Wednesday, September 30, 2015


This forgotten little film has long been a favorite of mine and used to show up fairly regularly on late night television when I was a kid. Until it resurfaced recently on YouTube, I can say it’s easily been 40 years since I last saw this last-gasp effort in Hollywood’s love affair with the works of Faulkner, O’Neill, Williams, & Inge.  

Adapted by Meade Roberts (The Fugitive Kind, Summer & Smoke) from William Inge’s little-known 1959 play, A Loss of Roses and directed by Franklin J Schaffner (Patton, The Planet of the Apes, Sphinx); The Stripper is, like a great many of my favorite films from the 50s – especially those written in the Southern Gothic / Midwest Melodrama tradition,  a heavy slice of mordant Americana served up with plenty of lost illusions and broken dreams on the side.
Joanne Woodward as Lila Green
Richard Beymer as Kenny Baird
Claire Trevor as Helen Baird
Robert Webber as Ricky Powers
Shot in somber black and white (then de rigueur for contemplatively downbeat movies), The Stripper is the so-familiar-you’ll-swear-you’ve-seen-it-before story of Lila Green (Woodward); a down-on-her-luck wannabe actress touring with a seedy theatrical troupe (The Great Renaldo & Madame Olga: Magic & Mirth Par Excellence). Abandoned mid-tour in a small Kansas town by her equally seedy boyfriend, Ricky (Webber), Lila is forced to depend on the kindness of strangers. Not literal strangers, mind you, for Lila grew up in this town before a Betty Grable look-alike-contest was her second-class ticket to Hollywood. Merely friends from the past to whom Lila now appears as gaudy and out of place as a fur coat in July.
Kenny Thinks Lila Is Hot. She Is...It's Mid-Summer in Kansas
Before settling on the grossly misleading The Stripper, other titles considered for this screen adaptation
of A Loss of Roses were: Celebration, Woman of Summer, and A Woman in July

Lila secures temporary lodgings with Helen Baird (Trevor), a widow for whom she once babysat in her youth. Helen, now a fulltime nurse pulling swing shift as a fault-finding, overprotective mother-hen to her only son, Kenny (Beymer), is initially glad to be of help. She begins to doubt the soundness of her philanthropy when it becomes clear that the restless son she has such high hopes for has developed a major infatuation on the glamourous, at least ten-years-older, new tenant in stretch pants.

Just as the arrival of a train-hopping drifter shook up the small-town residents in William Inge’s Picnic, the emotional (and sexual) disruption instigated by the intrusion of Lila – a peroxided, emotionally-wounded, aging starlet with a squalid past and a childlike disposition – into the vaguely oedipal Baird household, is the source of The Stripper’s central conflict.
For Lila, the return to the birthplace of so many of her unrealized dreams rekindles a desire to reclaim her lost innocence. For Kenny, irresolute in his manhood over failing to fill the idealized shoes of his late father; Lila’s age and superficially worldly charms are like a beacon of maturity. Helen, conflicted in wanting Kenny to grow up and stand on his own two feet, yet saying things like, "You're all I have to live for," grows concerned when Kenny's intensifying infatuation with Lila turns to mutual attraction. She fears that Lila's bad influence will corrupt her son's interest in "good" girls like neighbor, Miriam Caswell (Carol Lynley), while hastening his inevitable departure. 
In this environment, everyone seems to be looking to someone else for salvation, rescue, liberation or redemption.
Carol Lynley as Miriam Caswell

The Stripper is something of a “Best of” collection of what had become, by 1963, the over-familiar clichés in the Tennessee Williams/William Inge oeuvre (it was Williams’ The Glass Menagerie which inspired Inge to write his first play). Set in the fictional small town of Salinson, Kansas (the same town Kansas-born William Inge chose for his play, Picnic), The Stripper has it all: the emotionally fragile fallen woman; familial discord; small town provincialism; sexual restlessness; Freudian psychology; and the eternal battle between idealism and truth. And, of course, heat and summer used as a metaphor for passion.

Seeing the film again after so many years, it’s so clear to me why I was all over this genre of movie when I was young. First, they were accessible to my limited frame of knowledge and experience. Unlike James Bond movies that took place all over the world, or action adventures featuring acts of derring-do and non-stop danger; these films took place in familiar, low-tech settings of town and neighborhood. The drama was often operatically over-the-top, yet human-scale in that it concerned itself with relationships, family tensions, and the applicable-at-any-age struggle with how our character flaws work to keep happiness at bay. 
Legendary real-life stripper Gypsy Rose Lee as Madam Olga St. Valentine
Louis Nye as Ronnie "The Great Renaldo" Cavendish
On the more “entertaining” side, not only were these films “daring” and “sex-obsessed” in ways suitable to a young person’s comprehension level (aka: all talk and no action), but the main characters were invariably women who could just as well have been gay men. Overwrought, theatrically histrionic gay men. I of course wasn’t aware of it at the time, but Williams and Inge (both closeted gay playwrights), were only able to express their truth through their female characters. Thus, their female protagonists were often imbued with a depth and dimensionality lacking in most roles for women written during this period.
As a youngster, the stoic, heteronormative macho leading man never spoke to any reality I knew. But I did recognize parts of myself in the bruised, vulnerable, idealistic outsiders Inge and Williams wrote so empathetically about.
Lila shows Kenny her prized possession: Film clips of her failed Hollywood screen test
 for the 1955 Fred Astaire musical, Daddy Long Legs

