Monday, October 31, 2011

WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? 1966

"'Tis the refuge we take when the unreality of the world sits too heavy on our tiny heads."

The above statement, spoken half in jest (and in a Barry Fitzgerald, Irish accent) by a subdued, down-cycle, Martha (Elizabeth Taylor) in a brief moment of introspective lucidity, is proffered as a response/admission as to why she and husband George (Richard Burton) seem only to relate to one another through cruelly sadistic games of "truth and illusion." 

This surprisingly self-aware avowal of the role illusion and willful self-deception play in tent-posting lives of disappointment and regret not only sums up the plot of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, but, especially noting the ironic use of the word "unreality" in the quote, could also serve as an explanation for my own lifelong fascination with, and attraction to, film. 

Edward Albee's 1962 provocative, Tony Award-winning stage play was adapted into a censorship-shattering motion picture in 1966 by Broadway wunderkind Mike Nichols. Of course, back then the big attraction wasn't the male half of the famous comedy team of Mike Nichols & Elaine May making his film directing debut. It was the casting of Hollywood's number one power-couple—Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton— and the unlikelihood that one of the most beautiful women in the world could be convincingly transformed into the dowdy, middle-aged harridan of Albee's play.
Elizabeth Taylor as Martha
Richard Burton as George
George Segal as Nick
Sandy Dennis as Honey
Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, a 2 hour-plus acid bath of personality assassinations and psychological manipulation trussed-up as a cocktail party, was just one of the many age-inappropriate films I saw on Saturday afternoons with my sisters at the local movie house when I was growing up. The year was 1967 and the neighborhood theater was The Castro in San Francisco (back then the district was still referred to as Eureka Valley and the Castro street area was mostly home to a multitude of hippies).

Back in those pre-shopping mall days, I suspect the only peace our recently-divorced mom ever got was when she could ship us all off to the movies on Saturday afternoons, not caring a whit about what was playing, just so long as it kept us out of the house and off the streets until she came for us at 4pm. On the occasion of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, my eldest sister (16 to my 10 years) was apparently all the mature adult accompaniment the theater required to grant us access to a film none of us had any chance in hell of understanding. 

Well, I did understand one part. The yelling.
Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is about one enormously volatile evening in, by all appearances, the ceaselessly volatile lives of George and Martha. George, an associate professor of history at a small New England college, and Martha, the college president's daughter, have been persuaded this night to play night-cap host to the college's newest arrivals: Nick, the newly appointed biology teacher, and his constitutionally delicate wife, Honey. George and Martha, who are 20 years senior to their unsuspecting guests, share a complex relationship of dispiriting affection poisoned by years of acrimony and self-loathing. As a kind of coping mechanism and walking postmortem of their marriage, the elder couple engage their guests in an intricate game of personal attacks and verbal assaults designed to keep real feelings at bay and to mask the real unpleasantness of their existence.
George Segal, an actor amazingly adept at comedic and serious roles, and the brilliant Sandy Dennis, the only actress outside of Elizabeth Hartman who could have made this underwritten role so memorable
As an adult, my partner and I have spent more than our share of squirmy evenings playing Nick and Honey to some sparring couple's George and Martha, but as a kid, the only thing I could relate to in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was the yelling. As my parent's preferred mode of communication with one another prior to their divorce, it was familiar enough to me to at least make the characters in the film recognizable. But beyond that I can tell you I really had no idea of what was going on.

Nor should I have, at that age. Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is pretty sophisticated stuff for even adults to wrap their minds around.
Dashed hopes and good intentions
I remember my disappointment in discovering that Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was not, as I had hoped, a horror film along the lines of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? An easy enough conclusion to jump to given the sound-alike title and the scary-looking poster art that carried the (apparently meaningless) warning: No one under the age of 18 will be admitted unless accompanied by a parent.

When, in later years, I came to revisit Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, it was as if I was watching the film for the first time. Just a little bit of life experience helped to bring all of Edward Albee's agonizingly perceptive observations into sharp relief. I not only got it, but felt so moved by the daringly theatrical means by which Albee dramatizes the simple truth that to live one's life free of illusions is perhaps the most terrifying thing of all.

