Saturday, September 29, 2012

STARTING OVER 1979

Before Drew Barrymore, Katherine Heigl, Jennifer Aniston, Sarah Jessica Parker, and the entire Judd Apatow oeuvre conspired to sour me on the whole genre for good, I really used to love romantic comedies. To me, the absurdist roundelay that is two human souls striving to connect is marvelous fodder for films both touching and hilarious. In that vein, Two for the Road, Ball of Fire, and Sweet November (the 1968 one) are among the funniest, most sentimentally romantic films I've ever seen. But I don't think they make those kind of romantic comedies anymore. There seems to be a post-feminist hostility embedded in romantic comedies today: a passive-aggressive assignment of all things emotional to “chick flick” dismissiveness combined with a self-serving aggrandizement of all things boorish to the realm of masculinity. Maybe it’s time for me to explore what’s out there in gay-themed romantic comedies because the heterosexual battle of the sexes seems to have grown increasingly reductive and mean-spirited. 
One particular favorite of mine from the past is Starting Over, an almost forgotten romantic comedy smash from 1979 (one of the top 20 highest-grossing films of the year) directed by Alan J. Pakula (Klute, Sophie’s Choice) and written by James L. Brooks (The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Terms of Endearment). 
Jill Clayburgh as Marilyn Holmberg
Burt Reynolds as Phil Potter
Candice Bergen as Jessica Potter
Starting Over is the story of freelance journalist Phil Potter (Reynolds), struggling to adapt to single life after the dissolution of his marriage to singer/songwriter/ self-realization enthusiast, Jessica (Bergen). Through the touchy-feely intervention of his psychiatrist brother and sister-in-law (the always-reliable Charles Durning and Frances Sterhagen) Phil meets emotionally wounded, self-effacing grade-school teacher, Marilyn Holmberg (Clayburgh) and the two embark on a tentative relationship wherein each is afraid of, yet longing for, emotional commitment and a chance to start over.
Charles Durning and Frances Sternhagen ooze well-meaning sincerity
I don’t have a whole lot of objectivity where Starting Over is concerned. Not to the degree that I’m blind to the film’s faults, but in as such that my abiding fondness for the film seems inextricably tied to my feelings about the time in which it was made (the late 70s) and my initial response to it when I first saw it (it rivaled What's Up, Doc? as one of the funniest films I'd ever seen). In other words, this might be one of those films about which I rave from the housetops, yet could very likely leave those seeing it for the first time feeling a little underwhelmed. I guess it's good for me to remember that the proper response to some films (like jokes that don't translate) can only be, “You had to have been there.” 
Starting Over was released at the very tail-end of the 70s and a great deal of its humor is derived from its so perfectly capturing the preoccupations of that particular point in time. Pop history (and especially historical motion pictures) would have us believe that eras begin and end neatly and succinctly, but in truth, time kind of overlaps and everything just sort of bleeds into one another.
The underutilized Mary Kay Place (Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman) is extremely funny as a particularly awkward bind date  
In 1979, the narcissism of the “Me” decade was being co-opted by yuppies and transmogrifying into a new kind of unashamed era of self-interest and self-realization. It was an era of encounter groups, self-help books, and a whole lot of psychoanalytical navel-gazing. Of course, all this preoccupation with self would eventually lead to the “Decade of Greed” that became the 80s, but in 1979 all this meant was that everyone was caring, sharing, and feeling feels all over the place. The drug-fueled hedonism of the swinging singles/disco era led to a post-sexual revolution ennui mixed with singles-bar aimlessness (captured the previous year in the morbidly moralizing 1978 film, Looking for Mr. Goodbar) that in turned boosted divorce rates and threw male/female relationships into a tailspin.
At the urging of his brother, Phil (Reynolds) attends a divorced men's workshop. That's What's Up, Doc?'s Austin Pendleton to the right.
By the late 70s, women who had had their consciousness raised by the feminist movement had to contend with a dating landscape in which there appeared to be no rules. Men, relinquished of the culture-mandated roles of provider/protector grew commitment-phobic, sought therapy, or clung to macho traditionalism. Women were at a quandary wondering if there was really such a thing as "having it all," or was the by-product of emancipation just learning to live single and liking it. What exactly was romance in the world of the zipless fuck, no-fault divorce, Plato’s Retreat, and men’s sensitivity workshops? It was a crazy time to look for love and Starting Over seemed to capture it all in a humorous lens both sharp and fuzzily sentimental.
Marilyn -  "Before I met you I'd finally gotten to the point in my life where I no longer thought some man was gonna come along and make this huge change. I'd finally gotten to the point where I liked being unattached."
I loved that scene pictured above, and I loved that line. After her Oscar-nominated emergence in 1978's An Unmarried Woman, Jill Clayburgh became the unofficial screen spokesperson for modern womanhood. She was a real favorite of mine and she is sensational here. The progressive image she presented - of a woman who wanted, not needed a man - would be fairly eradicated by 2012 thanks to the regeneration of the Disney Princess Myth and reality show humiliations like The Bachelor and Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire? 


WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM:
One of the things I most enjoy about Starting Over (something I’m not sure carries over to those seeing the film today) is how wittily the film captures the tenuous and tense state of male/female relationships in the 70s. The 70s was culturally the decade where all the dust was settling from the upheavals of the 60s, and people were these vibrating bundles of anxiety putting herculean effort behind maintaining a front of laid-back serenity. (The sale of Valium skyrocketed in the 70s; a fact inspiring one of Starting Over’s biggest and most then-talked about gags).
Traditional gender roles, those typified by the  Rock Hudson / Doris Day comedies of the 60s, were dismantled in the 70s, necessitating  a new kind of sex comedy. Ads for Woody Allen’s Annie Hall (1977)—the real game-changer in romantic comedies—labeled it “A Nervous Romance.” That classification goes double for Starting Over, only instead of urban singles, were invited to enjoy the amorous fumblings of the newly-divorced: individuals married when one set of rules were in place, re-entering single life ill-prepared for the change-up in the game plan.
Love, American Style
(I've always loved that print that hangs above them: "Woman Reading" by Will Barnet)
PERFORMANCES:
Few who weren’t around to bear witness to the painful spectacle of Burt Reynolds’ willful self-exploitation and wasting of his talents in the 70s don't appreciate what a delightful departure (and surprise) Starting Over was. The promising performer of Deliverance (1972) spent the better part of the decade ignoring his gifts as an actor, instead choosing to court dubious celebrity and fashioning himself into the male Jayne Mansfield (or the Matthew McConaughey of the 70s). One of the biggest (if not the biggest) box-office stars of the decade, Reynolds, with his myriad talk-show appearances, gleeful sel-objectification, and  seemingly endless stream of unwatchable, good ol’ boy redneck comedies, enthusiastically participated in turning himself into a Hollywood punchline. Divested of his trademark pornstache and dropping the tired machismo act, Reynolds gives perhaps his best pre-Boogie Nights performance in Starting Over. I don’t know that I've ever found Reynolds to be particularly likable before, but here he is quite wonderful. Underplaying marvelously, he’s one of the few male characters on screen able to convey an sweetly insecure vulnerability without slipping into wimpdom.
In one of Starting Over's many memorably comic scenes, Phil suffers a panic attack at Bloomingdale's
Alas, much like Eddie Murphy’s noteworthy performance in Dreamgirls failed to help Hollywood forgive him for Norbert; the career turn-around Starting Over may have signaled for Burt Reynolds was sabotaged by the one-two punch of the craptacular Smokey and the Bandit II (1980) and The Cannonball Run (1981).

