Monday, March 2, 2015

COME BACK TO THE 5 & DIME JIMMY DEAN, JIMMY DEAN 1982

“Life is never quite interesting enough, somehow. You people who come to the movies know that.”                                                            Dolly Gallagher Levi - The Matchmaker

Come Back to the 5 & Dime Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean is a (melo)dramatization of what can happen to lives when the consoling balm of idol worship (movie or otherwise) becomes a crutch for self-delusion, avoidance, and the denial of truth.

As anyone knows who has spent more than five minutes at an autograph convention; attended a pro sporting event; visited Comic-Con; stood among the glassy-eyed throngs outside a movie premiere; or navigated the choppy waters of an internet fansite chat room (a drama-queen war zone littered with trolling land mines): fame-culture idol worship and devout religious fanaticism are merely different sides of the same coin.

Life presents us with challenges and can sometimes feel like a cruel, dispiriting, achingly lonely place. In those moments when we feel its sting most keenly, it’s natural to seek solace (and sometimes escape) in the arts: that spiritual oasis of inspiration and beauty that has the power to restore hope to the human soul the way rainfall can restore life to the scorched, arid plains of a drought-plagued Texas town.
But all too often the need to salve the pain of life and fill the void of loneliness through external means (as opposed to, say, self-reflection and action) leads to the quick-fix distraction of fame culture. Fame culture being the existential bait-and-switch that says our personal lives can somehow be enriched through the over-idealization of someone else’s. Particularly the lives of those perfect demigods and goddesses of the silver screen.
Fame culture doesn’t speak to the individual who works to fulfill his/her potential through the inspirational example of the genius and talent of others. Fame culture merely requires one to surrender the concerns of one's own existence to the enthralled pursuit of information about, and preoccupation with, the comings and goings of the rich and famous. Such passive fealty is rewarded with the blessed gift of never having to think for a second about one's own life, one's own concerns, or anything remotely connected to what is real and germane to one's life. As questionable a tradeoff as this seems, it represents the absolute cornerstone of what we jokingly refer to as pop culture.
Believing is so funny isn’t it? When what you believe in doesn’t even know you exist.”

Entire networks and charitably 85% of the internet are devoted to feeding us ‘round-the-clock updates on what celebrities are up to. Celebrities whose careers and personal lives are staunchly and vigilantly defended against slander and attack by legions of devoted fans. Fandom of the sort that leads to cyber-bullying, broken friendships, and in extreme cases, death threats.
All rather sad when faced with the reality that celebrities by and large go about the business of living of their lives grateful for, but blithely unaware of, said fans’ existence (outside of the hefty dollars fan devotion brings to their bank accounts, enabling them -irony of ironies - to build stronger fortresses, hire more bodyguards, and enforce stricter security…all the better to keep fans at arm's length).

 “‘Cause growing up is awfuller than all the awful things that ever were."    - Peter Pan  

The desire to lose oneself/find oneself in the idealized illusion of salvation presented by the arts and fame culture is something most keenly felt in adolescence. Adolescence being the time when, in the immortal words of The Facts of Life theme song: “The world never seems to be living up to your dreams” -  the kind of escapism that can be found in movies is often the only recourse left for bullied and isolated teenagers longing to feel a little less like outsiders and misfits. At its best, the idol worship of celebrities and movie stars can be a catalyst for change and growth, providing a hopeful vision of a world not defined by the limitations of ignorance, bigotry, and small minds. At its worst, fame idolatry can be such an effective pain reliever that it encourages avoidance, inhibits emotional growth, and promotes living in the past.
September 30, 1955
Members of the McCarthy, Texas James Dean Fan Club, The Disciples of James Dean,
react to news of the actor's death 

“Think what you can keep ignoring…”  Stephen Sondheim  -  Company 

Sandy Dennis as Mona
Cher as Sissy
Karen Black as Joanne
The year is 1975, and on the 20th anniversary of the death of James Dean, the last remaining members of The Disciples of James Dean (make that the last remaining  interested members) - a fan club which held its weekly meetings afterhours in the local Woolworth’s 5 & Dime - return to the drought-ridden, near-deserted, West Texas town of McCarthy for a reunion.
Still residing in McCarthy in various states of arrested development are: moralistic bible-thumper, Juanita (Sudie Bond), who inherited the 5 & Dime after her husband died; goodtime girl, Sissy (Cher), “The best roller-skater in all of West Texas” and over-proud owner of the biggest boobs in town; and Mona (Dennis),James Dean fan club leader and lifetime Woolworth employee whose preeminent moment in life was being chosen as an extra in the film Giant (although no one has ever been able to find her in the film), and who lays claim to being the mother of James Dean’s only son.
Kathy Bates as Stella Mae
The only out-of-town attendees are boisterous Stella Mae (Kathy Bates), now the wife of a Dallas oil millionaire, and mousy Edna Louise (Marta Heflin), pregnant with her 7th child and still, as she was in high-school, ever on the receiving end of Stella Mae’s relentless verbal abuse.
Into this airless environment of stasis comes Joanne (a wonderfully reined-in Karen Black), a chaos device in a tailored suit, a woman mysterious in a yellow Porsche (Dean died in a Porsche). In true Southern Gothic tradition, her presence incites the unearthing of secrets and the head-on confrontation of several dark and painful truths.
And as for the two Jimmy Deans of the title, they are less a titular redundancy than a reference to the two unseen Jimmy Deans of the tale: The Hollywood actor whose untimely death at age twenty-four assured him a place of cultish immortality; and Mona's twenty-year-old son, Dean's son, a rebel with considerable cause. Both are the unseen male presence - "ghosts" of you will - that figure so prominently in Mona's delusions, making her feel special, giving her life importance.
Marta Heflin as Edna Louise
As titles go, I was never too crazy about Come Back to the 5 & Dime Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean which always reminded me too much of the unpleasant, similarly phrase-titled 1976 film, When You Comin’ Back, Red Ryder? …which as it so happens, also had a diner setting. But I suppose it might be a nod to Inge's Come Back Little Sheba and that play's similar theme of longing for an idealized past. But who cares about a title when you have Altman alumnae Sandy Dennis (That Cold Day in the Park) and Karen Black (Nashville) joined by pop-star, tabloid queen, Cher, returning to the big screen for the first time since her somnambulistic tile role performance in 1969s Chastity?
I saw Jimmy Dean when it was released in Los Angeles in the fall of 1982. The buzz at the time was that, on the heels of the flop trifecta of Quintet, A Perfect Couple, and HealtH (the latter I don’t recall even opening in LA), plus the off-beat oddity that was Popeye; Jimmy Dean was to be a return to 3 Women form for Altman. Filmed on a shoestring budget, shot on Super16mm and blown up to 35mm, in a year of bloated megafilms (ET, Annie, Tron) Jimmy Dean was small, personal, and idiosyncratically appealing (and oh so 70s) in its determination to be an anti-blockbuster.
Featuring the same cast as the film, Robert Altman mounted a much-ballyhooed Broadway production of Ed Graczyk's play early in 1982. The critics were not kind. The show closed after 52 performances. A week later the film version was underway and completed in 19 days.

