too easy for such a difficult story with such confused characters in such extraordinary circumstances. As David drives away with Niles, Niles says, “I don’t know my way home.” David, smiling, curiously, remarks, “That’s okay. I don’t either.” Did he find himself through becoming lost? Or is he merely gone? It’s unclear and it should remain unclear. Straw Dogs is overwhelming and, in the end, thought provoking because even through violence, nothing is solved. Nothing is easy. And, like the best Peckinpah, it forces you (and force is the right word) to look within yourself, to ask questions. As Peckinpah said:
“I’m defining my own problems; obviously, I’m up on the screen. In a film, you lay yourself out, whoever you are. The one nice thing is that my own problems seem to involve other people as well. . . . Straw Dogs is about a guy who finds out a few nasty secrets about himself, about his marriage, about where he is, about the world around him . . . It’s about the violence within all of us. The violence which is reflecting on the political condition of the world today. It serves as a cathartic effect.”
“Someone may feel a strange sick exultation at the violence, but he should then ask himself: ‘What is going on in my heart?’”
Sad day. Rest in Peace, Robert Osborne. A big part to my enjoyment and learning while watching classic cinema. A King in the household. So it was a thrill and an honor sitting across from him as a guest programmer for TCM. That day Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was shooting a segment and we were getting hair and makeup at the same time (I was already nervous and in walks legend, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) -- Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was incredibly nice and talked to me about the greatness of Peter Lorre. It was wonderful and seemed like an "only at TCM" kind of moment which Osbourne brought out -- everyone who loved movies wanted to talk to him. When I shot my segment Osborne put me at ease immediately. He was so gracious and funny and charming and, of course, he knew all about the pictures (Jack Garfein's "Something Wild" and John Berry's "He Ran All the Way"), that should go without saying. He knew about everything and his knowledge and enthusiasm was infectious and so truly respected, which is why audiences were in such able hands and loved him so much. Thanks for one of my greatest movie moments, Robert Osborne (I treasure the framed photo TCM sent after my appearance, signed by Osbourne). And thanks for everything you gave to classic cinema.
“What was serious was when critics followed suit. But then they became afraid of appearing old-fashioned by defending the cinéma de papa, as we call it. And they made fun of its French quality, which is there. They didn’t do anything – nothing important, anyway. They never made a Carnival in Flanders, a Grand Illusion, or a Children of Paradise, forgive my saying so. They made ‘intimate’ films with some kind of elevator music – like Truffaut. I’m not criticizing Truffaut, but one day we inaugurated a movie theater in the suburbs where there were two theaters: a Truffaut Theater and a Carné Theater. And we went up on the stage together. Truffaut had dragged my name through the mud, mind you, but I was very honored to have my name together with Truffaut’s. I’m not sure he felt the same way. He said so many nasty things about me . . . Anyway, he had no comment, which was easy to do after ten years. He finished his speech by saying, ‘I’ve made twenty-three movies, and I’d give them all up to have done Children of Paradise.’ What could I say after that? Nothing. He said it in front of three or four hundred people, but it was never written down . . . I am not upset with him anymore. At that time, if I was in a studio . . . and Mr. Godard came in, he said nothing to me, not even hello. It’s almost as if he turned his back on me . . . When they said, ‘At least we can shoot on location, something the old filmmakers couldn’t do’ – they shot on location, fine, but they owe that to the talents of the photochemists and engineers, not to their own”. – Marcel Carné
That deep drum. That wonderfully bottomless sound that opens Marcel Carné’s Children of Paradise – an invocation or a demand. The movie announces itself at once with that dum-dum-dum, almost like a rapping on a door, a door you’re perhaps too intimidated to open but deeply curious to see beyond. You want that door to open, if only in your mind (even as you stare at a screen). It’s the sound of being awoken from a dream, bolting up in bed wide-awake – what is that? Who is there? Were you roused from a pleasant reverie or are you still dreaming? Carné places your eyes, mind and ears in a nocturnal attentiveness with that beating, immediately setting you in bracing dream logic that, paired with a closed curtain, ingeniously positions you as audience member, your eyes gazing at the luminous draperies, still shut, your ears perked up by the processional music turned to lush score which promises something grand, something romantic, surely something beautiful. Open, curtain, we think. What on earth lies behind it? This is a movie, not a play, and these curtains don’t appear playful or Brechtian, they seem a portal to another world. Staring at the screen swathed in curtain, just a curtain, a lovely curtain – it’s a singular sensation – and one you don’t forget. If a movie could possibly make you feel both the disparate sensations of being purely in focus and partially off kilter, and right away, it is the masterpiece Children of Paradise (Les Enfants du Paradis). And then the curtain opens.
Right before it parts upward we read on screen, “Part 1: Boulevard of Crime,” and the opulent instrumentation turns to the music of the Paris street, the organ grinder, the noises of show people. Once it rises we observe a crowded Parisian district circa 1827 in the neighborhood of the “Boulevard du Temple” (called “Boulevard of Crime” not for actual theft and violence, but for the entertainments shown there, melodramas and crime stories). There’s a fellow traversing a tight rope, a strong man lifting barbells, a monkey walking on stilts, horse drawn carriages, dancing girls kicking up their legs, vendors selling wares, and a clown-faced barker beckoning men to a tent featuring a beautiful woman. She will be naked, for what other reason would we spy a gorgeous woman in a tent lest she sport a beard. No beard here, but a bath (“Totally unadorned, naked for all to see!”). After the camera pans through this elaborate, exquisitely crafted set with thousands of extras, and moves towards this tent where another, smaller curtain parts (“Our show is enticing. Audacious! Arousing! For those with eyes that see”) we’re finally presented to the woman who will center the story and who will motivate, inspire, instigate, love, break, reject, bewilder all four men around her – Arletty – as the lovely Garance. She soaks in a tub of water, nude, staring at herself in a mirror as the men stare at her shimmering nakedness, not too much revealed, while we, the viewers, look. Triple vision, not counting the camera, a fourth spectator. We see a vision looking at a vision, and one lit so beautifully we’re uncertain if Arletty is not a young woman, but then, she’s not an old woman either – she’s a woman, and a disarming insouciant woman at that.
Carné (and DOP’s Marc Fossard and Roger Hubert) exit the tent to the crammed street and get to the task of introducing the men of the story, as fluidly and as lyrically as the camera moves – these men are connected to Arletty in varied expressions of desire. Bon vivant womanizer Frédérick Lemaître (Pierre Brasseur) is looking for acting work and after eying Garance, he’s so struck by her beauty that he hustles over to her for a flirtation, all wooing and kissy lips. She smiles back and handles his declarations like the seasoned beauty she is, so used to strangers coming on to her that she can give him her mysterious Mona Lisa smiles and say things like, “I love everyone,” with absolute charm. Another one of her most attractive traits, and one that even supersedes her beauty at times, is that she is just so casually cool about everything around her. And not cold, not even cynical, but bemused, charmed, taking life in with the kind of sophistication that makes her wonderfully unclassifiable, devoid of those stock terms writers and critics and people use towards women – the femme fatale, the hooker with the heart of gold – Garance (and Garance through that glorious creature Arletty specifically) does not fit neatly into any of these appellations, she’s instead, an intriguing person, her own artistic creation, and nobody’s fool.
Garance then moves on to her other admirer (who proudly does not love her, and she does not love him, her “I love everyone” then, seems more, “I love no one,” and that makes life so much easier), Pierre-François Lacenaire (Marcel Herrand). He’s a scrivener and a criminal, who writes letters for others, a dandy with his perfect moustache and curly-cued hair resting at his temples, but a dangerous and hard man with his good looking young accomplice Avril (Fabien Loris) who seems to love him, always at his side. (There’s a lot of sexual fluidity in this picture). After meeting this strangely attractive, debauched rogue, Garance and Lacenaire go back into the bustling streets and stop at mime act in front of the Funambules Theater. Once again, another man is entranced by Garance, this time the white-faced, long-wigged mime, Baptiste Deburau (a brilliant Jean-Louis Barrault) who saves Garance from a pickpocketing charge after she’s unfairly accused of lifting a man’s gold watch (of course Lacenaire actually stole it, and of course he walked away). In a brilliantly shot and acted scene, Baptiste, as Garance’s witness, acts out the crime as it happened to the police, impersonating the large man and the innocent lady to both the crowd and Garance’s delight. The art of mime is elevated here to dance, or a surrealistic depiction of life itself, it is so graceful and lovely and entrancing – a simultaneous emulating and bending of reality. Garance thanks him and throws the young man a flower. He is smitten. But as we’ll see through this first act, he’s so innocent that his feelings are almost too much to bear – that feeling of love, overwhelming love, the kind that makes one almost suffer a mental collapse – makes you worry for poor Baptiste.
The other two men – the womanizer and the cruel dandy – they know their way around women, but Baptiste encompasses all that one feels when one senses their heart losing control. It’s romantic but painful, immediately, that dum-dum-dum of the drum, and that Carné and his screenwriter, frequent collaborator, poet and surrealist, Jacques Prévert, knew how to write and script this sensation so quickly without cheap sentiment or spuriousness, is testament to how powerful their alliance was. Upon introduction, vision to word to wordless description, connects us to these characters. There is not one wobbly moment here, not one scene that feels superfluous or dishonest. And the movie is three hours and ten minutes long. And I’m just discussing the opening.
The picture is indeed vastly epic, packed with scenery and extras and meticulous set decoration (by the genius Alexandre Trauner), and yet it’s so intimate and free… it never feels trapped on set, even with the theater backdrop (in fact, the theater feels like a releasing outlet for life, both mirroring it and expanding upon its truths and mysteries). The emotions here are both so fervent and even, at times, unconcernedly honest, and the characters so lived-in and of-the-world, we never doubt for a second they could exist as living breathing entities in this grand creation. There are choices characters make for self-preservation over love, but they aren’t presented as tragic with a capital T, not straight away, and yet there are tragic consequences because of these choices, consequences that sneak up on you and leaves you devastated.
Garance will eventually set up life (not marriage) with the Count Édouard de Montrayrich (Louis Salou), whom she likes least of any of these men, but who rescues her from yet more illegal shenanigans (attempted robbery and murder) via bad boy Lacenaire and his backup, Avril. She had nothing to do with it, but the world being the way it is, Garance is under scrutiny as a woman, and as the type of woman she is. The cynical Count represents another form of affection or attention lavished on a woman – she is bought, she is arm candy, she is the mistress – a free spirit and intelligent, this is not her favorite arrangement. Garance’s men are representative of options, but also the varied stages of love as well, or acting, how we may act with loved ones. Perhaps one could have a relationship (or marriage) with all of these types, presented in one person at various times: The reckless, though likable lady’s man, the cruel, sexy, scoundrel, the sensitive, wide-eyed lover/artist and the tedious sugar daddy.
The film presents archetypes without being obvious or hackneyed about it, with Garance both sexual object and mother figure. Where will her fate lie? Does this have anything to do with fate? Listening to rat, thief Jericho (Pierre Renoir, brother of Jean), who observes the actions around him and comments, disparagingly and threatening, we wonder if he, as unlikable as he is, represents a kind of fate. Norman Holland put this beautifully in his essential essay on the film, that Jericho, “the moralist himself is corrupt, a spy, an informer, a dealer in stolen goods, as the Vichy bourgeois often were – or as children can feel fathers are. Jéricho is a city of walls, the obstacles that our characters face in the world.”
The curtain closes on Act One with all of Garance’s choices, with the theater as life in all of its ambition and talent and crime and sex and sadness, blurring from artifice to actuality, and Act Two presents us with “The Man in White” (we hear that drum again, this time we’re wide awake). It’s seven years later and Garance doesn’t love the man keeping her, she loves the one she should love, the one who loves her, Baptiste. Will that work out? Since he’s married to the one who loves him, Nathalie (María Casarès) and has now birthed a child (the moment where the child introduces himself as a spy for his mother to Garance is captivatingly sweet)… no. It’s not going to work out. Garance shows up to watch him perform, in secret, veiled, and his immense talent and gentle soul is likely soothing the coarseness of her arrangement. It’s another act of artifice – the veiled lady, hiding behind a mask just as the mime or the actor or the criminal pens secret letters for pretenders. She is sad, but Garance never says she’s simply unhappy, she describes it poignantly, at one point as an artful mechanism, damaged: “I’m not sad, but not cheerful either. A little spring has broken in the music box. The music is the same but the tone is different.”
Meanwhile, Frédérick and Baptiste have become famous in their professions, Baptiste as a mime and Frédérick in the Grand Theater, even as he mocks a play and its authors by turning a melodrama into comedy. Another act that bleeds into life – Frédérick even joins the audience in a seat from the stage, enraging the writers enough to challenge him to a duel. Frédérick knows his audience and he knows himself so much that living and breathing acting inspires him to use his newfound jealousy over Garance and Baptiste to motivate his performance of Othello, a sensible solution to pain. Lacenaire creates his own life as well, fulfilling his earlier statement that his head will wind up in a basket – he murders Garance’s Count. And Baptiste, now an acknowledged artist, resumes his love with Garance, but it’s too late and too complicated. Baptiste chases after her but is famously swallowed up in a crowd, literally engulfed by real life – art, mime, the theater, cannot save him at this moment. It’s a gorgeously shot scene in a movie so beautifully filmed and lit (the silver of the black and white, the swooping observational tracking shots, the loving detail of a staircase or a circus or the streets or a blind man who really isn’t blind, another deception), that the time Carné takes showing Baptiste’s aggrieved face, one that is no longer an innocent, (he’s now hurt others) makes his pain so palpable, both for love and for finally growing up and absorbing the end of love in all of its excruciating and layered heartbreak, is potently expressive . And no one is to simply blamed; no one is simply demonized. Even Lacenaire sits down and awaits his punishment. This is not a movie made by immature, mawkish people. These are makers who have lived life, lived art, and lived through war.
And one cannot discuss how real life and theater, artifice and authenticity intersect in Children of Paradise without mentioning its historic, tumultuous making, during the middle of German occupied France in WWII. Carné cleverly set the film in two parts due to the Vichy authorities requiring a film be no more than 90 minutes long, production was often halted, actor Robert Le Vigan was sentenced to death by the resistance and replaced by Pierre Renoir, set designer Trauner and composer Joseph Kosma, both Jewish, worked secretly during production, and by the time of the premiere, when Paris was liberated, the picture’s star, Arletty, was in prison. Infamously, Arletty had fallen in love with a German Luftwaffe officer and for that she was jailed (in a chateau) for her morally treasonous affair. In response to her controversy, Arletty famously stated these words: “My heart is French but my ass is international.” Spoken like a true Garance.
Carné discussed much of this in a 1990 interview with Brian Stonehill (read it all here) for the Criterion Collection. His thoughts on Arletty, whom he worked with in Hôtel du Nord, Le Jour Se Lève and Les Visiteurs du Soir before this (“She was wonderful.”) and the scandal are intriguing:
“During that period, there were snipers on the roofs of Montmartre, and they went into homes and searched apartments. Anyway, he left, and two days later, I got a phone call from him saying that Arletty had been arrested in his house. A bunch of partisans knocked at his door. My friend, like an idiot, opened the door, and one of the partisans suddenly said, ‘Oh, look at the whore over there! Do you see Arletty over there?’ So they arrested her, took her away; they came close to shaving her head at the station. They never hit her, but they were very lewd toward her, called her all kinds of nasty names and put her under house arrest outside Paris. There, she had to go see some kind of judge on a daily basis. The judge began to fancy her. Every day she went, and he joked around with her. One morning he said, ‘How do you feel this morning, Ms. Arletty?’ She answered, ‘Not very ‘resistant.’”
The picture was an enormous hit, and one of those classics that had become so famous, that some younger filmmakers and critics of the early 1960’s turned against it (particularly André Bazin, Francois Truffaut and others at Cahiers du cinéma), for various reasons. Other poetic realists were still embraced, as they should be, like Jean Renoir or Jean Vigo but Carné was treated by some critics (then, not so much now) as old fashioned, or not an auteur, relying too much on collaboration and, specifically, with his screenwriter, Prévert. (Bazin called him “disincarnated”). The accusation of Carné being set bound to his detriment and/or fussy or not innovative seems unduly unfair, as if his type of artifice and collaboration are a bad thing – absurd. (I’m sure there were other reasons and Truffaut changed his mind) The art and life that stimulated movies like Children of Paradise (and the photography of André Kertész and Brassaï, all part of this rich artistic movement), feel as magnificently authentic and as emotionally honest as Arletty’s beguiling smile, or those Children of Paradise, the poor unwashed up in the cheap seats, laughing and even screaming for their entertainment as they nearly fall into the orchestra pit, or that beating drum introducing the picture’s two parts, calling us to attention, thumping right into our very soul. Time to wake up to live and to dream.
From my piece written for the New Beverly.
“With my own memories to draw upon, you would think would have an easy time of it. But it was very hard for me to relive my girlhood terror and at the same time to transform the reality of my feelings into the role I was acting. In memory, I still looked at my experiences with the eyes and emotions of a girl, but the role demanded that I see them with the eyes of a tortured woman.” – Sophia Loren
The title of Vittorio De Sica’s Two Women sounds so simple. Two women, mother and daughter, who love each other, enduring difficult, terrifying and heartbreaking circumstances. But the simplicity of that potent word: Women is rendered more powerful by the age of the fascinating females – one, the mother, about 35, the other, a pre-teen on the precipice of what comes with being a woman, nearing that lovely but often confusing and vulnerable age of 13. How she becomes a woman is not necessarily how she becomes a woman, it’s how society might view her as she crosses that threshold, it’s what many tell you makes you a woman, but that her choice towards one aspect of womanhood is taken from her, and taken from her violently (and with her mother enduring the same) gives Two Women an extra dose of sadness and, touchingly, strength.
It would have been a bit different, though certainly horrifying, had the movie followed the novel by Alberto Moravio, more to-the-age, and cast its original pondered-upon leads. Moravio, who also wrote the “Il disprezzo” (turned into Jean-Luc Godard’s Contempt) and “Il Conformista” (adapted into Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Conformist), wrote “La Ciociara” featuring a full-grown 18-year-old daughter and a 50-something mother. Most assuredly, these are two women. The book, purchased by producer Carlo Ponti, was originally set for George Cukor to direct with Ponti’s young wife Sophia Loren attached. There was the thought (decision? One never knows what to believe entirely based on various sources of production history) of casting Anna Magnani to star as the mother and Loren as the gorgeous daughter. Wouldn’t that have been something? Cukor left the project and, reportedly, Magnani didn’t want to play Sophia Loren’s mother (though she blamed Ponti for losing the part, citing that Moravio preferred her for the role). De Sica entered the venture with, based on what he’s stated, the clear intention of casting Loren (who won an Oscar for her performance) as the protective mother. Adapting the novel with his frequent and important collaborator Cesare Zavattini (who also wrote De Sica’s most influential, now classic works of neo-realism, Shoeshine, Bicycle Thieves, Miracle in Milan and Umberto D.), the ages were changed – then 25-year-old Loren would play about 35, her daughter (12-year-old Eleonora Brown) would be the young, almost 13-year-old daughter.
Girls grew up faster back then or were required to be adults earlier (though all girls seem to grow up a lot faster than society even realizes), but the age difference was a point to De Sica, for “greater poignancy.” The girl was still a girl. And she’s stated as a girl, a pretty girl, it’s pointed out many times in the picture and by her mother’s adoring eyes, mama showing her off to those not perceived as threatening, laughing and proud. But she’s still a child, and her shielding mother will throw a rock at you if you get too close. De Sica said of the age change: “If in doing this we moved away from original line of Moravia, we had better opportunity to stress, to underline, the monstrous impact of war on people. The historical truth is that the great majority of those raped were young girls.”
That a brutal rape will occur, two, in fact, hangs over the picture with such tension, that even with all the danger of the bombs, soldiers walking the hills, the leering men asking for a bit of leg or the process of surviving with enough bread to eat, the extra terror that comes with being a woman, and two women on their own, follows these characters throughout the movie with a perceptible dread. So much that, at times, Two Women almost feels like a horror film, just as Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring did enough to inspire one (The Last House on the Left, though Bergman’s masterpiece is decidedly sadder and more horrifying). Two Women is famous enough now (still, surprisingly little discussed and less revered within De Sica’s canon) that viewers know what they’re going to see, but the moment nevertheless feels shocking, not surprising necessarily, though it happens so quickly it does take one aback, almost unexpectedly, but devastating, terrifying. The way De Sica and cinematographer Gábor Pogány shoot this dreadful moment (the movie is beautifully shot in black and white), how swiftly these women are surrounded, the multiple points of view, the setting in a church), never fails to distress me. It leaves a mark.
That the horror occurs when they believe they may be safe, when the war is ending or supposedly over, punctuates how terrible life can be. Indeed, that this mother and daughter have been struggling through the entire movie to be safe, makes this all the more angering over what they must suffer. Loren’s young widow Cesira, a shopkeeper during WWII Rome, leaves the city with her 12-year-old daughter, Rosetta (Brown), to protect her. Enough! The young mother can’t stand the constant fear, the Allied bomb blasts, causing Rosetta to quake and cry. In a stunning, intriguingly shot seduction scene with the married Giovanni, one that at first feels dangerous to Cesira (“Did you hurt yourself?” he asks) and then erotic and interesting (“You didn’t kill me” she says), Cesira sleeps with the lusty man before leaving. Cesira might love him, she’s sad to wave goodbye on the train, she’s happy to receive his letters, but she also needs him to look after the store – the act is both sexual and sensible – and not for one moment does De Sica judge her for this. She heads out for native Ciociaria, up in the mountains, back with the peasants, teaching little Rosetta how to walk with a suitcase on her head the way regular folk do.
They’re vulnerable out there alone, but they laugh and talk and Cesira seems strong – protective. Before, Giovani (Raf Vallone who in real life served with the Communist resistance in World War II) asked Cesira why she married a man she didn’t love; she asserts she didn’t like being poor. “I married Rome,” she says. But returning to her roots doesn’t make Cesira overly proud, she knows where she came from, and she listens to the young intellectual Michele (Jean-Paul Belmondo) talk of how the peasants are superior to city dwellers these days (“They are the evil ones”). Michele, whom we grow to love, and who loves Cesira (she thinks he’s too young, Rosetta adores him) is the overtly political voice of the movie, overjoyed when learning Mussolini has been jailed, angered by anyone’s apathy or willing to take whatever happens at least if the war just ends, but sympathetic and sweet to his family. Still, he says, “If the Germans win I will kill myself.”
It is with Michele that Cesira witnesses one of the film’s saddest, most disturbing moments: they enter a war-torn village seeking food and come across a dazed woman, still young, and in an interminable state of grief. Before realizing how stricken the woman is, Cesira inquires where she can buy food. “Some fruit? Some honey? Little sugar?” The woman looks at the two curiously, and then tells how she was shot at by Germans, making a desperate, dismaying sound of shooting guns. She then opens her dress and pulls out one of her bare breasts. She says: ‘”You can have this milk if you like. I don’t need it anymore. What for? They killed my baby. Who do I give it to? You want it?” Michele but mostly Cesira backs away horrified as the woman starts exclaiming to anyone who will listen among the rubble: “Who wants milk? Who wants my milk?” The merging of broken motherhood with a potential sexual plea, a selling of her body, even if she means her breast for sustenance (the men and soldiers she’ll meet along the way will likely not look at her breasts for food) is surely too heartbreaking for Cesira to even think about, her healthy maternal bond with daughter is everything to her. The ravaging of motherhood, that it means anything to anyone during wartime, works as a portent of things to come. And it’s heartbreaking.
Cesira can’t possible want to remember that moment. Her sexuality and motherhood is healthy. She knows men desire her, she even likes the attention at times, she knows Michele yearns for her, but she’s more interested in taking care of her daughter. Love will come later. Now, it’s survival and watching her daughter grow up into a beautiful woman with eyes “like stars.” I’ve red some criticism that Loren was too beautiful, too sexy, for this role. That it went against De Sica’s neo-realistic way of inverting glamor – through artifice – like the stark contrast of the lush, but paper Rita Hayworth posters plastered up among the poverty stricken of Bicycle Thieves. Juxtaposed against such dire conditions, lovely Rita is an unattainable absurdity. But I disagree that Loren would at all mirror paper Rita, or that late De Sica (this was 1960, after his masterpieces Bicycle Thieves and Umberto D. employed not only non movie stars, but non actors) was resting on her glamour.
I think her sexiness, not glamour, but her beauty and eroticism – the way Loren can simply recline on the grass with the knowledge of how enticing she must look, but at other times, have no idea or concern with what men want – shows both how self aware and selfless Cesira is. She was a peasant, yes, but why would a peasant not be beautiful? Or even as beautiful as a movie star? Young girl Loren did not begin as a movie star. We all start somewhere. According to Loren’s biographer Warren G. Harris, De Sica told Loren, “You have actually lived this story yourself, Sophia. You survived the war. You know all there is to know about it. If you can become this woman, without any thought as to how you look, without trying to restrain your emotions, letting everything flow into this character, I guarantee that you will give a wonderful interpretation of it.”