THE STUFF OF FANTASY:
Without a doubt the biggest buzz attending Starting Over on its release was the breakout comedy performance of Candice Bergen. Never highly-regarded for her acting but a popular screen presence due to roles capitalizing on her ice-princess beauty, Bergen had heretofore only shown her comedic side on television (she was the first female host of Saturday Night Live and appeared to great effect on The Muppet Show). As Starting Over’s self-confident, atonal singer of atrocious “empowerment” pop songs, Bergen garnered the best notices of her career and, at age 32, launched into a second career of sorts as a skilled comedienne.
Candice Bergen's highlight scene in which she attempts to seduce her ex-husband by singing her disco composition, "Better Than Ever", received the loudest and longest laugh from an audience I have ever heard in a movie theater.
The songs attributed to Bergen’s character were written by then-collaborative-couple Carole Bayer Sager and Marvin Hamlisch, whose own relationship they immortalized in the Neil Simon-penned Broadway musical, They’re Playing Our Song (1978). I'd always thought Bergen’s songs in Starting Over were intended to be awful, both musically and lyrically (although I can’t help liking the song “Better Than Ever”…oddly enough, Bergen’s version more than the Stephanie Mills version heard at the end), but in truth they sound identical to the songs from their hit Broadway show, so maybe they aren't as satiric as I once thought.
Future Murphy Brown co-star, Charles Kimbrough, has a bit part as a salesman
 Home Alone's Daniel Stern (who would appear in the Jill Clayburgh films I'm Dancing as Fast as I Can and It's My Turn) plays a student in Burt Reynolds' journalism class in Starting Over
THE STUFF OF DREAMS:
As earlier stated, I still think Starting Over is a terrifically funny and touching romantic comedy, but I can understand if time has diluted some of its punch. For one, the image of Burt Reynolds as a wiseguy sex machine is so dim now that no one now is likely to derive much pleasure out of seeing him cast against type. Just seeing him without his trademark moustache would be akin to seeing Lady Gaga wearing Crocs. Similarly, most people's memory of Candice Bergen today only extends back as far as Murphy Brown, so her atypically relaxed and risk-taking performance lacks the shock value it once had. Likewise her laughably terrible singing. The idea of a no-talent pop star was riotous in 1979; folks looking at the film today might well think she sounds no worse than Katy Perry.
The Academy snubbed Reynolds but both Clayburgh and Bergen received Oscar nods for Starting Over. Clayburgh had previously appeared with Reynolds in Semi-Tough (1977) while Bergen would re-team with the actor in Stick (1985)
I have no idea why some comedy is enduring (I Love Lucy) while other kinds grow less funny over time (I love the film Shampoo, but I look at it now and can't even remember why I once found it so hilarious).  Starting Over, for better or worse, bears the stamp of its time, but in a way that I don't think dates it so much as lends its humor an authenticity and its characters a sense of existing in a real time and place. (Starting Over, which takes place in Boston, has a great look of winter and autumn about it. The huge coats the characters wear look for once like they're actually for function, not fashion, plus, I love that people in this movie use the bus!)
Starting Over is full of 70s-era jokes about finding oneself, Accutron watches, and telephone answering machines, but its sweetly comic look at the need to take chances to find love is something I don't think can ever be labeled dated.

THE AUTOGRAPH FILES:
Autograph of Candice Bergen from 1991, at the height of her Murphy Brown fame
Copyright © Ken Anderson

