Monday, August 20, 2018

PORTNOY'S COMPLAINT 1972

"Doctor Spielvogel, this is my life, my only life, 
and I'm living it in the middle of a Jewish joke!"
                                                                                                   -Alexander Portnoy

The sexual revolution, at least as far as its depiction in motion pictures, caught American culture with its existential pants down. Nothing in our country’s repressed, Puritan past is designed to support the normalizing of human sexual desire, nor encourage its free expression as a thing of joy and beauty. Advancements in science may have given us “the pill,” shifting social mores advanced Women’s Liberation, and the ‘60s Youth Movement challenged traditional codes of sexual behavior; but these progressive winds of change were no match for the profound overarching influence of the moral dogma of organized religion.
The paradox of American culture has always been that while we are a peculiarly sex-obsessed nation, we uphold deeply-rooted, firmly-ingrained mindsets conjoining sex with sin, fun with shame, and feeling good with being bad. Shamelessness seems to be holding the title at present, but for a time America’s chief export has always been guilt.
Catholic Guilt: Fear that you're disappointing God
Jewish Guilt: Fear that you're disappointing your mother

When Hollywood jumped on the sexual revolution bandwagon, it did so with predictable results. It embraced the movement’s most marketable, superficial characteristics (nudity, profanity, sexual explicitness) while failing to adopt its corresponding philosophy of self-acceptance and self-love. Thus, in a short span of time we were treated to a rash of hip, youth-oriented films cloaked in the timeliness of the “new permissiveness,” yet possessed of the age-old “no sex without guilt-induced moral compensation and/or punishment” mindset.

By way of example--during the early bloom of the sexual revolution, and later, during its waning days, two major movie studios released controversial, big-budget, high-profile films dealing with sexual liberation vis a vis the dilemma of religious guilt; the first (ostensibly) comedic, the second, tragic. In 1972 Warner Bros. released Portnoy’s Complaint, a curiously humorless film examining male compulsive sexuality through the prism of Jewish Guilt; and in 1977 Paramount released Looking for Mr. Goodbar, an unrelentingly grim look at female compulsive sexuality through the prism of Catholic guilt.
Two films very different in tone, yet uniquely similar in reflecting our society’s insistence on using religion as a tool to punish ourselves for our interest in sex. A dilemma about which a Mr. Alexander Portnoy would like to lodge a complaint.
Richard Benjamin as Alexander Portnoy
Karen Black as Mary Jane "The Monkey" Reid
Lee Grant as Sophie Portnoy
Jill Clayburgh as Naomi
Jeannie Berlin as Rita "Bubbles" Girardi

Alex Portnoy’s complaint, briefly stated, is that at age 33, he finds it near-impossible to reconcile his intellect and strong social conscience (he’s a NYC lawyer who works to help the poor) with his compulsive preoccupation with sex…the more perverse, the better. Worse, it’s a libidinous obsession from which he derives virtually no pleasure due to overpowering feelings of guilt and the certain fear that he will be punished for his impure thoughts and deeds. Faulting his early home environment as the source of his “What’s so bad about feeling good?” anxieties, adolescent Alex resorted to obsessive masturbation erotic fantasy as a means of coping with his controlling, suffocating mother who wanted him to be the Perfect Son, and his fault-finding, perpetually constipated dad who wanted him to be the Perfect Jew.  “Doctor, do you understand what I was up against? My wang was all I really had to call my own!” 
D.P. Barnes as Dr. Spielvogel
When Alex meets Mary Jane Reid, an equally oversexed fashion model who earned the nickname the Monkey after inventing a unique sexual position (the details of which we’re mercifully spared), he thinks he has at last found the shikse girl of his pornographic dreams. But alas, their relationship reaches an impasse upon realization that, outside of the bedroom, it’s their spiritual fetishes that cause all the problems: she’s looking for a man to rescue and shape her (in essence, to treat her like an ongoing renovation project); he’s merely looking for a woman self-loathing to be his enthusiastic partner in self-degradation.
Alex reacting to Mary Jane moving her lips as she reads

On the printed page of Philip Roth’s controversial 1969 bestseller (written as a monologue relayed by Alexander to his analyst), Portnoy and his attendant complaint played like the outrageous heterosexual answer to the homosexual audacity of Gore Vidal’s 1968 bestseller Myra Breckinridge. Both novels used satire to assault late-60s sexual sensibilities, their sacred prose justifying the profane subject-matter. On the screen, however, their respective film adaptations suffered considerably in translation. Chided for being made by filmmakers who seemed to misunderstand the novels entirely, both film’s bombed, but for different reasons: the X-rated Myra Breckinridge for being too vulgar; the R-rated Portnoy’s Complaint for not being vulgar enough.

While whole “How did they ever make a movie of Lolita?” stuff was before my time (I was around, merely too young to remember it), I fully recall the hubbub surrounding the unlikelihood that anyone could make a film of Portnoy’s Complaint. When the film was released (perhaps a year too late in terms of public interest), fans of Roth’s novel, likely anticipating something combining the comic coarseness of Mel Brooks with the satirical wit of Woody Allen, were shocked to discover that one of the most talked-about books in American literature had been turned into a particularly smutty episode of Love, American Style. A coy, almost circumspect R-rated adaptation devoid of nudity, unless you count 33-year-old Richard Benjamin’s prominent man-boobs.
Not sure any recreation of the novel's notorious scene where Alex masturbates to his sister's brassiere would ever work, but having 33-year-old Richard Benjamin play the teenage Portnoy only serves to make it cringe-creepy 

Blame for Portnoy's Complaint was easy to affix, being that acclaimed screenwriter Ernest Lehman (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, North by Northwest, Hello Dolly!, The Sound of Music, Sabrina) served as producer, writer, AND director (his debut/swansong).

