Movie catholic (a.k.a., Nick's Movie Blog)

Sunday, March 19, 2017

"Tell Mama..... Tell Mama All": The Doomed Love of George Stevens' A Place in the Sun


Greatness is a slippery slope, especially when it comes to film. Movies that are praised upon first release can seem static and dated ten years on. That is often why films that win the Academy Award for Best Picture are often seen as poor choices later while other, less praised films are deemed more significant later on. Then there are films that are praised for their craftsmanship, emotional impact, and artistic value from their inception, and whose reputation continues to grow. Successful films often capture lightning in a bottle. In 1951, director George Stevens made A Place in the Sun, a film that caught the post-World War II malaise, desire, ambition, and desperation better than any film of its time.

"Don't do anything hasty."
Angela's father gives his advice to his daughter and her lover.

Based on the novel An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser, A Place in the Sun tells of George Eastman (Montgomery Clift), a working-class young man whose mother is dedicated to mission work for the poor and homeless. George, hard working but ambitious, hitchhikes from Chicago to go to work for his rich uncle, Charles Eastman, in his swimsuit factory. It's there George meets a lonely soul, the plain-looking Alice Tripp (Shelley Winters). The two begin to date--against company policy. During a plant inspection, Charles sees George toiling on the assembly line and decides to kick him up a rung in the factory. Invited to a party his uncle is throwing, George meets and is immediately smitten with Eastman family friend and socialite, Angela Vickers (Elizabeth Taylor). But complications arise when Alice discovers that she's pregnant with George's child. George, not wanting to lose Angela, wants to do right by Alice but wishes she'd just go away. Tragedy ensues.

The lonely people: George and Alice, before he meets Angela.

The Paramount Pictures' release was critically praised from the moment it hit America's screens in August 1951, and when the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences announced its nominees, A Place in the Sun received nine nominations, second only to Elia Kazan's A Streetcar Named Desire. Among its nominations were Clift for Best Actor, Winters for Best Actress, Stevens for Direction, Michael Wilson and Harry Brown for Screenplay, and the film for Best Picture. Place won in six of its nominated categories, losing Actor to Humphrey Bogart in The African Queen and Actress to Vivien Leigh in Streetcar. The biggest surprise of Oscar night 1952, however, was An American in Paris' win for Best Picture. Experts picked either Place or Streetcar to take the top prize, but Oscar had other plans. Obviously the 1951 films were a superior group, and tough choices had to be made, but I think Oscar fumbled when the Best Picture award was handed out. Much as I enjoy and admire Vincente Minnelli's musical, A Place in the Sun or A Streetcar Named Desire should have won. Only seven times in 89 years has a film won for screenwriting and direction while losing Best Picture as A Place in the Sun did (including, most recently, in 2002 when The Pianist took Screenplay and Director while Chicago won Picture).

The beauty of a young Elizabeth Taylor:
"Being exclusive? Being aloof? Being blue?"

Despite the questionable results at the Academy Awards, A Place in the Sun is widely acknowledged as a superior film and is still remembered for the doomed love played out by Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor. Their scenes crackle with sexual energy and romantic longing. Hyperbole aside, they may be the most romantic couple in cinema history. Like many great movie romances, George and Angela are not together at the film's conclusion, which is significant. Think of all the great love stories in film history--Scarlett and Rhett in Gone With the Wind, Rick and Ilsa in Casablanca, Norman Maine and Vicki Lester from A Star is Born, Tony and Maria in West Side Story, Hubbell and Katie in The Way We Were. It's the tragic love, the doomed love that lives on in our collective memory. The couples that stay together tend to skew comedic: Nick and Nora Charles, innumerable Tracy and Hepburn pairings. Romantic comedy ends happily; romantic drama ends, if not tragic, at least sad. And the most tragic movie love of all may be George and Angela.

Before World War II, A Place in the Sun's director George Stevens was known as an expert in light comedy. Such films as his Oscar-nominated 1943 war-time laugh-fest, The More The Merrier; 1938's screwball classic, Vivacious Lady; the rousing adventure, Gunga Din; and possibly his best known pre-war hit, 1942's Woman of the Year, the film that first brought Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn together. When the U.S. entered the war, Stevens was just one of the movies' greats who left a thriving career behind, joining the U.S. Army Signal Corps in 1943. What Stevens witnessed while in Europe changed his life and his art forever.  Stevens was one of the first to view the horrors of the Nazi concentration camp, Dachau. The pure evil Stevens saw altered his worldview and, consequently, the movies he made. Stevens, always a somewhat stoic character, became silent after the war, according to his fellow director, soldier, and friend, Frank Capra. His wife, Yvonne, said the same thing, adding that upon his return from the war, Stevens played golf, all day, for seven months. Stevens wasn't sure he would or could make another movie again; didn't know if he had a future in Hollywood. After re-gaining some enthusiasm with his adaptation of Broadway hit I Remember Mama, Stevens found the story he'd been looking for, one that reflected his somber, sullen view of post-war America: Dreiser's An American Tragedy, published in 1925 and based on a real incident in 1908.

George Stevens directing his two stars.

As the script evolved, Stevens slowly made the the film a romantic tale of false hopes and doomed love. According to Marilyn Ann Moss's fine biography of the director, Stevens skewed the story in George Eastman's favor by turning Shelley Winters' Alice into a shrew and and molding Taylor's Angela into a girl of fantastical beauty and romantic affection. Further empathy for George was generated via casting of Raymond Burr, then well-known for playing villains (and years away from his long-running gig as television's top lawyer Perry Mason), as the District Attorney eager to convict George of Alice's murder. With these elements plus Montgomery Clift's creation of a man whose life is being pulled out from under him, audiences are hard pressed not to be caught up in the romantic, tragic drama. 

One of the many scenes in which Elizabeth Taylor's
nurturing Angela holds Montgomery Clift's George in her arms.

The story goes that night before the famous love scene was filmed--the one that confirms George and Angela's passionate devotion--Stevens was up until two in the morning rewriting to give the scene the vitality it needed. Stevens knew it would be the centerpiece of the movie. If this scene didn't work, the movie would fall apart, so it had to be extraordinary. When Taylor saw the new pages the next morning, she balked, thinking the lines ludicrous. "Excuse me, but what the hell is this?" she demanded. Stevens later recalled Taylor's outrage, stating she was "jumping into a sophistication beyond her years" (Taylor was only seventeen when filming began in 1949). The scene itself is one of American cinema's finest examples of passion. Stevens smothering close-ups of the lovers makes the audience a voyeur, inappropriately invading the privacy of their unexpected, frantic, intoxicating romance.  "Are they watching us?" Taylor says suddenly as she turns toward the camera--nearly looking directly at it--before she practically pushes Clift onto the veranda and into their private moment. Both actors are marvelous in the scene, but Taylor especially owns it with the "[t]ell mama" line as well as her flirtation when telling Clift that they can have the whole summer together. Clift balks. Taylor says she could come and get him. Then she gives him a slight seductive smile and says, "You'll be my pick-up." It's an extraordinary moment.