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM:
It would be difficult to overstate the qualities that  Haskell Wexler's expressive black and white cinematography brings to Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? In these days of HD it's even more breathtaking than ever. What an amazing array of gray tones and shadings!

PERFORMANCES:
I was never much of a fan of Elizabeth Taylor in my younger years. Her unavoidable presence on the cover of every movie magazine (recounting marital problems, movie-star extravagances, and countless trips to the hospital) soured my impression of her as any kind of serious actress. I never thought of her as much of a beauty, either, as she always reminded me more of a less frumpy Ethel Mertz than one of the most beautiful women in the world. The turning point in my attitude towards Taylor came in 1989 when I had the opportunity to see Glenda Jackson (an actress I absolutely idolized) in a Los Angeles production of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? directed by Edward Albee himself. Fond of the film version, I was not exactly persuaded by Taylor's performance. Now was a chance to see what a "real" actress would do with this marvelous character.
Well to put it bluntly, Ms. Jackson was terrible. She just seemed to miss everything that was vulnerable about Albee's Martha, and (surprising to me) was unable to muster much passion behind her tirades. As the evening wore on, Elizabeth Taylor's performance began to loom largely and impressively in my memory, and by the time the curtain came down, I was convinced that I had given Elizabeth Taylor a bum rap all those years. 
Elizabeth Taylor's monologue in this sequence is some of the finest acting of her career
I've seen a great many Elizabeth Taylor films since then, and not only do I now consider her to have been truly one of the great beauties of the screen, but I feel that her looks and off-screen exploits have clouded many a fair assessment of her talent. I consider her to have been one of the best actresses in film. Her choice of roles may have been spotty, but she was something the likes of which we're not apt to see again, EVER.

THE STUFF OF FANTASY:
It must have been quite a voyeuristic thrill for fans of Taylor and Burton to see the famously hard-drinking, combative couple, playing a hard-drinking, combative couple onscreen. And indeed, there is something about their easy rapport and effortless chemistry here that is never duplicated in another film. I particularly like those small moments where the couple reveal their deep affection for one another. Even when it's merely a dysfunctional appreciation of the other being able to keep up with the game. That neither plays their roles "one-note" and allow for flashes of tenderness between the bursts of vitriol is what makes this film such a standout for me.
Liz and Dick: Probably the only real-life couple ever to display any real chemistry onscreen
THE STUFF OF DREAMS:
The grace of all art is it's ability to find the poetry in the ordinary and  prosaic. As I stated earlier, I grew up around a lot of yelling in my family, and along with lacking anything resembling a poetic thrust, it lacked a sense of danger to me. I was used to it and it thought that was how all people who loved one another communicated. Growing up, I identified with comedies and dramas of familial discord to a disturbing degree. (I was a big fan of Tennessee Williams and those "Eunice" segments of the old Carol Burnett variety show. It was only in later years that I came to recognize that that WAS my family.)

As it turns out, my partner of 16 years was raised in a household where his parents talked and discussed things and never allowed him to see them yelling at one another. So, as you might guess, our first viewing of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? together was almost traumatic for him. Even to this day he really can't take the endless shouting and mean-spiritedness, so this is one film I love that I usually enjoy alone (all the better, because I'm often crying like a baby at the finale).
"Total war?"
"Total!"
What's wonderful is that in our years together, my partner has helped me to see that yelling is not the way that healthy people express love, and I've since learned to appreciate histrionic drama where it belongs, on the screen and on the stage, but not in my life.
Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? may not be everyone's taste, but it's a beautiful film. Mike Nichols and everyone involved did a marvelous job. If you have the stomach for it, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is a deeply affecting look at explosive emotions that you get to view from a relatively safe distance.
"Just us?"
It's Elizabeth Taylor at her absolute best in this, the most painful sequence in the film. Reduces me to waterworks unfailingly.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

LOST HORIZON 1973

It’s not my intention to turn this blog into a celebration of the worst that cinema has to offer (although there are those who would say I already have), but the recent DVD release of the notorious 1973 mega-flop, Lost Horizon, is an event of considerable note. A cause for celebration, if you will, for both lovers of entertainingly bad cinema (yours truly), and those who have come to regard Lost Horizon as an underappreciated classic.   