With Benjamin playing himself as a teen, it was necessary for other disconcertingly "mature" actors to be cast as his boyhood chums. Here we see horny Mandel (Lewis Stadlen) and lascivious Smolka (Kevin Conway) check out neighborhood "fast girl" Bubbles Girardi. 

The talented Jeannie Berlin somehow manages to escape her thankless bit role as Bubbles Girardi with her dignity intact. Berlin, who previously appeared in The Baby Maker , is the daughter of Elaine May, who for a time was up for the role Sophie Portnoy.


WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
My adolescent moviegoing memories are peppered with age-inappropriate films I was granted access to thanks to the lax enforcement of the motion picture code at my neighborhood theater. Portnoy’s Complaint isn’t one of them. I got away with seeing X-rated 1969 releases Midnight Cowboy and Last Summer largely due to my recently-divorced mom’s busy work schedule (she welcomed any opportunity to get my sisters and me out from underfoot) and my ability to convince her that I was mature beyond my years and that these were serious, important works of cinema art. By 1972 my mom had remarried, so along with having another individual policing my comings and goings, I also had a mom who had more time to read.
Thus, as was the case with the equally-forbidden Myra Breckinridge, my mom knowing precisely what Portnoy’s Complaint was about sealed my fate. I was in no position to press the point, lest they catch on that for at least a year (I was 14 at the time) I’d been sneaking their hardback copy of Roth’s jaw-dropping book to the bathroom for “inspiration.”

When I finally saw Portnoy’s Complaint at a Los Angeles revival theater sometime in the 80s, I was pleasantly surprised to find the film to be far better than its reputation had led me to believe. Granted, it fails to capture the tone of Philip Roth’s book almost completely, so on that score, I’d call the film an unqualified misfire. But seeing it so many years after all the smoke of controversy had cleared; long after the typecasting redundancy of Richard Benjamin and Karen Black had faded from memory (both were playing roles to which each practically held the patents during the ‘70s); and most importantly, during the dreaded heyday of those Porky’s films and ‘80s “gross-out comedies”: I, for one, was extremely grateful for Ernest Lehman’s reserved approach to the material.

There aren’t many of Portnoy’s exploits I’d have the stomach to see rendered in widescreen color, so the fact that Lehman resorts to so many modesty-concealing devices in a film almost entirely about sex may seem hypocritical, but it’s perfectly fine with me. What’s less easy to take is its depiction of women (seen from Portnoy’s gynophobic perspective, they’re either objects or grotesques), and its leaden humorlessness. Claims of anti-Semitism aside, the biggest crime committed to Roth’s novel book is that Lehman, while maintaining much of the exact dialogue, seemed to surgically remove the comedy. Were not for Lee Grant’s amusing take on the Jewish mother stereotype, Portnoy’s Complaint would be an entirely laugh-free affair for me.
Portnoy’s Complaint is not perfect by a longshot, but the minute Karen Black appears (at the 38-minute point) it morphs, right in front of my eyes, into a movie worth watching. All at once Portnoy’s Complaint stops feeling like a broad TV sitcom thanks to Black's ability to find the humanity in a character written as the punchline to a Playboy magazine dirty joke. Suddenly, in exploring Alex’s relationship with Mary Jane, the film feels at last like it has something to say about the crippling effect of selfish love (the infantilizing Jewish mother) and dehumanizing side of the sexual revolution (the empty pursuit of physical pleasure as a substitute for emotional intimacy).  Lehman’s Portnoy’s Complaint is not Philip Roth’s (you can tell from the lush, jarringly incongruous Michel Legrand score), but it’s Lehman’s earnest attempt to tell an Inability to Love Story.

The more unkind critics were quick to point out that after Goodbye, Columbus (1969) Richard Benjamin was making a career out of being a Philip Roth surrogate. Similarly, it was not lost on many that after garnering an Oscar-nomination for Five Easy Pieces (1970), Karen Black never met a trollop role she didn't like.



PERFORMANCES
Not many people associated with the making of Portnoy’s Complaint look back on the film with fond memories. Ernest Lehman has said he was disappointed in the outcome, and Lee Grant in her memoir I Said Yes to Everything not only recalls the occasion of having to throw Lehman off his own set for acting like a tyrant (Grant, who became an award-winning director soon after, took over the directing chores of her hospital scene that day), but remembers how seeing the completed film in a theater for the first and last time caused her to “shrink back in horror. It was not a good reflection of Jewish Family life.” 
The Portnoys
Lee Grant and Jack Somack as Alex's overdramatizing parents.
Grant was only 13 years older than Richard Benjamin
 

Grant’s "I said yes to everything" philosophy—born of having spent 12 unemployed years on Hollywood’s McCarty era blacklist—may account for her appearance in the film, but she really has nothing to be ashamed of. Scenes written as broad as a barn are salvaged by the anxious energy behind Grant’s delivery and timing. Her Sophie Portnoy may be a hysterical neurotic whose clinging over-concern emotionally scars her son for life, but she’s never a monster. Besides, as we learned from the immortal words of Belle Rosen (The Poseidon Adventure) “It comes from caring.” 
Paul Mazursky's Next Stop Greenwich Village (1976) is a good example of how to affectionately depict Jewish family life. Roger Ebert thought Shelley Winters would have made a great Sophie Portnoy, and seeing her here with the late Lenny Baker it's not hard to imagine what a marvelous Alexander Portnoy he would have made.


