Wednesday, February 3, 2016


Before my recent posts on Mommie Dearest and Behind the Candelabra got me thinking about the form and function of the biographical movie as a genre, I don’t know that I’d ever given much thought to what I personally look for in a biopic.

While I know I’m comfortable relinquishing a certain level of historical fidelity for the sake of dramatization and a filmmaker’s vision (for example, I don’t mind the glamorization and historical inaccuracies in 1967’s Bonnie & Clyde); I do find I lose patience with complete whitewash jobs that alter historical fact in an effort to sanitize the subject and adhere to a standardized Hollywood format (the 1946 Cole Porto biopic Night & Day turned the life of the homosexual composer into just another conventional heterosexual love story).

I guess when I’m really out to learn something about the life of a historical figure, I tend to go to a documentary or a book; but when it comes to biopics, I don’t mind if a filmmaker plays fast and loose with the “facts” if what they ultimately deliver is some kind of “truth.”
And by that I mean, rather than simply chronicling the events of an individual’s life, I prefer when the director and writer of a biopic find a way to use the life story of a public figure to say something broader about humanity, art, the creative process, cultural myths, or the pernicious lure of fame and the American success ethic. In such instances I gladly surrender encyclopedic accuracy to creative interpretation.
Ken Russell claimed his film was less the story of Tchaikovsky and more a
commentary on the destructive force of dreams on reality
If I’m going to invest time watching a fictional reenactment of a real-life narrative (something to which even the most meticulous biopic must ultimately lay claim), I’m of a mind to look to the filmmaker who is capable of creating order out of chaos; able to find poetry within the banal; and willing to unearth something universal and profound in the neutral, haphazard events which make up a human life. Especially a life deemed exceptional enough to biographize.
So often biopics hide behind the “based on true events” excuse to justify the overuse of clichés and coincidence, choppy storytelling, and flat characterizations which would never pass muster in the construction of a purely fictional screenplay. I prefer when biographical films attempt to find the unique dramatic thrust of a story while still hewing somewhat closely to real-life events. A good biopic is one I can enjoy as a stand-alone film. One which holds up as effective drama and solid entertainment independent of my foreknowledge of the subject personality or alleged veracity of events depicted.
Tchaikovsky Triumphant
What Price Success?
Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull (1980) is an excellent example of a biographical film transcending its subject material. The film works whether or not one has an interest in boxing or aware that Jake LaMotta is a real person. It's an emotionally and dramatically credible story buoyed (not reliant) by being based on true events.
By way of contrast, Alan Parker's 1996 musical Evita (a project to which Ken Russell was briefly attached) has a fascinating and incredibly complex individual at its center, but the movie is so lacking in point of view or perspective about its subject (due more perhaps to the flaws inherent in Andrew Lloyd Webber & Tim Rice's treatment) the entire film - which seems comprised exclusively of processions and marches - has no narrative thrust beyond "it actually happened" historical regurgitation.

The one director whom I consider to be the one of the screen’s most gifted fictional documentarians is Ken Russell, a director whose biopics lean to the wildly subjective, daringly interpretive and highly stylized. His films and BBC TV plays about the lives of Rudolph Valentino, Franz Liszt, Gustav Mahler, Henri Gaudier, Isadora Duncan, and Claude Debussy, are splendid paradoxes: they are simultaneously fruitless sources of biographical fact, yet they're bountiful vessels of emotional honesty.
Richard Chamberlain as Peter IlyichTchaikovsky
Glenda Jackson as Antonina Milyukova
Christopher Gable as Count Anton Chiluvsky 
Izabella Telezynska as Madame Nadejda von Meck
Sabina Maydelle as Sasha Tchaikovsky
Ken Russell first became known to American audiences (this American audience, anyway) by way of his second film, the soporific 1967 Michael Caine spy thriller Billion Dollar Brain (his first feature film French Dressing – 1964, I’ve yet to see). While he indisputably hit his artistic stride with the poetic and well-received adaptation of D.H. Lawrence’s Women in Love (1969), Ken Russell, the babyfaced enfant terrible of cinematic excess who scandalized sensibilities and drove Pauline Kael to distraction, didn’t really show his face until his fourth film, the controversial and polarizing The Music Lovers.

Based on the 1937 book Beloved Friend: The Story of Tchaikovsky and Nadejda von Meck, The Music Lovers is Ken Russell’s fever-dream vision of the life of the famed 19th century Russian composer. And I’m not just using fever-dream as an easy expression. At times The Music Lovers looks exactly like the kind of overheated dream one would have after falling asleep listening to Tchaikovsky while pulling an all-nighter studying for an exam on the composer.
Kenneth Colley as Modeste Tchaikovsky
Originally titled The Lonely Heart, the film’s full title: Ken Russell's Film on Tchaikovsky and The Music Lovers clues us in that this is to be Ken Russell’s uniquely personal, subjectively emotional (some would say hysterical) look at the tortured life of the artist.

To the frenetic accompaniment of The Nutcracker’s “Dance of the Clowns” the film’s first frames thrust us directly into the center of the joyous revelries of a Moscow winter carnival. This moment is important to savor, for it is one of the last times genuine happiness makes an appearance in the film outside of idealized images in impossible fantasies.

As he would do in his next film The Boy Friend (1971), Ken Russell uses the opening sequence of The Music Lovers to introduce all the film's major characters in context of their personalities and interrelationships – present and future – before we actually know who they are. This not only has the effect of heightening our visual alertness (we are in asked to absorb and store store narrative information we will draw upon later), but it invites us to surrender from the start to what Russell will later demand: that we experience his film as pure sensation and emotion…just as one might experience Tchaikovsky’s compositions.

