Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Oh Damien, You Devil

Horror movies are among my chief cinematic pleasures, and the one that scared me the most as a child was The Omen (1976). I begged my father to take me to see it, and he reluctantly complied, but it scared the bejesus out of me and I was forced to sleep with a night light on for years to come. I would even run out of the room in terror whenever the TV commercial for the film would come on...the frighteningly hollow and cold-blooded tones of the Gregorian chant-inspired theme music by Jerry Goldsmith (the aptly titled opus “Ave Satani”). I was 10 years old.

It wasn’t until the dawn of the Blockbuster Video era in the mid-1980s that I was able to muster up the courage see the 1978 and 1981 sequels to the terrifying original. As a college student at Northwestern University, I also had the opportunity to take a screenwriting seminar taught by a fellow alum—the talented David Seltzer, who wrote the original screenplay that started the Omen phenomenon.

The Antichrist is perhaps filmdom’s greatest arch-villain, bringing about not only murder and mayhem but quite possibly the end of the world itself, and the character of Damien Thorn as portrayed in the Omen trilogy gives viewers a fanciful birds-eye view into the mind and heart of a born killer as he grows from infant to adult.

The three faces of Damien: Stephens, Scott-Thomas and Neill
Obviously inspired by the huge popularity of previous horror classics Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist, The Omen enjoyed less critical acclaim but was nevertheless a big box office hit that spawned two entertaining sequels. Seltzer’s original screenplay boasts a strong and compelling narrative and an inventive mythology that provides the blueprint and the backbone for the rest of the series. Punctuated by violent set-pieces and steeped in Catholic and apocalyptic lore, the Omen films chillingly represent the personification of evil in the person of a single character—Damien Thorn.

Born of a jackal and bearing a 666 birthmark—the sign of the Beast as described in the Book of Revelations—Damien does have his share of issues. But he does not have to bear the burden of responsibility alone. He’s surrounded by a bevy of hellbound helpers (played by some of filmdom’s finest character actors) determined to do away with anyone standing in their antihero’s path to ultimate power. One can’t be an effective devil without fearless acolytes, and Satan’s minions are brought to vivid life with wonderful performances in all films. 

Over the course of the three films, each of Damien’s enemies is dispatched in a creatively vivid and violent fashion through a series of gory freak “accidents”—including but not limited to hangings, stabbings, burnings, impalings and dismemberments—that are the hallmarks of the Omen oeuvre.

The Omen (1976): The Littlest Devil
The diminutive Antichrist is portrayed in the original Omen by young Harvey Stephens, but Damien is really just a supporting character in this opening chapter. This first film is headlined by Gregory Peck (Gentlemen’s Agreement, To Kill a Mockingbird) as diplomat Robert Thorn, the Ambassador to Great Britain, and beautiful Lee Remick (Anatomy of a Murder, The Days of Wine and Roses) as his wife Cathy. (The ever-prolific horror movie genre is a saving grace of aging A-list talents who want to keep their names above the title!)

Gregory Peck as Robert Thorn

Lee Remick as Cathy Thorn
As the movie opens, the Thorns’ newborn child has been murdered and replaced with the spawn of the devil, setting the prophecy and plan of the Antichrist’s rise into motion. All is idyllic for the young family until, at Damien’s elaborate fifth birthday party, his nanny (Holly Palance, daughter of Jack) is given the evil eye by a big black Hellhound dog and ends up swinging from a rope in a spectacular suicide sequence. (“Look at me, Damien! It’s all for you!” )

The new governess, Mrs. Baylock, played by the brilliant Billie Whitelaw (Night Watch, Hot Fuzz), is soft-spoken with a gentle brogue and wears sweater sets and sensible shoes. But she turns out to be one tough customer, aided by her fearsome familiar, the ferocious black dog, by her side, to guard her young charge: “Have no fear, little one. I am here to protect thee.” Mary Poppins she is not—a spoonful of hemlock rather than sugar seems to be her preferred prescription.

The marvelous Billie Whitelaw as Mrs. Baylock
Religious imagery and terminology are laid on thickly throughout the film. “Accept Christ, Mr. Thorn,” a crazy old coot of a priest admonishes Gregory Peck. “Drink his blood and eat his flesh.” Later, the seven knives of Megiddo, the sacred implements that are the only weapon that can destroy the Antichrist (and appear as an important plot device in all three films), are given to Thorn by Buchenhagen (Leo McKern).

David Warner (Time After Time, Titanic) is memorable as a photographer whose pictures show premonitions of the violence to come—to others as well as himself, the victim of one of the most gruesome “accidents.”

