Saturday, August 11, 2012

PETULIA 1968

Some years back, director Francis Ford Coppola released The Godfather Trilogy 1901-1980: a chronologically reassembled edit of all three of his Godfather films. As appealing as it was (in a passive, brain-dead, sort of way) to have the sprawling Corleone saga laid out in a fashion so as to make it impossible for even the most distracted viewer to lose the narrative thread, the sad result was that in the attainment of unequivocal comprehension, all poetry was lost. Robbed of the sometimes poignant juxtapositioning of past and present events, The Godfather became just another gangster film.

The artful manipulation of time in The Godfather films - the past coexisting with the present - is more than just a stylistic conceit, it's an essential representation of the films' narrative themes of destiny and predetermination. In Petulia, the conveyance of time as a nonlinear phenomenon reflecting the characters fractured lives (a point of annoyance for several critics at the time), is no less fundamental to the telling of this particularly Sixties, yet timeless, story.
Down on Me
Well-heeled attendees of a charity fundraising dance "Shake for Highway Safety" react to the rock group, Big Brother & the Holding Company (Janis Joplin)
Richard Lester’s Petulia is the story of a small group of very pretty people whose perfect-looking lives are nevertheless bloody battlefields strewn with the carnage of emotional (occasionally physical) violence every bit as senseless and arbitrary as the glaring images of the Vietnam War that flicker from the largely ignored TV sets that seem to be in every room. Depicted in an artfully disjointed style that intercut flash-forwards and flashbacks with scenes occurring in the here and now, Petulia examines the tentative love affair between impulsive, unhappily-married newlywed, Petulia (Christie), and the generationally displaced surgeon, Archie (Scott). Archie is an old-fashionedly decent man facing a kind of existential mid-life crisis in "The Pepsi Generation" and he doesn't know quite what to make of it all.
Just as Coppola's use of flashbacks in The Godfather created a sense of history encroaching upon the present, Petulia is an almost-love-story told in a time-tripping, non-linear fashion so organic to the era (the swinging sixties); the place (hippie-era San Francisco); and characters (the beautiful people), that it’s impossible to imagine the film realized in any other way.
Julie Christie as Petulia Danner
George C. Scott as Archie Bollen
Richard Chamberlain as David Danner
Shirley Knight as Polo (Prudence) Bollen
Joseph Cotten as Mr. Danner
I saw Petulia for the first time just two months ago (Thanks, PamelaTiffinFan for the insistent recommendation!) and, given my predilection for all things Julie Christie, it struck me as more than a little puzzling that this near-perfect little gem had managed to elude me all these years. I thought I would like it, but I didn't really expect to love it as much as I did. Funny, touching, marvelously acted...it's so perfectly attuned to my tastes and interests, it practically has my name on it. Advertised at the time of its release as “the uncommon movie,” Petulia might well have added "unexpected” to the mix, for I've really never seen anything like it. Not only does it have Julie Christie at her most jaw-droppingly gorgeous (EVER…and that’s saying something), but she, George C. Scott, and Richard Chamberlain, bring a empathetic intensity to characters one might best describe as guardedly dispassionate.
Although they share no scenes together, Petulia reunites Kathleen Widdoes (pictured) with her The Group co-star, Shirley Knight 
Petulia is Richard Lester's savage picture postcard satire of American life in the late Sixties. A time when sentimentality was considered square, relationships tangential, and the polished-metal, automated world of the “now” was changing so fast it stood in constant danger of leaving itself behind. As a dissection of an emerging cultural scene and its people, Petulia is a surprisingly focused social skewering considering its relative lack of distance (it's one of the few mainstream films commenting on the Sixties to actually have been filmed at the time and place where "The Sixties", as we know it, originated). Richard Lester (A Hard Day’s Night, The Ritz) takes a fragmented, psychedelic view of the gleaming-surfaced existence of  jaded, wealthy hippies and disillusioned, drop-out professionals. A world where the disenfranchised poor and people of color are always glimpsed (just barely) on the periphery, and the hippies are just as phony and callous as the straights. The darkly comic, fumbling interplay of these lost-and-found souls striving—often in shell-shocked bemusement—to reach out to one another in a disposable, mechanized, instant gratification society, is rendered in strobe-light glimpses boldly captured by Nicolas Roeg’s (The Man Who Fell To EarthDon’t Look Now) kaleidoscopic camera lens.