Born This Way
The Music Lovers presents Tchaikovsky's denial of his homosexuality as the source of his greatest torment. Our first glimpse of the composer, cavorting with his lover (Christopher Gable) at a winter fair, culminating in the pair collapsing drunk and contentedly in bed - is also the last time we ever see him happy

The full themes of The Music Lovers are revealed in the next sequence, which has all the individuals from the opening scene reassembled at the Moscow Conservatory on the occasion of Tchaikovsky’s debut of his Piano Concerto no.1 in B-flat Minor. Again utilizing a device employed to similar effect in The Boy Friend, Russell familiarizes us with the main players in his drama by granting us access to their fantasies and innermost desires. It is here that Tchaikovsky and each of his “loves” – his impassioned music; his sister Sasha, for whom he has a quasi-incestuous attachment; melancholy patron of the arts, Madame von Meck; the mentally unstable fantasist (and future wife of convenience) Nina; and his real but forbidden love, the foppish Count Chiluvsky – all reveal themselves to share a similar susceptibility and responsiveness to Romanticism and the Romantic Ideal.

The inherent unattainability of said ideal suggested by the extravagant-bordering-on-absurd visual extremes of each fantasy; its anguish reflected in the real-life self-contradiction that has nearly everyone in question falling desperately in love with precisely the person least capable of returning it.
Max Adrian as Nicholas Rubinstein
With desire charting the path of the conjoined destinies of these individuals, The Music Lovers takes the position that Tchaikovsky, a gay man tortured by his homosexuality and his inability to lead a life of emotional truth, poured all of his impassioned fantasies and romantic dreams into his music. In centering his film on an artist who struggled to create artistic truth while being untrue to himself, Russell provocatively posits whether an inauthentic life can ever produce authentic art.
Portrait of the Artist as a Babe
In photographing Tchaikovsky in a manner redolent of Hollywood's glamorized biographies of  historical figures, Ken Russell mocks the romantic myth of artists nobly suffering for their craft

I didn’t see The Music Lovers when it was first released, but following on the heels of the comparatively restrained Women in Love, I can only imagine what a shock to the system Russell's horrorshow take on the life of Tchaikovsky was to 1970 audiences. After all these years I think The Music Lovers' brash imagery, feverish performances and bold disregard for conventional storytelling (and historical accuracy) still has the power to astonish. 
Phallic Frenzy
Ken Russell's signature penis-themed imagery appears in this fantasy sequence in which Modeste, Tchaikovsky's pragmatic brother, vanquishes the parasitic "music lovers" in the composer's life
In no way, shape, or form is this a movie for all tastes. And indeed, I would agree with those who say it is fairly valueless as biography (although it did serve to spark my interest in the composer and led me to seek out the more traditional – but arguably as false – Russian film on Tchaikovsky released in 1972) .
However, speaking as a confirmed dreamer, fantasist, and head-in-the-clouds romantic, I can’t praise Ken Russell enough for dramatizing in The Music Lovers precisely the conundrum that has always intrigued me about the arts, creativity, and the role of fantasy in our lives.
A spirited inner life is the common byproduct when restrictions are placed on the free expression and development of one’s true nature. So by framing the film’s central conflict around Tchaikovsky’s well-founded inability to come to terms with his homosexuality (it was illegal in Russia) and subsequent need to suppress his natural romantic desires in order to pursue his art (something Richard Chamberlain knew a thing or two about); The Music Lovers effectively explores fantasy from both sides of the issue.
Fear of scandal and a denial of self inspires Tchaikovsky to shun the affections his lover, preferring instead to hide behind his sham marriage and his long-distance infatuation with benefactress, Madame von Meck 
The beauty of Tchaikovsky’s music alone is evidence of the redemptive power of fantasy. But Russell, in holding the composer’s life in contrast to his art, asks us to contemplate how it is that the same dreamy nature capable of bringing forth "Swan Lake" and "The Nutcracker" could also foster such a propensity for self-deception and (in his unfeeling use of Nina as a shield against gossip and his own fears about himself) selfishness. Tchaikovsky's infatuation with a Romantic Ideal gave the world great music, but in his personal life it marred perception and inhibited his ability to connect at all with any of the "music lovers" in his life in a realistic manner.   
Bad Romance
Following an established pattern, Nina works herself into a romantic delirium over
an unprepossessing Russian hussar she's never met

It's really saying something to note that in a strongly emotional movie about a man who wrote strongly emotional music, the central relationship between Tchaikovsky and Antonina “Nina” Milyukova stands out as one of the most impassioned. Tchaikovsky, against the wishes of his family and in an effort to conform to societal pressure, did in fact impulsively marry a woman he barely knew, a young music student from his conservatory. Their marriage was disastrous, the composer remaining married (the better to deflect rumors of his homosexuality) but deserting his wife within weeks of their wedding.

As envisioned by Russell, Tchaikovsky marries out of rebellious self-denial and romantic self-delusion, while Nina (Jackson) is depicted as just another dreamy fantasist. A mentally and emotionally unstable woman given to reckless romantic infatuations who sets her sights on wooing the composer because of his fame and stature. (I personally reject the nymphomaniac label, even in Russell's vision, simply because I’m weary of it being the lazy go-to word used by men who don’t know what else to call a woman with a sex drive.) 
Nina Meets Her Rival
Costume designer Shirley Russell uses color to emphasize the connection between
 Tchaikovsky's actual and illusory loves

Biographers don’t tend to devote much space to the marriage, but Russell depicts Nina, and Tchaikovsky's cruel treatment of her, as a symbol of the film's theme. She's a tragic figure representing the destructive side of reality avoidance, her mental and emotional deterioration a hysterical indictment of Tchaikovsky's weakness of character and the false promises held forth by his unabashedly romantic compositions. 