Saturday, September 22, 2012

EVIL UNDER THE SUN 1982

Of the many films adapted from the Hercule Poirot mystery novels of Agatha Christie, I definitely consider 1974s Murder on the Orient Express to be the most elegant, effective, and classiest of the lot (that cast!). But when it comes to which Poirot film distinguishes itself in my memory as the wittiest and the most consistently entertaining, none can hold a magnifying glass to 1982s Evil Under the Sun. Striking the perfect balance between deliberate camp and the appropriate-for-the-period sophisticated light touch of a 1930s Thin Man movie, Evil Under the Sun is an unflaggingly charming little murder mystery whose many gifts (visually, narratively, and dramatically) become even more pronounced with repeat viewings.
Peter Ustinov as Hercule Poirot
Maggie Smith as Daphne Castle
Diana Rigg as Arlena Marshall
Roddy McDowall as Rex Brewster
James Mason as Odell Gardener
Sylvia Miles as Myra Gardener
 A suitably chi-chi tone is set from the start thanks to a credits sequence comprised of Hugh Casson’s stylishly character-based watercolor sketches accompanied by sweepingly lush orchestrated arrangements of Cole Porter standards. It should be noted here that the outstanding musical score (arranged and conducted by John Lanchbery) is very nearly my favorite thing about Evil Under the Sun and practically functions as another character in the proceedings. Happily, the soundtrack album is available on iTunes.
Evil Under the Sun doesn’t deviate from the usual tried-and-true Agatha Christie setup: An assemblage of well-heeled characters with hidden agendas and interwoven alliances finding themselves circumstantially confined to a picturesque locale where a murder has taken place. The cast, budget, locale, and designated sleuth may change (either Hercule Poirot, or Jane Marple), but everything else about the Christie formula is as reliably adhered to the plot of a Beach Party move.
Bathing Beauty
Monsieur Poirot prepares for une baignade dans la mer
And beach parties are an apt reference you see, for Evil Under the Sun gives us a Hercule Poirot on holiday. A working holiday in any case, as the eccentrically fastidious detective is dispatched to a tony island resort owned by former courtesan Daphne Castle (Maggie Smith) to investigate a simple insurance fraud that (of course) turns into a puzzling case of whodunit. Gathered this season for fun in the sun is a gaggle of guests, all of whom share an unpleasant past association. There’s fey columnist Rex Brewster (McDowall); bickering and boorish theatrical producers, Myra and Odell Gardener (Sylvia Miles &James Mason); ill-matched newlyweds Christine and Patrick Redfern (Jane Birkin & Nicholas Clay); disgruntled industrialist Horace Blatt (Colin Blakely); and, most ostentatiously, abrasive Broadway star Arlena Marshall (Diana Rigg) with her new husband (Denis Quilley) and reluctant stepdaughter (Emily Hone) in tow.
Hotel proprietress Daphne Caste (Smith) and guest Sir Horace Blatt (Colin Blakely) react in exasperation to some bit of Poirot eccentricity
While the mystery at hand is puzzling enough, with red herrings more plentiful than pebbles on the beach; the particulars of what follows in Evil Under the Sun are of less consequence than the flair with which they are conveyed. Screenwriter Anthony Shaffer (Sleuth, The Wicker Man) has fashioned a delightfully witty script of clever wordplay, colorful characters, and ceaseless bitchiness. Director Guy Hamilton, who I felt seriously botched the 1980 Miss Marple film, The Mirror Crack’d, redeems himself rather stupendously with Evil Under the Sun, seizing on every opportunity for character-based humor and conflict with a pacing and zest that so eluded him in that earlier film. Granted, Hamilton is greatly assisted this time out by a cast of accomplished British character actors surrendering themselves to creating distinctly vivid personalities while maintaining the genre’s need to remain a tightly blended ensemble piece.

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM:
There's something I find very funny in this collection of testy and ill-tempered society folks trying in vain to relax on their vacation. In a way, each is out of their element (none more so than the seasick prone, non-athletic Poirot), and the strain shows in the All About Eve exchanges and edgy interactions.
Rex Brewster attempts to get the Gardeners to talk about their recent flop:
Rex: "Would either of you care to comment on that?"
Odell- "Why don't you go and play with yourself?"
Myra- "Excessively."
Rex - "Is coarseness a substitute for wit? I ask myself."
And if you're going to have a script crammed with catty dialog, you couldn't ask for better actors than those twin masters of the articulate put-down, Diana Rigg and Maggie Smith.
Arlena- "Linda, do stop standing there like a cough-drop and say hello to Monsieur Poirot!"
Daphne- "I hope you haven't come here to practice your sleuthing games on my guests. They've all got far too many skeletons in their cupboards to join in with enthusiasm."

PERFORMANCES:
The cast assembled for Evil Under the Sun is not only one of the strongest of the Agatha Christie series (it's Ustinov's second go-round as Poirot and he pretty much makes the role his own in this outing), but, stylistically speaking, it's wonderful how they all manage to be on the same page and hit the same notes throughout. The cast plays it serious enough to make the drama work, yet succeed in sustaining an air of caricature and cocktail party flippancy that is so deliciously amusing and makes Evil Under the Sun one of my all-time favorites. Even before I became a Downton Abbey addict, I've worshiped at the altar of Maggie Smith; an actress who has always had a singular way of getting words to do her personal bidding. That she is so good is no surprise; that she upstages even the well-cured hamminess of Ustinov is miraculous. Bad girls are always good fun, and the ever-classy Diana Rigg sinks her teeth into her über-bitch role with assurance.
Nicholas Clay and Jane Birkin are excellent as a mismatched couple
I was taken by surprise by how much Sylvia Miles made me laugh. An unsubtle performance to say the least, Miles is nevertheless perfectly cast in the ugly-American role in a cast of Brits (Lauren Bacall served the same function in Murder on the Orient Express) and the pairing of this vulgarian with the genteel and distinguished James Mason is really inspired. Their scenes together give one a sense of what the life of Lolita's Humbert Humbert might have been had Charlott Haze lived.
The happiest, biggest surprise is Roddy McDowall. An actor who has literally given the same one-note, non-performance in film after film for years, at last decides to create a distinguishable character, and he's marvelous. His Rex Brewster has the attitude of Rex Reed, the body language of Noel Coward, and the voice of Tallulah Bankhead. It's as if after all those years in the closet, McDowall could only let loose by playing an openly gay character in a film. He's the best I've ever seen him in this film.

