Monday, May 25, 2015

BERSERK 1967

Fans of late-career Joan Crawford (and who isn’t?) are sure to relish the sight of 61-year-old La Mommie Dearest as the mannish owner and ringmaster of a traveling circus, juggling two younger lovers (“I just may let you tuck me in tonight!” she threatens to one) while performers in her employ fall victim to gruesome, far-fetched fatalities. Similarly, variety fans nostalgic for the bygone days when animal acts ruled primetime TV on programs like The Ed Sullivan Show and The Hollywood Palace, are sure to get a vaudeville kick out of Berserk!'s interminable parade of capering horses, indifferent lions, playful elephants, and intelligent poodles used to pad out the film's already meager 96-minute running time.

But horror fans finding Berserk! a little tame and slow-moving by American Horror Story: Freak Show standards might do well to turn a viewing of this circus-set whodunit into a drinking game. Since Crawford was still on the Board of Directors of Pepsi-Cola at the time, may I suggest taking a shot of 100-Proof vodka (Crawford’s preferred beverage of choice) every time there’s a Pepsi sighting or moment of Pepsi-related product placement.  Or perhaps you can take a swig each time a mysterious band of shadow materializes out of nowhere to provide our star with dramatic framing and flattering neck shade whenever in medium shot or closeup. But be aware, should you choose the latter option, you’re likely to find yourself plastered to the gills long before To Sir, With Love’s Judy Geeson makes her mid-film appearance as yet another in Joan Crawford’s long procession of troublesome onscreen / offscreen daughters.
Joan Crawford as Monica Rivers  
"We're running a circus, not a charm school!"
Ty Hardin as Frank Hawkins
"In this world you only get what you deserve. No more, no less."
Judy Geeson as Angela Rivers
"I was shunted around from place to place like a piece of luggage with the wrong address pasted on it!" 
Michael Gough as Albert Dorando
"How can you be so cold-blooded?"
Diana Dors as Matilda
"The next time she puts her arms around you, make sure those lovely hands aren't carrying a knife!"

Although Berserk! (I’m never going to be able to keep up this exclamation point thing) is often lumped together with other entries in the popular What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? hag-horror / psycho-biddy genre; Joan Crawford’s dedication to being the world’s most glamorous, well-turned-out circus proprietress qualifies it more as a gilt-edged example of Grand Dame Guignol. Dressed in a fashion parade of vividly monochromatic cocktail suits (from milady’s own closet, may I add), Crawford magisterially strides about the horse and elephant-trod circus grounds ‒ head held aristocratically aloft while balancing a towering, tightly-braided bun ‒ barking orders and giving out directions while wearing the daintiest of impractical, strappy high-heel sandals.
Britain's Billy Smart Circus plays the role of Berserk's The Great Rivers Circus
Smart's Circus (note the BS emblems) was also used in 1960s similar Circus of Horrors
 
In contrast to the usual abasement heaped upon the typical hagspoitation heroine, every effort in Berserk is made to make Crawford look good. Not only is she the center of the drama and propels the narrative, she's also the only character afforded an active love life or much in the way of a backstory ("Long ago I lost the capacity to love..." she intones at one point; her words instantly making me aware of the weight of my eyelids). Unfortunately, due to the film’s obviously sparse budget and perhaps an over-determination on the filmmakers’ part to make its sexagenarian leading lady’s age into a non-issue (one of the more conspicuous Crawford-mandated script additions is a character voicing the opinion, "Your mother will never grow old, she has the gift of eternal youth!" ), the amount of attention paid to showcasing Crawford’s three-ring matronly glamour results in a kind of inverse-derogation. 
"Find your happiest colors - the ones that make you feel good."
Joan Crawford- My Way of Life
Joan in her happy colors (given her expression, I guess that's something we'll have to take her word for)