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM:
Petulia (based on the John Haase novel, Me and the Arch Kook Petulia) is very effective, not to mention outrageously stylish, in the ways it depicts the messy complexity of relationships. Contrary to what songs, romance novels, and fairy tales would have us believe, really connecting with another human being is a frustratingly difficult business; imperfect, inconsistent, and comprised of a million little disappointments and uncertainties, all tethered to an overpowering need for human contact. 
The straightforward Archie can’t make head-nor-tails of the captivating but confounding Petulia, who is herself of two minds about her beautiful but abusive husband, David. Polo, Archie’s ex-wife, is not quite over him, yet seems to have leapt into a compromise relationship, while their friends, Barney and Wilma (?!) [Arthur Hill and Kathleen Widdoes], whose own marriage is falling apart, scheme to have them reconcile. These emotionally inarticulate couplings form a roundelay of missed chances and miscommunications endlessly reenacted by the uniformly dissatisfied protagonists. Individuals whose words and actions seem to be forever at cross purposes with their desires.

As Petulia is as much a social satire as a poignantly bleak meditation on emotional authenticity (“Real, honest-to-God tears, Petulia?”), the picture of America that Lester paints is one of alienating mechanization and deceptive appearances. Richard Lester’s San Francisco is one of automatized motels; switch-on fireplaces; indoor flowers that die when exposed to real sunlight; decoy hospital room TV sets; sullen flower children; nuns driving Porches; topless restaurants; gloomy all-night supermarkets; and kiddie excursions to Alcatraz Prison (which is a reality now, but was not, if I remember correctly, the case back in 1967).
Among the row houses of Daly City, Archie seeks the assistance of two two non-cooperative hippies (that's WKRP's Howard Hessman in the pink shirt) 
PERFORMANCES:
No one does sham superficiality better than Julie Christie. From Darling's narcissistic Diana Scott; Far From the Madding Crowd's perniciously thoughtless Bathsheba; to the emotionally vacant Linda Montag of Fahrenheit 451, Christie has made a career of adding depth and dimension to otherwise unsympathetically shallow characters.
The walking contradiction that is Petulia Danner: arch posturing one moment, self-recriminating anguish the next, is one of Julie Christie's strongest most persuasive performances.
I can't say I've ever cared much for George C. Scott (who somehow grows increasingly handsome as the film progresses) but I think he is rather spectacular here. He avoids the usual self-pity that comes with these kinds of roles and makes Archie into a strong, very likable character you come to care a great deal about. It's a most effective dramatic device when a staunchly unexcitable character in a movie breaks into a smile, and when this happens in Petulia, it just about breaks my heart.
Special mention must also be made of Richard Chamberlain (then known exclusively for TV's Dr. Kildare and as a heartthrob romantic lead) daringly cast against type and delivering an overwhelmingly chilling portrayal of a man who is a physically perfect, psychologically damaged, Ken doll.

THE STUFF OF FANTASY:
A film set in Sixties San Francisco is bound to be visually vivid, and Petulia is a marvelous-looking movie that makes great use of color. There are psychedelic light shows accompanying musical appearances by The Grateful Dead and Janis Joplin, striking vistas of Bay Area locations, and the candy-colored mod fashions of the day take on a fairly 3D effect.
My partner was the first to take note of the beige/brown cheerlessness of Archie's bachelor apartment (top) contrasting so expressively with Petulia's fraudulently festive pink and yellow boudoir (below).

THE STUFF OF DREAMS:
It's always struck me as a curious phenomenon how so many films from the '80s and '90s can appear so dated to me, yet most of my favorite films from the late -'60s and '70s seem to have a timelessness about them. I don't pretend to know the reason, but I suspect it's because so many '60s and '70s films are about people and relationships, while '80s and '90s films are chiefly the result of pitches, formulas, and focus groups. Ignore the swinging 60s window dressing (but who would want to?) and Petulia is as relevant today as it was in 1968. Perhaps more so
Estrangement. The natural consequence of erecting barriers in the avoidance of pain
On the strength of one month's ownership and three viewings, Petulia has become my absolute favorite Richard Lester film. The first American feature from a director known for his bold comedic style, Petulia is not as great a thematic departure as it at first appears. There are plentiful examples of Lester's penchant for absurdist humor, caustic irony, and the sad/funny details of human interaction. But what distinguishes Petulia for me is the humanity at the core of this little microscopic vision of the world, and the sophistication and style of its execution. In that, Petulia is indeed an uncommon movie.
Petulia is, at its heart, an adult twist on the classic fairy tale. Petulia is the damsel in distress who, perhaps tragically, can't or doesn't want to be saved; David, the Prince Charming whose beauty conceals a beast; and Archie, the frog prince who lives happily ever after.

