Tuesday, January 31, 2012

KITTEN WITH A WHIP 1964


Ann-Margret in her 1994 memoir, “My Story”:
“My performance in ‘Kitten’ was so gritty and intense audiences were confused. They preferred me as the innocent sweetheart in ‘Birdie’ (Bye, Bye Birdie). The same problem frustrated Elvis; people didn’t want us to change.”

Not so much…

Allow me to qualify the above quotation:
“My performance in ‘Kitten’ was so gritty and intense audiences were confused”
Only if by “gritty and intense” she means “artificial and hyperactive.” 

“They preferred me as the innocent sweetheart in ‘Birdie.’”
We preferred something resembling recognizable human behavior.

“The same problem frustrated Elvis; people didn’t want us to change.”
Diversity was not exactly their strongest suit. Ann-Margret didn’t really begin acting in film until “Carnal Knowledge” in 1971. 
I’m a major, MAJOR fan of Ann-Margret. Like most people my age, the first time I ever laid eyes on her was in Bye Bye Birdie (1963). The staggeringly eye-popping image of her sashaying towards us in a skintight dress (ever-present wind machine blowing her orange mane) in a limitless blue void, singing the title song …well, it launched a thousand puberties.

In this and every subsequent film of hers in the 60s, Ann-Margret mined a paradoxically wholesome/smutty glamour of dizzyingly kinetic female hypersexuality of the sort I’ve literally never seen before or since. Bouncing about the screen in impossibly high heels, wiggling her rump, undulating her bosom, and tossing her hair about in absolute abandon; Ann-Margret was in-your-face, aggressively sexy. She was also resoundingly camp. Cross an over-the-top female impersonator with Lola Falana and Joey Heatherton on speed, and you’re still not likely to get an appreciation of the full-tilt atomic sex-bomb that was 60s-era Ann-Margret.
Energy and star quality personified, Ann-Margret, unlike the sex symbols of the 50s, wasn’t coy about her allure. Indeed, she seemed to so revel in her vivacious (voracious?) sex appeal and took so much bawdy pleasure in her own body that she never seemed to need anyone else. What man could keep up with her?  Other than Elvis Presley in Viva Las Vegas (1964) no other male co-star ever looked like they would come out of an evening with Ann-Margret alive.
As much as I took delight in watching Ann-Margret on screen and on her TV specials, I have to admit that I never quite knew if she was putting us on or not. Her brand of femininity was so far out on a limb that I could never tell if this was Ann-Margret engaging in a subtle form of self-parody (like Mae West), or did she really believe in her exaggerated, tigress/vamp act?

This ambiguity is somewhat cruelly exploited in Kitten with a Whip: one of a rash of black & white, low-budget films released in the early 60s that attempted to capture the gritty neo-realism of Something Wild (1961) or UK’s The Leather Boys; but instead fell into the chasm of B-movie exploitation, exemplified by films like Who Killed Teddy Bear?(1965) and Lady in a Cage (1966). Kitten with a Whip was made in 1964, but it feels like a late 50s Mamie Van Doren castoff.
Ann-Margret as Jody Dru
John Forsythe as David Stratton
Peter Brown as Ron
Diane Sayer as Midge
Skip Ward as Buck
17 year-old Jody Dru, nee Dvorak (Ann-Margret), escapes from a girl’s detention center and seeks refuge in a darkened, apparently vacant, suburban home. Come morning, Jody discovers the residence to belong to aspiring State Senator David Stratton (Forsythe) whose estranged wife and daughter are away. Certain he’s being set up for a political scandal, Stratton decides to call the police but changes his mind after hearing Jody’s tale of abuse and neglect. Resolving instead to help her reverse her fortunes, Stratton offers Jody his assistance, only to discover that there is clearly more to this voluptuous teen than meets the eye. What follows is a black comedy of errors crossed with juvenile delinquent cautionary tale as the woodenly sincere Stratton attempts to extricate himself from the escalating mess his life becomes after crossing paths with the auburn-haired minx.

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM:
With its nervously percussive, espresso bongo jazz soundtrack; Saul Bass-inspired titles; and stark, almost nourish, photography; there’s the nagging sense that Kitten with a Whip is trying to say something deep about teen disaffection in the age of The Bomb. Fortunately for us, director /screenwriter Douglas Heyes’ preference for sleaze over sermons made certain that Stanley Kramer wasn’t likely to suffer any sleepless nights. 

Kitten with a Whip is an overheated, flagrantly gynophobic, suburban nightmare about middle-class normalcy turned upside-down by a bi-polar teenage sociopath in French heels. Ergo, it’s an awful lot of fun.
Everything in this film—emotions, dialog, and dramatic situations— are ratcheted up to such absurdly shrill levels that it feels like you’re watching flash cards. Nothing substantive is allowed to land and take root. Like the animated cartoon that plays in the background of one scene, Kitten with a Whip doesn’t allow for the dust to settle between explosions. As soon as one disaster is felled, a new one pops up to take its place. 
All the above would certainly disqualify this film from most people’s must-see lists, but as a fan of the brilliant Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (1965), I find Kitten with a Whip to be a similar thrill ride. Bad girls are always more fun, and as “Kitten” defies being taken seriously, it’s easy to sit back and wallow in its naïve lewdness. There are countless laughs to be had (some even intentional!).
Jody don't take no mess!

