Monday, July 23, 2012

THE GRASSHOPPER 1969

I first saw The Grasshopper in 1979 at Filmex, the now-defunct Los Angeles Film Festival, at a special screening titled, "Underrated American Films" (an event that also introduced me to Robert Altman’s masterpiece, 3 Women, and hosted, if memory serves, by Roger Ebert). Seeing The Grasshopper  in a packed theater of film enthusiasts was the best possible way to see a film that, when initially released, was sold as an exploitation flick. I had wanted to see this flawed little late-60s gem since I first laid eyes on the soundtrack album back in 1970. Then 13-years-old, I was drawn to the photo on this bi-fold LP that offered, on the front, an image of star Jacqueline Bisset locked in a passionate embrace with co-star Christopher Stone. On the back, however, was this racy "reveal" of their tryst location being a shower stall and Mr. Stone marvelously, teasingly, naked. I'm sure fans of Ms. Bisset were disappointed (she would more than make up for the oversight in 1977 when her wet t-shirt poster from The Deep became one of the year's top sellers), but as for me; I was just thrilled that such an unexpected glimpse of naked male flesh (and it's really little more than a glimpse) had been made available to me in surroundings as wholesomely irreproachable as the local record store. Looking at the album cover now after so many years (below), I'm not the least bit surprised to find that it still packs a visual punch as a seductively potent erotic image. Tame, to be sure, by today's standards, but in those pre-internet days, we oversexed adolescents had to take our thrills where we found them.
Music to My Eyes
This image is as evocative of my memories of the early 70s as that image from Midnight Cowboy of John Voight and Dustin Hoffman huddled in an alleyway. So enamored was I of this photo that I owned the soundtrack for over a year before I even bothered listening to it. As luck would have it, the songs by Brooklyn Bridge, Vicki Lawrence (The Carol Burnett Show), and Bobby Russell (Mr.Vicki Lawrence for a time) are all pretty good. I now have the album on my ipod.
I tend not to be overly fond of coming-of-age-films. Most I find to be interminably male-centric wish-fulfillment fantasies prone to leaning heavily on the callowness of youth as an excuse for indulging in a lot of puerile sexism and misogyny. On the other hand, female coming-of-age films, while rarer and seldom very well-known, are more to my taste (my absolute faves being 1961s A Taste of Honey and 1985s Smooth Talk). The female perspective on growing up is so infrequently explored in films that any movie even attempting to offer insight into the inner lives of girls maturing into young women is a welcome change. I especially appreciate when these films portray their heroines as active participants in their fates and steer clear of the clich├ęd, woman-as-victim trap that always feels like a shortcut to generating sympathy for a character by writers who really don't know much about women. 
The 60s-era Las Vegas setting of The Grasshopper is one of my favorite things about the film
In attempting to dramatize the aimlessness of late-60s youth while satirizing the swinging, anything for kicks attitude prevalent at the time, The Grasshopper may come across as the crasser, less artful American cousin of John Schlesinger’s Darling. But despite the film's unsure footing (TV sitcom director Jerry Paris - best known as the neighbor on The Dick Van Dyke Show- has no real aptitude for drama) The Grasshopper does succeed in capturing the essence of a particular type of American woman at a particular point in time in our culture. Of course, the “American” woman I speak of in this case is the very British Jacqueline Bisset, serviceably, if unconvincingly, made a Canadian for the film. (Ironic, given that the heroine of the little-known novel upon which this film is freely adapted - The Passing of Evil, by Seance on a Wet Afternoon author Mark McShane - is British, the story taking place in London.)

The late 60s and early 70s offered dozens of American movies dramatizing the heroically romanticized plight of the misunderstood white male as he struggled to find his identity in a society in flux and shifting beneath his feet. African-American females are perhaps still waiting for their own definitive coming-of-age-film (a good place to start: Ossie Davis’ woefully overlooked 1972 film, Black Girl, or Kasi Lemmons' brilliant Eve's Bayou), but for women in general, The Grasshopper provides a well-observed, adult portrait of a kind of spiritual restlessness usually only afforded males in movies. 
Jacqueline Bisset as Christine Adams
Jim Brown as Tommy Marcott
Joseph Cotten as Richard Morgan
Christopher Stone (in his film debut) as Jay Rigney
Corbett Monica (yes, THE Corbett Monica, Ed Sullivan fans) as Danny Raymond
Ed Flanders as Jack Benton
The Grasshopper was promoted with the tagline: “The story of a beautiful girl’s lifetime between the ages of 19 and 22.” And lest one assume the “beautiful” adjective was inserted solely for the purpose of a little sex-bait ad copy, rest assured, The Grasshopper’s Christine is one in a long line of movie heroines whose destinies are shaped as much by their provocative beauty as by their flaws of character. When Valley of the Dolls' Neely O'Hara bitchily remarks at how Anne Welles got through life on a pass because of her "Damned classy looks," she is speaking of girls like Christine. Girls whose looks open up so many doors for them that not until those looks begin to fade does it dawn on them that the doors have led to nowhere.