The Music Lovers' most controversial scene (of many, I assure you) is the honeymoon train journey that finds the visibly repulsed Tchaikovsky trapped in a tiny carriage car with his drunk, sexually rapacious bride. As the car jostles violently back and forth, Nina, now nude and unconscious, rolls about on the floor as Tchaikovsky literally climbs the walls in horror and disgust.
None of it should work (it's practically a parody of a gay man's reaction to seeing a vagina) but somehow it does. 
And that the sexually-conflicted composer should be portrayed by a sexually-conflicted actor (Richard Chamberlain came out in 2003 when he was 68-years old) adds heaps of unexpected subtext to the already over-the-top proceedings.
In this scene from Russell's Women in Love, Gudrun Brangwen (Glenda Jackson) and the artist Loerke (Vladek Sheybal) engage in a bit of play-acting, assuming the roles of Nina and Tchaikovsky during their honeymoon journey on the Trans-Siberian Express

Although my childhood is full of memories of my sister's major crush on Richard Chamberlain during his Dr. Kildare days, I can't say that I've actually seen him in very much. Certainly not enough to know how successful he was in his bid to shed his teen heartthrob image and be taken seriously as an actor. I do know that as leading men go, he's very easy on the eyes, and that I can find no fault with his performance here. It feels very committed and appropriately tortured.
Nina Ends Her Days In An Insane Asylum
It's Glenda Jackson, already a personal favorite, who stands out most in my memory. Delivering a sensitive performance that can also be as broad as a barn when required, she's just a marvel to behold. Her showier scenes got all the critical notice (and lambasting), but it's her smaller moments (like the range of emotions that play across her face when she meets Tchaikovsky for the first time) that make her Nina a rivetingly sympathetic, pitiable, unpleasant character.

I don't have the space to pay tribute to them all, but the entire cast of The Music Lovers is uniformly top notch. Fans of Ken Russell will recognize his familiar band of repertory players, each contributing invaluably to the whole.
Beloved Friend
In love with both the man and his music, wealthy widow Madame von Meck (here with her twin sons) supports Tchaikovsky for thirteen years and is content to love him from afar

Ken Russell is known for being a visual director, and on that score The Music Lovers doesn't disappoint. The lush imagery and sumptuous costumes are more than a match for Tchaikovsky's colorful compositions. But because Russell's films are such an assault on the senses, I often think the soundness of the ideas behind his films get shortchanged.
My appreciation of The Music Lovers is rooted not in its status as biography, but in its thought-provoking themes examining the origins of artistic creativity and the heavy price that's often extracted.

When Richard Chamberlain came out as gay in his 2003 memoir Shattered Love, one of the things he was fond of saying during his media tour was that after a lifetime of living in fear, how liberating it was to finally be himself. Yet one of his strongest epiphanies was the realization that his being gay was the least interesting, most benign thing about him.
While I've no doubt of this being Chamberlain's reality, his  observation fascinated me. It fascinated me because of its failure to recognize (or accept) that if one's sexuality prompts one to spend an entire life "in the closet" and engaged in the non-stop denial of one's true nature, it can hardly be called a benign issue because a lifetime of self-rejection HAS to shape personality, perception, and reality.
In context of what Ken Russell explores in The Music Lovers, it's inconceivable to me that a life lived in total denial of who one actually is would fail to lave a mark on the soul of any sensitive individual...on the soul of an artist, most acutely.

In all its frenetic hysteria, The Music Lovers asks us to entertain the possibility that Peter Tchaikovsky, a romantic prohibited from freely expressing love as he would choose, was forced, because of his homosexuality, to channel all of his tortured emotions, suppressed pain, and unexpressed passion into his music. Russell doesn't use Tchaikovsky's homosexuality for shock value or fodder for gossip; he makes a case for the artist's socially-unacceptable sexuality being the very source of his creative genius. In Russell's vision, Tchaikovsky's homosexuality is neither benign nor is the defining aspect in the shaping of the man's character and the cause of his heartfelt romantic longing.

Leave it to Ken Russell - instead of just another biopic heralding the achievements of a famed composer, he constructed a sensual think-piece that invites me to contemplate the art as well as the artist.

The reason for this film's windy full title: Ken Russell's Film on Tchaikovsky and The Music Lovers, was so as not to be confused with the 1970 Russian film Tchaikovsky by Igor Talankin. (Released in the U.S. in 1972).
Innokenty Smoktunovsky as Tchaikovsky
This beautiful, more traditional recounting of the life of Tchaikovsky cost $20 million (to The Music Lovers' $3 million) was nominated for a Best Foreign Film Oscar and is available for viewing on YouTube HERE.

Copyright © Ken Anderson

Sunday, January 24, 2016


As Oscar time rolls around, my thoughts invariably go to all the movies I absolutely adore which never got the time of day from The Academy. But being that this blog is in itself already something of a chronicle of what a personal "Best Picture" nominees roster would look like if I were to hand out my own film awards (I'd call them The ANDYs, but that's already taken); I decided instead to list the Top 20 Songs from motion pictures I'd nominate in my own personal "Best Song" category. In this instance, not songs that didn't win, but songs that weren't even nominated.