PERFORMANCES:
Kitten with a Whip was Ann-Margret’s first “dramatic” role following her star-making turn in Bye Bye Birdie (her manager even turned down Cat Ballou for this film. He was later fired). Sandwiched between Viva Las Vegas and The Pleasure Seekers, Kitten with a Whip was to be the film to show off her range and versatility. Alas, it did anything but. 
There’s a kind of bad acting that is boring to watch and painful to subject yourself to (evident most reliably in testosterone-laden action films), but Ann-Margret’s performance in Kitten with a Whip is so electrifyingly awful, you can’t take your eyes off of her.

If there’s anything jarring about her efforts (she wins us over by being photogenic and histrionically agitated at all times) it’s that Ann-Margret trying to be “real” seems phonier than anything you've ever encountered. It’s like she’s never seen real human behavior and has no idea of how to convey emotions except in the broadest strokes possible.
Hers is a strenuous, muscular, performance that decimates everything and everyone else in the film (particularly the stupendously inexpressive John Forsythe), but it’s the only life the film has. Giving it everything she’s got, Ann-Margret purrs, writhes, gnashes her teeth, pops her eyes, leers, pouts, and glowers;  all in bas-relief, indicating and telegraphing like she’s in a silent movie. She’s magnificent in a "I can't believe my eyes!" kind of way. (Ken Russell would harness Ann-Margret’s ferocity more capably in 1975s Tommy.)


THE STUFF OF FANTASY:
As the film’s star, it’s only fitting that Ann-Margret is blessed with the lion’s share of Kitten with a Whip’s colorful (and comical) dialog.

 Jody: “Ooooh! Everything’s so creamy! Kill me quick, I never had it so good!”

Jody:  How come you think you’re such a smoky something when you’re so nothing painted blue?”

Jody: “Hands off, Buster! Don’t you ever bruise me, David. God knows what I might do to you if you ever bruise me.”

Jody: “You’re gonna think I have an awfully dirty mind David, I change it so often.”

Jody: “You follow all this? You live behind walls here, man. Where I come from it’s outer space.”

Jody: “Put it down! You poke that finger at that dial, mister, and that's when I start screaming rape!"

Jody: “Look, I’m only a girl…I panic!” 
Jody's not that kind of girl
THE STUFF OF DREAMS:
Folks who don’t enjoy camp humor or who lack a taste for cult films with reputations built on their shortcomings may find this post bewildering; does he hate Ann-Margret, does he like her? What gives?

As I stated from the start, I’m really pretty much mad about Ann-Margret, but I’m not one of those fans who needs to take an-all-or-nothing stance about a performer. I'm the first to admit that her performances in Carnal Knowledge and Tommy are phenomenal...but I'm not about to let my affection for this gorgeous lady excuse embarrassments like Made in Paris or The Swinger (whose title sequence alone is worth the price of a rental). I admire Ann-Margret because she is a dynamo, and like Cher, she’s one of those stars whose career has spanned decades and innumerable shifts in tastes and trends. The two are such survivors they’re likely to be the only things left standing after Armageddon.

One of the things I most like about Ann-Margret is her ability to be “good” even when she’s awful. And by that, I mean I admire her commitment. She may give a bad performance in Kitten With a Whip, but you'd have to look far to find a poor performance done with such conviction. She's giving 100% and then some. The results may be artistically uneven, but when accessed by standards of professionalism, dedication, and sheer hard work, she really delivers. I can’t help but admire that... even as I’m looking at some of her acting choices and wondering “What was she thinking?”

The whiny crybabies of today who drop out of plays because they’ve eaten bad sushi,  or deliver half-assed hosting performances on Academy Awards telecasts because they disagreed with the script…well, they could take a lesson.
  
Oh, and for the record:  Fans didn’t stay away from Kitten with a Whip because they didn’t like seeing Ann-Margret acting bad; they stayed away because didn’t like seeing Ann-Margret acting badly.
In a review for the 1968 musical Star!, Pauline Kael observed of British stage personality, Gertrude Lawrence: "She was what drag queens want to be."
I can't think of a sentence that better encapsulates Ann-Margret's uniquely enduring charm.
...for the literal-minded.
(I swear, this is a legitimate piece of promotional artwork for the film!!)

Copyright © Ken Anderson

Friday, January 27, 2012

INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS 1978


Smart movies are hard to come by. Smart remakes…near impossible. Why?
Well, maybe it’s because Hollywood’s attitude towards remakes is built on a kind of Catch-22 logic: If a film is poorly made and flops at the boxoffice—precisely the type of film, one would assume, to best benefit from being remade—Hollywood won’t touch it. However, if a film is accomplished and financially successful (leaning towards classic-status), superfluous existence aside, Hollywood can’t seem to wait to get a crack at churning out a remake.