As the film begins, 19 year-old Christine Adams (Bisset) has dropped out of school, left a note for her parents and slipped away in her beat-up convertible, hightailing it out of Kingman, British Columbia on course to shack up with high-school sweetheart, Eddie (Tim O’Kelly) in Los Angeles. Her youthful optimism unfazed even when her car breaks down en route, idealistic hitchhiker Christine informs a friendly pick-up, “It’s very simple what I want to be; totally happy, totally different, and totally in love!” Of course, as soon as she says this we know she doesn't have a chance in hell of being any of them.
You're Gonna Make It After All
In this age of "Boomerang Kids," the most startling thing about The Grasshopper is the idea of a teenager, with no money or prospects, actually looking forward to leaving home and starting out life on her own.
What is Christine over the course of the next three years? In no particular order: a bank teller; a mistress;  a would-be actress, schoolteacher, flight attendant, & real estate saleswoman; a Vegas showgirl; a high-class call girl; a discontented housewife; a sugar mama; a widow; a kept woman; and a prostitute. Except on occasion, she's rarely ever practical, introspective, or more than fleetingly satisfied. As you must have gleaned by now, the grasshopper of the title is Christine. The human embodiment of America’s "instant happiness" culture. In the land of plenty, happiness, like freedom, is a birthright; something one is entitled to whether or not it’s earned, appreciated, or deserved. If you don’t find it in your own back yard, America’s a big place with lots of back yards. All you need is a suitcase, a little resourcefulness, and who knows? Maybe happiness can be found in the one thing you haven’t tried yet.
Impetuous Christine falls for down-to-earth former quarterback Tommy Marcott 
Christine: Tommy, sometimes I envy you.
Tommy: Why?
Christine: You don't always have to be doing something. With me it's sort of a disease. I guess it's because no matter what I'm doing or how much fun I'm having, somewhere way back in my head I'm thinking somebody somewhere else is having more fun than I am. 

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM:
The Grasshopper, in its sometimes over-earnest efforts to be now, relevant, and say something pertinent about the times we live(d) in, is a marvelous panorama of everything that was happening in America in the late 60s. So many controversial topics are covered and touched upon in the film’s scant 98 minutes that Jacqueline Bisset seems at times like a tour guide through a new Disneyland attraction called Sixtiesland. We have rock bands, groupies, free-love, homosexuality, lesbianism, interracial marriage, nudity, drugs, prostitution, pedophilia, and physical abuse. It all sounds pretty incendiary, but to the film’s credit it does manage to present a great many of the hot-button social issues of the day in a refreshingly matter-of-fact manner, reserving sensationalism for things like scenes of unexpected violence.  
Atypical for its time, gay couple Timmy (John David Wilder) and Buck (Roger Garrett) are presented sympathetically and as just  another couple in Christine's circle of friends.

PERFORMANCES:
In the 70s, Jacqueline Bisset and Raquel Welch were the two (dubiously) reluctant sex-symbols most vocal over never being taken seriously as actresses. Raquel Welch had a point; she was pretty much offered one crap supporting role after another. Bisset on the other hand, was handed in succession, The Grasshopper and The Mephisto Waltz; two films that, while by no means a Doctor Zhivago or Rosemary’s Baby, were nevertheless substantial and challenging star-vehicles that required more of Bisset than to look good in a bathing suit. 
Bisset is at her relaxed best in the brief scenes she shares with the always-welcome Joseph Cotten
Because I like Jacqueline Bisset so much, I wish I could say that she made the most of these opportunities, but as an actress, Bisset is something like a hot-air balloon; as the story around her heats up, she seems to get lighter. A vibrant screen presence with a stunning, if not particularly expressive face, Bisset is fine in the scenes of wide-eyed optimism or vague restlessness, but she’s a bit out of her depth when events take a more dramatic turn. And then again, perhaps it's really sitcom-trained Jerry Paris who is really the one most out of his depth, as he's rarely able to convey the dramatic elements of the story in ways more substantial than that of a sub-par 70s movie-of-the-week.  
We're Gonna Make Our Dreams Come True
The Grasshopper was co-written and produced by TV's Garry Marshall (Happy Days, Laverne & Shirley). Here Garry casts baby sister Penny Marshall (Lavern herself, left, holding the ruler, pictured with Eris Sandy) as a member of the "Plaster Casters": groupies who make plaster casts of the genitals of rock stars.