As much as I enjoy this film, I’m inclined to agree when I encounter reviews labeling this movie “lesser Inge.” The Stripper has a lack of subtlety and obviousness of intent that made me think it was early William Inge (it a little like an episode from one of those 60s anthology TV programs like Playhouse 90). In reality, it’s based on the playwright’s first Broadway flop following a string of unbroken successes starting with Dark at the Top of the Stairs (1945), Come Back Little Sheba (1950), Picnic (1953), and Bus Stop (1955). 
Indeed, as A Loss of Roses signaled the beginning of a reversal trend in Inge’s career, the problematic work play has a legacy of misfortune surrounding it rivaling that of Shakespeare’s Macbeth.
Michael J. Pollard as Geoffrey "Jelly" Beamis
Pollard and Webber are the only members er of the original Broadway cast to recreate their roles in the film
The first victim was Shirley Booth, who had previously won both a Tony and an Oscar with Inge’s Come Back Little Sheba, and accepted the role when promised the role of Helen would be made more prominent. Alas, Booth wound up quitting the show just days before its Broadway debut for the rumored reason that Inge was shifting the production to favor a Broadway neophyte he had a crush on. An actor by the name of Warren Beatty, making his Broadway debut.

The second victim was William Inge himself. For although he had faith in the play and expressed the belief that A Loss of Roses was a “Sure thing,” the play opened to disastrous reviews and closed after a mere 25 performances. It was Inge’s first flop, and one that so devastated him, he never had another stage success again.

The third victim was Warren Beatty. For although he was nominated for a Tony Award, the experience was so unpleasant, he never again appeared onstage. On the plus side, Inge's enduring crush gave Beatty (when Jane Fonda met Beatty for the first time in New York, she thought he was Inge's boyfriend) a foot-up in Hollywood. He made his film debut in Inge's Splendor in the Grass, and starred in the Inge-penned, All Fall Down, a 1962 film with an older woman/younger man theme similar to The Stripper.

Victim number four was 20th Century Fox production head, Buddy Adler, who purchased the rights to A Loss of Roses for a whopping $400,000 (in 50s dollars!) before it opened strictly on the strength of Inge’s reputation. As he told columnist Louella Parsons “Yes, we paid a big price, but Inge writes only hits. He wrote 'Bus Stop' , 'Picnic,' and 'Dark at the Top of the Stairs.' There were a number of producers trying to get 'A Loss of Roses' so we were lucky to get it.” 
Something's Gotta Give
As she strips, Lila sings the 1954 Johnny Mercer song Fred Astaire introduced in Daddy Long Legs - the movie she unsuccessfully screen-tested for. Ironically, the song is also the title (as Something's Got to Give)  of Marilyn Monroe's last film. The Stripper was released a year after Monroe's death in August  of 1962, and the movie is loaded with reminders of its being a vehicle originally intended for her.

Victim number five was Fox Studios. Adler purchased A Loss of Roses for then-under contract Marilyn Monroe, and teen heartthrob Pat Boone (!). Both turned the film down. Monroe (who enjoyed a great success with the film version of Inge’s Bus Stop in 1956) likely found the Lila character (a stripper with lousy taste in men, who at one time tried to kill herself and was institutionalized) a tad too close to home; while Boone objected on moral grounds, finding the illicit affair between the young man and slightly pathetic stripper all wrong for his image.

Victim number six was actor Richard Beymer. Boosted to leading man stardom after West Side Story (1961), The Stripper jinx apparently hit, because this was his last major motion picture.

Finally, victim number 7, Joanne Woodward. An Academy Award winner for The Three Faces of Eve (1957) , Woodward retired from the screen not long after marrying Paul Newman and having two children. The Stripper was her to be her comeback vehicle, but its DOA arrival at the boxoffice got her career reemergence off to a rocky start from which it never fully recovered.
Helen Interprets Kenny's Birthday Gift as a Gesture to Replace his Father
A great many of the more unhealthier aspects of the mother-son relationship in
A Loss of Roses were excised when it became The Stripper

While many found fault with Inge’s original play and Meade Robert’s considerably less sordid adaptation, critics were largely in agreement over the quality of Joanne Woodward’s performance. Overcoming a blonde, cotton candy wig that hovers at least an inch over her head, Woodward has some really remarkable moments playing character who’s part Blanche DuBois and part Charity Hope Valentine (and one can’t help but detect a bit of Ellen Green from Little Shop of Horrors).