Wholly motivated by a studio’s desire to repeat an earlier triumph without having to break a sweat, most remakes are cynical, dumbed-down affairs tricked-up with new technology and a paucity of inspiration. The lazier, more arrogant cousin of the sequel, remakes (which, by definition, presume an improvement over the original) have been responsible for some of the most painful moviegoing experiences I’ve ever had; e.g., The Stepford Wives (2004), The Haunting (1999), and The Women (2008). Just to name a few.

Yet, as if to prove the rule by exception, every now and then, when a remake is inspired by an idea rather than an accountant’s ledger, the results can be surprising, fresh, even transcendent. Such is the case with Phillip Kaufman’s shrewd and remarkably effective remake of the 1956 sci-fi/horror classic, Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
Donald Sutherland as Matthew Bennell
Brooke Adams as Elizabeth Driscoll
Jeff Goldblum as Jack Bellicec
Veronica Cartwright as Nancy Bellicec
Leonard Nimoy as Dr. David Kibner
The original Don Siegel film was a little B-movie masterpiece of paranoia and dread that, intentionally or not, tapped into America’s ambivalence to post-war conformity and anxiety over the anti-communist panic of McCarthyism. Staying true to the core story line of the original, Kaufman’s remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (a deliciously pulpy title I’m glad the remake didn't abandon) is about an invasion of plant-like organisms from space that duplicate and replace human life— sans emotions. Life continues as before, the sole casualty (and ultimate tragedy) being a loss of personality and individuality.

The timeless appeal of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (it’s been remade at least two other times) may have a lot to do with the fact that we’re a culture which clings to the notion of individuality in the abstract, yet values conformity in the concrete. Even a cursory glimpse at the “comments” section of any Internet news site reveals that tolerance for opposing points of views and ways of life is not exactly America’s strong suit. Yet that doesn’t stop each of us from harboring, deep within our democratic bosoms, the romantic belief that we honor, above all else, the individual’s right to be just that: an individual.
What's HE doing here?
Robert Duvall's unbilled cameo as an unidentified priest mysteriously eyeing Brooke Adams as she picks one of the flowers that figure so significantly in the plot, was appropriately mysterious enough to seriously unsettle 1978 audiences when the film premiered

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM:
What makes this Invasion of the Body Snatchers such a chilling delight is how acutely, and with such perceptive wit, it captures the mood and preoccupations of a particular point and place in time, and uses it to breathe fresh life into a familiar horror tale. The late Ira Levin (with both Rosemary’s Baby and The Stepford Wives) was a master at this sort of thing: creating tension out of tapping into the core anxieties lying at the center of a shifting cultural climate.

Instead of the small town setting of the original, the 1978 film makes the most of its “Me Decade” angst and takes place in that most defiantly individualistic of American cities; San Francisco. Which is, conceptually speaking, perfection personified. Where better to rage a war against conformity than a city that prides itself on being a haven for the eccentric, the unique, and the idiosyncratic.
San Francisco's Transamerica Pyramid
Throughout the film, shots are composed that juxtapose the unique elements of San Francisco's "personality" with the threat of  impending dehumanization

For those too young to have experienced the 70s firsthand, Invasion of the Body Snatchers is an affectionate, but nonetheless spot-on, skewering of a certain West Coast sensibility. I was attending an arts college in San Francisco in 1978, and this film captures the feel of the time so authentically, it tweaks serious pangs of nostalgia every time I watch it. Seriously, most of the people I attended class with at The San Francisco Art Institute (myself included) were like the characters, Jack and Nancy Bellicec. 

This is a post hippie-movement San Francisco during that transitional time when the aging, free-love crowd was having to make room for the navel-gazing yuppie. It was an age of alternatives: alternative medicine, alternative religion and alternative thinking. The media was full of cults, causes, conspiracy theories, est training, and best-selling pop psychologists. Communal living was replaced by pride in ownership (restored Victorian apartments became symbols of yuppie affluence) and a reverence for privacy and personal space (as exemplified by the high-tech stereo headphones worn by the character, Geoffrey). Ecology buttons replaced peace signs, and a 1973 book titled “The Sound of Music and Plants” by Dorothy Retallck (detailing the effects of music on plant growth…a point referenced humorously in the film) was just part of a larger exaltation of urban plant life and vegetation in general.

As in all times of social realignment, unacknowledged social anxiety and unease is part of the adaptive cultural landscape. It makes sense to me that in a city as welcoming of change as San Francisco, the perceptive observer might notice a distinct edginess and uncertainty behind the city's composed veneer of blissed-out broad-mindedness.
This barely perceptible nervousness is precisely what director Phillip Kaufman and screenwriter W.D. Richter seize on in Invasion of the Body Snatchers to provide a contemporary kick to the sci-fi, body-switching horror. The threat appears to come from deep space, but when it comes down to it, what’s most frightening about the whole body-snatching idea is the possibility that what we most cling to in an interdependent way among friends and loved ones (our individuality), is what is least valued about us from a societal perspective. 

It hardly feels unintentional that the pod people taking over San Francisco are undetectable precisely because of their behavioral similarity to the urban professionals whose infiltration had been threatening the city’s loosey goosey vibe since the early 70s. Nor are we meant to ascertain unequivocally whether or not the psychobabble of Leonard Nimoy’s paperback psychologist is pod-talk or just the new language of the New-Age.