THE STUFF OF FANTASY:
Showgirls: 1969. In his autobiography, Wake Me When it's Funny, producer Garry Marshall writes that the original leaping pattern for The Grasshopper was considerably more global (London, New York, Hollywood) but for budgetary reasons Las Vegas became the dominant location. I can't say I mind one bit. The shots of a long-gone Vegas Strip and the behind-the-scenes glimpses into those old-fashioned Vegas reviews are fabulously nostalgic.
The grasshopper perched first one place, then another...wherever she happened to land. And then she moved on.
(Ad copy from the film's poster)

THE STUFF OF DREAMS: 
While there’s no denying that The Grasshopper could have benefited from at least one female voice involved in its creation (the product of at least 3 male collaborators, the film suffers a bit from the sense that there are a few too many over-the-age-of-30 male voices weighing in on what it's like to be a 19-year-old girl), I’m personally grateful for even this imperfect portrait of a complex female character in the male-dominated 70s cinema landscape. And, as women who seek to define themselves exclusively by the men in their lives are far from an extinct species of being, there exists a relevance to the film that transcends its appealingly dated trappings. 
The Grasshopper is definitely worth checking out, for while not as deep as it aspires to be, it's nonetheless a compelling look at the cost of a life lived without attachments.

Oh, and lest we forget that glorious backside that sparked my interest in the first place...
Copyright © Ken Anderson

23 comments:

  1. O... M... G... I cannot believe that you profiled this movie. To let you know how long it's been since I've seen it, I "rented it from Blockbuster" on a grainy pan and scan VHS. I'd guess it was about 1991 or so? I'm going to have to see it on DVD now. I love Miss Jackie ever since 1970's Airport and always enjoy Jim Brown and Joseph Cotten, too (there's a pair you don't often put together, much like Jacqueline Bisset and Penny Marshall!) But, yes, above all else, I wanted to see that shower scene with Christopher Stone. (Remember when he married Dee Wallace and gave the world Dee Wallace Stone for a time? LOL) The shot was used on the movie's poster art, but I think his crack was sort of airbrushed over to look like steam was obscuring it. ?? So awesome to see this film get profiled in your customarily insightful way!

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    1. Oh, you definitely should check it out on DVD. It looks great and you'll love the scenes that recall "Showgirls", "Valley of the Dolls" and any number of good/trash films you've seen over the years. I've liked Ms. Bisset ever since I first saw her whack Helen Hayes across the face in "Airport," and I've had a long-standing crush on the late Mr. Stone ever since this film. I think he even has a nude scene in The Howling with (so funny to be reminded) Dee Wallace Stone (a clumsy name if ever there was one). And you're right about the movie poster: the shower head was moved so that the spray and steam obscured his "crack." So funny to hear you paid attention to some of the same pervy things I did. When i was writing this, I purposely avoided your site because it struck me so much as the kind of film you would like. Thanks for the comments and the memories!

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  2. I just noticed, too, that your soundtrack album had music by Billy Goldenberg. I have a hilarious (only to me, probably) anecdote about him. He toured (on piano) with Bea Arthur during the pre-Broadway tryouts of her one-woman show (and presumably went on to Broadway, too, though I haven't looked that up.) I was chatting with Bea afterwards (okay, let's be honest, I was yammering endlessly and falling all over Bea afterwards!) and would not stop commenting and praising her and she kept pointing to this older, diminutive, moustached man and saying, "...and Billy, too!" or "...and we can't forget Billy." I was horribly blase about him and barely noted his existence on earth. I was going on and on with Bea and finally she had her fill and went back to her hotel to rest her (then-broken) foot. A couple of years later, I find myself playing a lounge singer in a lengthy one-act musical play (which, being a dancer, you surely know) called Ballroom (famous for Dorothy Louden's rendition of "Fifty Percent"), with music all done by Billy Goldenberg!!! Had I given him the time of day earlier, I could have bragged to the cast and crew about my rubbing elbows with the composer of the show we were all in... Now, of course, I never forget who he is.