Even if you've never seen a film before in your life, it’s likely you could guess the plot of Berserk from its setting alone. A traveling circus is plagued by a series of grisly murders. When the deaths have the side effect of boosting circus attendance, the shadow of suspicion falls (usually across the neck) upon hard-as-nails, cool-as-a-cucumber circus owner, Monica Rivers (Crawford). Some six years prior, Monica’s husband died in a trapeze accident, since which time Monica has been “comforted” by dour-faced business partner, Albert Dorando (Gough), while only daughter, Angela (Geeson), remained stowed away at a hoity-toity boarding school.
Of course, within the ranks of the circus’ motley troupe of performers, low-level British of panic reigns, motives are plentiful, and red herrings abound. Figuring prominently amongst those most likely to have "dunnit" are faithful Bruno (George Claydon), the dwarf clown who’s a tad overenamoured of his leggy employer. Then there’s brassy Matilda (Dors), the in-your-face, peroxided two-thirds of a sawing a woman in half illusionist act who's skeptical of Monica from the start (likely due to Mrs. Rivers’ habit of addressing her as "You slut!”). And finally, the circus's most recent arrival, high-wire walker Frank Hawkins (Hardin); a six-foot-two hunk of flavorless beefcake with a sketchy past, hair-trigger temper, and a thing for women old enough to be his mother. Especially if they're in possession of their own circus.
Mommie Likes
The body count rises and the lack of urgency displayed by the veddy-British investigating detectives comes to mirror that of director Jim O’ Connolly (Horror on Snape Island), who somehow imagines Berserk’s tepid tension and sluggish suspense can withstand the mood-killing interjection of several adorable circus acts (in their entirety) and a comic musical interlude. Still, thanks to Joan Crawford’s sometimes baffling acting choices (“You’re crrrrazy!”) and the always-welcome presence of British bombshell, Diana Dors, Berserk!’s 40-minutes of plot padded out to 96-minutes of movie flows painlessly and entertainingly to its abrupt, highly-preposterous conclusion. One in which the surprise-reveal killer has to utter the great granddaddy of unutterable, self-expository outbursts:“Kill, kill, kill! That’s all I have inside me!” And if you think that line reads ridiculous, wait until you hear someone actually try to say it with a modicum of sincerity.
Trog co-star Michael Gough braces himself while a frisky Joan Crawford moves in for the kill. 
As a side note, is there anything more terrifying than a clown painting?
Berserk! Began life as Circus of Terror and Circus of Blood before Crawford vetoed those crude, cut-to-the-chase options in favor of the infinitely more marketable, Psycho-friendly single name tag (see: Homicidal, HysteriaRepulsion, Paranoiac, and Fanatic [the British title for Tallulah Bankhead’s loony masterwork, Die, Die My Darling!]). As Crawford’s first film in a two-picture deal arranged by personal friend / producer Herman Cohen (the man who gave the world I Was a Teenage Werewolf and Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla), the British-made Berserk! was undertaken when Crawford’s reputation as a heavy drinker rendered her an unacceptable insurance risk stateside.
Coming as it did on the heels of the double-barreled horror blitz of William Castle’s Strait-Jacket (1964) and I Saw What You Did (1965), Berserk! may have further distanced Crawford from her glory days at MGM in the minds of the public, but it did serve to cement her status as Hollywood’s then-reigning scream queen. A reputation reinforced by appearances on TV shows like Night Gallery and The Sixth Sense. And while rival Bette Davis may have appeared in a few slightly more upscale UK features during this time (The Nanny and The Anniversary in 1965 & 1968, respectively) Berserk!, bargain-basement as it is, at least provided Crawford with the all-important employment she craved, and  gave her a leading lady role and above-the-title billing at a time when many of her peers had been forced into an early retirement.
"This is APPALLING! I have devoted myself to making Christina...er, Angela a proper young lady!"

In a moment redolent of Mommie Dearest's infamous Chadwick expulsion scene, Monica's daughter Angela is expelled from The Fenmore School for Young Ladies. In real life, Joan's daughter Christina campaigned unsuccessfully for the Judy Geeson role, to which Crawford responded to the press, "Christina is not ready to have such responsibility. To co-star with 'Joan Crawford'? Isn't that a lot of pressure to put on the girl?"
Crawford’s second starring vehicle for Herman Cohen, which was also her last feature film, was that unforgettable cave-man opus, Trog (1970). In the 1994 book, Attack of the Monster Movie Makers by Tom Weaver, producer Cohen refutes claims that Crawford was ever subjected to the kind of on-a-shoestring treatment his low-budget films suggest (such as the oft-repeated rumor Crawford had to dress in the back of a station wagon during Trog). According to Cohen, Crawford insisted on being treated like a major star, and to make her happy, for both Berserk! and Trog, he was glad to stretch their budgets to accommodate the expense of a Rolls Royce and driver, an apartment with maid and cook, and a large location dressing room caravan. Anything to make Miss Crawford feel like the star she was (or used to be). Cohen also relates that it was important he never use the term “horror film” when talking to Crawford about their professional collaborations. Joan it seems hated the idea of horror films and considered her films for Cohen to be dramas with “…some horrific moments.”
Scream Queen
At this stage it didn't matter to Joan what her name appeared on,
just so long as it appeared on SOMETHING....preferably in big letters

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
I’m pretty much an all-around Joan Crawford fan, but a glance at my DVD collection reveals a decided preference for late-career Crawford. Joan at her worst is actually Joan at her best. I don’t deny the appeal of her early films, but I've always sensed the indelible imprint of the MGM assembly-line in how similar she seems (in terms of look, mannerism, and speech) to every other major actress on the roaring lion’s payroll at the time. However, the over-the-top, almost frightening Joan Crawford unveiled in Torch Song (1953) and thereafter is another Joan altogether.
Shedding all that was vulnerable and soft in Possessed (1947) and Daisy Kenyon (1947), while retaining – if not emphasizing – the hardness and severity of the characters she played in Flamingo Road (1949) and Harriet Craig (1950), Joan Crawford in the 50s transmogrified into a being of her own creation. A being who was not so much an actress than the human embodiment of the combined characteristics of hard work, determination, discipline, and self-delusion. Joan was no longer just a star; she was stardom triumphant. A larger-than-life entity so committed to giving the her fans The Joan They Knew And Loved, her final film appearances took on the quality of grand opera. A quality blissfully ignorant of things like camp sensibilities, drag queen aesthetics, or modulating her performance to the scale of the film at hand.
Berserk! is a thoroughly harmless (one might say affectless) suspenser that’s a great deal of silly fun in that way unique to low-budget genre flicks which harbor few illusions about themselves and have no objective beyond giving the audience a good scare. But as pleasant as it is to play “whodunit” in a setting brimming with animal acts, red herrings, and hoary fright effects; Joan Crawford is the entire show and she alone is what makes Berserk! worth watching at all. As efficiently as she carries out her ringmaster duties while showing off her handsome legs in an Edith Head-designed leotard, Crawford single-handedly turns the mediocre Berserk! into a masterpiece of high drama and unintentional circus camp.

