Friday, September 30, 2011

ROSEMARY'S BABY 1968

“Cinematically speaking, if stressful social times trigger in our culture the need for escapism as a coping mechanism, then such conditions must equally inspire the necessity of what can be best described as a shrouded emotional outlet: an avenue, concealed to the psyche, through which the fears and uncertainties of the times can be safely vented. In this manner the horror film has always been socially revealing.”  

Rosemary's Baby: Child of the 60s:
Rosemary’s Baby was released in June of 1968. And as social climates go, one couldn't find a year more defined by stress, fear, and uncertainty than America in 1968. This was the year that saw Richard Nixon elected into office of President; the assassination of two American symbols of hope (Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy); U.S. involvement in the war in Vietnam escalate; and big cities and college campuses across the nation wracked by violent civil rights protests and heated anti-war demonstrations. Observed Los Angeles Times journalist Bettuane Levine: “It was a very bad year. Strikes, sit - ins and bloody riots dotted the land, as various groups sought their share of the pie. The result was a country in crisis, our cities in tatters, our dislocated lives punctuated by assassination, Cold War threats, nuclear terrors, and a general feeling that nothing would ever be the same again.”
Real-life Time Magazine cover, dated April 1, 1966, poses the unasked question that Rosemary's Baby's powerfully ambiguous ending  inspires.
For anyone endeavoring to make a horror film in the 60s, a seemingly insurmountable hurdle lie in determining what could possibly frighten an audience which, on a nightly basis, had beamed into their homes, the real-life terrors of war. Audiences who, through photo magazines like Life and Look, regularly confronted graphic evidence of a nation growing increasingly chaotic. What fictional creature could compete with the real-life horror that was modern America?   

Enter, Rosemary's Baby. Ira Levin's cannily plotted modern horror story about present-day witchcraft took classic gothic conventions and re-imagined them through the prism of an emerging new world view. A world in which castles, bats, cobwebs, and creaky doorways were no longer considered viable mechanisms of fear. A world which had moved beyond superstition and myth to worship at the altar of science and logic. Rosemary's Baby proposed that even in a world in which God and religion are deemed obsolete, there remain things that never die, and primitive evils that no amount of civilization and modernization can eradicate.
Mia Farrow as Rosemary Woodhouse
John Cassavetes as Guy Woodhouse
Ruth Gordon as Minnie Castevet
Sidney Blackmer as Roman Castevet
Roman Polanski's uncommonly faithful film adaptation took Levin's narrative one step further. He  threaded the tale of a young bride's mounting certainty that a coven of witches has evil designs on her unborn child with both cultural subtext (is the dawning of the year "One" [1966] and the birth of the Antichrist on earth the true explanation for the world's escalating terrors?), and ambiguity (Polanski initially filmed, and later deleted, several scenes that distinctly confirmed Guy's involvement with the coven. An avowed atheist, Polanski wanted to make a film about witchcraft and Satanism that would play just as well as a psychological thriller about a pregnant woman suffering a paranoid breakdown). No matter how it's viewed, in Polanski's deft hands, Rosemary’s Baby proves to be an overwhelmingly persuasive allegory of social apprehension and the durability of evil.

What a diabolically clever plot: The living Devil born in a Manhattan apartment building (The notorious Bramford, portrayed externally in the film by the notorious Dakota, site of the tragic 1980 shooting death of John Lennon) to a lapsed Catholic, a woman of wavering faith, used merely as a vessel. This act signaling the end of God's hegemony and the beginning of a new, Satanic world order. Historically, this would place the birth of Satan on earth as occuring in 1966, the very year when things began to go violently "wrong" with society on a global scale. No wonder sixties audiences responded to the imaginary "order" this fantasy imposed on the chaos surrounding them.
Under the piercing scrutiny of Roman Castevet, Rosemary's friend, Hutch (Maurice Evans) grows suspicious when shown Rosemary's Tannis Root charm. 


WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM:
Rosemary's Baby truly excels in its dramatization of the banality of evil. Though played for darkly comic effect, it's really rather jarring that the monsters in this contemporary horror film are harmless-looking little old ladies and men. Just the kind of colorless, ordinary people we as a society are so quick to dismiss. Imagine this film playing out in the "Don't trust anyone over 30" climate of the 60s, and you get a taste of just how subversively eerie Rosemary's Baby seemed when it hit the screens. Audiences accustomed to horror films as B-movie double-feature fare were disquieted when this major motion picture (which was intentionally shot to look as if it were a Doris Day comedy) with an art-house director and an A-list cast dared to make a horror film that took itself seriously enough to be truly frightening. 
 First Betrayal: Polanski has Cassavetes shield his face from the audience the first time Guy lies to Rosemary

In Rosemary's Baby Polanski depicts a world morally turned on its axis, and in keeping so much of its horrors unseen or unsubstantiated, orchestrates a slow, nightmarish transformation of all that is perceived as safe and familiar in our culture into that which is dangerous and sinister. As a cleverly constructed parable of 60s unease, Rosemary's Baby captured the imagination of the country (It was one of the top money-makers of the year) by providing some much-needed cathartic release.
The security and sanctity of marriage as an illusion.
Expectant mothers, in their vulnerability, make for deeply unsettling targets of danger.
Can patriarchal figures of authority (Ralph Bellamy as Dr.Sapirstein) betray us?

PERFORMANCES:
When trying to come up with words to adequately express my admiration for Mia Farrow's performance as Rosemary, my vocabulary proves grossly inadequate. From the moment she appears onscreen she exhibits a vulnerable credibility that anchors the film in an emotional reality necessary to make the horror fantasy work. She's no genre heroine moved about like a chess piece for the sake of furthering the plot. At every instant the actions of Farrow's Rosemary are rooted in something psychologically authentic. It ranks with Faye Dunaway in Bonnie and Clyde and Jane Fonda in They Shoot Horses, Don't They? as one of the best performances by an American actress in the 60s.


THE STUFF OF FANTASY:
As he proved with his psychosexual thriller, Repulsion (1965) Roman Polanski is expert at conveying, in cinematic terms, the fluid, distorted quality of dreams and the reality-altering effects of paranoia. He handles Rosemary's Baby's pivotal "nightmare" sequence with virtuoso skill.
They didn't refer to this as the "nightmare sequence" for nothing. At age 11, this scene nearly traumatized me.

THE STUFF OF DREAMS:
Rosemary's Baby wasn't the first film I ever saw, it just feels that way. At 11 years old, it was the first film to ever make an indelible impression upon me. I never forgot it. Part of this was due to the fact that it was absolutely THE most frightening film I had ever seen and was responsible for innumerable bad dreams and a reluctance to enter dark rooms for months thereafter;  but mostly it was because Rosemary's Baby was, and is, a small masterpiece.
The scene that made me jump the first time I saw the film (and still makes my blood run cold!)
A horror film that plays fast and loose with the conventions of the genre, blending elements of the psychological thriller and paranoid social drama. Beautifully shot, well-written, superbly acted, and above all, smart as a whip. At no time during Rosemary's Baby do you ever lose the feeling that you are in the hands of a man who knows exactly what he's doing and eliciting from you precisely the response he wants you to have.
It is a film of solid assurance in every aspect.
Rosemary's Baby is the Citizen Kane of horror films. To this day, some 40-plus years after its release, I find it one of the most remarkable and consistently satisfying films I've ever seen.

AUTOGRAPH FILES:
My sister (my family are the only ones to call me Kenny) got John Cassavetes to autograph this receipt when she saw him at a restaurant on Fairfax Avenue in Los Angeles in 1979. She knew I would get a kick out of it and I did, indeed.
Copyright © Ken Anderson

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

VALLEY OF THE DOLLS 1967

Given the vast number of great films out there and the slim chance any of us have (in our all-too-brief lifetimes) of ever finding the time to see them all, one has to wonder why anyone would waste their moments watching (and re-watching) a film one already knows to be bad. 

Well, first off, the term “bad,” as applied to film, is a terribly subjective signifier governed by strict classifications of rank. For example: there’s straight-out unwatchable, bottom of the barrel bad, like Adam Sandler, Michael Bay, or Eli Roth movies; then there’s the waste-of-celluloid, forgotten-even-as-you’re-watching-it kind of bad you’re guaranteed with a Matthew McConaughey or Jason Stratham film; and finally, there is the top-tier, rarefied, irresistible awfulness of a film like Valley of the Dolls. 