And she does. By the time the rape occurs, we’ve grown to love and admire both mother and daughter, feel warmth and compassion, and we worry for Michele who is taken away by German soldiers. As the war nears its end, mother and daughter feel safe to return to Rome, even amidst the chaos of soldiers and deserters and god knows what else. As vulnerable as they are, they walk along and decide to rest in a church. The bombed-out church is clearly symbolic – this will not be a place of worship, nor of sanctuary nor of peace. Earlier in the film Cesira asks Michele: “Isn’t there some safe place in the world?” He answers: “You can’t escape. And it’s better so.” Perhaps better so because you must know everywhere is dangerous – even a church. Cesira finds some old pews and dusts them off for her and Rosetta to nap on. Rosetta, about to sleep, gazes up at the busted ceiling, her face looking momentarily worried, eyeing such a strange sight. Cesira readies for her nap but spies a man in the room and quickly wakes Rosetta to leave. It’s too late. They are ambushed by a group of men, running and scurrying like cockroaches. The overhead shot is horrifying – we know there’s no way they’ll possibly get away. Gang raped by Moroccan soldiers of the French Army, we see from different perspectives, daughter screaming, mother screaming, and the daughter’s face, close up, eyes wide, in shock, penetrated. De Sica films this so quickly, but with lasting impact, and with such chaos and disjointed intensity that it never leaves you. You can see that Rosetta’s face has literally died inside. After the brutal attack, mother and daughter are alive, but Cesira turns to see Rosetta, a shaft of light from the broken roof shining down on her, dress raised up. She is lifeless, like a doll. They must move along, even after this horrific attack, and walking along the road, Rosetta clutches near her pelvis in pain, wanders to a stream to wash her delicate areas. You just didn’t see scenes like this in movies at that time – the after affects of rape – and De Sica films this unflinchingly but with empathy.
And this is where the other woman comes in. Rosetta is now numb, but out of anger or ingrained cultural expectations, or just shock, she later that evening goes out with a man who buys her stockings. Like a woman. This enrages her mother, worried the act has now thrust her daughter into adulthood too quickly, or that she’ll become a whore (which the movie would never judge), or perhaps that Rosetta will never enjoy love or sex or men in a healthy way. The only thing that finally breaks Rosetta’s traumatized spell is hearing of the death of Michele, and mother and daughter are now nearly in the same position as when the picture started – holding each other, crying, bonding. One could read this as some kind of happy ending, that maternal order is restored even in tragedy, but I tend to agree with French critic André Bazin’s assessment of De Sica; how one can read his pictures. He’s discussing movies like Bicycle Thieves and Umberto D. but I believe Bazin’s thoughts fit in quite well with Two Women:
“It would be a mistake to believe that the love De Sica bears for man, and forces us to bear witness to, is a form of optimism. If no one is really bad, if face to face with each individual human being we are forced to drop our accusation as was Ricci when he caught up with the thief, we are obliged to say ‘that the evil which undeniably does exist in the world is elsewhere that in the heart of man, that it is somewhere in the order of things… De Sica protests the comparison that has been made between Bicycle Thieves and the works of Kafka on the grounds that his hero’s alienation is social and not metaphysical. True enough, but Kafka’s motifs are no less valid if one accepts them as allegories of social alienation, and one does not have to believe in a cruel God to feel the guilt of which Joseph K. is culpable. On the contrary, the drama lies in this: God does not exist, the last office in the castle is empty.”
Or, again, as Cesira asked Michele, “Isn’t there some safe place in the world?”
Out now! My essay in the newest Ed Brubaker "Kill Or Be Killed" # 6 all about the 1962 "Naked City" episode starring Rip Torn & Tuesday Weld. Art by the great Sean Phillips. Order here.
Young and beautiful oddballs Tuesday Weld and Rip Torn -- together -- in sickness and in health. Underscore sickness. Madly in love, madly in lust, the actors play two recently married, demented hillbillies in heat like ardent caterwauling kitties -- cute as hell but dangerous to disrupt lest you’d like your eyeball torn out of your socket. Gorgeous, wild-eyed sociopaths driving down from the hills of Arkansas and into the mean streets of New York City, they yell about traffic, argue over dolls, fix their sites on wedding rings, grab guns and gobble frog legs cooked up by Torn in their dingy motel room. After child bride Tuesday playfully antagonizes Rip, laughing and hitting him with a pillow, they fall to the bed in a haze of pillow feathers, picking feather from hair, lip and eyelash...
Read the whole savage thing ... pick it up here.
From my interview with the late, great Tony Scott in 2006:
KM: This question is asked so often and hard to answer, but I am curious: Do you have a favorite film?
TS: “True Romance.” I love all my films but “True Romance” was the best screenplay I ever had. And all that was Quentin. It was so well crafted. But I did change the end. Originally in Quentin’s version [Christian Slater dies] and Patricia [Arquette] pulls over on the freeway and she puts a gun in her mouth [she doesn’t die]. I shot the film in continuity, so by the time I got to the end of shooting the movie, I had fallen in love with the two characters. It was a love story. I wanted these characters to live!
There’s a scene early in True Romance in which Patricia Arquette’s call girl Alabama (not “a whore, there’s a difference!” she insists), is so full of love and feeling and guilt, that I’m always (I mean, like every time I watch it) taken aback with emotion. She’s just so moving, so sure to prove her ability to “come clean” that you want to reassure her it’s all going to be OK. And when you first see the movie, you’re a bit worried for her. How will he (Christian Slater’s Clarence) react? Is he going to be angry with her? It’s a moment of truth where a macho ego might lash out at a woman who’s just pretended attraction, romance and compatibility (though she’s not pretending, she realizes, to her delight and fear). It’s also the kind of scene many critics take for granted because, well, it occurs in what would be termed a pulpy action movie. A brilliant pulpy action movie and now a classic and an influential one, notable for the excellence of Quentin Tarantino’s screenplay, but not a movie in which people win Oscars (but of course they should – listing and discussing all of the exceptional, oddball, sometimes brilliant performances in this movie could fill a book).
And though True Romance (directed by Tony Scott) is a lot more than action, and was certainly praised, and Arquette did indeed receive kudos by many, still, within confining categories, her skill of showing such complex feeling in the picture is not recognized enough. Not in the way, again, an Oscar-seeking performance with a big “important” speech would be praised. Well, Alabama hasa big, important speech because she’s a young woman in a seedy, dangerous profession (lord knows how she got there) and now she’s overwhelmed with a passionate purity of feeling – love. And that’s terrifying. She also wants Clarence to know she’s not a habitual liar or “damaged goods” or a bad person after revealing to him that their dream date was actually paid for by his boss. How will he react? Refreshingly and wonderfully (it feels so progressive watching it today), he’s not mad:
Alabama: I gotta tell you something else. When you said last night – was one of the best times you ever had – did you mean physically?
Clarence: Well, yeah. Yeah, but I’m talking about the whole night. I mean, I never had as much fun with a girl as I had with you in my whole life. It’s true. You like Elvis. You like Janis. You like kung fu movies. You like The Partridge Family. Star Trek…
Alabama: Actually, I don’t like The Partridge Family. That was part of the act. Clarence, and I feel really goofy saying this after only knowing you one night and me being a call girl and all, but… I think I love you.
It takes a great actress and a clever, expressive screenplay to balance all of those feelings with such romance, fun and sadness (what has Alabama been through before that?) and Arquette’s angst and relief that Clarence isn’t going to haul off and smack her is so palpable, the viewer buys her insta-love without a doubt. And you buy his love towards her, and not just for her blonde hair and big boobs. The girl’s got heart, as James Gandolfini says as he beats the shit out of her (I’ll get to that other powerful Arquette moment later). “I think I love you.” Hey, that’s the best Partridge Family song (she may not even know that since she doesn’t even like them). But, boom! They are married.
Their swoony beginning seems too good to be true but their chemistry cannot be denied – it’s real. But their future? That’s where the fairy tale is amped up and enters, not just mythic Bonnie and Clyde terrain but the world of the Brothers Grimm or L. Frank Baum – Oz with bullets, cops and mobsters as flying monkeys. Detroit is not Kansas but neither is Hollywood and so their love, writ large, the kind that makes a person crazy and brave and stupid, mirrors the fantastical dominion they’re driving into. And Clarence is nobly stupid at first. Or perhaps he’s nobly stupid throughout the entire movie – he’s clever and cool and even admits he’s an amateur – but he’s as lucky as fuck. Thinking he’s nabbing Alabama’s clothes but is, in fact, actually stealing a suitcase full of cocaine from her Big Bad Wolf pimp (the hilariously, terrifying thinks-he’s-black Gary Oldman), and then kills him, Clarence figures they can sell the goods in L.A. and escape their lives, forever.
And then all… of … this: He says goodbye to his comic book store job, his papa ex-cop (a moving Dennis Hopper, whose Sicilian speech with consigliere Christopher Walken is now famous), drives off with Alabama in his beat-up classic Cadillac, meets up with his L.A. actor pal with a stoned roommate (Michael Rapaport and a scene-stealing Brad Pitt), gets in contact with a Hollywood producer (Saul Rubinek) and his nervous actor/assistant (Bronson Pinchot) and… the insanity begins. Actually, the craziness started back with Oldman, Walken and Hopper, but Clarence and Alabama aren’t entirely aware of all of the layers and levels and twists and turns that are and will happen, culminating in a showdown at the Ambassador Hotel – cops, bodyguards and mobsters in a Mexican standoff. This is one hell of a story – so vividly written, so smart and hilarious, so violent and nuts, that yes – this is how love can feel too.
It all winds together and explodes in an exhilarating, surrealistic swirl through the unabashedly entertaining, hyped-up and artful direction of the late, great Tony Scott and a poetic, perfecto Tarantino. As I said, I see it as part fairy tale, but also part splashy Hollywood satire about movie people who pile in the coke while making pulpy war pictures, and struggling actors audition for “T.J. Hooker” while their lovable loafer roommates recline on the couch all day, smoking out of honey bear bongs. With that in mind (and if you live in Los Angeles) it’s not even that unrealistic. Like Mulholland Dr. and The Big Lebowski after it, you’ll recognize this Los Angeles on those days when the air feels chemically off – and all of this heightened chaos and absurdity crashes down on you. (I know some of you readers know exactly what I’m talking about) Tom Sizemore screaming/directing Bronson Pinchot’s Elliot, a now wired-up narc with, “You’re an actor. Act, motherfucker!” is a sublime metaphor of how on edge “talent” feels in this town.
Clarence’s negotiations with the coke-buying producer resonates for multiple reasons. Is Clarence ass-kissing to get the deal done like every Hollywood jerk? Yes. But, no, he’s not. He’s genuinely sincere in his admiration of the producer’s movies. Even his guide, the ghost of Elvis Presley (Val Kilmer, post Lizard King) in a bit of sublime fantasia during which the movie again, recollects the dream of Oz – Elvis as Glenda the Good Witch – reassures him he’s not being an asshole. And Clarence, the Sonny Chiba-loving movie fan, talks to the producer almost as if he’s talking about the real-life film he’s currently found himself in:
“You know, most of these movies that win a lot of Oscars, I can’t stand them. They’re all safe, geriatric coffee-table dogshit… All those assholes make are unwatchable movies from unreadable books. Mad Max, that’s a movie. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, that’s a movie. Rio Bravo, that’s a movie. And Coming Home in a Body Bag, that was a fuckin’ movie.”
And Tony Scott well understood that speech. Scott, who mysteriously, tragically took his own life in 2012, was a popular but supremely underrated director (among critics), one who was often accused of being a lot of flash and crass. He certainly indulged action, sex, explosions and quick cutting (fantastically in many pictures, from The Hunger to The Last Boy Scout to Man on Fire to Unstoppable), but he had wit and intelligence, a dark view of the world met with a smile. His films could be brutal, but they never lacked humanity.
He told me in a 2006 interview: “I have no regrets. I love the fact that people will continue to employ me and pay me to do what I want to do, which is attempt another world. That’s what so great even about this. I get the opportunity to do new things. I get the chance to do the research, educate myself and I get the chance in… touching this word.”
“Attempt another world” and “touching this world” – what a beautiful way to explain his artistry and love. And he as he expressed to me and others, he loved True Romance – he loved Tarantino’s superlative script and he loved all of those brilliant performances. You can feel it in every inch of the movie, right down to the smallest roles. From Oldman to Pitt to Samuel L. Jackson to, of course, James Gandolfini. Which brings me back to Arquette as Alabama and her showdown with Gandolfini’s hitman. It’s a painfully violent, terrifying scene, and Scott and Tarantino spare Alabama no comfort – but they also don’t exploit or condescend to her. Her ferocity in fighting back, her loyalty to Clarence, even the way she breathes and lunges and screams, blood dripping down her face, smiling in his face, middle finger extended high, fills the viewer with a range of emotions, much like her angst-filled confession of love on the rooftop. She’s surviving, and it’s bloody as hell, but it’s supremely moving. When I asked Scott about this scene, he was thrilled by my admiration, stating it was “multi-layered in terms of charm, humor and violence at the extreme. Patricia is unique,” he said. “She’s got this angelic childlike quality yet, she’s got this strangeness.”
Indeed she does. And her sweetness and strangeness match the picture’s pulpy lyricism. When composer Hans Zimmer’s Badlands homage chimes in, at both beginning and end, and Arquette’s loving, haunting narration is heard, an ode to Sissy Spacek, you feel a wistfulness that, though a cinematic hat tip, belongs to Clarence and Alabama as well. They’ve earned that music. And after all the guns and coke and blood and Hollywood craziness, it leaves one with a feeling that bad times are behind you, and hopefully love is in front of you (though one can never be sure). Alabama watches Clarence run on the beach with their child in a final scene that looks like a dream from heaven – as if their character’s never made it out alive, and Clarence really, truly got to meet Elvis. But they do make it out alive. It’s a movie. And, as Scott would say, they’re attempting “another world.”
From my piece on Paper Moon for the New Beverly
“There was a part in the script and I asked my dad to help me with it, I was still learning to read… and it said that I had to say: ‘I love you’ to him in the movie… And I looked at him and said, ‘I can’t say that! They don’t want me to say that! Why would I say that?’ I wasn’t the kind of kid who went around saying ‘I love you’ to many people, or at least to my dad. I mean, which little girl wants to say ‘I love you’ to their dad? Well, at least this kid didn’t. But anyway, they cut it. And so you’ll see that I never do say that in the movie.” – Tatum O’Neal, 2011
“Tatum has lived more than any 10 people three times her age. I want the best for Tatum, because she has lived through the worst.” – Ryan O’Neal, 1974
Tatum O’ Neal’s nine-year-old face in Paper Moon is the face of thousands of little girls, pissed off at their broken families and their absent dads. It’s a tough little face that’s resilient and smart, because in the movie, life has made her grow up fast (her mother just died, she’s gonna be sour), and it’s a lonely face, yearning for her dad to at least reveal himself. And yearning for him to stick around, not so she can simply hug him and blubber in his arms, but so she can yell at him. Yell at that son of a bitch! Where the hell have you been? Oh, and I want my 200 dollars!
In the movie, we never do truly learn if O’Neal’s daddy, played by her real-life daddy, Ryan O’Neal, is indeed her pops, but they got the same jaw. And they both have a talent for grifting. And she’s so good at trickery that her talent mirrors Tatum’s first-time acting ability – she’s a goddamn natural. Director Peter Bogdanovich (on the advice of his brilliant production designer and ex-wife Polly Platt) was canny and perceptive enough to cast the O’Neals: already wizened tomboy Tatum and her divorced, weekend father (who didn’t see her enough weekends) who were working through their relationship in real life. As Ryan O’Neal said in a 2011 interview alongside Tatum, “I was separated from her mother. So I only knew her on the weekends… But we had good weekends together, really good weekends. I thought that maybe if Tatum and I worked on this picture, it might seal our doom, or our bond. One or the other.”
Doom? That is some tough stuff (read Tatum’s autobiography “A Paper Life” if you want to dig further into this and her entire, tumultuous life). But they are so perfect together, that Tatum, not Ryan, as great as he can be under the right director utilizing his specific talents (see my piece onStanley Kubrick and Barry Lyndon), is the one who lifts him up to a higher level here. This is one of his greatest performances. I don’t care if she was reportedly a pain in the ass on the set. She was a child. And she breaks through the screen with such charm and charisma and the camera loves her so much that it’s like what Billy Wilder said of working with the brilliant Marilyn Monroe: “She was a pain in the ass. My Aunt Millie is a nice lady. If she were in pictures she would always be on time. She would know her lines. She would be nice. Why does everyone in Hollywood want to work with Marilyn Monroe and no one wants to work with my Aunt Millie? Because no one will go to the movies to watch my Aunt Millie.” Exactly. And viewers and critics liked watching Tatum so much that she won an Oscar for it. Striding on stage in her little man’s tuxedo with bow tie and short hair (GODDDESS), she not only deserved that gold statue but she gave a fantastically brief, no-bullshit speech that adults should learn from: “All I really want to thank is my director, Peter Bogdanovich, and my father. Thank you.”
All of these thoughts flicker across Tatum’s face, even when she’s not speaking her mind (which is a lot), but in beautiful little moments – like when she’s all Leo Gorcey-tough guy, sullenly smoking in bed, or posing pretend ladylike in the mirror, or smiling to herself in the car after getting the better of Moses. There’s many sequences in the movie so expertly shot by Bogdanovich that not only show Addie’s sharp little mind at work (her scheming with Trixie’s put-upon maid, Imogene, played by a terrific P.J. Johnson is hilarious, impressive and genuinely moving for the fate of Imogene too), but the stand-out is an uninterrupted argument between Tatum and Ryan in the car. The amount of dialogue, the comic timing, the way the disagreements flow from “But they’re poorly!” to “Frank D. Roosevelt” to complicated directions on a map, is so expertly handled by Tatum and Ryan, that you’re left a little breathless by it all. These two were made for each other. And that makes these deceptively light moments extra poignant.
Also adding emotional complexity is the gorgeous, effective deep focus black and white cinematography by László Kovács – it isn’t handled in some self consciously old-timey manner. The stark landscape and Dorothea Lange-looking faces have been compared to Bogdanovich’s hero, John Ford, and specifically his work with Gregg Toland on The Grapes of Wrath. And you certainly see and feel that in this picture, but it also achieves a modern European look as well. But then, maybe it’s just a Bogdanovich “look” and I shouldn’t label it as anything else. For as much as Bogdanovich lovingly harkened back to the past with Paper Moon andThe Last Picture Show, he wasn’t merely aping it, or reveling in nostalgia – as touching and as gentle as those pictures are, there is a harder edge to these movies. These were not the “good old days” because Bogdanovich was not only old enough to know better, but he was enough of a film historian to know that old movies never thought the days were so great either. Again, 1940’s The Grapes or Wrath is indicative of this, as well as plenty of pre-code pictures from the 1930s (and how about the 1950s and Elia Kazan and… I could go on an on). Paper Moon is a sweet road movie but it’s also very sad. And timeless – fathers and daughters (and surrogate fathers and daughters) will have strained relationships until the end of time.
And Bogdanovich trusts his actors to know this. With the O’Neals especially, he trusts their own real life bumping up against the written word. And they know it too. And they and Bogdanovich know that the future is a mystery. Taking the time to look at their faces and wonder whatelse they’re thinking, or what is down the road or around a corner adds an extra visually potent unknowability about what will happen to these two. When Addie arrives at her Aunt’s house at the end, it’s a nice house, and yet there’s something incredibly depressing about the place. In spite of what any sensible person would say, you want Addie to leave it, and to go back on the road with Moses. And you want her to get that 200 dollars. And you want Moses to be her dad. Who knows if that’s the happy ending?
From my piece written for the New Beverly
“Then she crept into my waiting arms, radiant, relaxed, caressing me with her tender, mysterious, impure, indifferent, twilight eyes – for all the world, like the cheapest of cheap cuties. For that is what nymphets imitate – while we moan and die.” – Vladimir Nabokov
Adrian Lyne’s Lolita? At the time, the very thought made certain cinéastes and academics shudder. How could the “vulgar” white-gauzy-sex director of Fatal Attraction, Flashdance and Indecent Proposal ever think he could match the brilliance of Stanley Kubrick’s 1962 tragi-comic adaptation? And one starring a Dolores Haze (our great teenage wonder of cinema – Sue Lyon) whom Nabokov himself approved of? Furthermore, could Lyne even touch the poetic resonance, the linguistic ingenuity, the slyly sad and humorous pedophilic venerations of Humbert Humbert from Vladimir Nabokov’s magnificent novel? One of the greatest novels ever written (says this writer, and many others). How could Lyne cover Lolita without getting all 9 ½ Weeks on us? Sadomasochistic role-playing and erotic food-feeding next to an open refrigerator, copious milk guzzling, white cream sliding all over Kim Basinger’s pillowy lips? Basinger is a grown woman. She can guzzle milk and let it run down her face like metaphoric sperm. But a young teenager? Well, a fridge does happen in Lolita: the girl alone at night, spied on by an older man as she enjoys a midnight snack next to the open ice box, eating raspberries from each hand and sucking them off of her fingertips. Lyne likes a good fridge scene.
That young teenager and older man are lovely, scary, heartbreaking, sardonic and powerfully perverse through the written word (a captivating and gorgeously written novel), and were handled with wit, sadness and irony in Kubrick, but with Lyne? At the time, naysayers likely shook their heads or rolled their eyes and, in the case of freaked-out censors attempting to quash its release, wagged their fingers. But both were asking, albeit for different reasons: where does this Adrian Lyne get off?
Getting off is an appropriate/inappropriate question. Given that the film’s controversial source material – a pedophile (technically, an ephebophile) who falls in love with and beds a 14-year-old “nymphet” was such a taboo tale, surely to be made more titillating through imagery, and during a time (1997, when the picture was released), when people were arguing over the photography and, in some cases banning the work of the great Sally Mann or Jock Sturges, eyebrows were raised the moment filming was announced, no matter who the director was (though Lyne had directed the great 1980 teen film Foxes, with a casually Humbert-like character in Randy Quaid). Brooke Shields’ Pretty Baby beauty would not be tolerated or acceptable to admit as sexy then or now (check out Shields’ “The Brooke Book” from 1978 – much collectable now, probably by many creeps), and yet, teenagers and men were ogling 16-year-old Britney Spears a year later dancing in her Catholic school girl uniform to “Baby One More Time.”
But here’s what Lyne did – he made a visually stimulating portrait, a heartbreaking work of lyricism highlighted by two sensitive, provocative performances by Jeremy Irons and Domique Swain (aided by an exquisite, heart-aching score by Ennio Morricone). Yes, the movie lacked the more trenchant humor of both Nabokov and Kubrick (who brilliantly amped it up to metaphorical levels with Peter Sellers’ Claire Quilty as a hilarious, bedeviling double of Humbert), but Lyne’s Lolita was still indeed funny, though subtly so. And Lyne went directly to the tragedy and the romanticism, which felt even creepier, but in the way that it should. He also made Irons’ Humbert watch Lolita, and really watch her, eroticize her, yearn for her. Constantly. In Kubrick’s introduction to Lo, Shelley Winters as mama pronounces that bulls-eye double entendre with “My cherry pies” as Sue Lyon, clad in a bikini, gives James Mason’s Hum-Baby an alluring look-see, Nelson Riddle’s “Lolita Ya Ya” taunting him. She seems to know her power in the moment and what that dirty old man Mason is thinking (read my essay on Kubrick’s Lolita for more on this).
In Lyne’s introduction, Lolita lies in the backyard grass in her own world, looking at pictures of movie stars, a sprinkler spraying near her white, wet dress, which clings to her young body like a perfected David Hamilton image (considering the charges against the now dead Hamilton, this seems even more disturbing a comparison). She looks up at him and smiles, retainer in her teeth. She doesn’t appear to know what he’s thinking; she looks like a pretty adolescent placed in a haltingly erotic composition through the lens of Lyne (and cinematographer Howard Atherton). She will soon know what he’s thinking, but at that moment she’s just relaxing in the grass, and Humbert just stares. He utters the word “beautiful” to her mother’s admiration of her “lilies” (beautiful is obviously meant for another lily), and again, he stares. And stares. You wish he’d stop. But you can’t stop staring at him staring. This is from his point of view and the movie makes no bones or excuses about it. All that discussion of the male gaze, as if females don’t gaze in similar ways (we do), this is a male gaze movie by a man with a problem. And that’s part of the point.
But we also get to understand and see Lolita, her humor, her rambunctious energy, her sexual curiosity, her power, her innocence and the consequences of losing her “innocence,” and we eventually see her pain. After a later sexual encounter with Humbert, she places two pillows over her head and begins to cry. She’s confused. What did she do this time, even if she did it another time? I can think of many girls who will understand this confusing moment very deeply. You feel for her and you loathe Humbert at that moment. And you root for Lolita when she either irritates Humbert or screams at him (“Murder me like you murdered my mother!”) There’s much pleasure in watching Swain’s Lolita drive Humbert to such angry annoyance (he wanted a teenager, he’s got one). In Lyne’s version, it well matches Nabokov’s novel:
“Lolita, when she chose, could be a most exasperating brat. I was not really quite prepared for her fits of disorganized boredom, intense and vehement griping, her sprawling, droopy, dopey-eyed style, and what is called goofing off – a kind of diffused clowning which she thought was tough in a boyish hoodlum way. Mentally, I found her to be a disgustingly conventional little girl. Sweet hot jazz, square dancing, gooey fudge sundaes, musicals, movie magazines and so forth – these were the obvious items in her list of beloved things. The Lord knows how many nickels I fed to the gorgeous music boxes that came with every meal we had.”