The devil dog, hound of hell, appears in chapters one and three

At first, it’s not quite clear if Damien, played by the young, cherubic-faced Harvey Stephens, is truly the embodiment of evil, or merely a hyperactive and migraine-inducing spoiled brat. Indeed, he drives his adoptive mother Cathy Thorn, played beautifully by Lee Remick, batty to the point of neurosis.  When the animals at the Windsor Lion Country Safari are terrified of Damien, the giraffes stampeding away and the baboons attacking the car, Cathy muses, “What could be wrong with our child?”

Just follow David Warner's bouncing rubber head in the decapitation scene
Indeed, the obstreperous Damien pitches a hysterical fit when approaching an Episcopal church for a wedding, ripping off poor Lee’s glamorous blue satin turban and socking her in the face; and is truly an annoying presence in the Thorn drawing room, throwing billiard balls and yelling at the top of his lungs. (No wonder Cathy starts seeing a psychiatrist, since spanking the little devil is clearly out of the question.)

But alas, Cathy’s fears are not unfounded. When she gets pregnant, her new baby must be gotten out of the way. While she balances precariously against a top-floor balustrade to fuss with a potted plant, evil Damien mows her down with his tricycle, causing her to fall, break her back and lose her unborn child. (Later, Mrs. Baylock pays her a visit in the hospital to finish the job.)

Young Stephens does give a memorable performance, especially in the climactic scenes with Gregory Peck and Billie Whitelaw, fighting tooth and nail against his adoptive father, who has had quite enough of Damien by now, thank you very much.

Damien: Omen II (1978): The Devil’s Advocates
Now living in Chicago with Robert’s brother, Richard Thorn (William Holden), his wife Ann (Lee Grant) and Richard’s son Mark (Lucas Donat), thirteen-year-old Damien (Jonathan Scott-Thomas) attends a military academy and comes of age—with a little help from his friends.

Top stars like Lee Grant, recent Oscar winner as Best Supporting Actress for Shampoo, and William Holden, who had headlined the acclaimed 1976 Best Picture Network, obviously never declined any paying gig, including this schlocky horror movie (indeed, Miss Grant’s autobiography is entitled I Said Yes To Everything). Actors need to work and earn a paycheck just like the rest of us!

A-listers Lee Grant and Bill Holden—slumming for a paycheck?
 A bloody continuation of the violent acts that must be taken to ensure Damien’s clear path to omnipotence, this chapter focuses upon the many protectors and helpers that surround Damien—conspirators are everywhere to prepare the way for Satan’s kingdom.  At the military academy, platoon leader Lance Henriksen (Aliens, The Terminator) is so enamored with his young hero that he can barely look the boy in the eye. “Our time has come,” remarks businessman Robert Foxworth, who does away with old Lew Ayres to run Bill Holden’s vast conglomerate until Damien comes of age. Lee Grant, the nurturing earth-mother stepmother, plays favorites, turning out to love one of her adopted children just a wee bit more than the other...

Jonathan Scott-Thomas as Damien Thorn
 As for Damien himself, Scott-Thomas portrays him as a well-mannered and well-behaved young man, but does use his “evil eye” to punish a bullying classmate, and later to murder his cousin and best friend Mark in order to claim his birthright. As Damien’s latent talents emerge, he is admonished not to attract attention: “Someday everyone will know who you are.”

In this film, the satanic familiar switches from a black dog to a raven, ostensibly for one of the violent murder scenes to steal boldly from Hitchcock’s The Birds. (For the third film, the black Hellhound canine returns.) Poor Elizabeth Shepherd, resplendent in a fur-trimmed, blood red coat, gets her eyes pecked out by the nasty, angry bird, then stumbles into oncoming traffic. Ouch!

Elizabeth Shepherd and a Hitchcockian feathered friend

Before William Holden can end the madness by destroying Damien with the newly rediscovered knives of Megiddo, Lee Grant literally stops him dead in his tracks with histrionic aplomb, and chapter two ends in an operatic fiery conflagration as the Thorn Museum burns to the ground.

Lee Grant camps it up in the finale: "Daaamieeeeeen!"

The Final Conflict (1981): Devil-May-Care Savoir Faire
This one is all about the eternal appeal of its bad boy antihero. In The Final Conflict, New Zealand actor Sam Neill (A Cry in the Dark, Jurassic Park) makes a handsome and charismatic Damien—but make no mistake, this is one mean and cold-blooded dude. Unlike the soft-spoken and unfailingly polite Damien played by Scott-Taylor in Omen II, Neill’s Damien is as hard as nails.