Long before Carol Burnett’s hilarious “Eunice” character came along and forever altered my ability to take the genre completely seriously, I have been in love with Southern Gothic films. Adapted from the works of authors like Tennessee Williams, Eugene O’Neill, and William Inge, these extravagantly melodramatic films had their heyday in the sexually repressed climate of the 50s. Their crisis-filled plots – all sex, secrets, lies, and hypocrisy – stylistically dramatizing the submerged conflicts and contradictions of an era obsessed with sex, yet rooted in conservative Christian dogma and the sustained illusion of conformity at all costs.
Though initially drawn to the genre for its female-driven narratives and the camp potential of the traditionally overheated performances; I eventually came to appreciate the subtle queer-coding concealed in so many of the stories related to isolated individuals struggling to find love and self-acceptance in environments unsympathetic to anyone not fitting in with the mainstream.
Making his film debut as Joseph Qualley, a teen bullied for dressing up in women's clothes,
openly gay actor Mark Patton (A Nightmare on Elm Street 2) was a real-life victim of bullying
growing up in his hometown of Riverside, Mo.
Come Back to the 5 & Dime Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean may not be true Southern Gothic per se, but it has all the trimmings. It’s got ponderous themes (Is the entire world just a deserted dustbowl full of pitiful souls trying to give their lives meaning by worshiping gods that don’t know we exist?); weighty symbolism (Reata, the palatial mansion in Giant, is, like so many of the characters at the 5 & Dime, only a false façade); religious allegory (Mona's assertion that she was "chosen" to bring Dean's only son into the world); and a steady stream of tearful disclosures and shocking revelations done to a fare-thee-well by a cast to die for.
"Miracle Whip is poetry, mayonnaise isn't."
Robert Altman defending one of the improvised changes he imposed upon Graczyk's screenplay.
Sudie Bond as Juanita 

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
In his book, Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan, late film critic Robin Wood makes an interesting point about how often the best of Robert Altman’s films are those expressing the female (if not necessarily feminist) perspective. I’d have to agree. Come Back to the 5 & Dime Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean, makes a superb companion piece to 3 Women: the former being a study in reality imposing itself upon the guarded illusions of women with nothing to cling to but the dreams of the past; the latter a kind of magic-realist exercise in which fantasy and wish-fulfillment come to erode the personalities of three dissimilar women.
While I've always had a little problem with the actual screenplay of Come Back to the 5 & Dime Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean (five major epiphanies in one afternoon must be some kind of record), I have nothing but praise for the stellar performances, the film's themes, and Altman's sensitive and thoughtful direction. This movie is a MAJOR favorite.


PERFORMANCES
It took the formulaic, “high-concept” Hollywood of the 1980s to unite my favorite iconoclast director with two of the most famously idiosyncratic actresses of the 70s. Much has been written about the mannered acting styles of Sandy Dennis and Karen Black, but in Jimmy Dean, the stark originality of these actresses rescues the film from the kind of Steel Magnolias down-home, southern-fried clichés Graczyk’s screenplay flirts so recklessly with.
As with so many Altman films, the performances here represent the best example of ensemble work, each character fleshed out in ways that make even the most theatrical contrivances of the plot feel genuine and emanating from a place of authenticity.

Deservedly so, Cher was singled out for a great deal of critical acclaim for her performance. After having become something of a tabloid punchline for the public soap-opera that was her personal, she amazed audiences by more than holding her own with several formidable seasoned professionals. Her relaxed, natural performance nicely offsets the more eccentric contributions of her costars (although Sudie Bond comes across as perhaps the most real of Graczyk's characters) and she is a delight to watch. Mike Nichols, after seeing her in the Broadway production, cast her opposite Meryl Streep in 1983s Silkwood. 