So, even as eloquent as Humbert speaks and writes, we occasionally tire of his utterances of such dramatic proportions that they play sick, ridiculous and romantic all at once. As Irons narrates: “Gentlewomen of the jury. If my happiness could’ve talked, it would have filled that hotel with a deafening roar. My only regret is that I did not immediately deposit key number 342 at the office and leave the town, the country, the planet, that very night.”
He’s talking about the doom of Quilty (Frank Langella), who shows up at the hotel Humbert and Lo are staying after her mother, Charlotte (Melanie Griffith – serviceable – no Shelley Winters), dies. Unlike Peter Sellers impersonating a police officer (and various other characters), Langella’s Quilty is like an elegant devil, saying things Humbert thinks he’s hearing, but is not (or is he?). He’s maddening. And he’s sinister. If Sellers was the vulgarian double, Langella is the predatory evil double in a proper suit, the black pit of jealousy, the voices and scenes one hears and envisions in one’s head while imagining their lover embraced by a man turned demon-man. Both men Humbert would not dare consider himself to be (Sellers or Langella), but in a part of himself (indeed many men)…. he is. That soils his romanticism and riddles with the darker recesses of his conscience. He loves Lolita. This is a love story. This is not obscene!
The movie begins with the famous words: “She was ‘Lo’, plain ‘Lo’ in the morning standing four-feet-ten in one sock. She was ‘Lola’ in slacks; she was ‘Dolly’ at school. She was ‘Dolores’ on the dotted line. In my arms she was always Lolita. Light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lolita.” And continues with the point of his obsession, “But there might have been no Lolita at all had I not first met Annabel. We were both fourteen. Whatever happens to a boy during the summer he’s fourteen can mark him for life.” You see, the refined, intelligent and attractive Humbert, a professor of French literature who is so consumed by his sweetheart Annabel dying when he was 13, has maintained a fixation for pubescent girls. And, so, he has remained a frustrated and romantically empty man, even if he’s had his moments. In the novel, Humbert states:
“Overtly, I had so-called normal relationships with a number of terrestrial women having pumpkins or pears for breasts… I was consumed by a hell furnace of localized lust for every passing nymphet whom as a law-abiding poltroon I never dared approach. The human females I was allowed to wield were but palliative agents. I am ready to believe that the sensations I derived from natural fornication were much the same as those known to normal big males consorting with their normal big mates in that routine rhythm which shakes the world.”
But, then, that fateful day in a quiet New England town, 1947 (Lyne’s movie, closer to the novel, places it back in the 1940s), where Humbert has taken a teaching job at the local university, he, again, spies Lolita on the grass and falls instantly in love with 14-year-old Dolores Haze. While Lolita’s mother, Charlotte (Griffith) romantically pursues her boarder, Humbert preys on, and in his mind, slyly courts his Lolita. Though eye-catching, she is a typical adolescent: mouthy, cute and flirtatious. But to Humbert she is so much more – she becomes his daughter, his orphan, his lover, his traveling companion and his downfall. Lyne’s quiet, alluring and disturbing direction maintains the claustrophobic feel of Humbert’s fate with a soft chokehold that is not necessarily exploitative but rather, fearlessly, complexly erotic (I’m sure people will disagree with me) or, at times, grossly obvious. With sensitivity, style and soul, Lyne slowly strangles both protagonists to a heartbreaking, cathartic submission that, as Nabokov intended, could only lead to doom.
Judging neither character as simply saint or sinner, Lyne’s Lolita will displease both those who are quick to condemn any depiction of this union (statutory rape) and those yearning for pornography. While the film presents images that have become, in most cultures, standard turn-ons for barely legal porn, or fashion or video imagery, or for women who think merely holding a copy of “Lolita” is “sexy”: white socks on young, awkward legs and illicit sexual activity between young and old, it’s not simply getting off on those details, it’s putting them all out there, yes, but you have to think about that fetish while watching it. Particularly because Lyne shows (very carefully filmed when you study the picture’s production history) Humbert and Lo consummating what is often a role-playing fantasy. And you do think about the girl on the other end of it (I do). As a result, it is haunting, horribly sad and sometimes sickening.
Though Lyne triumphs with his picture (it’s one of his best, and this is from a writer who likes Lyne, even his supposed trash), writer Stephen Schiff’s screenplay is potently mournful, a perfect pairing with Lyne’s moody imagery. And Lolita’s stars – Irons and Swain – their understanding and intelligence, no writing or photography could have made the picture as powerful as it is without them. They carry the film. Not a stranger to deviants, Irons (and his eyes, his voice, that voice) plays Humbert as a handsome, helpless, depraved and, at times, a sympathetic character. But he’s also the quintessence of tormented compulsion. And he works wonderfully off Swain, who is an ideal Lolita. Though lovely, she resembles Nabokov’s depiction of a girl whom Humbert views a semi-vulgar adolescent with those “certain mysterious characteristics, the fey grace, the elusive, shifty, soul-shattering, insidious charm that separates the nymphet from such coevals of hers.”
Showing an inventive and well-timed humor as well as an apt understanding of her role and its emotional complexities, Swain is different but equals her predecessor in Kubrick’s picture – the hilarious, sexy-smart Sue Lyon (some critics who admire Lyne’s film think Swain betters Lyon). Swain’s Lolita is a complicated siren/victim. She’s enchanting but exceedingly normal. She uses her wiles to manipulate and control but, much like Lyon, it’s for survival rather than pure sexual teasing. Lolita is aware of her sexuality but not certain of its morality or what that even means (even as she’ll scream at Humbert for being a sick pervert – and deservedly so). One moment she is embracing the game and the next she is crying herself to sleep. Swain has Lolita in a defensive position but not a pathetic one, and not one many a woman can’t understand herself. Embracing the illicit, running from it and towards an even more deviant predicament, she is what the picture so achingly dissects: the confusion and darkness of a young girl’s sexuality which can, in the end, become heartbreak. And through Humbert’s all-gazing eyes, which get right into how men frequently look at girls as they grow into teenagers, with lust or with discomfort, sometimes averting their gaze to be decent, and girls see this. Humbert is all out there, and he acts on it. This leads to doom – a doomed love or a doomed obsession.
Lolita then, with its more openly sexual scenes, presents difficult questions; it probes your own creepy turn-ons and, for some, makes you recollect your own teenage past. Lyne never shying away from the kissing, the lovemaking, the legs wrapped around the back, puts viewers in a unique, uncomfortable position; making us complicit with Humbert while rooting for Lolita. Lolita has some control and no control (though, what does that control mean, exactly, and it won’t help her in the end), and Humbert both admires and resents it. As Nabokov wrote: “You have to be an artist and a madman, a creature of infinite melancholy, with a bubble of hot poison in your loins and a super-voluptuous flame in order to discern at once the little deadly demon among the wholesome children; she stands unrecognized to them and unconscious herself of her fantastic power.”
From my piece written for the New Beverly.
What will happen to Debbie? What will happen to Martin? I always ponder this when watching the ending of John Ford’s masterpiece, The Searchers. Most certainly I’ve long soaked in, reflected on and studied the famous final shot of John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards, standing outside that beautifully-framed doorway — the warmth and domesticity, darkened, on one side, the light from the frontier of Monument Valley on the other — he’ll roam lonely and damaged, never fitting in civilized society, never fitting in anywhere. The past is the past and he’ll reject it, and he will be rejected from the future (no one invites him inside). Ethan stands solitary in near purgatory, much like the dead Comanche he ruthlessly shoots in the eyes earlier in the picture, wandering “forever between the winds.” Even with his final forgiving act towards Debbie, there’s no redemption for him. There’s no saving him from himself — he will remain dark and demented and a question mark to Ford lovers: “Do I feel for Ethan?”
It’s one of the most famous shots in film history, inspiring filmmakers from Francis Ford Coppola’s fade to darkness door-shutting scene of The Godfatherto Vince Gilligan’s finale of Breaking Bad. The movie is notably worshiped and studied – Ford biographers, notably Scott Eyman and Joseph McBride’s impressive tome dig into the movie and Ford, and directors Jean-Luc Godard, George Lucas, Paul Schrader, Peter Bogdanovich, Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese are among the famous, much-discussed, passionate devotees, so much that it’s been a point of annoyance for a few film critics who have reassessed it as overrated, offensive or, worse, boring. Xan Brooks at The Guardian questioned why it’s been so canonized with, “They [those who love the film] misinterpreted a tentative shuffle-step as a giant leap forward and hailed the film as a revisionist masterpiece as opposed to a stumbling reconnaissance.”
One of the most interesting and best essays comes from Jonathan Lethem, who wrote “Defending The Searchers,” which covers his decades-long love of the movie; how he wrestles with the picture at different stages of his life, what it means to him and how he views it. He wrote, “The film on the screen is lush, portentous. You’re worried for it.” Anyone who has seen and admired The Searchers multiple times, drawn into Ford’s poetry and stunning compositions, finds something to think about and drink in, often beyond what they thought of from their previous viewing. Scorsese claims to watch The Searchers at least once or twice a year and in doing so, discovers something more to reflect upon. In a 2013 column for The Hollywood Reporter Scorsese wrote:
“Like all great works of art, it’s uncomfortable. The core of the movie is deeply painful. Every time I watch it – and I’ve seen it many, many times since its first run in 1956 – it haunts and troubles me. The character of Ethan Edwards is one of the most unsettling in American cinema. In a sense, he’s of a piece with Wayne’s persona and his body of work with Ford and other directors like Howard Hawks and Henry Hathaway. It’s the greatest performance of a great American actor. (Not everyone shares this opinion. For me, Wayne has only become more impressive over time.)”
He’s right. The movie is uncomfortable, but not solely because of Ethan, it’s uncomfortable for Debbie and for Martin as well. Because walking through that famous door is teenager, now-a-woman Debbie (Natalie Wood), tentative, traumatized, the widow and “polluted” white woman of the slain Comanche, Scar (Henry Brandon), and her adopted brother, Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter), the part Cherokee (one eighth) who spent all those years protecting Debbie from murderous Uncle Ethan while enduring his uncle’s humiliations and racist ridicule (“Blanket head”) and Vera Miles’s hyperactive horniness (which isn’t so terrible, though she’s not exactly a likable character).
Indian-hating Ethan does grow fond of Martin (if you can call it that) along their five-year Homeric quest to find Martin’s sister, Debbie (kidnapped by the Comanche as a young girl after her family is slaughtered and raped), but Martin’s put through so much along the way, made the butt of jokes, in danger, I find myself admiring his resolve more and more every time I watch it. He pushes on in spite of his indignities. He’s not even allowed to drink in a bar. Martin works as the moral center of the picture but defies cliché. Like the intriguingly dark and amoral anti-hero Ethan, a guy who will shoot a man in the back, Martin, who would probably be more typically macho in another picture, is frequently aggravated to exasperation, lovable and comic, almost light, but, no… wait minute, he’s not light. Martin’s been through some heartbreaking hell: himself an orphan, rescued by Ethan years before after an Indian massacre, orphaned again after his adoptive family is killed. “It just happened to be me,” Ethan harshly hollers to the young man he refuses to consider any kind of kin. “You don’t need to make any more of it.”
Resourceful and tougher than he seems, Martin’s passionate, even tortured, a defender of Debbie but also following along, sometimes in awe, to find anything forgiving in Ethan. Just the casting of Jeffrey Hunter (who would later play the most beautiful Jesus Christ in the history of Jesus Christs in Nicolas Ray’s King of Kings) seems a way to complicate Wayne – to irk him beyond his character’s Cherokee blood. Martin’s youth, goodness, beauty, and real liberalism towards his sister (he does not think her virtue destroyed by Indians) is decent and lovely. It’s also somewhat radical and reflects how complex and murky John Ford was on these issues as well.
But Ethan is such a force, he exudes so much presence and fearsome qualities, that he overtakes nearly everything, distracting or perhaps even diluting Martin’s heroism. This is to the picture’s credit since Martin builds and grows on you and grows on Ethan as well, so much that he becomes some kind of sneak attack of intractable sensitivity. Viewing Martin, at first, as a well-meaning greenhorn, hotheaded but insecure and sweet, a sort of apprentice to Ethan, it’s extra moving when he bravely shields his sister from Ethan’s gun. That scene hits you hard; it’s mightily emotional and potent to the point that it takes you aback (don’t forget – this is her brother – and Martin is not some novice). At that moment, Martin is braver than anyone in the movie. If anything happened to him, you’d be brokenhearted. I would be.
The scenes between Debbie and Martin are so touching and, to me, as powerful as Ethan famously holding Debbie aloft at the end of the picture (“Let’s go home Debbie”) – not killing her. Wood and Hunter connect on the screen so lovingly and so strongly, that I’ll transfer what Franzen said about the movie and place it on brother and sister: “you’re worried” for them. What will happen to them? Again, this takes me back to the end, when I think of the two beaten-up beauties walking through that door. The family welcomes them with open arms, but will society? And will the family remain so open? Debbie will now have to learn to live outside of the Native American world she’s become accustomed to and brother Martin will doubtlessly marry Laurie (Vera Miles), who expresses her own racism when she complains of their search for Laurie: “Fetch what home? The leavings a Comanche buck sold time and again to the highest bidder, with savage brats of her own? Do you know what Ethan will do if he has a chance? He’ll put a bullet in her brain… I tell you, Martha would want him to!” Martin answers, “Only if I’m dead.” Laurie throws in Martin’s dead mother on top of her racist repudiation? Jesus. You wonder how Laurie and family reallyare going to treat Debbie once she’s “home.”
Laurie also seems more sexually obsessed with Martin than in love — she can’t keep her hands off of him and delights seeing him naked while he’s demanding privacy during a bath. She’s sexually aggressive to the point of obnoxiousness. There’s nothing wrong with that and who can blame her? She’s lonely out there and it is Jeffrey Hunter after all (who shows up looking like that?) but it’s intriguing just how much Martin is objectified in the movie, much more than the women. Often shirtless, soaking in the bath shielding his body like a bashful woman, rolling around in blankets, or just ridiculously gorgeous, those blue eyes burning a hole through Ford’s lyrical, magnificent frames, Hunter’s beauty occasionally makes you gasp. It’s also a source of Ford’s humor, particularly his romantic mishaps (and the entire wedding sequence that goes haywire), but also underscores his difference from others. When first introduced, Martin, all sprightly and smiling, is riding Indian style – bareback.
In some ways, he’s more akin to Scar (also handsome, also with alarming blue eyes) whom his sister is sleeping with (never said, but clearly the idea of sex with a savage further fuels Ethan’s murderous fury). According to Hunter in a 1956 Picturegoer Magazine profile, the young actor met Ford in his office with slicked-back dark hair, wearing a “very open-necked sports shirt to display a healthy tan.” John Ford sat at his desk smoking a large cigar, stared at Hunter “for what seemed an endless time, then grunted: ‘Take your shirt off!’ Hunter replied as if Ethan was barking at him and recalled, “I did just that.”
Reading Glenn Frankel’s impressive, exhaustive book, “The Searchers: The Making of an American Legend,” gives insight into the true story and the layered mythologies around the kidnapping that inspired the novel and the movie. And it makes you contemplate Debbie’s fate after going “home.” Cynthia Ann Parker was the real-life Laurie, a Texan girl who in 1836 was abducted by Comanches after they attacked and killed her family. She spent 24 years with the Comanches, married a war chief, presumably loved him and birthed three children. In 1860 the U.S. Cavalry and Texas Rangers came to her village and she once again witnessed the slaughter of her family. When they realized she was white, she and her baby were returned to what was left of her family. But she wasn’t happy. She was now a Comanche, did not want to be a Christian or to live in the white world outside of the Indians. She remained depressed and lonely for the rest of her days – an absolutely shattered figure.
From that tragic story, a mythology was woven and expanded as her Uncle (who obsessively searched but never found her in real life) was transformed into the protagonist of Alan Le May’s 1954 novel “The Searchers” from which Ford’s 1956 picture was adapted. From real life to mythology to novel to screen, the tale twists and turns and bends but one thing remains: the captivity narrative being a popular western tale, bringing up all kinds of issues and ideas about conquest and even eroticism. As Frankel stated in an interview:
“It raises all of these difficult issues. At the same time, besides all of this sort of personal and psychological tension involved, it becomes a sort of justification for the conquest of the West … So there are these psychological, psychosexual tensions involved, there are these imperial notions, and Americans continue to tell these stories. Around the time Cynthia Ann was kidnapped in 1836, if you look at the bestseller list, three of the four top bestsellers in America are James Fennimore Cooper novels, all of which have captivity themes. And then the fourth one was a non-fiction book about Mary Jamison, a woman who was captured by Seneca Indians in upstate New York in the 18th century.”
He also said, “There’s something about being in this land and having the ‘other’ savages, these people, these natural, scary, people, come and take you, take your family, take your wife, take your children, and haul them off into the wilderness. It’s scary, and it’s a little bit sexy.”
That sexiness horrifies Ethan. Or he’s drawn to it. After all, we’ve no idea what he’s been doing during his long wanderings, learning the Comanche language, understanding their customs. It would not be a surprise if he’d slept with many Native Americans or harbored an attraction (though the poor Squaw who accidentally becomes Martin’s bride is treated with cruel humor, only to be met with selfless tragedy – Martin and Ethan appear visibly guilty). Ethan is the dark heart, perhaps in his case, additionally the broken hearted (and not just romantically – for his past forbidden love of Martha), blood-soaked history of violence and domination of the West, but a man who must contend with the likes of Debbie and Martin and… soften. He cannot kill Debbie, even if he believes her sullied by savages, and sticks with Martin, whom he spends many a night with, five damn years in fact (as Roger Ebert asked in his review, “What did they talk about?”). Ethan will never really approve of brother and sister, he’ll never be friends with Martin (even after bequeathing everything to him, which Martin rejects on behalf of Debbie), but Ethan has a little in common with those he’s saved, more than he knows. Or perhaps he does know this. These three are not at all “normal” and they are all going to endure some strangeness in their futures. Martin has been through enough to prove his resiliency but… Debbie?
So, that doorway shot, Ethan standing outside representing the past, Debbie and Martin, walking in, the arresting exotics of the future, what will become of them? Thinking of Frankel’s thoughts and deep study of Cynthia Ann Parker, Martin and especially Debbie, whom the picture suggests will be loved by their families (even if Laurie previously proclaimed Debbie better off dead), will likely become objects of sexual fascination and hatred of miscegenation from the outside world. With Debbie “home” protective, liberal Martin has a lot more defense ahead of him. He’ll surely repeat the same he said of Ethan concerning other angry men and in different circumstances: “He’s a man that can go crazy wild, and I intend to be there to stop him in case he does.”
My piece published at The New Beverly.
“Of all the people in Thalia, Billy missed the picture show most. He couldn’t understand that it was permanently closed. Every night he kept thinking it would open again. For seven years he had gone to the show every single night, always sitting in the balcony, always sweeping out once the show was over; he just couldn’t stop expecting it. Every night he took his broom and went over to the picture show, hoping it would be open. When it wasn’t, he sat on the curb in front of the courthouse, watching the theater, hoping it would open a little later; then, after a while, in puzzlement, he would sweep listlessly off down the highway toward Wichita Falls. Sonny watched him as closely as he could, but it still worried him. He was afraid Billy might get through a fence or over a cattle-guard and sweep right off into the mesquite. He might sweep away down the creeks and gullies and never be found.” — Larry McMurtry’s novel, “The Last Picture Show”
Some of us walk through life as the leading players in our movies. Memories and real life melodrama can intertwine in our minds like our own personal photoplays – we make pictures every day. We see this online, shared photographs and videos, creating story, mystery and art, and sometimes narcissism and pleading. But some of us also do this when we stop for a moment and put away that camera or phone, and we’ve done this ever since feature films have appeared in theaters. Pictures started moving and we starting moving our own pictures. Not with a camera but with eyes and minds – and we still do. Flickering through our brains like vivid Technicolor reminiscences or black and white chiaroscuro, our movie minds also project cinema out into the world, eyes scanning surroundings like cameras, hearts hopeful for something cinematic and exciting to create our own big screen stories. Movies can seep into our souls so much that we often feel we’re walking in a movie – real life should be like a movie – we think. Life can be lonely, a vast expanse of time, experiences behind us, experiences ahead of us, and when we stop to take a look at our environment, a forlorn feeling can flood our thoughts through the most everyday things: out of a car window during traffic, listening to a song, in crowded cities, staring down endless roads and observing barren landscapes. Many of us will be stricken, if even for a minute, with a void or an ache or, to quote Peggy Lee, “Is that all there is to a fire?” Though we study movies for all the reasons people essay and critique them, watching movies can fill and fuel that fire for 90 or 120 minutes or more, an all-enveloping escape, enclosed in dark rooms transported by that large screen. So can transferring those images onto real life, imprinting and even blurring our reality.
There are many passages in Larry McMurtry’s novel The Last Picture Show that exemplify the merging of movies and real life, illustrating why it was so well-suited for Peter Bogdanovich’s tender and heartbreaking big screen adaptation. In the novel, which takes place in 1951 (the 1971 movie does as well), the high school senior protagonist Sonny, admits his affair with an older, sad and married woman to a waitress he’s fond of: “‘Ruth Popper?’ she said, amazed. ‘How do you mean, Sonny? Have you been flirtin’ with her like you do with me, or is it different?’ ‘It’s different,” he said. ‘It’s… like in a movie.’”
That Sonny really is having an affair with Ruth Popper, and one that becomes complicated, raw and emotionally messy to the point that she frightens him even as he desires her, makes it a hopeful yearning on his part – that it’s like a movie. It’s not, not with any kind of glamour or “suitable” romance, but in its own heightened way, of course it is. Peyton Place or a Douglas Sirk masterpiece, though Bogdanovich and McMurtry do not frame it that way. (The picture feels both New Wave and classic, Bogdanovich knowing his Ford and his Hawks and also something less easily definable, then and even now.) But Sonny gets a thrill and peculiar love from Ruth and eventually they don’t care about their audience – all that talk and the looks in the town – everyone knows. And Ruth is nice to kiss. Much nicer than his first disagreeable girlfriend. Earlier in the movie they do some heavy-petting in the theater and Sonny’s eyes are fixated on a close-up of beautiful Elizabeth Taylor, not his date. In the novel it’s Ginger Rogers and he envisions her naked. In Bogdanovich’s version (co-scripted with McMurtry), we can only think that’s what Sonny is thinking. We don’t doubt it.
A perfect place for thinking, projecting, remembering and watching, Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show, set in the tiny town of Anarene, Texas, opens on their one movie theater, The Royal (Father of the Bride is on the marquee), panning to reveal a desolate Main Street with one traffic light, all dusty and fading and hanging on for dear life. Wind and leaves blow across the chilly landscape (shot so evocatively in black and white by veteran Robert Surtees) as we hear a car motor chugging. That’s Sonny (Timothy Bottoms) who struggles to get the heap going, freezing his ass off and fixing his radio dial to better receive Hank Williams’ “Why Don’t You Love Me?” Hank Williams will follow these characters all over the movie, commenting on and filling in the quiet they’re intent to avoid. He also matches many of the character’s spirits and Sonny’s especially – “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.” The novel’s first two sentences begin: “Sometimes Sonny felt like he was the only human creature in the town. It was a bad feeling, and it usually came on him in the mornings early, when the streets were completely empty.”
Sonny spies Billy (Sam Bottoms, the actor’s younger brother) sweeping the street and gives him a lift, playfully turning the younger kid’s baseball cap backwards, an affectionate refrain throughout the movie and they drive on to the pool hall. Through the detailed, formal but never stodgy, and incredibly lived-in excellence of Bogdanovich’s direction (and production designer Polly Platt) we are immediately transported right into this world that, at the time, was 20 year ago, but we don’t feel simple nostalgia about it (though we wished these places still existed. I do anyway). As beautifully shot and as intriguing as this town is, it also appears hard and unforgiving. Maybe life was simpler? Maybe? But as the picture goes on to show, it certainly wasn’t more innocent (that’s fine, nothing is) or easier (that’s also true). Watching it in 2017, Anarene is such a relic that it’s almost exotic. If these towns were dying then they’re sure as hell not surviving now unless you’re lucky enough to stumble across one on a cross-country road trip. But meeting Sam the Lion (Ben Johnson), a father figure to Sonny and Billy and, as we’ll soon learn, Sonny’s best friend Duane (Jeff Bridges), we feel warmer with his friendship (the place seems too small to say community). Even razzing the boys for their lousy football team, Sam’s a complex, even poetic man (though he’d never describe himself as such).