THE STUFF OF DREAMS
To read Portnoy’s Complaint is to realize the significant role imagination and ingenuity played for sexually curious adolescents raised before the days of Playboy, television, and mass-market porn. When I watch the film adaptation, I’m reminded of the degree to which sex and sexuality were the defining cultural templates of adulthood when I was growing up. The ‘70s were so flooded with pop-culture references to the new sexuality that a defining trait of my adolescence was a race to grow up due to the nagging sense that I was missing out on something.
I read Portnoy’s Complaint (in installments, see above) at an age when I was far too young to know what it was really about, but Roth’s frank and explicit descriptions of adolescent sexual desire and self-experimentation were so true and on-point, it crossed gender, ethnic, and sexuality lines. It was hard to read that book without feeling in some ways embarrassed—if not exposed—that ANYONE else entertained (let alone wrote down) obscene scenarios and vulgar imaginings of the sort I’d barely acknowledged to myself.
Alex's sole encounter with a Jewish woman (a fake-tan Jill Clayburgh with a really bad accent) finds him confronted with the unavoidable fact that unless he can sexualize and objectify them, he has absolutely no idea how to relate women.

In re-reading the novel before writing this essay, what strikes me now, some 46 after my first encounter with Portnoy and his neurotic concerns, is that the single most shocking thing about Portnoy’s Complaint is not its language or the particulars of the activities described: is its honesty. It’s Philip Roth speaking about the reality of life (his life, anyway) without concern for decency, religious propriety, respectability politics, or perpetuating the lie of pornography that airbrushes away the unpleasant details to show us the consumer-ready result.
As someone raised Catholic, I relate to Portnoy’s struggles with his Jewishness. I relate to the guilt, the issues of religious identity, the contradictions, the "good boy" syndrome, and the attempt to breach the dichotomy on matters relating to sex and sexuality. It’s also clearer to me now that there was a method to Roth’s madness, and that talked-about language and snickered-about “dirty stuff” weren’t for sensation. It’s what many people today seem to forget lies at the very root of revolution: to overthrow a social order there needs to be assault and insurrection. There’s no room for civility. Portnoy’s Complaint was an assault on our sexual hypocrisy.
"Why is every little thing I do for pleasure in this life immediately illicit -
while the rest of the world rolls around laughing in the mud!"
During the final part of the film when Alex has a reckoning with himself and is banished to a life of impotence by The Judge (the voice of John Carradine, and for the record, the same fate meted out to Jack Nicholson in Carnal Knowledge), I have to admit that Richard Benjamin is exceptionally good, as is the writing (largely belonging to Roth). The very real confusion over how to navigate one's way through the influences and injuries of the past, why it hurts so much to be human, the sad but hopeful inevitability of having to look at yourself in order to change...it gives me waterworks.

It's too bad Portnoy's Complaint performed so poorly, for many missed out on one of my favorite Karen Black performances. Her Mary Jane Reid is a close cousin to the many vulnerable, not very bright women that made up Black's screen resume, but no matter how sketchily they were written Karen Black always found a way of making you care about what happens to them

Before it morphed into the commodified alienation of the singles bar scene dramatized in Looking for Mr. Goodbar, the sexual revolution was (albeit briefly) a legitimate effort to wrest sex away from guilt and repression. A call to newfound spiritual and physical freedoms which posed the challenge for us to be moral beings in a world of moral relativity.

To live through the sexual revolution only to arrive at a time when the prepackaged, bullshit Disney-porn lie of something like E.L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey passes for sexual liberation, is to understand that the true legacy of Philip Roth’s novel is its brazen honesty, not it’s profane reputation.
The movie...not so much.


This essay is part of the Lovely Lee Grant blogathon hosted by Reelweegiemidget Reviews and Angelman's Place. Click on the links to read other posts about the films of Lee Grant.


Copyright © Ken Anderson

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

TOYS IN THE ATTIC 1963

Toys in the Attic (idiom): Euphemism for insanity. Diminished mental capacity. To think or behave in an immature, foolish, or unreasonable manner [See: Bats in the Belfry]. 

In the tradition of all good Southern Gothics, that genus of deep-fried melodrama made popular by Tennessee Williams, Eugene O’Neill, and William Inge; Lillian Hellman’s Toys in the Attic is a title from which several meanings can be extracted. Idiomatic (mental illness figures in the storyline); literal (a dysfunctional family’s childhood toys have not been discarded, but remain stored in the attic of their dilapidated home); symbolic (the attic: a place of hidden secrets and childhood preserved. The toys: repressed longings and delicate illusions one is fearful of having shattered); and metaphoric (to avoid reality by means of repression, self-delusion, and clinging possessively to illusions is to choose darkness and isolation).
Hellman’s semi-autobiographical Toys in the Attic was the author/playwright’s last original play following such Broadway successes as The Children’s Hour, The Little Foxes, and Candide. Toys in the Attic was produced on Broadway in 1960 starring Jason Robards, Maureen Stapleton, Anne Revere, and Irene Worth; all nominated for Tony Awards, the show itself, nominated for Best Play. 
In the abbreviated, somewhat de-fanged screen version directed by George Roy Hill (Best Director Oscar-winner for The Sting - 1973) and adapted by screenwriter James Poe (Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Hot Spell, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?) Hellman’s dark references to incest, mental illness, racism, and sexual impotence have been softened or eliminated to such a degree, the title Toys in the Attic could also just be another way of saying "Skeletons in the Closet."
Luckily for me, Lillian Hellman’s play was written with swamps, sweet tea, and sweltering sex to spare, so even Production Code-mandated alterations leave Toys in the Attic with plenty of all that I look to a Southern Gothic for: sexual repression, heated histrionics, inconsistent Southern accents, neurosis, brass beds, rumpled sheets, electric fans, and loads of family secrets.
Dean Martin as Julian Berniers
Geraldine Page as Carrie Berniers
Wendy Hiller as Anna Berniers
Gene Tierney as Albertine Prine
Yvette Mimieux as Lily Prine-Berniers
Frank Silvera as Henry Simpson

