Sunday, July 20, 2014

PICNIC 1955

Good, old-fashioned, classic movie storytelling doesn’t get much better than the first 80-minutes of Picnic. Comprehensive yet concise; economical but at the same time expansive; Picnic seamlessly blends sensitive drama, delicate humor, and dreamy romanticism – all the while sustaining an entertainingly effortless narrative flow. 
Picnic’s depiction of life in a small Kansas town in the midst of prepping for Labor Day festivities– its people, their routines and rituals, both mundane and apart– is evocatively rendered in that uniquely idealized true/false reality Hollywood does so well. Full of finely-observed details of character and setting redolent of William Inge’s childhood spent in Independence, Indiana (where, like the character of Flo Owens, his mother ran a boarding house populated with spinster schoolteachers), Picnic is set in the then-contemporary 1950s, but has thenceforth become cloaked in a rosy nostalgia that looks back on a time when drifters hopped boxcars, marriage was the end all and be all for any single woman, and people wore ties, sportscoats, and full-skirted dresses to picnics.
William Holden as Hal Carter
Kim Novak as Madge Owens
Rosalind Russell as Rosemary Sydney
Betty Field as Flo Owens
Susan Strasberg as Millie Owens
Cliff Robertson as Alan Benson
The last day of summer serves as both the time-frame and primary metaphor of Picnic; William Inge’s wistfully contemplative look at the sometimes painful inevitability of growing up. Following the death of his alcoholic father, handsome but feckless Hal Carter (Holden) drifts into town in search of a job from college pal, Alan Benson (Robertson), whose father is a grain industrialist. The unnamed Kansas town (actually four Kansas towns in real life, Salina appearing on a sign early in the film) has a male-to-female-ratio appreciably lacking in testosterone, and thus is a virtual hotbed of sexual frustration and withered hopes.
Town beauty Madge Owens (Novak) is the vessel of everyone’s projected dreams in spite of the fact that, while not very bright, she’s smart enough to know (in 1955 yet) that being the object of the appreciative gaze is not the same as being appreciated.

Into this ripe-for-disruption environment comes Hal, whose rambunctious, superannuated frat-boy act – invariably played out sans shirt–understandably draws the attention of the local women folk. There’s favorable: the grandmotherly Mrs. Potts (Verna Felton); puppy-love: tomboy-in-transition, Millie Owens (Strasberg); distrustful: Flo Owens (Field), a mother alone raising two girls; conflicted: repressed schoolmarm Miss Sydney (Russell); and of course, love at first sight: Madge. Hal’s appearance in town has a different effect on each character, and as they all converge at the picnic, Labor Day becomes something of a day of reckoning, bringing out the best or worst in each individual. Truths are confronted, illusions shattered, facades dropped, and everyone is forced to grow up just a little bit. 
Verna Felton as Helen Potts
TV fans will recognize Felton from her guest stint as the maid from hell on I Love Lucy, or as the voice of Wilma's mother on The Flintstones
Picnic is one of those movies I first discovered on TV as a child (loaded with commercials and only in an awful pan-and-scan version) I fell in love with it from the start, and Picnic remains to this day one of my favorite comfort movies. I can watch it (the first third, anyway) anytime, anywhere. These days, without exception, if ever I happen to be channel-surfing cable TV and Picnic pops up, I always tell myself I’m only going to watch it for a couple of minutes, but before I know it…boom! an hour has passed. That I own a DVD copy of it matters not a whit…I just take such pleasure in the film's setting, characters, conflict, and dialog, I never tire of it.

That I expressly favor the first 80-minutes of this nearly two-hour film (those comprising the introduction of the main characters, establishment of the central plot, and the picnic scene in its entirety) speaks to director Joshua Logan’s breezy and sure-footed handling of these character-driven, slice-of-life early sequences. Winner of the 1953Tony Award for his direction of the original Broadway production, Logan shines brightest when Picnic is capturing vivid tableaux of small-town culture or compassionately conveying the defeated spirit born of withered dreams and repressed hope.
As fellow schoolteachers, character actresses Reta Shaw (Irma Kronkie) and Elizabeth Wilson (Christine Shoenwalder) recreate roles they originated on Broadway
Somewhat less persuasive is his handling of the film’s final third, which becomes a little too melodramatic and plot-driven for its own good. Here, as if under outside pressure to provide some “action” in an otherwise gentle romantic drama; Inge’s sensitive play feels as if it were temporarily hijacked by Douglas Sirk. And to little effect, I'm afraid, as the swift introduction of a gratuitous car chase and unconvincingly-staged two-against-one fistfight with armed lawmen merely succeed in being distracting.  Not helping matters further is the fact that, in lieu of a then-unthinkable sex scene between Holden and Novak, we have in its place, three (count ‘em, three) repetitious and very talky “tortured longing” scenes that never fail to leave me looking at my watch.
Discounting this sluggish detour, Picnic gets back on track with the final scene, where story threads are tied up and Rosalind Russell’s performance single-handedly alters my opinion of which is the film’s most satisfying love story. 
Recreating the role he originated on Broadway, Arthur O'Connell as Howard Bevans received the only acting category nomination of Picnic's  total of six (it won two: Art Direction and Editing). Many thought Rosalind Russell was a shoo-in for a nomination, if not a win, had she allowed herself to be submitted in the Supporting Actress category, which she refused. 