PERFORMANCES:
It always puzzles me the way so many directors of horror and suspense films overlook the obvious fact that the effectiveness of any horror film rests in whatever investment the audience has in the fate of the protagonists. Take time to flesh out the characters and there’s no telling how far an audience will go with your premise.
This is especially true with a film whose plot pivots on that intangible quality known as “humanity.” Invasion of the Body Snatchers appears to have been cast with an eye towards emphasizing unique idiosyncrasies of its stars, and it makes a world of difference in how we respond to all the genre trappings of chases, close calls and suspicious red herrings. Donald Sutherland, sporting the same curly locks from 1973s Don’t Look Now, has always been a kind of goofy, off-beat leading man. He’s not the lantern-jawed, hero type, so he comes off a believably strong, yet vulnerable enough for you never to be quite sure if he’s up to the task at hand.
 Brooke Adams is one of my favorite underrated actresses. She was among a small group of intelligent, distinctive actresses (like Geneviève Bujold) the 70s produced and then discarded when audience tastes turned to blank prettiness.

As good as Adams and Sutherland are (and Adams is amazing), the prizes have to go to Jeff Goldblum and Angela Cartwright. As just kind of couple you’d expect to find in San Francisco (they run a mud-bath establishment; he’s a poet, she’s one of those espousers of crackpot theories that always sounds more sane than the people around her). They are a hilarious and touching pair, and I daresay that without their contribution, as excellent a film as Invasion of the Body Snatchers is, it wouldn’t soar the way it does.
And let’s not leave out Leonard Nimoy. I’ve never been a fan of Star Trek and no doubt I have a minimal awareness of his gifts as an actor, but I must say his role as the infuriatingly logical psychologist is an inspired bit of casting. Audiences were never likely to shed their image of him as Spock, so I like that the film intentionally makes use of our predisposed sense of him in a way that doesn’t intrude, but rather enhances.
A trade paper ad promoting Veronica Cartwright for Academy Award consideration
THE STUFF  OF FANTASY:
Missed Opportunity or Cultural Sensitivity?
Perhaps it’s a sign of Kaufman’s good taste, but as a gay man, I find it hard to imagine how a film about human cloning set in San Francisco could resist the impulse to include a scene on Castro Street; home of the “Castro Street Clone.” For the uninitiated, The Castro is a gay district in San Francisco where (at least in the 70s) free-thinking gay men willfully abandoned all personal individuality so as to look identical to one another. Sporting identical mustaches, haircuts, clothing, and physiques, the Castro Street Clone was a city mainstay, as identifiable and generic to San Francisco as the Transamerica building.

Thinking back though, I recall with great sadness that Invasion of the Body Snatchers was released about a month after the murders of openly-gay San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone. Under these circumstances there would have been no place in the film for a reference of this nature. I might have this wrong, but I even seem to remember that a jokey line of dialog Donald Sutherland speaks to psychologist Nimoy (“The Mayor’s a patient of yours, isn’t he?”) may have been temporarily cut out of sensitivity.
In any event, it was strange watching a movie with so many scenes taking place at its City Hall. San Francisco felt like a very scary place at the time, and, as one might imagine, that tragic real-life event—auguring a mounting intolerance and conservatism in the city known for its liberalism—only made watching Invasion of the Body Snatchers an even more unsettling experience than it already was.
"It was like the whole city had changed overnight."
THE STUFF OF DREAMS:
I don’t know if director Phillip Kaufman is an admirer of Roman Polanski, but Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a film I’m certain Polanski would appreciate. From the very first frames there is attention paid to establishing an atmosphere of ever escalating paranoia and claustrophobia. Every shot has something; whether in the foreground or distance, that supports its themes. Plants are in almost every shot, sometimes crowding the frame creating a small space of activity for the actors.  There’s a brilliant sense of danger taking place beyond the confines of the story we’re witnessing. People are seen running in the distance, every window seems to have someone staring out of it. The tension grows to the point that even banal human activities like flossing take on an ominous air (Elizabeth’s boyfriend is seen flossing in an early scene, later at a secret meeting in Union Square Donald Sutherland’s character passes a man flossing in public). 
Of course, it’s wonderful that all this ambiance is piled on and we’re left to fill in many of the blanks ourselves. The act of which engages us even further and pulls us into the story.
I've always liked how Sutherland's shattered windshield (result of a run in with disgruntled restaurant staff) never gets repaired and offers us a view of a city fractured. Reminds me of how Polanski has Jack Nicholson spend the lion's share of Chinatown with a huge bandage on his nose. Its incongruity and hint of unexpected violence is unsettling.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers has the most amusingly witty and dark screenplay. Here are just a smattering of my favorite lines:

Jack: "Of course it's a conspiracy"
Matthew: "What is?"
Jack: "Everything!"

Nancy: (recoiling from a lifesize pod replica of her husband) "Jack, don't touch it! You don't know where it's been!"

Jack: "Who are you calling?"
Matthew: "Washington."
Jack: "What...the CIA? The FBI? They're pods already!"