As for Clift, it may be his best performance on screen, a list that includes four or five of the best performances ever captured on film. Clift's George Eastman is all hesitation and hunched uncertainty, a portrayal that seems like one of cinema's most blank of all time. Here is a man who is uncertain in everything he does. Witness his silence when riding in Taylor's car as she escorts him to the party at which they'll proclaim their great love for each other. It's only when Taylor coaxes it out of him that Clift can finally tell her how he feels about her. His emotion is like an overflowing river. This private love of two people is what I feel the film gets right. No one else can describe what two people--these two people--feel for each other. This is what still speaks to audiences. That sense of passion, of finding the one you love most in all the world, the feeling that you can never live without that person is what A Place in the Sun captures perfectly.

George in the boat with Alice, wishing her dead.

As for the actual crime in the film, it's shot far away. As the boat overturns, the camera cuts back to a long shot, with only the sound of the loons on the lake encroaching on the silence. The audience is  left to draw its own conclusions as to whether George actually killed Alice or only had his wish fulfilled by accident. Certainly George wishes Alice would disappear so that he can be with Angela and live his dream life, but does wish fulfillment make him a murderer? This is the great moral dilemma of the film. One of the beauties of A Place in the Sun is that the film allows us to draw our own conclusions. As for me, I think George is innocent of Alice's murder, and I don't blame him for wishing her dead. George has found his place in the sun, though it came at the greatest human cost--both Alice's life and his own. I don't think George really minded about his own life, though. If he couldn't have Angela and the love he dreamed of, he would rather be dead.

Passion.


Sources: Giant: George Stevens, A Life on Film by Marilyn Ann Moss
               Montgomery Clift: Beautiful Loser by Barney Hoskyns
               Montgomery Clift: A Biography by Patricia Bosworth

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Underrated Gem: Humoresque

"All my life I wanted to do the right thing. But it never worked out. I'm outside always looking in, feeling all the time I'm far away from home, and where home is I don't know. I can't get back to the simple, happy kid I use to be."  
--John Garfield's opening scene from Humoresque    

A devastated John Garfield after Joan Crawford's death:
the opening scene of Humoresque, 1946

In the early 1990s, I became infatuated with Oscar Levant. I'm not sure why, but I assume his wisecracking movie roles, especially in 1946's Humoresque, had a lot to do with it. This Warner Brothers movie--a kind of rip-off of Clifford Odets' (who co-wrote this film) Golden Boy--won me over the first time I saw it many, many years ago. The soapy film starred Joan Crawford as an alcoholic, married, society dame (as co-star, John Garfield's character refers to her) who has a fondness for--as Garfield's cynical sidekick Oscar Levant so aptly puts it--"la vie boheme." Joan Crawford, who had been released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) studios in 1943 after nearly twenty years, was considered somewhat washed up in Hollywood by the mid-Forties but made a huge comeback in 1945 with Mildred Pierce, grossing millions for Warners and nabbing an Oscar for Best Actress of 1945. Humoresque was her follow up to that classic film.

John Garfield--second billed--was also hitting a career peak after the 1945 film, Pride of the Marines (another underrated gem), and the noir scorcher, The Postman Always Rings Twice, opposite Lana Turner. Here, Garfield plays Paul Boray, a Lower East Side kid with a talent for the fiddle. (The violin playing was dubbed by the great Isaac Stern, who also served as Garfield's hand double. The effect, still impressive some seventy years later, was achieved in the film by cutting the sleeves of Garfield's coat and shirt, allowing Stern's hands to substitute Garfield's.) Oscar Levant plays Garfield's piano-playing friend (i.e., second banana) who gets the film's best lines. It's Oscar Levant playing Oscar Levant, which means a little piano and a lot of observation about life and love. Cutting remarks from the sidelines include, "It's not what you are, it's what you don't become that hurts." And,"I didn't make the world, I barely live in it." Levant's film career was just taking off at this point, despite his appearance in seven previous films. His most prominent role to date was the George Gershwin biopic, Rhapsody in Blue, released just a year before Humoresque, with Levant playing himself (he always played a variation on his own personality in his films, but in Rhapsody he was billed as Oscar Levant playing "Oscar Levant").  

The three performers with the most screen time in the film

The film begins with Paul Boray as a child of eight years or so played by Bobby Blake, aka, Robert Blake (yeah, that Robert Blake) In Humoresque, he is quite affecting as a boy his parents don't really understand, especially his Papa (J. Carroll Naish).  Momma (Ruth Nelson) gets him a bit more, but she is also a controlling type who who thinks no woman is good enough for her boy. Time goes by in one of those time-lapse montage Warners did to perfection in the Forties, and before you know it, little Paul Boray is a fully grown John Garfield, still practicing his violin while living at home. Fed up with a family that perceives him as a freeloader, Paul seeks out his piano-playing friend, Sid Jeffers (Oscar Levant), for advice on how to get ahead playing violin.

A young Robert Blake with Oscar Levant, Humoresque, 1946

Sid suggests going to the the home of Victor and Helen Wright. The Wrights are always hosting a party, and, as Sid tells Paul, he has been invited to a few for laughs: "I laugh at them or they laugh at me. I forget which." It's here--nearly 30 minutes into the film--that leading lady Joan Crawford appears. Crawford, playing Helen Wright, a married, neurotic, self-destructive society dame who drinks too much and likes to help struggling young artists, takes one look at Garfield's Paul playing his violin and is a goner ... though not before blowing cigarette smoke in his face as he is playing. Paul, however, is more than up for the challenge, playing Rimsky-Korsakov's "Flight of the Bumblebee" after telling Helen that "New York is full of all kinds of animals. Not all of them are human." From this fateful introduction, we know they will fall in love. Tragic love. Besides Paul's complex relationship with Helen, he has a pseudo romance with childhood friend and fellow musician, Gina, played by Joan Chandler. (It's Gina who Momma feels is the right woman for her Paul, not that lush, Helen Wright.)


In case I failed to mention it, Humoresque is the kind of movie where
the characters throw perfectly good cocktails against walls. 