What makes this final category of bad so special is that, unlike the sluggish product born of dull incompetence and a lack of talent, this distinguished rank of terrible is the kind of delightfully vibrant, peppy wretchedness that only the truly talented can create. It entertains, it engages, it makes you laugh, it makes you cry (from laughing) ...in short, it does everything a good movie does...but it's not. Now, that HAS to be some kind of achievement!
Patty Duke is Neely (Ethel Agnes) O'Hara: Nice kid turned lush!
Barbara Parkins as Anne Welles: Good girl with all the bad breaks!
Sharon Tate as Jennifer North: Sex symbol turned on too often!
Susan Hayward as Helen Lawson: A gut, fingernail, and claw fighter who went down swinging!

This hilariously self-serious film adapted from Jacqueline Susann's novel about three girls balancing career, romance, and pharmaceuticals in the seamy world of show business, is one of the best examples of that forgotten 60s subgenre: the glossy, career-girl soap opera. Films like Three Coins in a Fountain (1954), The Best of Everything (1959), The Pleasure Seekers (1964), and The Group (1966 ) all purported to be modern exposés on the lives of young, emancipated American womanhood, but what they really were were moldy cautionary tales warning women of the dangers of seeking lives outside of the traditional home and family.
Love Eyes. Career-girl Anne hopes to put the "double harness" on her boss, Lyon Burke (Paul Burke)

A master's thesis could be written (and probably has) on the many missteps taken in bringing Susann's sex-filled potboiler to the screen, but any such dissection has to start with the screenplay and director. Really, who thought it was a good idea to have 60 year-old Helen Deutsh and 57 year-old Dorothy Kingsley collaborate on a screenplay about three women in their 20s? With their tin ear for sixties idioms and maiden aunt's sense of shock at Susann's yawn-inducing concept of naughtiness (spelled out in bold letters in case we are dozing — Adultery! Pre-Marital Relations! Homosexuality! Abortion! Insanity!), Valley of the Dolls has all the up-to-date urgency of an issue of "Captain Billy's Whiz Bang."
53 year-old Mark Robson, the stodgily old-school director best known for that antiseptic paean to small-town debauchery, Peyton Place (1957), directs Valley of the Dolls as if he had made a bet with someone that he could make a 1967 film that looked like it was made in 1957. A bet he would win, I might add. Looking at the film's flat, high-key lighting (that make location shots look like studio sets) and the stiff, camera-nailed-to-the-floor photography, one begins to understand why, in just a couple of years, Hollywood would be opening its doors and throwing directing jobs at anyone under the age of 30.

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM:
Everything. And there aren't even many "good" films I can say that about, but it's true. There's not a single thing about Valley of the Dolls I would change. It's a perfect aggregation of people capable of better delivering their worst.
Random thoughts: How did she get all of that hair into that cab?
"Well, Broadway doesn't go for booooze and dope!"
Richard Angarola as Claude Chardot: "Art film" director and winner of the "Pepe Le Pew Award" for the world's worst French accent.
"Ted Casablanca is not a fag!" Neely asserts to sweet, emasculated, homophobe, Mel Anderson (Martin Milner); a.k.a, Mr. O'Hara.
 
PERFORMANCES:
Although she gets plenty of competition, no one in  Valley of the Dolls really comes close to Patty Duke, who was the reigning queen of epically bad performances until Faye Dunaway blew her out of the water 14 years later with Mommie Dearest. Hers is the film's meatiest role, but that meat soon starts to spoil once you get a taste of the risible dialog she's given ("Boobies, boobies, boobies...nothin' but boobies!"), and marvel at her tendency to bark, rather than speak it ("It was NOT a nuthouse!"). She's better than bad, she's magnificent.
Personality Plus. Sparkle Neely, Sparkle!
THE STUFF OF FANTASY:
With its old-fashioned plot full of wheezy, show-biz clichés, Valley of the Dolls' sole concession to modernity (60s style) is in its eye-catchingly overblown fashion sense. The wig and mascara budget for this film must have been astronomical!
Neely O'Hara...Younger than springtime- and twice as exciting!