Sam Neill as the DILF version of Damien—the devil you'd like to....
 As the third film opens, the seven knives of Megiddo are unearthed from the remains of the Thorn Museum fire just as a cosmic alignment is taking place in the heavens, the one that will herald the Second Coming of Christ. Thus Damien, now an adult, must accelerate his plan for world domination by doing away with the Ambassador to Great Britain to obtain his father’s old job (apparently part of the prophecy and a prerequisite for Damien’s rise to political power) and gain a coveted appointment as president of the (obviously Hitleresque) United Nations Youth Council. Indeed, the American Ambassador’s gruesome suicide is the first of several violent set-pieces in the tradition of the other two films.

Damien and his evil brethren then embark upon a crusade to destroy all infants born on March 24th—the date of the Nazarene child’s birth.

Damien and his nemesis

Not quite as broad and campy as Omen II, The Final Conflict does have its share of over-the-top characters and broadly outlandish scenes of gory violence. The knife-wielding monks (including an elegant and thickly-accented Rossano Brazzi) and religious fanatics fight for the good guys, while Damien’s satanic henchmen include a pair of mean-spirited boy scouts, a wild-eyed priest who drowns the baby he is baptizing, and a sinister nurse (with a faint female mustache) wielding a hypodermic.

Neill is effective, even though he does gnaw the scenery in a few places. Damien’s monologue, a prayer to Papa Satan before a grotesque life-size Christ statue hanging backwards on a cross, is memorably florid as he praises “the violent rapture of my Father’s kingdom…” “Oh god of desolation…save us from Jesus Christ and his grubby, mundane creed…” he intones (with a remarkably straight face). 

A large part of this devil’s appeal is as a sex symbol—indeed, Mr. Neill is very easy on the eyes as the grown-up Prince of Darkness. In the film, Damien is having sex with reporter Kate Reynolds—“The Barbara Walters of British journalism” (well played by Neill’s real-life former paramour Lisa Harrow)— and (it’s implied), maybe even with her teenage son Peter (Barnaby Holm), who turns out to be another devil-worshiping acolyte. In bed with Kate making love, Damien roughly flips her over to face the mattress in order to—well, let’s just say the devil’s favorite flavor definitely isn’t vanilla.

"Nazarene, you have won...nothing."

Lovers of the Omen chronicles like me were delighted when 20th Century Fox released digitally remastered versions of these horror classics in a Blu-Ray collection a couple of years ago. The collection includes the trilogy, plus the 2006 remake with Liev Schreiber, Julia Stiles and Mia Farrow in the Billie Whitelaw role. (The less said about that one, the better, though!)

Of the three Damiens, only Mr. Neill still works as an actor. Stephens is now a real estate developer in London, while Brazilian-born Brit Jonathan Scott-Taylor added only a few more film and TV roles to his credit before disappearing from public life in the mid-1980s.

When Shadows and SatinSpeakeasy and Silver Screenings announced this year’s Great Villain Blogathon, Damien Thorn was the first character to pop into my mind. Thanks to them for inspiring me to add the Antichrist to their villainous lineup this year! I look forward to reading all the entries of this stellar annual event! 

Wednesday, April 05, 2017

The Gothic Grandeur of Baby Jane

I first read of the film Whatever Happened to Baby Jane in a paperback book published by Pyramid in the 1970s, entitled Karloff and Company: The Horror Film by Robert F. Moss. It was a slim volume that had a surprisingly exhaustive series of essays about the development of the horror genre, all the way from Nosferatu and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari up through the 1960s-70s Hammer Film period. This is where I first became interested in scary movies as varied as Dracula and Frankenstein to Rosemary’s Baby--and Baby Jane. As an “illustrated biography”, the Pyramid series offered a good mix of words and pictures to capture the imagination of a 10-year-old budding movie buff.

The first picture I ever saw of Joan Crawford and Bette Davis

It was the gruesome photo that accompanied the section about the 1962 shocker starring Bette Davis and Joan Crawford that made me pause and take notice...a pancake-faced old blond woman, dressed as a little girl, sitting on a beach with a grotesquely gray-faced brunette expiring beside her. The doll-like blond lady was grimacing and the brunette’s big eyes were full of pain.

At this moment in time, I had never even heard of Bette Davis or Joan Crawford, but I vowed to find out more. Who were these two scary ladies, and why did they both seem so intensely compelling?

Baby Jane was a movie that was never on television in the 1970s when I was growing up. I first saw it in the mid 1980s, thanks to the magic of videotape. Just prior to the Blockbuster Video era, when studios put out all the classics on VHS tapes, small Mom & Pop video stores would not only rent you the tapes but the videocassette player as well. In college in Chicago, my best friends and I would trudge miles in the snow lugging the video player and tapes, to watch movies we had heretofore only read about--or had only seen in edited-for-television versions.

The Hudson Sisters: Blanche (Joan Crawford) and Jane (Bette Davis)

Naturally, my two gay college friends and I were instantly transfixed by this black-and-white horror classic. A forgotten vaudeville child star and her former movie star sister have shut themselves away in a decaying old house amid regrets and recriminations, as the alcoholic Baby Jane (Bette Davis) taunts and tortures her crippled, long-suffering sister Blanche (Joan Crawford) with gleeful malice.