Diana Dors about to be sawed in half as magician's assistant to Philip Madoc in Berserk! 1967 
Diana Dors about to be sawed in half as magician's assistant to David J. Stewart
in the unaired 1961 episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents: The Sorcerer's Apprentice

PERFORMANCES
In Berserk!, if Joan is less than 100% convincing as the owner of a traveling circus, it’s only because she runs it with an aggressive authority and Machiavellian cunning more appropriate to the CEO of a Fortune 500 company (that and the fact one can't really imagine Joan putting up with the untidiness of circus life). I can’t say anything about her performance here that I haven’t already covered in previous posts for Queen Bee, Strait-Jacket, and Harriet Craig, only to add that I get a particular kick out of the way Crawford's studied line readings in Berserk! have a way of sliding from her usual over-enunciated, studio-taught elocution into a curious brand of Texas-accented dialect:
“That’s JUST whadda mean!”
“Want me to spell it out fuh ya?”
“He’s just mah business partner!”
With dinner over, Hardin's ready for dessert 
I enjoy the supporting cast of Berserk! a great deal, each actor wisely giving the film’s star as wide a berth possible for the histrionic grandstanding to follow. My favorites are Diana Dors, saddled with a truly awful wig, but giving each of her scenes a vitriolic punch the film sorely needs. The appealing Judy Geeson is given scant to do, but does so with a level or genuineness that almost feels out of place for the movie (“Geeson’s pretty but doesn't have the stuff to make it for the long haul,” sniffed Crawford). And the regrettably-named Ty Hardin (until you learn his real name is Orison Whipple Hungerford …JR!!!) makes an appropriately incongruous choice for Crawford’s love-interest, his towering frame and obvious youth casting just the right amount of suspicion on his character’s motives.
Ted Lune, Golda Casimir, George Claydon & Milton Reid
Berserk! grinds to a screeching halt in order to accommodate the cutesy
but not-at-all-confessional musical number, "It Might Be Me"
THE STUFF OF FANTASY
Contractual show-biz pairings are nothing new. If you hired TV personality Steve Allen, you had to take Jayne Meadows; director Bryan Forbes never worked without wife Nanette Newman; and pre-split-up, getting Tim Burton always meant Helena Bonham Carter was not far behind. in the 60s, Joan Crawford and Pepsi were an onscreen pair made product-placement heaven.

THE STUFF OF DREAMS
I was ten-years-old when Berserk! was released in theaters, and I recall how disturbing I found the TV commercials and newspaper ads that prominently featured the image of a man about to have a stake driven through his head by a hammer. I was actually too afraid to see the movie at the time, but I wonder what I would have made of it. Then I had no preconceived notions about Joan Crawford to distract me from the story at hand.
Watching the film today, the plot, such as it is, really fades into the distance, and the entirety of my enjoyment of the movie is centered exclusively around Crawford and the Crawford mystique. Like a solar eclipse, Joan Crawford and all she has come to represent as a gay icon and camp godsend blots out everything else. Every aspect of Crawford and her life has been parodied and talked about for so long it's hard for me to even see her as a human being, much less a fictional character she plays pretty much as herself. As is the case with all of Crawford's late-career films, watching Berserk! is like being given a tour of a Joan Crawford tribute museum. And I honestly wouldn't have it any other way.
There are scenes infused with near-confessional references to her real-life failed romances and dedication to work over all else. Plus Crawford's outmoded acting style lent interest to scenes with younger performers.
Joan and Ty adopt a pose ripped from countless vintage movie posters
 (not to mention paperback romance novels)
And every one of Geeson's scenes with Crawford can't help but subliminally call to mind the epic Mommie Dearest:
"And what about your Christmas card list?"
"Because I'm not one of your FAAAANS!"
"You know Christina, flirting can be taken the wrong way...."

Perhaps a stronger film than Berserk! could surmount these distractions, but Berserk! has so little going for it that's really compelling, one can't help but welcome every self-referential, over-acted, self-serious moment the great Miss Joan Crawford provides. So, for fans of the best that camp has to offer...step right up!


BONUS MATERIAL
The original (spoiler-filled) Berserk! trailer that scared me as a kid.

Alfred Hitchcock Presents; "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" (1961) - Diana Dors stars in this circus-themed episode that was never aired because sponsors deemed it too gruesome.

Circus of Horrors (1960) - Although it lacks Joan Crawford (and that's quite a lack, indeed) this feature film release is similar (and in many ways superior) to Berserk!.


George Claydon, who played Bruno the clown in Berserk! appeared as the
first Oompa Loompa on the left in 1971's Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory

Diana Dors was not only quite the bombshell in her youth but in later years became one of television's most articulate, witty, and charming talk show guests. Here's a clip of a 1971 television interview.

Wikipedia biography of actor Ty Hardin referencing his 8 marriages and eventual descent into right-wing, nutjob, ultra-conservatism.

Given how much Joan Crawford favored the dramatic shadow across her neck in films, I suppose it's only fitting that on the day I took this photo of her star on Hollywood's Walk of Fame (in front of the Capitol Records building near Hollywood & Vine) I was unable to avoid this band of shadow falling across it. I can imagine Crawford in heaven telling God how to light her correctly. 

Copyright © Ken Anderson

Monday, May 11, 2015

MAPS TO THE STARS 2014

Warning: Spoiler Alert. This is a critical essay on David Cronenberg's Maps to the Stars, not a review, therefore many crucial plot points are revealed for the purpose of analysis. 