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
Even as a kid I was hard-pressed to imagine a time when a film as tame as Picnic could ever be considered racy.  But of course, at that age I had no idea that Madge and Hal’s impassioned embraces alongside that barreling freight train was Censorship Code shorthand for sex, and, to be honest, only after it was brought to my attention in a college film class did it ever cross my mind that it was Inge’s intention to intimate (a little too subtly, if you ask me) that Rosemary and Howard had also had sexual relations that night. Who knew?  Anyway, from its male bodice ripper ad campaign to its convention-flouting themes of sexual frustration and libidinous urges, Picnic was pretty hot stuff in its day.
But Picnic’s reputation as a classic romantic movie doesn’t resonate with me very strongly (the sex feels born of despondency more than passion). Not as strongly as its sharp-eyed, often witty, depiction of small-town life and the incisive details William Inge (Splendor in the Grass, Come Back, Little Sheba) brings to his characters.
Failure to Live up to Expectations
Alan's resentment of Hal is rooted in feeling he is a disappointment to his father
Inability to Accept Reality
Flo copes with past failures by projecting all of her hopes for happiness on daughter, Madge 
Lack of Identity
Madge longs to find something to value about herself beyond her beauty 
PERFORMANCES
Picnic is a uniformly well-acted motion picture that, like a great many 50s films adapted from stage plays of the day (the works of Tennessee Williams come to mind), retains a certain staginess in dialog and acting style that locks it forever in particular time. That the overall appealing performances in Picnic seem also to be a tad old-fashioned plays favorably into the whole glimpse into the past, days-gone-by feel of the movie as a whole. 
Perhaps because the central romance feels as if it's based solely on physical attraction (for all his talking, Hal never asks Madge anything about herself), my strongest memories of Picnic have to do with Rosalind Russell’s superb performance as Rosemary, the old-maid schoolteacher. In a career of many high points, I think this is one of her best performances and she practically walks off with the entire film. Here, the actress's trademark sardonic wit and vitality is channeled into a character whose thin veneer of nonchalance and dimming vestiges of pride show the wear of too many lonely Labor Days bleeding into solitary school semesters. Russell gives the role everything she's got, and she is, in every scene, a force of nature daring you to look at anyone else. She’s funny, moving, sad, and even pitiful; but you wind up rooting for her and she’s a marvelously sympathetic, dimensional character. 
If Picnic falls short of being the great film it might have been, I'd attribute it to the sense I have that everybody is pushed a little too strongly against type. I agree with the common complaint that William Holden is too old for his role (not jarringly so, but his college days seem far, far behind him) and that his attempts at expressing Hal's coarse nature aren't all that convincing. And while he's every inch the likable charmer the role requires, Holden just looks forced when when trying to play dumb. The same can be said for the sad-eyed Novak, who has Madge's vulnerability down, but lacks (oddly enough) the kind of switchblade, protective vanity insecure pretty girls carry around with them like security blankets. She too, seems a bit too astute.
Susan Strasberg, while the right age for Millie, is far to angularly beautiful to be believable as either a tomboy or anybody's definition of "goonface." She seems out of her element in the earlier scenes, but seems to relax into both herself and the role as the film progresses. Cliff Robertson, on the other hand, is a perfect fit. I'm not much of a fan, but I like him a great deal in this movie.
"I had a job as a model once...like this. They had me posing in front of a class almost raw."
Hal shares one of the high points of his checkered past with the adoring Millie. For those too young to know just what 50s male physique modeling looked like, I offer this real-life sample to illustrate that Mr. Holden was right on the money. The nude model is Tabby Anderson (!) which is the ideal name for my cat...if I ever get one.

THE STUFF OF FANTASY
When I was a child, every single household had an LP of the Picnic soundtrack, or, if not the score itself, most certainly one of the myriad easy-listening versions of “Moonglow/ Theme from Picnic” available on instrumental collections from the likes of Living Strings or Ferrante & Teicher. I cannot honestly recall when I first heard this popular medley (which I considered “old people’s music” at the time), but it’s as much a part of my childhood as the theme from The Mickey Mouse Club, and to this day I can’t hear Moonglow (a 1933 song, I was later surprised to discover) without seeing William Holden and Kim Novak dancing so photogenically under those paper lanterns.
In this great shot representative of the consistency in performances throughout Picnic, each character reacts differently to the sight of Madge as she's crowned "Queen of Neewollah" 
Perhaps calling their movements “dancing” is casting a rather wide net (neither star held any illusions about their dancing skills, Holden being so reluctant as to request extra pay and getting himself fairly drunk before filming), but after all these years I still get quite a kick out of that iconic sequence. Both actors radiate old-fashioned movie star luster, Novak’s steady, unbroken gaze is sexy as hell, and that elusive thing called chemistry is present in almost corporeal abundance.
Composer George Duning’s Oscar-nominated score – which, upon occasion, veers perilously close to Carol Burnett-spoof territory when significant dramatic events are histrionically emphasized by blasts of horns serving as the musical equivalent of exclamation points –is absolute perfection here. The smooth jazz arrangement of the pop standard, Moonglow, lushly underscored by the orchestral Picnic theme, creating a sense that our lovers-to-be are dancing to two songs: the tune played at the picnic, and the melody which they alone can hear.