Lost Horizon, James Hilton’s paean to peace and spiritual life everlasting in a magical land called Shangri-La, was first adapted to film by Frank Capra in 1937. Thirty-five years later, MOR pop sensations Burt Bacharach and Hal David were hired by producer Ross Hunter to score this big-budget, semi all-star, musical remake. Alas, Lost Horizon fell prey to the prevailing twisted logic of the day that held that what modern musicals needed most was dramatic talent, so, Columbia Pictures, not having learned its lesson from Camelot (whose revamped set serves a Shangri-La’s lamasery), populated Lost Horizon with a cast of dramatic actors who could neither sing nor dance.
 Really? This is 35 years of film progress?: Above, Shangri-La envisioned as a Streamline Moderne paradise in the1937 film; below, Shangri-La as a Las Vegas theme hotel.

To promote Lost Horizon, Ross Hunter—the comb-overed, leisure-suited, closeted-gay producer (his 40-years lifetime partner was frequent co-producer Jacque Mapes) responsible for the Tammy films, Douglas Sirk, and those Rock Hudson/Doris Day comedies—appeared in a flurry of self-congratulatory, back-slapping, print and television publicity declaring how proud he was of Lost Horizon, and how (in a subtle slap in the face to the new permissiveness in films) his musical was to be a return to the wholesome family films of yesteryear.

Hunter, who had reason to crow, coming as he did off of the staggering blockbuster success of Airport (1970), was about to get a none-too-subtle dose of hubris when critics and audiences nationwide met the release of Lost Horizon with a conjoined hostility that effectively ended his 20-plus years as a feature film producer. Had Hunter been a little less "proud" of Lost Horizon, he may have emerged from the fiasco reasonably unscathed. Unfortunately (but rather helpfully), Ross Hunter chose to plaster his name in large type above the film's title in any and all publicity, making it easy for everyone to know just where and with whom to place the blame.
These aren't the same guy?
Disaster film producer Irwin Allen (l.), producer of disasters of a different sort, Ross Hunter (r.)
Following much advance hoopla, when ultimately released, Lost Horizon (which provided Norwegian art-house sensation, Liv Ullmann, her ignominious American film debut) had the dubious distinction of being one of the most heavily-promoted, yet widely-reviled films of the 70s. A title it may well have held in perpetuity had it not been for the twin missile launch of two equally high-profile musical bombs later in the decade: At Long Last Love (1975) and The Blue Bird (1976).

Even with the excision of several laugh-inducing musical numbers, Lost Horizon limped along at theaters before disappearing completely within weeks of opening. Soundtrack albums and truckloads of Lost Horizon merchandising items (comic books, paper dolls, etc.) filled the remainder bins. Denied a VHS release and airing on cable TV only in its severely edited-down form, Lost Horizon, a film otherwise destined for obscurity, has over the years risen to must-see status primarily due to its long-standing unavailability and a lingering public curiosity surrounding it actually being as awful as its reputation attested.