Copyright © Ken Anderson

23 comments:

  1. I agree, I'm baffled as to why this always seems so overlooked :(

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    1. Part of it could have been the way it was marketed. Here they played up the "kook" angle so much, i thought it was one of those 60s psychedelic comedies like "Morgan." It seems difficult to pin down to a genre or style. In any event...all the years I've wasted!

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  2. Beautiful post, gorgeously written. I haven't seen PETULIA, though I've heard of it as an undiscovered gem. I will definitely seek it out after reading your review - thanks!

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    1. You're too kind! Thanks so much. "Petulia" is a rather remarkable film to me, but I can fully understand how its shifts of tone (bloody violence, romance, comedy, satire) could have contributed to its surprisingly forgotten status.It's just such a bold vision I think it's well worth the look.
      Oh, and I'm so looking forward to stopping by your blog and reading your post on a forgotten camp fave of mine... that Ma Barker film with Lurene Tuttle (such a shocking against-type casting for a woman familiar to early TV audiences as the quintessential nice old lady). Thanks for your kind comments!

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    2. Look forward to you stopping by - hope you enjoy it!

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  3. Ken, Great selection for a review. You do a beautiful job bringing attention to a film that, as you mention, has become overlooked. I saw it not too long ago on some movie channel - but years and years had passed since my first viewing - "Petulia" seemed to have vanished. How wonderful it was to discover how well the film held up over time. I'd forgotten it was Richard Lester's work - what on earth happened to his career, by the way? Something went sideways - maybe it was when he moved into the world of big-budget Hollywood blockbusters...

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    1. Hello Eve
      Yes, some really fascinating films often fall through the cracks it seems. With no past memory of "Petulia" to call upon (I was 11 years old when it was released, and living in San Francisco at the time...I would have flipped over this film then, I'm positive of it) the movie strikes me as having a very contemporary pacing, making it enjoyable, but a terrific glimpse of another time in America.
      As for Lester; you're right, his career is quite "different" later on. Hard to know hat goes on with talent like his when met with Hollywood success. Thanks for commenting. Always like hearing from you, Eve!

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  4. "...the hippies are just as phony and callous as the straights..."

    All too often that's precisely how it is in real life. It's a lot like how the hippies are portrayed in "Joe" (John G. Avildsen, 1970).

    I was fortunate enough to catch "Petulia" in 35mm a few years ago (2008), as part of a double bill with "Medium Cool" (Haskell Wexler, 1968), another film that is rated very highly by film historians, but has fallen into relative obscurity (Leonard Maltin's Movie Guide rates it the maximum four stars).

    "...the generationally displaced surgeon, Archie (Scott)...an old-fashionedly decent man facing a kind of existential mid-life crisis in "The Pepsi Generation" and he doesn't know quite what to make of it all."

    George C. Scott did this again in "The Hospital" (Arthur Hiller, 1971), except in that one the kook was Diana Rigg.
    Scott is also great again playing an old-fashioned man at odds with the "modern world" in "Hardcore" (Paul Schrader, 1979).

    I really do need to see "Petulia" again; it's been such a long time. For some reason, the Melbourne Cinemateque added a couple of shorts to the "Medium Cool"/"Petulia" double, thus making the evening hellishly long, hence I have no recollection of the two shorts and only a little of "Petulia" (I had already absorbed a mini-short, two hours of "Medium Cool" and a longer short, i.e. 20 minutes, before arriving at "Petulia").

    The Melbourne Cinemateque has never done a Julie Christie Retrospective, nor has ACMI in general presented such a compilation--astonishing, no? Faye Dunaway has also barely been touched by ACMI and NEVER by Melbourne Cinemateque, but I digress).

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    1. Hi Mark
      While watching "Petulia" my mind did go to all the things you had said about what you enjoyed about George C Scott in "The Hospital." I like him so much in this, perhaps it's time for me to give that film another look-see...after all, it's been over 30 years since I last saw it. I like how you called attention to the parallels (older guy clashes with modern world by way of a kook). Now that I think of it, I liked George C Scott in "Hardcore", but Paul Schrader's script kind of left me just thinking of the lost opportunities presented by the plot.

      I laughed at your description of the "hellishly long" evening at Melbourne Cinemateque. I've seen "Medium Cool" and the screening schedule you relate is an awful lot of Sixties alienation to deal with in one sitting.