THE STUFF OF DREAMS
William Inge’s Picnic won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1953, but if your only familiarity with it is the film version – rather brilliantly adapted and opened-up for the screen by Academy Award-winning screenwriter Daniel Taradash (From Here to Eternity) – seeing it on stage can be quite the sobering experience. Everything occurs on the back porches and adjoining backyards of Mrs. Potts and Mrs. Owens, and the picnic of the title occurs offstage. 
Happily for literal-minded me, the film version has a masterfully constructed, protracted picnic sequence that not only shines as a fine example of studio-era location shooting and serves as the film's narrative and thematic nucleus. The five-minute montage that kicks off the sequence is so good it could stand alone as a short film highlighting 50s Americana. James Wong Howe's CinemaScope cinematography basks everything in a honey-colored glow that contributes to making this amusing and appealing sequence one of the major reasons Picnic continues to stay one of my favorites.
Save for the obvious set for the Moonglow dancing dock used for weather reasons, the entirety of the picnic sequence was filmed in Halstead, Kansas, the swimming lake scenes in Sterling, Kansas. That's Nick Adams (Bomber) and What's My Line? stalwart,  Phyllis Newman (Jaunita Badger) in the bathing suits above.


BONUS MATERIALS 
For the curious, here's a YouTube link to a 1986 made-for-cable-TV production of Picnic for Broadway on Showtime starring Gregory Harrison (he produced, which should answer any "WTF?!?" questions), Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Rue McClanahan. Although set in the 50s, it has 80s written all over it.

I didn’t grow up in a small town, and this typically Hollywood, all-white vision of Midwestern life is nothing I clutch to my bosom with misty-eyed nostalgia (although with HD and sharp eyes you might catch a fleeting glimpse of one or two black people in the picnic scenes). But on a human level, I tend to find irresistible any story which celebrates, with compassion and dignity, the small struggles and victories of people leading simple lives. Few writers conveyed this with as much heart and humor as William Inge.

Copyright © Ken Anderson

Thursday, July 10, 2014

LOOKING FOR MR. GOODBAR 1977

*Spoilers Ahead
In hindsight, it seems both ominous and prophetic that Looking for Mr. Goodbar and Saturday Night Fever were released within months of one another at the tail end of 1977 (October and December, respectively), a somber conclusion to a year which began with the release of Star Wars.
Diane Keaton as Theresa Dunn
Although one couldn’t know it at the time, both films sounded the dissonant, disco-beat death-knell tolling the end of the 70s and the sexual revolution; the looming specter of AIDS serving to make Looking for Mr. Goodbar's dispiriting linkage of sex and death feel positively prescient. Each film embodied attitudes which stood as barbed provocations to the Utopian 70s promise of the liberating potential of drugs, free love, sexual exploration, feminism, group therapy, hedonism, the new morality, and porno-chic. Meanwhile, on a somewhat minor, but no less catastrophic cultural scale, the blockbuster success of Star Wars signaled the end of  this very sort of film: the major motion picture intended for grown-ups.
When, in 1976, I saw Martin Scorsese’s trenchant urban nightmare, Taxi Driver, I thought then that I had seen the most depressing film the 70s had to offer. Clearly, I hadn’t reasoned on what 65-year-old writer/director Richard Brooks (Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, In Cold Blood) had up his sleeve in bringing Judith Rossner’s controversial 1975 bestseller, Looking for Mr. Goodbar to the screen. Without a doubt, the feel-bad movie of 1977.
Inspired by the gruesome real-life murder of New York schoolteacher/singles bar habitué, Roseann Quinn in 1973, Brooks’ Looking for Mr. Goodbar is part opaque character study, part sociosexual thriller, chronicling (with compellingly provocative ambiguity), the confused emancipation / dissociation of Theresa Dunn (Diane Keaton): gifted teacher of deaf children by day, by night...pill-popping, singles bar-hopper seeking to salve her scars – literal and psychological – through submersion in the twilight world of detached, casual-sex encounters with anonymous, increasingly unsavory partners.
Theresa’s through-the-looking-glass (darkly) journey is largely reactive: her romantic skepticism, a result of an over-idealized fling with an emotionally-abusive college professor (Alan Feinstein); her lack of desire for children, a dual response to her sister’s multiple abortions and her own fear of passing on congenital scoliosis; her determined want of independence, most assuredly a fervent backlash against the stifling life options proffered by her bellicose father, who would have Theresa settle down with a nice Catholic boy, cranking out one baby after another like her kid sister, Brigid (Laurie Prange).
That Theresa’s emancipation ultimately takes the form of a paradoxical dual existence ("Saint Theresa by day and swinging Terry by night.”) signals not only her unresolved inner conflicts, but underscore a point I think is germane to the appreciation of  Looking for Mr. Goodbar as something more complex and infinitely smarter than a simplistic moral cautionary tale about the dangers awaiting single women in the big, bad city.
It calls attention to the fact that the “New Morality” of the 70s did absolutely nothing to minimize or reconfigure the sexual double-standard. In spite of the newfound freedoms of the era, women were still viewed in terms of Madonna/whore (I can't recall a single critic at the time blaming Theresa's rapist/murderer, only her own reckless behavior); their bodies and reproductive rights, open-forum landscapes for religious, politico-social debate; their very independence rendering them more vulnerable than ever as targets of male sexual aggression.