As their relationship deepens, Helen helps the talented Paul get an agent, and, as his fame in the rarefied world of classical music increases, a penthouse suite overlooking the East River. Despite all this success the couple's relationship is stormy at best. While listening to Wagner's Tristan und Isolde on the radio, the fragile, distraught Helen kills herself by walking into the Atlantic Ocean--a highly dramatic finish. It's in moments like this that the film simultaneously embraces and transcends its melodramatic, over-the-top qualities. These are also the moments that the film's detractors hold against it. For me, though, the tragic, nearly operatic melodrama is why I love the film so much. The cinema just doesn't make films as unapologetically romantic as Humoresque any more, and that's a real shame.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9FqrsDC5wMI


Made for two million dollars, Humoresque is an impeccably crafted film. From its editing by studio favorite Rudi Fehr, the art direction of Hugh Reiticker, Joan Crawford's wardrobe by Adrian, the brilliant cinematography of Ernest Haller, the incredible work of Franz Waxman's music score, and Leo B. Forbstein's orchestration of the classic works of Wagner, Bizet, Divorak among others, the film stands as a time capsule of craftsmanship that has been lost in the shuffle of other, better known, films. Humoresque may contain Crawford's best performance--maybe even better than her Oscar-winning role in Mildred Pierce. Helen Wright is certainly a more complex role than Mildred, and Crawford hits all the right notes as a tragic woman for whom long-term happiness is an illusion. As for my buddy Oscar, I feel that this movie contains his best impersonation of himself, better than Rhapsody in Blue. Some may grow weary of his constant cynicism, but in this ultra-romantic setting, it's a relief--a bit of reality in this unrealistic-yet-touchingly-romantic fable of impossible love.

Sources:  The Films of John Garfield by Howard Gelman
                The Films of Joan Crawford by Lawrence J. Quirk
                John Garfield, The Illustrated History of the Movies by George Morris
                Joan Crawford, The Illustrated History of the Movies by Stephen Harvey
                Wikipedia Page on Humoresque

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Underrated Gem: Daughters Courageous

Director Michael Curtiz's filmography is so wide-ranging and accomplished, it is difficult not to perceive him as one of Hollywood's under-appreciated craftsman. Born Mihaly Kertesz in Budapest in 1888, Curtiz came to Hollywood in the summer of 1926 after signing a contract with Warner Brothers. He stayed at Warners for 28 years and made over 80 films for the company, including the classics Casablanca (for which he received a Best Director Oscar), Adventures of Robin Hood, Angels With Dirty Faces, Mildred Pierce, Yankee Doodle Dandy, Captain Blood, and The Sea Hawk. 1938, one of his best years, saw the release of Robin Hood and Angels With Dirty Faces as well as an adaptation of the Fannie Hurst book, Four Daughters. Starring the Lane sisters--Priscilla, Rosemary, and Lola--and Gale Page as the daughters, along Claude Rains and May Robson, the film was highly successful in its day and is chiefly remembered as the film that brought John Garfield to film audiences in the secondary-yet-pivotal role of Mickey Borden, the hard-luck, cynical city kid who finds himself in the midst of an all-American family. Garfield was nothing short of sensational and received a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for his work. The film was such a smash that Warners wanted a sequel. But there was a problem: In the original film Garfield died. How do you bring back a film's most popular character if he's dead?

Lobby card for thee film featuring Claude Rains with the Lane sisters and Gale Page

What the film's writers, Philip and Julius Epstein, came up with was a story that had all the same actors playing essentially the same parts in a different setting and plot. That film, Daughters Courageous (1939), worked beautifully. In fact, I think Daughters Courageous is a far better film than Four Daughters, and it surprises me that more people don't know of it. Claude Rains appears again as the father, though this time he plays a rascal who left his wife (Fay Bainter) and four daughters (the three Lane sisters plus Gale Page) twenty years ago, returning just as his wife has him declared legally dead so she can marry a well-off banker (Donald Crisp). Also returning are May Robson--now Fay Bainter's housekeeper instead of the girls' grandmother--and Jeffrey Lynn as a stage scenarist. And then there is John Garfield. Billed first in the credits this time (he was sixth in Four Daughters), Garfield plays Gabriel Lopez, a lazy, comically cynical, no-good-nik who falls so hard for Buff (Priscilla Lane) that he willingly goes to work for his father and proposes marriage to her.

Priscilla Lane's Buff has never met anyone quite like John Garfield's Gabriel Lopez

Daughters Courageous is as solidly performed, wittily scripted, and ably directed as nearly any film circa 1939, the year widely regarded as the best in Hollywood history. A viable argument could be made that if the film had been released in any other year it would be better known to today's audiences. Part of what makes Daughters Courageous so much fun and entertaining is watching the scenes that pair Garfield and Claude Rains as the girls' absent father, Jim. Their characters are two sides of the same coin, with young Gabriel wanting to whisk Buff off to a life of wanderlust and adventure, and aging Jim, tired after years of wanderlust, wanting nothing more than to come back to the hearth and home of the family he left behind long ago. The scene when Garfield comes calling for Buff (only to find she's gone out with the reliable Jeffrey Lynn) and stumbles upon Rains is one of the best in all 1930's Hollywood cinema, with Garfield seeing through Rains' stories and Rains seeing his younger self in Garfield's dreamer.

One of the thing's love will make a man do, like serenading a girl with a accordion

The film's most touching scenes are between Bainter's Nan and Rains' Jim Masters. There is genuine pathos when Jim, having ingratiating himself with his daughters, tells Nan how much the time since his return has meant to him and pleads, "Don't send me away. Don't send me back. I want to stay. I love you, Nan. I want my family back." But it's too little too late. Nan, though obviously still in love with Jim, tells him he must leave because, eventually, he will get the urge to go, and that will be devastating to the family. Nan is also thinking of Buff. She fears her daughter's attraction to Gabriel is due in large part to Jim's presence, and she doesn't want to see her daughter heartbroken. In the final scene Jim and Gabriel leave town as Nan marries Donald Crisp's steady, solid-yet-dull businessman.

Add caption

All this family angst may seem a bit too much like a soap opera to all but the sob sisters, but if that's the case, I'll sob along. I love this movie and have for nearly forty years. Daughters Courageous is a film that is not afraid to wear its sentimentality on its cinematic sleeve, front and center. I think that its emotion is one of the film's finest qualities. From its first-rate script to its fine photography by the esteemed James Wong Howe, and the sincerity and believability the entire cast brings to the performances, this film rates among the best of its genre, the best of its time. With it, Michael Curtiz, who had a reputation as a taskmaster behind the camera, proved that he understood the human condition and also had a versatility few film directors truly excelled at. Daughters Courageous is not just an underrated gem; it is a forgotten one. I believe that anyone who watches cannot help but be affected by its story, its performances, and most of all, its heart.