THE STUFF OF FANTASY:
As a movie fan who's also a fan of the male physique, I can't tell you how weary I've grown of the decades-long tradition of mainstream films always representing the heterosexual male gaze. It's a given that if a camera is going to focus on a comely face, appealing chest, desirable derriere, or long leg; those body parts will belong to a woman, and the surrogate eye of the camera, that of the male. Let's go back to the Beach Party reference made earlier. Here's an entire genre of film that never missed an opportunity to train a camera lens on a wiggling female butt or heaving bikini top, yet never considered that there were those in the audience (women, gays, guys OK with their masculinity) who might want a close-up of Frankie Avalon's behind for a change. No such luck. The heterosexual male gaze was all that counted.
When one happens to come across that rare film that keeps its female stars clothed and trades the cheesecake for beefcake, attention must be paid. My hat is off to Evil Under the Sun for providing so much memorable footage of the handsome physique of actor Nicholas Clay (a fave since Excalibur) in nothing but a barely-there swimsuit. I've seen Evil Under the Sun at least 10 times over the years. Seven of those times were chiefly to get another look at Nicolas Clay's ample derriere. Vive la différence!

THE STUFF OF DREAMS:
There's no way to talk about Evil Under the Sun without making mention of the wryly outrageous costumes by Anthony Powell (101 Dalmatians), the only man who can design clothes with a punch line. Seemingly taking his inspiration from a Wonder Bread wrapper, Powell's whimsical creations are the physical embodiment of the arch wit and self-aware humor of the film.
Sylvia Miles sports a black & white ensemble (check the gloves!) worthy of
Cruella De Vil
I first saw Evil Under the Sun at a theater when it opened in 1982. During certain scenes the audience laughed so loud and long that you couldn't hear the dialog for long stretches. I thought the film was going to be a big hit, but it's seldom spoken of today and only rarely shows up on cable TV. As I said, it remains my favorite of the Agatha Christie films and is definitely worth discovering if you've never had the pleasure. Certainly if only to see a pre-Downton Abbey Maggie Smith continuing to lay waste to the unwary. 

THE AUTOGRAPH FILES:
I got this autograph of Maggie Smith  when she was in L.A. making "Hook"

The late actor Nicholas Clay is not very well-known, but apparently very well-liked:
 Random Ramblings,Thoughts & Fiction has a great Nicholas Clay post HERE
Another good post on Nicholas Clay can be found at Poseidon's Underworld HERE

Copyright © Ken Anderson

Thursday, September 20, 2012

TCM Event Series: Hitchcock's THE BIRDS

Earlier this month I wrote about my enduring fondness for what many consider to be Alfred Hitchcock's final masterpiece, The Birds (link to post HERE); a post reliant on memory, cable TV, and rewatching my 2000 DVD. But thanks to fellow blogger The Lady Eve's Reel Life and the kind folks at NCM Fathom Events, I was lucky enough to be given tickets to see the TCM one-night-only theatrical screening of the newly restored version of The Birds last night in Century City here in Los Angeles.

What a terrifically fun evening! Not only did it provide me and my partner a much-needed, mid-week date night (and, lucky me, he likes to hold hands in the movies and lets me dig my nails in his arm during the scary parts), but when they said they’d be presenting a digitally restored version of The Birds, they weren’t kidding around. The nearly 50-year-old film has never looked or sounded better. I know nothing of digital technology, but what’s been done to The Birds is akin to the burnishing of a gem. What was already great about it is better (the color and clarity of the images is almost breathtaking; the innovative electronic soundtrack more bone-rattling than ever) and what was once flawed now seems smoothed over to a high gloss (the crude edges and dodgy color-balance of 60s-era matte work and rear-projection looks to have been diminished).
Plus there was the added bonus of a pre-taped interview with star Tippi Hedren by Turner Classic Movie host Robert Osborne, along with footage of interviews with Suzanne Pleshette and Rod Taylor from past TCM productions. For the die-hard Birds fan, not much new is revealed in these brief interviews, and the tone of Hedren’s segment is decidedly more polite than what has since come to light about her relationship with Hitchcock; but there’s always at least one tid-bit to add to the lore, and I do get a kick out of Pleshette’s down-to-earth frankness, Taylor’s spot-on Hitchcock impersonation, and Hedren’s enduring class.