THE STUFF OF DREAMS:
In 2006, when Valley of the Dolls was released as a two-disc Special Edition DVD in a hot pink case loaded with camp-tastic extras, it became official: 20th Century-Fox was no longer going to pretend that Valley of the Dolls was anything other than what it was— deliciously entertaining, high-octane cheese. That moment of if-you-can't-beat-'em marketing lucidity was rather a long time in coming considering that the gay community had single-handedly kept the film alive for decades. Personally I can't recall when I began to view Valley of the Dolls through jaundiced, cynical eyes, but I recall vividly the first time I saw it.
A young Marvin Hamlisch accompanies that bundle of talent, Neely O'Hara
It was in 1968 at the Castro theater in San Francisco. I was 11 years-old and I went with my older sister who had seen the film the week before and raved about how good it was. Hard for me to imagine now, but at the time, I took Valley of the Dolls deadly seriously and even cried when Sharon Tate's character took that handful of pills and expired so glamorously on that ugly orange bed. I thought Barbara Parkins was very pretty but I was kind of confused at Patty Duke's transformation into an adult with big hair and a potty mouth. I was a fan of The Patty Duke Show, and at age 11, I don't think I was ready to see her looking all puffy and exposed in a bra and half slip. The strongest memory I came away with that day was the almost traumatizing "wig snatching" scene. Not sure why, but it scared the hell out of me.

I'll never be able to view Valley of the Dolls through such innocent eyes again, but I'm gratified that it has finally come into its own as a mainstream cult hit. To this day it amazes me just how durably enjoyable this is after so many viewings. Quotable, full of memorable, jaw-dropping scenes and over the top performances...this kind of bad is too good to be forgotten.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR 1973


From Alfred Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt (1943):
Joseph Cotten- "How was church, Charlie? Did you count the house? Turn anybody away?"
Teresa Wright- "No, room enough for everyone."
Joseph Cotten- "Well, I'm glad to hear that. The show's been running such a long time I thought maybe attendance might be falling off."

When it comes to the final days in the life of Jesus of Nazareth, movies have been running a near-nonstop show on the subject since 52 year-old H.B. Warner portrayed the screen's first grandfatherly Jesus in Cecil B. DeMille's 1927 silent classic, King of Kings. Since then, Hollywood cranked out a new Jesus film every couple of years or so, often to make use of technological advancements (sound, color, Cinemascope), or to keep in step with the times, theologically speaking.
Thus it's safe to say that by 1973, when the rock-opera Jesus Christ Superstar was ultimately adapted for the screen (it opened on Broadway in 1971), no one involved harbored any illusions that audiences would be flocking to the film eager to find out how it all ends.

The major selling-point of Jesus Christ Superstar was not the story, per se, but its telling. This was to be the screen's first all-singing, all-dancing Jesus, and its daring, once-controversial, "hook" was to have the Passion Play told (with a decidedly youthful slant) from the perspective of, and in sympathy with, the apostle Judas. In Jesus Christ Superstar Judas sees Jesus not as a God, but merely a mortal man guilty of believing his own publicity. What distinguishes the film version is that it is not as decided on that fact as the stage production was, and has been fashioned in a manner as to provoke questions more than provide answers.
Ted Neeley as Jesus
Carl Anderson as Judas
Yvonne Elliman as Mary
Barry Dennen as Pontius Pilate
In a huge stylistic departure from the glam-rock roots of the Broadway show, film director Norman Jewison (who so memorably sliced, diced, and bisected theater screens in the stylish crime caper, The Thomas Crown Affair [1968]) went the realist route. Taking a multiethnic cast of young singers, dancers, and actors to Israel and filming on actual locations (some sites breathtakingly dressed by production designer Richard Macdonald with Roman remains and ruins), Jewison lights on a visual concept that, with surprising effectiveness, blends the ancient with the contemporary. A look that abounds with symbolic anachronisms, perfectly suiting the musical score by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice.
 Contemporary symbols of military power provoke and bedevil the morally besieged Judas.
Armed with machine guns and spears, Roman guards march in tank tops and battle fatigues.
The angel Judas descends from heaven by way of an industrial crane.
America's hippie-inspired Jesus movement of the late 60s (Jesus was, after all, the first long-haired, counter-culture revolutionary) that fueled pop-culture works like Jesus Christ Superstar and its off-Broadway cousin, Godspell (1971), greatly influenced my teen-years view of religion.
June 1971
Between the years 1971 and 1974, I attended Saint Mary's College High School in Berkeley, Ca., then an all-boys Catholic school. These were the years when the Catholic Church was all about making itself relevant and hip to us youngsters (Bay Area residents of a certain age recall the regular 60-second radio broadcasts of Father Harry of "The God Squad"), so the Christian Brothers that taught at the school eschewed dark robes and clerical collars for colorful wide ties and bellbottoms, and assembly sermons were apt to be kicked off with a pop song like The 5th Dimension's "Working on a Groovy Thing" blasted over the P.A. system. Add to this the fact that virtually every citizen of Berkeley at the time looked exactly like the flower-children cast of Jesus Christ Superstar (Saint Mary's custodian/caretaker was a ringer for Ted Neeley's Jesus Christ, only taller, muscular, and with really tight jeans—can't tell you all the spiritual inner-conflict that little teenage crush inspired) and you get a good idea of why looking at Jesus Christ Superstar today feels a bit like watching a home movie.