A treasured volume in my library is a hardbound copy of Bulfinch’s Mythology, gifted to me by my sweetheart countless birthdays ago. This entertaining, exhaustively encyclopedic collection of classical Greek and Roman myths (with the mysteries of the universe interpreted and scaled to human dimensions) is something of a folkloric map to the stars itself. Here the inexplicable is named, given human form, and all that is mysterious and random in the galaxy attributed to the capricious whims and petty rivalries of an incestuous clan of demigods and goddesses holding forth from their thrones in the heavens. At their core, these ancient fables are operatic family dramas and morality tales about overindulged gods & goddesses with too much power and too few boundaries. Leading insular lives of emotional inertia, these mythical deities manipulate the elements (e.g., fire and water) for amusement, and are not above creating chaos out of boredom.

The unfettered moral license of these gods (who have the power to reward favored mortals by turning them into constellations) leads to the marrying of siblings; the abandoning of their temperaments to fervid jealousies and rivalries over imagined slights; and, more often than not, the sort of violent and bloody final-act retribution that gives Greek Tragedy its name.

All of this filled my mind and fueled my thoughts while watching David Cronenberg’s brilliant Maps to the Stars. A modern mythological family tragedy set amongst the flawed, emotionally disfigured gods and goddesses of contemporary pop culture (movie stars) from the airless heights of that insulated Mount Olympus known as Hollywood. 
Julianne Moore as Havana Segrand
Mia Wasikowska as Agatha Weiss
Olivia Williams as Cristina Weiss
John Cusak as Dr. Stafford Weiss
Robert Pattinson as Jerome Fontana
Evan Bird as Benjamin Weiss
Havana Segrand (Moore) is a Hollywood falling-star suffering the first pangs of impending obsolescence, and, consequently, lives in a near-constant state of naked desperation. A desperation not quelled by yoga, meditation, narcotics, age-regression therapy, or “purpose fucking” (sex with well-placed industry types for the purpose of their putting in a good word for you when they can). In a town where the question, “Isn’t she old?” ‒ the definitive dismissal ‒ is asked in relation to 23-year-olds, Havana literally clings to her prominently-displayed Genie (Canadian Film Award) while discussing dwindling career options with her pragmatic agent, whose name is, oddly enough, Genie. 

Hungry for career rejuvenation, Havana fixates on landing the starring role in Stolen Waters, a reimagining (Hollywood-speak for remake) of a 60s cult film which starred her late mother, actress Clarice Taggart (Sarah Gadon) who died tragically in a fire in 1976. Havana’s desire to be cast in a role that would in effect have her playing her mother, is an obsession unabated by claims on Havana’s part that she was a victim of her mother’s physical and sexual abuse as a child. Nor the distressing fact that her mother – abusive as ever  –  has begun to appear to her as a ghost. 
Clarice Taggert in Stolen Waters

This film within a film, which gets its title from the biblical proverb "Stolen waters are sweet, bread eaten in secret is pleasant," figures prominently in the lives of several characters in Maps to the Stars
The film itself, which seems to be about a seductive, schizophrenic patient at a mental institution, not only carries allusions to the character of Agatha (Wasikowska), but reminded me a great deal of the 1964 Jean Seberg/Warren Beatty film, Lilith. In that film, Seberg plays a schizophrenic patient in a mental institution and Beatty a therapist who's  doomed by his obsession with her. In Hebrew mythology, Lilith is the name for a female demon representing seduction and chaos.

Astronomy maps may reveal the gravitational interlink of star clusters in the heavens, but the boulevards and intersections on those geographical maps to the stars’ homes sold on Los Angeles street corners can’t begin to chart the inbred network of aligned interests and commingled gene pools that make up Hollywood. In Maps to the Stars, Havana’s central storyline is orbited by a cast of characters whose lives at first seem unrelated, but later reveal themselves, in almost Altmanesque fashion, to be just as incestuously interconnected as everything else in the City of Angels.

First, there’s Benjie Weiss (Bird), the obnoxious child star of a lucrative movie franchise. A recovering drug addict at thirteen, Benjie is already beset by the fear of being replaced by a new and younger model, and his nights are haunted by visions of the ghosts of two dead children. His ambitious stage mother (an anxiously flinty Olivia Williams) dotes on him as one would a valuable commodity, while his narcissistic father (Cusak) is too busy managing his career as the nation’s best-selling self-help guru (“Secrets Kill!”) to be of much help to anyone beyond his high-profile clients.
The Magical Child
The ghosts that appear to Benjie are those of the drowned child of a rival (Havana's unspoken manifest wish, like the fiery death of her mother) and a cancer victim whose body in death is adorned with tattoos of maps to the stars which form patterns reminiscent of Agatha's disfiguring burns.

The mysterious catalyst for joining these individuals is Agatha (Wasikowska), a schizophrenic teenage burn victim of mysterious origin who comes to town to, in her words, “Make amends,” but serves as the narrative’s uniting thread and unwitting agent of chaos. Representative of the interrelated nature of this city of beautiful grotesques itself, Agatha is biologically linked to some characters, spiritually linked to others.
 Agatha’s journey from Florida to Los Angeles by bus suggests a meagerness of funds contradicting her engagement of the film’s final character, Jerome Fontana (Pattinson), the limousine chauffeur with the celebrity-ready name, to escort her to a particularly significant Hollywood site upon arrival. Fontana, like everyone else in Hollywood who isn’t already actually in the film business, is a wannabe. In this case a wannabe actor/screenwriter hired to drive the chariot for someone who turns out to be this modern myth’s angel of doom/redeemer.
A cast-out *angel surveys the ruins of Mount Olympus (aka the Hollywood Hills)
*After I posted this screencap, my partner brought my attention to the fact that the holes in Agatha's top create "wings" on her back (or the scars of the wings lost after breaking the rules of heaven)...how did I miss that? 