Now, for the first time since that calamitous opening week in 1973, the curious and devout alike can witness Lost Horizon in all its fully restored, digitally enhanced, wide-screen splendor, with all but one of its five deleted musical numbers reinstated (a brief Sally Kellerman/George Kennedy reprise of "Living Together, Growing Together" is still MIA). Sure, the recovery of lost footage from Lost Horizon is a bit like a Bizarro World reenactment of the restorations of Stroheim's Greed or Lang's Metropolis, but it’s not usual for a studio to treat one of its money-losing embarrassments with such respect.
Peter Finch, most likely thinking of his paycheck.
Liv Ullmann, adopting the universal "Who knows?" pose when asked why she agreed to appear in this film
Sally Kellerman, upon hearing that her big solo number, "Reflections" is to take place atop a big ol' rock
Michael York, Shangri-La's snappiest dresser
WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM:
Although I am very fond of Lost Horizon and have seen it many times, I don't number myself among those who actually think it’s a good film. I like it because of the nostalgia it invokes (the pro-Lost Horizon cult is comprised chiefly of individuals who saw it as children. Bless their undiscerning little hearts); I’m crazy about Burt Bacharach; and because I have a decided taste for cheese. Lost Horizon is a banquet of tacky aesthetics, risible dialog, awkward performances, wince-inducing lyrics, and moldy choreography. And I wouldn't have it any other way. Movies this wrong-headed are just too much fun.
Bobby Van and George Kennedy model the latest in caftan finery from the 1973 Ah Men catalogue: The Allan Carr/Fire Island collection
As with many bad films that provide hours of unintentional entertainment, Lost Horizon’s cluelessness is one of its primary charms. It's just so darn earnest! Fairly dripping with good intentions, est seminar philosophizing, and Me Generation navel-gazing, Lost Horizon intends to be moving and inspirational, but in never adequately landing on a way of dramatizing its themes, the film instead talks about them (ad nauseum) and feels needlessly preachy. For example: Lost Horizon never makes Shangri-La look appealing. The state of peace and enlightenment HAS to be livelier and more fun than this. With all those monks somnambulistically gliding about and everybody looking so gloomily content, the idea of an eternity spent here sounds less like a dream and more like one of those ironic twist endings from a Twilight Zone episode.
Trying to read smutty subtext into schoolteacher Liv Ullmann offering Peter Finch her melon is about as exciting as things get in Shangri-La
PERFORMANCES:
If there’s such a thing as the opposite of “The Midas Touch” then the late Ross Hunter certainly had it when it came to natural beauty. In Airport, Hunter’s old-fashioned notion of glamour turned 32 year-old stunner Jean Seberg into a well-preserved matron, and in Lost Horizon he works the same reverse alchemy on the luminous Liv Ullmann. The stiff, desexed, schoolmarm Lost Horizon fashions her into bears no resemblance to the lovely, earthy actress in all those Ingmar Bergman films.
Along with an unflattering wardrobe, Liv Ullmann is saddled with a terrible dubbed singing voice in Lost Horizon. To hear what her real singing voice is like (metered shouting, actually), check out this clip of Ullmann performing in the 1979 Broadway musical I Remember Mama
Sally Kellerman, though ill-served by the terrible script and a few too many giggle-worthy dance moments, is my personal favorite in Lost Horizon. Perhaps it's the character arc that takes her from pill-popping neurotic to loose-limbed free spirit, or the fact that when she sings she at least sounds like herself (the soulless, antiseptic singing voices given to Finch and Ullman could have come out of a machine). Mostly it's because there's a naturalness to her that I've always found very appealing. Unlike some of her costars who look only embarrassed, one senses that Kellerman liked her role, enjoys singing, and perhaps envisioned herself appearing in a better musical than the one she's in.
Sally Kellerman and a very pregnant Olivia Hussey agree to disagree in "The Things I Will Not Miss" number. A song one perceptive online critic described as a New-Age version of the "Green Acres" theme.
Diana Ross & Marvin Gaye tried their hand at it Here.
THE STUFF OF FANTASY:
The Holy Grail of lost footage for those with an affinity for the awful has been the infamous "fertility dance" sequence of the "Living Together, Growing Together" number. Legend has it that this sequence, highlighting greased-up male dancers in loincloths, caused so much audience laughter that it was removed from the film during it's opening week. The choreography in this number is hilarious, to be sure, but some of that laughter HAD to have been homosexual panic. After all, there have been hundreds of films with equally atrocious harem-girl dance sequences shoehorned into the plot for the sole purpose of displaying a little female pulchritude. But I guess a big screen filled with gyrating, muscular, semi-nude male dancers was just too much to ask of audiences in 1973. Both confounding and fascinating, it stands alone as the sole moment of an asserted homosexual sensibility in a strenuously heterosexual "family" entertainment created by a coterie of gay men (the aforementioned Hunter and co-producer Mapes;  63 year-old choreographer Hermes Pan; and screenwriter Larry Kramer).
Stop! In the name of good taste
Too many rings around Rosie

THE STUFF OF DREAMS:
When it comes to Lost Horizon, I think American audiences betrayed Ross Hunter by acting like they expected something other than vulgar schlock from him (after all, he had been feeding them just that for 20 years). But I also think Hunter betrayed American audiences by falling prey to that great Hollywood sickness: mistaking success for talent.