Teaser ad from Variety - 1977
I saw Looking for Mr. Goodbar at the Regency Theater in San Francisco the first weekend of its opening. Then, I was but a sidelines observer in the sexual revolution. A 20-year-old virgin attending college in one of the most progressive cities in the world; I neither drank nor smoked, didn’t partake of drugs, and had yet to set foot in a disco. But the era was so alive and abuzz with change, excitement, and energy, even a Catholic-reared, late-bloomer like me walked around in a near-constant haze of sensual distraction. Honestly, San Francisco in the 70s was so stimulating an environment; you would have sworn amyl nitrate had been piped into every establishment.
Richard Gere as Tony Lo Porto
That being said, what started out as a cultural movement of joy and self-discovery had, by 1977, transmogrified into a commoditized, cynically co-opted wave of sexual merchandising and lifestyle marketing exposing the dark, unspoken lie behind the revolution’s rhetoric of freedom and liberation. The lie (or perhaps the naïve hope) being that sex was not intimacy, human physical contact bears no psychological or spiritual consequence, and that we are not profoundly affected by its lack. What led me to this conclusion was that the high-profile hedonists of my generation: John Holmes, Marilyn Chambers, Hugh Hefner, Linda Lovelace, etc., looked like hell. 
Surely, something beyond drug use accounted for the glazed, dead eyes staring out from the all those glossy sex magazines like Playboy, Viva, and Hustler. Was there a reason suburban swingers always looked so vacant and debauched? Why was it, whenever I passed by the doors of singles bars, nobody in them looked particularly happy? If the new morality was as joyous and life-affirming as pop culture and youth media kept assuring me, why did its practitioners look so hollowed out? I had the feeling the enraptured lyrics (and moans) of all those disco songs weren't telling the whole story.
The 70s: the era of sexual revolution or sexual dehumanization?
Sex was more out in the open, but attitudes were still mired in sin, shame, and debasement 
Although I hadn’t yet read the book, I knew enough about Looking for Mr. Goodbar and the incident that inspired it to be excited by the prospect of a contemporary film attempting to capture a cultural climate teeming with contrasts and contradictions. 

Tuesday Weld snagged a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for her role as Katherine Dunn, a walking microcosm of 70s self-absorption and the unfocused quest for the ideal existence

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
One of my favorite things about the 70s is that it was such a self-reflective era in motion pictures. In fact, a frequent criticism leveled at American films at the time was that they, representative of the “Me Decade” in general, were in a rut of compulsive navel-gazing; nearly always of the bleak, post-Watergate disillusionment sort. Looking for Mr. Goodbar was NOT the exception.

When the relatively hang-loose permissiveness of the late 60s evolved into the strenuous hedonism of the mid-70s, it wasn’t difficult to detect a hint of desperation behind disco music’s over-emphatic exuberance, or the coke-fueled euphoria of the swinging singles lifestyle. Had sexual liberation, once thought to be the gateway to honest and open human interaction, become just another means of escaping reality? To numb the pain of existence? To shelter our darker demons? To create a greater distance between people? 
Looking for Mr. Goodbar could have been subtitled: The Pleasure Paradox
The philosophy that happiness, when pursued (that elusive Mr. Goodbar), remains ever beyond one's grasp 

Behind the provocative sexual politics and incendiary commingling of sex, guilt, and religion which so distracted critics at the time, Looking for Mr. Goodbar addresses the above-stated questions more artfully and honestly than any film I've ever seen. It explores the fissures that began to show in the “If it feels good, do it” façade of the new morality, tackling while it’s at it: feminism, religious hypocrisy, the sexual double-standard, and America’s intractable linking of sex and violence.

When I first saw Looking for Mr. Goodbar, I knew right away it was something special. From the first saxophone strains initiating that gloriously unsettling title sequence, I was hooked (a short film in and of itself, it’s a flowing montage of gritty black and white still shots capturing the light and dark, vaguely dangerous-looking allure of singles bars). The entire cast, but Diane Keaton especially, make something poignant and frighteningly real out of a story begging for sensationalism. Director Richard Brooks keeps to his motif of light and dark parallels, pitching scenes at the Dunn household to operatic levels, contrasting their emotional violence with Theresa's quiet, character-defining vulnerability.
Richard Kiley as Theresa's no-patience-for-imperfections father
The jarring use of sound and William Fraker's dark, dark, dark cinematography (I initially thought it was shot by Gordon Willis) contribute to making Looking for Mr. Goodbar one of the most powerful movies of the 70s. And make no mistake about it, this movie scared the bejesus out of me. The book was so popular, even if you hadn't read it you knew how it was going to end; but knowing is not the same as being as prepared. The harrowing, near-unwatchable concluding moments of Looking for Mr. Goodbar left me feeling shell-shocked. I still believe I stayed to watch it a second time simply because I was too stunned to move out of my seat.

Not everyone’s cup of tea for any number of reasons, Looking for Mr. Goodbar (dubbed Mr. Goodbarf by many left queasy by the film's violence) is for me an example of American self-reflective cinema at its best. Not the least because it’s an adult film that takes the risk of allowing itself to be misunderstood. I like that it doesn’t spell everything out and tell you how you should feel or react. It has a point of view and even an agenda, but it doesn't invite you to agree with it so much as it induces you to just think about it. Some people find it simplistic, others find it to be moralizing, many found it misogynistic, some just felt it too depressing and sordid...few found it forgettable. 
William Atherton as James (here washing the very knife that will play a role in the film's hellish denouement), the slightly creepy "nice guy" whose resentful response to being moved into the friendzone is to behave in an aggressive,  possessively entitled manner every bit as unstable as the woman-hating "bad boys."  Sound familiar?

PERFORMANCES
Because there were so many interesting actresses around in the 70s, it’s easy for me to forget that the decade was largely a boys’ club devoted to buddy movies and misunderstood anti-heroes. (Tellingly, when the time came to adapt Rossner’s woman-centric bestseller to the screen, only male directors were considered: Bernardo Bertolucci, Bob Fosse [I shudder at the thought], Mike Nichols, Sydney Pollack, and Roman Polanski.)
LeVar Burton as Cap Jackson
Looking for Mr. Goodbar marked the feature film debut of Burton, who became an overnight household name when the landmark miniseries, Roots aired earlier in the year

Closer to the truth is that on those rare occasions an actress was called upon to be something other than a girlfriend or male support-system (to get Goodbar, Keaton turned down the largely thankless Julie Christie role in Heaven Can Wait), the characters were so well-written (Katherine Ross – The Stepford Wives) and performances so superb (Jane Fonda – Klute), their prominence in my memory contradicts their paucity in actual practice. 