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    1. That is a wonderful anecdote!! First off, I love that you got to meet Bea Arthur and saw her one-woman show. But your experience is so classic in theater... you never know the history and accomplishments of the people you're climbing over to get to talk to a star! Sometimes the most unassuming folks backstage have the most fascinating resumes.
      (Y'know, I have the album to that Bea Arthur show on my ipod and until now never made the Billy Goldenberg connection! Goodness...inadvertently dismissing this show biz veteran is even possible electronically!)
      As for "Ballroom," I'm familiar with the show only because of the Michael Bennett connection (I was among those disappointed that hechose to work with -GASP- middle-aged people after "A Chorus Line"), but I've never heard the score or knew that Goldenberg was involved. Is it worth checking out? Did you have your own song?
      Thanks for sharing the Billy Goldberg connection here. "The Grasshopper" may not be well-known, but it's nice to know so many people involved went on the bigger, better things.

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  3. Ballroom is very unusual for a musical in that there is no "chorus" presence in any of the songs. The lead, Dorothy Louden, sang three solos and one duet (with Vincent Gardenia) and the remainder of the music is done by a male and a female lounge singer. We each got one solo and then did four duets. So the entire song score is done by four people alone, even though the cast consists of many characters!

    I thought my music was quite hilariously cheesy when I got hold of it, but for the purposes of doing the show, I grew to love it and look forward to singing it (I generally try to make lemons into lemonade!) I just allowed myself to drift into that world. One disco number in particular was hysterically funny, but such was the time (1979) in which it was written.

    Now, looking back on it, I can't say that the music was particularly wonderful (though the ever-busy Alan and Marilyn Bergman also worked on it, too!), but there's no denying the verve that Louden brought to Fifty Percent. I didn't care for the lounge singers on the Broadway cast album much, for they seemed just far too stale and ordinary to me.

    One last thing (all of this is already so far off topic!), When Bea Arthur was doing her show, at the time called "And Then There's Bea...", she did NOT include "The Man in the Moon" from Mame and I was disappointed in that. I plied her into agreeing to add it in before she hit The Great White Way. (I also, in typical grotesque hilarity, insisted on singing to her some of the songs she had done on The Golden Girls like "Hard Hearted Hannah" and "What'll I Do?" - IN HER GRAVELLY VOICE - and, remarkably, she didn't shove me into the nearby alley, but laughed and posed for a picture or two.)

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    1. Hi Poseidon
      You make "Ballroom" sound pretty interesting, conceptually. I have a friend who seems to own every OBC recording ever made, I'll have to impose on him to lend me that one. Also, it seems criminal to have Bea Arthur onstage and not have her do "Man in the moon"....that is one of my all time fave songs...so we owe you a debt of thanks! Once again, the anecdotes about Arthur are priceless! What terrific memories to to have. And, far from being off topic, I'm the one who asked you. I just get a kick out out hearing the stories. I live for that stuff! Thanks, as always Poseidon!

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  4. Ken - I am completely unfamiliar with this film, had not even heard of it before. Being a fan of Jacqueline Bisset, I'm surprised I wasn't aware of it 'til now. Wasn't she gorgeous then? What a face. But you make an excellent point about her limitations as an actress. Among my favorites of her films is "Who is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe?", a comedy/murder mystery.

    I'm very curious about the "female coming of age" angle and the depiction of "Sixtiesland" you describe. Will be looking for "The Grasshopper."

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  5. Hi Lady Eve
    Sort of surprising that such a substantial early role for such an established star as Bisset has so managed to remain below the radar for so long. It gives the impression that the film is something that should have remained buried. Indeed it's not. If you like Bisset at all, it's worth a look because she really is the best thing in the film. If anything "The Grasshopper" suffers from falling somewhere between being good trash like "Valley of the Dolls" and compelling character drama like "Darling." It's neither a great deal of fun, nor very profound. But I think it's worthwhile. As for "Who is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe?" I've never seen that film although I really tend to like 70s era George Segal. Maybe I should check out Netflix for it. Thanks!

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  6. Thanks for profiling this lost gem Ken. I discovered it around 2 years ago via Warner Archives and was completely taken in by it. Jacqueline Bisset still is a sight to be-hold.

    I just laughed at how many "Happy Days" alumni were involved in this.

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    1. Hi PTF
      Thanks for reading and leaving a comment. Very cool that you've seen this film. So few have. Yes, Bisset is really beautiful here and really is the best thing in the film. When I think of how good she was working with Truffaut, George Cukor, and Roman Polanski, I lay a great deal of blame for her not really owning the dramatic scenes at the feet of Jerry Paris and (as you point out) the army of "Happy Days" and TV sitcom alumni working on the film. It at times looks like a serious episode of "That Girl"

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  7. Hey Ken I just caught another Jackie Bisset film this morning on Fox Movie Channel ~ THE SWEET RIDE (1968) co-starring Tony Franciosa and Michael Sarrazin. It's a pseudo biker/psychedelic/beatnik/beach-bum "character study"...odd little film with a swingin' title song by Dusty Springfield.
    Bisset plays a hack actress with a sordid past who gets caught up with a very wild, swingin' crowd.