Airport was a wildly popular film, but, no offense to fans, just add a few Bacharach songs and lead-footed dances and its every bit as awful as Lost Horizon. But since it was the biggest grosser of the year and garnered Ross Hunter his first and only Academy Award® nomination, it was inevitable that he wouldn't just see this as a case of giving the public what they wanted (like a fast food burger), but evidence of his talent. The thing that sinks Lost Horizon is that it just takes itself too seriously and tries too hard to be an important film. When Hunter was content to make glossy, easily-digestible, escapist fluff, he was perhaps the top of his craft. When he actually started to see himself as an artist capable of making a good film...well, delusion crept in, held the door open for pretension, and they both kicked Hunter in the pants.

We film fans are susceptible to our own variation of this sickness. If we like a film, we flatter ourselves by thinking it is because it is a good film, hands down; if we don't like a film, it has to be because it's obviously bad. This kind of thinking ignores the very real fact that some truly marvelous films are just not to our taste, and some real stinkers are dear to our hearts. Such is Lost Horizon to me. It's not a good film, but boy, was I excited when I learned that it was coming out on DVD!
Sally Kellerman refuses to let a dangerous trek through Himalayan Mountains interfere with her fashion sense; that fur hat MUST be cocked to the side!
AUTOGRAPH FILES: Below are autographs collected from Michael York and Ross Hunter in 1980. They were patrons at a book store I used to work at on Sunset Blvd in Los Angeles.

Copyright © Ken Anderson

Sunday, October 16, 2011

YOU'RE A BIG BOY NOW 1966

Coming-of-age films have always been with us, but they really came into their own during the youth-obsessed 60s. The post-Baby Boom "youthquake" of the 60s, which impacted American culture in ways both social and economic was the perfect breeding ground for films pertaining to social rebellion, sexual awakening, and challenging authority. As a genre, coming -of-age films were tailor-made for the New Hollywood. A Hollywood desperate to court of new-found economic clout of the young through "personal" films, anti-heroes, and romanticized depictions of the struggles of the post-adolescent set (always male). Given how coming-of-age films have always afforded ample opportunities for sex, drugs, and the baring of female flesh, it's not surprising that Hollywood's old-guard (traditionally suspicious of change) proved so receptive to even the more way-out, avant-garde entries in the genre. After all, whether audiences be young or old, sex always sells.