Charming, ne’er-do-well Julian Berniers (Martin) has been the doted-on focus of his two spinster sisters his entire life. While Julian chased dream after dream of making a fortune via all manner of half-baked schemes, failed businesses, and gambling binges; practical Anna (Heller) and possessive Carrie (Page) have remained in their hometown of New Orleans, living lives of austere sacrifice, working and maintaining the rundown Victorian home where they all grew up (which none of them really liked).
Devoid of children, suitors, or even friends, Carrie and Anna are each other’s sole companionship and company, their lives a routine of hollow rituals of false intimacy (weekly, each buys the other an unwished-for gift), buoyed by the twin deferred dreams of selling the house and taking a long-talked-about trip to Europe. 
When Julian arrives from Chicago, overflowing with gifts and boisterous brio, his childlike bride Lily (Mimieux) in tow; Carrie and Anna regard his prodigal return as merely the latest in Julian’s long, revolving-door history of fleeting financial ascensions followed by quick and inevitable (hoped for?) downfalls. No matter how far the travel or how many businesses lost, Julian has always been able to come back to his family home where his sisters would pamper him like a child & lover, tend to his wounded ego, bolster his confidence, and readily subsidize (by way of that phantom trip to Europe fund) his next fly-by-night venture.
But this time things are different. And the difference shatters the very foundation of dysfunction and delusion upon which the Berniers household has been built.
Toys in the Attic (along with that other 1963 release, William Inge’s The Stripper) came at the tail end of Hollywood’s love affair with Midwest melodrama and sweaty tales of the oversexed South. If 1951’s A Streetcar Named Desire represented the apogee of the genre’s popularity, it’s safe to say that twelve years hence, the tropes and clichés of Southern psychodrama had begun to wear thin. Toys in the Attic enjoyed success on Broadway, by the time it reached the screen, foreign films had so surpassed American films in both frankness and realism, the mannered theatrically and compound coyness of Southern Gothic was beginning to feel a little passé. 
In adapting the play to the screen, Lillian Hellman purists may have balked at the subplots and characterizations sacrificed to screenwriter James Poe whittling Hellman’s 2-hour-plus play down to a taut 90-minutes; but given the over-familiarity of the play’s by-now well-traveled themes of sex, eccentricity, and decay, I’m not certain the film could support a longer running time.
Wealthy society widow Albertine Prine scandalizes the locals by having her handsome African-American chauffeur as her lover, and is considered "crazy" by the Berniers sisters due to her lack of concern for the opinions of others.

By 1963, censorship had relaxed enough so that Toys in the Attic didn’t have to completely commit to the kind of avoidance games that neutered 1958’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof—the word “incest” is never spoken, but the euphemistic term “sleep with” is bandied about freely. But Poe’s adaptation updates the play from the Depression Era to modern-day New Orleans; minimizes the significance of Tierney’s perceptive character; eliminates all mention of Julian’s bouts of sexual impotence; erases hints of Anna’s latent incestuous feelings for her sister; does the best as it can with an interracial romance (proximity within the frame has to substitute for physical intimacy), and changes the character of Lily from being categorically mentally-ill (giving credence to her fears that her mother [Tierney] paid Julian to marry her) to being merely emotionally immature.

From early trade paper reports attaching the names William Wyler, Katharine Hepburn, Vivien Leigh, and Olivia de Havilland to the film, there’s a sense that Toys in the Attic went through a lot of changes before reaching the screen. Likely, some of them budgetary. For a time, it was believed serious dramas should be filmed in black and white, the color adaptions of Tennessee Williams’ Summer and Smoke (1961) and Sweet Bird of Youth (1962)—both starring Geraldine Page—flying in the face of that tradition. By 1963 fewer films were being made in black and white, so it’s not clear if the beautiful black and white cinematography of Toys in the Attic (by Joseph F. Biroc) was inspired by aesthetics or budget. What is known is that television-trained director George Roy Hill (making his second film, his first being the [rare]Tennessee Williams comedy Period of Adjustment in 1962) was used to working fast, cheap, and in black and white. 
Toys in the Attic's sole Oscar nomination was for Bill Thomas' costume designs.
Thomas won the 1961 Oscar for Spartacus

If the final cast chosen for the film lacked the marquee allure of Wyler’s involvement, they certainly didn’t lack for prestige. Toys in the Attic marked Oscar and Tony nominee Geraldine Page’s third foray into Southern Gothic; Tony nominated and Oscar-winning British actress Wendy Hiller (for Separate Tables) made an ideal match to play Page’s circumspect sister; and Gene Tierney (Oscar-nominee for Leave Her To Heaven, and whose real-life struggles with mental illness brought about her premature retirement in 1955) was in the midst of a welcome comeback following her 1962 appearance in Otto Preminger’s Advise and Consent (1962).