Looking for Mr. Goodbar is hands-down my all-time favorite Diane Keaton movie. I actually think it’s the best work of her career. But apropos of the dark/light contrasts of the Theresa Dunn character herself, I don’t think I would have fully appreciated her work here were it not for my having seen her in Annie Hall (released earlier the same year) before. Onscreen almost constantly, Keaton's performance here is astonishing, the range and depth of her characterization (a true original, I've never seen a character in a film like her before or since) appearing both natural and risk-taking. She's simply staggering and was a very inspired choice for the part. It really makes you wish Keaton had pursued more dramatic roles.
Alan Feinstein as Professor Martin Engle
As for the character itself, I've always considered Theresa Dunn to be 70s cinema’s first anti-heroine: a female sexual outlaw and cultural nonconformist. And, like all rebels, she’s not always likable, smart, or rational – just a complex, vulnerable human being struggling to make sense of the contradictions of her nature, deciding for herself what she wants to be, and accepting the risks (which, as it turns out, are considerable in our culture of normalized female-directed aggression) of choosing to live life on her own terms.
Like her male counterparts, Theresa delves into sex and drugs in her quest for self-discovery, and for once a woman’s exploration of her sexuality is presented in a manner perceptive and honest enough to allow for the enjoyment of no-strings sex for its purely sensual appeal and enslavingly addictive anodyne effect.
"Get this into one of your two heads, the one that can think...I am my own girl! I belong to me!"

Looking for Mr. Goodbar is such a downer of a film it never received the credit I think it deserved for the rather groundbreaking sincerity and seriousness with which it approached female sexuality. Anyone coming to Goodbar hoping for gauzy, soft-core porn cloaked in faux-feminist empowerment rhetoric (a la the popular Emmanuelle franchise) was in for a shock.
If screenwriter Brooks is guilty of anything, it's in being too honest. Taking a tack different from the book, the Theresa of the film is not the self-loathing masochist with a death-wish Judith Rossner wrote about (Rossner was said to have been displeased with the film, finding Keaton's character too "happy") and so many critics longed for to help explain away their discomfort; she is a flawed woman who makes one too many bad choices.
Because things end badly for the character of Theresa, Looking for Mr. Goodbar was seen by many as an anti-feminist cautionary tale for single women. Things ended very badly for Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper in Easy Rider, but I don’t recall anyone calling that film a cautionary tale for hippie drug dealers.

Robert Fields as Rafe and Carole Mallory as Marvella
Fans of The Stepford Wives will recognize these  two swingers. She played a robotized housewife, he played chemist, Raymond Chandler, Katherine Ross' first love

THE STUFF OF FANTASY
I only got around to reading Looking for Mr. Goodbar two years ago, an experience which left me appreciating even more what Richard Brooks' skill as a screenwriter (his first career) brought to the film version. To me, his work is a vast improvement over the source material, and when faced with the challenge of extracting drama and suspense from a story most everyone knows the ending of, Brooks builds tension through the stylized application of an almost Biblical motif emphasizing the contradictions of free-will and fate.

Brooks cannily uses innocuous events in the "light" parts of Theresa's life (as a teacher) to foreshadow the progressively violent trend of her "dark" nocturnal pursuits.
In assisting a deaf child to feel the forming of a word, Theresa has the girl hold her throat. A choking image that will be reenacted (horrifically) later. 
Asked to come up with words that will produce enough air to move a feather, a child repeats the word "punch." When asked to come up with a less violent word, he responds with repeated shouts of "help!"
Having overslept due to a night of partying, Theresa is greeted by an angry class. On the board is written, "You don't care!" The phrase, an inadvertent commentary on her desire for emotional disengagement in her private life, the ominous, death-mask skull, a foreshadowing of the film's final image.

 THE STUFF OF DREAMS
"How do women still go out with guys when you consider that there is no greater threat to women than men? We’re the number one threat to women! Globally and historically, we’re the number one cause of injury and mayhem to women. You know what our number one threat is? Heart disease.”     Louis CK

“Every guy has a ‘crazy girlfriend’ story. Why don’t women have ‘crazy men’ stories? I never hear that. Because if you have a crazy boyfriend, you’re gonna die.”     Donald Glover


Looking for Mr. Goodbar was released decades before Sex and the City, so no cultural paradigms were in place through which one could process the notion of a sexually-active single woman living alone in a metropolitan city without resorting to blame-the-victim terminology. Terms like: self-loathing, nymphomaniacal, self-destructive, desperate, mentally ill, masochistic, unstable, depressive. The whole thing was quite ironic; while calling out Richard Brooks for making a morally reactionary sexual thriller, so-called liberal critics couldn't stop themselves from reaching the conclusion that promiscuity, drugs, and drinking were a certain fast-track to death for a single woman. A point which failed to acknowledge that promiscuity, drugs, and drinking were cornerstones for a great many male coming-of-age films of the era, but nobody saw anything fatalistic in such "boys will be boys" behavior.
Tom Berenger as Gary
On a similar note, Goodbar came out long before the concept of rape culture, so at no time could one find a journalist willing to devote even a paragraph to the castigation of the brutish, violent behavior of the men in the film, or could you find articles addressing our normalized attitudes on the matter of rape and other forms of female-directed aggression in the age of sexual permissiveness. All I recall reading were a lot of human-interest articles about parents taking their daughters to see the film as a means (I suppose) of terrorizing them into celibacy. Of course, there were no stories about sons being taken to the film to teach them not to rape and abuse women.