Looking pretty spectacular in her Travilla wardrobe (Monroe’s designer), Woodward occasionally falls prey to the gimmicky tricks of smart actors trying to play dumb, but she truly shines in the film’s final scenes and achieves several moments of heartrending poignancy.
"I want my roses back."
Promotional stills of several sequences not in the film suggest the already problematic storyline
of The Stripper underwent a significant amount of post-production editing.
Below, a segment of an 1891 Emily Dickinson poem quoted in the film: 
I’m nobody! Who are you?
Are you nobody too?
Then there’s a pair of us - don’t tell!
They’d banish us, you know.

The rest of the cast is solid, if perhaps let down a bit by a script which doesn't offer supporting characters much beyond a quick surface impression. Richard Beymer is good as the juvenile, but never succeeds in getting me to understand Kenny's darker, brooding side. The always-welcome Claire Trevor is a standout as the mother fills an empty life with overconcern for her nearly adult son.
Carol Lynley doesn't get much of a chance to be anything but gorgeous in a thankless "girlfriend" role, and there really is far too little of the quirky Michael J Pollard and the Auntie Mame-ish Gypsy Rose Lee. TV stalwart Robert Webber is convincingly oily.
In spite of the film's sensationalist title, Woodward makes for a very covered-up stripper.
Happily, the same can't be said for her co-star

In all these years I have never forgotten the The Stripper's opening, pre-title sequence. It's just that terrific. It promises a level camp sleaze the movie never delivers, but how can you loose with a movie that opens with a shot of the original, iconic Myra Breckinridge showgirl billboard?

Bus Driver: "We are approaching the world famous Sunset Strip! Here You may see in the flesh the great names of show business you've only watched on the screen before!"
Tourist #1: "Look! There's Jayne Mansfield!"
Tourist #2: "No it isn''s Kim Novak!"
Bus Driver: "No it isn't, lady."
Tourist #1: "Then who is it?"
Bus Driver: "Nobody."


"The Stripper" Watch the complete film on YouTube. HERE

The Stripper's sole Oscar nomination was for the costume designs of William Travilla (Valley of the Dolls, Black Widow, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes). Visit the blog: 50 Years of Film & Fashion Travilla Style to read more about his costumes for this film.

"It's what I want more than anything. More than winning contests or being a movie star,
or anything like that.. 'Cause if you know you've got one person who loves and respects you,
then you don't need love from a lot of people, do you?"

Copyright © Ken Anderson

Saturday, September 19, 2015


I’ve always been a sucker for playwright Tennessee Williams’ overheated southern gothics.
By the time most of the films adapted from his plays began airing regularly on late-night TV, Williams’ trademark psychoanalytic, sweat ‘n’ lust domestic melodramas – so popular in the 40s and 50s – had long gone out of fashion. But watching these movies as a kid gave me the impression of adulthood as this distant, mysterious wonderland where one’s life would be ruled by fiery passions and profound emotions, and where the simplest, most unassuming countenances concealed deep wellsprings of poetic sensitivity.

Admittedly, I couldn’t always distinguish actual Tennessee Williams movies from look-alike works from William Inge (Come Back Little Sheba), Eugene O’Neill (Desire Under the Elms), Carson McCullers (The Member of the Wedding), Lonnie Coleman (Hot Spell), or William Faulkner (The Long Hot Summer). But as each film seemed to reinforce the same themes ("Oh, you weak, beautiful people who give up with such grace. What you need is someone to take hold of you - gently, with love, and hand your life back to you. Like something golden you let go of."); they might well have sprung from the same imagination.
The Emotionally Unavailable Man