Nancy: "Well, why not a 'space flower'? Why do we always expect metal ships?"
Jack: "I've never expected metal ships."

After Rosemary’s Baby, which, to me, is the best horror/suspense film ever made, I have to count Invasion of the Body Snatchers as one of the most consistently scary (and fun) thrillers I’ve ever seen. It delivers as drama, black comedy, sci-fi, and horror.  
Although set in a marvelously evoked 70s San Francisco, the film is so smart that it remains a relevant nightmare-maker even after all these years.

Today, with all the pierced, body-inked, automatons walking around with their earbuds buried in their brains, eyes trained on texting fingers, with nary a moment of eye-contact or human interaction passed between them, we might be ripe for another remake. But I think we’d better hurry up. From what I’m seeing there’s not a lot of individuality left to be fearful of losing.

Copyright © Ken Anderson

Friday, January 20, 2012

SUDDENLY, LAST SUMMER 1959


Watching Suddenly, Last Summer (adapted for the screen by Gore Vidal and Tennessee Williams from Williams’1958 play) it’s hard not to think about the frequency with which homosexuality=death themes crop up in Tennessee Williams’ works, and to wonder to what extent some gay artists have been subtly complicit in perpetuating damaging social perceptions of homosexuality. 
           
In 1937 New Orleans (a year necessary perhaps to emphasize the infancy of lobotomy surgery, but not at all evident in the 50s-style clothes, hairdos, and make-up on display) super-rich widow Violet Venable seeks to secure— through not-so-subtle bribery—the services of groundbreaking psychosurgeon John Cukrowicz. Her objective is to have the doctor perform a lobotomy on her beautiful niece, Catherine, who apparently went insane the previous summer after witnessing the death of Mrs. Venable’s adult son, Sebastian.
Lady's Very Hungry Today
"The Venus Fly-Trap, a devouring organism aptly named for the goddess of love."
The mysterious particulars of Sebastian’s death, life, and the reason behind Mrs. Venable’s wish to silence her niece, make up the narrative body of Suddenly, Last Summer. A film whose overarching Freudianism (intentionally or not) parallels closet homosexuality with everything from pedophilia and mother-fixation to sociopathology and flesh-eating prehistoric monsters. 
Elizabeth Taylor as Catherine Holly
Katherine Hepburn as Mrs.Violet Venable
Montgomery Clift as Dr. John Cukrowicz
If Tennessee Williams’ views on same-sex relations were unremittingly bleak, I suppose one can’t overlook the fact that Williams (of whom nothing I've read biographically would indicate a familiarity with love or happiness to any sizable degree) was nothing if not a product of his repressed, shame-based time. Raised in that bastion of open-mindedness, the American South, Williams (1911- 1983) had his greatest commercial successes during the 40s and 50s; a time when balanced/loving depictions of homosexuality would likely have resulted in his professional ostracism, if not incarceration. It’s a certainty that audiences at that time had no interest in seeing homosexuality portrayed as anything other than deviant aberration, but there’s no ignoring Williams’ willing participation in promoting this perspective. This in spite of Tennessee Williams being one of the few “out” public figures I can recall from my youth.

Expressly acknowledged homosexual characters appear in only a handful of this prolific playwright’s body of work: Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (Skipper, who commits suicide); A Streetcar Named Desire (Blanche’s husband Allan, also a suicide); and this, Suddenly, Last Summer (Sebastian, murdered and cannibalized). But wouldn’t you know it? They’re the works that have had the greatest longevity. (Tennessee Williams didn’t initiate popular culture’s tiresomely persistent association of homosexuality with death. In Lillian Hellman’s 1934 play, The Children’s Hour, a character’s mere suspicion that she might be a lesbian is enough to induce her to hang herself.)

There are those who believe it’s folly to look at old movies through a contemporary prism. While I think it’s important to keep in mind the cultural context and social time-frame of films, I also believe that all true art endures. And as such, one of the essential challenges facing any creative work to which the term "art" is to be applied, is its ability to withstand the critical application of changing cultural sensibilities.
Mercedes McCambridge (Giant) and Gary Raymond ( Look Back in Anger)
as Violet Venable's poor relations
 Suddenly, Last Summer (my favorite of all the films adapted from Tennessee Williams’ plays) passes the test because its antipathetic attitude towards homosexuality merely mirror the film’s larger themes of nihilism. NOBODY in a Tennessee Williams film is ever having much fun. It goes with the territory.

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM:
In an unfavorable review of Suddenly, Last Summer in The New York Times, critic Bosley Crowther denounced the film for its talkiness. A valid point, perhaps, for 1959. But in today’s “Era of the Inarticulate,” the euphuistic language of Suddenly, Last Summer is like an oasis in a desert.

“The dinosaurs are vegetarian… that’s why they became extinct. They were just too gentle for their size. And then the carnivorous creatures, the ones that eat flesh...the killers… inherited the earth. But then they always do, don’t they?”

“Life is a thief. Life steals everything.”

“Most people's lives, what are they but trails of debris? Each day more debris, more debris. Long, long trails of debris with nothing to clean it all up but death.”  