Written by one-time Hollywood chauffeur Bruce Wagner (who penned 1989s rather awful but marvelously titled, Scenes from the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills), Maps to the Stars has the wittily bilious tone of the work of a Hollywood barely-insider: someone close enough to get the details right, but not so favored by the gods as to have been ensnared and blinded by the intoxicating siren song of fame, wealth, and status.

Less a Hollywood satire than a fame culture fable with elements of magic realism, Maps to the Stars is my kind of movie…which isn’t the same thing as saying it’s a slam dunk crowd-pleaser I’d recommend to everyone. Like a great many of David Cronenberg’s films, your appreciation of it has a lot to do with how comfortable you are being made uncomfortable.
But like the dream fantasies of Robert Altman (Images, 3 Women) or Polanski’s raw glimpses into the dark nature of relationships (Venus in Fur, Carnage), Maps to the Stars is an exploration of condition I find most compelling in films: humanity in extremis.
Worshiping at the Altar of Fame

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
Whether a genuine part of Cronenberg’s vision or merely a projection born of my fondness for Greek mythology (I suspect it’s a little of both), I love the idea of Maps to the Stars being something of a modern take on the classic Greek tragedy. 
Hollywood, with its temporal gods and goddesses engaged in hollow conflicts in pursuit of ignoble victories makes for a terrific modern day Mount Olympus, just as the town’s self-centeredness and overabundance of swimming pools suggest the reflective springs of Mount Helicon which seduced (and ultimately drowned) Narcissus. 
Wash Away My Sins
Plagued by guilt and the burden of secrets, Cristina suffers an emotional breakdown. The dual elements of fire and water - to either purify or destroy - are recurring motifs running throughout Maps to the Stars

In the interwoven stories of the protagonists, all the elements of Greek tragedy are there: Secrets, ambition, incest, jealousies, violence, ghosts, visions, morality, purification through self-immolation, redemption, liberation, and the godlike summoning of the elements of fire and water. 
Agatha, whose name means “good” in Greek, arrives in Hollywood dressed in a manner to conceal the scars from burns suffered in a fire she started as a child. Among the Hollywood trendoids, she looks as if she's from another planet. In fact, when asked where she’s from, she responds, “Jupiter. We know she's been institutionalized for arson in Florida, so we take it to mean she’s from the city of Jupiter, Florida. But Jupiter is also the name of the Greek god who married his sister, Juno. And as we later learn, Agatha is a child born of incest.
Carrie Fisher as Herself
A central theme of Maps to the Stars is the incestuous nature of Hollywood. Havana Segrand is an actress haunted (literally) by her actress mother, yet longs to play her in a film. Carrie Fisher, daughter of actress Debbie Reynolds, wrote Postcards from the Edge, a semi-autobiographical book and film about the troubled relationship between an actress and her considerably more-famous mother. The presence of Carrie Fisher in the film can't help but also evoke thoughts of  Star Wars and that film's incest and familial secrets subthemes. 

PERFORMANCES
Maps to the Stars reminds me so much of those 70s films that made me fall in love with movies in the first place. Of course a major selling point from the getgo is the absence of anything Comic-Con suitable in the narrative; but I really found the characters and the film’s attempt to say something real about our culture incredibly fascinating. It's a funny, frightening, ugly, sad, brutal film that is ultimately very moving (and touching). And the film earns bonus points for doing so in a way which refuses to spell everything out. 
Best of all are the performances of the uniformly excellent cast. John Cusak oozes smug menace, Evan Bird’s repellant child star shows the wounds of neglect, and in the film’s least-developed role, Robert Pattinson (this is the first film I’ve ever seen him in) is so good you wish he’d been given more to do.
However, Maps to the Stars really belongs to the women. Oscar-winner Julianne Moore gives one of those totally raw, risk-taking performances that's likely to divide audiences. Me, I've met my share of Havana Segrands in my time, and Moore seriously nails it in her willingness to “go there” in her searingly naked depiction of the ugliest aspects of what it has come to mean to be a movie star.
False idol?
Havana's Genie award plays too significant a role in her life.
Incidentally, director David Cronenberg is a five-time Genie Award winner 

I first saw Mia Wasikowska many years ago on the superb HBO series, In Treatment. Then I was impressed, as I am now, with the air of unsettling mystery lurking behind her relaxed, natural surface.

Rounding out this trifecta of female perfection is Olivia Williams. Long one of my favorite actresses, Williams balances out Moore's scattered self-enchantment and Wasikowska's cloaked inscrutability with an intense characterization of a woman hanging on by a thread on the verge of an abyss. As one of those armies of bright, intelligent women whose every waking moment is devoted to the career of her child (Hollywood is loaded with them), Williams is a vibrating livewire of frustrations and barely contained tensions, Williams is both terrifying and heartbreaking as the stage mother whose fatal flaw is that deep beneath her steely facade, she may not be quite soulless enough to survive in Hollywood. 