I'm intentionally leaving out more well-known omissions like Kander & Ebb's "New York, New York" (New York, New York), "Pure Imagination" (Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory), "Staying Alive" (Saturday Night Fever), and "To Sir, With Love" (To Sir, With Love), choosing, as is my wont, to concentrate on oddities and obscurities I've loved since the first time I heard them. All personal, wholly subjective, all-time favorites currently on my iPod. 
Songs are not listed in order of preference.

Click on song title captions to listen on YouTube. 

Film: Such Good Friends (1971)  Song: "Suddenly It's All Tomorrow"
Words & music - Thomas Z. Shephard and Robert Brittan. Sung by O.C. Smith
Played over the end credits of Otto Preminger’s overstated comedy-drama about a Manhattan wife who discovers her dying husband has had numerous extramarital affairs; this lovely, wistful song succinctly captures the feeling of dark clouds parting and the contemplation of a brighter future.

Film: Ziegfeld Follies (1945)  Song: "This Heart of Mine"

Words & music - Harry Warren & Arthur Freed. Sung by Fred Astaire
This song wins out due to a confluence of reasons. It’s an entrancingly beautiful melody, Fred Astaire’s vocals are flawless, and it contains a lyric line which turns the waterworks on for me unfailingly (“As long as life endures, it yours this heart of mine”). They really don't write 'em like this anymore. The song begins at the four minute point on this video, but check out the 8-minute point to see what I call the “goosebump moment” wherein Vincente Minnelli’s eye for baroque romanticism and the heavenly dancing of Astaire and Lucille Bremer confirm just why dreams are what Le Cinema is for.

Film: Xanadu (1980)  Song: "Xanadu"

Words & music - Jeff Lynne. Sung by Olivia Newton-John & Electric Light Orchestra
Olivia Newton-John and ELO is the most inspired musical pairing since The Pet Shop Boys recruited and retooled  Liza Minnelli. Livvy’s heavenly vocals are a perfect blend with Jeff Lynne’s soaring orchestrations, the result: a pulsatingly infectious, smile-inducing title tune that ranks among my favorite songs of all time.

Film: Raintree County (1957)  Song: "The Song of Raintree County"

Words & music - Johnny Green & Paul Francis Webster. Sung by Nat King Cole
I think I would like the melody of this touching, old-fashioned love song anyway, but Nat King Cole’s stirring vocals (that voice!) really make this delicate tune such a dreamy delight. 

Film: Freaky Friday (1976)  Song: "I'd Like To Be You For a Day"

Words & music - Al Kasha & Joel Hirschhorn.  Sung by NOT Barbara Harris & Jodie Foster
Nominated for a Golden Globe but ignored by Oscar, this cute mother-daughter duet combines the catchy rhythms of classic TV sitcom theme songs with the lyric playfulness of nursery rhymes. A thoroughly charming arrangement and appealing harmonizing mystery vocals (they’re too smooth for Barbara Harris, too high-pitched for Jodie Foster) work in concert with clever cut-out title animation of the sort that was at one time a Disney trademark.

Film: Emmanuelle IV (1984)  Song; "Oh, Ma Belle Emmanuelle"

Words & music - David Rose / Sergio Renucci / Marie Claude Calvet.  Sung by The Performers Band
OK, this one is a bit of a cheat. On two counts. First, Emmanuelle IV is a French film and would never be considered for a Best Song Oscar nomination, but I’m including it here because …well, the ANDYs are just like Emmanuelle herself: capricious, easy, and a little tacky. Which brings me to point number two; I love the this title tune, sung over the film’s opening credits (which also serves up a Penthouse magazine-worthy montage of actress Sylvia Kristel) because it is a sensational slice of French cheese. It’s actually rather sublime, really. Romantically lush orchestrations blend with an '80's Kenny G-like saxophone accompaniment, all in service of a vaguely Euro vocalist crooning an anthem of love to “new” Emmanuelle (don’t ask). Like a Serge Gainsbourg composition, it manages to be sexy, sleazy and romantic all at the same time!

Film: Shanghai Surprise (1986)    Song: "Shanghai Surprise"

Words & music - George Harrison.  Sung by George Harrison & Vicki Brown
Nothing even remotely associated with this film got any love back in 1986 when Madonna and then-husband Sean Penn were successors to Barbra Streisand and Jon Peters as Hollywood’s most obnoxious couple. Too bad, for while I couldn’t stand the film myself, I’ve always been crazy about this title song: a cleverly rhyme-happy duet that's the equivalent of a musical flirtation. 

Film: Macon County Line (1974)  Song: "Another Day, Another Time"

Words & music - Bobbi Gentry.   Sung by Bobbi Gentry
A lyrical, rather haunting melody distinguished by Bobbi Gentry’s easygoing way with lyrics that paint vivid pictures and tell a story. Considerably more graceful and affecting than the redneck exploitation film it was written for, I’m particularly fond of Gentry’s melancholy vocals.

Film: Sparkle (1976)   Song: "Hooked on Your Love"

Words & music - Curtis Mayfield.   Sung by Lonette McKee, Irene Cara & Dwan Smith
It’s doubtful the old coots representing the music branch of the Motion Picture Academy even knew who Curtis Mayfield was, let alone receptive to the outstanding R & B score he composed for the low-budget musical, Sparkle.  The Motown-influenced score is pure 70s soul (it takes place in the ‘60s)  and of the many songs I like, my favorite is this silky- smooth number with a pulsing backbeat. Aretha Franklin sang all the film’s songs on the soundtrack album, but check out the YouTube video - not only to hear the smoking-hot,  girl-group vocals of Irene Cara, Lonette McKee, and Dwan Smith,  but to check out the slinky choreography.