THE STUFF OF FANTASY 
One of my favorite quotes is Bergen Evans’ “We may be through with the past, but the past is not through with us. 
In Jimmy Dean the past of 1955 and the present of 1975 play out simultaneously on opposite sides of mirrors situated behind the Woolworth’s soda fountain counter; each side serving to illuminate and provide insight and counterpoint to the actions and motivations of the characters.
I’ve never seen a theatrical production of this film, but on the DVD commentary, the playwright says it was Altman’s idea (one he didn’t agree with) to have the same actors play their adult and 16-year-old selves. Maybe the decision isn’t true to Graczyk’s vision, but Altman’s idea is makes for a marvelous visual commentary on how these characters never change. Watching the 1955 sequences played by the mature actresses reinforced for me the feeling that the seeds of what these characters would become has already taken root. It’s a creative choice that imbues Graczyk's sometimes overstressed plot points with poignancy and poetry.
Maybe people don't change. Perhaps we just never saw who they really were. 

THE STUFF OF DREAMS
Robert Altman has often expressed a dislike of idol worship and fame culture, feeling it distracts people from looking at their own problems and, like religion, encourages them not to think for themselves. It's  certainly a theme he’s addressed before in his films (Nashville, Buffalo Bill & the Indians, HealtH, and The Player).
In a 1982 interview for New York Magazine, Robert Atman stated that one of the main reasons he was drawn to making Come Back to the 5 & Dime Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean was to counterbalance his 1957 documentary, The James Dean Story. A sparse, nonsensationalistic look at the brief life of the actor he felt was misunderstood and subverted into a work of hagiography by James Dean cultists.
Thanks to the internet, I at last got to see that for-years-rumored-about nude photo of James Dean that figures in the narrative and Stella Mae paid over $50 dollars for (Edna Louise: "Is that a tree branch in his hand, or what?"). I don't think it looks much like him, but I do love a good myth.

Altman’s adaptation of Graczyk’s play, which depicts the most devout of Dean’s worshippers as an intensely unbalanced woman coping with the emptiness of her existence by shrouding herself in an elaborate delusion, does indeed stand in stark contrast to the harmless, romanticized view of fandom promoted by the media and so-called entertainment news. A point of view all the more rarefied when applied to otherwise unassailable pop-cultural icons like James Dean, Audrey Hepburn, and Marilyn Monroe.

But what I found most provocative and what gave me the most food for thought in Jimmy Dean is how ingeniously it dramatized the two-way mirror effect of idol worship.
One side of the mirror is idealized fantasy, the other is reality. The idealized side is the side we project ourselves into when we escape into movies or obsess over the lives of celebrities. There, time is frozen. We don’t have to grow up, and the only risk is that it can become a time-stealing distraction.
The reality side of the mirror offers nothing but the naked lightbulb of having to look clearly at ourselves and our lives. Tragedy is when the world of dreams feels so compelling to us, reality pales in comparison. Salvation comes through the realization that it is only on the reality side of the mirror where genuine happiness and fulfillment is possible.
Altman may have disliked celebrity culture, but idol-worship (in the form of the standing-room-only
throngs crammed into the Martin Beck Theater to see Cher's legit stage debut)
played a huge role in the play lasting even 52 performances
Like a great many gay men of my generation who grew up feeling isolated and misunderstood, movies were my solace, escape, salvation, and inspiration. I grew up loving movies and movie stars, and, as the title of this blog asserts, they were the stuff to inspire dreams. I was one of the lucky ones in that I didn’t lose myself in my love of movies (well, not completely) and that my own pop cultural obsession (Xanadu…yes, THAT Xanadu) altered the course of my life and led me to a profession which has been more fulfilling to me than I ever could have imagined.

Come Back to the 5 & Dime Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean is a reminder that the arts are here to help us better cope with life, not retreat from it.

BONUS MATERIAL
Somewhat hooty 1982 TV commercial for the brief Broadway run of Come Back to the 5 & Dime Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean.

Robert Altman's documentary: The James Dean Story (1957) on YouTube.

Cher actually made her feature film debut playing herself opposite Sonny Bono in the musical comedy spoof, Good Times - 1967 (it's also director William Friedkin's first film, and is in its own way, every bit as terrifying as The Exorcist). In 1969 with a script by Bono, Cher made her dramatic acting debut in ChastityA film in which she plays a hippie drifter with one facial expression. Both are available on YouTube and are prime examples of late-60s cinema.

The DVD of Come Back to the 5 & Dime Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean has as its only extra feature, a great, many-axes-to-grind interview with playwright Ed Graczyk, who. while respectful, clearly did not relish working with Robert Altman. Like listening to an embittered Paul Morrissey griping about how Andy Warhol got all the credit for the films he directed, Graczyk seems loathe to extend any gratitude to Altman for his part in making Jimmy Dean the playwright's most well-known play. Instead he devotes considerable time detailing (in admittedly  enjoyable behind-the-scenes- anecdotes) the many ways in which Altman deviated from his original concept.