He’s the heart and soul of the town – and not in any corny way – and we grow so fond of him that it will bring on an almost sick despair to even think of him gone. If he ever leaves, the town will sag down further, almost on top of itself. Not only does Sam own the pool hall (where handsome-hard mystery man, Abilene, played by Clu Gulager, has his own key), but the diner and the movie theater. Sam provides all of the services for escape and joy it seems, but also wisdom and ageless camaraderie, even if he’s decades older than the boys. But he’s missing a piece in his life, and there’s something quite melancholy about him, specifically because he’s so gracious and lovingly worn-in. In a later, powerful moment, he recalls a memory to Sonny that, as spoken by Johnson, is so vivid and cinematic that we can envision the scene almost right there in front of us – his mind rolling a movie reel of the past as we watch him speak:
“You wouldn’t believe how this country’s changed. First time I seen it, there wasn’t a mesquite tree on it, or a prickly pear neither. I used to own this land, you know. First time I watered a horse at this tank was – more than forty years ago. I reckon the reason why I always drag you out here is probably I’m just as sentimental as the next fella when it comes to old times. Old times. I brought a young lady swimmin’ out here once, more than 20 years ago. Was after my wife had lost her mind and my boys was dead. Me and this young lady was pretty wild, I guess. In pretty deep. We used to come out here on horseback and go swimmin’ without no bathing suits. One day, she wanted to swim the horses across this tank. Kind of a crazy thing to do, but we done it anyway. She bet me a silver dollar she could beat me across. She did. This old horse I was ridin’ didn’t want to take the water. But she was always lookin’ for somethin’ to do like that. Somethin’ wild. I’ll bet she’s still got that silver dollar.”
That woman turns out to be his greatest love and, he, the greatest love of the woman (who still lives in the town, Ellen Burstyn’s saucy and soulful Lois Farrow), deepening a character whom we might initially view as simply calculated and alcoholic. Not Lois. She’s hard but sexy as hell here (her opening shot reminded me of Lee Remick in Anatomy of a Murder), but when the ice in her drink cools, Lois seems like one of the wisest women in town. Refreshingly, Bogdanovich and Burstyn (and McMurtry) allow her to be a bitch, but a human-being bitch, and when she opens up and warms us with a smile or simply amuses us with a line, we genuinely like her. Few are simple or shallow in this movie, in fact, not even Lois’s daughter, Jacy (Cybill Shepherd), the prettiest, richest girl in town and girlfriend of Duane. Jacy’s been described by some writers as a cock-tease or even a femme fatale, but she’s a bit more complicated than that (as she is definitely in the novel). She’s a tease but she’s doing it for reasons that may appear cold-blooded, reasons more resourceful, yet confused and, yes again, cinematic. She wants a big story; she wants drama, romance; she wants everyone talking about her. Why not? There’s not much else going on and if she’s the prettiest girl, why sit around waiting for intrigue? So start it. She’s vain (she’s so lovely it’s hard for her not to be) but she’s also unsure of herself, adventurous and curiously sexual, though sometimes scared, without the movie showing her any condescension (her later moment with Abilene boldly proves this). When she finally tries to sleep with lovesick, horny Duane and, baffling to him, he can’t perform, she makes sure those outside the motel room watching in their cars think they just did it. She has an audience and she is going to be the star, virgin or no virgin, dammit. When her girlfriends excitedly bounce into the de-flowering chamber asking her how it was, she gives them her best movie star face, looking up, liquid eyes all dreamily: “I just can’t describe it in words.” Jacy really should get out of Anarene and move to Hollywood.
Sonny’s lover is not so Hollywood – the aforementioned Ruth Popper (Cloris Leachman) – wife of the one the most unlikable characters in the movie – the coach. She’s pretty, frail, nervous, middle-aged, prone to crying or occasional anger, apologizing to Sonny, mad at him, then mad at herself. You feel for her, you want her to find happiness, but you’re not sure what to make of their union; if it should last at all. Sonny is still growing up even after growing up so fast. You grow up quickly in a town like this – working, running a pool hall, smoking, whoring, maturing past sexual interludes with bovine (mentioned in passing in the movie, in much more detail in the novel) – but he’s not weathered the 40 years Ruth has yet. And, yet, she seems like she’s done absolutely nothing in her life save for changing her bedroom wallpaper and serving cookies to kids. She hates her husband, she gets sick, she falls for Sonny. A lot more pain is in store for her and the Picture Show of Sonny – that lovely romance that makes her swoon and escape her depressing little house – could not be sustainable. But what’s wonderful about this movie is, hell. It very well could be, for good reasons or bad reasons or reasons somewhere in between. Sonny, nearly an orphan, loves (maybe, we’re not sure) and desires Ruth, but he also makes her feel childlike, and gives her an underage kind of paternal care. She’s less a mother figure (his mother is deceased), and more like the sweet, drug-addicted father he can’t count on. In the novel McMurtry writes of Sonny looking at Ruth: “There was something wild in her face that made Sonny think of his father – when she smiled at him there was a pressure behind the smile, as if something inside were trying to break through her skin.”
But Sonny is just so young, and in a final scene, as Ruth gazes at his innocent looking eyes, his youth so strong, it’s both strangely upsetting and tenderly poignant. Bogdanovich lingers on this long enough for the viewer to truly feel that age gap. And Bottoms plays all of this with a quiet charm and longing, a longing for something (what is it?). His longing is so powerful that, in some cases, it’s simply his eyes, those cinematic eyes, looking as we look with him – surveying the land, the town, a face or even a tumbleweed – that gives us an overwhelming surge of beautiful heartache. Sonny’s already experienced two other beloved people die: one young (which he sees), the other old (offscreen, which feels so jarring since Sonny views everything) and both unexpectedly, that you wonder how much he’s truly processed in his mind. What is he thinking? He seems like the type who might get out of the town (and he tries, briefly) but, nope. Looks like he’s gonna stay. Will he always? Bogdanovich and McMurtry will not answer that. Not in this picture (you’ll need to read and watch Texasville to find out).
And now the movie theater has closed down (Sonny and Duane watch Howard Hawks’s Red River the final night before Duane heads out for Korea, another loss). No more time staring at the screen (TV is taking over) but Sonny will likely listen to more music and drink in whatever is in front of him or comes his way – the pool hall, the residents, newcomers, cars, random excitements, girls. Maybe he’ll go crazy. Whatever he’s doing or wherever he’s going, the fading town is still standing while he matures into another year. Sonny will continue to make his own movie memories through living, however that goes. One day he’ll likely weave a vivid impression of a time to one younger than him, just as Sam the Lion did. Maybe he’ll fall for another woman, hard. Wonder if it’ll be different? “Like in a movie.”
Out today! The first of my monthly essays for Ed Brubaker's acclaimed "Kill or Be Killed" with artwork by the great Sean Phillips. Read my take on Alan Arkin's adaptation of Jules Feiffer's darkly comic Little Murders starring Elliott Gould (with a brilliant scene by Donald Sutherland, as well standouts by Vincent Gardenia, Marcia Rodd and a hilariously strange Jon Korkes).
Pick it up or order here: https://imagecomics.com/comics/releases/kill-or-be-killed-5
From my New Beverly piece on the trials, tribulations and tragedies of Leo Gorcey & Bobby Jordan and looking at Kid Dynamite.
Leo Gorcey was once a plumber. He was in his last year of high school and worked for his Uncle’s plumbing business earning six dollars a week. He didn’t like that kind of money. It was 1935 and though, not dirt poor, times were tight for the divorced family living in New York City. His dad (Bernard Gorcey) was a respected stage actor who, according to Richard Roat’s “Hollywood’s Made to Order Punks,” used a bit of reverse psychology, telling his son he couldn’t act, luring the pugnacious kid to audition for the play Dead End. He came in his plumber’s clothes. In an interview with Richard Lamparski shortly before his death, Gorcey claimed his dad knew someone involved in Dead End. He said his dad could have used connections early on to help the kid along with acting but Gorcey wasn’t interested in that. Still, he wasn’t interested in being a plumber either. The money was negligible and he complained that he couldn’t “buy a pair of slacks or a pair of shoes in a month.” (Hearing him utter this with distinct Brooklyn Gorcey-speak, I thought of all those depression-era youngsters, wanting more out of life and being proud of it when they got it – Paul Muni showing off his shirts in Howard Hawks’ Scarface. Gorcey didn’t find the work (to use one of his favorite words) remunerative. He got the part, wound up lucky to take over for the bigger role of Spit. Gorcey was now earning 35 dollars a week. 35 dollars a week? “Big deal,” he said in the interview, “I want 50.” The producers told him, Nope. They could locate any damn kid in New York City to play that part. “Find one,” Gorcey challenged. They gave him 50 dollars a week.
He moved up in the world, taking Spit to screen in various incarnations, names and studios (including, and most famously, Spit, Slip, Muggs) in The Dead End Kids, The East Side Kids and The Bowery Boys from 1937-1956 (he was never in The Little Tough Guys, which also slide into this original punk history). Some of the early pictures were beautifully directed social commentaries – William Wyler’s Dead End (with Humphrey Bogart), Michael Curtiz’s Angels With Dirty Faces (with James Cagney) and Busby Berkeley’s They Made Me a Criminal (with John Garfield) with a cast including Huntz Hall, Bobby Jordan, Gabriel Dell, Billy Halop and Bernard Punsly. Through time the kids became more comedy than commentary (which was fine, Gorcey and Hall are a terrific comic duo) and the pictures became weirder, they were often still assuredly shot by some interesting filmmakers (notably The Big Combo, Gun Crazy director Joseph H. Lewis). Not bad, as some might say, but as time went on, wonderfully fucking weird with, perhaps, accidental commentary (who wants to grow up?) and definite surrealism holding the plots together. To use a word Gorcey would probably like as a malapropism and mispronounce (I can’t even pronounce it) they feel hypnagogic.
A movie like Hold That Baby! (one of my favorites, starring Gorcey, Hall, William Benedict, David Gorcey and Bennie Bartlett) is magnificently bizarre. The fellows looking more boozed-up than boyish, all world-weary while running around like maniacs, helping a baby abandoned in a Laundromat (they own the place!), while gangsters and a mental institution fall into the scenario (naturally) – it’s the cinematic equivalent of something you’d dream up after ingesting too much narcotic cough syrup one night. These little comedies starring multiple-divorced men still burlesquing as tough guys when some of them actually are tough guys, or at least, little shits, now with arrest records, are marked with a peculiar darkness, as if Diane Arbus somehow took over direction. Gorcey once shot a gun in a toilet, got the boys to glue it back together, which then caused Martha Raye to fall in and injure her nether-regions. That’s a true story, according to Gorcey. Why not just put that in one of the movies?
From 1940-1945 the series cranked out pictures through Monogram (which introduced Our Gang veteran, the great ‘Sunshine’ Sammy Morrison into the club, the only African-American in the group). Gorcey left the studio, quarreling over more money, formed The Bowery Boys with Huntz Hall and Bobby Jordan and owned 40 percent of the company. That was smart. He wouldn’t die broke (though this pissed off some cast members, including Morrison who declined to join, reportedly due to Gorcey’s more remunerative control). Gorcey was a “kid” deep in his 30s when making his last picture, Crashing Las Vegas, remnants of the original boys hanging on – Hall and his younger brother, David. Pops, who, without much hullabaloo, had been playing Louie Dumbrowski, the guy who ran the ice cream parlor and co-starred with his son in 44 pictures, died in 1955. He crashed into a bus. Leo drank more, became problematic and was replaced by Stanley Clements. He lived a hell-raising, hard-drinking, multi-married life, writing an entertaining, damn near poetic memoir about it with a tongue twisting title: “An Original Dead End Kid Presents: Dead End Yells, Wedding Bells, Cockle Shells and Dizzy Spells.” He died the day before his 52nd birthday – liver failure.
This is a long walk down Gorcey lane before discussing Wallace Fox’s Kid Dynamite, the 1943 East Side Kids picture when they’re still young and fresh, but pertinent since the talented, tragic Bobby Jordan (playing Danny) is Gorcey’s lead co-star. He is also a reluctant rival to Gorcey’s Muggs who is, for lack of a better word, an asshole. As the picture moves along briskly with a nicely shot boxing match and an entertaining, gleefully odd jitterbug contest within, we come to feel for shitheel Muggs – the world’s not nice to him. Gorcey always played it more acerbic, nastier and Stooges-like slap happy, but there’s an extra edge here. He’s so mean to moist-eyed, tall and gracious Danny that he becomes less funny and more aggressively unpleasant. And he’s jealous. This is not a criticism; it makes the movie deeper and more poignant as we root for both guys. We want them to figure out their issues; we know it’s based on power and acceptance and looks and everything society throws at kids growing up, and we know it’s probably not going to be solved by the film’s conclusion – joining the service. But the surge of patriotism at the end of the movie makes you question if the picture even believes its own message. Even Muggs’ mother cautions her son to join (and won’t let him at first, he’s too young) if he’s doing so for the wrong reasons.
The whole misunderstanding begins when teenage boxer Muggs believes Danny set him up. Gangsters kidnap Muggs when he won’t throw a fight (such is the life of an East Side Kid) and he misses the match, stuck in a scary car, fast-talking guttersnipe sass. Out of shape Danny (who does not appear to be out of shape) has to fill in for Muggs and in a sweet surprise, wins the fight. Danny is innocent, a nice guy (he is also dating Muggs’ sister), but never mind that – Muggs is so pissed off and distrustful, he can’t accept his friend wasn’t in on it, and he kicks him out of the gang: “Danny’s name is gonna stricken from the record. He’s outta the club intimately, ultimately and forever.” Other members, notably Huntz Hall as Glimpy (“Why don’t you play ping pong with a time bomb?”) and “Sunshine Sammy” Morrison as Scruno are nicely featured and likable (also Benny Bartlett as Benny ‘Beanie’) but they too are following along with the bullying Muggs. Tensions increase – Danny gets the job Muggs wants (for being a “gentleman”) and in a scene that opens with Mike Riley’s Orchestra and Marion Miller doing the most intriguing, craziest and even creepiest rendition of “Comin’ Thro’ the Rye” (did J.D. Salinger see this picture? Did Davd Lynch?) wins the jitterbug contest after Muggs is disqualified for bringing a professional dancer (Kay Marvis, Gorcey’s first wife, who later married Groucho Marx). Well, that’s it.
It will get all resolved – Muggs finally believes Danny, but anger enflames yet again, and he continues being a jerk. There’s a lot of desperation to Jordan here that feels utterly believable – we might want to join with Muggs deeming him a fake goody-goody but Danny is too sincere. At the same time, Muggs is such a sore loser and so obviously insecure, that we can’t stay mad at him, especially when he starts looking inward, thinking of the War, understanding he’s being a heel, maybe even a coward, and his jealousy is more at play than truly believing Danny’s a bad person. But, again, the patriotic WW2 closer where the boys are sauntering through town in uniform is strangely sad. And thinking of Bobby Jordan is sad too. He was drafted.
Jordan wasn’t happy with the last incarnation of The Bowery Boys whom he helped form with Gorcey and Hall. He was becoming less prominent on screen, making less money and angry with Gorcey and Hall for pushing him out of any kind of light. He left after eight pictures. He still worked, did some movies and television, but supplemented his income as an oil driller; photograph salesman, nightclub act and bartender – not a good profession for an alcoholic. According to various sources, in 1958 he was briefly jailed for not making child support payments. Before that, in 1945 the poor guy was in an elevator accident, forcing removal of his right kneecap (really?). The talented young kid who went to the Professional Children’s School and started out in Dead End with the name Angel, who served in the Army during WWII (drafted in 1943, the 97th Infantry) – he died at age 42 in 1965 in a Veteran’s hospital in Los Angeles – cirrhosis of the liver. Nearly four years before Gorcey and six years younger. Gorcey says of Jordan in Kid Dynamite, “He’s presently out, henceforth, etc.” Reportedly, in real life, Gorcey mused, “Bobby Jordan did not have had a guardian angel.” Jordan might have “depreciated” that sentiment.
I contributed to Sight & Sound's Best Films of 2016, choosing five pictures among so many released this year, some I hadn't seen yet (the list was due in November), so I must add.
From the magazine:
"We asked 163 critics and curators to name their five top movies of the year – and atop what may be our most diverse annual poll yet, the runaway winner is a German comedy…" Read the full list here.
And here's my individual top five with five more added to equal a neat ten. A ten that could change in two days. Not in any order:
Finally saw Pablo Larraín's Jackie... now one of my favorite movies of last year. Maybe my very favorite. The tricky manner in which Natalie Portman plays her reality and artifice is incredible -- the sadness and horror, the control -- Jackie wandering around the White House alone like a living ghost... The direction and score are brilliant -- it moved along with her, matching her performance, and felt like grief -- the confusion of grief and how to control it. Nothing of what she says is exactly true and everything remains mysterious -- a woman with a reality and a persona, smashed in that moment, walking around with blood all over her suit, and then she had to gather herself quickly and put up the walls even higher.
The Lobster -- Yorgos Lanthimos
You don't require things in common to be in love. You don't need to be in love or out of love. You don't need to be with someone or without someone. You don't have to be married. It's OK to be alone. It's not OK to be alone, for some. Please consider this mordantly funny and heartbreaking allegory of the terrifying future -- dating sites and lists of requirements and everything that one person with supposedly all of the answers tells you or that dumb social media update about love or that one bromide-filled essay that tells you which way is the right way. Or those articles, lists and quizzes about who is a sociopath or are you an empath while you nod in agreement. And don't choose a lobster. Don't even choose a dog. Choose a raccoon. No one messes with raccoons, they're tough, they're cute as hell, they're street smart and they could give two fucks about you. They're also good to their kids.
Moonlight -- Barry Jenkins
A film so beautiful in story, struggle, love, connection, danger, drugs, race, masculinity, black masculinity, and one made more poetic by cinematography and performance, particularly by Trevante Rhodes, that one leaves the theaters with images and thoughts lingering. As Rhodes told Out Magazine: "Being a black person in America right now is shit, being a homosexual in America right now is shit, and being a black homosexual is the bottom for certain people. That’s why I’m so excited for people to see Moonlight. I don’t feel like there’s a solution for our problems, but this movie might change people. That’s why you do it — because you feel like you’re doing something that matters. This is someone’s story."
The Handmaiden -- Park Chan-wook
This really should rank as my number one, I was so taken with this movie's ambition, going beyond a thriller (this is Park Chan-wook -- he's going to go above and beyond -- I'm pretty certain he's a genius at this point), but the gothic power, eroticism, violence, delicious perversity and romanticism of this picture might make this his greatest work. And that's saying a lot.
Hail, Caesar! -- Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Watch it again. As with every Joel and Ethan Coen picture, there's a lot more going on here than wacky comedy and Hollywood hijinks -- chiefly many questions about spirituality, politics and movie making (watch Jesus on the cross ask if he's a principle or an extra, consider the godhead, what about Das Kapital "with a K"... ). And Alden Ehrenreich's singing cowboy Hobie provides some of my favorite moments in cinema this year, one being his casual lasso twirling before his set-up studio date. I'll quote the movie's most famous line, but it's as fitting as the Coen's "Accept the mystery" of A Serious Man: "Would that it were so simple."
Green Room -- Jeremy Saulnier
I thought this movie would be good, but I did not expect it to be this good. As in, so tense and funny and well acted (chiefly by the late, great Anton Yelchin, leading the proceedings with his smart, soulful eyes and genuine terror turned cynical fuck-it-all), that I even accepted elegant Patrick Stewart would lead a bunch of scumbags skinheads in the PNW woods. The last scene is met with the perfect musical punchlines of the year and did as much for Creedence Clearwater Revival as The Big Lebowski. "Sinister Purpose."
Elle -- Paul Verhoeven
The rape movie, as I've heard it called by some people. It's more than that, of course. It's a daring look at a woman who is not like most women in movies -- not merely because of how she handles the rape that opens the film -- but because of the way she talks, considers her actions, indulges her fantasies, excites her cruelty, reflects on her so extraordinary backstory that, in another movie, would seem easy and ridiculous (as in, "Oh, so this is why she's so weird..."). Truth is, she's not that weird. She's a human being (Isabelle Huppert, brilliant). And a woman. They're perverse creatures too. Thank god.
American Honey -- Andrea Arnold
Andrea Arnold is so good with young women in her movies, allowing them danger and sex and love and music and curiosity, that I watch her movies and wish I had her around when I was 15. I talked to a friend who didn't like this movie -- thought it was too American ugly -- the scruffy kids and their music all scummy to be scummy -- an outsider's version of America. I disagreed (also, I like "scummy" kids) and found so much beauty in those young ones, the filmmaking, just the way she allows them to take to the road and feel it, feel new love, feel fear, feel their sex, that the celluloid almost seems tangible. Like you could touch this movie. It's that vibrant and alive.
Weiner-Dog -- Todd Solondz
I do not recommend this movie to anyone. I loved it, so that sounds odd, but dear god, don't do this to yourself. This is the Au hasard Balthazar of our time and I warn people about that one too, though at least Bresson's beauty sweeps you away, somewhat. This one, though strangely beautiful (you've never wanted to laugh and cry so much at the longest, loveliest shot of dog shit you've ever seen), has a harshness that makes you grip the theater seat, wincing at what come's next. If you do go, go alone so no one witnesses your nervous breakdown. And do not go if your pet is ill.
O.J.: Made in America -- Ezra Edelman
The five part documentary that deepens the headlines, the crime and the court case, and digs more profoundly into American race relations via one of our most famous fallen heroes -- O.J. Simpson. It's also historically important and deeply tragic (it also goes further with the fate of Nicole Brown and Ronald Goldman), merging great cinema with great journalism -- powerful, complex. I was riveted and, by the end, very sad.
Nocturnal Animals -- Tom Ford
I've not met many people who love this movie as much as I do, but I think Tom Ford managed a difficult feat -- crafting a nerve-racking thriller but a ridiculous nerve-racking thriller that has to know how absurd it is. It just has to. And if it doesn't, I don't care because the picture works -- both as an unreliable narrator story, telling of grief and revenge, and a look at an empty art world where we have no idea if anyone is as talented as they think they are. Is the novel Amy Adams reading, the one her poor dumped husband Jake Gyllenhaal wrote and dedicated to her any good? We don't know. It might be pulp trash but it's affecting her regardless (because who says trash can't affect us? Especially if it's personal). Is she even any good at what she does? Is he the toxic man some critics claim he is? I don't know. Maybe she really did give up the love of her life and he's not that bad. Jake Gyllenhaal is so powerful in so many scenes against such hot hillbillies (they sure do dress cool, but hey, a very visual woman is reading this book, we're seeing what she's seeing) that you truly feel for him. And then there's Michael Shannon, who is both touching and funny, giving the movie both gravitas and a wink. I'm gonna trust Tom Ford on this one. He's seen The Eyes of Laura Mars. He knows this movie is scary, stylish, moving and also hilarious but he's not going to tell...
Also, Fences, Hell Or High Water, The Nice Guys, 13th and this list will probably change...
(Movies I have not seen that could alter the list: Silence, Toni Erdmann, Paterson, No Home Movie, Things to Come, Personal Shopper, Julieta...)
Here's my Sight & Sound to five DVD and Blu-ray picks, write-ups posted later in Sight & Sound:
One-Eyed Jacks (Criterion) -- Marlon Brando
Happy New Year!
From my New Beverly piece on Sydney Pollack's Three Days of the Condor, the perfect Christmas movie, especially now.
Kathy Hale: Why did you tie me up like that? I mean, you thought I’d call the police. I wouldn’t have.
Joe Turner: Why?
Kathy: Well, sometimes… I take a picture that isn’t like me, but I took it, so it is like me. It has to be. I put those pictures away.
Joe: I’d like to see those pictures.
Kathy: We don’t know each other that well.
Joe: Do you know anybody that well?
“Lonely pictures.” So says Robert Redford’s on-the-run CIA analyst Joe Turner in Sydney Pollack’s Three Days of the Condor, stopping for a moment to contemplate the photographs of the woman he’s held hostage in her own apartment while fretting over his endangered life, the CIA, his dead colleagues, including his dead girlfriend, and later, a CIA within a CIA, oil, invading the Middle East (prescient), and whatever else is going on in that big, frightening, treacherous outside world. The woman, Faye Dunaway’s Kathy Hale, sits nervously (and it’s Dunaway-nervous, a mold-breaking kind of neurotic that’s unmatched by any other actress), looking at the man who is about to tie her up, maybe rape her, trying to believe his story or not believe his story, while he muses over her doleful black and white pictures of empty park benches and bleak trees. She answers with some defensiveness, it’s her art after all: “So?” We’re with her on this one — what’s wrong with lonely pictures? He says, “You’re funny. You take pictures of empty streets and trees with no leaves on them.” Suddenly this beautiful, word-filled man with an unusual job of reading everything all day feeding codes and plots into a computer, realizes that this beautiful, visual woman who takes pictures of chilly emptiness, has a life beyond an available car and warm pad he can hide out in as he attempts to unravel an insane conspiracy closing in on him. Now he’s trying to figure out her pictures. She again defends her photography (and obscures its meaning, she’s private, and some man has forced himself into her domain and starts deconstructing her art, who can blame her): “It’s winter,” she says.