But from the time casting was first announced to the film’s release in the summer of 1963, the biggest topic of conversation and critical bone of contention surrounding Toys in the Attic was the casting of actor/entertainer Dean Martin in the role that won Jason Robards a Tony nomination. Martin was no stranger to movies, having appeared in more than 20 features by the time he was cast opposite such theatrical heavyweights as Page and Hiller. It was simply that few had confidence that the lightweight, notoriously easygoing half of the Martin & Lewis comedy team had the range and dramatic chops to tackle this, the most substantial of his rare dramatic screen appearances. 

Toys in the Attic was not a success, in fact it was a resounding flop. Critics, citing battle fatigue over the whole clutch-the-pearls-while-I-fan-myself genre, called it a minor Southern Gothic and complained that James Poe’s adaptation undercut the complexity of Heller’s characters and supplanted the play’s pessimistic conclusion with a provisionally “happy” ending. Even George Roy Hill was dissatisfied with the result, calling the film the least successful of his works. And while Page and Hiller emerged with their reputations intact, critical response to Martin’s performance was so harsh he never tackled so sizable a dramatic role again.
Such Devoted Sisters
Personally, I place myself in the opposite camp, entirely. I've enjoyed Toys in the Attic since I first saw it as a teen when it popped up occasionally on The Late Show. I'm not aware whether or not it ever had a VHS release, but it's one of those films that never seems to show up on cable, and now appears to be out of print after having been released on DVD in 2010.
I recently got my hands on a copy (first time seeing it in decades) and was pleased to discover it's even better than I remembered. Sure, it's no The Little Foxes, yet it tells its story with an economy and visual style that perfectly serves its tone of mounting suspense and escalating tensions. It's a dynamic, emotionally rich showcase for the talented cast and a great many Southern Gothic clichés, ultimately managing to enthrall and entertain in spite of its flaws. 
Nan Martin as Charlotte Watkins

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
Much of Toys in the Attic is said to be autobiographical, down to Hellman setting the story in her hometown of New Orleans, basing the character of Julian on her salesman father (who had two clinging sisters), referencing an aunt who had an affair with her African-American chauffer, and, as per the play’s themes of latent incest, drawing upon her own adolescent feelings towards an uncle.
I credit this as the reason why the relationships in Toys in the Attic resonate with so much emotional authenticity for me. Even when the sometimes-overreaching aspects of a melodramatic subplot—involving a land swindle and an emotionally abused wife (Nan Martin) seeking escape—threaten to overwhelm what I found to be most compelling about the film as a whole: the relationship between the three siblings and the threat Lily poses as a clingy interloper in their long-established cycle of dysfunction.
The selfish, crippling side of love rears its head when the
 always-in-need-of-rescue Julian finds someone who needs him.
Like Julian I am the only boy in my family. While I was never exactly doted on by my four sisters, I remained somehow special and apart from a dynamic they shared amongst themselves; a fact which engendered resentment from some, envy in others. There was no lack of love between us, but the way we were viewed and related to by our parents (I could do no wrong, my sisters fell under strict scrutiny) affected how we viewed and related to each other.
What I most connected with in Toys in the Attic is how it captures the curious way some families can handle the failures of its members with far more generosity and grace than they do the successes. How living with unhappiness (if it means things will remain unchanged) can be a less frightening prospect than taking the kinds of risks that can bring true happiness.
Confrontations and Confessions
"When you love you take your chances on being hated by speaking out the truth."

PERFORMANCES
If you don’t like Geraldine Page, I doubt you’ll care much for Toys in the Attic. She’s the entire show. And what a show it is. Wendy Hiller (underplaying nicely and turning stillness into an art) is the grounded center around which Page’s Tasmanian Devil of a faded southern belle spins uncontrollably and destructively. Playing a delusional, manipulative character whose life of peculiarly selfish selflessness has left her one throbbing mass of unrecognized desires, Page is simply terrific.  
Baby Doll
What's a Southern Gothic without a brass bed and rumpled sheets?

Yvette Mimieux suffers more from how her character is written than from anything specific I can cite in her performance. Perhaps because Mimieux had just played a girl with an intellectual disability in Light in the Piazza (1962), the filmmakers decided to drop that angle completely. Unfortunately, in an effort to write Lily as simply naive and immature, she winds up coming across as a nitwit. Her character becomes an annoying presence long before she has a chance to become a sympathetic one.
Gene Tierney is a welcome sight and is very good (and charmingly funny) in a small role requiring the 41-year-old actress to look older than 44-year-old Dean Martin. She and the dashing and dignified Frank Silvera make a handsome couple. 

Dean Martin is surprisingly good as Julian. He's a limited actor, to be sure, but he doesn't embarrass himself and has moments that make me wish he did try his hand at more dramatic roles. So, while I might have, from time to time, found myself imaging the kind of depth and poignance Jason Robards would have brought to the role, I had to concede that Martin's a natural when it comes to likability and boyish exuberance. Something I can't say for Robards. 