      "Petulia"s non-romantic look at the hippie movie is one of the film's nicest surprises.

      Lastly, the idea of a Julie Christie retrospective is a fabulous idea (of course I'd think so). I think TCM did this some time ago and that's how I came to watch "Darling" and "Doctor Zhivago" one blissful evening, but "Petulia" has been elusive throughout my life.
      Terrific observations and references in your comment, Mark. I appreciate so much that you inspire so much food for thought. Thanks!

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  5. I still marvel at the way you dissect a film and disseminate its parts into the appropriate area of discussion. Too few paid film critics are capable of this! This post is especially well-conceived and written.

    I first saw Petulia long ago in a grainy, pan-'n-scan TV print with commercials and couldn't get into it. A couple of years ago, the DVD was $3.00 at a discount store and I picked it up because I tend to love movies made from 1965-69 and, seeing it in its original format and quality, I appreciated it far more than before. For me it was a "Come for the hairstyles, stay for the acting!" thing. LOL I understand and appreciate it even more after reading this. Thanks!

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    1. Poseidon
      Your comment is very high praise indeed, given that I am such a major fan of your site and writing. I thank you if you found something in my post that sparked a fond remembrance of something you liked from "Petulia" long ago. ...a movie I would have loved had I ever really heard about it much while growing up. I laughed at the "Come for the hairstyles..." line because the big, Sixties hairdo that Christie sports when she first spies Scott reminded me of a post of yours I read a long while ago highlighting the escalating heights that women's hair took in the 60s. She looks absolutely amazing in it, but when she is seducing George C Scott, I wondered if her character didn't bring a halt to the proceedings simply because her toweringly vertical hair could not have sustained the horizontal. Thank you so much!
      (By the way Poseidon, any chance you could post a link here to your 60s hairstyles article? Anyone reading about "Petulia" I think would be intrigued)

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  6. Ken, you resurrected a nearly forgotten gem when you chose to write on this one, a surprisingly serious film from the usually satirical and flippant Richard Lester. It got a lot attention from critics at the time, but I think it might have been too artful--and its observations too truthful--for mainstream audiences of the day. I haven't seen it in many years, but I have good memories of it, especially as I saw it on the big screen, where its candy-colored decor and San Francisco locations really stood out.

    You're right that this is one of Julie Christie's best performances, a sort of more self-aware and emotionally fragile version of her Diana in "Darling." I remember what a shock it was seeing Richard Chamberlain/Dr. Kildare as her sadistic husband (loved it when you described him as a "Ken doll"). George C. Scott is an actor I've always admired more for being so talented than for eliciting sympathy for his characters, but he is very affecting here. There's something very moving in his attempts to find a meaningful relationship with Christie, a sort of middle-aged Holden Caulfield rebelling against shallowness and phoniness. He was singled out by critics of the time for his performance, but I do think he's matched by Christie. This film needed two strong leads to anchor it, and it's hard to imagine better casting for these roles.

    Need I mention how articulate your writing was and how well-considered your scrutiny of characters and character relationships.

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    1. Hi R.D.
      I think you have something there when you cite the reasons why audiences passed over "Petulia." I have to say, given the director, the film's rather light-hearted hippy-dippy title (like Mike Sarne's Joanna), and its poster art...I always thought "Petulia" was an out and out comedy and was unprepared for how serious the film was. I can only imagine how audiences at the time must have felt misled.
      I like the parallel you draw with Christie's character in "Darling", and I think I echo your feelings on George C. Scott. I think this is my only sympathetic experience of him. I of course also agree with you about how well matched the two leads are. Thanks for sharing your own very concise comments about "Petulia" (I envy your having seen the film on a big screen). And once again, you pay me no greater compliment than if you say in some way you enjoy my writing. It means a lot. Thanks

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  7. Here's the link, Ken, to my post about all that towering '60s hair! When I revisit the subject (as I surely will), I'll have to include Miss Christie's coiffure from Petulia! Thank you!

    http://neptsdepths.blogspot.com/2011/03/hairway-to-heaven.html

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  8. Hi Ken! This is PTF, by the way. So glad you finally saw this. Three viewings? My, my aren't we making up for lost time? LOL!

    Great insights and observations on this, one of my all time favorite films from the 60's.

    I especially loved this:

    Petulia is Richard Lester's savage picture postcard satire of American life in the late Sixties.

    You hit the nail on the head with that one!