When I was young and my entire world not much larger than the size of my family, I responded to the way Williams’ domestic dramas gave the mundane conflicts of the American household the scope and grandeur of Greek tragedy. In my adolescence, I related to his characters’ flawed humanity and struggle with self-forgiveness. When I was a teenager and became more aware of the hormonal drives propelling Williams’ narratives, I was excited by his introduction of implicit and codified homosexual longing – inevitably tortured – through characters seen (Brick in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof); unseen (Blanche’s husband in A Streetcar Named Desire); male (Sebastian in Suddenly, Last Summer); and female (Karen Stone in The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone).
Young adulthood brought forth in me both a heretofore untapped propensity for supercilious scoffing and an appreciation of camp; two dubious talents put to good use when confronted by some of the more outdated aspects of Williams’ oeuvre, and 50s-era Hollywood's quaint notions of what constituted "steamy."  A feeling only heightened by my fondness at the time for those brutally trenchant “Family” skits on The Carol Burnett Show. Those hilariously acerbic episodes of familial discord were so well-written, yet so exaggerated, they forever altered my ability to take the southern gothic genre nearly as seriously as I had in my youth.
Elizabeth Taylor as Margaret (Maggie) Pollitt 
Paul Newman as Brick Pollitt
Burl Ives as Big Daddy
Judith Anderson as Ida "Big Momma" Pollitt
Jack Carson as Gooper "Brother-Man" Pollitt
Madeline Sherwood as Mae "Sister-Woman" Pollitt
Life experience and changing times have sapped many Tennessee Williams’ films of much of their initial profundity for me, leaving in its place a kind of winsome nostalgia for a time when Williams’ ennobling of the outcast and defense of the delicate-of-spirit proved the perfect balm for my adolescent insecurities. But the richness of his characters, poetry of language, and finely-observed details of familial tension still have the power to engross. And if every so often his movies lapse into campiness…well, these days that only serves to sweeten the experience.

One of Williams’ more accessible films is Cat on a Hot Tin Roof , his 1955 Pulitzer Prize-winning play adapted for the screen (Williams would say bowdlerized) in 1958  by director Richard Brooks (Looking for Mr. Goodbar) and screenwriter James Poe (They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?). Parodied, imitated, and discussed to a fare-thee-well, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and the saga of the Mississippi Pollitts –a family of epic dysfunction long before such a term existed – is too familiar to warrant a summary (those who need it can find one HERE).
But Maggie the Cat, Brick, Big Momma, Big Daddy, Gooper  & Mae and their troop of little no-neck monsters, occupy a short list of Williams characters so colorfully drawn and finely realized onscreen; just their names alone evoke images of real-life, flesh-and-blood beings with lives that extend beyond the celluloid frame. Not all of Williams’ characters strike me this way, but to this list I’d add Blanche DuBois, Stanley Kowalski, and Sebastian Venable; the latter of whom I can see plain as day in spite of his never being shown.
"They've brought the whole bunch here like animals to display at a county fair."
Monster of Fertility, Mae Pollitt, nee Flynn, and Her Brood of No-Necks

I think Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is the very first Tennessee Williams film I ever saw. Certainly, coming as I do from an extended family arguably as dysfunctional and just a shade more Machiavellian, it’s the first Tennessee Williams movie I actually “got.” Which is to say, at my young age. I was able to follow it. Not necessarily grasp with insight any of what the film had to say about things like, the duality of lying – how people use lies to both protect and to harm; the crippling, self-destructiveness of guilt; the relativity of love and truth; and the indomitability of the self-preservation instinct, aka that cat staying on the tin roof as long it can.

Like those shiny shells the surf leaves on the beach that require minimal effort to spot and pick up, the things that most entertained me about Cat on a Hot Tin Roof were primarily on its surface. I loved the setup: over the course of a long, hot summer day (I learned early that there's no such thing as winter in southern gothic), a family estranged and at odds is forced to interact and put on a good face on the occasion of Big Daddy's 65th birthday. Possibly his last.
Beautifully shot, well-cast, and finely acted, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is a finger-lickin', family-size, southern-fried fracas with overlays of Freudian psychology. As often as not, the characters lie to each other with the same alacrity with which they lie to themselves, and when not repressing some deep, dark secret, are pressing forth some hidden agenda. Resentments, revelations and epiphanies flow as freely as the bourbon from Brick's bottomless booze bottle, while unsure southern accents clash musically in the background. It's great stuff that I've come to appreciate more as I've grown older.
Mendacity Manor
Unaware as I was of the Production Code-mandated excision of all references to homosexuality from Williams’ original play, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof came across like every other overly-coy, repressed-yet sex-obsessed 50s-era movie: it wouldn’t stop talking about what it couldn’t speak aloud. I thought the entire hubbub in the movie surrounded Brick's belief that Maggie slept with his football buddy, Skipper, a man that Brick, love-starved from Big Daddy's inattention, held up as a hero. That's it. I never picked on any homosexual subtext beyond the fact that Paul Newman was impossibly gorgeous. A sizable chunk of my early memories of watching Cat on a Hot Tin Roof on TV are scene after scene of characters proffering endless variations on: “Don’t say it, Maggie!”; “I’m gonna talk about it!”; “Tell him! Go on, tell him the truth!”; "It’s got to be told!”; "First you've got to tell me!"
Yeesh! Just say it already!
"When a marriage goes on the rocks...the rocks are there, right there!"
The anthology TV program, Love, American Style was still on the air the first time I saw Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. An identical brass bed was featured in several of the comedy show's episodes and black-out skits (above), contributing to my feeling that sections of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof played out like an episode titled, "Love and the Deep Dark Secret" 