THE STUFF OF DREAMS
By way of a striking visual style that emphasizes the dominating and confining aspects of the Berniers home, Toys in the Attic finds a deft way of expounding on the film's theme of emotional and self-imprisonment.
Fearful that Julian is having an affair and feeling unwelcome by his sisters, Lily's isolation is dramatized in this shot which makes the childlike woman appear to be standing in an oversize crib. 
Many scenes are shot from an attic's eye view, the characters minimized and dominated by the house
Bars and fences are a recurring visual motif. The incestuous love Carrie has for her brother has always kept Anna at a remove. Frequently Hill frames Page & Marin in the foreground with Hiller separate and apart
Again, the characters are filmed in a way as to make them appear caged in and confined by the house
My favorite shot, one which Hill claims was not planned, but just a happy accident, comes at a pivotal point of betrayal. At a moment when Carrie has the choice to reassure Lily of Julian's love, she opts to reveal secrets intended to destroy their marriage. That her clothing and the patterned walls create the impression that Carrie has become one with the house is a brilliant visual accident.


Movie trends inevitably suffer from oversaturation, resulting in perfectly fine films being rejected by critics and the public alike due to the genre cycles having run their course. Distanced from what in 1963 must have looked like yet another go-round of decorous depravity and decay told with wavering southern accents; Toys in the Attic is now a film worthy of reappraisal and another look.
Copyright © Ken Anderson

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

FEDORA 1978

Spoiler Alert. This is a critical essay and not a review, plot points are referenced for the purpose of analysis. 

"Have They forgotten what a star looks like?" - Norma Desmond Sunset Boulevard (1950)

Such a thought occurred to me while watching Billy Wilder’s penultimate film Fedora. A they-don’t-make-‘em-like-they-used-to, post-New Hollywood eulogy for the Hollywood of old that takes place in France, Greece, and Los Angeles, yet has the nondescript, pared-down, underpopulated look of a TV-movie. An elegiac rumination on the immortality of silver screen legends and the myth-making magic of the Hollywood star-system that’s undermined at every turn by the conspicuously low-wattage luminance of its own “This will have to make do” compromise of a cast.
William Holden as Barry "Dutch" Detweiler
Marthe Keller as Fedora
Hildegard Knef as Countess Sobryanski
Jose Ferrer as Dr. Emmanuel Vando
Frances Sternhagen as Miss Balfour
In 1976, actor-turned-author Thomas Tryon (who wrote the bestseller The Other, and was the wooden, lantern-jawed presence in the films The Cardinal and I Married a Monster from Outer Space) published Crowned Heads, a collection of four loosely-connected roman à clef novellas set in Hollywood. The screen rights were swiftly snapped up, early reports suggesting Tryon’s gossipy interlinked tales of Tinseltown (the novel’s four stories share some common characters) were to be made into a TV miniseries. Sometime later, trade papers announced that the most popular of the short stories, Fedora, about a Garbo-esque movie queen whose ageless beauty is the source of a bizarre mystery, was going to be made into a feature film by multi Academy Award-wining director/writer Billy Wilder (Double Indemnity, The Lost Weekend).

Tryon’s mystery-shrouded Hollywood Gothic offered Wilder (whose most recent spate of films had all been comedies) an opportunity for a return to melodramatic form: à la Sunset Boulevard (1950); Fedora’s industry-insider angle appearing to be an ideal match for the director’s distinct brand of perceptive cynicism and dark wit. When it was further disclosed that Wilder was to reunite with longtime script collaborator I.A.L. Diamond (Some Like It Hot, The Apartment) and Sunset Boulevard star William Holden (in what would be their fourth picture together), the potential of the proposed film adaptation sounded even more promising.
Making a cameo appearance to deliver a special Oscar to Fedora, Henry Fonda plays himself but is billed simply as President of the Academy, a position he never held in real life. Gregory Peck was originally intended for the role. Fonda's bit part plays better today, far removed from '70s associations with him as the guy from The Swarm, Rollercoaster, and all those GAF Viewmaster commercials.

But Hollywood, as we all know (ironically, via Wilder’s own Sunset Boulevard) has a short memory. When it came to finding a studio willing to produce Fedora, the distinguished career and track record of the 70-something director mattered considerably less to industry higher-ups than the fact that Wilder’s last three releases (The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes -1970, Avanti!-1972, and The Front Page-1974) had all tanked miserably at the box offices.

Wilder and Diamond reworked Tryon’s novella in ways that intentionally evoked and referenced Sunset Boulevard, so securing the services of William Holden as narrator and leading man was a major coup. But progress on the project was hampered considerably when Wilder hit a major snag in the casting of the all-important roles lead of the elusive, eternally youthful Fedora and her companion, the mysterious Countess Sobryanski. Wilder’s initial casting choices (Faye Dunaway and Marlene Dietrich, then Vanessa Redgrave and her real-life mother, actress Rachel Kempson) all turned the film down due to concerns with the screenplay, the result being that Fedora fell into development hell—shifting from one studio to the next, rewrite to rewrite—before all the major studios ultimately bailed. This forced Wilder to make his film overseas with French-German tax shelter money, casting Fedora with actors who nether strained the film’s budget nor generated much in the way of marquee enthusiasm.
In yet another second-choice slot, longtime TV game show panelist Arlene Francis
 appears in a role written for Barbara Walters

Fedora, a film told in flashback spanning thirty years, set in exotic locales, and meant to depict the opulent lifestyle of individuals whose money affords the luxury of running away from time; was originally budgeted at $4 million but shot to over $6 million due to production problems. Still, it was considered by Wilder to be a B-picture, budget-wise. For a sense of 1977/1978 scale: an intimate movie like Annie Hall, shot on location with no (then) big names in the cast, cost $4 million. Major studio releases like The Boys From Brazil cost $12 million, Heaven Can Wait $15 Million.