It is winter. And it’s Christmastime, and Christmas music is playing all over the movie – all of these cheery, classic carols taunting these characters who, like a lot of people during the holidays, are stressed and sad and fucking irritated by aggressive happiness and all this “Good King Wenceslas” business, ready to practically kill themselves. (Recently, at Slate, Daniel Harmon made the excellent claim that Condor should be considered a Christmas classic. I agree. I re-watched the movie last year during the holidays and it made me feel better about the gloom of forced cheer.) Kathy’s preparing to go on a ski trip with a boyfriend and you get the feeling she doesn’t really want to go. (Perhaps this is just me but I always read this like she’s being forced into an activity her boyfriendlikes to do – ski – when she’d rather be taking pictures). But that is now. Joe’s not buying that winter excuse because he’s so damn specific. Trying to get to what’s really going on here, her sadness and alienation, a situation that reflects his own and one he’s now thrust on her tenfold (she, too, has to figure out who to trust in order to survive), he says: “Not quite winter. They look like November. Not autumn, not winter. In-between. I like them.” That he’s so particular could be annoying (so she took these before Thanksgiving? So what?), but it’s not, he’s genuinely halted to consider this human being before him and just why she’s running around in-between winter, before all the obnoxious holiday music drowns the world, taking photographs of forlorn objects and leafless trees. It’s also not corny, as some critics suggest, like the symbolism is supposed to resonate so much that we’re awestruck by Pollack’s meaning. He knows we get the symbolism; it’s more that Joe is actually trying to consider her work and her and have some kind of connection. What’s wrong with that? And a lot of people, those curious with one another, would have that conversation. I love how she answers so simply: “Thanks.” What the hell else is she supposed to say? This is not the same Dunaway as Helmut Newton sexy-violence-high fashion photographer from The Eyes of Laura Mars and he’s not Tommy Lee Jones (though Dunaway is forced to face another insane situation and work through her art), but it would be interesting for these two women to meet up in in the near future. They could discuss how colossally fucked up the world is and how it’s reflected, beautifully, in their photographs. Oh, and what about the Pentagon Papers? Watergate? Alan J. Pakula’s Klute and The Parallax View?
The mood around the fantastically entertaining, politically charged thriller, but, still, sad and rightfully paranoid, Three Days of the Condor, reminded me of another film photography discussion: Alan Arkin’s adaptation of Jules Feiffer’s darkly comic masterpiece Little Murders, also a film about alienated people surviving New York City (albeit with less Hollywood sheen, and more hilariously heightened paranoia). Marcia Rodd’s first sort of date after her violent “meet cute” finds her in Elliott Gould’s apartment, looking at what? His photography. Gould one-ups Dunaway’s desolate park benches by taking endless pictures of unhappy dogshit. And like Dunaway, he’s good at it too. Rodd compliments his pictures, but then starts psychoanalyzing in a more critical way: “Isn’t that awfully limited?” Gould explains this is all he likes to do and she says, “No wonder you’re depressed.” He says, calmly, bemused: “I’m not depressed.” She doesn’t believe him: “So, this is it? This all that you do? You don’t… ski?” All Gould can say is, “Ski?” You get the feeling Dunaway’s unseen “tough” and “understanding” boyfriend has said the same damn thing to her. “You really need to ski.” At least Redford gets her pictures and before they sleep together, asks to see more of them, the ones she doesn’t show people. And, to me, that is part of the reason why she begins trusting him.
Though some critics at the time (and now) don’t buy the romance between them, and the rapey undertones – that she would consent to sleep with a guy who has previously pushed a gun in her side, threatened violence and tied her up in the bathroom while pacing around her apartment rambling about reading for the CIA and who would invent a job like that and people are trying to kill him – because what the hell? This is a guy who looks like Robert Redford rambling insane shit, not a guy who looks like David Berkowitz. But so what of that – she’s a visual person – and this movie idol man is believably truthful (not “kind” she says about his eyes, but honest) and they have undeniable chemistry (you never know who you’re going to meet and how), that it’s sad when he’s worried he can’t even trust her at the end. As Pollack said in a 2007 interview: “It’s about a man in a paranoid business who trusts everyone – and he turns from that to a man who’s suspicious of everyone because of what happens to him. In the process, he meets a girl who trusts no one, who has her worst nightmare happen – a guy kidnaps her at gunpoint – and she finds that she blossoms. So, at the end of this movie, when they say goodbye, he’s the suspicious one, suspecting that she may tell on him.” Yes. That she finally believes his situation and helps him is not only touching, it’s also essential to Joe’s survival. Without her, he’d be dead.
We follow Joe, thrillingly, from one reveal after another, all of the layers culminating in a face-to-face with Max von Sydow’s brilliantly cool assassin Joubert (rogue for hire) who becomes (stick with me) something like Kathy: After all that, he helps Joe too. After offing Atwood (Addison Powell, CIA Deputy Director of Operations for the Middle East – the boss to Joe’s senior, Higgins (Cliff Robertson), CIA’s deputy director of the New York division), he warns Joe of smiling men in cars who look trustworthy but aren’t (Kathy would never trust someone like that either, just as Redford running up to her in the street outsideher car showed, and which her photography suggests). He recommends Joe become an assassin too – move to Europe – he’s good at this stuff. In their final scene, Joubert even brings up Kathy, the observational details, asking if he chose her based on age, her looks (Joe says it was random). Joubert hands him a gun and gives him a ride. We also wish for a moment (perversely, given the presented future occupation), that they’d go off together. Kathy, a fine suspicious fit for Joe and skilled at observation herself, had to leave. Taking off with von Sydow’s seductive, fine-boned creature seems appealing. But alas, Joe claims he’d miss America too much. “A pity,” Joubert says.
And, then back to Christmas in New York City. (The movie was adapted from James Grady’s novel, “Six Days of the Condor,” which I’ve not read, but it mercifully cuts down the timeframe of holiday hell). By the end, a smiling Higgins has a car for Joe on a crowded holiday-bedecked street while a likely miserable, alcoholic freezing-his-ass-off Santa Clause is ringing a bell. “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” is being sung (again, madness-inducing) while Joe attempts some kind of power through the press. It’s ambiguous if that’s going to work and Higgins tells Joe to get ready to become like one of Kathy’s photographs: Lonely. What the hell is going on in America? The world? Who to trust? Will any of this shit work? Merry Christmas.
Happy Christmas Eve! The New Beverly is showing The Silent Partner tonight, and I talked with my friend, the iconic Elliott Gould about starring in a very Canadian thriller. And more. Go see it tonight!
Kim Morgan: Thank you for talking with me about The Silent Partner. The theater is showing it on Christmas Eve…
Elliott Gould: I love that you’re doing that. It’s great.
KM: It’s a holiday favorite and a magnificent movie any time of the year. Daryl Duke is such a provocative, unique filmmaker – dark and funny. Payday is something of a masterpiece and so is The Silent Partner. How did you get involved with Daryl Duke and this project?
EG: Daryl was wonderful. Daryl was interested in me doing it. I read the script and the book. It’s an interesting book – “Think of a Number” – it was Scandinavian. And Curtis [Hanson] bought it or optioned the book and wrote the screenplay. I recall it took me a long time to commit to it. I’m slow, you know, I try to be deliberate. Or, on the other hand, I can be extremely impulsive and go too fast. Daryl and I were quite friendly, but I remember meeting with Daryl in the boardroom at the agency ICM, and it was just Daryl and me. And Daryl said to me: “I don’t want any of you in the picture.” And I thought, A. I’m not committed to your picture yet and who do you think I am? Who are you talking about?” So you have a reference of work I’ve done before? I mean, this is going to be something new for me. And I’m going to be something, hopefully, new enough for it. But I did adore Daryl Duke and we had a very good work relationship. We talked about doing other things together. Daryl was a friend.
KM: There are also so many excellent collaborators on this project… as well as being beautifully directed and acted, and it’s so wonderfully shot…
EG: Yes. You’ll find this interesting: Late evening in [an office] in Toronto, I was looking out the window with [cinematographer] Billy Williams, who had done Women in Love and then went on to do Gandhi – he was a great cinematographer. And I was looking out the window with him, and the sky was orange like it happens in the summer, and I knew we had a picture, because we were looking out of the window at the same time at the same light. Billy Williams is first class.
KM: And the score by Oscar Peterson…
EG: I met Oscar Peterson in London at a place called the White Elephant, in 1978, when I had gone on to start to make a remake of Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes. I was with Herb Gardner, the writer who wrote A Thousand Clowns andI’m Not Rappaport. I saw Oscar, and I said to him, “Are you validated? This is the first picture that you did and was it worth it?” And Oscar said, “Yes.” He was very happy with it and that made me feel good.
KM: Also John Candy…
EG: We introduced John Candy and one of the funny things is, his name in the script was “Simonson.” And the scene where the police came in to see what was going on with the robbery, I said “Simonson.” And I thought he should have a first name so they let me give him one. I dubbed him “Raoul.” “Raoul.” It was very intense in terms of where my character’s head was at, that scene. And when I’d say “Raoul” I couldn’t stop smiling because it was so funny.
KM: It’s a tense film, the action is unique – the scene through the mall with Christopher Plummer in the Santa Suit – as well as other scenes both violent or just at the office or at a party, they’re human and scary and, again, funny. Duke has a sly sense of humor …
EG: That’s interesting. Daryl used to do television; I think he used to do Steve Allen shows…
KM: I was reading early reviews of the movie when it came out, Roger Ebert in Chicago for instance, and he loved the movie and commented that it kind of came from nowhere. The movie didn’t show on enough screens. It deserved better.
EG: People were trying to drive a harder deal with Paramount and what a work like that would need, in terms of stimulating an audience, would be distribution and money to spend on prints and advertising… So I know that it played in Chicago… It played in South America. I had people from Argentina who said that they liked me so much that I could be with their horses. And horses mean a lot to people in Argentina. It was a good picture. It was different.
KM: The movie, its twists and turns, is rightfully compared to Alfred Hitchcock. You mentioned Hitchcock earlier…
ER: I met Mr. Hitchcock in 1977, when I was co-hosting a prime time network presentation show – the Photoplay Awards. After our last camera rehearsals the management came to me and said, “Alfred Hitchcock is here to collect his award, can he sit in your room?” My room was the closest to the stage. And I said, “Well, of course.” And so I went back to my room and there’s Alfred Hitchcock. This was the first time we met. And this was May of 1977 because I had finished Capricorn One, and I was going off to do The Silent Partner. And so I walked into my room and there was Alfred Hitchcock with an assistant and I said to him, “Are you going to make another film?” And he said to me, “I’m toying with one now.” And then he leaned closer to me and he said, “I said, I’m toying with one now but I don’t know if the audience still wants my fantasy.” To which I responded, “Without a doubt.” And then we talked a little bit about The Silent Partner, and he knew it. I went off to prepare to do The Silent Partner and I started to write to him. I wrote Mr. Hitchcock a couple of cards because I knew I wanted to keep that in mind. I wanted it to be a sort of Hitchcockian story. He was a perfect reference for The Silent Partner. And then, coincidentally, the next year, I didThe Lady Vanishes with Angela Lansbury and Cybill Shepherd – that’s when I started to communicate with Mr. Hitchcock and got the chance to spend some real quality time with him.
KM: Did you bring any of your earlier talk with Hitchcock into the movie? With Duke or Curtis Hanson?
EG: No, no. Curtis and I barely talked. We played liar’s poker and Daryl and I were quite friendly. I was not happy that he was taken off the picture. He wouldn’t do the beheading scene. I called Daryl in Vancouver and he said that what he stopped his work on it and he was a minute away from what he wanted.
EG: Well, it was him and Curtis Hanson until post-production when they took Daryl off the picture so they could shoot the beheading, which was never in the script.
KM: They took him off for that?
EG: No, the picture was done… I don’t know. I had never talked politics, that’s just what happened. Daryl Duke was great. I don’t think he wanted to shoot the beheading … they took him off for whatever reason… I thought that Daryl did an almost perfect job with the picture. And then I said, “I have to see this for myself because I don’t want my head being fucked with.” So on my own dime, I flew from Toronto to Vancouver to see Daryl’s print and they were right in the same place. And Daryl would not compromise. I got back on the road and went to Europe to work with David Niven and Gil Taylor, the cameraman, to do that picture [Escape to Athena].
KM: So … the beheading scene, who’s idea was it? Someone had the idea to put that scene in there to make the film more shocking and add extra impact?
EG: Maybe. I don’t know. I won’t speculate. All I know is that I did the picture with Daryl Duke and then in post-production, I did what they asked me to do. And then I flew out to see what Daryl’s version was, and they were close to the same. But they wanted that thing in it… I was not happy about it. Daryl really did a wonderful job… I mean, I really believe in loyalty. And perhaps that’s in terms of karma, that’s one of the reasons the picture didn’t go further because of that kind of… I can’t think of the word, there’s a word, it’s an interesting word and maybe I’ll flush it out since you and I are friendly. I don’t know what the word is, but it’s not so good.
KM: That’s curious because the picture reflects some of these things you’re talking about…
EG: Well, in a way it’s about integrity, which seems sort of peculiar. I’ve done a lot of things, especially Little Murders, something like that where I didn’t understand it. And people live lives – and you know this – they live their life and don’t understand what they’ve done or what they’re doing. But you’ve got to live it and experience it and then deal with it to make the adjustments.
KM: It does also extend to this movie where Miles is striving to have a better life…
EG: Better life? He’s striving to have a life! He’s the keeper of the vaults who cannot have a relationship with the girl he’s attracted to. And then he goes through this. The key in the jar of jam and then it getting thrown out and him having to run after the garbage truck…
KM: You’re always so great, so unique as a romantic lead. You have this magnetism that’s all your own
EG: Aw, that’s so kind of you. But he [Miles] was an interesting guy! It was way off center. I remember the clothes that they made for me. In the picture they attired me very well. And my apartment was interesting. Those details. The chess game. It was someone living in his head
KM: And then getting involved with the lovely Celine Lomez, which adds another layer and another attraction…
EG: It gives him some confidence. He didn’t have any confidence! And, also to go against that creepy guy that Christopher played. It gives him some balls.
KM: The chemistry is there with Susannah York where you think, why is she so interested in the bank manager?
EG: Well, listen, you know this: She needs some degree of security. And the bank manager was a youngish guy and [Michael Kirby] was a good actor. There was no chemistry between the manager and she, but there was some degree of security, something that was predicable. But it was unpredictable with Miles. I really appreciate that you’re going into the romantic part of it. It is quite romantic, the movie. The whole case is a very interesting metaphor in getting someone to come out and get involved in life.
KM: Plummer is really terrifying throughout the film, but by the end, he’s really under your thumb and seems almost vulnerable, which is interesting to think of then that he changes up from dressing as Santa Clause to dressing as a woman…
EG: Well, that was his thing. I can’t think of why necessarily. I’m sure you’re right. But he being dressed as a woman was just so creepy… and Plummer was avery very creepy guy in that part. Christopher was great. But [initially]… I had wanted Mick Jagger to do Christopher’s part. Mick, in honesty, is not so creepy. Or, David Bowie. I wouldn’t have necessarily seen Mick or David Bowie act. It would have been like, “I don’t know these people? Who are they? These are people from space.” But Christopher was great and he gave me a touch of class.
KM: Miles is one of your great characters. Did you at all approach him differently than other roles you’ve played?
EG: I approach everything from the same place and in the same way. It’s like what Alfred Hitchcock had said to me: It’s all music so therefore it’s a composition…
My piece on Anthony Burgess and A Clockwork Orange, the novel and movie, which plays one last night tonight, at The New Beverly.
“I think it’s the job of the artist, especially the novelist, to take events like that from his own life, or from the lives of those near to him, and to purge them, to cathartise the pain, the anguish, in a work of art.It’s one of the jobs of art. I think it was D.H. Lawrence who said, ‘We shed our sicknesses in works of art.’” – Anthony Burgess
Before writing A Clockwork Orange, Anthony Burgess thought he was going to die. This is what he said, anyway. An education officer in Malaya and Brunei, he began writing under the name Anthony Burgess (he was born John Burgess Wilson). He taught, reportedly argued with headmasters and led a rather unhappy, though insatiably intellectual life. He drank. So did his wife, who imbibed with extraordinary excess. But he did begin writing his novels, shaping his style and voice with that musical and linguistic obsession while observing, listening and soaking in the direct horror through his tragic first wife, a horror (not “horrorshow”) that would partly inspire his most famous work, A Clockwork Orange. That was likely the key event – what happened to his wife – this unfortunate Welsh woman named Lynne who, by many accounts, was an unpleasant libidinous lush; a woman who, at first, inspired Burgess but then angered him with her overindulgence and bed-hopping and god knows what else.He, too, apparently cheated. Given what happened to her, one’s drinking would likely increase, if one were an alcoholic, and one’s unpleasantness, too (my god, give Lynne a break, I keep thinking). But I’ll get back to her because there was that other thing. That medical emergency.
One day in 1959, Burgess collapsed while teaching and was rushed home – a brain tumor was the diagnosis. He was given less than a year to live. That’s whatBurgess had famously stated. Is this true? According to Burgess’ biographer Andrew Biswell and the reviews of the biography I pored over, perhaps, not? This could be some kind of Burgess fantasia (he lived 34 years past that). Perhaps he made up the condition? If not, it was obviously a misdiagnosis which is still terrifying, and I tend to want to believe his story, or a version of it, because he wrote numerous books in such short time. Write! Before you die! It makes sense. But it’s also interesting to consider the fantastic notion of it all. I am just postulating, but perhaps this marriage, this depressed wife poisoning herself required yet another narrative for himself? Another malady and one so directly deadly? Is it possible, as some critics speculated, that Lynne made it up to get out because he also wanted to get out? This mythology (possibly?) was the stimulus to create infamy and urgency, to make a case for the rest of his life, in which it seems a day did not go by that Burgess did not write something.
He wrote his dystopian masterwork, A Clockwork Orange (published in 1962), supposed diagnosis looming, marriage in shambles. As I re-watched Kubrick’s picture, I thought about the movie and I thought about Burgess; I kept reading Burgess’s back-and-forth reflections on the novel, years of interviews and autobiographical explanation, over and over (I surely I missed even more, there seemed to be so many). I then watched the movie again. Burgess’s haunted memories and, at times, guilt, hung over the picture like some kind of Kubrickian bi-proxy (whose own family would be threatened because of the movie, according to Kubrick’s wife), mirroring why it’s so powerful and enduring, upsetting and exciting. Why it gives you a rush and slaps you down, and almost guiltily, lifts you back up – a brilliant, sexy, disgusting, funny, violent political satire that thrills and sickens.
Kubrick’s opening shot, in which Alex stares directly at you, is challenging, hypnotic and complicit. We’re in this terrifying world and we’re rapt (which has repulsed and angered some viewers and critics – we’re stuck with this psycho as our leading antihero). I keep saying this about Kubrick – that he’s frequently and unfairly accused of coldness – but he’s not cold – his technical achievement and exacting detail, his perfected frames, his innovation; they are not mere show, and rather, enrich the material and deepen our feelings and discomfort as we gaze and listen and, of course, enjoy.
Because, you (or, I, rather) can’t not feel some kind of buzz for Malcolm McDowell’s Alex. His sociopathic joie de vivre and white-wearing, bowler-topped style is too seductive and musical, even as his actions sicken. This buzz does not mean getting off on the violence (though some surely do), and this buzz becomes a kill when Alex and his droogs are abusive, chiefly when beating up and raping the writer and his wife in their home (darkly humorously marked “Home” outside) while perverting “Singing in the Rain.” This scene is so distressing, messy and ugly, and yet, superbly graceful on the part of a magnificent McDowell that, the first time I saw it (on VHS, in high school) my friend stormed out of the room, distraught. Too much joy! My eyes remained peeled to the screen. I felt awful for this couple but I was transfixed. It was unlike so many other violent movies I had ever seen and remains so to this day. I am not desensitized by it. It’sso violating and so casually unmoved, their act, and yet it feels so incredibly personal. It was.
In an interview with the Village Voice, Burgess said: “It was the most painful thing I’ve ever written, that damn book… I was trying to exorcise the memory of what happened to my first wife [Lynne], who was savagely attacked in London during the Second World War by four American deserters. She was pregnant at the time and lost our child. This led to a dreadful depression, and her suicide attempt… It was the only way I could cope with the violence. I can’t stand violence. I loathe it. And one feels so responsible putting an act of violence down on paper. If one can put an act of violence down on paper, you’ve created the act! You might as well have done it! I detest that damn book now.”
Strong words. And not surprising. A stricken, despairing Lynne, a victim of group violence not unlike the droog attack, died a painful death in 1968 from liver failure. She drank herself to death. Burgess remarried the same year to an Italian translator and literary agent named Liana whom he was seeing as Lynne was fading. He remained married to Liana until he died. The movie was released in 1971 and Burgess became even more famous. Guilt? Survival? Sheer ambition? Probably all of it – Burgess is nothing if not complicated and so available to discuss (in interviews, on television, in his own reviewing) that his ubiquity somehow makes him even more mysterious and tough to unravel. Burgess finds beauty in this horrifying world but, at times, seems angry with himself. As relayed in the Second Volume of his autobiography (via David Hughes’ “The Complete Kubrick”) he said, “I saw that the book might be dangerous because it presented good, or at least harmlessness, as remote and abstract, something for the adult future of my hero, while depicting violence in joyful dithyrambs. Violence had to be shown, but I was sickened by my own excitement at setting it down.”
This, I find fascinating, how he dealt with his wife’s tragedy, if this was indeed the only way to exorcise those demons (Burgess said a lot of things). Working through pain and grief through a frightful, exciting teenager, whom he casts as narrator, Burgess walked through the fire of free will, creating startling ultraviolence, hipped-out hedonism and beauty. For a man like Burgess who mostly disdained youth culture and popular music, it’s interesting, then, that the book and movie continues to be a teenage rite of passage, and is referenced endlessly in popular culture – from David Bowie to New Order to The Simpsons.
But, again, what a horrifying and intriguing way to face his wife’s wrecked life: by putting yourself in the mind of a young, ebullient psychopath and finding sympathy. And, then, also finding joy in all the things Burgess found such distinct joy in – classical music, beauty and language – and giving that sociopath a language all his own (Nadsat), a kind of slang poetry that’s lowbrow and exquisitely formal at the same time (Kubrick compared Alex to Richard III). Reading one of Burgess’s New York Times’ pieces on poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, I thought of Alex-speak when he wrote: “Modernism was dangerous, and one of the marks of modernism was strangeness of language. Hopkins, like James Joyce, had bizarre compound words like ‘beadbonny’ and ‘fallowboot-fellow’; he seemed to be dragging the Germanic roots of English out of freshly dug earth.” I then thought of Alex reciting “Pied Beauty”: “Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings…” What a lovely thought, Alex saying such things. He could have. And then I remembered it was Alex – what would come after such beautiful verses?
The unduly harsh behavioral modification, the Ludovico technique, will solve nothing and removes any “Pied Beauty” from the world. And the bureaucrats are just as twisted as Alex. The movie’s final scene finds Alex, cured of the Ludovico, now some kind of celebrity, smiling while being spoon-fed by the apologetic Minister of the Interior. His face fixes into a wicked expression as he imagines himself naked with a beautiful woman, onlookers cheering him on. When Gene Kelly floods the soundtrack as the closing titles blast our eyeballs over red, we’re powerfully unmoored. This is only way to close the movie, in my mind. Burgess would not agree or, rather, he didn’t know what to think.
Burgess’s UK edition of the book included an extra last chapter in which Alex seeks goodness in life. This was not so in the U.S. edition and Kubrick didn’t know about it until he was already making the picture and wouldn’t have used it anyway. Burgess thought this was an extremely American point of view. He told the Paris Review: “Kubrick discovered the existence of this final chapter when he was halfway through the film, but it was too late to think of altering the concept. Anyway, he, too, an American, thought it too milk-and-watery. I don’t know what to think now. After all, it’s twelve years since I wrote the thing… They seem to me to express in a sense the difference between the British approach to life and the American approach to life. There may be something very profound to say about this difference in these different presentations of the novel. I don’t know; I’m not able to judge.”
When presented cinematically, Burgess and Kubrick’s ideas became even more dangerous to social hysterics who began blaming a rise in violent crime on the film, which both novelist and director resented. Kubrick famously pulled the film in 1974 (as previously mentioned, his family was receiving death threats), banning it from ever being shown in the British Isles and Ireland (this was reversed shortly after his death). As I’ve discussed, Burgess wavered on his novel, and the movie – he also resented that out of all of the works he published, it wasA Clockwork Orange most everyone talked about.
Even though Burgess and Kubrick were conflicted about the work (for various, seemingly mostly personal reasons), they would agree regarding the question (if it’s even a question – it’s been discussed ad nauseam): Should evil be erased and goodness be imposed? No, of course not. That’s totalitarianism and that’s dangerous. One of the most horrific maladies of Alex’s rehabilitation is how it sickens his love of Beethoven’s Ninth, so much that he must attempt suicide. This is, obviously, anathema to Burgess and Kubrick. The message sticks, of course, but it’s the way both novel and film present the “message” (this isn’t exactly a preachy film) through such a vivaciously twisted anti-hero, who returns right back where he was by film end, that makes the story so unique and compelling.