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM:
In spite of my Catholic upbringing, I confess that I find it difficult sometimes to become emotionally moved by religious films. I can enjoy the spectacle, the performances, and the moral of the narrative, but few things are more disconcerting and distancing than having ethics-challenged Hollywood try to convince me of the value of a virtuous life, simply led. Thus, one of the great pleasures of Jesus Christ Superstar is its abilityto be be enjoyed from either a secular or spiritual perspective. Jewison achieves something rather extraordinary in having devised a timeless, utterly cinematic approach to the material (the past and present keep bleeding into one another other) that doesn't just open up the play, but rethinks and re-imagines it in a profoundly fundamental way.
The Last Supper - hippie style
The hippy-dippy /flower child look of the film that so many revivals of the show are so quick to discard, is ideally suited to the time-mashup approach of Jewison's vision. It strikes me as ingenious that we are invited to make paralells between Jesus and his followers and the youth of the 70s. It's a device that give the events a timeless appeal while encouraging us to take subliminal stock of the way the hairstyles and modes of dress of 70s-era hippies and college students harken back to the look of ancient Israel. In stressing the contemporarily familiar, Jesus Christ Superstar establishes a narrative point of view that asks us to question the difference between the myth and the man. And it does so in a way that manages to be both impassioned and reverent, yet refreshingly free of the kind of fervent self-seriousness that mars many films about religion. The non-traditional score (orchestrated pop/rock) and refreshing ambiguity of its visuals (what time is all of this taking place in?) invite the rexamination of once-familiar events and characters.

PERFORMANCES:
In listening to 3 decades worth of covers, revivals, and re-recordings, I still find this version of Jesus Christ Superstar to be the best sung of the lot. This is especially true of the late Carl Anderson, whose powerfully clear and expressive voice can still give me goosebumps. Every singer in this role has had to live up to Anderson's standard, and in my opinion, not a single one has.
Carl Anderson's show-stopping rendition of the propulsive title song is one of cinema's great musical moments. And who can resist the envisioning of an angel's wings as the fringe on an Elvis Presley-like jumpsuit?
Oh, and as every rule has its exception: when I wrote earlier that I'm not easily moved by religious films, that still stands; but for Ted Neeley's performance of the song "Gethsemane (I Only Want to Say)." It's the only part of the film that can consistently bring tears to my eyes. Dramatically shot and tremendously intense, it is a really beautiful bit of filmmaking aided immensly by Neeley's wrenching vocal performance.  It's the dramatic centerpiece of the film.

THE STUFF OF FANTASY:
Where Jesus Christ Superstar truly shines is in the stark freshness of its visuals. It's a stunning-looking film from every angle. At turns, whimsical, epic, theatrical, and poetic, it is one of those rare adaptations of a stage success that achieve multiple moments of pure cinema.
  
THE STUFF OF DREAMS:
The dancing in Jesus Christ Superstar is phenomenal. And all those thin, lithe, 70s bodies are a welcome change from the earthbound, often clumsy-looking, gym-puffed bodies of so many dancers today.
My absolute favorite number in the film is "Simon Zealotes." It hits me from the opposite end of the emotional spectrum of  Neeley's "Gethsemane" soliloquy. It's joy and energy personified, given vivacious, eye-popping life by some of the most fantastic dancers doing dazzling choreography ever filmed. It has the power to bring me to a state of childlike elation in a single viewing. Even now, all I can think when I look at it is, WOW!!! Now that is what I call dancing! (Watching it makes me feel proud to be a dancer, although, if I were to try any of these moves now, I'd likely break into a million pieces like Meryl Streep and Goldie Hawn in Death Becomes Her.)
Jesus Christ Superstar is yet another one of those motion pictures that grows better with age. Its themes nostalgically remind me of my youth, yet its enduring innovativeness as a film makes me appreciate Norman Jewison's commitment to making this particular "long-running show" one that will hold timeless appeal for new generations.
Judas Kiss