“Mr. Venable was a good man, but dull to the point of genius.”

“Of course God is cruel. No, we’ve always known about Him. The savage face he shows to people and the fierce things he shouts. That’s all we ever really see or hear of him now. Nobody seems to know why.”
Sebastian's empty book of poetry
  
PERFORMANCES:
My admiration for Elizabeth Taylor is well documented in the blog posts for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Reflections in a Golden Eye. The real surprise for me here is how much I was impressed by Katherine Hepburn. Never one of my favorite actresses, here all of her starchy mannerisms and stylistic affectations have been put to fine service in helping to flesh out the marvelously complex character of Violet Venable. As the domineering, cold-hearted mother who is willing to go to monstrous lengths to protect the reputation of her son, Hepburn could have easily played the brittle, icy card exclusively and her performance would still have been a marvel. What she does that really blows me away is convey, through wounded, frightened looks and a barely-perceived sense of grasping desperation; her character’s achingly lonely, desolate life. In the film’s final moments, when it becomes clear that the obsessive, stifling love of Mrs. Venable’s life never loved her at all, her character’s complete and absolute despondency is heartbreaking.
The Goddess from the Machine
Katherine Hepburn’s entrance in the film has to be one of the great screen entrances of all time. Descending from the ceiling in an ornate, cage-like elevator, Mrs. Venable addresses the surgeon she has summoned to her home: 
 “The Emperor of Byzantium, when he received people in audience, had a throne which during the conversation would rise mysteriously in the air to the consternation of the visitors. But as we are living in a democracy I reverse the procedure; I don’t rise, I come down.”

It’s very nearly my favorite moment in the film.

  
THE STUFF OF FANTASY:
When I was small, I remember my older sister telling me that Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift were really the same person, and scenes and photos of them together were accomplished through split-screen special effects, like on The Patty Duke Show. For a while I actually believed her… although now it occurs to me that I never asked which of the two was the original article.

In the three films they made together (A Place in the Sun, Raintree County, and Suddenly, Last Summer) the dark, strikingly similar beauty of Taylor and Clift always insinuated a kind of spiritual kinship between their characters. A quality used to deeply empathetic effect in Suddenly, Last Summer. When Catherine first meets the doctor, we immediately sense (as does Catherine) that there is something the two share that makes it possible for him to so quickly allay her fear and apprehension.
 It also doesn't hurt that the duality of Taylor and Clift provides subtle subtext to Mrs. Venable’s frequent assertions that her son Sebastian (so taken with Catherine’s exploitable beauty) would have been “charmed” by the young doctor. Although we never see the much-discussed Sebastian, Mrs. Venable is quick to note of Dr. Cukrowicz “You’re very like him” and, “Your eyes, so like his.” 
(When informed that the word Cukrowicz is the Polish word for sugar, Mrs. Venable wastes no time in referring to the the physician as Dr. Sugar; although from her tone it’s impossible to ascertain if it’s said in a friendly or mocking manner.)

The image of homosexuality Tennessee Williams presents in Suddenly, Last Summer may be grotesque to an almost preposterous degree, but I happen to like how it fits with the film’s themes of duality and displacement. In this context, homosexuality is the ultimate attraction of self. As manifest by the self-loathing poet, Sebastian, the allure of the similar (similar dark beauty, similar refined tastes, similar pitiless view of humanity) is a hunger unfulfilled. Named for the martyred saint whose portrait dominates his studio, Sebastian’s  face is never shown, but we know his clothes perfectly fit his male cousin George, and that George (equally as dark as Dr. Cukrowicz and his sister, Catherine) looks from the back, remarkably like Sebastian.
Recurrent Imagery
Angel of Death statue first appearing in Sebastian's nightmarish garden (above) reappears on the hill in Cabeza de Lobo (Wolf's Head) where Sebastian meets his fate 

THE STUFF OF DREAMS:
I really love the structure of Suddenly, Last Summer. On first viewing, it’s a puzzlingly bizarre Freudian murder mystery that grows increasingly dark and perverse as it leisurely wends its way towards its satisfyingly astonishing payoff. On repeat visits, the enjoyment derived from Suddenly, Last Summer come from the many fascinating existential questions the film poses about God, humanity, and the nature of evil.

People frequently look to nature and, upon witnessing the brutal dance of carnage and death in the animal world, defend its neutrality. It’s the cycle of life; it can’t be characterized as evil because animals only kill out of hunger and a will to survive. Throughout all of nature (plant life: the carnivorous fly-trap; animal life: Mrs. Venable’s witnessing of the sea turtles devoured by carnivorous birds) unspeakable violence, brutality, and the strong feeding on the weak, is accepted as random, blameless, and part of natural law.
Witness to The God of Carnage
Suddenly, Last Summer sets forth the provocative suggestion that man is just a sophisticated, complex animal. As primitive as the plants in Sebastian's nightmare garden. The hungers that drive man may be more complex, but are they just as elemental and necessary to survival as those of any carnivorous plant or four-legged beast? If man has a base hunger for love, a fear of loneliness and a need for human physical contact...aren't the feeding of these hungers simply natural acts, no less elemental than the will to survive? Should man engage in barbaric acts of cruelty and violence to feed these needs, could it be possible that God can be looking down upon it all with the same blameless neutrality we ascribe to nature? Suddenly, Last Summer is an allegorical rumination on the disquieting interchangeably of the words "devour" and "use" for the word "love."
Suddenly, Last Summer                             The Day of the Locust
That Tennessee Williams and Gore Vidal do such an eloquent job dramatizing such intriguing philosophical concepts is one reason why I’m able to (begrudgingly) overlook the patina of homophobia calcifying along the film’s edges. 