A lot has changed over the years, but not so much that a daringly mature film like Looking for Mr. Goodbar doesn't  have something relevant to say to contemporary audiences. As stated earlier, it's a film that begs to be rediscovered and reevaluated in terms broader than the lazy label of  "cautionary tale" has afforded it. It's an unpleasant film, to be sure, but an honest one. Perhaps even a bit too honest. But it's an inarguably important entry from a decade when the objective of major motion pictures wasn't always to placate and pacify, but to get us to think. Unfortunately, I'm still looking for Looking for Mr. Goodbar...at least until the day Paramount decides to finally release it on DVD.

(DVD copies burned from tapes are often available through iOffer where I've had amazing luck tracking down rarities.)

Copyright © Ken Anderson

Friday, June 27, 2014

I AM A CAMERA 1955

“I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking.”
Christopher Isherwood  - The Berlin Stories 1945

I've wanted to see I Am a Camera for 42 years. That’s the length of time I've been aware of - yet unable to lay eyes upon - this little-known, rarely-televised, not-available-on DVD, all-but-forgotten adaptation of the successful Broadway play that inspired the musical, Cabaret, and gave the screen its very first Sally Bowles.
Julie Harris as Sally Bowles
Laurence Harvey as Christopher Isherwood
Shelley Winters as Natalia Landauer
Anton Diffring as Fritz Wendel
Forty-two years ago: It was 1972, I was a freshman in high school, and Cabaret had just opened nationally. I was eager to see the film on the strength of my fascination with Bob Fosse’s choreography in Sweet Charity (1969) and my infatuation with Liza Minnelli in The Sterile Cuckoo (1969), but in order to persuade my family to select it for a night out at the movies, I had to rely on the scores of critical raves quoted in the newspaper ads. Which was all for the good, because I knew next to nothing about just what Cabaret was.

I had absolutely no foreknowledge of Christopher Isherwood’s 1945 novelized twin-memoir: The Berlin Stories; I was in the dark about playwright John Van Druten (I Remember Mama) adapting one of those short novels –  Goodbye to Berlin – as the 1951 play, I Am a Camera (prompting theater critic Walter Kerr’s terse, too-oft-quoted review, “Me no Leica”); and I was thoroughly unaware that said seriocomic play had served as the structural source for the 1966 musical, Cabaret…the original Broadway production serving as merely the launch pad for Fosse’s significantly reworked movie adaptation.

Well, as if to prove the adage, “ignorance is bliss,” a byproduct of my state of unenlightenment was that it afforded me the rare opportunity of enjoying Cabaret free of the usual burdens that come with seeing a beloved stage and/or literary work adapted into another medium: e.g., that feeling of never fully being “in the moment” born of anticipating the omission or mishandling of some favored line or bit of business, or that ceaseless, almost involuntary process of comparison and sizing up that goes on in your head as you watch, hoping expectation doesn't outpace execution.
Lea Seidl as Fraulein Schneider, the landlady
Ron Randell as Clive Mortimer, the rich American playboy

Like most everyone who saw it at the time, I was completely blown away by Cabaret. Especially its stylish, darkly atmospheric depiction of the social and moral decay of pre-Nazi Germany in the 30s…so ideally suited to Bob Fosse’s particular brand of razzle-dazzle cynicism. In an attempt to rectify my prior obliviousness, I subsequently took to reading everything I could about the film.

My first discovery was that it was the rare Cabaret review or feature article that didn't reference the film version of I am A Camera (always unfavorably). Some remarked on the film's failure to do justice to Van Druten's play, others complained that it didn't successfully bring to life Isherwood’s colorful characters, all cited it as the first on-screen incarnation of Sally Bowles. While it definitely came as a surprise to me to learn that Fräulein Bowles (who to this day is difficult to envision as anyone other than Liza Minnelli) appeared on film a whopping 17-years before Cabaret even existed, what really knocked me for a loop was that it was in the startlingly against-type personage of Julie Harris.
I couldn't imagine two actresses with less in common than Liza Minnelli and Julie Harris. Even in the most democratic of fantasies I'm hard-pressed to envision any point at which the talents of these two very gifted ladies might intersect to make feasible the notion of their being cast in the same role. One’s a jackhammer, the other a tap on the shoulder. It piqued my interest no end to discover that Harris (an actress I adored, but always associated with reserved, Plain Jane roles like in The Haunting, East of Eden, and You’re a Big Boy Now) originated the role of one of literature’s most flamboyant extroverts...and won a Tony Award for it in the bargain!
Divine Decadence
Sally bares her emerald-green nails (and tigress snarl)
Suddenly, I am A Camera became a movie I absolutely had to see. In 1972, I hoped the popularity of Cabaret would occasion a resurfacing of it on late-night TV at or a local revival theater…but no such luck. My frustration knew no bounds. In those pre-cable/pre-DVD days, it certainly wasn’t out of the ordinary to have to wait a long time for a favored old movie to make the rounds, but I am A Camera was a unique case in that absolutely no one I knew (not my parents nor my older sister, who was a Late Show maven if ever there was one) had ever heard of it, much less seen it.
Years passed (decades, actually), and I am A Camera eventually became one of those films (like Andy Warhol’s L’Amour) I resigned myself to never seeing. Then, two weeks ago, just as I’d all but forgotten all about it, what do you know?... there it is, big as life on YouTube: I Am a Camera - 1955!!!!