Film: The Magic Garden of Stanley Sweetheart (1970)  Song: "Sweet Gingerbread Man"

Words & music - Michel Legrand, Marilyn & Alan Bergman.   Sung by The Mike Curb Congregation
The late-‘60s sound no one ever talks about is the easy-listening, inoffensive pop of The Ray Coniff Singers, The Jerry Ross Symposium, The Bob Crew Generation, and, the folks behind this sunshine pop ditty, The Mike Curb Congregation. While a whole lot of hard rock and rollin’ was going on, bands like these (often just studio singers) gently introduced older folks (and clean-cut young ones) to the New Sound.
Michel LeGrand was all over the place in the 60s, and this sugary pop gm was covered by Sarah Vaughn, Jack Jones, Bobby Sherman, and many others.
Almost unbearably cutesy and bubblegummy for most tastes, it practically screams “Sixties!” to me, and I have a decided soft spot in my heart (and most likely, my head) for this song. 

Film: From Noon Till Three (1976)    Song: "Hello and Goodbye"

Words & music - Elmer Bernstein / Marilyn & Alan Bergman.   Sung by Jill Ireland
An elegant, lilting music box love song whose sentimental lyrics are simple but very touching to an old softie like me. Although just a little over 90 seconds long, it too, never fails to get the waterworks flowing. An instrumental version plays under the opening credits, the song itself is later sung by a character in the film.

Film: There's A Girl In My Soup (1970)  Song: "Miss Me in The Morning"

Words & music - Mike D'Abo & Nicolas Chinn.   Sung by Mike D'Abo

This perfectly irresistible and utterly groovy bit of ‘60s fluff crosses Burt Bacharach with Herb Alpert and delivers a bouncy tune that feels as stylishly mod and British as a walk down Carnaby Street.

Film: Across 110th Street  (1972)    Song: "Across 110th Street"

Words & music - Bobby Womack & J.J. Johnson. Sung by Bobby Womack
1970’s sophisticated soul doesn’t get much better than this. Womack’s hard-edged vocals work in discordant concert with the sweeping orchestral arrangement and funky downbeats reminiscent of the Philadelphia soul sound. A criminally infectious title song with a memorable musical hook.

Film: Something Big (1971)    Song: "Something Big"

Words & music - Hal David & Burt Bacharach.  Sung by Mark Lindsay
As far as I’m concerned, when it comes to film composers, the 60s sun rose and set with Burt Bacharach (and the underappreciated but invaluable contributions of lyricist, Hal David). I am mad about all of his work, but this smooth title song to a perfectly terrible western swings with a bossa nova beat and Bacharach’s trademark syncopation and shifts in meter. Truly putting this song over for me are Mark Lindsay's (of Paul Revere and the Raiders) vocals, which really play up Bacharach’s amusing (and tres-groovy) habit of ending musical phrases on an “up” that sounds like a question being asked. A really good song.

Film: Popeye (1980)    Song: "See'Pea's Lullaby"

Words & music - Harry Nilsson.  Sung by Robin Williams
One of Robert Altman’s most financially successful films is also one of his most unwieldy, the copious amount of drugs ingested by cast and crew while filming no doubt contributing to the effect. Harry Nilsson contributed many witty, albeit repetitive tunes, the best, as far as I’m concerned, being this winsome, genuinely stirring lullaby. An oasis of quiet in a chaotic film. 

Film: Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970)   Song: "In The Long Run"

Words & music - Rob Stone & Stu Phillips.   Sung by Lynn Carey
The very first time I saw BVD, even as I was sitting staring in open-mouthed amazement at what was unfolding before me, I seized upon this song as a standout. From those killer chords that precede the vocals to the overall MOR psychedelic vibe of the arrangement, this song is a winner. All-girl rock groups rule!

Film: Carbon Copy (1981)  Song" I'm Gonna Get Closer To You"

Words & music - Paul Williams & Bill Conti.    Sung by England Dan Seals
I place Paul Williams up there with Burt Bacharach and Charles Fox as one of my favorite composers for the movies. The song played over the closing credits of this largely forgotten comedy, notable only for being Denzel Washington's film debut, and it hooked me immediately. Hook being the operative word. Like a commercial jingle, the bouncy arrangement, cleverly-rhymed lyrics, and light-as-a-feather vocals single-handledly elevated a so-so film into one I never forgot. Primarily because I liked this song so much.

Film: Star Spangled Girl (1971)    Song: "Girl"

Words & music - Charles Fox & Norman Gimbel.    Sung by Davy Jones
Any fan of The Brady Bunch knows this song, but few know it as the theme to a flop Neil Simon comedy. Composed by fave-rave Charles Fox (Barbarella, Goodbye Columbus) to my ear it seemed exactly the kind of movie theme song that should have been a shoo-in had the 70s not been such an awkward transitional period for the Academy.
As it stands, Fox and Gimbel deliver a catchy confection of musical candy floss with this song, aided immeasurably by Jones' pronunciation of the oft-repeated central word, "girl."


Words & music - Richard O'Brien & Richard Hartley.    Sung by Cast
This not-really sequel to the insanely successful The Rocky Horror Picture Show has grown on me a bit lately (especially in these reality TV times), but I thought it was a huge disappointment when I first saw it. I did however love much of the music, most favorably the title tune which rocks, harmonizes, is catchy as hell, and a great deal of fun. A rollicking ensemble song punctuated by the "Shock Treatment" lyric pause/hook.