Sources: The Films of John Garfield by Howard Gelman
               Wikipedia
               IMDB

Sunday, October 23, 2016

The Professionals: Richard Quine

Richard Quine, between stars Jack Lemmon and Kim Novak,
rehearsing a scene from his 1962 film, The Notorious Landlady.


Richard Quine has intrigued me for years. Long before I knew who he was, this film director held sway over me, thanks to his 1964 farce, Sex and the Single Girl, a film I have enjoyed since the late Sixties when it made an appearance on late-night television. Son of an actor, Quine was born in Detroit, Michigan, on November 12, 1920. Six years later his family relocated to Los Angeles, and Quine began work as a child actor on radio. He made his film debut in Cavalcade, which won the Best Picture Oscar of 1933, but left Los Angeles for New York City and Broadway a few years later, making his debut on The Great White Way in the 1939 musical Very Warm for May. The next year Quine was cast in the comedy My Sister Eileen, starring Shirley Booth. The show was a huge success, and it led Quine back to Hollywood when Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer cast him in one of their "kids" musicals, Babes on Broadway, with Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland, in 1941. At MGM, Quine met a promising actress also working at the studio named Susan Peters. The two married in 1943.

December 1941 brought the United States' entry into World War II, and Quine began his service in the US Coast Guard. After the war, MGM dropped his acting contract and, he began to consider a life behind the camera instead of in front of it. It was also around this time that tragedy struck his wife, Susan Peters.

Richard Quine and Susan Peters on their wedding day.
The marriage and their relationship would end after a tragic accident.

Susan Peters had earned a Best Supporting Actress nomination for Random Harvest--her first substantive role--and her career at MGM was off to a promising start. On New Year's Day 1945, however, Quine and Peters were duck hunting when a rifle accidentally discharged, and Peters was shot. The bullet lodged in her spinal cord, and she was paralyzed for the rest of her life. The couple tried to make the best of it: In 1946 they adopted a boy, but ultimately they separated, with Peters charging Quine with cruelty, saying he would not speak to her for days at a time. They divorced in 1948, and Peters died in 1952 from complications stemming from her paralysis as well as depression. At this time in his career, Quine met an aspiring writer, Blake Edwards. The two met on Quine's first directorial effort, 1948's Leather Gloves, when Edwards was a struggling actor cast in the film.They would subsequently collaborate on seven films written by Edwards or co-written by the pair, including Edwards' 1955 directorial debut, Bring Your Smile Along. 

Blake Edwards, with cigar, in the 1960s

Richard Quine's career progressed steadily throughout the 1950s. Highlights included the noir drama, Pushover (1954), his first with muse Kim Novak; the musical remake of My Sister Eileen (1955); and a pair of Judy Holiday vehicles, The Solid Gold Cadillac and Full of Life (both 1956). These were all solid box office winners produced with small budgets. 1957 saw a real breakout winner, military service comedy, Operation Mad Ball. Starring Jack Lemmon in the second of six collaborations with Quine (My Sister Eileen was the first), Operation Mad Ball pushed the comedic boundaries to the late Fifties' limit. The film was such a surprise hit that Columbia Pictures' Harry Cohn entrusted Quine with the adaptation of the Broadway hit, Bell, Book and Candle. Starring Kim Novak and James Stewart fresh off Hitchcock's box office disappointment, Vertigo, with Lemmon in a secondary role, BB&C was a substantial hit for Columbia. With Novak more relaxed and natural under Quine's guidance the studio again paired the director and star for the sudsy, underrated Strangers When We Meet. If Richard Quine is remembered for anything in cinema history it should be for the natural, relaxed sexiness he coaxed out of Kim Novak on screen, something most of her other directors didn't seem capable of.

Quine with star and muse, Kim Novak

Quine's next project was based on a best-selling novel and Broadway play, The World of Suzie Wong. Starring William Holden and newcomer Nancy Kwan, Suzie Wong told the provocative story of architect Holden who chucks everything to go earn his living as an artist in Hong Kong. There he meets prostitute Suzie Wong. Attracted to her yet disturbed by her life, Holden and Kwan's Suzie fall in love, which raise complications to be overcome. The film was a big hit--number six at the nation's theaters.

In 1962, Novak and Lemmon reunited--with Fred Astaire, no less--in Quine's quirky, Hitchcockian, romantic comedy, The Notorious Landlady, about an American, played by Lemmon, who works at the American embassy in London. Novak plays his landlady, who is suspected of killing her husband. While she is put on trial, she is released for lack of evidence (no corpse), so suspicions remain. Meanwhile, Lemmon and Novak fall in love. Response to the film was somewhat lackluster, and the release of The Notorious Landlady also saw the end of the Quine-Novak romance, which appeared to have run its course. 

Quine with third wife, entertainer Fran Jeffries

Quine moved on. In 1964, he directed two more romantic comedies: Paris When It Sizzles, a critical bomb starring William Holden and Audrey Hepburn; and Sex and the Single Girl with a stellar cast of Natalie Wood, Tony Curtis, Henry Fonda, Lauren Bacall, Mel Ferrer (Mr. Audrey Hepburn at the time), and Quine's future wife, Fran Jeffries

Sex and the Single Girl--an entirely fictional comedy based on the groundbreaking nonfiction book of the same name by Helen Gurley Brown--is one of my all-time guilty pleasures. Everything about this movie continues to bring joy to my inner pubescent boy: Natalie Wood's innocently sexy role as psychologist, Dr. Helen Gurley Brown; Tony Curtis's shameless playboy-cum-magazine writer, Bob Weston; Fonda and Bacall's constantly bickering-yet-obsessed couple, Frank and Sylvia Broderick; and Mel Ferrer's obnoxious clinic colleague, Rudy ("Oh, shut up, Rudy!"). Sex and the Single Girl offered about all the sex and innuendo this grade-school boy could hope for when I first saw it in the late Sixties. A precursor to an endless list of imitators, including Sex and the City, the film's plot concerns psychologist Helen Gurley Brown whose book, Sex and the Single Girl, causes a scandal at her clinic and how Curtis tries to expose Helen as a fake (that is, a virgin), while at the same time falling in love with her (who wouldn't?). Quine, by now an old hand at such stuff, crams in some slapstick (Curtis's Bob, pretending to be Fonda's Frank, threatens suicide, falls off a pier and into the ocean, taking Helen, who has arrived to save him, into the water with him; the entire cast, including a beleaguered and/or unbalanced highway patrolman, played by Larry Storch, on a madcap chase through Los Angeles to the airport) as well as an inside joke regarding Curtis's resemblance to Jack Lemmon from that movie in which he dresses as a woman (1959's Some Like It Hot) as Curtis, after taking his suicidal ocean dive goes back to Helen's apartment to dry off and wears her robe (the movie's friskiest scene).