The Disciples of James Dean - 1955
James Dean is the perfect pop culture icon. A figure of idolatry who didn't live long enough to
disappoint, disillusion, or age (in other words, seem human), Like all gods, he remains forever unchanged in a state of youthful perfection, 
Copyright © Ken Anderson

Thursday, February 19, 2015

THE LAST OF SHEILA 1973

“Just goes to show what can be accomplished when a bunch of closeted gay men put their heads together!”                     Overheard following a screening of The Last of Sheila


In 1973 Stephen Sondheim, Anthony Perkins, and Herbert Ross - three closeted gay men in show business who knew a thing or two about keeping secrets - collaborated on The Last of Sheila, an Agatha Christie-esque murder mystery with a touch of All About Eve vitriol set aboard a luxury yacht on the French Riviera. 
The Last of Sheila came about after Herbert Ross, one-time choreographer (Funny Girl) turned director/producer (The Owl and the Pussycat, The Turning Point), persuaded composer Stephen Sondheim (Company, Follies) to channel his extracurricular passion for inventing elaborate games and puzzles into a movie project. To that end, Sondheim, who at the time was working on the Broadway musical A Little Night Music, sought the help of friend and frequent game collaborator Anthony Perkins (then filming Play It as It Lays) and the two devised a brain-teasing murder mystery thrilling enough to be entertaining and intricate enough so that audiences can play along with the characters in the film.

An early first-draft from these two first-time screenwriters had the mystery take place over the course of a snow-bound weekend in Long Island between business associates. But at Ross’ suggestion, the locale was changed to the more photogenic south of France, and the game-playing participants changed to a glamorous, in-joke cross section of Hollywood movie industry types.
James Coburn as sharkish movie producer Clinton Green
Joan Hackett as heiress and Hollywood outsider Lee Parkman
Richard Benjamin as floundering screenwriter Tom Parkman
Raquel Welch as glamorous movie star Alice Wood
Ian McShane as Anthony Wood, Alice's ambitious manager husband
Dyan Cannon as pushy talent agent, Christine
James Mason as once-famous director Philip Dexter
A year after his gossip-columnist wife Sheila Green (Yvonne Romain) was killed in a hit and run accident near their Bel-Air home, movie producer Clinton Green (Coburn) invites six friends – five of whom were guests at his house that fateful night – to spend a week aboard his yacht (The Sheila) in the Rivera. A gathering that promises to be part vacation, part memorial, and part career-carrot dangled under the noses of a gaggle of show business opportunists willing to subject themselves to week of sadistic game-playing in hopes of being offered a job on Clinton’s planned film about the life of his late, not-exactly-lamented wife. A film to be titled, “The Last of Sheila.”

This being a murder mystery, the murder half gets under way when, in the course of playing an elaborate, subtly cruel, detective/gossip game in which each player is assigned a gossipy secret the others must discover first, one of the participants winds up dead. The mystery revolves around the true inspiration for Clinton's game  - the public exposure of the identity of his wife's killer - and whether or not that person or persons is willing to go to even greater lengths to keep their secret a secret. The stage has been successfully set (an isolated group of people seeking to discover who among them is a killer) for a rise in the body count, the typical-for-the-genre tearful revelations, several heated incriminations, and skeletons tumbling out of closets faster than you can say whodunit. 
The ability to watch and rewatch The Last of Sheila on DVD has revealed it to be a much sharper and smarter film than it was credited with being when first released. Virtually every single frame and bit of character business reveals information pertaining to the overall mystery.

The Last of Sheila is a cinema rarity: a real corker of a murder mystery which plays fair with the viewer and doesn’t tip its hand in the first five minutes. It’s a nesting-doll of a murder mystery in which people characters start out just playing a game for fun must resort to actually engaging in game-like sleuthing methods to unearth a mystery. A mystery which in itself is one we in the audience are invited to play separately (Sondheim and Perkins are our literal “Clintons”…peppering the film with visual and verbal clues which, should we be swift enough to pick up on, lead us to the solution to the mystery).

And if, as many critics cited at the time, The Last of Sheila lacks the humanity necessary to make this murder mystery scant than just a fun intellectual exercise (the common critical complaint was that the characters are all so despicable you don’t give a hoot about trying to solve the mystery because you couldn’t care less whodunit or who it’s about to be done to); time and DVD availability has been kind to The Last of Sheila experience.

And by that I mean, not only is it a kick to see folks like Richard Benjamin and Dyan Cannon and Raquel Welch all in the same film, but the characters and their deep, dark secrets seem almost quaint in line with what celebrities do these days (and happily tweet about). Most significantly though, the ability to rewind, rewatch, and reexamine The Last of Sheila, a film about whose mystery critic Rex Reed wrote, “…requires a postgraduate degree in hieroglyphics to figure out,”  has made watching it a considerably less frustrating experience than it was back in 1973.
Let the Games Begin
The original boat sank before filming. Original cinematographer Ernest Day (A Clockwork Orange) was fired after a week. Joan Hackett refused to say certain lines and was nearly replaced by Lee Remick. Arab terrorist group, Black September, threatened to blow up the set. James Mason couldn't stand Raquel Welch. Welch ruffled the feathers of costume designer Joel Schumacher (later the director Batman & Robin) by arriving with her entire wardrobe already designed and fitted by boyfriend, Ron Talsky. Welch (my, her name does keep popping up, doesn't it?) temporarily halted production when she walked off the film threatening to sue director Herbert Ross for assault and battery.