Film: The Touchables (1968)   Song: "All of Us"

Words & music - Alex Spyropoulous & Patrick Campbell-Lyons.  Sung by Nirvana (not that Nirvana)
I end my list with a song from a film made in 1968, the first year I actually started to pay attention to movies. It's also the year when hippies, flower children, and psychedelia flooded pop culture, making this trippy British import of a theme song a stand-out favorite because it couldn't have been written at any other time. This dreamy, slightly hallucinatory song plays over the film's equally far-out, James-Bondian/Maurice Binder inspired title sequence. Fabulous British '60s sound.

Everyone assumes the classic theme from Goldfinger (1964) was a Best Song nominee.
It wasn't even nominated!
"Chim Chim Cher- ee" from Marry Poppins was the winner that year

Do you have a favorite song from a film? One which failed to win or even garner an Oscar nomination? Would love to hear about it!

Copyright © Ken Anderson

Tuesday, January 19, 2016


This updated and expanded repost of an earlier essay is part of The Remembering Barbara Stanwyck Blogathon hosted by The Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood.  Visit the site for more posts from participating blogs.

If prostitution didn’t exist, Hollywood most certainly would have had to invent it. How else to surmount the troubling obstacle presented to screenwriters required to develop female characters not defined by the label of wife, mother, or girlfriend? How else to include as much sex, salaciousness, and female objectification as possible while still tent-poling the dual hypocritical obligations of have-your-cake-and-eat-too moralizing necessary to keep one step ahead of the censors, and the proper amount of after the fact, self-righteous finger-wagging to placate audience guilt?

America loves its sex, violence, and debauchery, but never really lets itself enjoy the fun it has rolling around in the gutter unless also afforded the opportunity to give itself a good slap on the wrist after it’s all over. This need to have one’s "sensitive adult material" served up with a healthy dose of religious dogma goes a long way toward explaining why a moralizing piece of Hollywood sleaze like Walk on the Wild Side is such an enduringly entertaining hoot. 
Laurence Harvey as Doug Linkhorn
Jane Fonda as Kitty Twist (nee Tristram)
Capucine as Hallie Gerard
Barbara Stanwyck as Jo Courtney
Ann Baxter as Teresina Vidaverri
 Published in 1956, Algren’s anecdotal, relentlessly downbeat, essentially unfilmable (at least in 1962) Depression-era novel A Walk on the Wild Side bears little resemblance to the sanitized movie adapted from it, save for a few characters' names and the excision of the “A” from the title. The film version, rumored (rather remarkably) to be the result of no less than six writers, among them playwright Clifford Odets (The Country Girl) and screenwriter Ben Hecht (Spellbound), strives to be a tale of lost souls searching for redemption through love on the sordid side of the streets of New Orleans. But the strain of having to balance sexual candor and social uplift shows in nearly every scene and dialog exchange, ultimately proving far too unwieldy a burden for director Edward Dmytryk (Raintree County, Murder My Sweet) who it is rumored, stepped in when original director Blake Edwards was replaced. In the end, the movie promoted with the self-serving warning “This is an ADULT PICTURE - Parents should exercise discretion in permitting the immature to see it,” was no more than another teasing Hollywood soap opera.
The composition of this shot sums up Walk on the Wild Side's major dramatic conflict
The time is the 1930s (you’ll just have to take the film’s word for that). Following the death of his ailing father - an alcoholic, unordained preacher - Arroyo, Texas farm boy Dove Linkhorn (Lithuanian-born Laurence Harvey) travels to Louisiana on a quest to find his long lost love, Hallie (French-born Capucine), an amateur painter and sculptress. En route, he crosses paths with savvy runaway orphan Kitty Twist (Fonda) who teaches him the tricks of riding the rails and thumbing rides. Although Kitty has a few other tricks she’d like to teach him, Dove says no to hobo hanky-panky because his heart remains true to Hallie, whom he calls his religion. 
After a brief stopover at the rundown café of Mexican head-turner Teresina Vidaverri (Baxter) brings out Kitty’s claws, resulting in her stealing form the proprietress out of jealousy, the morally offended dirt farmer sends her on her way and stays on at Teresina’s place as a hired-hand.
The composition of this shot sums of Walk on the Wild Side's OTHER dramatic conflict
Cut to New Orleans’ French Quarter and the popular bordello known as The Doll House. Run by no-nonsense man-hater (aka lesbian) Jo Courtney (Stanwyck) and given assist by her devoted but ineffectual husband, former carny strongman Achilles Schmidt (Karl Swenson), who lost his legs in a train accident, the Doll House is typical of most movie whorehouses in that it doesn't look like very much fun.. The big shocker (to the screenwriters perhaps, but certainly to no one with even a passing familiarity with soap opera plotting) is that Dove’s virginal and virtuous Hallie is the Doll House’s most desirable and sought-after prostitute… Jo categorically taking top honors as Hallie’s most persistent and ardent pursuer.
As Hallie Gerard, statuesque ex-model Capucine embodies the kind of regal, exotic glamour suited to a high-priced escort ("upscale and sophisticated enough to take anywhere!"). But breathtaking beauty aside, the woman comes off as the least-fun hooker you're likely to meet.
Of course, when Dove finally reunites with the wild Texas love with whom he shared his first kiss and more: “Afterwards, in the moonlight...we danced like we was celebrating a miracle. A crazy kind of dance. And then we sang and it wasn't real!.” (a laughable reminiscence rendered all the more inconceivable once we set eyes on the high-cheekboned haughtiness of Capucine), the romantically idealistic hayseed is a tad slow in catching on as to how Hallie manages to afford all those expensive Pierre Cardin-designed frocks from 30 years in the future; but when he does, heartbroken disillusionment gives way to the usual macho proprietary protectiveness.
The dislike Capucine and Laurence Harvey had for one another is the stuff of legend
You see, since the film regards Hallie’s lost virtue as something which has been taken from Dove and that he's the principally wounded party in her taking up a life of prostitution, it’s thus up to him to take the necessary steps to secure and safeguard Hallie's soul and body. (As any pro-lifer will tell you, women just aren't capable of handling decisions about what they choose to do with their own bodies for themselves.)