So it's true, good things come to those who wait...for a VERY long time!


WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
Having read so little over the years that could be considered encouraging about I Am a Camera, I’m afraid that when the time came for me to finally see it, I did so more out of curiosity than conviction. After it was over, I wanted to give each of those early critics a solid trouncing over the head (myself included, for believing them), for to my great surprise, I found I Am a Camera to be a thorough and utter delight. Maybe I wouldn’t have thought so back in 1972 when the air of solemnity Fosse brought to Cabaret rode the then-popular wave of pessimism of so many Nixon-era films (and flattered my adolescent-self-seriousness); but today, I Am a Camera’s unremittingly old-fashioned, studio-bound, almost farcical, light-comic approach distinguishes it so significantly from every other adaptation of Isherwood’s memoirs I've seen, that it stands far and apart from comparison and represents to me, a work unique unto itself.

Presented in the form of an extended flashback told to fellow writing associates by “confirmed bachelor,” now-successful author, Christopher Isherwood (Harvey), I Am a Camera recalls the years Isherwood spent as a struggling writer in Berlin in the 1930s. In vignette-style, the film recounts his platonic, life-changing friendship with free-spirit Sally Bowles (Harris), a modestly-talented cabaret singer and self-styled bohemian whose flighty manner and impulsive behavior propel him into adventures which will ultimately serve as the basis and inspiration for his early writing successes. A subplot involving his only-slightly-worldlier friend, Fritz (Diffring), a would-be gigolo and closet Jew, wooing a department-store heiress (Winters), introduces a bit of drama and brings to the forefront Germany’s mounting Nazi threat.
The Nazi Intrusion
Sally, Clive, and Christopher momentarily have their spirits dampened by a Jewish funeral procession  
I Am a Camera doesn't deviate significantly from the basic plot of Cabaret, its chief point of departure merely being one of approach. While Minnelli’s Sally Bowles symbolized the kind of I’m-dancing-as-fast-as-I can, willful self-deception that allowed the Nazis to take over a Depression-era Germany salving its sorrows with decadence; I Am a Camera presents Isherwood's adventures as a lighthearted coming-of-age story and depicts Bowles as something of an early incarnation of that genre staple: the Manic Pixie Dream Girl (thank you, Nathan Rabin) – the quirky, childlike female character who brings chaos into the orderly life of a sensitive, button-down type, only to leave him a better, more-matured artist for it.

Katherine Hepburn played one in Bringing Up Baby (1938), so did Sandy Dennis in Sweet November (1968). Certainly Minnelli's Pookie Adams from The Sterile Cuckoo qualifies (although "nightmare" might be more to the point), and the characters of Dolly Levi and Mame Dennis from Hello, Dolly! and Auntie Mame, respectively, are nothing if not the Manic Pixie Dream Matron. Of course, the great Grande Diva of Manic Pixie Dream Girls is Audrey Hepburn's Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and ultimately it is this film, not Cabaret, which I Am a Camera most recalls.
One of the setpieces of I Am a Camera is a raucous, remarkably-staged party scene that predates Blake Edwards' iconic cocktail party sequence in Breakfast at Tiffany's 

Both Truman Capote's Breakfast at Tiffany's (published in 1958) and Christopher Isherwood's Goodbye to Berlin (published in 1939) are novelized memoirs written by gay men recalling their transformative friendships with quirky, unconventional women of liberated sexuality. Whereas Tiffany's was converted into a romantic comedy (even Cabaret imposed a false romance), Camera leaves Isherwood's homosexuality as coded as the 50s would allow (his declaration "I suppose I'm not the marrying kind," is tantamount to outing himself). 
PERFORMANCES
Whether or not one cares for I Am a Camera’s lighthearted touch and bittersweet Hollywood happy ending (which still feels more honest than making the Isherwood character bisexual [the movie musical] or straight [the stage musical]), I can’t imagine any fan of classic cinema not being enchanted by the sight of so many brilliant dramatic actors displaying such a talent for comedy.
British actor Laurence Harvey, long a favorite of mine yet so unaccountably stiff and affectless in so many of his American roles, is appealingly naïf and boyish as Isherwood. I've always harbored a big crush on him, so perhaps I'm not exactly what you'd call an objective judge, but I’d easily rank his work in I Am a Camera alongside Room at the Top and Expresso Bongo as among Harvey's best film performances.
In a reversal of her role in 1951s A Place in the Sun, Shelley Winters plays an heiress wooed by a fortune-hunter 
As for the strikingly handsome Anton Diffring, so chilling as the villain in Fahrenheit 451 and an actor who literally made a career out of playing cold-hearted Nazis, I never would have guessed he’d be so charming a light comedy player. To be honest, I think this is the very first film in which I've ever seen him smile! Shelley Winters, several years away from the grating, undisciplined performances that would later brand her a camp film  favorite, has a surprisingly small role and displays a worrisome German accent, but she is endearing beyond belief. It's easy to forget what an accomplished comedienne she could be.

But hands-down, it is Julie Harris who walks off with my highest praise. She's nothing short of sensational. I've seen Harris in many things over the years (even on Hollywood Squares), but I've never EVER seen her this perky and playful. I had no idea she could be such a flirtatious, funny, physical, and vivacious a personality. Her versatility is on full display here, capturing the many shades of Sally's mercurial personality, from her childlike vulnerability to her flashes of self-interested callousness. Speaking in that rapid-fire manner I associate with George Cukor movies, her Sally Bowles is less a bohemian iconoclast and reminds me more of Kathryn Hepburn's Eva Lovelace in Morning Glory (1933): all self-centered chatter and ostentatious show, but ultimately touching.
I found not a single moment of Harris' performance wanting, save for the poorly-matched dubbed voice she's given during her big cabaret number - the languid vocalist fails to capture the sprightliness of Harris' physical interpretation (I'm reminded of the too-calm dubbed voice attributed to Rita Moreno in West Side Story). Harris doesn't appear to be lip-syncing, leaving me to suspect the other voice was added post-production. I remember hearing Julie Harris sing on the cast album of the 1965 Broadway musical, Skyscraper ... she mostly went the Rex Harrison talk-sing route.