I also remember being distracted by Paul Newman’s immobile, insanely photogenic face. Easy on the eyes as he is, he goes through the entire film with but a single, all-purpose expression: smoldering insouciance. Sure, he's playing a character all-bottled up and cut-off, and perhaps my biggest complaint is how the character is conceived in the first place; but even those cool blue eyes fail to register much. Every close up looks like the same GQ Magazine cover. I guess they don't call him "Brick" for nothing.
Winner of the Keanu Reeves / Kristen Stewart / Sean Combs one-face-fits-all  Sphinx Award

Over the years, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof has been restored to Williams’ preferred version in any number of permutations (two are linked in the Bonus Materials section below). But, as gratifying as it is to finally see the entire play as it was originally intended, the film version remains my favorite.
Because even at its most frank, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is a seriously closeted play. Nearly 2½ hours are devoted to a man turning himself inside out over the shameful prospect that he might be gay. Another man kills himself over the fact. I recognize that as the work of a repressed playwright in a repressed era, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is daring and groundbreaking as hell, but contemporary actors tackling this material today always seem forced and false. They over-emote and practically burst blood vessels portraying characters who are motivated by pretense and a need to play things close to their vest.
My feeling is that if I’m going to enjoy a work of closeted art, there’s something to be said for seeing it with all its repression intact.
The movie version of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof feels every inch a product of the 1950s. It’s an uptight, skirting-the-issue, kind of movie that was made and takes place within in the very era that created the Bricks and Skippers of our society.  In some odd, meta kind of way, there is something perfect about a movie dealing with latent homosexuality, which, in its telling, leaps through hoops and fire in an effort to avoid even mentioning the word. The drastic alterations Cat on a Hot Tin Roof underwent to make it to the screen communicate Williams' themes better than he knew.
Madeline Sherwood (who I only knew as Reverend Mother on The Flying Nun) and Burl Ives
 (who will always be Sam the Snowman from Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer) recreated
the roles they originated on Broadway

What makes Cat on a Hot Tin Roof so re-watchable for me are the performances. All of which are standouts. Everybody is in fine form (even Newman as the immovable Brick, has his moments). The feel of a great ensemble cast is captured in the easy, familiar way in which the characters interact, and happily, Williams' play and the screenplay affords each with at least one big moment to shine.
Madeline Sherwood and Jack Carson are letter-perfect and a lot of fun. Sherwood's southern accent and single-minded, Lady Macbeth maneuvering are a constant delight.
"One more crack, Queenie..."
Burl Ives is perhaps my all-time favorite Big Daddy, although I suspect the effect of his performance was undermined somewhat in 1958 by his giving an almost identical one in Desire Under the Elms earlier the same year. And while my vote for favorite Big Momma has to be split evenly between Maureen Stapleton and Kim Stanley (the 1976 and 1984 TV-movie versions, respectively), Judith Anderson's atypically refined take on the role is surprisingly moving.
And then we come to Elizabeth Taylor. Given how many of her films have made their way onto this blog, it should come as no surprise that her Maggie the Cat is the central reason why Cat on a Hot Tin Roof has been a favorite of mine for all these years and only gets better with time. For me it really isn’t a matter of how well she embodies the character Tennessee Williams created (the screen Maggie is less tense, catty, and consumed with a clawed-her-way-up-from-nothing fear of poverty), it's that she succeeds in making Maggie both the heat and life force of the film.
Taylor is so celestially beautiful and appealing in the role, Brick doesn't come off troubled so much as having rocks in his head. Ironically, as rumors of Paul Newman's probable bisexuality began circulating after his death, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof reclaimed the gay subtext it fought so hard to lose.
Taylor's third husband, Mike Todd, was killed in a plane crash three weeks into the film's production
Even with that questionable southern accent of hers (“I caint! I caint!") no one (at least no one I've seen) can touch Taylor's Maggie. In this film she's more than a jewel; she’s the entire crown.

It’s no secret that Tennessee Williams didn't care for the film version of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. But Williams, like a lot of artists conflicted by a desire for legitimacy and popular success; tended to hedge his bets after the fact. Williams had a habit of willingly applying suggestions from directors (Elia Kazan, most explosively) with a talent for discerning popular appeal. But once a show proved successful, feelings of self-betrayal poisoned the pleasure of his many trips to the bank. This would result in Williams making a great show of giving self-serving statements to the press about how he'd had to compromise his principles in order to satisfy provincial sensibilities.
(John Lahr’s exceptional biography, Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh recounts this pattern of behavior in delicious detail.)
Virtually the entire third act was rewritten for the film. Among the changes: a sentimental
backstory for Big Daddy, and a father and son reconciliation
Certainly the film version of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof thoroughly subverts the entire theme of Williams’ play, but given his run-ins with the censors and Hollywood Production Code during the making of A Streetcar Named Desire six years earlier; one wonders what he possibly could have expected. Exactly what he got, it seems. For the half-million dollars he accepted from MGM for the rights to Cat on a Hot Tin Roof proved to be his guilt-ridden deal with the devil.
"I do love you Brick. I do!"
"Wouldn't it be funny if that were true?"
Above is how Cat on a Hot Tin Roof 's last scene might have played out had the film kept Williams' original ending. But after 108 minutes of advance-retreat, Hollywood knew 1958 audiences would tear down the theater if these two beautiful specimens weren't granted their hard-won happy ending.