There’s a television interview of Burgess promoting the picture with Malcolm McDowell in which he says to moderator William Everson that he doesn’t find his work a depressing view of the future because he’s not “capable of getting depressed very much.” Curious, considering what influenced all of this. Presumably still on good terms with Kubrick (there was a falling out regarding the unrealized Napoleon project, and then his eventual resentment of Orange) he doesn’t appear haunted here but … Burgess gave good interview. He’s entertaining and eloquent in ways you don’t see on TV anymore. He sums up the work beautifully:
“I think that man is probably inherently bad or inherently anti-social. But, in a sense, men’s original sin is a product of his own will, he willed it himself and by curious paradox this will is a rather glorious thing to possess. There’s a terrible statement made by St. Augustine which all Christians like to forget, but what he said about the fall, the fall of Adam, was this: ‘Oh happy fault. Sins that produce so great a redeemer.’ In other words, the orthodox Christian must feel the fall from grace… was a good thing, that it produced Christ, and it’s a good thing on a secular level because it indicated man’s desire to make his own life, to work his will, to make mistakes, and in the process of making mistakes, produce, as kind of byproducts, things like art and beauty in the life. Out of this powerful libido of Alex for instance, in the book and in the film, there is also cognizant with it, a realization of a beauty of music, a beautiful world, a beauty of language. Alex is a man in that he is violent as men are, he loves music, he loves beauty and he loves language. These three things go all together. If you produce a human being without the will to do evil, if you produce a human being without the will to do anything, and certainly not the will to create. So, this is not in my view a gloomy view of man of all. It’s a fairly realistic view of what man is like and the book, and also the film, represent a kind of fabula treatment of this human condition. It is not the future, really, it can be the future if you will, but it’s just a period of time which is at a slant to real time.”
Burgess died in 1993 at 76 (a ripe old age considering his early diagnosis) and Kubrick in 1999, at age 70 (which, at the time, seemed premature and sudden). Though Burgess is impossible to sum up (no person should be so easily assessed), listening to him discuss the novel and movie in that earlier television clip, he seemed to be describing his own life, his possible mythology. Burgess, himself, reminds one why art and life are complex and not so simple to summarize or merely write off. And, in the case of A Clockwork Orange, writing off such thoughtful, innovative work as simply obscene or offensive. The book and movie continue to shock, sicken and inspire, while its creators, one who talked publicly (a lot) and the other, very little, are both endlessly analyzed (especially Kubrick), both still fascinatingly enigmatic. The work is alive and vital; our feelings toward it don’t sit there so easily and remain, as Burgess said, “a slant to real time.”
Here's my New Beverly piece on Stanley Kubrick's "Lolita. Playing tonight and tomorrow at the New Beverly Theater. Go see it!
With Lolita, Stanley Kubrick and Peter Sellers seemed to have conspired to trap and hound their players on screen. Kubrick with his camera, style and irreverence; Sellers with his clever, often improvised conscience-cracking pursuit of the tortured romantic intellectual James Mason.
In various disguises, Sellers’ hipster Claire Quilty follows Mason’s lovesick academic Humbert Humbert from town to town, school to school, motel to motel, house to house almost as a fully realized figment of Humbert’s guilty conscience – a guy just running around, like some cool Dostoyevskian double; a riddling reminder of his rationalized desire soiling his poetic, abiding love. The chameleon/impersonator vulgarian Quilty, a rival who knows exactly what the more “distinguished” Humbert is: a pervert. No love poems or odes to that light of his life are going to change that, nor will it make him stop pursuing that lovely blonde fire of his loins, for he’s an exploiter too. And that bedevils Humbert as he holds his unacceptable amour so tightly to his heart. Only death will make the devil stop watching, talking, reminding and bizarrely deconstructing. As such, even Quilty’s not going to make it out alive. But like a camera, he reveals, he notices and he also mocks.
Says Quilty (impersonating a police officer): “I notice human individuals – and I noticed your face. I said to myself when I saw you – I said, ‘That’s a guy with the most normal-looking face I ever saw in my life…’ It’s great to see a normal face because I’m a normal guy. It would be great for two normal guys like us to get together and talk about world events – you know, in a normal sort of way… May I say one other thing to you? It’s really on my mind. I’ve been thinking about it quite a lot. I noticed when you was checking in, you had a lovely, pretty little girl with you. She was really lovely. As a matter of fact, she wasn’t so little, come to think of it. She was fairly tall, what I mean, taller than little, you know what I mean. But, uh, she was really lovely. I wish I had a lovely, pretty tall, lovely little girl like that, I mean… Your daughter? Gee, isn’t it great to have a lovely, tall, pretty little, small daughter like that, it’s really wonderful.”
Kubrick obviously notices too (it’s his job, his art) taunting “normal” like Quilty and taking in Humbert’s handsome, haunted face, making him both constantly stricken, intelligent but pretentious and stupidly, pathetically lovesick. And then, of course, the iconic introduction of Lolita (a brilliant Sue Lyon) in hat, sunglasses and bikini, Nelson Riddle’s “Lolita Ya Ya” gently mocking Humbert’s heart – that’s a picture no one ever forgets. She’s a beautiful “normal” teenage girl, but through Humbert’s eyes, she’s love at first sight (viewers feel this gasp as well). Kubrick snapped those observations beautifully, first through his innate, precocious talent with photography (he started early, a teenager himself at age 17, the youngest staff photographer at LOOK Magazine; he likely saw a lot of weird adult behavior through young eyes). As I’ve written about Kubrick’s photography in previous pieces, notably Killer’s Kiss, Young Kubrick “honed his craft on the street and in the darkroom – lighting, composition and of course, drama– the drama of life and how to capture it in an image – sometimes made surreal by the sheer intensity of reality.” Humbert looking at “normal” pretty America girl Dolores Haze is an intense reality.
And reality is so heightened in Lolita (adapted, with changes, from Vladimir Nabokov’s masterpiece) that the absurd, but perfectly absurd Claire Quilty enters the picture relentlessly (Pauline Kael aptly called Sellers’ performance surrealist – it is), and his strange, often nasty humor finds himself at a high school dance as if this is perfectly normal. It’s not. And yet it is. There’s always some “cool” exploiter hanging around teenage girls (just ask one). Being a young teenage girl is one “normal,” bumbling, bizarre, crush-worthy, inappropriate, terrifying pass after another – and many girls, like Dolores Haze, are so used to it, they roll their eyes and sip on their soda, demanding a sandwich with lots of mayonnaise because, why not? It’s not like these lecherous looks and embarrassing odes of love are going to stop. Eat all of their bacon while you’re at it too. Some might think that’s flippant on the filmmaker’s part, but to me, Sue Lyon’s Lolita, mixed-up and fatherless, attracted and flattered but also mockingly amused, is doing what she can to survive through all this.
She’s also utilizing a power that is admirable, but will hurt her in the end. A lot of girls struggle with this power as men wind up blaming them for that very power they were so enamored with in the first place. Humbert is “forgiving,” which has marked him (with much understandable argument) as the unreliable narrator/tragic romantic hero of the story (particularly the novel). Is this a love story? It is on Humbert’s end of it, but not really Lolita’s. Clearly it’s not that simple. And, even past her female prime (to Humbert’s abnormal age range) and pregnant, he still loves her. From the novel: “I insist the world know how much I loved my Lolita, this Lolita, pale and polluted, and big with another’s child, but still gray-eyed, still sooty-lashed, still auburn and almond, still Carmencita, still mine… even if those eyes of hers would fade to myopic fish, and her nipples swell and crack, and her lovely young velvety delicate delta be tainted and torn…” But, she’s not going to return to him.
Working from the novel (published in the U.S. in 1958), one of the greatest novels ever written (Nabokov did get a screenplay credit, he wasn’t entirely thrilled with the movie), Kubrick’s Lolita faced scrutiny on many fronts: For being obscene, for not being obscene enough, for changing the novel, for not being as brilliant as the novel, and for the casting of Sue Lyon, who was upped two years (Nabokov’s 12 to Kubrick’s 14). In the book, Humbert is not fond of the “older” girls – coeds: “There are few physiques I loathe more than the heavy low-slung pelvis, thick calves and deplorable complexion of the average coed (in whom I see, maybe, the coffin of coarse female flesh within which my nymphets are buried alive).”
To Nabokov’s Humbert, Lyon would be on the precipice of being trapped in that flesh coffin and some critics thought she was too, well, understandably sexy; they didn’t feel uncomfortable about this young woman. The New York Times’ Bosley Crowther wrote of Lyon: “She looks to be a good 17 years old, possessed of a striking figure and a devilishly haughty teen-age air. The distinction is fine, we will grant you, but she is definitely not a ‘nymphet.’ As played by Sue Lyon, a newcomer, she reminds one of Carroll Baker’s ‘Baby Doll.’ Right away, this removes the factor of perverted desire that is in the book and renders the passion of the hero more normal and understandable.”
“More Normal.” Jeez, well, she was 14-years old when she started the picture, Bosley Crowther, but never mind that. We do understand the attraction. The nymphet was an alluring presence in popular culture (still is), particularly by 1962 when the name “Lolita” conjured up a particular type: Tuesday Weld, who was up for the part (she said, “I didn’t have to play it. I was Lolita.”), Hayley Mills (also a contender) and even James Mason’s own daughter, Portland, whom Mason reportedly requested as an option for young Lo. Yes, James Mason’s own 14-year-old daughter as Lolita. Can you imagine?
While Lyon is more self assured and sexy, not removing Humbert’s pedophilia, but making him more an ephebophile, she is, like Lolita in the novel, a typical young girl eating potato chips, making faces and annoyed with her mother. She’s got Humbert wrapped around her finger while later being sexually abused (even with her consent, law and morality says she’s too young to consent) and trapped by him, all the while her obnoxious mama (a fantastic Shelley Winters, more heightened and physically different from Nabokov’s Charlotte Haze) brays and moans and competes with her daughter (at one point calling Lolita “homely”). Mama Haze has gotta go too – by terrible accident. After losing her mind (you really feel sorry for her at this point) from reading her boarder-turned husband Humbert’s diary (“The Haze woman…the cow…the obnoxious Mama…the brainless baba.”), she runs in the rain and is hit by a car. From then, Humbert is now free to grab Lolita from Camp Climax (lots of double entendres in the picture), take her on the road, consummate the union, finally inform her of her mother’s passing (It takes him a while. Lolita sobs) and settle down with his stepdaughter with a position at Beardsley College. She goes to school, hangs out with friends (at the Frigid Queen) and continually upsets him for trying to have a normal teenage life. This is all not normal, but like any toxic relationship, he’s pushing her away with his insufferable jealousy and controlling rules. Lolita spits: “You’re driving me crazy. You won’t let me do anything. You just want to keep me locked up with you in this filthy house! Someday you’re going to regret this. You’ll be sorry…” He is.
Where can she go? To Claire Quilty, the only guy she’s really crazy about, as she says, a man who lives in a perverse pleasure dome of, not romance, but potential porno movies (she won’t make one) and one who seems to be sitting in a director’s chair right next to Kubrick. Kubrick and Sellers got under the skin of Humbert/Mason and Charlotte/Winters, the two “parents,” perhaps to heighten how silly and tragic their fate is on screen.
As written in David Hughes’ “The Complete Kubrick”:
“On more than one occasion, Mason stormed off the set, infuriated either by Sellers’ spontaneity or his own inability to match it. As Shelley Winters later wrote, [‘Peter] seemed to be acting on a different planet.’ Indeed, Winters found difficulties making a connection with both Sellers and Mason, but, although she frequently brought this to Kubrick’s attention, the director did nothing to alleviate her isolation. ‘Whenever I complained to Kubrick about trying to connect with my two leading men, he would agree with me,’ she recounted. ‘But he didn’t change their performances, and this very frustration that I had in real life was what was so sad and funny about Charlotte. I never felt anyone was listening to me when I talked.’ She added, ‘Again, I didn’t understand the lonely quality it gave [my character] until I saw the film.’”
So Lolita flees those parents – through Charlotte’s death, through the lure of Quilty and then, through marriage and pregnancy. She’ll die (in the novel), but you feel that pall hanging over her in the film whether in epilogue or not. It’s heartbreaking and ridiculous, because love is often heartbreaking and ridiculous; and also often selfish and hypocritical (“Because you took advantage”). And then there is, again, Kubrick and Sellers, nearly merging into each other, making an in-joke about Kubrick’s other movie, Sellers as Quilty even sounds like Kubrick:
Humbert Humbert: Are you Quilty?
Clare Quilty: No, I’m… Spartacus. You come to free the slaves or sumpn?
Humbert Humbert: Are you Quilty?
Clare Quilty: Yeah, yeah, I’m Quilty, yeah, sure.
“Yeah, sure.” This is all a heightened perverse reality, but many understand it when looking within our desires and darker selves or, for many women, thinking of our own childhoods. And many of us laugh with the darkness. And we hum along… “Ya ya…”
“I want to leave, to go somewhere where I should be really in my place, where I would fit in . . . but my place is nowhere; I am unwanted.” — Jean-Paul Sartre, “Nausea”
“Fate had determined that he should leave none of his race behind him, and that he should finish his life poor, lonely and childless.” – Narrator, “Barry Lyndon”
Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon is a big, beautiful tomb, a rhythmically hypnotic death march, an exquisite painting that traps a man within its brush strokes and never lets him go. It’s also startlingly moving and emotional; a film of sadness and humor and, at times, painful splendor. It’s not, as some critics have opined, a walk through a museum, a magnificent coffee table book, a cold exercise in art direction and mere Kubrickian geometry (though Kubrick’s design is essential to the story). Kubrick wrenched our hero (young to older Redmond Barry/Barry Lyndon) from the pages of William Makepeace Thackeray’s 1844 serialized novel, the ironically titled “The Luck of Barry Lyndon” and imprisoned him even more than Lyndon’s author-master Thackeray (and Lyndon’s own unreliable narrator – himself). Barry Lyndon lives in a movie now, and a Stanley Kubrick movie – an imperious place to inhabit. Lyndon’s new master wields a camera and as the Irish rogue attempts to escape his fate, he can’t. Like Jack Torrance haunting the halls of the Overlook, Lyndon’s never busting out of this life, not even in death. He’ll end up stuck in time, in a Kubrick freeze-frame, omniscient narrator asserting his future. He’s as fixed as Torrance is in that topiary maze. But unlike Torrance, Lyndon’s entrapment fills us with sadness. Barry Lyndon is a flawed hero; a potentially detestable fuck-up, but a fragile, bullying, duplicitous, charming and stupid man. In the end, he’s profoundly human.
At that time an All-American heartthrob; Ryan O’Neal played our sad-faced fuck-up Redmond Barry/Barry Lyndon. An odd choice it seemed to many in Love Story-sick 1975 (Kubrick originally wanted Robert Redford), but O’Neal was/is perfect, which Kubrick swiftly learned while filming his pretty protagonist. There’s something about O’Neal’s face that’s just right – his blankness hides either a mysterious hurt or a void (or both); he’s soft-skinned and just a bit doughy, and though handsome, he’s not chiseled-handsome in that way tough leading men are when they, well, lead. He can’t properly bargain with a robbing highwayman and, yet, the man will let him keep his boots because, look at that poor, lovely face. His lips curl with an almost female sensuality but also a smirk. He’s perpetually boyish, making his aging feel all the more ragged and strange – the dark circles under his eyes against his supple skin seem extra pronounced, extra haunted (and surely given Kubrick’s demanding amount of takes, O’Neal was genuinely tired and aged by the time filming was completed).
Kubrick is expert at torturing our All-American movie stars – he did the same with Tom Cruise in Eyes Wide Shut in which Cruise played a somewhat similar character, one who is in over his head and moving through a world of wealth and Bohemian Grove-like hedonism that he can’t understand. Cruise is all lost-eyed and stupidly, humanly upset – wandering through places he doesn’t belong, trying to enjoy an adventure or solve a mystery or simply get laid (Barry Lyndon has more success in all of those areas but, still, never quite belongs). Like O’Neal, he’s both meaningful and hilarious without even knowing it himself (as character and probably as actor too). You feel Sydney Pollack stepping in as Lyndon narrator: “Bill, do you have any idea how much trouble you got yourself into last night just by going over there? Who do you think those people were? Those were not just some ordinary people. If I told you their names… no, I’m not going to tell you their names… but if I did, I don’t think you’d sleep so well at night.”
Redmond Barry/Barry Lyndon seems to sleep OK (though his eyes show otherwise) as he moves up the 18th century ranks from the ordinary, a young Irish man so trembling with love for his cousin, he can’t find the neck ribbon she alluringly hides in the top of her dress, buried in her bosom: “If you find it, you can have it. You are free to look anywhere for it. I will think little of you if you do not find it.” Jealous with her love of another, and with little means to support her, he shoots his rival in a duel (which turns out to be a set-up). He then moves on to fight in the Seven Years War, and then, in a series of circumstances, enters the Prussian Army. He becomes a gambler and an operator, realizing he’d better marry into wealth to secure any kind of future for himself, which leads him (romantically, yet with little soul – Kubrick manages to convey both) to the beautiful Lady Lyndon (Marisa Berenson) and her son (Leon Vitali) who will come to loathe him and later avenge himself and his mother. That vengefulness will result in a duel, circling back to the death of his father in a duel (Barry Lyndon is searching for a father figure throughout the movie, only to become a father) and his own tricked duel over his cousin. It all encloses Barry towards tragedy – at this point he’s already lost his spoiled biological son (David Morley), he’s losing his unhappy marriage (understandably, he cheats, lies, spends), and is going flat broke due to his stupidity and social climbing. Barry Lyndon ruins everything — by his own doing, by his sensible need to survive (handled, without sense) and by fate. It all falls apart.
That it falls apart in these resplendent frames gorgeously lit (by John Alcott) with available light and candlelight (using special lenses -getting into the technical detail of this picture is another essay), moving unhurriedly with slow zooms, gives viewers the sensation of truly watching a painting come to life, its creations ominously trapped inside. The coldness some critics complained about and the knowing eventuality of their fate (as narrated) is the point. We understand it’s all going to hell for Barry Lyndon, but we are transfixed, wanting to know how, wanting to watch how. Kubrick’s perfected aesthetic inspired by 18th century paintings and music tuned to, among other composers, Handel, Schubert, Vivaldi, Bach and Verdi, creates a stunning, lyrical universe of relentless insensitivity and cynicism spiked by moments of sloppy violence (his brutal outburst to his stepson which makes society turn against him) and heartbreaking anguish (his biological son’s death, the death of his friend whom he kisses on the lips). Even as you know what will happen next, you’re held in suspense, worried and tense with both a pervasive dread and a dark sense of humor. Kubrick works a certain kind of magic, not through talk so much (which might be another reason some critics don’t appreciate it – not enough memorable dialogue – I think there is, but perhaps “If you find it, you can have it” didn’t quite catch on), but through his inspired, innovative understanding of everything cinematic. Everything. Barry Lyndon is a masterpiece.
As John Hofsess wrote (in 1976) of his reassessment of the film for The New York Times: “‘I have no head above my eyes,’ replied Thackeray to these criticisms – a line that Kubrick could borrow to advantage. A second viewing of the film did not alter my lack of resolution. Then one night about another week later, I played the soundtrack recording – Handel’s ‘Sarabande,’ Women of Ireland’ by The Chieftans, and so on, and suddenly experienced a strong surge of emotion… Kubrick’s films have a way – at least with some people – of working on in the mind, of passing through all the stages from irritation to exhilaration.”
Yes. Barry Lyndon moves along from scene to scene, building up inside of you with varied emotions — it soaks into your subconscious almost alarmingly so. It “gets” you when you least expect it. Suddenly, this good-for-nothing rogue moves you or, you’re just moved by the melancholy and inevitability of tragedy – what many of us feel when challenged by life or observing its punitive absurdity. It’s almost creepy that way – how Kubrick makes a movie that riddles you with reflection and, in some cases, overwhelms you with sadness.
Barry Lyndon lingers. It lingers so much that I will often think of Ryan O’Neal’s stupid tragic eyes, yearning to reach for that neck ribbon, an innocent who will enter a world of rot and become rot. And then I think of him drunk, collapsed in his chair, a broken man. There have been many neck ribbons by that point and so what? And what does it mean? You have to think about it, search within yourself while these beautiful images soak into your soul. And Kubrick knew this power. As Kubrick said, “The most important parts of a film are the mysterious parts – beyond the reach of reason and language.”
Showing tonight at the New Beverly. John Casavetes' sublime, underrated "Too Late Blues."
“I am trying to show the inability of people to recognize that society is ridiculous. Hardly anyone obeys the mores, but they respect them. If they are exposed breaking the mores their lives can collapse. Our hero is not a coward, but in covering up this failure he destroys everything else that is important to him. A silly search for mores reduces the great, wonderful hero of the story into a cheap individual with no morals and ethics and no place to go.” – John Cassavetes on "Too Late Blues"
Everyone in Too Late Blues is miserable. And I mean miserable. That is in no way a condemnation of the picture, not at all, as this is a beautifully realized collection of melancholic musicians (also an agent, B-girls, a couple of bartenders and a touchy tough guy) who are depicted as humanely, compellingly and explicably miserable in a way that only John Cassavetes (who co-wrote, with Richard Carr, and produced and directed the picture) grooves on with his particular kind of dignity for the defeated. Some don’t know how miserable they are, they’re even laughing and exuberant at times, but we can feel it throughout the picture – it just hangs over these characters with their respected musical purity and perilous futures in a world that manages to grind down your purity and grind down your debasement (and yes, the world can grind down your sullying even more than you thought). Though none of these individuals are really trying to maintain a bright outlook since they know how life goes, they’ve been around. They’re also not ready to chuck away their dreams even when they go “commercial” (for a time). That should be a positive. It is. In an easier world. And so they walk from room to room, bar to bar, gig to gig, haunted. It’s no wonder the lead character’s name is Ghost (Bobby Darin) – his ego might ruin him to that fate – a potential phantom, a guy people talk about from the past, leaving stale smoke and circles on bars behind him while maybe, just maybe his real music will be playing somewhere, a memory. Or maybe he’ll make it his way. Cassavetes did (but by 1961, while he was directing this picture, he hadn’t yet), and one can’t help but see the anxious, questioning parallels between Ghost and Cassavetes.
Darin’s Ghost Wakefield is a mushy-faced jazz cat and some might argue he’s miscast. He’s not. His drive to keep his artistic integrity, no matter if his band complains about playing in parks to birds and trees, living off nothing, is portrayed with the drive of a guy with lots of talent, lots of charm, but a hell of a lot more insecurity than he’s letting on. Darin in real life was a mushy-faced singer with loads of talent and though he was popular, he always seemed a bit off-center, not quite as cool as he would have liked, but not as square either. In Too Late Blues Darin entirely gets the anger and ego of a guy with talent to burn playing dumps, fighting during recording sessions and dealing with scummy agents while trying to do what he loves. He’s seen this world before. You can tell. And he’s both poignant and completely unlikable all at once.
You can also tell that Stella Stevens (who plays Jess) the beleaguered B-girl and singer, has seen some sleazy situations in her time. Fresh off her Playboy 1960 Centerfold and just a few films roles she floats into the picture a petrified beautiful bird, nervously scatting with a seasoned jazz pro and ends it a suicidal wet-haired feral cat, once again singing in her wordless, almost disturbing near incantations. She’s heartbreaking – a broken young woman who has been so used, she can slip from quiet, contemplative junkie (without ever shooting up – her character just oozes opiate addiction and trauma) to drunk and boisterous to runny-eye-makeup, furious good time girl. She’s acting a part when she’s out hooking sliding right into the role men want her to be, but when she’s faced with actually loving someone (in this case, Ghost) she’s an emotional wreck. She’s also so vulnerable that one contemptuous moment from Ghost and she’s gone. She sleeps with his musician friend who is, as she says, bigger than him. She repeats this with emphasis so you get that she doesn’t just mean taller.
And yet, the film never judges her. Cassavetes is so understanding of this kind of woman that the picture feels downright radical in that regard. She’s not just a whore – she’s not even sure what she is – and that’s sad, not ugly. And Ghost (who will become kept himself by a rich woman playing music just for the scratch) well, what right does he have to judge? Ghost may represent the movie’s mixed idealism and egoism of holding onto your vision, but Stevens is its vulnerable center. She’s spinning from one place to another, even a baseball field, with all of these men swirling around her either telling her she’s worth something or distracting her from the purity of not just music (for she can sing) but of her own self. She is so down and depressed that her later, very physical meltdown in a bathroom is so shattering it almost takes you by surprise. We knew she was despondent and yet, she’s so brilliant in this moment, we are genuinely taken aback by just how despondent she really is. As Cassavetes reflected: “I see women in bars, crazy girls who don’t want to be themselves and who don’t want to admit what they are. They’re difficult people. They’re hard to talk to. But to me they’re like a mother; awkward, pretty young girls.” He’d known these women. And, again, Stevens must have, too. She’d likely known these men.
And Cassavetes knew about the struggle of working for dough. This was Cassavetes’ second picture after directing his groundbreaking, independent Shadows and starring in his “commercial” TV show, Johnny Staccato, and his first time directing under a studio (Paramount). He was allowed neither his casting choices with the leads (he wanted Montgomery Clift and his wife, Gena Rowlands) nor his preferred location (he wanted New York City, the film was shot and set in Los Angeles), but, according to Ray Carney’s ‘Cassavetes on Cassavetes,’ he felt some optimism bringing most of his trusted friends and crew along: Shadows cast members Seymour Cassel, Cliff Carnell, Rupert Crosse and Marilyn Clark; Johnny Staccato actors Val Avery and Everett Chambers; American Academy of Dramatic Arts alums like Bill Stafford, James Joyce and Vince Edwards. Both his co-scripter and his cameraman (Lionel Lindon, a veteran who also shot for John Frankenheimer, including The Young Savages, All Fall Down and The Manchurian Candidate) worked on Johnny Staccato. He was given freedom in spite of some stipulations, and he worked beautifully with his cast and musicians (Shelly Manne, Red Mitchell, Jimmy Rowles, Benny Carter, Uan Rasey, Milt Bernhart a score by David Raskin, and Slim Gaillard shows up in the film as well).