Richard Quine and Jack Lemmon worked together for the last time on 1965's How to Murder Your Wife. This time capsule of a comedy has the quintessential bachelor mentality of its day (i.e., chauvinist by modern standards), yet at the time it was popular enough to land number eleven of the Top Twenty Box Office Hits of 1965. It was also the last substantial hit of Quine's career. Later that year, Quine made an off-beat, risky venture, Synanon. Based on an actual rehab house of the same name, the film (which I haven't seen), released by Columbia Pictures, seems a curiosity in Quine's career.

1967 brought the director his last two real high-profile ventures. Hotel, based on a best-selling novel by Arthur (Airport) Hailey, boasted an all-star cast that included Rod Taylor, Karl Malden, Melvyn Douglas, Merle Oberon,  Richard Conte, and Michael Rennie. Not a great success at the box office--it broke even--the film did lead to a semi-successful Aaron Spelling-produced television series in the 1980s, starring James Brolin and Connie Sellecca. The other film Quine directed that year was the adaptation of the groundbreaking off-Broadway play Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mamma's Hung You in the Closet and I'm Feeling So Sad. With a cast that included Rosalind Russell, Barbara Harris, Robert Morse, Hugh Griffith, and Jonathan Winters, this film version did not live up to the stage version's expectations. The next couple of years found Quine involved in the less-than-stellar productions, A Talent for Loving  and The Moonshine War, both starring Richard Widmark, who was also at a low point in his career. The films quickly disappeared. It was around this time-1970-that the director's marriage to Fran Jeffries ended, and Quine, with limited film prospects, took several television jobs. From 1972 to 1974, he directed three episodes of the popular Peter Falk series, Columbo, along with other shows. In 1974, Quine directed his first film in four years with the mystery thriller, W, starring supermodel Twiggy. The film came and went with barely a trace.


In 1979, Quine directed his last credited feature, The Prisoner of Zenda, starring Peter Sellers. Two other, better productions preceded Quine's version of Zenda. Despite the presence of Sellers, the film didn't amount to much at the box office, and though it was nice to see Quine's name associated with an A-picture again, it was soon forgotten. Quine started on Sellers' next project, The Fiendish Plot of Fu Manchu, but he was fired while the film was in pre-production. It was the last project Richard Quine was associated with. Depressed and angry with an industry that hadn't allowed him to direct a quality film in nearly a decade, Quine died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound in June 1989. He was 68 years old.

Sources:  Wikipedia
                Kim Novak on Camera by Larry Kleno
                Jack Lemmon, The Pyramid Illustrated History of the Movies by Will Holtzman
                Kirk Douglas, The Pyramid Illustrated History of the Movies by Joseph McBride
                Golden Boy: The Untold Story of William Holden by Bob Thomas

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Golden Holden, The Conclusion

In August 1959, William Holden, his wife Ardis, and their three children boarded a flight for Europe. Holden never looked back. He was joining a group of Hollywood stars who had discovered the tax break that came with living abroad for a portion of the year. When his business manager suggested Switzerland, Holden jumped at the chance: "Great! I'll start looking for a house." Holden had been ready to leave Hollywood behind for a while. He'd been traveling about 100,000 miles each  year, and had seen and experienced much of the world. Now Holden could see even more--and profit from it. Holden drew ire from critics who viewed him only an opportunistic movie star, but he didn't care. As biographer Bob Thomas put it, Holden considered himself a citizen of the world.

In 1960's The World of Suzie Wong, Holden's artist falls for Nancy Kwan's prostitute.

Bill Holden's first film after the decision to move to Europe was The World of Suzie Wong. Directed by the underrated Richard Quine, Suzie Wong tells the story of an American artist who settles in one of the seamier parts of Hong Kong. The hotel he lives in operates as a kind of flop house for prostitutes, of which Suzie Wong is one of the most popular. Holden played Robert Lomax, an artist who falls in love with Suzie, though complications arise before the traditional happy ending. Despite the film's unbelievable plot, Suzie Wong was a hit with stateside audiences to the tune of over $7 million 1960 dollars, making the film number seven on Variety's yearly box office champions. It was to be Holden's last bona fide success for several years.

Holden as the screenwriter in Richard Quine's Paris When It Sizzles, 1964.

Holden had no films in circulation in 1961, but 1962 saw the release of three films in which he appeared: Leo McCarey's Satan Never Sleeps, George Seaton's The Counterfeit Traitor--by consensus the best of the three--and The Lion, directed by Jack Cardiff. None of these was a success, but The Lion introduced Holden to one of the great loves of his life, the French actress Capucine. (Born Germaine Lefebvre in 1935 France, Capucine was a top-line model before her film career. After moving to New York, she was scouted by the Charles Feldman Agency, eventually appearing in a succession of films, including North to Alaska opposite John Wayne and Walk on the Wild Side, a less-than-faithful adaptation of the book by Nelson Algren.) After completing work on The Lion, Holden embarked on a massive drinking spree, the effects of which he was still feeling when he found himself face-to-face with former love Audrey Hepburn.

Two stars with a back story on what appears to be a trying day
on set during Paris When It Sizzles

To say William Holden was not psychologically or physically prepared to take on such a challenge is a massive understatement, for Holden was in one of the worst places in his life--on the outs with Ardis and involved with Capucine. To be thrown into a situation with a lover he had never really got over was more than Holden could take. His alcohol intake was so great during Paris When It Sizzles that the production was close to shutting down when director Quine persuaded Holden to dry out for eight days at a hospital that specialized in alcoholics. Desperate to keep filming, Quine recruited friend Tony Curtis to fill in with some last-minute scenes. Filmed in the summer of 1962, Paris When It Sizzles was not released until 1964 when it bombed, becoming Holden's fourth money loser in a row.

Holden's next four films fared no better than Paris When It Sizzles, and by 1968 when Variety compiled a list of stars whose high salaries didn't warrant their bankability at the box office, Holden's name appeared alongside former heavyweights like Tony Curtis, Marlon Brando, and Yul Brynner. On top of professional embarrassment, in 1966 while in Italy, Holden was involved in a two-car accident that killed the driver of the other vehicle. Most observers assumed Holden would get off with a fine, but the verdict found Holden guilty of manslaughter with a sentence of eight months in prison. The sentence was suspended, and he settled with the other vehicle's widow for $80,000. Holden's reckless lifestyle--one largely kept secret from his public--had finally caught up with him. Not quite 50 years of age, William Holden had reached a personal and professional nadir.