But perhaps if I'm really being honest with myself, the one reason, above all others, for Suddenly, Last Summer remaining an all-time, lasting favorite-  it is the absolutely breathtaking Elizabeth Taylor
...the last of the great movie stars.


Copyright © Ken Anderson

Friday, January 13, 2012

THE FOUNTAINHEAD 1949



When it comes to The Fountainhead, I wish there were a way for me to return my mind back to the state of blissful ignorance I enjoyed the first time I saw this amazing film. That was many years ago. Back when The Fountainhead’s chief attractions for me were director King Vidor’s overripe, purple-prose approach to the material―a style always threatening to soar even more over-the-top than his notorious sex-and-sand opus, Duel in the Sun (1946)―and the overheated, over-emphatic screenplay by famed author, Ayn Rand, adapted from her hefty novel.

The plot of The Fountainhead: ruggedly individualistic architect Howard Roarke (Gary Cooper, still sexy, but looking a tad careworn at 47) doing battle against a world of cartoonishly single-minded villains hell-bent on commodifying his genius— was always less interesting than its presentation. What I took delight in was the dramatic persuasiveness of The Fountainhead applying a patently theatrical and artificial method of acting to a script of arch, over-embellished dialog, all in service of an extravagantly overwrought post-German Expressionist visual style. Ayn Rand’s verbose, almost feverishly nonsensical novel resisted any kind of realistic adaptation.  King Vidor, in never once rooting the film in any kind of recognizable reality, managed to fashion an compellingly excessive film that served her work well.
Gary Cooper as Howard Roark
Patricia Neal as Dominique Francon
Raymond Massey as Gail Wynand
Robert Douglas as Ellsworth Toohey

As a dyed-in-the wool visual aesthete whose lifelong relationship with film has been a battle with the influence of style over substance; I’m aware that my fondness for The Fountainhead has little to do with a sober assessment of its merits and faults. I’m nuts about the movie chiefly because it’s so visually striking and intoxicatingly stylized. I respond on an almost visceral level to how dazzling it is to look at, and I marvel at how closely the performances, in all their profound solemnity, hew so closely to that mannered, posturing style so expertly played for laughs in those old Carol Burnett Show movie spoofs. Indeed, in all of the areas where The Fountainhead seems to overplay its hand (it makes its points early and easily, then goes on to reiterate those same points, ad nauseum, scene after scene) I find I don’t fault the film so much as chalk it up to a particular type of broad-strokes, post-war American filmmaking.

The window of the past can do that…things you’d find unforgivably false in a film today look perfectly acceptable in a black & white film from the late 40s.
 Examples of The Fountainhead's breathtaking cinematography (Robert Burks) and art direction (Edward Carrere).


Well, that’s how things started for me and how things remained for some time. Unfamiliar with Ayn Rand or her philosophy (in any direct way), I was content to revel in The Fountainhead’s overwrought romantic melodrama and ravishing imagery with nary a thought given to its portentous themes. Themes that, even as a callow youth, struck me as slightly sophomoric.

When, many years later, I finally got around to reading The Fountainhead, I was actually surprised at what a windy polemic against Collectivism it was. I enjoyed the novel’s descriptive passages very much, and welcomed the fleshing out of the slim characterizations of the film, but its central plot was almost buried below a lot of ideological redundancies. It was nevertheless a book I enjoyed immensely, and, intrigued by Rand’s penchant for narrative overkill, I ventured forth and tackled her last and most famous novel, Atlas Shrugged. Bad move.
 I won’t turn this post into a diatribe against Objectivism or the unfortunate adoption of Atlas Shrugged and Rand’s philosophies by America’s Tea Party Movement. But let’s just say that when it came to learning more about Ayn Rand’s philosophical beliefs, more was decidedly less.
Flirting with Fascism
Ayn Rand liked to make it easy to identify the heroes and villains.
The villains have weak, effete names like Ellsworth Toohey, and are prone to striking dictatorial poses at the slightest provocation

  
WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM:
Before I had read The Fountainhead, It never crossed my mind that the film adaptation was, in some ways, little more than a visual-aid lecture on Objectivism. I just thought it was a great-looking movie saddled with an over-obvious, poorly-written screenplay. In viewing the film from Rand’s perspective, I can well imagine why she despised it; the power of King Vidor’s images overwhelm her words. 
And it's a good thing, too, for The Fountainhead is a real “movie lover”s movie. And by that I don’t mean lovers of good film; I mean folks who love the stylized artificiality of film. Realism in film has its place, but films that attempt to speak to us through metaphor or symbolism (like Charles Laughton’s The Night of The Hunter) benefit greatly from an overabundance of cinematic stylization. The Fountainhead is such a film. It’s full of gorgeous cinematography; sumptuous sets; movie stars who look like movie stars; fabulous costumes, and soap-opera emotions. That none of it bears the slightest resemblance to human life as we know it only adds to its charm. 
The Fountainhead is one of those movies where people carry on entire conversations without ever looking directly at one another. Here, Patricia Neal assumes a familiar pose (looking off into the distance) while Raymond Massey and Gary Cooper try in vain to get her attention.