Reel life melds with real life as actual clips of youthful Davis and Crawford are used to illustrate their 1930s movie careers in one of the extended flashback sequences in the prologue. The Bette Davis clip is used to show what a terrible actress Baby Jane was, and indeed, Davis’s 1933 performance in Ex-Lady is wooden and leaden, replete with a cringe-worthy southern accent. She really does “stink” — Davis must have had quite a sense of humor about herself to allow that clip to be shown. On the other hand, Crawford is beautiful, elegant and flawless (if a little affected!) in her own clip from 1934’s Sadie McKee. The juxtapositions of past and present and young and old, are perfect exposition to precede the two aging stars’ first appearances.

Of course, it is the performances that make this movie a classic. Without a doubt, Davis steals the picture with her balls-out portrayal of the alcoholic, bitter and mentally unhinged Jane.  As caregiver to the crippled recluse, former movie actress Blanche Hudson, Davis’s former child star Jane Hudson is now the “fat sister” slouching around the dingy dark Hudson house, yawning, mugging, shuffling and clomping around, rattling through a multiplicity of empty gin and scotch bottles, beginning her endless guzzling as she prepares her wheelchair-bound sister’s breakfast tray.

"This is my very own Baby Jane doll"

With Mary Pickford sausage curls and heavily lipsticked cupid bow mouth on a chalk white face, Davis transforms herself into a monstrous life-sized doll. (Her performance of the child star’s theme song “I’ve Written a Letter to Daddy” truly has to be seen to be believed.) Jane is a grotesque madwoman but also a psychopath and a sadist, serving her disabled sister first their pet canary then a big juicy rat from the cellar under a silver cloche. She savagely kicks Crawford around the room then trusses her up with the precision of a BDSM dominatrix, but not before coldbloodedly murdering their housekeeper Elvira by bludgeoning her with a hammer.

Davis plays the role with a savage gusto, as if she knows this may be her last chance to prove herself on the silver screen. She is truly a force of nature--and Jane Hudson remains one of her most unforgettable roles. Already a two-time Oscar winner, she received her final Academy Award nomination as Best Actress for the role, but lost to Anne Bancroft in The Miracle Worker. (Ironically, Joan Crawford famously accepted Bancroft’s award that night amid glamorous fanfare, completely upstaging her former costar.)

Joan knew how to look like a winner!
Though Crawford was supposedly incensed that she had not received a nomination herself, she too had garnered strong reviews for her more sedate performance. Crawford was heavily praised by many critics, including reviewer Paul V. Beckley in the New York Herald Tribune: “If Miss Davis's portrait of an outrageous slattern with the mind of an infant has something of the force of a hurricane, Miss Crawford's performance could be described as the eye of that hurricane, abnormally quiet, perhaps, but ominous and desperate.”

You can’t underestimate Crawford’s contribution to the film, both on screen and off. It was Joan who found the novel by Henry Farrell and brought it to director Robert Aldrich, with whom she’d done Autumn Leaves. As the crippled Blanche Hudson, Crawford wisely chose to underplay to her costar’s flamboyant histrionics.

When the character of Jane imitates her sister Blanche’s voice over the telephone, Davis is obviously miming Joan Crawford’s own voice--and Crawford exaggerates her own hoity-toity, piss elegant delivery, neatly spoofing the saintly, holier-than-thou  “Bless You” Crawford image. It’s obvious Joan  was savvy to the joke and able to poke fun at herself for the sake of a good story.

Maidie Norman as Elvira: "I can't remember the last time I saw words like that written down!"

Victor Buono and Marjorie Bennett: "This is Mr. Flagg's seck-etary...I think you'll find he's very well qualified."

B.D. Merrill (later Hyman) and her Mommie Dearest
Obese and effete young actor Victor Buono (best known as the evil King Tut on Batman), who was only in his early 20s at the time, was inspired casting as the pianist and potential “love interest” for Jane, and he earned a well-deserved Oscar nod himself for Best Supporting Actor. Other standouts in the cast include the reliable Maidie Norman (Torch Song) as Elvira, and British character actress Marjorie Bennett’s (Promises, Promises) broad cockney characterization as Edwin’s coddling mother.

Rounding out the cast are Anna Lee (The Sound of Music, General Hospital) as the nosy next-door neighbor,  and a flat-voiced B.D. Merrill giving the worst performance in the film as the neighbor's daughter…obviously reading her lines off a cue card, practically pausing in the middle of a sentence till the next card is turned  (Of course, B.D. Merrill Hyman is Bette Davis’s less talented daughter who later wrote the Mommie Dearest-inspired hack job My Mother’s Keeper in Bette’s waning years.)