The picture is also gorgeously shot, the black and white cinematography giving us a life where men and women live, play, fight and drink by night, only to look strangely awkward in the daylight (Ghost remarks how beautiful Jess looks in the sunlight partly because she’s never in the sunlight). Though it has less the ragged experimentalism of Shadows, the composition and interiors and the lack of an actual street life (it’s just a lot of darkness out there, or a depressing pool lighting up the outside of Jess’ pad) powerfully conveys the claustrophobia of club life. One second it’s fun and dancing, the next it’s Vince Edwards punching and screaming about needles in pockets, hollering about dope fiends. Everything feels entombed and perilous all at once. Never mind how anyone breaks through this life, how does anyone break through this room? The picture is something near a masterpiece.
But, never mind all that. Like Ghost compromising his 100 percent artistic vision, Cassavetes wasn’t happy with the end result. He didn’t get the edit he wanted (and that edit would have been interesting, likely greater than this one). The movie didn’t do well and some of those ready to attack him for going commercial jumped on him. He wound up making another picture for Paramount that proved even more upsetting (A Child Is Waiting) and would eventually make one of his finest films, Faces.
As Cassavetes said about working with the studio: “All I care about is making a movie I believe in. Everyone else in the room with me, they’re concerned with figures rather than people and emotions. They only care about money. There are no artists in the room with me, only bankers. I’m all alone.”
Making art just for money? Compromise? Thankfully, Cassavetes created his own kind of career so he wouldn’t have to. But, Too Late Blues’ Ghost? He might get the group back together and go places. Other than that, he’s miserable. Miserable in a magnificent movie.
An excerpt from my piece on John Cassavetes making Machine Gun McCain magnificent. Playing tonight at the New Beverly. Read the entire piece here.
The way John Cassavetes seduces Britt Ekland in Giuliano Montaldo’s Machine Gun McCain is a three-minute Master Class in multi-faceted acting – multi-faceted acting in a potentially stupid scene.
Cassavetes plays Hank McCain, a tough, mysterious bank robber newly released from prison, out on the town alone, hungry for company; hungry for something (in one scene, he’s hungry for a hot dog, which he enjoys like a guy fresh from the joint: “Looks like you haven’t seen one of these in years” the hot dog vendor says. Cassavetes looks back annoyed). He skulks around the San Francisco Red Light district circa late 1960s with its enticing topless bars and sex shows, men milling about searching for a screw or a look, marquees blazing temptations like: “The Original Nude on the Swing, Hippie, Or a Fun Risqué Show!” He doesn’t look happy on this quest, more unsettled, uncomfortable. Not because he’s a square (a square he is not) but because that’s how a guy stuck in the slammer for over a decade would look and act upon release – uneasy, distrustful. You can see it on his face as he observes the changed world around him: He’s dissatisfied, lonely and a little awkward.
Why is this scene so good? Because, as stated, Cassavetes, that’s why. In another actor’s hands, it could have played simply studly – look at this big, bad criminal hooking in this hot mama. Score. There’s some of that unabashed cool here of course, but Cassavetes imbues the scene with enough longing and angst, even a kind of hatred for the drooling men (is this tough guy gallantry or self hatred?), that you roll with the instinct and curiosity of her going home with him. It helps that he looks like John Cassavetes and she’s whatever she’s supposed to be (she seems more miserable and lost than a good-time-girl), but the scene feels more interesting than that. Her rather clueless role in the movie is helped shaped by how good his acting is and by following his lead; he’s already defining how strange she is as his future accomplice. Even his potentially offensive rough lovemaking once they get down to it is more human than anything else: aggressive and scary, hungry and vulnerable, weird and real. Cassavetes moves through these varied states throughout the movie – a lone wolf, but a man in some kind of existential dilemma, fighting to maintain his own self in a fucked-up world. And, as cool as he is, he’s not gonna win that fight.
Read my entire piece here...
Here's an excerpt from my piece John Cassavetes' romantic, poignant, emotionally volatile and movie-drenched, "Minnie and Moskowitz," playing this Saturday at the New Beverly. Read the entire piece here. And don't miss it at on the big screen in beautiful 35 MM at the New Beverly, Nov. 19 at midnight.
“I wish my life was a non-stop Hollywood movie show. A fantasy world of celluloid villains and heroes. Because celluloid heroes never feel any pain and celluloid heroes never really die.” – The Kinks, “Celluloid Heroes”
Movies set you up. That’s what movie lover Minnie Moore (Gena Rowlands) emphatically states to her older friend and co-worker, Florence (Elsie Ames), after the two women spend an evening out watching Casablanca. They drink wine in Florence’s dark little apartment and they talk; they talk like realwomen. It’s a disarmingly frank discussion between a much older woman with a younger woman about sex, men, doing what they can to please men (who seem to want everything from them, their heart, their soul, as Minnie states, only to learn men really don’t want it when they finally get it), loneliness and… movies. And yet, that “set up,” that fantasy, hangs over Minnie and Moskowitz in a complicated manner that neither damns the siren call of cinema nor negates their delusional pull. Perhaps we need movies. Perhaps we need them to realize we don’t need to believe in them? Perhaps to realize they’re often lovely, but often a lot of lovey bullshit? That’s how beautifully complex writer director John Cassavetes makes Minnie and Moskowitz – it’s just not that simple. Nothing in the Cassavetes universe is that simple.
As Minnie says: “You know, I think that movies are a conspiracy. I mean it…. They are actually a conspiracy because they set you up, Florence. They set you up from the time you were a little kid. They set you up to believe in everything. They set you up to believe in ideals and strength and good guys and romance and of course, love. Love, Florence… So, you believe it. You go out. You start looking. Doesn’t happen and you keep looking…. There’s no Charles Boyer in my life, Florence. I never even met a Charles Boyer. I never met Clark Gable, I never met Humphrey Bogart. I never met any of them… They don’t exist, Florence. That’s the truth. But the movies set you up. They set you up and no matter how bright you are, you believe it. ”
Morgan Morgan: “Uh-uh. I don’t care anything… I don’t know anything about cinema. I don’t like it. Bunch of lonely people, looking up. Forget about it.
Seymour: You don’t like Bogart?
Morgan Morgan: I only like one: Wallace Beery
See, even Morgan Morgan likes one movie star.
From my interview published at The New Beverly Theater.
Actress, icon, mother and integral collaborator with husband John Cassavetes on some of the most important American films ever made, Gena Rowlands has been a guiding light in independent cinema for more than 50 years. I talked with the four-time Emmy, two-time Golden Globe and honorary Oscar winner ahead of November’s John Cassavetes Film Festival at the New Beverly.
Kim Morgan: We are so happy and honored to have you come present at The New Beverly for this John Cassavetes retrospective.
Gena Rowlands: I’m very happy that’s it’s going to show there!
KM: As I re-watched all of these films (and I know people must say this to you all the time) but once again, I was really struck by how modern they are and still are today. And not only that your husband and collaborator, John Cassavetes, financed his films, but how he directed, the visuals, how he followed actors, how fluid the camera is, and then, how he will focus on or frame a face. You were with him from the very start of his directing career. Was this a natural fit for you right away?
GR: Yes! It started out as an independence with us, so that [we could make] things we were interested in. John would write them, I would act in them and all of the actor friends we enjoyed working with would be in them. It was really, quite easy. We just wanted to write and act what people actually say and do; people who are living. John and I were really on the same wavelength.
KM: In terms of acting and living, realty; I’ve read that John in the beginning was somewhat anti-method, that he appreciated actors from the method, but that that type of acting had become a bit outdated and mannered, and what you two were doing was something more real and natural …
GR: Well, I really think it’s mostly due to John’s wonderful talent. And he saw things in a very easy, protective way. Movies that are made by studios are different, or they were at the time we started especially. They were bigger, expensive and they have their own quality that’s fun…
KM: But you also both seem to have a love for older movie stars and different types or styles of acting as well, embracing, well, great acting.
GR: Oh, sure. We loved old movie stars! And Opening Night has Joan Blondell in it.
KM: And she’s so great in it…
GR: She’s one of my very favorites. l love her.
KM: In Shadows, you’re not in the film, but did you have any influence or watch the process?
GR: No. I didn’t have any influence on Shadows. And not really as much involvement, which would seem natural because I was on stage at that time with Edward G. Robinson in Middle of the Night. He actually started Shadows with some of his acting buddies and it was totally theirs. It was their improvisations. After having done a lot of improvisation they decided to turn it into a movie. But I deserve no credit at all [laughs]. And I love that picture. The performances. But that’s the first one [with all improvising]. And then, after that, he wrote everything.
KM: You did a lot of early TV work as well. So many great actors, actors who show up in John’s movies, did TV work in addition to stage and movies… You, obviously, John, Ben Gazzara… was there anything from working in early television that you learned as well?
GR: You know, I’m not sure. If you liked to act you just go ahead and act. I know there are many people who feel there’s a certain kind of training that you should have like the method, and I have nothing against method actors, they’re terrific and most of my friends are method actors. But you don’t necessarily have to have training. You just have to love to do it.KM: With Faces, I love the characterizations. The movie and style breaks stereotypes so often seen in movies. You’re playing a prostitute but you’re not the hooker with the heart of gold, but you’re also not a negative character, you’re a human being, you have your own complications and difficulties and charms. Everything in that movie is so fresh and exciting. Did you really think, early on, that you were part of a new independent movement? Or starting one?
GR: We actually didn’t think about it so much. We just did it the way we felt — that this is how the characters would act. Most of the credit should go to John because he’s the one who thought up all of these characters and made them the humans they were. And then he let us do what we wanted to. They were largely written, and yet, there was always room for improvisation. If suddenly something seemed reasonable to do and you did it, he was very easy with that.
KM: You are presenting two of his finest movies, and two of your finest performances, A Woman Under the Influence and Opening Night. A Woman Under the Influence always blows me away, always moves me. It’s so finely realized, so in tune with all of those small, unstable things people do when they are suffering – not just large gestures – though those come as well. Your facial expressions, your movements. I know it was tightly scripted, but how much of that was your doing?
GR: It’s my favorite role of all time because it was just so well written and it felt so real. I don’t know about the position and the movement… it just comes out of the character. And John gets all the credit.
KM: But of course, you put so much into Mabel. There’s so many layers to this woman. A woman maybe wanting more out of life, just as her husband, Peter Falk’s Nick, is probably wanting more out of life. And he’s trying with her …
GR: You know, I loved the way Peter did his part. He was so patient with her. And you seldom see that understanding of someone who is not acting normal. And he was like how Peter is and was: He’s a gracious guy. You knew his character didn’t have any real sense of psychiatry and people having the kind of abnormalities that my character had and yet, he just understood it and was good about it. And I just love that about him and I loved that character.
KM: And he loves you in the movie. He so clearly loves you…
GR: Yes, he really does. He may not understand what she’s going through, but he does understand that he loves her and that was just wonderful.
KM: The scene on the couch. That must have been a hard scene for both of you to do?
GR: It was a tough scene. And I’m sure for Peter too because he had to hit me. You have to see things through the whole movie to realize this is not coming from a bully, this is coming from someone who loves you, and that you were going into something where you couldn’t totally handle yourself. I thought he did that terribly well. But that was a tough scene.
KM: I love the scene and line where you say, “I’m a warm person. I’m not one of those stiffs!” That’s a great line because, there’s no judgment, there’s no demonization… it’s true. She is!
GR: [Laughs] Yes! She is.
KM: Another scene with this smaller detail that plays so powerfully is when you’re asking the women for the time while waiting for your kid’s school bus to arrive. I always think: “Would you please tell her the time?! What’s wrong with these women? Tell her the time!”
GR: [Laughs] Those are two women I went to school with! They were just good friends of mine and I said, “Hey, you guys want to walk by in this scene?” And they said, “What do we have to do?” Because they thought they had to act. And I said, “Nothing. I’ll say something and you do something and it’s just going to be a half a minute or something.” I thought it turned out pretty well. And we did have fun with it because nobody knew it was going to happen.
KM: I read an interview in which John said that men did make lives hard for women, but, also mothers can really program their daughters and sons, maybe as a result of fathers, too (not just to blame mothers) but to judge their children, or harshly critique their lives or behavior, and you see that in the movies…
GR: Yes. And yes, especially in A Woman Under the Influence. The mother there was played by John’s mother and she was a wonderful actress. She was totally perfect for that character. She’s not like that character, of course, she wasn’t like that character in person, but as an actress, she gave a true sense of how she felt about me, my character, and her son having married me, which she didn’t approve of… But we got along fine in real life. [Laughs]
KM: In Opening Night, this is a really complex study of what actresses are afraid to face in real life and on screen – aging. It’s unique too in that it intertwines that idea with real life and the subject of the play. It’s all blurring together. There’s a great line: “I seem to have lost the reality of the… reality.”
GR: Yes. It really appealed to me personally because it did show what happens to actresses and actors. They’re trying very hard to represent themselves on stage and, yet, they’re not young. They’re not just starting out. And they’ve been doing it quite a long time with a certain regard… and then, it gets harder to express it… I like the part where the young girl, Laura Johnson, is hit by the car, that it was so appalling and you could hardly think of going on after that. And that she was young, and looked fairly like I would have looked when I was young. I identified with her a lot in the movie. It was so complex. The whole movie was so complex. And I especially loved Joan Blondell. And she was also growing older. A lot of the movie was about was getting older and not being able to depend on things you had depended on in your younger life.
KM: How did Joan Blondell take to John’s direction? She came from the old studio system so this must have been something relatively new for her?
GR: [Laughs] She was very funny. She’d say to me, “Wait a minute. Wait a minute. Are you through talking to me or are you still acting?” And I’d say, “I’m not quite sure myself!” [Laughs]. Considering that she had always acted in the traditional way, she was actually very open and easy to adjust to his direction. I thought she was very convincing and touching.
KM: Another interesting thing about Opening Night is your character Myrtle has a lot of enablers around her. But they are going to make her do that play, dammit! You’re literally falling before you get on stage, and you somehow make it through. And it’s a success. And largely because in the play, you are improvising to create it, as actors. What are your thoughts on Myrtle and that ending? It’s so open-ended.
GR: It was and you couldn’t quite see it coming, and yet, you could too, because the whole under-theme was, as you got older you were more of a loser. Whereas, just the opposite is true. If you last long enough, you didn’t lose. That last scene [in the play] was heavily improvised because we wanted to show that the characters realize that [they’re not losers] and they were damned if they were going to play it losing and sad. It wasn’t. It was a stimulating, wonderful thing to do because we both believed in it.
KM: I know you’ve said how much you loved Bette Davis, and I thought of her performances in two pictures about actresses aging, All About Eve and The Star. How influenced or just inspired were you by Bette Davis? I know you really liked her personally too…
GR: I did like her a lot! And I liked her from the moment I first saw her, when I was very young and I liked everything she did. In those days, women were sweet and nice and polite and they said the right thing. Not Bette! She was so independent and so believable to me that she inspired me enormously.
KM: And she was fearless, she was not afraid of looking bad on screen or playing bad.
GR: That’s right! She was fearless.KM: Another movie I love is Minnie and Moskowitz. Again, so many poignant, rich moments. I love the scene where you’re talking with Florence about old movies – that movies are a conspiracy and that you’ve never met a Charles Boyer or a Humphrey Bogart. And that this scene is with the older Florence – you’re having a real conversation. I’ve never seen a scene like that in a movie even today.
GR: No, you don’t. And John wrote it. He wrote it and when I first read it I was surprised because you never see a young woman and an older woman talking about sex. And it was just so human the way those characters talked and how close they were. I liked that scene particularly too. And I love when she says, “The movie’s set you up.” [Laughs] Because the movies did set you up.
KM: And Seymour Cassel. He’s so physical in his love for you, hitting walls and the like, and you’re so physical in your initial resistance. It goes against a Charles Boyer, but then, in his own way, he’s so romantic…
GR: Yes. He’s such a wonderful actor. And he really throws himself into things. In Faces, when he was jumping off the roof, he really did it. And I bet they did that take twenty times. How he didn’t break his neck, I don’t know. But, somehow, you just knew he wasn’t going to. That’s the kind of actor he is.
KM: Other films showing in the series are Husbands, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, Machine Gun McCain [directed by Giuliano Montaldo], Too Late Blues, The Night Holds Terror [directed by Andrew L. Stone]… What are your thoughts on some of these films?
GR: I love Husbands. I was very touched by that. Chinese Bookie was a little harder for me. I didn’t relate to it as much, I guess. [Laughs] John was very funny too. While they were shooting he said, “I’m not gonna finish this movie.” I said, ‘Why, John?” He said, “Because I can’t kill him.”
KM: And showing with Machine Gun McCain is the great Gloria…
GR: Gloria was not written for me. It was written for another actress [who couldn’t do it]. But I was deeply attracted to it and I thought that little boy, John Adames, was just marvelous. And it was such an interesting combination to me: To be playing a woman as tough as she was and she didn’t even like children when it starts out. It was really interesting to see how that maternal instinct will come through when you have a child who is in real danger. And I just popped off those bad guys — one, two, three! All in defense of the child. So she grew to love him very much by the end. I loved it.
KM: And it really inspired a lot of later movies and was a pre-cursor to a lot of female action films…
GR: It sure was.
KM: With Too Late Blues, I read that John originally wanted Montgomery Clift and you to star in the film…
GR: Yes, I wasn’t in that movie. I was still on stage, doing Middle of the Nightwith Edward G. Robinson.
KM: What was he like to work with? What a brilliant actor he was…
GR: Oh, it was wonderful because he always played such mean devils in the movies and tough guys and he was such a gentleman. He was courtly, really. And such a wonderful actor. We played an awfully long time [the run of the play] because everyone in the world wanted to see Edward G. Robinson. They weren’t coming to see me! They wanted to see Edward G. Robinson. He was just magnificent.
KM: Filmmaking is obviously in your family’s blood – we’re showing your daughter Xan’s fantastic, historically important Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession
GR: Good! Z Chanel is great! It is terrific.
KM: Your children have made some really fascinating, unique movies. We’re also showing your son Nick’s She’s So Lovely which you’re in. You’re also in your daughter Zoe’s Broken English. How is it working with your kids?
GR: [Laughs] It’s not hard at all, really. I don’t know why. Maybe it is because we have all the same blood. I’m not sure. It’s very easy to work with them.
KM: And you’re still doing interesting parts, making movies … you’re going to continue, right? I hope.
GR: Well, I think I’ve reached a certain point where probably I should retire. Because they don’t write really wonderful parts for older women. Very seldom do you see a good, juicy part.
KM: What was the best advice anyone ever gave you?
GR: From John. During A Woman Under the Influence, I wasn’t quite sure what he wanted in that scene where I really lose it. And I said, “John, I don’t want to disappoint you but I’m not quite sure how to do this. How? How would you want me to do this? How deeply do we go into this?” He said, “Gena, you read the script. You liked it. You liked your part. You wanted to do it. Do it.” [Laughs]
Please watch the entire Cassavetes festival at the New Beverly and come out this Friday, for the double feature of A Woman Under the Influence and Opening Night. Gena Rowlands will be there in person!
My piece for The New Beverly on Hal Ashby's masterpiece, Shampoo -- its portentous, melancholic power, perfectly programmed on Election Day at The New Beverly.
“I go into that shop and they’re so great-looking. I do their hair. They feel and smell great. I’d be on the street at a stoplight, or go into an elevator. There’s a beautiful girl. I don’t know. That’s it. It makes my day. It makes me feel like I’m gonna live forever.”
The most devastating moment in Shampoo comes when Warren Beatty sticks up for a “whore.” She’s not a whore. Or, really, as Beatty will say, everybody’s a whore. Who can judge and why say such things while, of all people, Richard Nixon is speaking on the television? Beatty issues his soft-hearted argument both gallantly and humanely while having no idea how destructive his defense will wind up at that moment. He’s just upset and visibly hurt (you can see it in his eyes – eyes full of a “why did you have to say that? Why did you have to go there?”) when the woman he actually loves, Jackie (Julie Christie), is deemed a nothing, just a pretty receptacle for sperm. He’s also defending himself – a bed-hopping Beverly Hills hairdresser and, really, the whole human race in this rotten cynical world. We’re all whores.
As Nixon yammers away on the tube, Beatty tells Jack Warden’s well-connected tycoon Lester that Jackie’s not just fucking him for his money; she likes him, soothing both Lester’s ego and existential quandary while defending Jackie’s honor. But his gallantry, as the Dick speaking (lying) on TV about an open administration will result in terrible consequences for Beatty’s George Roundy. Right there. In one scene. And with one nice comment: He’s losing his future with Jackie as Nixon wins the presidency. That’s dark as hell for obvious reasons, a major historical turning point (Nixon) but beyond that, there’s a feeling that George has stepped right into the abyss and that the world is not going to get easier for him. 1968 is nearly over. 1969 will be a tough year for America and for Los Angeles (and, if we are to believe one of the three real life character’s George is based on – Jay Sebring – it’s especially tough for a beloved hairdresser). The 1970s are right around the corner –Inherent Vice Los Angeles – and George’s dread fills the room, only, he’s not entirely in touch with it yet. It’s brewing under that beautiful white shirt. Beatty, with a comic timing and unique depth all his own, that open-mouthed, open-eyed confusion, both sharply observant and oblivious, the gift of a great seducer where anyone can open up to him – is brilliant conveying all of these complexities, simply by listening and reacting:
Lester: I don’t know anything anymore. But you never know. One minute, you’re here, the next… I just wish I knew what the hell I was living for.
(Nixon speaking on the television: A teenager held up the sign, “Bring Us Together” and that will be the great objective of this administration at the outset. To bring the American people together. This will be an open administration.)
Lester: You can lose it all, no matter who you are. Why have it all? Market went down points last week. Goddamn Lyndon Johnson! Maybe Nixon will be better. What’s the difference? They’re all a bunch of jerks. I don’t know what to do with you. I don’t know what’s right or wrong. At least you do what you want. But me? Shit.
George: What about Jackie?
Lester: Never mind. She’s a whore. I go over, have drinks, get my gun off. I’m through with her. She’s a whore.
George: You could call everybody a whore. She really likes you. It’s not just the bread.
Lester: You think so?
George: Yes, I do.
It’s such a genuine, complex moment of sad sweetness on George’s part – his disturbance at Lester’s coarse language and cynicism – that the scene focuses a lot of what he’s been running away from (and towards), often comically, throughout the movie. A bad life. An ugly life. A wasted life. He runs towards women and beauty and hair (he really is an artist, knowing exactly how to frame a face with the right cut and color), and his ambition is to set up his own salon (if he could only get a bank loan). But is that going to actually happen? We get the feeling no, it’s not. He wants to be happy. He says everyone’s “great.” But he’s not happy, making this exchange with Jackie, a depressive, probably an alcoholic, extra touching:
Jackie: Do you know why I used to get so angry with you?
George: I wouldn’t settle down?
Jackie: Because you’re always so happy about everything.
George: I was?
Jackie: I found it rather unrealistic.
It is unrealistic. She’s right. And you like her even more that she states it. You sense that these two were a good balance for one another (they’re also in similar, where-do-we-go-from-here turning points in life, hustling to get by among the rich and powerful). But it’s also naively touching, his need to be happy, if that is indeed even true – who doesn’t want to be happy? It’s not an idiotic thing to want, it’s just impossible. And he’s in the service industry. All day he makes women happy. Not just stopping to look at their faces and knowing the right angle of cut for their shape, but also sleeping with them, all of them, giving them pleasure (and pleasing himself) and listening to their complaints, often with understanding and empathy (you see this with his interactions with the woman holding a less glamorous position at work – she shampoos hair and probably helps stock towels – he actually listens to her, moved by her life). As George tells Lester: “Ever listen to women talk? I do till it’s running out my ears. They only talk about one thing: How some guy fucked them over. That’s all that’s on their minds. That’s all I ever hear about… They know we’re always trying to nail them. They don’t like it. They like it and they don’t like it.”
That all of this can happen within a 24-hour-period on Election Day 1968,Shampoo (directed by Hal Ashby and written by Robert Towne and Warren Beatty) shows just how complex and smart this movie is, while being stylish, sexy, funny and self-aware (I don’t have to point out that some of this had to be personal to Beatty’s own sexual infamy). The picture was also released in 1975, so the ironies were not lost on audiences watching the Nixon presidency about to commence as characters stumble around rooms, seemingly unaware of his visage glowing from television sets or smiling from posters. Everyone’s already burned out or too self-involved.