THE STUFF OF FANTASY
A major asset to any film is having a director in control of what message they’re trying to convey. Like many films set in the world of privilege and power, Maps to the Stars is an indictment of the malignant allure of wealth and fame and its potential to foster delusions and corrupt the soul. But Canadian-born David Cronenberg - this is his first film [partially] shot in the US - succeeds where Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby and Scorsese’s The World of Wall Street so miserably failed: he’s able to depict the excesses of extensive wealth without simultaneously glamorizing it.  
On the Rodeo Road to Recovery
Havana (seen here with brand-new personal assistant, Agatha) self-medicates
by spending $18,000 on clothes at Valentino

As a longtime LA resident who’s worked for many years as a personal trainer in the same peripheral capacity to celebrities as Map to the Stars’ interchangeable chauffeurs and “chore whores” (personal assistants); trust me, there’s nothing satiric or exaggerated about the details of celebrity life depicted in this movie.
The grotesquely oversized homes feel sterile and devoid of inhabitants; the children who act like adults, the adults who like children; entire identities are invested in one’s desirability or employability (often one in the same); and everybody feels so guilty for living lives of such undeserved privilege they seek absolution in self-serving spirituality, health foods,  narcotics, holistic drugs, and alcohol. Better than any film I’ve seen in recent years, Maps to the Stars captures the isolated, bubble-like existence of Hollywood’s rich and famous. A space so airless and devoid of perspective or self-awareness it actually could be what so many already assume it to be…another planet.
Stafford Weiss, self-help shaman-to-the-stars, guides Havana through one of her body's
"Personal history points." *Note the barefoot shoes - an instant douchebag signifier


THE STUFF OF DREAMS
Maybe it’s just me, but movies set in Hollywood seem to take on a mythological quality without even trying. The stuff of Greek tragedy: fate, love, loss, retribution, redemption, ambition, hubris, abuse of power – sounds like your typical studio pitch meeting!

What makes Hollywood so ripe for mythologizing is the city, in its present incarnation anyway, represents something of a Paradise Lost. It's a place blessed by the gods with ideal weather and sublime vistas, yet it's also a community of artists with the potential to globally elevate and inspire (figuratively speaking, people in the film business make dreams for a living). But what is Hollywood in reality? A place where everyone has smiled into the face of the devil and allowed themselves to be blinded by the golden glare of fame and wealth.
Inner Peace
Movie stars tend to use spirituality as a means to justify self-absorption and rationalize materialism.
Here Havana's tranquility takes a major hit with the news that she's lost out on a coveted movie role 

David Cronenberg, master of the “body horror” genre, parallels Agatha’s visible disfigurement (which she goes to great pains to conceal) with the masked spiritual decay of Hollywood’s beautiful people (which they make no effort to conceal at all). Agatha’s arrival is disruptive because her desire to make amends really means forcing others to expose their secrets.  
Just as Havana’s regression therapy is a means of confronting her past through the reliving of it; Agatha ritualistically recites Paul √Čluard’s poem, Liberty, and a brother and sister ceremoniously restage the wedding of another brother and sister (their parents) to free themselves from the toxic damage of that bond. To free themselves from the chain of addiction, cycle of abuse, legacy of mental illness, and the curse of ghostly hauntings.
Dressed for A Date With Destiny
The burning of Los Angeles is a vivid metaphor of purification in Nathanael West's classic novel, The Day of the Locust. In that book and in the brilliant 1975 film, West depicted a Hollywood devoid of love and undeserving of redemption. David Cronenberg finds contemporary Hollywood to be at least as monstrously grotesque as West did back in 1939, but he also posits the possibility that it is a city capable of reclamation.
"Love is Stronger than Death"

On my school notebooks
On my desk and on the trees
On the sand and on the snow
I write your name

On all the flesh that says yes
On the forehead of my friends
On every hand held out
I write your name

Liberty


Copyright © Ken Anderson

Monday, April 27, 2015

THE OUT OF TOWNERS 1970

The-Out-of-Towners is Neil Simon’s second original screenplay but first solo original screenplay credit (1966’s poorly-received After the Fox being a reluctant collaboration with longtime Vittorio De Sica screenwriter, Cesare Zavattini). As the much-anticipated follow-up to The Odd Couple – 1968’s 4th highest-grossing film – The-Out-of-Towners was something of a critical and boxoffice disappointment. It disappeared from theaters so quickly I entirely missed its theatrical run. For the longest time the only version I was familiar with was one edited for broadcast TV, which suffered from the excising of the film’s marvelously ironic coup de gras (aerial hijacking was at its height during the 70s, spawning TV movies and feature films, and therefore no laughing matter. At least not as far as TV was concerned), and deprived us of the last of Sandy Dennis’ near-iconic wails of "Ohhhh, my God!”
Jack Lemmon as George Kellerman
Sandy Dennis as Gwen Kellerman
The plot is simplicity itself. On the occasion of his promotion to Vice President in charge of sales for the New York division of Drexel: maker of fine plastic precision instruments; Twin Oaks, Ohio resident George Kellerman (Lemmon) and wife Gwen (Dennis) embark on what is intended to be a fun-filled, 24-hour excursion to the Big Apple. Part job interview (“It’s just a formality.”), part second honeymoon, it’s an opportunity for the happy couple to enjoy a First-Class, all-expenses-paid sampling of the best that Fun City has to offer before uprooting and moving the entire Kellerman clan (two children and dog) from the drowsy suburbs of Ohio to The City That Never Sleeps.  

Armed with an itemized itinerary (mapped out over the course of nine lunch hours), buoyed by high hopes, and fortified with two bottles of ulcer medicine in a brown suitcase…what could possibly go wrong?
In a word, everything.