Director Robert Aldrich confers with his stars
Baby Jane is the film that spawned a brand new movie genre—the Grand Guignol, named for the grotesque and violent French theatre that played ironically until 1962, the year this film was released. Guignol horror pictures of the 1960s revitalized the careers of the grande dames who headlined them, and created a new stereotype--the aging movie actress as either victim or killer. Some were well-produced and notable, but most were schlocky and exploitative, but almost all made money and kept leading ladies of a certain age working and in the public eye.

Some of my own guilty pleasures of the period include Die, Die My Darling! (with Tallulah Bankhead), What’s The Matter with Helen? (Debbie Reynolds), Whatever Happened to Aunt Alice? (Ruth Gordon), Lady in a Cage (Olivia de Havilland) and The Devil’s Own (Joan Fontaine). Later on, into the 1970s and even the ’80s, Elizabeth Taylor in Night Watch and Betsy Palmer in Friday the 13th kept the subgenre alive.

Crawford kept up her new image as Scream Queen with Straight Jacket, Berserk and Trog, while Bette Davis returned often to the Guignol, first in Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte, then in The Nanny, Burnt Offerings and The Dark Secret of Harvest Home.

Why does Baby Jane remain a classic? The bottom line is that it is a very solid low-budget horror  movie, suspenseful, taut and well-plotted, infused with dark humor. This grotesquely gothic film is a camp classic, yes...but it’s so much more than just that. The inimitable style and attention to detail of director Robert Aldrich (The Big Knife, The Killing of Sister George) are everywhere apparent, and the film is photographed with flair by the brilliant Ernest Haller (Gone with the Wind, Mildred Pierce). The charisma and combustible chemistry of its two leading ladies adds an undeniable layer of excitement.

Much has been written about the making of this unique film, and the legendary feud between the two stars, a lot of it myth and legend and hearsay. One particular writer, Shaun Considine, has compiled all the Baby Jane lore into an engrossing book called Bette and Joan: The Divine Feud. How much of it is true and how much is fiction is debatable. Perhaps some of the more outlandish stories were made up or exaggerated by the participants themselves specifically to sell tickets to the film. 

Joan and Bette's reunion in Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte was not meant to be.
But it’s safe to say that Davis and Crawford were never the best of friends...to put it mildly. Their first teaming was such a box office bonanza that Aldrich convinced them to reunite in a new movie, Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte, but on location in Louisiana Joan reportedly fell ill and then quit the picture just as filming got underway. Bette’s old friend Olivia deHavilland took over the role. Yep, their mutual enmity was most likely real!

And yes, of course I am watching (and LOVING) Ryan Murphy’s FX series Feud: Bette and Joan starring Susan Sarandon as Davis and Jessica Lange as Crawford. Both actresses are absolutely marvelous in it! It’s must-see TV for classic movie freaks like me.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

A Thoroughly Pre-Modern Mary

On January 25, 2017, Mary Tyler Moore passed away at the age of 80. In both of her unforgettable TV roles, as adorable housewife Laura Petrie on The Dick Van Dyke Show and as self-sufficient “woman on her own” Mary Richards on her eponymous Mary Tyler Moore Show, Moore radiated a persona of cheerfulness, optimism and determination despite a personal life with more than its share of challenges, including a lifetime managing Type 1 diabetes, a bout with alcoholism and the loss of a child. Small wonder we’ve loved Mary for more than 50 years—she truly was an all-American girl next door with “spunk,” as Lou Grant would say.

The 1967 film Thoroughly Modern Millie was Mary’s big-screen debut, after more than a decade of television work culminating in a five-year run with Dick Van Dyke. After Laura Petrie and before Mary Richards, Mary Tyler Moore seemed to be struggling to find a new career direction. During this awkward in-between period, she starred as Holly Golightly in a disastrous Broadway production of Breakfast at Tiffany’s opposite Richard Chamberlain, and even did a stint as leading lady to Elvis Presley in his last scripted film Change of Habit (she played a nun and he played a doctor, famously if not believably!).

Julie Andrews as Millie Dillmount: "The happiest star of all!"
Accepting a costarring role opposite Julie Andrews in a movie musical, playing a naive and virginal young woman of the 1920s, seemed to suit her squeaky-clean, girl next door image. (Born-again virgins must have been all the rage in the mid-1960s, with Doris Day handing her crown as the #1 Box Office Star over to everyone’s favorite nanny Julie Andrews who, incredibly, had played a beloved governess in not just one but two iconic blockbuster movies back to back.)