The 1976 made-for-TV adaptation of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof starring Natalie Wood, Robert Wagner, Laurence Olivier, & Maureen Stapleton. (Features the Broadway ending.)

The 1984 made-for-TV adaptation of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof  starring Jessica Lange, Tommy Lee Jones, Rip Torn, and Kim Stanley. Features Williams' preferred "original" ending, restored text, and at a running time of almost 2 ½ hours, is the most complete filmed staging.

Copyright © Ken Anderson

Monday, September 14, 2015

THE FAN 1981

This updated and expanded repost of an earlier essay is part of The Lauren Bacall Blogathon hosted by The Good Old Days of ClassicHollywood.  Visit the site for more posts from participating blogs.

At an age when most of her industry peers were retired, forgotten, or guesting on episodes of Fantasy Island and The Love Boat, 56-year old Lauren Bacall was enjoying a career resurgence and visibility rivaling her 1940s heyday when she was known as “The Look.”  She was headlining in the Broadway musical, Woman of the Year; topping the bestseller charts with the paperback release of her 1978 memoir, By Myself; shilling everything from jewelry to cat food in TV and print ads; and, most remarkably in those pre-Meryl Streep/Helen Mirren years, starring in a $9 million major motion picture release.
The Fame Game
The Fan, a suspense thriller based on Bob Randall’s 1977 epistolary novel about an aging Broadway star stalked by an obsessive fan, gave Bacall arguably the biggest role of her career. Certainly the first in which she’d be required to carry the entire film on her own.

Filmed on location in New York from March to July of 1980, The Fan was poised for release at the most opportune time to take advantage of Bacall’s already-in-motion Broadway and bookshelf publicity. Unfortunately, as The Fan’s PR-friendly release date of March 15, 1981 neared, several real-life, obsessive fan-based tragedies (targeting John Lennon and President Ronald Reagan) conspired to make this fame-culture melodrama seem more an exercise in bad taste than ripped-from-today's-headlines relevance.
Lauren Bacall as Sally Ross
Michael Biehn as Douglas Breen
Maureen Stapleton as Belle Goldman
James Garner as Jake Berman
Hector Elizondo as Inspector Raphael Andrews 
Kurt Johnson as David Barnum

If musical theater geeks, Glee habitués, and folks capable of making it through an entire Tony Awards broadcast ever longed for an 80s slasher film to call their own; then The Fan more than fills the Playbill. This unappetizingly bloody, yet oh-so delectable / derisible blend of backstage musical, 1940s career-woman soap opera, slasher-flick, and woman-in-peril melodrama, is high camp movie nirvana. An upscale cousin of the hagsploitation genre of the 60s, The Fan may substitute glamour for grotesquery, but the film's raison d'être remains the prolonged persecution and victimization of a mature classic Hollywood star. 
Alas, when it opened in theaters in the spring of 1981, The Fan – to quote one of the hooty Louis St. Louis (Grease 2) showtunes sung in the film – “Got No Love” from either audiences or critics. Patrons old enough to be enticed by the film's elder cast risked having their blue rinses turned stark white by the movie's copious bloodshed and the artless, Bogie-wouldn't-stand-for-this dialog: “Dearest bitch, see how accessible you are? How would you like to be fucked by a meat cleaver?” Similarly, the teen demographic ordinarily drawn to slasher films didn’t quite know what to make of a movie set in the Sardi's and cigarettes world of the New York theater, totally devoid of comely, scantily-clad bimbos, and whose median character age hovered somewhere around the fifty-five mark. A wholly uninspired publicity campaign only added to the film’s troubles.

Had The Fan been a play, it would have closed in Boston. Whisked off screens within weeks of its release, The Fan resurfaced with some regularity on HBO and Showtime throughout the 80s before ultimately disappearing into relative obscurity. Obscurity so complete that Robert De Niro's unrelated but same-titled 1996 sports-themed film has totally eclipsed Bacall's The Fan in the public's memory.
Happily, The Fan's release on DVD has rekindled awareness of this very 80s curio. A glimpse back at a New York still atmospherically seedy. A vision of a world populated with record stores, typewriters, payphones, legwarmers, and heavy smokers. All with nary a Starbucks in sight. And while no undiscovered classic, The Fan does have its merits (most of them camp-related, I'm afraid) which make it a movie worthy of rediscovery. Not the least of them being Lauren Bacall, a smoking, drinking, tough-as-nails star of Broadway and the silver screen, playing a smoking, drinking, tough-as-nails star of Broadway and the silver screen. And convincingly, too!