Time has granted Mike Nichols’ The Graduate (1967) the uncontested title of representative coming-of-age film for a generation, but my favorite entry in cinema’s “pain of growing up” sweepstakes is this delightfully offbeat comedy from a young (27) Francis Ford Coppola. You’re a Big Boy Now was Coppola's first film for a major studio as well as his master's thesis submission to the UCLA film school, and as such, displays an engagingly youthful lack of discipline and over-fondness for camera trickery...two things that don't exactly get in the way in films that came out of he 60s.
Elizabeth Hartman as Barbara Darling
Peter Kastner as Bernard Chanticleer
Geraldine Page as Mrs. Chanticleer
Julie Harris as Miss Thing
Rip Torn as Mr. Chanticleer
Karen Black as Amy Partlett
You’re a Big Boy Now is about the misadventures of Bernard (scornfully nicknamed “Big Boy” by his self-centered father), a woefully under-experienced 19 year-old who, at the insistence of his father and against the protests of his obsessively over-protective mother, goes off  to live on his own in Manhattan. Bernard’s naiveté and propensity to lose himself in flights of fantasy consistently get him into trouble as he attempts to navigate life and love on the path toward adult independence.   
Given how male filmmakers and writers never seem to tire of wistful, semi-autobiographical looks back on their sexual awakening, there’s no shortage of these “rite of passage” films to choose from. Indeed, one could probably fill an airplane hangar with them. Inherently similar in tone, most suffer from a kind of willful masculine myopia and gender fear that finds endless charm in the sexual fumblings of doltish, socially awkward, physically unattractive, emotionally superficial young men who nonetheless feel they rate the most beautiful woman in the film. Being the wish-fulfillment fantasies they are, our callow hero usually does get the longed-for beauty, but it’s a certainty that before the end credits roll, said dream girl will reveal herself to be somehow undeserving of his noble affections (take THAT pretty girls who snubbed the director in high-school!).
You’re a Big Boy Now doesn’t deviate far from this well-trod narrative path, but Coppola invests the proceedings with such creative exuberance (every scene holds at least one element of surprise; whether visually, verbally, or in the goofily straight/comic performances he elicits from his game cast), that the film feels more like a surreal satire of the genre rather than a representative of the genuine article.


WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM:
Providing, as it does, a subjective view of the overwhelming and perilous adult world as it's perceived by the sheltered Bernard, there is much to enjoy in the film's many eccentric visual flourishes, absurdist characters, and anarchic editing style. With its blaring (and rather good) score of pop songs by The Lovin' Spoonful, You’re a Big Boy Now is a 60s film to its core, complete with an overarching air of reproach directed at middle-class sexual repression and senseless guilt.
"Don't eat too much, don't stay out late, don't go to suspicious places or play cards, and stay away from girls! But most of all Bernard, try to be happy."
I had always thought of Peter Kastner (right) as looking like a cross between Robert Morse & Michael J Pollard; but a friend nailed it when he said Peter reminded him of Ernie (Barry Livingston) from My Three Sons.
The late Peter Kastner starred in his own TV series in 1968, The Ugliest Girl in Town; about a man who poses as a female model and becomes a boyish fashion sensation, a la Twiggy

PERFORMANCES:
The desirable, yet dangerous, female is as much a staple of the coming-of-age film as the virginal hero having a more sexually sophisticated best friend/advisor (in this instance, the appropriately unctuous Tony Bill). When it comes to scary women, You’re a Big Boy Now has probably the most disturbing, dick-withering example of that gynophobic archetype ever to come out the free-love era: the man-hating, aspiring actress/go-go dancer, Barbara Darling.
The character of Barbara Darling in less capable hands would be just another bitch-goddess cliché, but someone had the inspired genius to cast against type, and the late Elizabeth Hartman manages to be downright chilling, yet terribly funny, in the role. What makes her performance here so amazing is that I saw You're a Big Boy Now only after I had already seen Hartman in A Patch of Blue (1965), The Group (1966), and The Beguiled (1971); all roles emphasizing the gentle, almost fragile vulnerability of this immensely likable actress. Though obviously talented (she was Academy Award® nominated and won the Golden Globe for A Patch of Blue), there is nothing about her performances in any of these films that would lead you believe she could be so aggressively carnal and convincingly, psychotically mercurial. In a transformation the likes of which I've rarely seen, the Eizabeth Hartman of her earlier films is nowhere to be seen in You're a Big Boy Now. She gives my favorite performance in the film.
Displaying her vast range, the man-eater of You're a Big Boy Now is light years away from the Elizabeth Hartman in this promotional clip.
A Cinderella Named Elizabeth: 1965 featurette for "A Patch of Blue"












THE STUFF OF FANTASY:
You're a Big Boy Now has some great shots of Manhattan and New York's seedy Times Square area that predate the gritty images in Midnight Cowboy (1969) and Klute (1971). It's fun seeing theater marquees advertising films like Born Free and The Russians are Coming, The Russians are Coming.