Thoroughly Modern Millie itself is something of an acquired taste if you’re not an aficionado of gay camp, but if you are, this one is a gem. The plot is silly and outlandish (and very politically incorrect), and the music is quaint and old-fashioned (indeed, many of the tunes were real 1920s hits, like “Jazz Baby” and “Baby Face”). Produced by the legendary Ross Hunter (Pillow Talk, Midnight Lace, Madame X), the production design is lavish and over the top, but its great cast is what makes this movie such good fun.  

Mary Tyler Moore as Dorothy Brown: "It's Miss Dorothy..."
With her clear-as-a-bell soprano (with its fabled four-octave range) and briskly efficient vitality, the brassy Dame Julie dominates the proceedings in the title role of Millie Dillmount, but generously shares the spotlight with her costar Moore, who plays the sweet and guileless Miss Dorothy Brown. (Next to the mannish, short-haired Andrews, the lovely Mary appears even more vulnerable and feminine.) Julie and Mary have good chemistry, especially in the scenes where they must tap dance together to keep the old elevator running in the Priscilla Hotel for Young Ladies where they both live.

Beatrice Lillie as Mrs. Meers: "So sad to be all alone in the world..."
A large part of the farcical plot, dealing with a Chinese white slavery ring that spirits away young women who are “all alone in the world,” is patently offensive today. In 1967, it was still socially acceptable to describe Asians as Orientals and paint them as suspicious, mysterious and “inscrutable” characters. In 2002, the film was adapted into a semi-successful Broadway musical, keeping the “Oriental” plotline.

As Mrs. Meers, the Chinese proprietress of the Priscilla Hotel (not to mention a human trafficking organization on  the side), rushing around in a kimono and high black wig adorned with chopsticks, British stage star Beatrice Lillie makes a wacky villainness indeed. But if you can get past the racial implications, Lillie’s expert clowning, deadpan delivery and unerring comic timing are nevertheless a marvel to behold, and the comedienne neatly steals every scene in which she appears. But there’s no way around the discomfort of watching the cringe-worthy stereotypes that Asian actors Jack Soo (Barney Miller) and Pat Morita (Happy Days, The Karate Kid) are forced to play here.

Carol Channing as Muzzy Van Hossmere: "Raspberries!"

If Miss Lillie were not enough to delight fans of camp styling, the film also stars the legendary Carol Channing as a freewheeling bon vivant named Muzzy Van Hossmere—looking like a glittering diamond-and-sequin studded Muppet, braying, croaking and lisping her way into an Oscar nomination as Best Supporting Actress!  Having lost her iconic stage roles of Lorelei Lee in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and Dolly Levi in Hello, Dolly on film to Marilyn Monroe and Barbra Streisand, respectively, the character of Muzzy is basically a composite of Dolly and Lorelei and allowed Channing the opportunity to emblazon her uniquely zany charisma onto celluloid for posterity.

The cast is rounded out by the square-jawed John Gavin (Psycho, Imitation of Life, and a Ross Hunter favorite) who spoofs his own image as a handsome but wooden leading man, and British actor James Fox (The Servant, Remains of the Day) who dances well and sings with a perfect American accent, leading the slap-happy “Tapioca” number with vigorous, goofy charm. (Gavin, now in his mid 80s, went on to serve as Ambassador to Mexico under Ronald Reagan, and Fox has continued to work steadily in films and television well into his late 70s.) 

Dorothy and Millie with "Silly Boy" Jimmy (James Fox)
Miss Dorothy and her love interest Trevor Graydon (John Gavin)

"Tapioca, everybody!"
Old-fashioned musicals like this enjoyed their last gasp of popularity in the mid-1960s, with My Fair Lady named Best Picture of 1964. 1965’s The Sound of Music also won the Best Picture Oscar and occupied the spot of top moneymaking film of all time until Jaws and Star Wars supplanted it a decade later. (Millie, directed by George Roy Hill, garnered seven Oscar nods, including Miss Channing's; it won the award for Best Musical Score.)

But Millie, though the 10th highest grossing movie of that year, was the harbinger of the death of the Hollywood musical. The next year, Julie Andrews herself would tumble from her box office perch with the disastrous Gertrude Lawrence bio-musical  Star!, and Rex Harrison’s Dr. Doolitle would also prove an ignominious failure. Paint Your Wagon flopped miserably, and even Hello, Dolly starring Streisand and helmed by Gene Kelly, did not meet box office expectations. Yes, Oliver! did win the Best Picture Oscar in 1968 in a mediocre film adaptation that beat out the likes of the groundbreaking Rosemary’s Baby and Planet of the Apes, but the Academy then as now was slow to move with the times.