As for the screening itself? Just spectacular. I had such a ball seeing such a familiar film in an environment and under circumstances that made me feel like I was seeing it for the first time. All of us in the audience (many of whom, based on reactions, must have been seeing The Birds for the first time) just seemed to get caught up in the action. There wasn't any of that sort of palpable restlessness you can feel in an audience when a movie lags. I think I was the only one who even got up to use the restroom in the whole two hours (a "large" drink, I forgot, is roughly a gallon at the movies). If I noticed anything at all, it's that this wan't a particularly 'camp" crowd. Hardly any unintentional laughs were to be heard the whole night. These were devotees and I can scarcely remember being among a more rapt audience.
The first time I ever saw The Birds at a theater was perhaps over 15 years ago, and then that was with a scratchy print that jumped during the schoolhouse bird attack, leaving a gray-bearded old gentleman in front of me so weepily disconsolate his partner literally had to pat his back to calm him down. 

Seeing The Birds last night was something else again. It solidified for me the film's complete evolution from guilty-pleasure to revered classic. As the ageless Tippi Hedren says, "The Birds has a life of its own."
Alfred Hatchplot's "For The Birds" starring Tipsy Headrinse
MAD Magazine parody (image courtesy of ScarlettStreet)

Copyright © Ken Anderson

Monday, September 10, 2012

THE RIGHT APPROACH 1961

I greatly miss the old days when late-night television used to be a film fan’s oasis of the great, near-great, and downright worst of what Hollywood had to offer. My lifetime love of film is a direct result of the broad assortment of old movies I had the opportunity to see nightly (non-school nights, anyway) on The Late Show and The Late Late Show. There were no high-flown demarcations of “classic” attached to films back then, they were all merely “old movies” or “reruns,” and as such, one could watch Geraldine Page in Toys in the Attic at 11:00pm, Mamie Van Doren in Girl’s Town at 1:00am, and see in the morning with Joan Crawford in Dancing Lady at 3:00am. TV stations had lots of airtime to fill, lots of used-cars to sell, and sizable packages of obscure and forgotten films of all stripes to do it with. In this “The Insomniac’s School of Film” I think I received a priceless education.
(The currently overused “classic” label as pertaining to film is really a post-video cassette/cable-TV marketing term designed to make difficult-to-move inventories of B&W films appear more appealing to the public. Just as the word “rerun” has been retired in place of the more market-friendly “encore presentation,” nowadays, every movie with whiskers on it is labeled a “classic.”) 
Frankie Vaughan as Leo Mack
"I learned a long time ago; nobody looks out for Daddy if Daddy don't look out for Daddy!"
Juliet Prowse as Ursula Poe
"You can marry a lot more money in five minutes than you could make in a lifetime!"
Martha Hyer as Anne Perry
"I'm not desperate. I like my life...I go where I want, when I want. Men aren't all that important."
Gary Crosby ad Rip Hulett
"You been beltin' that grape a little...eh, Daddy?"
David McLean as Bill Sikulovic
"It isn't always what a person gets that's important. It's what he gives up to get it!"
Jesse White as Agent Brian Freer 
"Y'know you're a very good lookin' boy in my opinion. A red-blooded, he-man type!"
Jane Withers (yes, Josephine the Plumber) as Liz
"Sue me, but whenever I meet one of those 'Personality Boys' I wanna hide the good silver!"
One particular favorite of mine that I had the chance to revisit via the Fox Movie Channel some years ago is The Right Approach; another one of those films that Hollywood seems to enjoy churning out that attempts, through overstated cliché and melodrama, to rip the lid off the garbage can known as showbiz and expose the ruthless backbiting and treachery that so often accompanies the climb to the top. These kinds of movies bank on show business having a sleazy allure for its audience, but in the interest of not creating an image so glamorous and unobtainable that people would go home and stick their heads in the oven, in the last act they always show how simple, decent values trump fame, fortune and privilege every time. Striving for up-to-the-minute daring, The Right Approach dates itself instantly (and hilariously) with its profusion of swingin’ Sixties, Rat Pack-era, “ring-a-ding-ding” hipster slang, and each turn of its defanged, What Makes Sammy Run? meets The Sweet Smell of Success plotline. Ranking high on my “so bad it’s good” guilty-pleasure trash-o-meter, The Right Approach simply begs for a DVD release.
Vaselined Vegas Lounge Lizard
No, that isn't Valley of the Dolls' Tony Polar, but it might as well be. Like a great many male singers of the day, the late British pop star Frankie Vaughan was fashioned in the mold of Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin (complete with that weird, jaw-dislocating thing so favored by Sammy Davis, Jr. and Mel Torme.)  