THE STUFF OF DREAMS:
What's fun about watching the early works of accomplished directors is trying to catch a glimpse of some kind of nascent artistry or budding style that would later emerge as a defining trait or characteristic of their work. To look at the early films of Roman Polanski or Woody Allen is to see the beginnings of a style and preoccupation with themes they continue to bring to their work even to this day. In watching You're a Big Boy Now, I was left with two thoughts: 1) with this film's pre-MTV kinetic rhythms, how is it that all of Coppola's subsequent musical outings (Finian's Rainbow, One From the Heart, and The Cotton Club) all seemed so flat?; 2) Coppola shows such a flair for comedy here, I'm surprised he hasn't had many comedies on his resume.
Although You're a Big Boy Now has not been widely seen nor is it particularly well-known, Elizabeth Hartman and Geraldine Page were both nominated for Golden Globes for their performances, with Miss Page (who was married to co-star Rip Torn at the time) garnering an Oscar® nod as well. Best of all (for me, anyway, because I'm such a big fan) the film gave Karen Black her film debut. Pretty classy pedigree for a director's first major film.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

FREAKY FRIDAY 1976

What's up with movies for girls and movies for boys? Even legitimate critics resort to using the pejorative "chick flick" label and attributing gender traits to movies as if film reels came swaddled in pink or blue blankets. When I was growing up there was this series of annoying TV commercials about a deodorant made for women, each a variation on the same cloddish, B.O.-challenged husband foolishly reaching for a deodorant, only to have it intercepted at the last moment by a scolding wife reminding him that this particular sweat neutralizer was intended exclusively for the fairer sex. The latter delivered in a piteously supercilious tone that screamed, "You may have more lean muscle mass, superior earning potential, and are favored in a patriarchal society, but I have this deodorant!" 
Advertisers need to perpetuate false distinctions to sell more of their product (one deodorant formula—throw in a bit of scent and slap a daisy on the packaging—voilá, a deodorant for women!), but unless we're talking about Vin Diesel movies, films are about human beings. The human experience is universal, not gender-specific, and there is much to be learned from films about either sex.
Barbara Harris as Ellen Andrews
Jodie Foster as Annabel Andrews
John Astin as William Andrews
The first and best of what would become a trend in identity-switch comedies, Freaky Friday is about a contentious mother and daughter who magically trade places for one calamity-filled day. As each gets to see the world through the other's eyes, a mutual respect grows that sweetly translates into a renewed appreciation of self and the people in their lives. Unlike the stale 2003 remake that needlessly piled on the subplots, this version has the smarts to simply mine the situation's vast comic potential and steps politely to the side, relinquishing the floor to Harris and Foster.
As co-stars, Foster and Harris share very few scenes together, yet neither seems to be off the screen for a moment
Advance publicity for Freaky Friday so played up its appeal to its target audience (pre-teen girls) that, despite the presence of a hot-from-Nashville Barbara Harris and the everywhere-at-once Jodie Foster (she had five films in release in 1976, most significantly, Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver), I summarily dismissed it. After all, I was a film major at an artsy-fartsy college at the time and had bigger aesthetic fish to fry. Or so I thought.
Leap ahead ten years, and by way of a rented VHS, I finally see Freaky Friday and immediately fall in love with it. Had I seen it in '76, it easily would have been one of my favorites. A surprisingly smart and laugh-out-loud funny film that ranks among the best comedies of the 70s. Who knew? A non-stop barrage of generation-gap gags and silly stunts, plus an impressive supporting cast of familiar character actors, Freaky Friday is like Disney’s answer to Bogdanovich's What's Up, Doc? and the films of Mel Brooks.
Even blatant product-placement can't compete with the comic talent of Barbara Harris, here going head-to-head with her son/little brother, Ben (a.k.a. Ape Face) played by Sparky Marcus 
Veteran TV director Gary Nelson (Get Smart, The Patty Duke Show, Happy Days) and screenwriter Mary Rogers (author of the source novel) serve up much of the same white-bread suburban comedy that typified Disney's live-action outings, but instead of the beige blandness of a Dean Jones or Kurt Russell, Freaky Friday is blessed with (and saved by) its two enormously idiosyncratic stars. Harris, one of the screen’s great unsung comedy geniuses, is particularly good. An actress with the sexy/kooky unpredictability of Madeline Kahn combined with the manic agility of Gene Wilder, she’s a true comedy original.


WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM:
Freaky Friday has the most amazing supporting cast!
Kaye Ballard & Ruth Buzz as competing soccer coaches
Clockwise from left: Karen Smith (Beyond the Valley of the Dolls), Marvin Kaplan (Top Cat), Al Molinaro (Happy Days), Jack Sheldon (Run Buddy, Run), and the inimitable Patsy Kelly.
The great Marie Windsor as Ms. Murphy, the typing teacher (l.) and with Sterling Hayden in Stanley Kubrick's 1956 classic, The Killing
Brassy character actress Iris Adrian as annoyed bus passenger (l.) and with Barbara Stanwyk in 1943s Lady of Burlesque
PERFORMANCES:
It's hard to imagine how anyone could have anticipated how well the agreeably opposing comedy styles of Barbara Harris and Jodie Foster would mesh. Foster, who was only 13 at the time, is not much of a physical comic, but she's an exceptionally intuitive actress with a comedian's gift for mimicry. When the tomboyish Annabel switches bodies with her mother, Foster's taking on of an adult persona extends beyond a broadened vocabulary. Employing that slightly starchy quality that would later characterize much of her adult work, Foster, as the child/adult Annabel, seems to rise in stature, her carriage conveying a controlled adult's exasperation in the face of the absurd.
By way of contrast, Barbara Harris' transformation from Mrs. Andrews to Annabel is a thoroughly physical and mental transformation that dispenses with any attempt to mimic Foster's characterization in any way. Rather, Harris' farcically elastic performance is more a reflection of Annabel's liberated spirit. Harris plays a teen trapped in an adult's body like a child let loose in a playground. Annabel is marveling at the freedom that comes with her newfound body (which is free of baby fat, gawkiness, and braces) and is fairly intoxicated by it. It makes complete sense that Annabel in her mother's body would be looser, loopier, and far more physically expressive than the plodding teen we saw earlier. Barbara Harris, with her expressive body, would make for a delicious silent-screen comedian, but given her delightfully wacky sense of timing with the comedy dialog, who would want that? Together, Foster and Harris create the perfect blend of hilariously active and reactive comedy that makes this film work.

THE STUFF OF FANTASY:
The tone of the film is perfectly set by the cute-as-all-getout animated title sequence and its catchy theme song, "I'd Like to Be You for a Day." The song, written by Al Kasha and Joel Hirschorn. (the team that gave us the love themes from both The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno) is sung by a woman and a girl. The woman sounds a lot like Broadway-trained Barbara Harris, but despite IMDB claims, there's no way in hell that the high, piping voice of the little girl belongs to Jodie Foster. Even on helium.
Title animation sequence by Art Stevens
THE STUFF OF DREAMS:
I've never been much of a fan of the way that Disney films, under the guise of providing "family" entertainment, seemed to willfully hold back the hands of time and operate in an air of head-in-the-sand detachment. By 1976 the antiseptic, Leave it to Beaver kind of neighborhood featured in Freaky Friday may have held nostalgic appeal for some, but to me it verged on the witless and indifferent.
What saves Freaky Friday from being a creaky, wish-fulfillment timepiece is how tiny flashes of wit and touches of the off-beat peek through.
John Astin's obvious excitement whenever wife Barbara Harris (inhabited by her daughter) slips and calls him "Daddy" is surprisingly hip comedy for a Disney film
Annabel harbors a crush on the boy next door (Marc McClure), but in the body of her mother, the attraction gets ticklish
Freaky Friday: a kid's movie that's smarter and more perceptive than most comedies aimed at adults; a movie for preteen girls that has a universal message about respecting yourself and others; and a Disney movie with the lunatic comic anarchy of a Mel Brooks comedy. Hmmm...seems like when it comes down to it, labels are no more effective with films than they are with people.