Mary and Julie in rehearsal
But appearing in a movie musical seemed just the ticket for Mary Tyler Moore, who had first come to prominence as a dancer on live TV commercials (as the spritely and aptly named Happy Hotpoint for the home appliance manufacturer), and had held her own in musical interludes with costar Dick Van Dyke (who, of course, also partnered brilliantly with Julie in Mary Poppins). Though Miss Mary sings nary a note in this film (maybe that’s one reason why her Breakfast at Tiffany’s was such a disaster?) she is obviously having a ball in Millie’s spirited “Tapioca” and “Le Chaim” dance numbers.

After the MTM show left the airwaves in 1977, Moore’s greatest film triumph was playing against type as high-strung midwestern mother who loses a child in Robert Redford’s directorial debut Ordinary People, for which she earned her only Best Actress Oscar nomination. But she retained a passion for song and dance, and in the late 1970s even hosted a short-lived musical variety show (with a cast of regulars that included, incredibly, Michael Keaton and David Letterman). In the 1982 film Six Weeks, she played a former dancer and showed off her balletic prowess and always-lithe figure.

Moore, Gavin, Andrews, Fox, Channing and Lillie

In Thoroughly Modern Millie, Mary acquits herself beautifully in the role of Miss Dorothy, proving herself a versatile entertainer and gifted comic actress. (She did after all learn the art of comedy from masters like Van Dyke and Carl Reiner). It’s a lark to see Mary having so much fun, doing what she loved to do, frolicking with a talented ensemble cast, in a soufflé-light film that has become a camp classic.

Wednesday, January 04, 2017

A Postcard from Carrie

To the world at large, she’ll undoubtedly be best remembered as Princess Leia. But Carrie Fisher gave us so much more than just one iconic portrayal. She lives on in my movie collection as the aforementioned rebel princess in the original Star Wars trilogy; as nymphomaniac Lee Grant’s rebellious yet equally promiscuous daughter in Shampoo; and as kooky Dianne Wiest’s romantic rival for Sam Waterston in Hannah and her Sisters. But Fisher’s masterwork, in my opinion, is a film in which she does not appear in front of the camera. In Postcards from the Edge (1990), Fisher reveals hilarious, uncomfortable and touching truths about herself, her famous mother and show business in her brilliant screen adaptation of her own best-selling autobiographical novel.

 In the hands of master filmmaker Mike Nichols, the vivid characters and the wry poetry of Fisher’s incisive script shine like diamonds, with frequent Nichols muse Meryl Streep (Silkwood, Angels in America) bringing Fisher’s pithy dialogue and beleaguered heroine to life with her usual aplomb.

In Postcards, the fun begins when troubled actress Suzanne Vale overdoses on opiates and her horrified bedmate (Dennis Quaid) drops her off, unresponsive, at the emergency room (literally). She’s resuscitated and shipped off to rehab, only to discover that the only way that anyone will hire her again is if she is under the watchful eye of a guardian. So she goes home to live with her estranged mother, who also happens to be a famous actress—a prospect as painful as the stomach pumping she’s just endured. 

Meryl Streep as Suzanne Vale

Shirley MacLaine as Doris Mann
Fisher’s jaundiced view of the movie business is evident here, as a still-fragile Suzanne is badgered by producers and directors as she begins work on a new film, a comedy in which she portrays a lady cop (opposite the dreamy Michael Ontkean, who has precious little to do here). The awkward moments where producer Rob Reiner asks Suzanne for a drug test/urine sample, the endless notes and criticisms Suzanne endures regarding her performance, and the clucking of a smug wardrobe woman (a hilarious turn by Dana Ivey) about the actress’s appearance (“Her thighs are...well, bulbous!”), are uniformly both funny and raw, essayed by a skilled cast and director Nichols. With deft humor and bullseye accuracy, Fisher neatly captures the grueling drudgery of filmmaking, the schadenfreude, jealousy and foibles of the film business.

Gene Hackman and Meryl Streep in the looping scene

Natalie Wood in Inside Daisy Clover
Fisher’s reverence for old Hollywood shows in the film’s many old-movie references including an obvious homage to the famous looping scene from Inside Daisy Clover (remember how Natalie Wood has that hysterical nervous breakdown in the dubbing booth?). In Postcards, Streep’s Suzanne struggles with the effects of the pills she’s just taken (and thrown up) as she attempts to correct the sins of the past—on film, at least-—during the voice-over recordings.

The cameos are worth their weight in Hollywood gold: Richard Dreyfuss as the amorous doctor who pumps Suzanne’s stomach; Lucille Ball’s second husband and Borscht Belt comedian Gary Morton as her agent; Rob Reiner as the gruff producer; Annette Bening as an empty-headed actress who mispronounces “endorphins” as “endolphins”; Gene Hackman as Suzanne’s tough but supportive director; veteran character actress Mary Wickes (The Trouble with Angels, Sister Act) as the “lovable loud mountain” of a grandmother and Diffrent Strokes star Conrad Bain as her senile spouse.