This unaccountably forgotten camp treasure from 1961 has the look and feel of the bargain-basement, but it has a pretty snazzy pedigree: it’s based on an early, not very well-received play by Garson Kanin (Born Yesterday, Adam’s Rib) titled The Live Wire; it was adapted for the screen by Garson’s brother Michael Kanin and sister-in-law Fay (The Opposite Sex, Friendly Fire); it features a song by the award-winning songwriting team of Marilyn and Alan Bergman (The Way We Were, You Don’t Bring Me Flowers); and has a cast full of actors who all must have been under contract at 20th Century-Fox at the time. Oscar-nominee Martha Hyer (for Some Came Running) appeared in Fox’s The Best of Everything (1959); Liverpool crooner Frankie Vaughan was hot off of the lamentable Marilyn Monroe musical, Let’s Make Love (1960); and the ever-watchable Juliet Prowse had nearly caused an international incident by getting under Nikita Khrushchev’s skin in Can-Can (1960). Like most every film released by Fox between 1953 and 1967, The Right Approach was filmed in CinemaScope, but apparently Fox broke the bank with How to Marry a Millionaire, for this film is strictly economy class and shot in black and white...so atypical for a movie this light (with musical numbers, yet).
Because the system works; the system called reciprocity
Mitch (Steve Harris) clips the locks of Bill (David McLean) who ties the tie of Rip (Gary Crosby)
In a reversal of the usual all-girl formula of films like The Pleasure Seekers, Valley of the Dolls, and The Best of Everything; The Right Approach tells the story of five bachelor buddies rooming communally in a reconverted Hawaiian restaurant high in the Hollywood Hills. There’s med student, Bill; barber-to-be Mitch, aspiring set designer, Horace; jazz musician, Rip; and I-have-absolutely-no-idea-what-he-does, Granny (yes, Granny is a dude). What becomes instantly obvious is that all are at least a decade too old for this kind of boyish, clubhouse arrangement, with Bill, the most glaringly elderly of the bunch, the only one afforded a backstory (military service and familial self-sacrifice) explaining away his late-bloomer status.
At left, Rip (Gary Crosby- son of Bing and author of the illuminating Mommie Dearest-like tell-all memoir, Going My Own Way ) fixes his neck brace (don't ask) while at right, lanky beanpole Granny (Paul Von Schreiber) prepares for bed wearing only a pajama top - therein setting the stage for one of the most unappetizing and unwanted buffalo shots in cinema history.

Into this happy, pentamerous setting comes Mitch’s older brother, Leo, a caustic, wannabe singer /actor of near-supernatural amorality. A lying, cheating, self-interested, double-crossing, womanizing opportunist decades before these character flaws became standard equipment for reality TV stardom; Leo’s poisonous influence on The Hut (as the “boys” have dubbed their digs) and the lives of the ladies he comes into contact with provides both the drama and moral of The Right Approach. And, might I add, it also provides a great deal of the unintentional comedy. Bad boys and bad girls are the real heart of any showbiz drama, and in Frankie Vaughan’s Wile E. Coyote interpretation of Leo Mack, The Right Approach has one doozy of villain. Cross Patty Duke as Valley of the Dolls Neely O’Hara with Stephen Boyd’s Frankie Fane in The Oscar (1966) and you have some idea as to the camp histrionic heights this film can reach in its brisk 92 minutes.
The Pleasure Seekers' Gardner McKay (center) starred in the TV series Adventures in Paradise from 1959 to 1962. He appears as himself in a brief cameo in The Right Approach when Leo (left) lands a bit part on the series.