Once the Kellerman’s leave behind the blue skies and green lawns of Ohio, it’s as if they’ve fallen through the looking glass. Any and everything terrible that can befall and beset a visitor to a big city happens to our hapless couple. And therein lies the simple perfection of Neil Simon’s approach to the comedy in The-Out-of-Towners. It has nothing moving to say about learning to let go of the ones we love (The Goodbye Girl), no life-affirming lessons about second chances at love (Chapter Two), no laughter-through-tears ruminations on the importance of familial reconciliation (I Ought to Be in Pictures); It’s just a laugh-out-loud dark comedy built around your standard, run-of-the-mill, suburban middle-class urban-panic nightmare.
 The Dream / The Reality

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
The-Out-of-Towners is an original screenplay by Neil Simon based on a discarded act from his 1968 play Plaza Suite titled, Visitor from Toledo. Always an autobiographical writer, the catalog of catastrophes meted out to George and Gwen Kellerman during their visit to New York are said to have been inspired by a particularly disaster-prone trip Simon took to Boston in 1967 to doctor the flagging David Merrick musical, How Now Dow Jones.
And while The-Out-of-Towners condenses a lifetime’s worth of travel horror stories into one nightmarish 24-hour NY excursion, everything that happens is rooted in a recognizable reality. This core of verisimilitude is the chief reason why the 1970 film remains consistently funny after more than forty years while the painfully contrived 1999 Steve Martin/ Goldie Hawn remake is as forgettable as it is superfluous.

Directed by Arthur Hiller (Love Story, Plaza Suite, The-In-Laws) the structure of Simon’s The-Out-of-Towners is essentially that of a three-character comedy. The three characters being: The Couple, The City, and The Camera.
As the couple, Jack Lemmon and Sandy Dennis ‒ cast as Mr. & Mrs. Middle-Class Everyman ‒ get the biggest laughs from playing it entirely straight. The comedy stakes are raised by watching how this loving but dissimilar pair react when the comfortable rhythms of a 14-year marriage (he clearly “handles” things while she meekly defers, even when she knows better) are put to the test by the unexpected. And the unexpected is clearly something control-freak George doesn’t handle too well (remember, he works for a company that makes precision instruments). As the direness of their circumstances increases, their heretofore polite exchanges begin to take on a decidedly acerbic tone.
The urban jungle brings out the tiger in mild-mannered Gwen
The city of New York is the story’s neutral antagonist. And as a window into the John Lindsay era of blighted, cash-strapped NYC, a vivid antagonist it is. Neither villain nor enemy, its fogged-in airports, muggings, garbage strikes, missed trains, torrential rains, and overcrowded hotels are all urban maladies meted out with indifference. It’s only George (in his privileged petulance) who sees every setback as a willfully directed obstacle to his goals and personal affront to his status as an out-of-towner. Forever tilting at urban windmills, George’s consistantly defensive reactions to the most innocuous of complications is one of the film’s most amusing running gags. He behaves as if everything is happening to him alone. An entire plane of passengers is inconvenienced by bad weather, yet he’s the only one who sees alerting the stewardess to his dinner reservations as an effective facilitator of results. (Young people seeing this film for the first time are sure to be gladdened upon learning that having an unreasonable sense of entitlement didn’t originate with them.)
Gwen and George's visit to NYC coincides with a sanitation strike
The film has two crippling strikes occur at the same time.
In real-life the NYC transit strike was in 1966, the sanitation strike in 1968
Lastly, cinematographer Andrew Laszlo (The Owl & the Pussycat, Streets of Fire) turns his remarkably versatile camera into The-Out-of-Towners’ third character. As noted by entertainment writer Joe Meyers in his terrific piece on the film, Laszlo’s location camerawork (a great deal of which is hand-held) gives the film a gritty, almost documentary feel that adds immeasurably to its effectiveness. By turns jarring and hysterical, panoramic and claustraphobic, sometimes even witty (as when we are given a dog’s-eye-view of a box of Cracker Jack). In even the most confining locations, Laszlo’s camera seems to be everywhere at once, an active participant in the proceedings and an invaluable contributor giving The-Out-of-Towners the distinction of being the single most cinematic of Neil Simon’s films.
Andrew Laszlo's versatile camera gives us a suitcase's POV of an airport

PERFORMANCES
In her 2006 memoir, How I Lost 10 Pounds in 53 Years, actress Kaye Ballard, who appeared with Sandy Dennis in a 1988 production of Neil Simon’s female version of The Odd Couple, states that Dennis confided to her that she and Simon don’t get along because The-Out-of-Towners’ funniest running gag ‒ her infinite variations on the whining exclamation, “Ohhhh, my God!”‒ was her own ad-lib. He never forgave her for being the one responsible for the film’s biggest laugh.

Whether true or not, there’s no denying that Sandy Dennis brings a wealth of comedic ingenuity to a part that must have looked like absolutely nothing on the page. Dennis redeems the rote role of the long-suffering wife through the force of her individuality. The very mannerisms and quirks that contributed to the public’s swift disenchantment with the actress who just three years earlier had been hailed as a star of tomorrow, transform the otherwise colorless character of Gwen into a distinct personality and surprisingly feisty comic foil for Jack Lemmon’s hyperreactive George.
New York, New York: Gwen finds her vagabond shoes aren't up to the task
Coming on the heels of two barely-seen independent films (That Cold Day in the Park, Thank You All Very Much), The-Out-of-Towners looked like a mainstream comeback for the Academy Award-winning actress, but in truth it was more a return to supporting roles after a brief tenure as a leading lady. Still after two such serious films in which she played soft-spoken characters, it’s nice to see Dennis in funny mode. Makes you wish she’d made more comedies.
Although I like him a great deal, I’m not a huge fan of Jack Lemmon (Simon’s first and only choice for the role), but he does have a knack for making disagreeable characters palatable (ever see Under the Yum Yum Tree?), and as such he makes an ideal George Kellerman. In fact, Lemmon is so good here that his work in The-Out-of-Towners ranks as one of my top fave Jack Lemmon performances. A vibrating bundle of counterproductive outrage and irrational ire, Lemmon is the manic comic engine that makes the entire film work.
I can't think of another actor capable of playing so many shades of pique
If Dennis does wonders with the simple act of active listening and repeating the phrase, “I can verify that!”, Lemmon is a miracle worker when it comes to playing countless variations on the incredulous reaction shot. Both actors share a splendid chemistry, turning a film that might otherwise have been just a drawn out string of calamity jokes into a rich character comedy about a married couple and what happens when they’re wrenched outside of the confines of comfort.
             