The psychological subtheme of The Fan
And the audience LOVES me! And I love them! And they love me for lovin' them and I love them for lovin' me. And we love each other. And that's 'cause none of us got enough love in out childhoods. 
And that's show biz, kid!  - Fred Ebb

No low-budget gore-fest populated by a cast of nondescript teens stalked by a masked phantom, The Fan was conceived as a stylish, A-List, Hitchcockian thriller along the lines of Eyes of Laura Mars (1978) and Brian De Palma’s Dressed to Kill (1980).  The latter garnering 50s sexpot, Angie Dickinson, some of the best notices of her career. At least that's how things started.
Produced by movie/music mogul Robert Stigwood on the downturn side of a 70s winning streak that included youth-centric films like Jesus Christ Superstar, Saturday Night Fever, and Tommy; The Fan was Stigwood’s most expensive film to date and first stab (if you’ll pardon the pun) at cracking the adult market. To this end he amassed a distinguished cast of New York actors, pedigreed Broadway composers (Marvin Hamlisch and Tim Rice collaborated on two – fairly terrible – original songs), and the up-and-coming talents of first-time director Edward Bianchi (from TV commercials and music videos) and choreographer Arlene Philips (Can’t Stop The MusicAnnie).

If you've ever seen a Lauren Bacall musical, you know that her being lifted and carried about is a choreography requisite. I was surprised by how many online reviewers, questioning Bacall's "believability" as a Broadway musical star in The Fan, later express surprise upon learning she was a rel-life musical theater star, a Best Actress Tony Award winner for Applause and Woman of the Year.

But as the saying goes, the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry, and somewhere between screenplay to movie-house, The Fan transmogrified into a film beset by:
1) Bad decisions: Friday the 13 became a hit during The Fan's post-production, prompting Paramount to order reshoots to ratchet up the violence. 
2) Bad timing and bad decisions: Three months before The Fan's release, John Lennon was killed by an obsessive fan outside NY’s Dakota apartments (as it happens, also the home of Lauren Bacall), after which it is said the film's original downbeat ending (if true to the novel) underwent some 11th-hour tinkering.
3) Just generally lousy luck: Not only was Lauren Bacall's promotion of The Fan limited exclusively to her expressing to the press her disappointment in the finished product, but three weeks into The Fan's less-than-illustrious release, an attempt was made on President Reagan's life by a Jodie Foster-obsessed fan. 
Bacall the Buzzkill
Bacall: "The Fan is much more graphic and violent than when I read the script."
Anna Maria Horsford (who appeared in Stigwood's Times Square in 1980) as detective Emily Stolz

Stigwood severely scaled back his usual bombastic pre-release publicity for The Fan (STD results have been released with more fanfare), while Paramount added a disclaimer to its theatrical trailers claiming The Fan was in no way inspired by the tragic death of John Lennon. This latter decision prompting the outspoken Bacall to declare to People magazine: “I think it’s disgusting, revolting and exploitive!”

In the end it didn't really matter, for The Fan wound up being one of those rare films capable of offering audiences simultaneously contradictory experiences – none of them satisfactory. Stylishly shot, overflowing in chichi urban gloss, and embellished with a chilling Pino Donaggio score (Carrie, Don’t Look NowThe Fan ultimately failed to find an audience because it clearly didn't know who the hell that was. Classic movie fans familiar with Lauren Bacall thought the film was too classy to be so trashy, slasher fans thought the film wasn't trashy enough. Gays had their own problems with the film.
Strangers in the Night
The Fan did itself no favors by alienating the very audience most receptive to a film offering up ample doses musical theater, backstage drama, showtunes, tight male bodies in various states of undress, and Lauren Bacall in full Margo Channing mode. On the heels of Windows (1980), a stalker thriller about a lesbian psychopath, and Cruising (1980) a crime thriller about a homosexual psychopath; many members of the gay community felt The Fan's closeted theater-queen stalker was one gay psycho too many.

That wasn’t me, however. I’d read The Fan back in 1978, really getting a kick out of how the book used the thriller genre to comment on what I’ve always felt to be the odd love /hate relationship between stars and their adoring public. As a fan of Lauren Bacall from her movies with Bogart on The Late Show, the Broadway musical Applause (1973 TV broadcast), and Murder on the Orient Express; I was thrilled when I heard she had been cast.  