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM:
We Americans are a celebrity-obsessed culture that loves to romanticize the lives and careers of the rich and famous while at the same time feeling the need to reassure ourselves (incessantly) that in spite of their looks, wealth, and notoriety, the famous are a shallow, amoral bunch without a shred of integrity or decency between them. Hollywood, an industry that’s always known what side its bread was buttered on, has been more than happy to feed this dysfunction with glitzy tales of fame idolatry disguised as cautionary fables designed to reassure us unwashed masses that all that unattainable, envy-inducing glamour we’ve been wallowing in for the last two hours is an unworthy pursuit born of heartbreak, treachery, and compromised ideals. That these lacerating indictments of Hollywood’s superficiality are made by individuals seeking fame and fortune in self-said industry doesn't strike anyone involved as a tad ironic probably explains why these films always feel so false and over the top. 
The Live Wire is the name of the 1950 Garson Kanin play upon which The Right Approach is based. It's also the title of the movie industry magazine at the center of the film's plot, symbolizing the Holy Grail of success.

PERFORMANCES:
I don't know much about UK star Frankie Vaughan and will probably have to appeal to Our Man in the UK (Mark at Random Ramblings, Thoughts & Fiction) to perhaps provide me with some history. All I know is that I so soured on him in Let's Make Love (not his fault, I just hated Marilyn and Montand so much in that one) that his deliciously nasty turn as the bad guy in The Right Approach came as something of a surprise. He's not much of an actor, but he is an energetic showman and has these great Snidely Whiplash eyes that dart about cartoonishly whenever he's about to do something underhanded. Fans of Let's Make Love will recognize that film's theme song as well as the title tune from Fox's The Best of Everything played frequently in the film's background.
Change Partners
That's Juliet Prowse, Robert Casper, Frankie Vaughan, & Martha Hyer.
The Right Approach would have been really gangbusters if its couplings had gone the direction the gazes in this screencap hint toward. (Martha Hyer's giving Juliet Prowse one of those Candice Bergen looks from The Group.)
I really got a kick out of Juliet Prowse in this. Playing a hard-boiled, gum-chewing hash-slinger even more amoral than Vaughan's character, she gives the film a lift whenever she shows up. Not as glacially classy as Martha Hyer (a Hitchcock blonde if there ever was one) Prowse has the lion's share of the film's smart-ass dialog, a terrific screen presence, that wonderful accent, and we even get to see her dance a little bit (albeit in a cramped, one-room apartment...but those legs!).
Ursula: We're in trouble.
Leo: You're in trouble.
Ursula: How's that again?
Leo: Who's the father?
Ursula: (Delivering a resounding whack across the chops) THAT'S who!!

THE STUFF OF DREAMS: 
With Russ Meyer dead, Paul Morrissey bitter, and John Waters gone corporate; it's growing near impossible for me to find good, enduring camp movies these days. The Right Approach has all the requisite bad dialog, weak songs, cliched plotting, exaggerated performances and self-serious moralizing to make it a classic of the trash-with-class genre, but it is soooo hard to find. I still have my old pan and scan VHS TV copy from I don't know how many years back, but I would love to see this in widescreen.
Up To No Good

In addition to all the above, nostalgia plays a small part in why The Right Approach is a favorite of mine.
Juliet Prowse's place of employment in the film, Sonny's Drive-In, is located on the corner of Santa Monica Blvd. and Vine in Hollywood. Just two blocks away from the Villa Elaine apartments (one-time residence of surrealist Man Ray); the site of my first apartment when I moved to L.A.
Nostalgia point #2:
For a brief time during the late 80s when I used to teach dance in Santa Monica, I had Juliet Prowse as a private client. She was so amazing and such a sweetheart. Here was this idol of mine who could dance rings around me in her sleep, taking funk dance lessons from me! Positively unreal!

So, if you're ever checking out the cable TV listings and happen to see The Right Approach scheduled, by all means fire up the DVR and give it a try. No "classic," it's just one of the most enjoyable good/bad films you've never heard of.


Copyright © Ken Anderson