Resorting to his father's bible-thumping ways, Dove proselytizes ... I mean, explains to an understandably exasperated Teresina (who's busy meanwhile dousing her torch) his philosophy and the film's narrative through-line :
 “In the Bible, Hosea fell in love with Gomer. She was a harlot. They got married but she couldn't stay away from men. Hosea got mad and threw her out. Sold her into slavery. But he couldn't get her out of his mind, so he went looking for her. When he found her, he brought her back home. But it was no good. Before long, she was up to her old tricks again. But he loved her anyway and he couldn't give her up. So he took her into the wilderness...away from temptation. Away from other men. And that's what I have to do with Hallie.”
Sorry, but I'm supposed to believe that these two stunning, Continental-looking
creatures spent even one minute in dustbowl Texas?
The remaining bulk of Walk on the Wild Side occupies itself with being a romantic triangle-cum-spiritual tug-of-war between Dove (representing honest values and true love) and Jo (representing well-dressed depravity and perversion) with the magnificent but I’m-not-all-that-convinced-she’s-worth-all-this-trouble Hallie at the center.
Happily, by way of distraction we have the welcome reappearance of Kitty, the former boxcar good-time-girl transformed into garter-snapping sexpot, as the newest employee of The Doll House; chipper Southern belle, Miss Precious (the always terrific Joanna Moore, Tatum O’Neal’s mom), a Doll House resident who sleeps on a confederate flag pillow and punctuates even the shortest sentences with “The Colonel always said…” ; and sexy, short-tempered strong-arm-man, Oliver (Richard Rust of Homicidal) who has an eye for the ladies and suede gloves to keep his hands nice and unbruised when he roughs them up. 
Richard Rust as Oliver Finnerty
Posters for Walk on the Wild Side proclaimed: “A side of life you never expected to see on the screen!” which is not altogether false given you've got a 4-time Oscar-nominee playing one of the screen’s first lesbians (who lives, yet!) and the daring-for-its-time setting of a New Orleans brothel. The rest, alas, is what Hollywood has always done: a) Offer up endless reworkings of the Madonna-whore dichotomy as soap opera and love story, b) attempt to shock and scandalize but only revealing a staunch conservatism and prudery.
Joanna Moore as Miss Precious
I'm not sure if the genre has been afforded a name beyond Southern Gothic, but I am a major fan of the overheated, sex and psychosis dramas of Tennessee Williams, William Inge, and Carson McCullers. When these southern-fried potboilers are crossed with a touch of the soap-opera overstatement associated with Harold Robbins, Jacqueline Susann, and Sidney Sheldon ...well, I'm in 7th Heaven. Walk on the Wild Side has all the luridness of Williams, the pretentiousness of Inge, plus all the unintentional humor of anything bearing the stamp of Susann.
There's dialog that sounds as though it were written by a robot; overearnest performances that are nevertheless as limp as a clothesline; the ever-present topic of sex that is hinted at and alluded to but never spoken of in even remotely direct terms; and clashing accents left and right: Texas drawl, Southern twang, Georgia singsong, French, British,  Spanish (sort of).
Riding the Rails
Jane Fonda recalls her father Henry in The Grapes of Wrath in this shot of Dove and Kitty
catching a ride in a freight car
Fans of the by-now-anticipated unwillingness and inability of '60s films to remain faithful to the era they're depicting will have a field day with Walk on the Wild Side's interpretation of the Depression era South. Outside of a few automobiles and some distant dress extras, the look is 1961, through and through. A long time ago a friend of mine who once designed costumes for film told me that this is not an unintentional or careless phenomenon. It's an industry's appeal to the contemporary aesthetic tastes of their audience.
When a studio is forking over big bucks for a glamour actress, they want the audience to see her as glamorous. The concern is that the baggy fashions and severe makeup styles of the '30s (thin eyebrows, bow lips, thick stockings, figure-concealing frocks, etc) will look odd or comical to '60s audiences. A point well taken, I concede. but it doesn't address the jarring incongruity of seeing women with '60s bouffants and bullet bras stepping out of DeSotos.
Jaunita Moore as Mama
Where to start? To say that I enjoy all the performances in Walk on the Wild Side is not at all saying that many of them are any good. If anyone emerges from the chaos with their dignity intact, it's Barbara Stanwyck. An actress virtually incapable of giving a false performance Stanwyck is not really called upon to deliver more than a professional, standard-issue, tough-broad performance; but she's nevertheless the most believably passionate person in the film for me. She wants Hallie and I don't doubt it for a minute.
In this her first film since 1957's Forty Guns, the very private Stanwyck was yet another classic-era star forced to embrace the burgeoning era of movie permissiveness and take on a role she at one time might have considered unsavory. Hollywood columnist Louella Parsons disapproved of Stanwyck taking on such a role, to which Stanwyck is said to have responded "What do you want them to do, get a real madam and a real lesbian?"  On the bright side, at least she was playing a lesbian madam in a major motion picture, by 1964 Stanwyck would be following in Joan Crawford's B-movie footsteps and starring in a William Castle schlock thriller, The Night Walker.
The Glamorous Life, She Don't Need a Man's Touch
Barbara Stanwyck was outed as lesbian in two substandard books: The Sewing Circle by Axel Madsen, and the pull-no-punches Hollywood Lesbians by Boze Hadleigh. If they're to be believed, Walk on the Wild Side was a film set with more closets than a Feydeau farce: a closeted leading man (Harvey); a closeted lesbian, possibly bisexual leading woman (Capucine), and a closeted lesbian co-star (Stanwyck).
The strikingly beautiful Capucine may not be much of an actress, but she's not helped much by a script which calls for her to behave like a non-stop pill from the minute she's introduced. Male screenwriters unfamiliar with how women actually think are often guilty of writing about "beauty" as though it were an actual character trait rather than a physical attribute. In the case of Hallie Gerard, so little of the character's much-talked-about passion, restlessness, or joy is conveyed that we're left to imagine she's fought over by Dove and Jo simply because she's so outrageously pretty. If the Hallie we now see is supposed to represent a broken woman whose life-force has been drained out of her by her having "fallen down the well," all the backstory we're left to imagine requires an actress substantially more skilled than what we're given. You get about as much emotionally out of Capucine as a walking/ talking entity as from one of her model photo shoots from the '50s.
Star Cheekbone Wars
Capucine 1962 and Faye Dunaway The Towering Inferno 1974 rock
twin towers of hair and Grecian goddess gowns 
For me, Jane Fonda gives the film's liveliest performance. Liberated from the lacquered, overly-mature look adopted for The Chapman Report and Period of Adjustment (both 1962), Fonda is sexier and looser here. Perhaps a little too loose in her early scenes. There's something about "earthy" that brings forth the inner ham in actors. Fonda in her early scenes can't seem to keep her finishing school refinement from creeping into her overly-mannered interpretation of Kitty Twist, railway ragamuffin. Parts of her performance have the feel of an over-coached acting school scene. But, unlike so me of her co stars, she's never a dull presence and really comes into her own in the sequences in the Doll House. She looks amazing as well. The cameraman obviously thought so too, for Fonda's shapely backside has arguably as many closeups as her face.
Nine years later, Jane Fonda would win an Oscar for playing another prostitute in Klute (1971)
Laurence Harvey has always been a favorite of mine (owing at least in part to my tendency to develop matinee crushes on birdlike, Tony Perkins types), but he really seems out of his element here. The thoroughly engaging (and sexy) energy he brought to I Am a Camera (1955), or 1959's Expresso Bongo is nowhere to be seen in his tediously virtuous Dove Linkhorn.
Ann Baxter's Mexican accent "Wha Hoppen?" is so bad it's close to being offensive 