PERFORMANCES:
I’ve always liked Patricia Neal. Her unadorned earthiness in Elia Kazan’s A Face in the Crowd (1957) and Martin Ritt’s Hud (1963) were the best things about those films. In a sea of lacquered, blonde bombshells, Neal was a home-grown Anna Magnani reminding us that sex appeal didn’t require a bullet bra and the disavowal of intelligence. Familiar only with latter-day Neal, imagine my surprise in seeing her at 22, given the full Hollywood-glam treatment in The Fountainhead, her second film. I had no idea she could be so stunning.
Cast as the Dominique Francon (was a time you’d have to open a novel by Sidney Sheldon or Jackie Collins to find a name like that) The Fountainhead’s sole female character, Neal is first seen heaving a Greek statue out of the window of her high-rise apartment because, “I wanted to destroy it rather than let it be part of a world where beauty and genius and greatness have no chance!”
And if you think there’s not an actress on earth who can pull off dialog like that, well, you’re right. It’s just the first of several scenes where Neal strives mightily against some of the strangest human dialog ever committed to page. She’s not always successful, but she’s never less than fascinating to watch. Juggling numerous lovers and hard-to-fathom-motives, she manages to be glacially aloof and sexually agitated at the same time. 
Dominique Francon is a woman of high ideals who, before finding her spiritual equal in the noble Howard Roark, feels frustrated at having to live in a world that worships mediocrity. She vents her frustration by engaging in behavior favored by smart and successful women to this day: she intentionally becomes involved with inferior men. 
Her fiancé, the weak-willed Peter Keating, she chose because “He was the most safely unimportant person I could find.” She later weds hack newspaperman Gail Wynand to make good on her promise, “If I ever decide to punish myself for some terrible guilt, I’ll marry you.” 
Dominique is nothing if not a gal with a few issues she needs to work out.
Obsessing over Howard Roark's drill

THE STUFF OF FANTASY:
Shave off all the whiskers and fluff from Rand’s one-sided proselyting and The Fountainhead is a pretty satisfying triangular love story with a few interesting things to say about society. The rather unconventional romance between Dominique and Howard (controversially incited in the novel by an off-putting rape, but, thanks to the usual stylistic obfuscation of sex in Production Code-era Hollywood, comes off in the film as the usual yes/no, male/female roundelay) is lent credence by the palpable chemistry between real-life lovers Gary Cooper and Patricia Neal.
The rather salient points made by Rand about the dangers of a society committed to the lowest common denominator (are you listening Michael Bay, Vin Diesel and Adam Sandler?) lack the bite they might have due to the deck being so heavily stacked on the side of Roark and his philosophy that there is almost no real conflict. Indeed, Gary Cooper (not the most expressive man with dialog) is asked to reiterate his character’s position so often that the effect is created of someone trying to convince himself of a argument, not others.


THE STUFF OF DREAMS:
Living in Los Angeles, a city of agonizingly random architectural design, I can identify with all the heated discussions on the subject in The Fountainhead.  Indeed, in establishing an analogical relationship to architecture and any creative endeavor that must struggle to maintain its personal integrity in the face of public opinion, The Fountainhead is most successful. In this age when individuals justify the most heinous points-of-view with the claim “I’m not the only one that feels this way!” (as if that was ever a gauge of honor), and when widespread ignorance is proudly defended as anti-intellectual-elitism, The Fountainhead should feel more relevant than ever. Unfortunately, Ayn Rand can’t seem to get out of her own way long enough to let the points she wishes to make stand on their own merits of logic. Like the character of Ellsworth Toohey, who feels he has to tell the public what to think, Rand doesn’t trust the viewer to weigh the issues of Objectivism for themselves. Rand's fondness for words fails to let the medium of film do what it does best; evoke, not explain. Rand's handling of her own work is all too obvious. When I say The Fountainhead is black and white, I’m not just referring to the cinematography.
Ayn Rand wasn't fond of the architectural designs art director Edward Carrere used in the film. She wanted the buildings to reflect the works of Frank Lloyd Wright.

Watching the film today, it takes considerable effort to get my mind to relax and just let the movie entertain me as it did in the past. It feels like I spend the first ten minutes or so just trying to blot out the sermonizing. Mercifully, if I allow myself to focus on the sumptuous Max Steiner score (Gone With the Wind, Casablanca), and sink into Robert Burks’ rapturous cinematography (Vertigo, North by Northwest), pretty soon I’m back where I want to be. No longer a postulate at the lectern of Objectivism, just a movie fan enjoying a favored film.

Copyright © Ken Anderson