There’s a literary feel to the film, like a quick run through of Candide with our hairdresser hero moving through all classes and types and escapades, or John Updike hooking Rabbit Redux to the Apollo 11 moon landing (and Beatty himself, recently discussing in Vanity Fair, a real life encounter with Edie Sedgwick in which a planned seduction turned into a chaste night watching Neil Armstrong together on the TV). It’s also reflective of Los Angeles notably the way other great L.A. movies suffused with humor, melancholy and randomness are (The Long Goodbye, Cisco Pike, Inherent Vice, The Big Lebowski) where the rambling lives of our protagonists often feel like the sprawl of the city itself: its mismatched architecture, beautifully historic and palatial and then, ugly, strip mall plain; its woodsy, winding creature-filled canyons and intricate freeways; those L.A. blocks, sparkling and perfect on one, and then five blocks down, dumpy and depressing. Los Angeles is schizophrenic and, as Beatty navigates through this moody landscape on his motorcycle (a ride of freedom, escape and attitude – he’s confident enough with his own hair and beauty that he knows he’ll look roguishly mussed riding that thing), he’s always heading somewhere, but for what? And, in the end, where? He’s in a panic and not just because another woman wants him – his entire life is in panic.
Everyone’s getting older too. Goldie Hawn’s beleaguered girlfriend Jill yells at George, “Grow up!” while George tells Lester, “I’m not anti-establishment!” Jackie and George share a lovely moment to “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” and briefly, you feel a vital moment of “Sgt. Pepper” sex and mind expansion and young love until their lovemaking is interrupted by Lester and Jill. George is, once again, running after someone. Or he’s just running (he runs so much in this movie you don’t know where he’s going half the time). Jackie is left alone, her gorgeous back, lit by the door of an open refrigerator. It was a nice moment. Was.
It’s poignant and perfect that the movie both opens and closes with The Beach Boys’ simultaneously optimistic and forlorn “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” that Los Angeles group who started as what looked to be sun and fun kids of the abusive, exploitative Murry Wilson, and then who turned out to be a lot more complicated, darker (particularly when 1969 rolls around), sadder and, in one case, mentally troubled and genius, so spectacularly genius, more than anyone really knew at the time. As the Beach Boys and Shampoo personify – the world was already dark under all of that California sunshine, and bleaker because of all that sun – you can’t possibly live up to the Los Angeles dream because it is a dream. So, when Beatty wants to marry Jackie at the end (who knows if it would ever work out? But it’s a genuinely heartfelt, romantic proclamation. And that’s something), it’s heartbreaking:
George: I’m a fuck-up, but I’ll take care of you. I’ll make you happy. What do you think?
Jackie: It’s too late.
George: We’re not dead yet. That’s the only thing that’s too late.
Against what the Beach Boys sing, maybe they shouldn’t have waited until they were older. Who knows? With that, the song closes the movie as a sorrowful, ironically hopeful fantasy: “Maybe if we think and wish and hope and pray it might come true. Baby then there wouldn’t be a single thing we couldn’t do. We could be married. And then we’d be happy… Wouldn’t it be nice?” Well, wouldn’t it?
Watch it at the New Beverly. Take a breather from the Election. Or pass out.
I interviewed Jessica Chastain for the cover of the great, historic French fashion magazine L'OFFICIEL and she really is a star apart. Chastain is so multi-faceted, so interesting, so unique that, after talking with her, one feels a little breathless. Not only is the actress an intelligent force, moving audiences with, among other pictures, Terrence Malick’s "The Tree of Life" and Kathryn Bigelow’s "Zero Dark Thirty," she’s mysterious and sensitive, a woman with real concerns and causes. She’s also one of the most talented actresses currently working. I talked with the magnificent Ms. Chastain about her variety of roles, to working with Liv Ullman, to loving Clara Bow to her commitment to women in film.
Photos by Dusan Reljin. Styling by: Erica Pelosini. Get a copy at an expansive newsstand, or, order a copy.
Here's an excerpt of my interview, translated back to English:
Kim Morgan: You are currently working on a film by Susanna White -- Woman Walks Ahead -- an incredible true story about Catherine Weldon who traveled to the Dakota Territory to help Sitting Bull keep his land.
Jessica Chastain: The story is incredible. What so moved me by this was, in my education at school, I never really learned about women and you don’t tend to hear those who are on the wrong side of history. We only hear about those in history who prevailed. Those usually aren’t women, or Native Americans or minorities, so there are a lot of hidden heroes out there. I was really blown away by the story of Catherine Weldon and Sitting Bull because it’s not about her going there and helping him and saving him, the story is really about two people in the 1890s, who are not living in a world that sees them as equal human beings. And, so, how incredible to have this friendship between a woman who, at the time, could not vote? The great risk she took by traveling to the West to paint Sitting Bull. It’s the only painting of Sitting Bull. I was so excited to work with Susanna and excited to work with Native American actors because I don’t get that opportunity with so many incredible artists out there.
KM: You worked with Liv Ullman [on Miss Julie, opposite Colin Farrell]. What was it like working with Ullman? She's such an icon, not just as an actress but as a director.
JC: She’s an incredible human being. She has a level of sensitivity that’s very rare. When we were on set together, she was childlike in her wonder, and her openness. We did a scene where my character reacts to a bird being killed and Liv was very emotional. I hadn’t experienced that before from a director. I wanted to protect that openness because, for me, I think that’s one of the most beautiful things a human being can have.
KM: You said, in an interview that it's important, even in your strong female roles, that the women have flaws, you said, without faults it's "actually doing a disservice to women…”
JC: I find that every woman is strong. So, for someone to say you play such strong female characters, for me, that’s just inherently being a woman. And men are strong too. It’s something that all of us have within us. It just means I’m choosing characters that are well-written, characters who are interesting human beings. A female character can make a mistake and do crazy things, but you have to go on their journey, you have to understand who she is. If you see a female character just being used as a prop, to me, that’s so upsetting. And it goes just beyond female characters; it goes for minorities, as well. [The past] few years a lot of people are discussing diversity in cinema and making big steps to fix the problem. One of the things that happened in the past was people just became complacent… snow blind. And the past three years, it’s been really inspiring for me. I am hearing so much discussion and seeing so much change and it’s coming from everyone. There’s not just one group shouting from the rooftop, “I want my story told,” everyone, audiences are saying, “We want to see stories from the many, not just the few.”
KM: You're vocal about the pay disparity between men and women in Hollywood. And that women and men together, need to work with and discuss women in film…
JC: I made a speech at the Critic’s Choice Awards about diversity and after that I was in London doing press for A Most Violent Year and they asked about my speech: “What are you going to do about it?” And at that moment, I thought, “What am I going to do about it?” So, when I talk about pay disparity, you gotta go, O.K., well, I’m not going to allow myself to accept something where I’m being treated unfairly. And maybe that means I’m not going to play a role that I really want to play but at some point you have to take a stand. And, also it’s my goal to work with a female filmmaker every year. It’s not just something that I can go out there and just talk about… It’s, what I can do about it is, this project? What great filmmakers are out there who haven’t been given an opportunity? Maybe we can collaborate on something together.
KM: I was just looking at this Bette Davis quote, she said, "Without wonder and insight, acting is just a trade. With it, it becomes creation."
JC: I love Bette Davis.
KM: Do you have any other classic actresses who’ve inspired you?
JC: I love Clara Bow. I read a biography about Clara Bow [By David Stenn] all about her childhood and how difficult it was for her in the filmmaking community. Have you seen that documentary called Girl 27?
KM: Yes, I have. Also, by David Stenn.
JC: Every day of my life that I’m on set, and I’m set a lot, I have gratitude for all of those who came before. Because there were a lot of things they had to put up with, there was a lot of suffering. And that documentary was really upsetting to me. And I don’t forget [actresses like] Clara Bow, I don’t forget any of what these women went through to become actresses.
Check out this gorgeous issue here.
My piece for The New Beverly on Quentin Tarantino's Jackie Brown and the power of Pam Grier. Don't miss it at on the big screen in QT's personal, beautiful 35 MM print at the New Beverly tonight!
“I was saving every dime and I was so crazy and heartbroken thanks to a third attack on my life, which nearly killed me. It’s not in [the memoir]; the editors took it out. But that’s when I changed, because I fought back. This was the ultimate decision that changed me into who I became. I’m now working on a film script about my life, and we put that third attack back in. Because that was the moment where I said, ‘You know what, I don’t give a shit about marriage, I’m so tired of men raping women and getting away with it.’ For several seconds during the attack, I went fucking crazy, all hell broke loose. I was so mad at the world. So I went back to Roger [she went to the Philippines to shoot movies with Roger Corman] and asked, ‘Is that job still available?’ I needed to get away. He told me to read Stanislavski, and I did and grew at such magnitude. I’m so respectful of the actor. I was approaching these B-movies like it was Chekhov or Tennessee Williams. For me, it was just like theatre, and there is no take two. You’ve got to be perfect. I had to go to the other side of the world to find out who I was. I didn’t think I would survive it, but here I am talking to you.” – Pam Grier, in an interview with Globe & Mail, 2015
“When I originally was sent and read the script, I thought I’d be paying the dope ho, with the bra and the hotpants. When Quentin said I wasn’t, I asked him what role I was reading for, and he said ‘You’re not reading! You are Jackie Brown!’” – Pam Grier, Empire Magazine, 2011
When Robert Forster’s older, still handsome, slightly tired, calm and cool bail bondsman Max Cherry first eyes Pam Grier’s Jackie Brown, his pickup from jail, he falls in love with her. Right then and there. And he can’t even see her clearly. She’s walking toward him in the slightly disheveled flight attendant uniform we previously saw her sporting, crisp and flattering even if for crappy Cabo airline, opening the movie’s credits in the tiled LAX tunnel while Bobby Womack’s “Across 110th Street” plays. We’ve taken in her beauty, her power, her vulnerability, her simultaneous mystery and realness – we know what she looks like, we know what she acts like, she’s smart. We also know she’s in trouble, she’s tired, stressed and, as Michael Bowen’s jerk-off Los Angeles cop Dargus has stated to her: “You’re forty-four years of age. You’re flying for the shittiest little shuttle-fucking piece of shit Mexican airline that there is. Where you make what? $13,000 dollars a year?”
Max is informed of some of the details, but he’s not thinking about that as Bloodstone’s “Natural High” kicks in filling up his smitten brain while she walks closer and closer. He just knows whatever is emanating from this woman – she is the one for him. When they’re face to face and he’s looking at Pam Grier, the chemical draw is in full focus, and there’s no doubting the attraction. We’re not sure how she feels about him — She’s understandably exhausted, she needs cigarettes and wouldn’t mind a drink when he requests one. Only, she wants to go to a dark bar. “Why?” he asks. “Because I look like I just got out of jail, that’s why.”
Well, there’s a lot more going on here in Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown as we’ll see later in the evening when Jackie manages to nab Max’s gun from his glove box and works out a plan with the arms dealer she’s been smuggling cash for (Samuel L. Jackson’s charming, funny but not messing-around-and-will-fucking-kill-you, Ordell). It’s all so beautifully crafted, so layered, so full of multiple emotions – Jackie’s stress, survival and smarts, Max’s by-the-book life fogged up with love, Ordell realizing he’s underestimated Jackie. In another movie, a dumb movie, Max would spy the gun missing and suddenly get pissed, violating his cool. Not in this movie. With a script brilliantly adapted from Elmore Leonard’s “Rum Punch” by Tarantino (his only adapted screenplay), this movie knows that Max isn’t a square. He may be an efficient, decent-hearted bail bondsman, but he’s got street smarts and wisdom and, even if he’s fallen in love, he’s not fallen stupid. So, in the morning when he returns to Jackie’s apartment asking about the gun, not only is he not angry, he even suggests she keep it for protection as he sits down for a cup of coffee. She puts on the Delfonics’ (vinyl) “Didn’t I (Blow Your Mind This Time)” and they discuss something you don’t hear much in movies without a lot of pity or annoyance or Diane Keaton’s Nancy-Meyers-written Erica Barry bemoaning her need for turtlenecks while living a charmed life in a beautiful house on the beach in the fucking Hamptons – aging. Max isn’t too concerned about it (he says) although he felt insecure and did something about his hair he confesses, while telling Jackie he doesn’t feel so sorry for her as she still looks about 29 years old. Yeah, well, she’s got beauty, sure, but she’s got something more frightening to deal with as she gets older. Jackie says, “You know I make $16,000 dollars a year plus retirement benefits that ain’t worth a damn. And with this arrest hanging over my head, Max, I’m scared. And if I lose this job, I gotta start all over again and I ain’t got nothing to start over with. I’ll be stuck with whatever I can get. And that shit is more scary than Ordell.”
Suddenly the movie becomes so much more than a crime picture, a heist job, a valentine to the ’70s, or a neo-noir (though it’s all of those things), and delves into the reality of gender, race, class and the very honest struggle of a smart, single woman just trying to get by in a hard world. There’s no typical tropes hovering around for the movie to cheaply milk – no kids, no long speech about her ex pilot husband, no dumb neo-noir femme fatale moment where she’s trying to be vampy and double crossing (Jackie does not need to try to be sexy, she already is, and Max sees it even after her night in prison, wishing she could take a damn shower), that the movie, at times, almost feels like a miracle. Who makes movies like this? And why aren’t more movies like this?
Like Tarantino’s direction itself – stylish, cool, tight, but also relaxed, taking its time, in profile close-up, to show Ordell thinking, or Robert De Niro’s hilarious but deadly Louis, trying to figure out the phone, or Bridget Fonda’s stoner beach bunny sweetness mixed with amusingly acerbic shit talking, or Michael Keaton’s ATF agent chomping his gum, a little bit of a douchebag but not a terrible guy. There’s also the fantastic soundtrack adding heft and emotion to actors already doing the same. All of this surrounding Pam Grier who is, in a word, complex. And Grier plays this so convincingly and so movingly, that when you rewatch the film, you realize you’re watching one of the greatest works by an actress in now, almost twenty years. And a rare one, given that a 40-something African American actress is actually the star of a movie made by a major filmmaker.
Tarantino doesn’t get enough credit writing fantastic, complicated roles for women. Like other “tough” directors before him, Samuel Fuller (whom he thanks at the end of the picture), who wrote and directed women as multi-dimensional human beings (The Naked Kiss, Pickup On South Street, The Crimson Kimono, China Gate) or Robert Aldrich (Autumn Leaves, The Killing of Sister George, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte, The Legend of Lylah Clare), Tarantino writes a woman not just as “ass-kicking,” and “strong” but also as a person with interests, a life, intelligence, wit, vulnerability. Uma Thurman as the multi-faceted action hero assassin, “The Bride” in Kill Bill Volumes 1 and 2 is a supreme example, as is Death Proof (where women not only know about cars, but actually know how to properly drive one, like really know how), Inglorious Basterds and even The Hateful 8 where the baddest bitch is not just a bitch, she’s actually planned what goes down (some critics were offended by this character and how she was treated, I found her fearless and wonderfully hateful. As the title of the movie states, this is not a movie about the forgivable five and she’s not getting any breaks for being a woman…) all of these pictures give us sides to both very real women and very heroic women, without being cute or condescending about it. Never do you feel in any of these movies, something like, “Hey wouldn’t it be cool to show a woman who knows what the hell the Vanishing Point car is?” They just know this. Like a lot of women do.
Which is why Grier is so powerful and poignant in Jackie Brown. Many might have assumed her cult icon status from Foxy Brown, Coffy and The Big Doll House would mean she would be working with her “black belt in barstools” – and that is quite something. It’s inspiring. Those are important roles. But Grier does so much more, internally, as Jackie Brown. In one scene, after the switch-shopping bag-trick in the ladies room, she’s been interrogated by Keaton’s Ray Nicolet who is wondering… what is she up to? He leaves the room, and she sits there, defiant, but scared, wiping tears from her eyes – tears of “Holy shit, am I going to pull this off?” It’s a moving and strong observation of a woman who is keeping it all together. She is balancing so much stress and so much future stress, but she’s also a smart, proud person who is trying her hardest to make it through. That will make a person emotional. Not weak. Emotional. And if she’s using Max, well, she’s not. She’s offered him a cut and she never lied to him. After asking if he’s scared of her, Max places his thumb and pointer finger together, and admits: “A little bit.” It’s lovely and honest. And then, in the sweetest, most romantic moment, they kiss each other goodbye. She’s got a thing for him too.
FilmStruck has launched! I'm excited to say I'm hosting four of their fantastic series of directors and movies I revere, and one I know quite well. The series are: Bibi & Ingmar, Directed by Wong Kar-wai, Early Kubrick and Directed by Guy Maddin (where I remove my critic hat and Guy provides new, fascinating insight here as well). It's a wonderful array and a sample of all the cine-riches FilmStruck provides.
As President of Criterion, Peter Becker, wrote:
"Combining Turner’s programming experience with Criterion’s library of films and supplemental content made all the sense in the world... FilmStruck will be launching this fall on desktop and mobile devices, and internet-connected television platforms. A service built from the start with nothing but movies in mind, it will feature films from many major studios and independent distributors alongside a broad and constantly rotating selection of Criterion films, complete with the commentaries and rich supplemental content that Criterion viewers have come to expect. Carefully curated and always changing, it should be a cinema lover’s dream."
Indeed it is.
Here are the series I'm introducing and discussing. Do check them out!
Bibi & Ingmar:
The Seventh Seal
Fear and Desire
Here's an excerpt from my piece for The New Beverly on Lee Frost's Dixie Dynamite and missing Warren Oates... Read the entire piece here. And don't miss it at on the big screen in beautiful 35 MM at the New Beverly tonight!
When Warren Oates leaves a certain kind of movie, you notice. You miss him. You feel a sense of longing, the way you feel about a character actually dying in film or literature too soon like Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet, or, worse, Josh Brolin never returning in No Country For Old Men. With Brolin, we are ill prepared for this loss and find ourselves processing his absence while watching the rest of the movie (I, did, anyway). For a delusional time we even wonder if Josh Brolin is ever going to come back. He’s killed off screen. Maybe something else happened? Maybe? Nope. He never returns. He’s dead. Warren Oates, in Dixie Dynamite, does return, thank god (I am not ruining anything here). He’s not dead. And he’s only gone for about fifteen minutes. But even in that short amount of time, you feel it, and you just want him there. And you begin to worry. Where the hell are you Warren Oates?
Well, we know where he is, sort of, but we start pondering just what else is he doing out there, out of camera frame, out of the town he already feels offset from (almost from another movie… did he go to back to that other movie he was in?). And, so, the longing begins to make sense. The plot picks up when he leaves (strangely, for we miss him), though the acting sags a little without his presence, but even that makes a weird sense too. As if people can’t act quite as natural without Warren Oates around. Something. Though there are legitimate reasons for all of the chaos to ensue during his leave, we start to even read more into the reasons for his departing, some kind of mysterious alternative off-screen sequence of events – like some other story untold or a Faulknerian stream of consciousness thought reflection that we’ll hear about later. (“If you could just ravel out into time. That would be nice. It would be nice if you could just ravel out into time.”) That’s how good he is. I actually thought of William Faulkner while watching Warren Oates in Dixie Dynamite.
Read it all here. And see it!
Here's an excerpt from my piece on Roman Polanski's classic Rosemary's Baby, a movie not just about the horrors of devil worshipping neighbors and doctors, but the horrors of people (men) constantly talking at you. This is something I've discussed before, back in 2009 (with much controversy with Repulsion) and in a video essay in 2010, in regard to Polanski heroines, and that Rosemary is being told what to do -- by men -- but I go into greater detail with this one. Read the entire piece here. And don't miss it at on the big screen in beautiful 35 MM at the New Beverly Oct. 21 & 22.
“But explaining men still assume I am, in some sort of obscene impregnation metaphor, an empty vessel to be filled with their wisdom and knowledge.” ― Rebecca Solnit, Men Explain Things to Me
Guy: You know what Dr. Hill is? He’s a Charlie Nobody, that’s who he is!
Rosemary: I’m tired of hearing about how great Dr. Sapirstein is!
Guy: Well, I won’t let you do it Ro.
Rosemary: Why not?
Guy: Well, because… because it wouldn’t be fair to Sapirstein.
Rosemary: Not fair to Sap… – what do you mean? What about what’s fair to me?!
“Please don’t read books… And don’t listen to your friends, either.” So says Dr. Sapirstein in Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby, a movie famous as a classic horror film, darkly comic, a masterpiece, but one that also serves as a powerful allegory for women being told to shut up, let the men talk and … “you’re crazy!” Every time I watch the film, I have to wonder: Did novelist Ira Levin (and Polanski himself) listen in on an OBGYN appointment? Did his wife or girlfriend come home one day and complain that a doctor told her she was nuts because she felt, as Rosemary will state, like she had a tight wire in her stomach because she was actually fucking pregnant? Did she get a “bad” haircut that was, in truth, fantastic? (Polanski returns to the unfairly maligned haircut in his highly underrated, brilliant Bitter Moon). Did someone berate their wife for not wanting to eat a dessert with a “chalky undertaste?”
These scenes are so specific, that beyond the pact with the Devil story, it’s hard to ignore how much fragile Rosemary has to endure simply based on everyone telling her what to do. Forgive me for using this overused term, but it’s one of the most mansplaining movies of all time. It’s like being stuck in a satanic vortex of mansplaining where you’re going to have to accept your devil child or run far, far away just to get these people to stop talking AT YOU… Well, for Rosemary, the love of the child supersedes devil worshipers, the medical profession and her terrible husband, and she will accept her newborn, no matter what they’ve done to his eyes. It’s, in the end, heartbreaking and extremely touching.
And so it begins, there's much more to this piece, from Rosemary's Charlotte Perkins Gilman yellow wallpaper to Polanski's The Tenant, echoing the predicament of poor Rosemary ... read my entire essay at The New Beverly Cinema.
Check out an excerpt from my debut piece for the iconic, movie-lover utopia, The New Beverly Cinema, the only revival house in Los Angeles that projects exclusively on film (no digital). Here, I tackle Rouben Mamoulian’s innovative pre-code masterpiece, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, starring a brilliant Fredric March. Do not miss this one, playing Oct. 19 & 20.
Rouben Mamoulian’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde opens with such a passionate proclamation of, at first, sound, that the very theme of the picture is addressed immediately – Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue in D minor,” banged away by a jocund Dr. Jekyll. This was the first use of that piece in a sound picture and later became an oft-employed sonic invocation of villainy, but, here, it registers just as Fredric March’s Jekyll plays it – a cry of the splintered psyche: startling, yet romantic, beautiful even sensual — the id we wish to release from the shackles of our repression. One we can both unleash and control by pounding that organ.
Be careful what you wish for. Or wish to control. Or pound.
The sound moves to image, revealing Jekyll’s elegant hands at the organ as he casually addresses his butler who reminds the doctor of his lecture. Immediately, Mamoulian (via cinematographer Karl Struss) has placed us, the viewer, in the eyes of Jekyll (we are Jekyll, according to Mamoulian, “the audience does not see him, they are him,” and, in turn, we will be Hyde), we don’t see his face, we see what he sees — the innovative POV and moving camera fluidly walking us along with Jekyll, chatting with our butler, entering the foyer wherein the butler asks the first doubled question: "topcoat or cape, sir?" Cape and top hat, of course, and we finally see Jekyll (ourself) in the mirror. There’s that handsome Fredric March, there you are, in what will be many uses of doubling, splintering and in many ways, soul searching and, of course, sexual frustration and release. It’s much like Robert Montgomery’s later POV usage in the impressive Lady in the Lake (which was used entirely throughout) but Mamoulian’s technique is much more seamless – a purer integration of camerawork and special effects with story and theme, and one of the greatest synthesis of style and substance in all of cinema. (Something Mamoulian was absurdly, unfairly dismissed for later, chiefly by Andrew Sarris who found him all show and acrobatics: “Less than meets the eye… an innovator who ran out of innovations.”)
The sequence continues, and we follow Jekyll, still from his POV, out to his coachman and on his way to his lecture hall, everyone addresses him with respect, and then, after his lecture, which we finally watch outside of Jekyll’s eyes (about the potential to split the soul of man), a student jokes to another: “Why don’t you stay at home and send your other self to the lecture?” What we then learn about Dr. Jekyll is that he is in a crisis, not professionally, but romantically, sexually. He yearns to marry his beloved, Muriel (Rose Hobart), but her father (Halliwell Hobbes) is maddeningly making him wait. Jekyll is going crazy over this: “You’ve opened a gate for me into another world… But now the unknown wears your face, looks back at me with your eyes.”
His desire intensifies while, on a walk with another doctor, he helps a woman of ill repute smacked down in the street. That’s Ivy (a ravishing, touching Miriam Hopkins), whom he’s immediately attracted to and flirts with, making much about her garter when really admiring her lovely leg. In a scene that’s one of the pre-code-iest of them all, Ivy sexily strips down to nothing and pulls the sheets over her, beckoning him to return. He wants to. We want to. He and we will.
And so begins Jekyll’s test on himself – the potion that will transform him into Mr. Hyde. The potion, a sort of demented Viagra is curious, since Robert Louis Stevenson, who wrote the famous novella in 1866, was rumored to be on cocaine while writing the iconic strange case – he was bedridden with TB and his story came to him in a dream… and he wrote it fast. How ahead of his time he likely did not know. But the potion, or drug, morphs Jekyll into that creature, a depraved, simian, man-beast, overly virile, overly agile, lacking a conscience, a delighted, giggling sadist so pleased with himself that the picture turns the viewer on ourselves. Do we want a shot of that stuff? Are we pleased now? Well, in a perverse way, perhaps we are, at first...
There's much more! Read the rest of my piece at The New Beverly. And see the movie.