A real treat for viewers of a certain age is The-Out-of-Towners' supporting cast of familiar faces.
Billy Dee Williams as Clifford Robinson / Boston Lost & Found
Ann Prentiss (sister of Paula) as the 1st Stewardess
Anne Meara as The Purse-Snatch Victim
 In addition, there's Robert Altman stalwart, Paul Dooley making his film debut as a hotel desk clerk; comic actor Ron Carey (Barney Miller) as a cabbie; stand-up comic Sandy Baron as a television AD; Richard Libertini as a baggage handler; Graham Jarvis (Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman) as a mugger; Dolph Sweet (Gimme a Break) as a cop; Anthony Holland (All That Jazz) as a night clerk; and Carlos Montalban (brother of Ricardo) as a Cuban Diplomat. And many more familiar faces from 60s TV.
Character actor Dort Clark
He has only one tiny line in the film, but I have to include him here because he's been a longtime
favorite of  mine from his appearances in TV shows like That Girl and Car 54 Where Are You? 

THE STUFF OF FANTASY
I think that The-Out-of-Towners has aged better than most of Simon’s other works, but that’s not to say it’s not old-fashioned. In fact, one of the main reasons I like it so much is because it is so old-fashioned. Old-fashioned as in classic. In structure it seems to follow an archetypal pattern: The setup is simple (George needs to make that 9am meeting); the obstacles are clear (every person place and thing that represents New York is standing in his way); and the comedy arc is timeless (George’s overreliance on order and efficiency is going to take a serious beating). As comedy utterly devoid of pretense or allusions to significance, it’s some of the funniest writing of Simon’s career.
Comedy Has an Expiration Date
It's doubtful viewers today are aware that  the scene with Lemmon & Dennis running to each other in
Central Park is a parody of a ubiquitous Clairol Hair Care TV commercial from the 60s  

If The-Out-of-Towners’ depiction of New York has the exaggeration of satire, the look of the film itself is pure documentary. Shot on location in and around Manhattan, Boston, and Long Island (standing in for Ohio), it’s a treat to see so many glimpses of late-60s New York. And the nostalgia evoked by such sights as The Automat and the lobby of the Waldorf Astoria Hotel (with its placards advertising Peggy Lee appearing in The Empire Room) are offset by visions of a time when stewardesses wore go-go boots, women carried gloves, and train stations had cigarette machines and phone booths.
Bracing themselves against a rainstorm, Gwen and George walk past The Automat 
Posters for two concurrently running Neil Simon Broadway shows 
(Plaza Suite and Promises, Promises) grace a Boston train station  

THE STUFF OF DREAMS
Most comedy is often so much a product of its time that it’s not unusual for a popular comedy from the past to fall flat with audiences today, and vice versa. I don’t really know what problem 1970 audiences had with The-Out-of-Towners, but it’s easy to imagine that perhaps the unrelenting dark tone of the humor took fans of Neil Simon by surprise.

In the course of 24-hours, the Kellermans are subjected (and this is only a partial list) to a rerouted flight, lost luggage, a missed train, a broken shoe, a kidnapping, a mugging while asleep, a chipped tooth, a lost wedding ring, being chased by a mounted policeman, an exploding gas main, and getting caught in a diplomatic protest. Without benefit of a breather, some might have found the film’s pacing exhausting.
Or maybe it was a matter of oversaturation. The 70s were the start of “disillusionment cinema” and dark comedies were all the rage. New York, then in a state of major economic and social decline, was a popular target for serious drama (Peter Boyle's film, Joe) and bleak satire. Jules Feiffer kicked off the trend in 1967 with his truly grim satire, Little Murders (made into a film in 1971). But the same year Neil Simon’s poison-pen to Manhattan hit the screen, New York came under satirical fire in Diary of a Mad Housewife, The Owl and the Pussycat, Where’s Poppa?, and The Landlord. The-Out-of-Towners may have been have been a victim of being just one New York satire too many.
The-Out-of-Towners always has an answer for the question, "What more could possibly go wrong?"
But in today’s atmosphere of cringe-comedy and humiliation humor, The-Out-of-Towners feels surprisingly contemporary and in step with the times. Arthur Hiller and Neil Simon manage to depict a suitably threatening New York City without resorting to racist or xenophobic humor or casting (something unimaginable today). And unlike similar scenarios in which bad things befall well-intentioned protagonists despite their best efforts and it feels cruel to laugh at a sad-sack victim (Martin Scorsese’s After Hours comes to mind), The-Out-of-Towners consistently reveals the  obstinate George Kellerman to be the architect of his own misfortune.
Never let it be said that George & Gwen Kellerman didn't learn from their experience.
Eagle-eyed viewers will note that on the return flight home, 

Gwen has won the battle of the "little gray suitcase" 
If you've never seen it, The-Out-of-Towners is a near-perfect example of frustration comedy. An unbroken chain of snappy comebacks, laughably familiar situations, and expertly set-up gags with unexpected payoffs. I'm in the camp that feels much of Neil Simon’s work has not aged very well, but The-Out-of-Towners is the exception and  ranks high on my list of all-time favorite motion picture comedies - a list topped by What's Up, Doc?, Airplane, and Young Frankenstein.


Copyright © Ken Anderson