The Last of Sheila was made in the 70s, so it almost goes without saying that a post-Watergate cynicism and assertive preoccupation with exposing the ugly side of the Beautiful People runs like an undercurrent throughout the film .
Hollywood is never at its most naïve than when it thinks it has to ratchet up the heartlessness in an attempt to dramatize for us plebeians what a phony, anything-for-a-buck business it is. The joke of course has always been that only Hollywood thinks its cash register heart is a well-hidden secret. Most of us over the age of ten grasped long ago what an assembly line of falseness the movie industry is, and after years of “seedy underbelly” exposés  (S.O.B., The Day of the Locust, Burn Hollywood Burn, The Bad & the Beautiful, Sunset Blvd., The Player, Two Weeks in Another Town, A Star is Born, The Oscar, etc.) I’m STILL waiting on a film to show just how soulless and venal it can be…something perhaps only possible were the film conceived as a horror/porn film with traces of science fiction.
The Last of Sheila 
Gossip columnist Sheila Green (Yvonne Romain) moments before she,
as Christine so tactfully puts it "...got bounced though the hedges." 
The busy schedules of Sondheim and Perkins prevented the two from having many opportunities to actually write the script while in the same room, thus the bulk of The Last of Sheila was done through phone calls and courier (Perkins has said only two scenes were written while both were in the same room at the same time), Sondheim handling the particulars of the game (natch), Perkins working hard to infuse Stephen’s academic brain puzzler with scare elements and Hollywood insider atmosphere. The result, while entertaining, sometimes feels as choppy and disjointed as the process of its creation.

The Last of Sheila, is the result of the combined efforts of a composer not exactly known for his warmth; a tortured, somewhat embittered actor whose promising leading-man career was derailed and forever haunted by the spectre of Psycho’s Norman Bates;  and a famously grumpy director whose idiosyncratic relationship with his actors rivals that of Otto Preminger. With nary a sympathetic character in sight, The Last of Sheila is a unified cold front of a movie desperately in need of a few real chills and perhaps some script tweaking to help raise the modest level of high-toned bitchery to a level of wit and bite worthy of the intellectual wizardry of Sondheim’s puzzle.


Stephen Who?
With A Little Night Music opening on Broadway in February, a Newsweek Magazine cover story in April, and a June release set for The Last of Sheila; 1973 marked the beginning of Stephen Sondheim's emergence as a household name. (Center) Perkins and Sondheim on the Cannes set of The Last of Sheila.

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
To have Joan Hackett, that darling of idiosyncratic vulnerability, in the same film with the magnificent Raquel Welch, a startlingly uncraggy and boyishly cute Ian McShane, and the comically raucous Dyan Cannon, is quite a treat. But the real star of The Last of Sheila is its twisty murder mystery plot and the cunning “game” motif which runs throughout the film.
From the start, an atmosphere of narrative disequilibrium permeates every scene. 
All the characters are such phonies with ulterior motives behind everything word and action, it’s clear any number of games are already well underway long before Clinton bullies everyone into participating in what he calls “The Shelia Green Memorial Gossip Game.” Once the real game does begin, it becomes harder and harder to know who to believe, who to trust, trust or who’s reality you're seeing. 
And if, in the end, the frequent scenes of lengthy exposition and reenactments necessitated by the complexity of the puzzle have the effect of leaving scant room for fleshed-out performances or dimensional characterizations (in Craig Zadan's book, Sondheim & Co., Perkins concede to he and Sondheim "writing too much" and having to excise some 100 pages of the script before filming); one at least gets to console oneself with the not-unpleasant fact that The Last of Sheila is a fun, difficult-to-solve mystery that respects the viewer’s intelligence and rewards attentiveness.
Elaborate Clues Are Part of the Game

PERFORMANCES
It’s unlikely anyone seeing this now 42-year-old film today knows or even cares that the characters in The Last of Sheila are based on and cobbled together from real-life Hollywood notables (equally unlikely is that anyone could identify them). But at the time of its release, the whole “Who is that supposed to be?” element was just one more of the many games The Last of Sheila set before the viewer.

Of those rumored, Orson Welles was said to have inspired James Mason’s failed director character (even the casting of Lolita's Mason being a bit of a clue to the mystery for the audience). Richard Benjamin was Anthony Perkins' surrogate, and the sex-symbol and pushy husband portrayed by Welch and McShane were presumed by many to be Ann-Margret and Roger Smith. Although more popular opinion favored the filmmakers somehow getting Welch to agree to play herself (and husband Patrick Curtis) in spite of the character’s unglamorous name (Alice “Wood”) being a sly reference to Welch’s acting ability. However, it was no secret that Dyan Cannon was playing  super-agent Sue Mengers (Bette Midler portrayed Mengers in a one-woman show on Broadway in 2013), as the actress’s lively impersonation was a major point of publicity at a time when Mengers ruled Hollywood with her client list: Barbra Streisand, Anthony Perkins, Richard Benjamin, Ryan O’Neal, Dyan Cannon, Faye Dunaway, et al.
Any movie that affords the opportunity to hear Dyan Cannon laugh is a worthwhile endeavor
Like pawns in a chess game, the somewhat overqualified cast of The Last of Sheila are there chiefly to be in service to the riddle of a plot, the minimal requirements of their roles rarely rising above TV-movie competency. So even if few are offered opportunities to really shine (Dyan Cannon has the best lines and the most to work with) all are in fine form and The Last of Sheila offers up an attractive gathering of some of the most familiar faces of the 70s. My particular favorites are James Coburn and Dyan Cannon, with the always-terrific Joan Hackett giving the film a much-needed dose of humanity. (With this film, The Group, Five Desperate Women, and The Class of ’63, Hackett must be the queen of reunion-themed movies).
Hunting Clues In An Abandoned Monastery