Is there an axiom that says the cooler the opening credits sequence, the more likely one is apt to be let down with the film? Outside of the brilliant and stylish art-deco title sequence for Mame which got me all hyped-up only to then lead me down a path of soft-focus croaking; Saul Bass' snazzy, jazz-tinged title sequence for Walk on the Wild Side (assisted immeasurably by the Oscar-nominated Elmer Bernstein, Mack David theme music) sets one up for a film that never materializes.
Edward Dmytryk would go on to direct Richard Burton and Joey Heatherton in Bluebeard.
For those who've seen the film, the question that immediately comes to mind is, who took that photo on the left?

Walk on the Wild Side is, like the 1976 US/USSR collaboration that resulted in the dreadful musical mistake that was The Bluebird, a film whose backstory is infinitely more interesting than the motion picture released. Conflict-of-interest deals were behind much of Walk on the Wild Side's grab-bag casting (Laurence Harvey was being pushed by the wife of the head of Columbia Studios, while Capucine was being promoted by producer Charles K. Feldman). The film was plagued by constant rewrites, deleted scenes (the internet is full of rumors regarding a curiously missing-in-action hairbrush spanking scene between Stanwyck and Capucine ... be still my heart), costly delays, and a cast that was often openly antagonistic to one another as well as to the director.
Character actress actress Kathryn Card, best remembered as Mrs. Magillicuddy,
Lucille Ball's ditsy mother on TV's I Love Lucy 
The end result is a film that is a disappointment as both drama and love story, but a bonanza of unintentional humor and delicious badness. And you'd be hard pressed to find a more enjoyably watchable film. Easy on the eyes and no strain on the brain, your biggest concern will be stomach cramps from laughing aloud at the dialog.Woefully tame and coy by today's standards, Walk on the Wild Side maintains its historical notoriety as one of the earliest major motion pictures to feature a lesbian character. As the years have passed, the film has revealed itself as a movie with a pretty high behind-the-scenes LGBT pedigree as well. In addition to Laurence Harvey, Capucine, and Barbara Stanwyck all having been  been mentioned in various celebrity memoirs as being gay or bisexual, Jane Fonda has written in her own autobiography about participating in bisexual three-ways with her husband Roger Vadim.
One would think a little bit of all that sexual democracy might have wound up on the screen, but no. At best, Walk on the Wild Side remains an entertaining but tame timepiece and cultural curio for those interested in seeing what kind of film Hollywood thought it was ready to tackle during the early days of the abandonment of the Motion Picture Production Code.
Barbara Stanwyck would make only two other films after Walk on the Wild Side:
Roustabout  with Elvis Presley, of all people, and The Night Walker, both 1964

Copyright © Ken Anderson