Doris and Suzanne

Carrie and Debbie
Of course, though, the centerpiece of the film is the uneasy relationship between Suzanne and her mother, legendary movie star and gay icon Doris Mann, played with relish by the indefatigable Shirley MacLaine (as unsinkable as Debbie Reynolds herself and a longtime family friend). Of course, MacLaine imbues the character of Doris with her own brand of star power, as does Streep. Much more than stand-ins for Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds, Streep and MacLaine add dimension and their own subtle older-and-younger actress-to-actress competitiveness to the proceedings. Sparks of chemistry fly, and the results are absorbing, thanks to the screenplay, the performers and the expert guidance of a true actor’s director.

 Fisher’s often prickly script evokes the relationships of Joan and Christina Crawford and Lana Turner and Cheryl Crane in a tense confrontation scene between Suzanne and a drunken Doris, played under a print of a famous Life magazine cover featuring Shirley with daughter Sachi, who incidentally wrote a cruel Mommie Dearest–type tell-all about life with Mama MacLaine just recently. (Fisher and Reynolds posed for many a similar magazine layout over the years.)

Shirley and Sachi
 It’s not all recriminations and bitchy repartee, though, not by a long shot. The complexity of the mother-daughter relationship is beautifully drawn by Fisher as the film unfolds. There is much love and cameraderie lurking amid the awkward silences and the screaming matches between Suzanne and Doris. Like Debbie Reynolds did for Carrie Fisher, Doris encourages Suzanne in her singing, a talent she is not famous for but truly excels in. Streep’s strong performances of “You Don’t Know Me” and “I’m Checking Out” are counterpointed by MacLaine’s glitzy, showy and slightly camp rendition of Sondheim’s “I’m Still Here.” (Indeed, Carrie Fisher was a lovely singer, too—check out her sweet and soulful version of “The Way You Look Tonight” in the audition scene from Hannah, and her brassy belting of “Happy Days Are Here Again” in her 2010 one-woman show Wishful Drinking.)

Reportedly, Debbie Reynolds was unhappy with the character of the alcoholic, self-centered mother, frightened that the public would believe it was really her. ( “I am not an alcoholic,” Doris Mann insists in the film. “I just drink like an Irish person.”) In the press, Carrie agreed with her mother that the character she had created was fictional, merely using her real-life upbringing as a jumping-off point for her made-up story. (You could almost see Fisher rolling her eyes in interviews at the time; it’s so clear she wanted to help her mom save face, without negating her own experience as the movie star’s daughter.)

Streep, Reynolds, MacLaine and Fisher at the Postcards premiere
 Ironically, the supposed rift between Carrie Fisher and her mother over this portrayal served to bring the two much closer together than they had been in recent years. As they grew older, their relationship flourished. In 2001, Carrie and Debbie had a ball filming a TV movie called These Old Broads with Doris Mann herself Shirley MacLaine, Joan Collins and none other than Elizabeth Taylor…not a great (or even good) film by any stretch of the imagination but a camp curiosity nonetheless. How surreal it must have been for Ms. Fisher to pen that scene between Liz Taylor and Debbie Reynolds, their characters reminiscing about the cheating crooner who left one to marry the other (obviously based upon Carrie’s father, Eddie Fisher).

 Fisher’s admiration and protective affection for Reynolds is glimpsed in the final mother-daughter scene of Postcards, played in the hospital where Doris has ended up after an alcohol-induced car accident. Suzanne gently makes up her mother’s face to help her face the paparazzi crowding outside her hospital room, singing tenderly to her. It’s a sweet moment that says a lot; eventually, the child becomes the parent, and the parent becomes the child...did that occur as well in real life for Debbie and Carrie?

Soul sisters
 At the time of their surprising dual deaths (Debbie passed away a mere 24 hours after her daughter, the week after Christmas 2016), Carrie and Debbie had been longtime next-door neighbors in Beverly Hills—and, by all accounts, soulmates. As 84-year-old Debbie’s health and vigor declined, it was 60-year-old Carrie who accepted many of the recent life achievement awards and honors on her mother’s behalf, most notably Debbie’s Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award Oscar in 2015.

 As Hollywood royalty, Carrie Fisher lived her entire (abbreviated) life in the spotlight, but she gave us so much, first as an actress, later as an advocate for mental health—and ultimately, she might add herself with that streak of dark humor, as a cautionary tale. But Carrie Fisher’s talents reached their zenith as a writer, with her unerring ear for witty dialogue, her frank storytelling and unconventional sense of humor, all gloriously apparent in one of my favorite films, and the outstanding book it’s based upon. Thanks for the Postcards, Carrie!