THE STUFF OF FANTASY
I was 15-years-old when I first saw The Last of Sheila, dragging my family to see it the first week it opened (smug in my film/theater geek certainty that I alone among my high school peers knew who Stephen Sondheim was). I recall being very taken with the film as a whole, this being the first time I ever saw the traditional Agatha Christie drawing room mystery setup played out in anything resembling a contemporary setting.
I’m not sure how modern audiences respond to it, but in 1973, the mystery worked especially well because outside of James Coburn, no one else in the cast was ever typed as a villain. What with the Riviera setting and Hollywood types featured, it all seemed very glamorous and sophisticated to my adolescent eyes, the only dissonant chord being how old-fashioned all the name dropping seemed. In the 70s Hollywood of Jane Fonda, Warren Beatty and Ali MacGraw, chummy references to Steve & Edie, Kirk Douglas, Yul Brynner, and Sandra Dee seemed very Old World.
Oh, and The Last of Sheila introduced me to Bette Midler. She sings “Friends” over the film's closing credits and I so loved the song, I immediately went out and bought The Divine Miss M album. I've been a fan ever since.
Christine tries to convince Anthony that two heads are better than one

THE STUFF OF DREAMS
As much as I loved The Last of Sheila, poor advance press (it opened out of competition at Cannes to disappointing word of mouth), mixed reviews (claims of it being indifferently directed and aloof were outdistanced by critics throwing up their hands saying the whole thing was just too damned confusing!), and perhaps the overall sourness of the film's tone, kept it from being a hit. It disappeared from theaters rather rapidly and for years you could mention the title and nobody would lay claim to having heard of it, let alone seen it.
Now available on DVD,The Last of Sheila has developed  quite a cult following. Worth checking out if you've never seen it before, worth revisiting to discover all the giveaway clues you missed the first time out.
Friends?
A fun bonus on the DVD is the commentary track provided by Welch, Cannon, and Benjamin. Cannon and Benjamin are obviously watching the film together and having a blast, while Welch (who always comes across more relaxed and funny on the commentary tracks for her films than she does in the films themselves) recorded hers separately.

Little in the way of inside information is imparted - 42 yeas is a LONG time - but in its place is a nostalgia that appears to have erased memories of the troubled, over-schedule and over-budget shoot, replacing them with diplomacy (Cannon alludes to a person causing a long delay because they were dissatisfied with their outfit...one can't help thinking of Ms. Welch) and fond recollections of the experience.
Everyone cops to having found the complex script very hard to follow during filming, and amusingly, Dyan Cannon (who had to gain weight for the role) can't seem to get over how fat she looks, while Raquel Welch laments that she herself looks too thin. All the while Cannon and Benjamin make references to Perkins and Sondheim which make it sound as though they were a couple for a time. I certainly hope so. I'm sure that both gentlemen would be proud to know their sole screenwriting collaboration still has a few gossipy secrets to impart.
Copyright © Ken Anderson

Monday, February 9, 2015

MAME 1974

In Praise of Older Women or: I Love Lucy, But Even That Has Its Limits

Though not originally conceived as such, this look at Lucille Ball’s Mame makes a fitting companion piece to my previous post on Mae West’s Sextette. Both films were made in the 70s, both star actresses who found their greatest fame after turning forty, and both  films represent the simultaneous big screen return-of / farewell-to beloved show-biz legends in star vehicles (vanity projects?) modeled after the old-fashioned, large-scale musicals of Hollywood’s Golden Era. Although light years away from one other in terms of competency, quality, and budget, both films were greeted with near-identical waves of incredulity and hostility from the press and public. The lion’s share of the brickbats hurled centering on accusations of fan-pandering, a distracting over-reliance on age-concealing diffused lighting and fog-filters, and an overall sense of the stars in question being both ill-served by the material and frankly too old for their roles. (West was 84 playing 32. Ball, at 62, begins the film, which spans 1928 to 1946, at roughly the age she should be when it ends.)
Lucille Ball as Mae Dennis
Bea Arthur as Vera Charles
Robert Preston as Beauregard Jackson Pickett Burnside
Jane Connell as Agnes Gooch
Bruce Davison as Patrick Dennis
Kirby Furlong as Young Patrick Dennis

The eccentric heroine of Patrick Dennis’ fictional 1955 autobiography, Auntie Mame: An Irreverent Escapade - first turned into a Broadway play in 1956, later a film in 1958, and ultimately the 1966 Broadway musical upon which this movies is based - is logically somewhere in her mid to late 40s, but, philosophically-speaking, has always seemed “ageless” (spoken like a press agent). It’s conceivable to me that an actress of any age could convincingly play the wealthy, irrepressible free-thinker who becomes an instant mother when entrusted with the upbringing of her late brother’s son and teaches the child to “Open a new window” and live by the motto,“Life is a banquet and most poor sons-of-bitches are starving to death. Provided she has the necessary iconoclastic verve, personality, and spontaneous, life-affirming energy to bring Mame Dennis to life.

Sixty-two-year-old Lucille Ball certainly had plenty of energy, but after six seasons each of I Love Lucy, The Lucy Show, and Here’s Lucy (the last episode aired a week before Mame was released wide), most of it had calcified into drive, determination and will. Ball hadn’t made a film since Yours, Mine, & Ours (1968), and Mame presented the actress with a dream role she actively campaigned to acquire; this in spite of the expressed preference for Angela Lansbury (the role’s originator on Broadway) by the show’s creators: Jerome Lawrence, Robert E. Lee, and Jerry Herman.

Luckily for Ball, there was no way any studio would mount a $12 million film adaptation of Mame without a star of her caliber and popularity attached to it, so, clearly not having learned his lesson from the film version of Hello, Dolly! (where the common complaint was that Streisand was too YOUNG for the role), composer Jerry Herman handed over Mame’s singing and dancing chores to a well-loved household name of advanced age who has repeatedly gone on record decrying her own inability to either sing or dance.