In the end, what pleased and surprised me most about Harris as Sally Bowles is the manner in which she tackles the role with such ease and command, inhabiting her character so winningly and completely that she resists comparisons to Liza Minnelli, making the part her own. No easy task, that.
"I remembered your eyes. It was if they were asking me to look at you and yet not see you!"
It's believed that Julie Harris' outstanding performance was overlooked for an Oscar nomination because I Am a Camera - a British production which failed to punish its sexually promiscuous heroine or delete mention of abortion - was denied a Production Code Seal, resulting in many theaters refusing to screen it, and some newspapers refusing to carry ads. In the UK, it was given the "Certificate X" rating.

THE STUFF OF FANTASY
While devoid of anything like Cabaret's "bumsen" scene, I Am a Camera is remarkably frank on the topics of sex, abortion, prostitution, and, depending on one's susceptibility to gay coding in old films, homosexuality. Considered risqué for its time, I was amused by just how much they were able to allude to in this 1955 film (a gay couple is briefly glimpsed in the nightclub scene) and enjoyed noting how many little details of style and content would later show up in Fosse's Cabaret.
This Sally sings at The Lady Windermere, but its clientele is pure Kit Kat Club, as are its wall caricatures
Partaking of Sally's favorite pick-me-up: Prairie Oysters 
The Threesome...
...The Twosome
Laurence Harvey + rectal thermometer = sexiest scene in the film 
"I mean, I may not be absolutely exactly what some people call a virgin... ."

THE STUFF OF DREAMS 
For all the charismatic dominance of Sally Bowles and Julie Harris’ standout performance, I Am a Camera ultimately manages to make good on its first-person title by being a story of one man’s coming of age. The increased presence of the Nazis in Berlin challenges Isherwood's determination to just be a spectator in life, his ultimate inability to ignore its evil facilitating his growth as both as a man and as an artist.

For me, the poignancy of I Am a Camera is found in its final moments when it becomes clear (to us, if not the characters involved) that, like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, Christopher has possessed all along what he'd sought to find. As the only person to take pity on the abandoned Sally that first night in the club; to be the one individual who offered her shelter without want of anything in return; to have remained by her side during a crisis, even going so far as to propose marriage and lose a promising job opportunity - Christopher was involved in life from the very start. He was never for a moment the apathetic, unthinking “camera” he imagined himself to be.
Christopher ceases to be the passive observer
Author Armistead Maupin in his 2008 introduction to Christopher Isherwood’s The Berlin Stories (and if you haven't read The Berlin Stories, I highly recommend it) makes the observation that Isherwood's narrative device of assuming the role of the “camera" in his memoirs - the impartial, uninvolved recorder of events - was the author's way of protecting himself. Intentionally keeping his homosexuality out of his autobiographical stories for fear that its mere inclusion would distract from everything else in the text. 
A necessity at the time, but one rectified by Isherwood himself in his 1976 memoir, Christopher and His Kind, in which the very same pre-war Berlin years documented in this film are recounted with a proud acceptance of his sexuality and an acknowledgment of its profound influence on his life and his art. 

I Am a Camera; a film shrouded in period-mandated gay coding (the aforementioned “confirmed bachelor” line) and starring a closeted gay actor portraying an asexual/sexually ambiguous character; is a product of its time, yet nevertheless contains a timeless message. Especially for the LGBT community which has been so much a part of Christopher Isherwood's enduring legacy. Society, when not actively seeking to eradicate, has always encouraged gay people to “hide in plain sight.” To, in effect, protect ourselves through anonymity and the acceptance of a non-participatory role as a “camera” on the periphery of life.
I Am a Camera - (inadvertently perhaps, but I'd like to think by way of the innate humanity of Isherwood and his characters) - exposes inauthenticity as an obstruction to growth (Sally, a woman defined by artifice, never changes); promotes the necessity of being true to oneself (Fritz finds love and is compelled to reveal his true self to Natalia); and affirms the absolute necessity that we must all be active participants in life...no matter how complicated things become.
Since I consider Bob Fosse's Cabaret to be such a perfect film and wasn't really hoping to find a movie to compare it to or replace it with, I rejoiced in I Am a Camera turning out to be so comprehensively and refreshingly different. Making up for those 42-years of longing, I've already seen it three times and marvel at what a splendid lost gem it is. To quote Sally Bowles, I think I Am a Camera is "Most strange and extraordinary!"


BONUS MATERIAL
I Am a Camera is available for viewing in its entirety on YouTube HERE

The tune Sally Bowles sings in her cabaret act is the 1951 German song, “Ich Hab Noch Einen Koffer in Berlin” (I still have a Suitcase in Berlin) written by Ralph Maria Siegel. In this film given new English lyrics by Paul Dehn (the title changing to: "I Saw Him in a Café in Berlin").
You can Hear Marlene Dietrich sing the original song HERE

The 2011 BBC-TV adaptation of Isherwood's Christopher & His Kind is available for viewing in its entirety on YouTube HERE

Copyright © Ken Anderson