    Another Bisset film I am trying to get my hands on: THE FIRST TIME (1969) released the same year as THE GRASSHOPPER but in it she plays a 25 year old "older woman" (!) who takes high schooler (!) Wes Stern's virginity. It was co-written by Ann-Margret's husband Roger Smith who also co-produced it with Allan Carr.

    Okay...I'm officially obsessed with Jackie Bisset now...totally your fault!

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    1. Hi PTF
      I DVR'd that movie myself! I have never seen it, but always wanted to, for when I was a kid I remember it being advertised (heavily) as a chance to see Bisset in a topless bathing suit. I think Bisset would only bring it up as the film where she met long-time boyfriend Michael Sarrazin. I had forgotten that biker/surf flicks were still Drive-In staples before cheerleaders and stewardesses took over later.
      You must tell me if you ever catch "The First Time"...Bisset as an older woman and the positively charm-free Wes Stern (I think he had a TV sitcom at the time with Bobby Sherman) should be something. Also, the one-two punch of Alan Carr and Roger Smith spells cheese ripened to perfection.
      As another of those late-60s "starlet" types who have survived, Bisset is a worthy object of your obsession!
      What gets me about these movies (Pleasure Seekers and Sweet Ride) if Tony Franciosa...how did he fall from making films with Anna Magnani and Paul Newman to this stuff?

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    2. Yeah, Tony Franciosa...what a wild and varied film career, loved him in A HATFUL OF RAIN, A FACE IN THE CROWD and THE LONG, HOT SUMMER.

      Pleasure Seekers and Sweet Ride are high brow in comparison to the dreck that is THE SWINGER and FATHOM.

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  8. Oh look St Elsewhere's Dr Westphall with a porno tache! ;)

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    1. Oh my god, Mark...I didn't even recognize him! He doesn't even look like himself later in life!

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  9. Haah! Happy to help. Being a big St Elsewhere fan it's the only thing I pretty much know him from. Shame he killed himself. Incidentally that reminds me of a St Elsewhere blog I occasionally visit which had a pic of him bare assed on :s

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    1. Killed himself? Yikes! I didn't know that....that's a shame. I have to bone up my research on these obscure movies.
      And as for the bare assed pic...is this pre-St. Elsewhere? Most behinds have an expiration date.

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  10. No this was during St Elsewhere :O

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  11. Here's a link (for those with a strong stomach)

    http://stelsewhereexperience.blogspot.co.uk/2012/08/network-tvs-first-full-moon.html?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Feed:+TheStElsewhereExperience+(The+St.+Elsewhere+Experience)

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    1. Oh my Gosh! That is actually a pretty funny bit of TV history there and a great addition to this post, as "The Grasshopper" was Flanders' film debut and "St. Elsewhere" near the end. Not really being a fan of the show, I had forgotten how it had pushed the envelope for TV in terms of language and "nudity." Every time you write me here, I get a little bit of unknown film history. Our Man in the UK is still on the job! Thanks, Mark
      Visit mark's Blog: http://randomramblingsthoughtsandfiction.blogspot.com

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  12. Always happy to help Ken...and ditto!

    Though actually, in sharing a picture of Ed Flanders ass I'm not actually sure if that can be viewed as helpful! haha

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  13. This is fantastic. I'm glad many have discovered this gem of a film. However I must ask does anywhere have any idea where I could find a copy of the film and soundtrack? I've been looking for nearly ten years. Thanks again and great work.

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    1. Hello
      Yes, this somewhat forgotten film has quite a few fans, i think.
      I'm not sure if you live in the us but Warner Bros. Archive sells a made-to-order DVD of "The Grasshopper" on its website:
      http://www.wbshop.com/product/grasshopper+the+1000179507.do?sortby=ourPicks&from=Search

      As for the soundtrack, I have an old vinyl LP that I converted to mp3 files for my ipod. Contact me at my email address and maybe we can see about sending you the album by email. Ken@xanadu-fitness.com

      If you're looking for a professionally rendered CD of the soundtrack, I haven't been able to find one myself, but I'm still looking!
      Thanks very much for stopping by!

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