(I’ve read that Herman, so displeased with how Mame and Hello, Dolly! turned out - and apparently after having banked enough money from both to finally buy himself some principles - has since refused to grant permission for the film adaptation of any of his work without his having creative control.)
Mame was one of the most heavily-promoted musicals since 1973s Lost Horizon (and we all know how that turned out). Lucille Ball supported it tirelessly through personal appearances television interviews. (Top) Hollywood's Cinerama Dome theater is decked out like an Easter bonnet cloche hat for the March 26 premiere. (Below) An advance trade magazine ad. 

It can’t be said that a movie version of Mame didn’t have timing working in its favor. In 1974 the nostalgia craze in fashion (BIBA), music (The Pointer Sisters, Bette Midler), and TV (The Waltons, Happy Days) was in full swing, along with the films: The Great GatsbyChinatown, and the remake of The Front Page, all slated for release within months of one another.
I was stoked to see Mame not only because I was such a huge fan of Rosalind Russell’s non-musical Auntie Mame (perhaps too much so, since I think that film is hilarious and Russell slays in the role), but because, like everybody else, I was raised on Lucille Ball and totally adored I Love Lucy (not so much The Lucy Show, Here’s Lucy, or – and this should have been a tip-off – her film appearances. As Lucy Ricardo, Ball was adorable, warm, and outrageously funny. In films, she tended to lapse into into a starchy, ladylike persona that was rarely any fun).
Mame - starring Diane Belmont
Fans expecting to see Lucille Ball's rubber-faced TV persona were surprised to find in its place, the regal, slightly haughty grande dame Lucy of the 1943 Al Hirschfeld caricature that closed every episode of  The Lucy Show. Ball goes through most of Mame with her chin tilted up, lips pursed, and cheeks sucked in. A look that does wonders for her close-ups, but absolutely kills the comedy. Diane Belmont was the hoity-toity stage name Ball adopted during her modeling days as the Chesterfield Cigarettes Girl.
Nevertheless, in March of 1974 my family allowed me to drag them (kicking and screaming) to see Mame. And if hard work paid off in entertainment value, I would have had a wonderful time, for Lucy is clearly working her ass off. But under several pounds of make-up, elaborate wigs, movement-constricting Theadora Van Runkle costumes, a network of face-tightening surgical tape and straps - not to mention nursing a leg broken in four places just a year before - I'm afraid there wasn’t much room for fun, élan, or even much in the way of a performance to rise to the surface. 
In fact, a character named Mame Dennis is less in attendance in this film than Lucille Ball the revered “comedy institution,” while the musical around her has been transformed into a kind of formal, laugh-free, drag-queen-inspired fandom career tribute. Lucy fans, those who had stuck by their star through 18-years-worth of black-and-white housedresses and dowdy office attire, were rewarded with a two-hour-plus fashion parade of Lucille Ball looking like the glamorous movie star Ricky Ricardo and Mr. Mooney never allowed her to be.
Joyce Van Patten is an all-too-brief bright spot as the conniving Sally Cato 
Lucille Ball's age factored in my enjoyment of Mame only insomuch as it seemed to preoccupy the filmmakers to distraction. Everything is so constructed with an eye toward camouflaging its leading lady’s age, filtered lenses, careful lighting, and a raised chin become the film’s dominant motifs. Ball looks terrific throughout, and I really only thought about her age (and that broken leg) when it came to the physical comedy and modest dance requirements. Ball can kick as high as a chorus girl, but I don't think my reactions - alternately, relief that she didn't hurt herself and awe at her moxie in even undertaking these moderately strenuous endeavors - were conducive to getting in the spirit of things. Mame is a character so full of life she gives the impression of never sitting still. Lucille Ball, for all her efforts, always made me want to offer her a chair.

She'll Croak the Blues Right Out of Your Heart!
Much was made of Lucille Ball's "singing." A lifetime of smoking, a voice-damaging stint on Broadway in Wildcat (1960), and a fondness for bourbon left Ball with a distinctive rasp that wasn't always kind to Jerry Herman's songs. Some critics at the time claimed Lisa Kirk (Rosalind Russell's voice in much of Gypsy) dubbed some of the vocals (Ball said Kirk should sue!), but Ball claimed all responsibility. While it would have been nice to have had a singer in the role,  if we had to have Lucy (and it seems like we did), I prefer hearing her real voice. I'm not a big fan of dubbing. Marni Nixon's soulless voice ruins West Side Story and My Fair Lady for me, Marianne McAndrew's voice in Hello, Dolly! seems to emanate from her hat, and don't get me started on the voices they chose for Liv Ullman and Peter Finch in Lost Horizon...

If anything, I found Gooch’s age to be far more problematic. I know Jane Connell originated the role on Broadway and all, but I couldn't help wishing that her pregnancy number "What Do I Do Now?" had been scrapped (it's always been pure torture for me anyhow) or refashioned into a menopause anthem or something. She just seemed too old. And her sheltered virgin bit was a cartoon. All through the film I kept imagining what fired-during-rehearsals Madeline Kahn might have done with the role.
Open a New Window
Ball has the best onscreen chemistry with Kirby Furlong, who plays young Patrick (my favorite moment is when he's allowed to slide down the banister in her apartment). The actress's legendary comedy timing seems to have abandoned her throughout much of the film, but whenever she is allowed to smile or laugh, her childlike appeal is irresistible. 