More exciting for me still was that Edward Bianchi was hired to direct and Arlene Phillip was to do the choreography. Bianchi & Phillips had collaborated on a series of eye-popping Dr, Pepper commercials in the late 70s for the advertising agency of Young & Rubicam that inspired me in many of my film school classes. When I also learned that Broadway great Maureen Stapleton had joined the cast and that Bacall’s rumored paramour, James Garner was also on board ; The Fan swiftly became one of the most eagerly-awaited films of the year for me.

I saw The Fan on opening day at Grauman’s Chinese Theater, and the smallish audience of young people in attendance (clearly in search of a good scare) was underwhelmed. I, on the other hand, felt as though I’d died and gone to camp film heaven. Not since Eyes of Laura Mars had I seen a thriller capable of being enjoyed on so many levels at once. I saw it three times before it disappeared from theaters.
Shot on location, The Fan provides many great glimpses of of 80s-era New York.
Here the famed Shubert Theater is the site for Sally Ross' opening night in Never Say Never; the fictional musical providing The Fan with so much of its camp appeal

What brings me back to The Fan time and time again are its many sequences depicting the behind-the-scenes creation of the fictional Broadway musical, Never Say Never. Much is made of it being Sally Ross’ singing and dancing debut, and we don't doubt it for a minute. Bacall's foghorn baritone and reliance on chorus boys to lug and lift her about give the scenes a comic authenticity. 
Populated with recognized Broadway dancers, shot in actual NY rehearsal studios, with a knowing attention to procedural detail; the show in question may look terrible, but these sequences are great fun. The 80s vibe is irresistible (all those short-shorts, spandex, legwarmers, and Arlene Philips' trademark Hot Gossip choreography), and the risible music ("No energy crisis, my professional advice is...") gets caught in your head like an earwig. Of course, it certainly doesn't hurt that I saw this film during my early days as a dancer and that in 1982, when I took my first trip to New York, I studied dance at Jo Jo's, the studio used in the film.
All the Boys Love Sally
Choreographer Arlene Phillips wouldn't actually choreograph for
Broadway until 1987's Starlight Express
Call Her Miss Ross
Broadway dancer Justin Ross (l.) appeared in the film version of A Chorus Line,
and dancer Reed Jones (r.) originated the role of Skimbleshanks in Cats

If you’re going to make a film about the kind of old-school, glamorous, show-biz diva capable of inciting the flames of obsessive fandom, you couldn’t do much better than landing all-around class-act, Lauren Bacall. Her gravitas as a full-fledged movie star from the golden era gives The Fan a shot of instant legitimacy every time she appears. In one of the largest roles of her career, Bacall is not always filmed as flatteringly as you'd imagine, but the effect is rather refreshing. She looks marvelously lived-in, and her still-striking looks serve as a welcome change from the botoxed mannequins we've grown used to. Playing a role that can't be considered much of a stretch in some ways, she's awfully good. So good in fact, that I kept wishing the film would just allow for the natural character drama of this ageing star grappling with loneliness, self-doubt, and vulnerability, play itself out minus all the genre machinations.
Bacall's appearance on Garner's TV show, The Rockford Files in 1979, followed by their appearing together in Robert Altman's HealtH (1980), and then here in The Fan, had gossip-columnist tongues wagging about a romance between the two

The 80s come vividly alive in the film's Broadway musical sequences, which are sort of Solid Gold meets Can't Stop The Music. As would be the case with the Broadway musical numbers in 1983s Staying Alive, it's near-impossible to imagine just what kind of Broadway this could be. The numbers look more appropriate to a Las Vegas revue.
A Remarkable Woman
Hearts, Not Diamonds
Disco Bacall - Has to be seen (and heard) to be believed
I've never considered The Fan to be as bad a film as its reputation has led people to believe. Its screenplay is clichéd to be sure (the stage doorman is actually named “Pop”) and the violence needlessly gruesome for such a visually distinguished and stylish film (Bianchi’s music video background is in full evidence), but with a provocative theme and talented cast, The Fan has quite a bit going for it even with its flaws. One might have wished for a little more finesse in the areas of motivation and character, but I seriously have a soft spot in my heart for this movie...mostly centered around the Broadway setting, the images of a still gritty and grimy New York, and reminders of my early years in dance. And of course, it really is great to see late-career Bacall - with that amazing Gena Rowlands-like mane of hair - command the screen once more. Who was it that said, "Nostalgia ain't what it used to be"?

"Deep Brewed Flavah!"
During the 80s Lauren Bacall's commercials for High Point instant coffee were the stuff of legend. In honor of The Fan, here's one of her most Sally Ross, "theatah"-themed ones. HERE 

Before "Be a Pepper!" became the company's slogan, Edward Bianchi directed this stylish and award-winning 1975 Dr. Pepper commercial. HERE

Copyright © Ken Anderson