The comeback in The Wild Bunch

By the late Sixties, Holden's affair with Capucine had run its course. Ardis and he finally divorced in July 1971 after nearly thirty years of marriage. But, as fate would have it, Holden was actually on course to career resurrection. Sought out by the notorious hell raiser, director Sam Peckinpah, Holden was cast in The Wild Bunch. Bloody and controversial, The Wild Bunch set the gold standard for movie westerns much like John Ford's Stagecoach did thirty years earlier. Not a huge box office winner, The Wild Bunch was a succès de scandale due to its bloody excess and slow-motion depiction of violence. Even critics who deplored the film, however, had to give Holden credit for his most committed work on film in ages.

For the next few years Holden worked on interesting, but not particularly successful, films like The Revengers, a run-of-the-mill western; Blake Edwards' The Wild Rovers, another western and still-underrated film in which Holden gives a poignant portrait of a man who has outlived his time; Clint Eastwood's Breezy; and big box office winner, The Towering Inferno. Holden recognized Inferno as a bit of nonsense but "disaster" films were popular at the time (Inferno would be the second biggest hit of the season behind Jaws). And appearing alongside the stellar cast of Paul Newman, Steve McQueen, Faye Dunaway, Fred Astaire, and Jennifer Jones among others did nothing to hurt his reputation.

1974 was to be a good year for William Holden. Along with the success of The Towering Inferno, he won an Emmy for Best Actor for a television adaptation of Joseph Wambaugh's The Blue Knight. Next up for Holden was a role he was not initially considered for: 1976's ever-prescient Network. Starring with Faye Dunaway, Robert Duvall, and a scene-stealing Peter Finch, Holden once again reminded film audiences why he was still a top screen presence. In the role of Max Schumacher--a part first offered to Jack Lemmon--Holden gave his best performance in twenty years, as an aging television executive in charge of a failing network's news division and a failing marriage.

His best work in over twenty years:
Sidney Lumet's Network which netted Holden his first Best Actor nomination in 23 years.

Network is a great film in a year of great films--All The President's Men, Taxi Driver, The Omen, Seven Beauties, Carrie, The Bad News Bears, Silent Movie, 1900, The Outlaw Josey Wales, The Shootist, Robin and Marian, Obsession, and the year's best picture Oscar winner, Rocky. In Network Holden did possibly his best work ever, yet his performance was basically overlooked. While it's true that he was Oscar-nominated, most of the press went to Finch for his "mad prophet of the airwaves" and Dunaway for her heart-of-stone network programmer. In this sea of loud performances, Holden had the role of a man at a crossroads in his life, fighting age, trying to help his friend Finch, and falling for the tough-as-nails Dunaway. Holden underplays as only he could and reveals a side he grappled with in real life--the unfaithful husband, successful on the outside, lost on the inside and deeply dissatisfied, looking for fulfillment in the arms of another (younger) woman. Oscar voters rewarded Finch, Dunaway, and Beatrice Straight (as Holden's wife). Holden went home empty-handed but with a renewed sense of pride and recognition from the industry that had nearly forgotten him. Life imitated art as he also found love in the arms of a woman much younger than he, actress Stefanie Powers. The two were together nearly ten years before Holden's alcoholism drove too deep a wedge between them.

With Marthe Keller in the underrated Fedora, director Billy Wilder's take on the price of movie fame

After Network, Holden worked regularly in mostly forgettable movies like Damien: Omen II; When Time Ran Out, another Irwin Allen disaster picture with a stellar cast; and Escape to Athena. A couple that stand out is in the underrated, under-seen Fedora, in which Holden reunited with Billy Wilder, and his swan song, Blake Edwards' S.O.B. Holden plays a filmmaker in both--a producer in Fedora, a close descendant of Sunset Boulevard's Joe Gillis (i.e., a down-on-his-luck, cynical yet hopeful), and a director in S.O.B. In Fedora, Holden gave his last great performance, and it would have been a fitting swan song. But his final farewell belonged to Blake Edwards' S.O.B. in which Holden played a film director subservient to his producer pal played by Richard Mulligan. Whereas Fedora was a bittersweet valentine, S.O.B. is strictly bitter. Edwards' Hollywood is quite different from Wilder's. Fedora is a throwback to when film stars had a real aura--even if that aura was maintained in the medical clinics of Europe--and how a persona can suck the life right out of them. On the other hand, S.O.B. is--hilariously--all orgies, pot smoking, corpse stealing, and revenge getting. Through all the madness and wild agendas S.O.B. shows us, Holden's character Cully, a seen-it-done-it-all, could have been Holden himself. By this time--1981--Holden had seen any- and everything Hollywood and the world had to offer. No longer out to prove himself, Cully, like Holden, just wants to survive, live and let live. For Cully life is too short to get caught up in studio politics and intrigues. As another of the film's characters aptly puts it, "He's probably shacked up with a couple of broads and a bottle of Jack Daniels. What the hell does he care." Sad thing is that after S.O.B. premiered in July 1981, that's essentially what Holden did.




But it wasn't a bottle of Jack Daniels, it was a bottle (or two) of vodka and a few beers. And he didn't have "a couple of broads" with him. He was alone. Doing what he must have done hundreds of times: breaking the sound barrier, drinking himself into a stupor before collapsing into bed. Only this time William Holden didn't make it to bed. Completely trashed, Holden tripped on a throw rug and hit his head on the edge of the nightstand. Not realizing the seriousness of his wound, Holden tried to stop the bleeding with several tissues before passing out and dying from loss of blood. Loner that he was, it was several days before his body was discovered. Billy Wilder reflected, "I really loved Bill, but it turned out I didn't know him.... To be killed by a bottle of vodka and a night table--what a lousy fadeout for a great guy." It's an assessment that's hard to argue with, though looking at his life, it's an entirely apt end. Bill Holden, international film star, rich beyond anyone's wildest dreams, lover to some of the worlds most desirable women, died alone and drunk. It's who Bill Holden really was, feeling himself unworthy of the accolades and fame, still the frightened beginner that Barbara Stanwyck mentored on the Golden Boy set way back in 1939 when he was close to being fired. Despite all he had done and the worldwide recognition he had gained, William Holden was, at heart, still that terrified youngster, vulnerable, and insecure. Ironically, it is these characteristics that made him such a good film actor, always underplaying a scene, always believable, careful not to push a scene too hard for fear it would spill into overacting. Holden was like Spencer Tracy or Robert Mitchum or Gary Cooper in that you couldn't see him acting. He was just being. Embodying, breathing, reacting, being the person he was pretending to be. Any performer worth his salt will tell you that is the hardest thing to do. And Bill Holden did it better than anyone. His life may have had a tragic end, yet he left us the gift of his talent and the legacy of his films. He did not die in vain.    