For all its faults, I have to say it was rather thrilling seeing Mame on the big screen for the first time; a feeling that has diminished significantly with subsequent DVD revisits. The scale and glossy sheen of the film was breathtaking to me at the time, Ball looking spectacular, if not exactly comfortable, in her elaborate wardrobe (she seems about as at-home in those outfits as she does in the role itself). And if hampered by a lumbering pace, overlong running time, too-familiar plot, and a paucity of real humor (Jerome Lawrence: “The screenplay was by Dostoyevsky…they took out all the laughs!”), something about Mame is so eager-to-please and well-intentioned, you kind of want to forgive it. The same way Ricky always forgave Lucy.
Audrey Christie & Don Porter as the uppity Mrs. & Mr. Upson
Mame does a lot of things wrong, but for me, three of the things they get right are so sublime that Mame has remained a favorite all these years strictly on the strength of them.

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
The Title Sequence.
In his review of Mame, New York Times critic Vincent Canby observed, "The opening credits, which look like a Cubist collage in motion, are so good they could be a separate subject."
Indeed, the titles are so classy and eye-popping (footage from old Warner films like Public Enemy and Forty-Second Street are utilized) they whet your appetite and set a standard of style and sophistication the film only intermittently lives up to.

THE STUFF OF FANTASY
Loving You.
It's common practice for musicals adapted from Broadway shows to have at least one original number written for the screen version. Cynics (or are they realists?) say its to make a bid for a Best Song Oscar nomination, as only songs written expressly for a film are eligible. But in the case of Mame, one can make a good argument for needing to beef  up the supporting role of Beauregard (he has only the title song) in order to attract a two-time Tony Award winner like Robert Preston. Also, since Mame was marketed to women (so-called women's director George Cukor was initially attached to the project but had to drop out when Ball's skiing accident delayed production for an entire year) there was a desire to place a stronger emphasis on the romance. Plus, Preston could actually sing, and Mame needed all the good voices it could get.
The song composed for the film is "Loving You," and not only does the very dashing Preston sing and perform it beautifully, but the number as staged (a honeymoon montage) is so sweepingly romantic, I find myself moved by it each and every time. It's a great song anyway, but how its presented is so nicely handled. Special applause goes to the musical arrangement. The segment in a great ballroom has the most amazing recreation of a 30s sound orchestral sound, then, when the scene changes to a grand garden, the music erupts into a piano crescendo of such goosebump-inducing romantic lushness, blending magically with the image of the dancing the couple...that the waterworks that had been building up just have to go for it. I just love this sequence. It's so wonderful it really does feel as though it were hijacked from another film.

THE STUFF OF DREAMS 
The Title Number.
In a word: Perfection. Every single thing about how this number is done just puts a smile on my face. It's rousing and old-fashioned in just the right way, vibrantly staged and choreographed...it's everything that ever made me fall in love with musicals. The sight of all those red jackets and white jodhpurs in a kickline on the big screen was quite unforgettable! Had the rest of the film been up to this standard, Mame would have been a classic.

PERFORMANCES
On its release, all the performers were understandably positive about the film. In later years Bea Arthur spoke of Ball being miscast in her opinion and that the film was "A tremendous embarrassment." Even Lucille Ball later recanted all her initial happy talk and described making the film as being, "...About as much fun as watching your house burn down."
Personally, Rosalind Russell spoiled my chances of enjoying anyone else in this role, so Lucy bothers me less than those who perhaps loved Angela Lansbury in the role. I don't think Lucy's very good in the role, but how does one go about disliking Lucy? To this day no other TV show can make me laugh like I Love Lucy, and I think she is a genius in that regard. When she was still around, it was easy to rag on this picture....now that she's gone, I find myself a lot more at peace with my disappointments. She's missed, what can I say?
Other than a few unflattering costumes, the late-great Bea Arthur in Mame really has nothing to be embarrassed about (although she should have been upset the way her hilarious number "The Man in the Moon is a Lady" was butchered by so many cutaways). To my taste, Auntie Mame's Coral Browne IS Vera Charles, but Arthur is Mame's saving grace. (Bette Davis famously campaigned for the movie role of Vera opposite Lucy. Can you imagine a sound technician trying to measure those two voices in a duet?)

Mame is one of my "Fast-forward Favorites": A movie I find it difficult to watch all the way through, but delight in watching a la carte...hopping from one favored scene to another. I highly recommend this method with this film - most of the film doesn't work, but there are flashes of brilliance here and there that are just too good to miss.

BONUS MATERIAL
Mame opening title sequence. (*Designed by Wayne Fitzgerald thru Pacific Title & Art). *Thanks, Rick Notch

Here's Lucy: Lucy Carter Meets Lucille Ball. This episode aired March 4, 1974 to tie-in with the release of Mame. Lucy appears in one of her Mame outfits hosting a lookalike contest and plugging her film.

Lucille Ball on The Merv Griffin Show. Ball talks to the host about the making of Mame.

Ginger Rogers in Mame 1969.  Mame's choreographer, Onna White also choreographed the original Broadway production. Here's a chance to see the same equestrian choreography from the film as it was performed on the stage.

Angela Lansbury and Bea Arthur perform "Bosom Buddies."  The 1987 Tony Awards give us an opportunity to see what might have been.

My Three Mames: *An ingenious montage of the "Mame" number as performed by Lucille Ball, Angela Lansbury, and Ginger Rogers.  *Thanks, Jeff!
Copyright © Ken Anderson