Hindsight suggests that if Wilder couldn’t make Fedora the way it should have been made, he would have been wise to let the project go. As it was, faced with compromise at every turn, Fedora was an ill-fated production plagued with setbacks from the start. Fear of going over budget prohibited Wilder from having rehearsals (worse, it shows); he rather ungallantly referred to his leading lady as “Not much of an actress,” and bemoaned Keller’s inability to play the dual roles of Fedora and the Countess (ostensibly due to the old-age makeup proving too painful for the actress, insiders saying she wasn’t up to the challenge) occasioning the casting of Hildegard Knef. The original editor was fired after two-months of shooting, the cast didn’t get along, and the unintelligibly thick accents of both Keller and Knef necessitated the post-production looping of both voices (I’m not sure whom were actually listening to on the current Blu-ray release, but the hollow disembodied voices – especially the terrible one used for Fedora’s little girl – tragically wreak havoc with the film’s two pivotal performances).
Marthe Keller certainly has the beauty and regal cheekbones of a classic Hollywood star,
she simply lacked the effortless hauteur

When completed, Fedora started out well with a Cannes premiere, but ultimately succumbed to poor preview response and bad word-of-mouth, resulting in it being shelved for a year and a half in search of a distributor. In the process it lost some 12-minutes of footage and sizable chunks of its lush Miklos Rozsa score (Double Indemnity, The Lost Weekend, Madame Bovary).
With a high-degree of anticipation (I loved the Thomas Tryon novel, was infatuated with Marthe Keller, and a big fan of Billy Wilder) I finally saw Fedora when, after what felt like years of bad advance publicity, it briefly played in Westwood in the Spring of 1979…before disappearing without a trace. 
Cast as himself, the beauteous Michael York exudes so much macho mojo he literally drives Fedora to madness for want of him. It may seem like a stretch to accept that an actress who'd worked with the greats would be taken with so mild-mannered a leading man, but I recall in the '70s Bette Davis citing the transcendently bland Robert Wagner as one of her favorites.


THE STUFF OF DREAMS
The story: Desperate over being put out to pasture by New Hollywood’s breed of bearded young upstarts, 59-year-old producer Barry Detweiler (William Holden) hopes to resuscitate his flagging career by coaxing reclusive screen goddess Fedora (just one name, like Cher or Charo, played by Marthe Keller) out of retirement to star in The Snows of Yesteryear, a film that would mark the 4th American adaptation of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina (“This time we can do it right!”). Tracking her down to her island compound off the shore of Corfu, Detweiler finds the aged star just as beautiful as when they worked together thirty years earlier (and shared a seaside tryst), but grows concerned that the eccentrically vainglorious actress (forever in gloves, enormous shades, and wide-brimmed hat) seems both emotionally unstable and peculiarly cowed by her motley retinue: the autocratic, wheelchair-bound Polish Countess Sobryanski; starchy personal secretary Miss Balfour; and dipsomaniacal age-retardation gerontologist Dr. Vando.
Detweiler’s fears are confirmed when Fedora confides to him that she is being held against her will because of something she knows. Detweiler’s efforts to assist her precipitate a series of cataclysmic events leading to the unearthing of a dark, carefully-guarded secret.
The Countess surrounded by her ever-present heaters 

I won’t lie and say I wasn’t disappointed when Fedora's end credits rolled (with its misspelling of Michael York's name). I enjoyed it, for the film’s central mystery is compellingly weird enough to sustain interest (although, given the extreme lengths the bizarre characters go to protect their secret, the ultimate reveal can’t help but have an air of “Is that all there is?” to it), plus it was nice to see William Holden reprising his Joe Gillis bit again. But as movies go, Fedora struck me as a bit of a puzzler. 
I left the theater that day with the impression that Fedora was an admirably ambitious effort on Billy Wilder’s part that somehow got away from him. Sunset Boulevard embraced its themes and delivered an outlandish tale shrouded in a baroque style that recalled the melodramatic excesses of the silent era. Fedora, a melancholy a paean to the Hollywood of yesteryear and the days of the studio system, is too often visually at odds with its own themes.
Oscar Winners
Jose Ferrer for Cyrano de Bergerac (1950
 William Holden (under Billy Wilder's direction) for Stalag 17 (1954)

It’s disconcerting to watch an entire film devoted to heralding the magisterial splendor of immortal screen goddess when there is not one in sight. Fedora cries out for a dynamic screen presence like Faye Dunaway, its conspicuous lack of any real star quality at the center of the film torpedoes the credibility of a preposterous story that needs all the verisimilitude it can get. Wilder seems to be aware of it himself when he ends the film with this exchange:
“This would have made a much better picture than the script I brought you”
 “Yes, but who would you get to play it?”
 Fedora  shoots a scene recalling Hedy Lamarr's scandalous nude swim in Ecstasy (1933)


WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
Much in the way Alfred Hitchcock’s lesser works have come to be triumphed after his death, cinephile Billy Wilder appreciation combined with Fedora’s longstanding unavailability have proved a kindness. Fedora plays much better now in the age of greenscreen and indistinguishable, gym-trained actors than it did in 1978. I don’t think Fedora is an underappreciated masterpiece, but I do think it’s Billy Wilder’s best film since 1966’s The Fortune Cookie, and superior to some of his more unwatchable fare like One, Two, Three (1961) and Kiss Me, Stupid (1964).
Because I hadn’t remembered the film so fondly, revisiting Fedora via the pristine, restored Blu-ray, I’m able to enjoy it as a kind of extended The Twilight Zone episode. (In fact, it recalls a 1964 Twilight Zone episode titled “Queen of the Nile” in which Ann Blyth stars as an ageless movie queen with a secret.)
I confess to not being able to take the film as seriously as some, finding Fedora’s flaws too substantial and numerous to engage me emotionally. But the film is made with a sincere (if bitter) conviction, some style, and great deal of wit (“Not there! That’s the cat’s chair!”). Which, when combined with the abundant unintentional humor, gives Fedora its own a loopy, absurdist grace.
Mommie Dearest
Little Antonia (Christine Mueller) learns it's no picnic being the daughter of a movie star 

One of my favorite things about Fedora (which couldn’t have been intentional and will sound like feint praise) is how its execution and construction seems designed to call attention to the more far-fetched aspects of the plot rather than conceal them. Fedora begins on a note of implausibility and just keeps stacking the crazy from there. The first leap of faith we’re asked to accept is that during the waning days of the ‘70s nostalgia craze, when real-life screen legends Mae West and Audrey Hepburn were appearing in embarrassments like Sextette (1978) and Sidney Sheldon’s Bloodline (1978); when Golden Age stars gained visibility by subjecting themselves to being trotted out like waxworks displays on the TV shows Fantasy Island and The Love Boat; and when movie theaters were overflowing with youth-oriented fare like Star Wars (1977) and Superman (1978), or gritty dramas like Saturday Night Fever (1977) and The Deer Hunter (1978)—that anyone in their right mind would think there was an audience clamoring for a remake of Anna Karenina starring a 67-year-old Anna.
Sunset Boulevard -1950
Fedora - 1978
There’s fun to be had in catching all the Sunset Boulevard references, the mystery elements that quite make sense (Fedora goes around in gloves and dark glasses even when no one but her handlers are around), but it gets a little wearying hearing Wilder vent his spleen about what Hollywood through Holden’s character. Holden’s last film appearance would be in Blake Edward’s S.O.B. (1980) another movie by a battle-scarred director with a Hollywood axe to grind.
All through Fedora I kept wondering why no one commented on the fact that Miss Balfour (The Omen's Mrs. Baylock crossed with Mommie Dearest's Carol Ann)  never ages. That's certainly true for character actress Frances Sternhagen who looks pretty much the same today as she always has.

PERFORMANCES
Looking (refreshingly) every day of his 59 years, William Holden’s un nip-tucked appearance fits perfectly in with the film’s “youth at all costs” theme; the actor's solid likability grounding Fedora in a reality little else in the film is tethered to. And while scenes of his running or kicking down doors had me more preoccupied with his health than the plot, and I could have gone to my grave without the sight of Holden’s granddad bod in saggy jockey shorts; he is nevertheless a major plus to the film and it's great seeing him.
In the nearly empty theater where I saw Fedora, this big dramatic scene revealing Fedora's
 hidden shrine to Michael York was greeted by giggles, not gasps 

Fedora came at the tail end of America’s brief but high-profile love affair with Swiss Austrian actress Marthe Keller. After catching the attention of the studios with her performance in Claude Le Louche’s And Now My Love (1974), America beckoned and cast her in a series of high-profile roles which made clear they hadn’t a clue as how to use her. Her thick accent branding her as an “other” or “exotic,” she was cast as a femme fatale in the films Marathon Man and Black Sunday, and the manic pixie dream girl to Al Pacino’s morose race car driver in Bobby Deerfield.
I think she's largely at sea when it comes to conveying old-Hollywood star quality, and that dubbing thing just does no one any favors. But I think she's very good here. Beautiful and fragile, she's the warm heart at the center of a cold Hollywood nightmare.
Of the cast members appearing to have the most fun in their serio-camp roles are Hildegard Knef and Jose Ferrer, which seems rather apt, as they play caricatures more than characters.

Fedora, long unavailable and rarely-seen, is definitely worth a look. As I've said, it plays much better now than in 1978. You won't find the same level of perceptive cynicism Billy Wilder brought to his far superior Sunset Boulevard, but there's still much to enjoy amongst the film's unrealized ideas.

Thomas Tryon is said to have based the character of Fedora on a number of Hollywood legends, but the one most often cited is the largely forgotten Corinne Griffith. At age 72, Griffith claimed not to be the real Corinne Griffith, but rather, the actress' 52-year-old sister. Her assertion being that following the death of the original Corinne many years before, she assumed the identity of her older sister and carried on with both her life and career. 


BONUS MATERIAL
Faye Dunaway was always the Fedora Billy Wilder needed. And by the looks of her at age 77 in this 2018 Gucci commercial (which captures more real movie star magic in 90-seconds than the entirety of Wilder's film), I'd say she IS Fedora.

Swan Song: The Story of Billy Wilder's Fedora
The European Blu-Ray release of Fedora contains many enviable extras not available here in the States. Among them, a documentary featuring deleted scenes and commentary by Marthe Keller, Michael York, and others involved in the making of the film. Watch the trailer HERE

For more on Fedora, check out the blog Angelman's Place 


Old-Fashioned, but not Old Hat
Copyright © Ken Anderson