Sources: See blog post Golden Holden, The Rise


Monday, September 5, 2016

Underrated Gem: Inserts

It's fair to say most folks--even my fellow film fanatics--have never heard of the film, Inserts, much less seen it. Starring an up-and-coming Richard Dreyfuss as "Boy Wonder," and supported by a stellar cast, Inserts plays out on a one-room set, bringing into focus the movieland setting. Rated X upon release, Inserts was rechristened with a less titillating, more establishment NC-17 in that rating's mid-1990's heyday. The strong rating is a result not only of the film's bounteous nudity but also its racy subject matter. Inserts is undoubtedly a product of its (1970s) time. Indeed, I cannot think of a single Hollywood distribution outfit that would back this movie today.

 

While it's not a classic (assuredly it is not), Inserts does bring an interesting attitude to the table. The setting is Hollywood circa 1930, a town in transition. Silent film is dead, and everyone save Chaplin has gone crazy for the talkies. Dreyfuss plays a washed-up film director who we know only as "Boy Wonder," once brilliant, now alcoholic, moping about his rundown palazzo in his bathrobe with a bottle of booze in one hand and a movie camera in the other, making "nudies," starring Helene (Veronica Cartwright), a heroin-addicted forgotten silent film star (a "ghost story," in the film's parlance). Joining them is Rex (Stephen Davies). Nicknamed "The Wonder Dog" due to his limited mental capacity, Rex, whose full time job is working for a mortician, is still naive enough to think a studio executive he is scheduled to meet at his hotel room will put him on the studio payroll with no strings attached.

One particular morning, after getting the first scene of the day "in the can," producer Big Mac (Bob Hoskins) arrives with Helene's fix of heroin and his girlfriend, a wannabe actress named Cathy Cake (Jessica Harper). Cathy knows Boy Wonder's work from the silents, and wants to meet him and see the filming of a stag film. Unfortunately for her, Big Mac and Cathy's arrival coincides with Helene's heroin overdose. When Rex refuses to have sex with Helene's corpse, Cathy agrees to serve as Helene's body double and film the titular inserts. While Rex and Big Mac dispose of Helene's body, Boy Wonder and Cathy begin filming and forming a bond.

Richard Dreyfuss as Boy Wonder, a washed up, alcoholic silent filmmaker
coming to grips with his lot in life

Although some books had been published about Hollywood's dark underbelly--most prominently, Kenneth Anger's Hollywood Babylon--by the mid-1970s, any time the major studios considered Hollywood's Golden Age, the films, including W.C. Fields and MeGable and Lombard, Nickelodeon and Won Ton Ton, The Dog Who Saved Hollywood (interestingly, along with Inserts, all released in 1976), tended to depict the more mainstream elements of that earlier time. Not that these films found their audience (they didn't, some deservedly so), but mainstream moviegoers, me included, still wanted to believe wholly in the facade of that so-called Golden Age. Inserts was one of the first films to focus on the less-than-golden parts of that Hollywood heyday. And focus it did. The film included full-frontal nudity and four-letter words that had seldom, if ever, been spoken in a mainstream film before. 

First-time director John Byrum, who also wrote the script, is dealing with difficult material here. Even Hitchcock found it challenging to film a movie on one set, trying twice before succeeded with 1954's Rear Window, and it goes without saying Byrum is no Hitch. But the film does have its fascinating moments, particularly when it references early Hollywood, including dialogue concerning Jack Pickford (Mary's brother, death by drugs), Wallace Reid (more death by drugs), Erich von Stroheim (a victim of his own directorial excess) and "that new kid at Pathe" (Clark Gable), who is desperate to meet Boy Wonder. With clever references to old Hollywood and contemporary references to 1970s' popular culture (Big Mac wants to make it rich in hamburger chains [get it?]), how could this film not succeed? Who knows? But it didn't. No one went to see it, and most critics shrugged it off. But that doesn't mean there is not some cinematic gold to be mined from this off-beat, wildly eccentric vehicle.

Left to right: Jessica Harper's Cathy Cake, Bob Hoskins' Big Mac, and
Stephen Davies' Rex cannot believe what Boy Wonder (Richard Dreyfuss) is suggesting. 

The cast is first rate and is the best reason to see the film. Veronica Cartwright's Helene is a heartbreaking mix of Marie Prevost, Mabel Normand, and all those no-name early film starlets who came to Hollywood to make it big, only to fall short for a variety of reasons--lack of drive, talent, luck. Helene is too sensitive and too impractical to survive in hard-hearted Hollywood. Cartwright--always underrated--gives heart to Helene's (lack of) status. Stephen Davies' Rex, "The Wonder Dog," is a basically good-natured, simple guy who should have stayed back in Iowa or wherever he came from. Bob Hoskins' pre-Roger Rabbit, Cotton Club, and Super Mario Bros (remember that one?!) is perfectly cast. I'm a sucker for all the American tough guys he played. Cult favorite (Phantom of the Paradise, Pennies From Heaven) Jessica Harper as Cathy Cake seems a tough case at first glance, with little, if any, empathy for what she witnesses at Boy Wonder's palazzo; however, as her character transitions from passive bystander to active participant (eventually--in a neat twist--directing Dreyfuss's director to allow his "rope to rise"), Harper gives depth to Cathy Cake's ambition. I've had a crush on Miss Harper ever since I first saw her in the 1974 Brian DePalma film Phantom of the Paradise. With her big eyes, pale complexion, and willowy frame, she fits perfectly into the Hollywood Byrum strives to recreate. Then there is Richard Dreyfuss. I love nearly everything the guy has done, up to and including his short-lived, underrated 2001 television show, The Education of Max Bickford.  As Boy Wonder, Dreyfuss brings his usual characteristics to the table--a nervous, quirky, energetic, Jewish personality--here combined with a heartbreaking pathos I find effective and engaging. 

Cathy Cake (Jessica Harper), embraces the idea of doing "inserts" of the dead Harlene
and offers her services to Boy Wonder (Richard Dreyfuss). 

Nearly half of Insert's running time consists of a tete-a-tete between Boy Wonder and Cathy Cake in which roles reverse, and Miss Cake directs Boy Wonder, getting his "rope to rise" by using the same techniques on him that he has used on his actors. Here Boy Wonder, a master cynic who is nevertheless drawn to Miss Cake's seemingly innocent yet curious inquiries into how these nudies are made, finally meets his match. She draws him out, seduces him, and brings out the vulnerable side that he would never admit to having.