    I love your writing style...and your taste in film. Keep up the great work!

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    1. Hi Cal
      Well, thanks for pressing the point about my having to see it!. The first time I saw "Petulia" it I was just so surprised at the turn the plot was taking (I expected a silly, 60s, psychedelic generation gap comedy like "I love you Alice B. Toklas"), then I watched it again to look at the how the flashbacks and flash forwards played now that I knew the plot (they add so much character info!), and the third time was just to look at Julie Christie. What a smasher she is. Thank you for the nice compliments and especially for always coming back to read my posts. Very grateful!

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  9. Ah, "The Hospital" with George C. Scott is spectacular! "We cure nothing! We heal nothing!" That pretty much sums up the medical industry. Scott also ends up hanging around with a woman half his age in "Hardcore". Then of course there is his philandering in "Dr. Strangelove". I think George had this in his contract.

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    1. Ha! It's like what you had said earlier about stars like Lee Marvin. Hollywood saw nothing vaguely ridiculous about these older guys and giving them love interests young enough to be their daughters.
      Also (off topic) I can scarcely think of an early review of a Barbra Streisand film that didn't discuss in part her looks. George C Scott was no Paul Newman, yet I've never come across a review that thought his less-than-matinee-idol looks required comment, in spite of his being being cast as the romantic lead a few times.I guess our double standard in film applies to age as well as looks.

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  10. A great write up on a film that gets better with age. Those 60s films really do stand the test of time.

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    1. Hello Flick Chick,
      Thanks very much for the kind words and for stopping by. I know I am biased (what with growing up in San Francisco in the 60s), but I agree, so many of those 60s movies hold up remarkably well.

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  11. Welcome to the 'Petulia' club, Ken! I must admit I was slightly shocked to read that one of my favorite Julie Christie fanatics took this long to see one of her best performances, but I was happy to read that you are making up for lost time with three viewings already.
    I was too young to grasp the picture when I saw it in first run all those years ago, but have been studying it ever since video came along.
    The John Barry score is one of his very best and I was so happy to find it on CD a few years ago paired with his "Alice in Wonderland" music.
    Several years ago I did an interview with Shirley Knight for a play she was doing here in Connecticut but we wound up spending almost the whole time talking about "Petulia" which she considers one of her best film experiences. She loved working with Lester and did "Juggernaut" with him a few years later (she's very funny it).
    Then I talked to Richard Chamberlain when his memoir came out and, again, spent most of the interview time talking about "Petulia."
    It became clear to me that the actors who worked on this great picture are as fascinated by it as us moviegoers.

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  12. Hi Joe
    Yes, I'm a little slow on the pick-up with this film, but if waiting has a virtue, it's that there is no way in hell this film would have made the least bit of sense to me had I seen it when it came out (I would have been 10) or even as little as decade ago. The timing was just right and I think I now understand what is nagging at the character of Archie better than I ever could as a younger man.
    I think it's just marvelous that you had the opportunity to have discuss this film with Knight and Chamberlain. They are both so young! Thank you for sharing that memory. It's nice to think that they both have fond memories of a film that did not perform perhaps as well as everyone might have hoped, given its quality.
    I'm glad you mention John Barry's score...it's beautiful and also a little hauntingly sad. I was immediately taken just with the credits sequence (and just for the record, his score to "Alice in Wonderland" is one of my favorites). So thanks for welcoming me to the "Petulia" club, I honor my late but nonetheless devoted membership.

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  13. I have seen this movie four times...and I still don't know what the hell it's all about! For me, "Petulia" is one of the most torturous movies I ever seen. Like "Easy Rider" it's one of those late-60's movies in which my mind was yelling "WHAT'S THE MESSAGE HERE?!?" (what did both movies have in common? Same thing: They were produced by a person that had no experience at that position) I'll give you a reason why I hated it: Director Richard Lestor had to put in the faces of Janis Joplin and Jerry Garcia. I think "Bullitt" (also released in 1968) was the greatest movie to ever be set in San Francisco (with "Petulia" the worst). Why? Because director Peter Yates didn't commit the same cardinal sin Lester did by not having the presences felt by the famed San Franciscans of that time. In some case, "Petulia" is like the other '68 film "Targets": both movies took the risk of having two plots, and it didn't work out...and oh yes, both movies got victmized by the murder of Robert Kennedy (was not killed by Sirhan Sirhan-do you own research as what Charlie Sheen said). Because of this, it probably cost Jospeh Cotten his only chance of getting an Oscar nomination.

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