When Inserts opened in early 1976, it received mostly scathing reviews and barely made a nickel at the box office. While not a feel-good movie--at times it seems deliberately offensive--Inserts gave, and continues to give, some movie lovers a jaundiced view of Hollywood's Golden Age that is a world away from the glamour usually presented in films about that era. The film has a lot of humor, mostly supplied by Dreyfuss, but it is cynical, dark, and ironic. This cynicism combined with the setting is a major reason I am drawn to it. Forgotten and neglected until very recently (Twilight Time released a Blu-ray in June 2016), Inserts will not appeal to the casual movie viewer. If your idea of a good movie is the latest superhero blockbuster, Inserts probably won't hold your interest. But if you enjoy an off-beat, dark humored, tough yet vulnerable, and well-acted film, you could do a lot worse than to open up and let Inserts invade your cinematic soul. 

Sources

  • IMDB
  • Wikipedia

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

The Void or, "Did I tell you I am feeling unwell?"

For decades, going to the movies has been one of my greatest pleasures. Beginning when I was 15 years old, I would go to the cinema every week, sometimes more. Wonderful films unspooled at local movie houses. I remember going to see my first R-rated movie, the scandalous Warren Beatty film, Shampoo, in 1975. I was not quite 16. Movies captured my imagination from a young age, as they do for most people. But few go deeper into the making--art, craft, personalities, and critiques--of movies than I. Obviously critics have, along with the opinion-sharing, 21st century phenomenon known as bloggers (ahem). There are tens of thousands like-minded folks who blog about film. Some are the fan-boy comic book type who love best when the latest superhero or sci-fi extravaganza hits the nation's cineplexes. Others comment only on a particular film or series of films, like Star Wars or Planet of the Apes. Some fixate on the work of one director like a Stanley Kubrick or Michael Bay (really?). As for me, I dwell primarily in the land of classic Hollywood cinema. I still go to the movies about 10-15 times a year, depending on my interest in a film's story; who is starring and directing it; whether I can find the time to go; and how long that film is playing in my town.

Lately, that has been more difficult to find. You see, I have been feeling unwell. 


I came of age in the 1970s. I am biased, and my recollection is heavy with nostalgia, but the way I remember it, that was a time when movies meant something. Seventies' cinema was about content and meaning and thought. I remember walking away from films and wanting to talk about them, mull them over, discuss them at length with the people I knew who had seen them. Movies mattered to their audiences, to their creators, to me. They were more than just visceral thrills. Today, I feel like most movies--most Hollywood big-budget movies that get major studio promotion and exposure anyway--don't stand for anything. Back in the day, a summer season of films meant many things to many people. In 1975--41 years ago, when dinosaurs roamed the earth--theaters around the nation offered escapist fare like Return of the Pink Panther, Freebie and the Bean, James Bond's latest, The Man With the Golden Gun, Mandingo, and of course, Jaws. Simultaneously, however, the summer also included late spring releases like the Mike Nichols-Warren Beatty-Jack Nicholson bomb, The Fortune; John Schlesinger's adaptation of Nathaniel West's Hollywood novel, The Day of the Locust; Woody Allen's Love and Death (when he still knew how to be silly); Robert Altman's classic, Nashville; and Robert Mitchum starring as Raymond Chandler's famed sleuth, Philip Marlowe, in Farewell, My Lovely. In other words, an abundance of choices was available to movie audiences: some good, some bad, some mindless, some not, but variety, nonetheless, came from the big studios. But all that has changed now.




Did I mention that I feel unwell?

The Hollywood system is broken. It has been for some time and doesn't seem to be getting any better. Well-constructed yet entertaining products with a serious, thoughtful slant only come out at certain times of year. From late September to Christmas Day, movies that don't rely on the popcorn munching, soda gulping crowd are more likely to be released to a public that either no longer goes to the movies or don't care about more serious fare. Worse than that, however, is the fact that the studios are unwilling to make movies outside the most mainstream for fear of losing money. Not that this is new. As far back as the Depression, Hollywood studios were against making movies that might play over their audiences' heads. In Elia Kazan's 1976 film, The Last Tycoon, an adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald's unfinished novel, the lead character, Monroe Stahr is the production head of a major Hollywood studio. He tells his fellow executives, including his boss, studio chief Pat Brady, that the $2 million production of a high-brow film may lose money with the unhappy ending he is proposing to remain true to its story, prompting every suit at the table to look at each other in disbelief. "What is he thinking?! Times are tough! The country is in a depression, Monroe!" Stahr replies, "We've been playing it safe here for two years. I'm going to make this movie, with its unhappy ending. It's about time we took a chance and made a film that may lose money. Write it off as good will." Needless to say, this idealism is seldom found outside of fictional Hollywood.




Don't get me wrong. Bad movies, dumb movies, silly ones have always existed. Hollywood has reveled in its bloated epics for decades. The 1950s saw a big increase of inflated spectaculars, but I'm not convinced that such a film was ever accepted as the norm--what to expect in entertainment--until the last thirty-to-forty years of increasingly big-budget entertainment. Today, the people who flock to these mindless, unfeeling, witless spectacles do not know any better. American movie audiences have been spoonfed these tiresome excuses for entertainment for the generations now, leading audiences to expect it. And now they're asking for more, resulting in Suicide Squad, Batman Vs. Superman, Iron Man 1, 2, 3, reboots of Star Trek and Star Wars, Tarzan and now I hear, a Harry Potter prequel. Why? No simple answer exists. Franchise movies are cash cows for the major studios (although recently some of these movies have not been profitable due to excessive budgets) with built-in audiences for their instantly recognizable characters. For these movies, too often a coherent screenplay is optional--the least of concerns.


  

Did I forget to mention I have been feeling unwell?

With Labor Day just around to corner, I hope to be on the mend soon. A few, upcoming films seem entertaining, challenging, even fun. Hell and High Water just opened and looks to be a serious--and seriously violent--film that harks back to the days of Sam Peckinpah. Sully, with Tom Hanks, has potential as does Oliver Stone's Snowden; Warren Beatty's Rules Don't Apply; Allied, Robert Zemeckis' romantic thriller starring Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard; and La La Land, which  looks like it will transport its audience to that magical world of romance, grace, and beauty that musicals so often do. After all this, I still have faith. I look forward to attending this movie catholic's place of worship, sitting in the dark with my fellow congregants, and hoping to be healed of the malady that has taken hold of me. Because when one or more of these ambitious, vital films fail to find its audience, it makes it tougher for other movies with a unique perspective to see the light of day and make movie-going the memorable and thrilling experience it still has the chance to be.